The Patriots have some holes to fill up in the offseason, starting with the offensive line. The Senior Bowl is coming up, where we can get a look at some of the top prospects in the draft, particularly those that aren't necessarily slam dunk first round picks. For Senior Bowl coverage, the best place to go is NEPatriotsDraft.com. Another useful website for looking at NFL prospects is Draft Breakdown, who provide tape and a little bit of scouting on prospects in the upcoming draft.
The Patriots fatal flaw for the 2015 season was the offensive line, which the Denver Broncos exploited in the AFC Championship Game and part of the reason why OL coach Dave Degugielmo was fired yesterday. The 2015 unit was devastated by injuries and never was able to establish the continuity that the 2014 OL benefitted from. The Patriots have three potential building blocks for the 2016 with LT Nate Solder, OG Shaq Mason, and C Bryan Stork. The Patriots also extended Josh Kline's contract during the season, which means the team wants him around for the near future. Kline was a serviceable starter in the first half of the 2015 season, but really struggled in the second half which makes me suggest that he play as the top backup at the position as opposed to the starter.
The Patriots drafted two guards in the 4th round of the 2015 draft, selecting Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson. The Patriots need both players to take a leap in Year 2 in order to solidify the offensive line. For Mason, that means getting more consistent with his pass blocking techniques and for Tre Jackson that means improving his angles in run blocking. At the center position, the Patriots have two potential reliable options in both Bryan Stork and David Andrews. Stork's biggest issue is staying on the field because he gives the team a lot of value since he can play center, guard, and in emergencies play tackle. For Andrews, it's adding functional strength in order to generate push in the running game and not get pushed back into the QB in pass protection.
At the tackle position, the Patriots have a lot of problems. In 2016, Nate Solder should return from injured reserve and resume his duties as the team's left tackle. That should allow for Sebastian Vollmer to move back to his usual right tackle spot and Marcus Cannon out of the lineup. As we all know too well, the probability the Patriots finish with the same five offensive lineman is very low so depth is key here. Both Cannon and Cameron Fleming mightily struggle against speed rushers, although they aren't the first or will be last player to be abused by Von Miller in his illustrious career. The need for the Patriots to draft a tackle in 2016 is very high because both Vollmer and Cannon are in the last year of their contract, with Vollmer starting camp at age 32. With no potential starter at right tackle for 2017 on the roster today, you would expect the Patriots to go tackle early in the draft.
The two most important players on the defense both play linebacker. It is likely the Patriots will try to extend both Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins for the foreseeable future, which means the team needs to find quality depth behind them. In 2015, the Patriots used Jonathan Freeny, Jerod Mayo, and Darius Fleming as the top backups. None of those guys have established themselves in 2015 to make the claim they should be the top reserve at the position, which means the Patriots will have to find someone there. Mayo is likely gone when the Patriots decline the option on his contract in March, so there is a spot to fill up. The Patriots typically don't run a lot of 3 LB personnel packages on defense, so the need for a linebacker in the draft is almost exclusively depth related.
In the one game the Patriots did not have Hightower and Collins, the run defense suffered as the Patriots allowed 179 yards to the Broncos in a 30-24 overtime loss. Fortunately for the Patriots, drafting linebackers is not an issue for Belichick. The Patriots should also try to find some quality replacement parts at LB in free agency like Dane Fletcher for example in addition to drafting a young player that can grow into a potential 3rd LB role. Ideally whoever they take is athletic enough to handle being a LB in multiple schemes and has value rushing the passer and in coverage.
The Patriots haven't had a powerful rushing attack since 2004 in large part due to not finding any capable backs that can be more than just a specialist. The Patriots have been successful offensively with those specialists on the field, but the offense cannot run under peak efficiency with them. LeGarrette Blount is a free agent, Dion Lewis is coming off a torn ACL, and James White isn't much more than a specialist. The Patriots occasionally rotate in Brandon Bolden, who is more of a core special teamer and can give a couple good carries on the ground and a couple catches for the team, but he's not the answer at the position long-term.
Fortunately, there are a few candidates in the draft that can fulfill that role. The RB class is much better in 2017, so it could be conceivable that the Patriots opt for a band-aid at the position. The Patriots offense was at peak efficiency when Dion Lewis was healthy because he was good enough a runner to stay on the field for all 3 downs. The key for the Patriots is to avoid predictability with their personnel at times, since the last few years personnel has almost dictated run/pass to the opposing defense.
The Patriots have issues drafting and developing receivers. Some of that is due to scouting, the complexity of the playbook, and factors outside the coaching staff's control (i.e. injuries). The Patriots have been unlucky with the injury bug with their receivers, with Chad Jackson and Aaron Dobson's careers undercut by serious injuries. They did find a gem with Julian Edelman, whose previous experience as a college QB has enabled him to thrive in this offense where the WR has to think like a QB. Fortunately this year, the team does have free agent options to look at. There's always the inherent risk that whatever FA they import or player they draft will struggle with the playbook.
The Patriots need to find receivers they can draft and develop because buying in free agents can get expensive. The biggest issue for the Patriots is they lack a reliable outside the numbers threat who can make tough catches on the boundary. The Patriots prefer players with strong football IQ and route running capabilities because the route changes depending on the coverage they see. Those players are typically hard to come by for them because those players are usually top 20 picks.