When the Patriots a year ago moved on without linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, defensive lineman Richard Seymour and safety Rodney Harrison, they insisted they could overcome those losses and win another division title.
They were right, of course. And wrong. They won the division, but they never overcame the departures of their veteran defensive leaders.
|Draft strategy: Patriots|
|More Draft coverage|
Team Needs: All 32 teams
Now the Patriots have holes everywhere, including wide receiver where Randy Moss is in the last year of his contract and Wes Welker is recovering from a serious knee injury suffered in the last regular-season game.
Suddenly, we have a race in the AFC East, and if New England doesn't plug those defensive leaks soon it will need more than Tom Brady to hold off the Jets and Dolphins.
Ah, but help may be on the way. The Patriots have four of the first 53 picks in this year's draft, and this is the deepest, richest lottery in years. Here's where those picks can help:
QB: Brady isn't just the best quarterback in the AFC East; he may be the best quarterback in the game. OK, so that won't go over well with Peyton Manning fans, but Brady has three Super Bowl wins, a 14-4 playoff record and the record for most TD passes in one season. What he doesn't have is a Super Bowl victory in five seasons, and he wasn't close last year, getting torched by Baltimore in a playoff opener. Look for Brady to improve on his 28 touchdown passes now that he's in his second year on a reconstructed knee, and look for the Pats to try to find a suitable backup.
RB: Ever since Corey Dillon left, the Patriots have struggled to find a No. 1 back. Laurence Maroney was supposed to be the guy, but just when you think he has coach Bill Belichick's confidence he loses it. Fred Taylor should start working on a retirement speech, while Kevin Faulk turns 34 -- provided, of course, he returns with the team. OK, so the Patriots ranked 12th in rushing. Big deal. They couldn't get the tough yards with the run, and there is every reason to wonder where the next big back is coming from -- especially since they haven't had a 1,000-yard running back since 2004. Start using those draft picks, guys.
WR: The loss of Welker in last year's regular-season finale wasn't just a blow to the Patriots' playoff aspirations; it was a blow to the 2010 season, too, with Welker not expected to return until somewhere in the middle of the year. Welker is Brady's security blanket, and we all saw what happens when he's out of the lineup. Not much. Moss is the deep threat, but he's not nearly as effective without Welker on the other side. Beyond those two, there's Julian Edelman and little else. Help, please.
TE: Chris Baker is gone, and Ben Watson probably won't be re-signed. Watson made himself into a decent blocker but was inconsistent as Brady's third option. That makes this a position of need, especially with Welker's injury keeping him sidelined for at least part of the upcoming season.
|The Pats' playoff meltdown left even their most super fans in shock. (US Presswire)|
DL: Finally, finally, finally. The Vince Wilfork drama is over, with the talented nose tackle signing a five-year deal. That’s good for New England because Wilfork is its best defensive lineman. Losing Seymour was not supposed to hurt the club, but tell that to anyone who watched the Pats' loss to Baltimore. The Ravens won with 234 yards rushing. Ron Brace and Myron Pryor were supposed to fill in at defensive ends, but both struggled. Jarvis Green might have been a reliable option … until he was signed away by Denver. Any way you look at it, what was once a strength is now an area of need.
LB: When you play the 3-4, you better have outside linebackers who can rush the passer -– and New England had one, overachiever Tully Banta-Cain. He led the club with 10 sacks, and that tells you part of what's wrong with this defense. Adalius Thomas, who was a free-agent catch three years ago, probably is finished after another disappointing year. Jerod Mayo is solid in the middle, but Derrick Burgess didn't live up to expectations and there's no indication that Pierre Woods and/or Shawn Crable can develop into impact players. Once this was another area that was loaded, but not anymore -- and can we please end the annual Junior Seau un-retirement parties? Enough already.
DB: It used to be that the Patriots were big and athletic here. Now they're smallish and not all that physical. That must change, and change started last year with the drafts of Patrick Chung and Darius Butler. Chung is a big hitter, and Butler is a terrific athlete, but both need to fine-tune their coverage skills. The team's best cornerback, Leigh Bodden, is a free agent who may take the Asante Samuel ramp out of town. Even if he doesn't, the Pats need to improve themselves on the back end. Safety Brandon Meriweather gets a lot of attention, but he could have problems holding up. Brandon McGowan, meanwhile, tailed off down the stretch. Where is Troy Brown when you need a dime back?