By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots have an extremely important offseason in front of them. No that isn't the case every season. This one truly is different from the rest, because they don't have the greatest quarterback of all time safely under contract like they usually do.
But there's already been a heapin' helpin' of Tom Brady news, rumors and pontification. You can shovel plenty of it down your gullet at the Sports Hub's own Tom Brady section. This particular piece wants to try something different. There's plenty to indulge in as the NFL offseason officially gets underway, and the Patriots have more decisions to make than just the big one at quarterback.
Until he chooses where to play football in 2020, Brady will understandably remain the most popular item on the menu. But there's a tasty, Instagram-worthy medley on the Patriots' plate this offseason, which we will run through below.
-- Add a premium pass-catcher: This isn't to say the Patriots need to Stretch The Field™ or overpay a superstar Deep Threat™ wide receiver. No, the Pats haven't needed a lot of high-end receivers in the past in order to win. But they have had a premium pass-catcher for a long time - he just happened to play tight end. It's time to replace Rob Gronkowski, in the sense that they need to add the kind of weapon that commands heavy attention and is always a threat to come up with a big play. They need someone, as evidenced by the nosedive the Patriots offense has taken over the past two seasons. Once they add a premium player, they may only need to fill out the offense with complementary pieces. If they don't do this, they'll be left hoping N'Keal Harry makes a Gronkian leap in his second season.
-- Figure out which free agents they want to keep: Beyond the quarterback position, the Patriots have several veterans and key pieces headed for unrestricted free agency. Among them are safety Devin McCourty, left guard Joe Thuney, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, and special teams captain Matthew Slater. It's likely that Thuney and Van Noy will command large markets and lucrative deals, which could price them out of New England. But the Pats should at least be competitive with other offers if they intend to keep McCourty, Slater, or Collins. It would be surprising if they just let everyone walk.
-- Decide what to do with their first-round pick: The Patriots hold the No. 23 selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. The mystery is what they plan to do with it. Will they stand pat and use their highest pick, like they did in the past two drafts with Harry and Isaiah Wynn? Will they trade down and create a deeper, more balanced pool of draft capital between 23 and 87? Will they trade the pick to get Brady a high-end weapon, like they did with receiver Brandin Cooks in 2017? One thing's certain: when it comes to this draft pick, expect anything and be surprised by nothing.
-- Revamp the tight end position. Whether or not the Patriots go big at tight end - would they make a day 1 splash with a guy like Austin Hooper? - there's no question that they will need to make over this position after the lackluster performance of the group in 2019. Matt LaCosse is under contract for 2020, but wouldn't cost much to trade or release and is best served as a backup. The 2020 draft class isn't the most exciting ever, but rookie tight ends have historically contributed quicker than receivers in New England. The Pats' best bet to make a major move at TE will be in free agency.
-- Add talent on the defensive line: Despite a scorching start to the 2019 season, the Patriots' defense fell off in the second half of the schedule. Ultimately, the defensive line turned out to be the way opposing offenses best exploited them. Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, and Danny Shelton are all good, valuable players who are worth keeping in the rotation. But if the defense wants to improve, this positional group could stand to add talent - preferably a true replacement for Trey Flowers on the edge. Michael Bennett was not that guy, so they never really found one. And considering how effectively opponents attacked them on the ground, they could use a run-stuffer that lasts longer than Mike Pennel did.
Get younger on defense: For the Patriots defense, it would be nice to strike a balance between veteran savvy and young upside. They can retain leadership with McCourty and Dont'a Hightower while staying the course with 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, and also infuse the group with youth. They do have fresh blood at all levels of the defense with linebackers Chase Winovich and Ja'Whaun Bentley, cornerbacks J.C. Jackson and Joejuan Williams, and Butler at defensive tackle. The hope is they can lean more on those guys moving forward, and less on the veterans who are getting closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Adding upside at D-line and safety could certainly help.
-- Name a wide receivers coach. Not as high on the list as the personnel questions. But an important decision for the coaching staff, which lost special teams coordinator and receivers coach Joe Judge as well as defensive line coach Bret Bielema. Special teams assistant Cam Achord seems like a logical candidate to take over the special teams, but there's not an obvious move like that for the receivers. The possibilities as of Tuesday are recent addition Jedd Fisch, who has experience coaching receivers, and Troy Brown, who assisted without an official title in 2019. They won't be bringing Chad O'Shea back, because he's reportedly signing with the Browns.
We will examine these topics more closely as the offseason rolls along. Consider this the appetizer.
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 [email protected].