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Free Agency Roster Reset: At what positions do the Patriots still have holes?

After a turbulent first week of free agency, it’s time to take a look back at the Patriots roster and see where exactly they still need some help.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

In a surprising turn of events, the reigning Super Bowl champions are the most active team in free agency so far between free agent signings and trades. Yes, the Patriots have been making moves left and right this off-season. From the big-time signing of Stephon Gilmore to the trade for Brandin Cooks and everything else in between, the Patriots has been at the forefront of NFL free agency. With all of the moves made by the team thus far, it is time to take a look at the Patriots roster and look at what positions still have holes at them.

1. Edge Rusher - The biggest need from the start of free agency, the Patriots have put some work into this position this off-season with the acquisition of Kony Ealy. But Ealy profiles as a rotational pass-rusher at best who has struggled at times against the run and putting up consistent numbers. Outside of him, the team has emerging star Trey Flowers, an aging Rob Ninkovich and Geneo Grissom. After losing Jabaal Sheard to the Colts and Chris Long announcing he won’t re-sign with the Patriots, they are in need of not only depth but talent at the position. Players such as Jared Odrick (who the team hosted for a visit a few weeks ago), Connor Barwin and Dwight Freeny could be options for the Patriots as the first wave of free agency hits.

The team finished with 34 sacks during the regular season, which was tied for 16th in the NFL. After trading away Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, the team has struggled to find a consistent pass rusher to bolster their defense. Flowers may be turning into a player in that mold, but the team needs more behind him. This is arguably their biggest need and you can expect the Patriots to add more to the current depth before the start of next season.

2. Inside Linebacker - As of this writing, top free agent Dont’a Hightower is still unsigned. He has met with other teams, including the Jets, Titans and Steelers. He has left all three meetings without signing and reports have been mixed. But regardless of whether Hightower does re-sign with New England or not, this position is a need for the team. Elandon Roberts will be heading into his sophomore season and has shown to be solid against the run but has struggled to stay consistent in coverage/blitzing on passing downs. Jonathan Freeny is a fringe talent who is coming off a major injury while Kyle Van Noy & Shea McClellin aren’t traditional inside linebackers and struggle in pass coverage and offer little to nothing in rushing the passer.

With this upcoming draft class being rather weak in the inside linebacker department, the Patriots would do well to look at some options in free agency. Zach Brown would be a nice addition as he showed well against the run and on passing downs as well in his breakout season with the Bills. Other players like Kelvin Sheppard and Perry Riley could prove to be cheap options to help build a decent rotation. Overall, the best course of action for the Patriots is re-signing Hightower and then working on adding another linebacker or two to the mix. But if New England doesn’t re-sign him, they’ll have some work to do to fix that portion of their depth chart.

3. Cornerback - The Patriots already made a big splash signing top cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from the division rival Bills to a large contract. But with Logan Ryan gone to the Titans and reports about Malcolm Butler’s future with the team not looking good, the Patriots need some help. After Gilmore, the team has Eric Rowe, who proved to be reliable at times on the outside while matching up with taller receivers. However, he has been inconsistent at times and may not be the best option for the other starting corner spot. The team did draft Cyrus Jones in last year’s draft but he proved to be a liability in coverage (and especially on special teams). He could develop into a nice player, but he still has a ways to go.

Justin Coleman and Jonathan Jones are the two other cornerbacks on roster but prove next to nothing at the position. Coleman was a healthy scratch for most of 2016 while Jones is developing into a stud on special teams and may make his money in that phase of the game alone. The upcoming NFL draft is loaded with young cornerback talent but the team isn’t slated to have their first draft pick until the early third round. The Patriots may have to rely on free agency, which still has some nice options left. That includes Brandon Flowers (if he recovers from his series of brain injuries) and Morris Claiborne while Darius Butler and Alterraun Verner would be decent depth signings. With Malcolm Butler’s future so unclear at this point following the signing of Gilmore, the Patriots may need to plan ahead accordingly.

4. Kick/Punt Returner - As mentioned before, Cyrus Jones struggled quite a bit in the return game during his rookie season. He made a good amount of mistakes and simply can’t be relied upon as the primary returner on special teams. If Danny Amendola is still with the team in 2017, he could be an option but an uninspiring one. The team also utilized Julian Edelman as a returner but it may be a risky proposition to keep using him in that role given his importance on offense and his injury history. D.J. Foster may be an option but the team may not be able to justify having him take a spot on the 53 man roster with the depth they already have at running back.

With that said, free agency may be a more reliable avenue to finding a primary returner over an in-house option or in the draft. Players such as Brandon Tate (who has a history with the Patriots as a returner) and Jordan Norwood might be options as returners/low-end wide receiver depth. After having no kick or punt return touchdowns last season, the team needs to make sure that this is a priority for them.

5. Running Back - The Patriots recently signed jack-of-all-trades running back Rex Burkhead from the Bengals. While he is a nice addition to have for depth and on special teams, he isn’t the “missing link” the Patriots need to complete their running back depth chart. Burkhead, Dion Lewis and James White will all be valuable parts to the team, especially in the receiving game. But in regards to the type of role that LeGarrette Blount provided, the proverbial “power back/thumper”, there is no-one on the roster that fits the bill.

One option for the team is to re-sign Blount, who is an unrestricted free agent. Despite leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns last season, Blount has seen little interest in the free agent market. But he is 30 years old and may not be worth the type of money a typical starting running back would get. The Patriots could re-sign him but they may also want to move on and get younger at the position. Unfortunately, the only other option that may fit the need is Adrian Peterson, who is about to turn 32 years old and is coming off knee surgery. He likely would also be far more expensive then what Blount would cost, so Peterson doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Patriots.

The draft is seemingly loaded with running back talent but the Patriots don’t have a draft pick until the third round. Players such as James Conner, D’Onta Foreman and Samaje Perine could all be available in the early part of the third round and all play with a physical, between-the-tackles style. The Patriots have options between re-signing Blount for one more season and looking for someone new in the draft.

6. Offensive Guard - Currently, the Patriots have their two starting offensive guards set in stone with Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney. But beyond them, the team has really no viable depth in case something were to happen to either of them. You could argue the same thing for the offensive tackle position, but the team has some options at swing tackle in Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle. But after Mason and Thuney, the Patriots have an uninspiring group of back-up guards that includes Tre’ Jackson, Ted Karras and Jamil Douglas.

There are some names still left in free agency that could be worth looking at for the “swing guard” role. Most notably is Jahri Evans, who hasn’t officially announced whether he will return in 2017. If he does, the soon-to-be 34 year old could be worth looking at as he was still able to start all 16 games last season for the Saints. Another name could be Andrew Gardner. After playing in all 16 games in the 2014 season, Gardner has only been in four games over the past two seasons. He at one point looked to be a long-term fixture for the Eagles after signing a three-year contract but declining play and injuries have prevented that from happening. He could be someone to look at as veteran depth. Among other names would be Jermon Bushrod and Chris Scott.

This isn’t necessarily the most urgent need for the team right now but having another solid depth piece is nice insurance to have as star quarterback Tom Brady is approaching his age 40 season.