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Five Questions the Patriots Must Answer Before Free Agency

Even though the Patriots don't have many decisions, these questions bring up the topic of what could set up the next offseason.

The biggest question facing the Patriots this offseason is who will be the long term starter at RT.
The biggest question facing the Patriots this offseason is who will be the long term starter at RT.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots don't have too much of a problem this offseason with losing their key free agents with only Akiem Hicks, Ryan Wendell, and Nate Ebner as the key guys the Patriots should try to retain.

1. Starting Right Tackle for 2017?

The Patriots' biggest long term issue is the tackle position. Nate Solder will man the LT position for the next two years barring an extension or release. The Patriots have three young interior OL to work with in Bryan Stork, Shaq Mason, and Tre' Jackson under control through 2017, 2018, and 2018 respectively. The only main question mark for the near future is the right tackle position. Both Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer are free agents following the 2016 season and neither guy is really an extension candidate. That situation likely means the Patriots are acquiring a tackle in the offseason.

The Patriots have two potential avenues: sign a top FA at the position, sign a short term solution or depth player to act as a bridge between Vollmer and draft his replacement this year. If they go with a top FA, they should cut/trade Vollmer since he would no longer be needed and drafting a tackle doesn't become a high priority any more. However, that also cuts deep into their cap space and potentially leave the Patriots weaker at other positions long term. The Patriots don't have their first round pick so the likelihood of getting a plug and play starter in the draft is very low. The draft depth at the position is in very good shape and the Patriots have a multitude of options to choose from. Whoever they pick will likely have to be ready to take over in 2017, although I don't mind if the Patriots sign a depth guy who can start for them that year either in order to have a fallback plan.

2. Which Edge Rusher Do You Extend? Chandler Jones or Jabaal Sheard?

The Patriots pass rush got better in 2015 when they signed Sheard in free agency. His presence allowed for the Patriots to keep Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich's snap counts lower and keep them fresher later into games. Jones wound up tallying a career high 12.5 sacks while Sheard contributed 8 for himself. Jones tapered off in the 2nd half in large part due to dealing with turf toe and Sheard got better over that time period after he recovered from his own injury early on. The Patriots have young and capable replacements in the future with Trey Flowers, who flashed in preseason, and Geneo Grissom, who contributes on special teams.

The argument for Jones is his length allows him to make plays that a lot of defensive ends can't make, as evidenced by his strip sack of Marcus Mariota despite otherwise being blocked very well on the play. Jones has learned how to use his length as an advantage on the edge, but still can be somewhat taken advantage of in the run game off misdirection plays that allow for Jones to run himself out of the play. The argument for Sheard mainly centers on consistency. Sheard has excellent short-area burst for an edge rusher and can close off lanes very quick on run plays. Both players fit the system very well and would love for both players to get extended, and that may be the case in how everything plays out, but I would prefer Sheard over Jones long term. If the Patriots choose Jones over Sheard, that works too.

3. Running Back by Committee and/or Try to Draft a 3 Down RB?

This really comes down to availability. No question that the Patriots would prefer a guy who can run, catch, and block well for them because that allows for more creativity in the play-calling. However, those players are difficult to find and the Patriots lack a first round draft pick, but there are some options for them in the FA market and in the draft if they want to pursue them. My feeling is the Patriots aren't going to spend a lot of money on free agency because the committee approach is cheaper for them. There are 3-4 bonafide 3-Down running backs in the draft, but the chances of one of them being available at the 60th pick is low. If the Patriots do go with the committee approach, I think they should get an early down back in both free agency and the draft because injuries happen and having 3 good RBs is necessary these days.

4. Where to Find Cornerback Depth?

You can never have enough quality CBs. The Patriots have a couple good young ones in Malcolm Butler and Justin ColemanLogan Ryan is also capable of playing on the boundary, but his lack of recovery speed basically pins Devin McCourty to his side of the field and somewhat limits the defensive capabilities when they can't use Duron Harmon at free safety. The Patriots also have Darryl Roberts coming off injured reserve, but he's still an unproven commodity at this point with no preseason or regular season tape to work with. That means the Patriots need to find a veteran who can play the position in case of injuries and if the opportunity to draft a talented CB is there they shouldn't pass on it. I can almost guarantee from here that the Patriots will lose a starter to IR and another will be out for at least two weeks. The Patriots have a rock-solid foundation at the position, but you can always build upon it.

5. How to Address the WR position?

This is the same as the RB and CB position, it's whatever is best available. There are 4 guys I think the Patriots could target in free agency in Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Rishard Matthews, and Rueben Randle. Adjusting to the Patriots system is not easy, although in Randle's case the learning curve might not be as huge since he has experience in a similar style of offense when Kevin Gilbride was offensive coordinator. Another avenue is the draft, but that's also a best case available like with cornerbacks. There are a handful of receivers the Patriots could look at in the draft in addition to the Senior Bowl prospects I highlighted last week. That's a position the Patriots need to get younger at and also find a way to successfully draft because importing free agents is too expensive for the team.

If the Patriots are able to address these five questions and are able to find long term solutions in the draft, the 2016 and 2017 seasons are looking in good shape. I won't talk about 2017 any more because we're still in the 2015 season on the NFL calendar. The Patriots don't have too many holes on the current roster to fill and the answer to those positions are already on the roster in terms of finding a veteran guard to mentor the young guys, cornerback depth, early down back, and the DT position. The first question comes down to who the Patriots likely draft.