Team overview: The New England Patriots were again on the brink of another Super Bowl berth, but the offense sputtered in the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens, leading to a disappointing 28-13 loss. Injuries plagued the Pats throughout the season -- notably tight end Rob Gronkowski's ongoing forearm issue -- and the defensive backfield was a mess against the pass. New England ranked near the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed, so shoring up the secondary is one of the team's most pressing offseason concern.
It will also be interesting to see how the Pats handle the Wes Welker situation (take a look at the video below to see what Will Brinson thinks). The franchise tag deadline arrived with no deal, and reports are that both sides aren't very close to coming together -- though there has been recent progress.
What the depth chart tells you: If the New England front office decides to let Welker walk, the Patriots may not have to look far for a replacement. Heading into his fourth year, wide receiver Julian Edelman could ably slide into Welker's role. And, if that busts, the Pats still have former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch on the roster. Beyond that, Brandon Lloyd simply needs to be more effective as a deep threat, while Gronkowski and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez continue to create matchup problems for opposing defenses -- assuming they both remain healthy.
The backfield is busy, though Stevan Ridley has staked his claim as the team's full-time starter with Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead backing him up. The offensive line is solid, though locking up free-agent tackle Sebastian Vollmer is a priority.
The defense, again, is lacking in the back. The Pats added cornerback Aqib Talib midway through last season, and he's another free agent the team needs to bring back. The defensive line is solid, but absent an effective pass rusher.
Ideal free-agent and draft strategy: Ideal? They somehow lure Ed Reed away from the Ravens. That is not likely, but there are other options on the open market that could certainly help the Pats. A defensive lineman and/or cornerback can come via the draft, with several options available especially if New England is willing to take one or both in the first few rounds.
Luckily for the Patriots, there are plenty of defensive options floating around in free agency -- especially talented safeties. Dashon Goldson, Glover Quin, William Moore and a host of others -- including aging veteran Charles Woodson -- will soon be available, and it would be prudent of the New England front office to make a move.
What will happen in 2013: It seems likely that the Pats will take either a cornerback or a deep-threat receiver early in the draft, which makes sense if they can make a splash on the free-agent market with a reliable safety. There's also the possibility of picking up an edge rusher -- Dwight Freeney, perhaps -- to add a pass rushing dynamic to the defense. But the base is solid, with quarterback Tom Brady locked down for years to come.
New England just needs to find a way to get back over the hump. It's hard to believe, but the Pats haven't hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in eight years -- after winning three in the span of four seasons.
-- By Evan Hilbert
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