Tight end. Interior lineman. Defensive tackle.
Those are the big three needs that the Patriots have to address in either free agency, the draft, or both.
The Patriots have little depth behind Rob Gronkowski. Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly are able to be upgraded. Who knows what the hodgepodge of health that represents the defensive tackle position will bear for next year.
And then there are the defensive ends.
Chandler Jones. Rob Ninkovich. Both great players in their own rights and both under contract for the foreseeable future. They combined for over 20 sacks and nearly 100 defensive stops. They even moonlighted on special teams. However, they ranked #1 and #2 in the league at an unsustainable pace.
Chandler had 1142 and Nink posted 1114. Those are their snaps on defense and that's a cause for concern.
I don't have the in-depth numbers, but I looked at plays resulting in 1 or fewer yards and it's fairly flat. Ninkovich and Jones show up for 36 such plays in the first half of games and 32 in the second half. This doesn't account for pressures and QB Hits, but this is the data we have on hand.
Now it has nothing to do with either player. In fact, if you looked at games across the whole season, they remained fairly consistent with their impact on the quarterback and stops in the run game. And if you looked at the defense in splits at the half, you'll see that they'll show up in the box score roughly the same amount. I'm sure they were physically exhausted, but they played to the best of their ability.
My issue comes with: why? It's unnecessary. Of course you want your best players on the field, but to put Ninkovich and Chandler in the trenches for over 95% of the snaps is not maximizing their efficiencies. When looking at Pro Football Focus's top 10 rankings for 4-3 defensive ends, Jones and Ninkovich break the charts.
Ninkovich tips the scales at an astounding 96% of possible snaps. Chandler beats him with 97.9%.
Of the top ten players, Ninkovich is joined by only one other player above 90% (the Bengals FA DE Michael Johnson at 90.0%). Only two others record over 80% (the Bengals Carlos Dunlap and the Panthers Greg Hardy). The average snap count of the top ten is 78.6%, which, in terms of Ninkovich, represents a difference in 200 snaps.
To state, if Ninkovich and Chandler handled the average workload of the top 10 defensive ends, they would each have played 200 fewer snaps.
200 snaps. That's more than Andre Carter (153), Michael Buchanan (122), or Isaac Sopoaga (120) saw on the season. That's roughly the same number of snaps as Tommy Kelly (223) and Sealver Siliga (221).
That's a seriously impactful number of snaps. Imagine if the Patriots had the fortune of twice as many snaps from Kelly and picture the positive impact that would have on the defense.
Now imagine Ninkovich and Chandler being 200 snaps fresher. 200 snaps quicker. 200 snaps more hungry.
The only issue comes with how the Patriots are going to fill those snaps. It could come from within, if Buchanan learned how to stay in his lane and picked up some strength. It could come from free agency, where there's a deep class of strong 4-3 defensive ends (and even some veterans who are looking for a chance at a Super Bowl ring).
I had a few tweets back and forth with Doug Kyed of NESN who wouldn't be too surprised if the Patriots used and early pick on a premier pass rusher (Kareem Martin of UNC is a Chandler Jones clone). There's some talent that would make sense in the early 40s (Scott Crichton of Oregon State is a more athletic Ninkovich; Jackson Jeffcoat is a fierce pass rusher and All-American).
The Patriots were fortunate enough that in a season devastated by injury, they managed to produce two of the more impressive ironmen in the league. They can't afford to risk it next season.
So whether the Patriots address the need in free agency or through the draft, look for the team to make a move to bolster a position they can't afford to play without.