The New England Patriots are in pretty great shape heading into 2017. As former Patriots exec Michael Lombardi notes, the Patriots are returning a ridiculous 46 of their 53 Super Bowl championship roster.
And this year’s roster is even better.
On offense, the Patriots swapped RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Michael Floyd, and TE Martellus Bennett for RB Mike Gillislee, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Brandin Cooks, and TE Dwayne Allen, giving a heavy edge to the new 2017 players.
On defense, the Patriots lost EDGE Chris Long, EDGE Jabaal Sheard, LB Barkevious Mingo, and CB Logan Ryan, but added EDGE Kony Ealy, DL Lawrence Guy, and CB Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots clearly need to add an edge rusher or two, but the #1 defense in the NFL by points allowed might have improved.
So where does this leave the team entering the 2017 NFL Draft? The only real need for 2017 would be a fourth player to join the edge defender rotation with Ealy, Trey Flowers, and Rob NInkovich. The remaining needs are looking for upgrades over players that were good enough to win a Super Bowl (linebacker) or improving depth for the future (tight end, offensive tackle, safety).
And with this future in mind, it’s probably safe to approach the upcoming draft with 2018 in mind. There aren’t many year-one starters in this draft that could fall to the Patriots, so the team needs to find prospects that could develop into starters in year two.
So if we accept that edge defender is a big need in 2017 and 2018, what other needs will the Patriots have in 2018?
New England’s big free agents in 2018 are CB Malcolm Butler, WR Julian Edelman, and LT Nate Solder, which is a good starting point for this conversation. The next biggest free agent (other than QB Jimmy Garoppolo) is arguably 33-year-old EDGE Rob Ninkovich, RBs Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead, or LB Kyle Van Noy.
At cornerback, the Patriots have Stephon Gilmore signed long term, while Eric Rowe (2019 free agent) and Cyrus Jones (2020 free agent) provide the depth. Justin Coleman will be a restricted free agent after 2017, so he’s pretty much under team control through 2018, too. Even if the Patriots lose Butler after 2017, there is still starting-caliber depth for 2018- and makes the 2018 NFL Draft a likely place to address this need.
Edelman turns 31 in May and will therefore be 32 years old if he returns in 2018; the Patriots need to think about finding a replacement regardless of his contract status. Fortunately, the Patriots have Brandin Cooks (2019 free agent if the Patriots pick up his fifth-year option), Chris Hogan (2019 free agent), and Malcolm Mitchell (2020 free agent) under contract in 2018, providing a pretty solid depth chart.
In my opinion, regardless of Butler’s or Edelman’s contract, cornerback and wide receiver aren’t big needs heading into 2017 or with 2018 in mind. I think 2019 is the target year, which makes the 2018 NFL Draft a more appropriate time to address these question marks.
Tackle, on the other hand, could be a problem. Solder will be 30 years old next year and could be looking at a deal to keep him under contract for the same length as fellow 2011 draftee Marcus Cannon. But Solder, Cameron Fleming, and LaAdrian Waddle will all be free agents after the 2017 season and the Patriots would be wise to find a developmental tackle to compete with Waddle for the fourth offensive tackle role in 2017, with the potential to start or be the swing tackle in 2018 if the Patriots extend Solder.
What are some other positions of need? On special teams, both Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner will be free agents after the 2017 season and will likely receive extensions at some point during the upcoming year. Every other need for 2018 is just like it is for 2017: a chance to improve the depth on the roster.
Heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, the Patriots could find a developmental tight end to compete with Matt Lengel, Michael Williams, and Rob Housler for the #3 role. They could add an interior lineman to compete with Ted Karras as the top back-up. They could find a linebacker to compete with Elandon Roberts and Shea McClellin (Kyle Van Noy will be a free agent after 2017). New England could add a strong safety to push Jordan Richards.
It’s incredible that the only glaring holes on the Patriots roster is at edge defender in 2017 and 2018, and at offensive tackle in 2018. The team could improve a starter at linebacker, and then find better back-ups at tight end, interior line, and strong safety.
Head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio have done an outstanding job of building this roster to compete for the next few years- and the window to compete for a Super Bowl is still wide open.