The New England Patriots’ 2019 season started with a bang and ended with a whimper as a perfect storm of bad luck and bad play seemed to hamper the team’s ability to grow over the season. The combination of injuries, retirements, and gambles on highly talented players with questionable characters that didn’t work out eventually caught up as the team would drop their final two games of the season.
Going into the off-season, the team will need to fill the holes on their roster, especially in regards to the players who line up at the line of scrimmage: Offensive line, tight-ends, defensive line, and on-ball linebackers.
The biggest question mark facing the Patriotis this offseason is the offensive line. Two of the five starters will be headed for unrestricted free agency, leaving two holes for Bill Belichick to fill in free agency and/or the draft. There are some internal options to consider at each spot, although each one has major question marks and none of them would be considered locks to be on the 53-man roster in 2020.
In addition to filling the holes in the starting lineup, the team will need to develop a long-term plan at the right tackle position with Marcus Cannon getting up there in age. The team has two tackles on the roster in Korey Cunningham and Yodny Cajuste, but neither guy dressed with Cunningham as a healthy scratch and Cajuste on the non-football injury list recovering from quad surgery. The team will need depth at the tackle position to account for Cannon’s age and Isaiah Wynn battling through two injury-plagued seasons.
In addition to the drop in line play, the team struggled at the tight end position in 2019. Not only did New England miss Rob Gronkowski’s run blocking, none of his replacements were able to pick up some of the slack as receiving weapons. The Patriots are somewhat in a better draft position to go after a tight end and there are some decent names on the free agent market in Austin Hooper and Greg Olsen. An upgrade either in the run-blocking or receiving aspects of the position greatly increases the floor for what the offense can do, especially at a position where there’s nowhere to go but up.
Improving the point of attack blocking will help the Patriots be able to establish the running game, which they rode just two seasons ago to a Super Bowl LIII championship.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots will need to improve the upside at the defensive tackle position and bring in some more pass rushing talent. The team has quality rotational options inside with Lawrence Guy taking on the running downs and Adam Butler being used more on passing downs for an interior rush presence, but the team doesn’t have much outside of those two.
New England will likely rely on Byron Cowart making a second-year jump, and will need to fill in the hole in case it loses Danny Shelton to free agency. I would prefer an upgrade over Shelton at the second tackle spot next to Guy, although the most reasonable spot to find that upgrade will be in the draft. The defense will need to shore up more against the run in order to put their opponents in more obvious passing downs, which is where the defense truly shines. The last memory of watching Derrick Henry put up 180 rushing yards will be sitting through the players’ minds even though the game plan held the Titans to only 14 points on offense.
At the linebacker position, New England has enough depth to survive losing both Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins but those departures would reduce the ceiling of the group in total.
Like with the defensive line, this is another position where the team could invest in a high-ceiling prospect in the draft and play as a specialist or reserve while they work on the rest of their game. They did with Chase Winovich, utilizing him as a third rusher and on special teams. Winovich will be expected to take on a bigger role in Year 2, likely splitting time at the weakside on-ball position with John Simon.
On the other side, the Patriots will have to find someone to replace Van Noy if he walks. They can either move Simon there as he can play both edge roles just fine. Free agency will be where the Patriots can add some depth at the position, but I believe the team will be relying on the versatility of their inside linebackers to create a pass rush alongside the typical edge rusher rotation we’ve seen the past few seasons.
The team has other positions where they need to get better, including the boundary receiver spots and accounting for potential departures in the secondary, but I believe getting better at the line of scrimmage will afford them a chance to work things out.
Improving the ability to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense will open up opportunities for the passing offense and defense to really shine, even though the passing game is a work in progress on one side of the ball. Belichick and the rest of the Patriots’ player personnel executives have their work cut out in trying to fill the roster holes at the line and hopefully are able to fill them in as best as they can to give Tom Brady a reason to play his 21st season in Foxborough.