New England Patriots

Aug 24, 2018; Charlotte, NC: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches his offense during the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. (Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

Aug 24, 2018; Charlotte, NC: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches his offense during the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. (Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots’ offseason may not be exciting, but it’s been filled with necessary moves to supplement the roster for 2019. That impact move you’ve been waiting for, however, may never come thanks to their current salary cap situation.

But Bill Belichick still has options to clear cap dollars for the Pats, who have to address that and other items on their to-do list before training camp. He might need the draft. There’s not much left in the later stages of NFL free agency, especially on offense. And trades are certainly possible, but no recent reports indicate anything imminent.

Fortunately, there’s really only one area of the roster that could reasonably call for an impact move: pass-catchers. What Belichick does to address that need is anyone’s guess, and he may not shake things up like the most hopeful observers want. But his other offseason moves and near-moves suggest that he knows he needs to do something significant.

That said, let’s reset the Patriots’ offseason to-do list after a week-plus of free agency.

Continue to clear cap space

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore celebrates after winning Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore celebrates after winning Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, Rob Gronkowski’s retirement will help the cap situation. Per Miguel Benzan of the Boston Sports Journal, the Patriots are now at about $17.5 million. That gives them ample room to potentially add an impact player via trade. But with as many as 12 draft picks on their way to the 2019 roster, more money-shuffling may need to take place either way.

The obvious cap-clearing move is an extension for quarterback Tom Brady. He’s showing no sign of walking away from football any time soon and continues to say the goal is to play until he’s 45. Tacking another two years onto his current deal would give Belichick an opportunity to stretch out his bonuses and thus reduce his cap figure.

Complicating matters are linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Devin McCourty. Both will be a year older. But Hightower isn’t expected to take a pay-cut, and McCourty reportedly hasn’t been approached. Belichick could feasibly pull a Stephon Gilmore with Hightower, who’s signed through 2020. But if he doesn’t want to extend McCourty, who’s entering the final year of his deal with a $13.3 million cap hit, he’ll have to hope the veteran defensive captain is willing to roll back his pay stubs.

Belichick himself famously said that cap space can be maneuvered in a number of different ways. It still can on the Patriots’ roster, but it takes more than just waving a magic wand over the roster. The reality is it could involve some tough decisions. This is where the hardest moves of all could take place.

Add a tight end

Oct 1, 2018; Denver, CO: Denver Broncos tight end Matt LaCosse against the Kansas City Chiefs at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Oct 1, 2018; Denver, CO: Denver Broncos tight end Matt LaCosse against the Kansas City Chiefs at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Gronkowski has called it a career. Free agency has all but dried up at this position beyond lottery tickets and depth signings. It’s likely that Matt LaCosse will be their “big” free-agency move at tight end. So it’s likely that the Patriots need to add another tight end (or three?) via trade or the draft.

Fortunately, it’s a deep draft class at the position. Belichick may have to move up if he wants one of Iowa’s two dynamic TE prospects, T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant. But it appears that the Hoodie enjoyed spending time at Alabama’s Pro Day, where he met with and scouted tight end Irv Smith Jr.

The Patriots already have four tight ends on the 2019 roster with LaCosse, Jacob Hollister, Ryan Izzo, and Stephen Anderson. Last year’s 90-man roster had as many as seven. So it’s reasonable to expect that they’ll add at least 1-2 more names to the group by the time camp comes around.

Add a receiver – any receiver

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Lost amid Rob Gronkowski’s decline in his final season, and the debate over what the Patriots should do at wide receiver to begin with, is that Tom Brady lacked a consistent, singular big-time playmaking weapon in 2018. They had one for the previous seven seasons – he just happened to play tight end instead of receiver.

Julian Edelman is an absolute warrior in the slot and a true No. 1 receiver in this particular system. But ideally, Brady has other reliable weapons around him. Even in 2016 when Gronkowski went down, Martellus Bennett stepped up at tight end. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell flourished as the “X” receiver. Danny Amendola made a habit of big catches deep into the winter.

The Patriots’ lack of playmaking elsewhere in the passing game in 2018 made Edelman’s Super Bowl MVP performance all the more dazzling. But ultimately, the offense regressed with Gronkowski dropping off his usual production and no one filling the void left by “Danny Playoff”. The Pats need a different mix in 2019, and they’ve gotten that started with a pair of depth moves.

But that’s what Maurice Harris and Bruce Ellington are. Depth – for training camp. Neither of them are a lock to make the 53-man roster, while Edelman and Phillip Dorsett look like the only viable starters. Who’s the third receiver in 11 personnel? The Patriots simply need another viable receiver, whether it’s through free agency, a trade, or a high draft pick. And it’s only getting harder to find one that could make a legitimate impact.

Free agency has thinned, with Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas, Michael Crabtree, and Jermaine Kearse among the biggest names available. They could spend one of their first draft picks on a top prospect at receiver like Ohio State’s Parris Campbell, South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, or UMass’ Andy Isabella. Or they could always swing a trade. A.J. Green, Sterling Shepard, and even Adam Thielen have come up as ideas for plausible trade targets.

No matter what Belichick ends up doing between now and the draft, receiver remains the position that could most use a marked upgrade before training camp.

Find a new swing tackle

FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 16: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots throws a pass in the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles as Isaiah Wynn blocks during the preseason game at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, MA – AUGUST 16: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots throws a pass in the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles as Isaiah Wynn blocks during the preseason game at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

Isaiah Wynn looks pegged to become the next starting left tackle for the Patriots. If Belichick is ready to entrust the sophomore lineman out of Georgia who has yet to make his NFL debut on Brady’s blind side, he’ll still need to add competition for the tackle spot behind him.

LaAdrian Waddle also departed along with Trent Brown, leaving the Patriots’ swing tackle spot wide open. The current projection for that spot is Cole Croston, who believe it or not has played 12 offensive snaps for the Pats in the last two seasons. There’s a chance that Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia feel they’ve developed Croston enough to elevate him to the swing tackle role for 2019.

But that doesn’t mean the Patriots shouldn’t still look toward the future at the position. It may flummox fans if Belichick takes another tackle high in the 2019 draft, but it would behoove him to at least add viable competition for Croston and others in camp. Also, Wynn is coming off a torn Achilles. So if only for depth, the Patriots can use at least one more tackle at this point.

Replace Danny Shelton

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Danny Shelton (71) celebrates with his wife Mara Shelton after beating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Considering Shelton’s inconsistency last season, his replacement could turn out to be an upgrade. But if Belichick wants to keep a similar rotation at defensive tackle, he still needs to add a regular to the group.

Free-agent addition Mike Pennel should replace Malcom Brown as a run-stuffer alongside Lawrence Guy, which could also be an upgrade. Perhaps Belichick wants to replace Shelton’s snaps with more of an interior pass rushing type. He still has options in free agency at this particular position.

Ndamukong Suh may be a pipe dream, but Gronkowski’s retirement makes his addition more plausible. Other intriguing options remaining at DT include Timmy Jernigan, Corey Liuget, and Brent Urban. Shelton himself is still available. At this point it looks like he won’t be back, meaning there’s an opening somewhere on the defensive line.

All of the above items should still be on Belichick’s offseason to-do list, with wide receiver perhaps the most in need of a jolt. But tight end certainly just got much more important.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.