The Pats' restocking at WR included the addition of Wes Welker
If there is one thing we have learned about Bill Belichick in his time in New England, it is to expect the unexpected. From offensive gameplans to defensive strategy to draft selections, Belichick has a way of finding the opponents' weakness and attacking it, whether it fits neatly into his style of doing things or not.
So when it came to this year's free agent signing period, few people expected the Patriots to be very active, despite $25 million of cap room. The Pats have never been a team to throw money at players, preferring instead to stockpile draft picks and build with young, smart, tough and instinctive players.
But there they were, jumping out to an early head start with the signing of perhaps the top free agent on the market this year, Ravens LB Adalius Thomas, a versatile player who is always around the ball and has the ability to play inside or outside in the Pats' system. That came on the heels of franchising starting CB Asante Samuel, another playmaker.
Perhaps more surprising than those big-money commitments was their obvious effort to upgrade on the offensive side of the ball. A year after refusing to pay former Super Bowl MVP WR Deion Branch and forcing Tom Brady to play soft-toss with his TEs and RBs all season, New England was the leader in the receiver market, signing WRs Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington. Added to veteran Reche Caldwell, who had a career-high 61 catches last season, and Chad Jackson, last year's No. 1 draft pick, the Pats have more depth at the position than they've had in years.
Stallworth is instant offense and the vertical threat that New England has been sorely lacking. Welker is a possession receiver who is very good with the ball in his hands and can be elusive in the open field. He also adds a new dimension to the return game, building on what is already considered one of the top special teams units in the league. Washington has great size (6'3", 215) and is strong, athletic and downright fast. He's raw and couldn't break into the Bengals' deep receiving corps, but he is another pass catcher who can stretch the sideline, opening up the middle of the field for TE Ben Watson and RBs Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher has said, "You have a chance against Brady … if you play 11 in coverage." If that was the case when the future Hall of Fame passer didn't have a go-to WR, imagine how dangerous he can be with a full bevy of receivers running all over the field. Nobody, with the exception of Peyton Manning, does as good a job reading the defense, and Brady actually has shown more patience and poise in the pocket than Manning at times, always taking what the defense gives.
But his trouble this year could come from the lack of a reliable running game. Corey Dillon, the team's leading rusher the last three years, is gone. So is TE Daniel Graham, who is vastly underrated and a tremendous blocker in the run game. Maroney is talented and fast, with great vision and cutback ability, but he wore down at the end of last season and it remains to be seen as to whether he can carry the load. For that reason, the Pats retained Faulk and brought former Dolphin Sammy Morris, a bigger, bruising runner, into the fold this winter.
Heading into the off-season, the Pats had some significant needs, the greatest of which was at LB, and Thomas is a tremendous upgrade. But ILB Tedy Bruschi is aging and has been slowed by injuries the last two seasaons, ILB Mike Vrabel is playing out of position and should be playing outside where he can take advantage of his athleticism, and Rosey Colvin has been a disappointment thus far. Thomas' ability to play both makes him extremely valuable to Belichick, but they still need depth and could look to take a 'backer on Day One.
Those who have been paying attention will tell you that since Belichick has been in Mayflower country, the Pats have not taken a Day One LB. But remember, expect the unexpected. We won't be surprised to see New England use its two first-round picks on ILB Patrick Willis and OLB Paul Posluszny. Willis is on the small side to play inside in a 3-4 scheme, but he is a very instinctive player and a strong tackler who can make up for his lack of size with competitiveness and intelligence. Posluszny is another smart, instinctive player who doesn't really fit the scheme but is a complete player who can do just about anything on a football field. He's a sure tackler, is rarely out of position, and will make plays from sideline to sideline despite a lack of elite speed. He's a Belichick kind of guy.
But the secondary continues to be a concern for the Pats. Samuel is a ballhawk, and the team is pleased with the development of S Artrell Hawkins. But S Rodney Harrison and CB Randall Gay, both very good players, have been plagued by injuries. The team will certainly be looking for depth at both positions. Belichick and company look for tough, competitive, intelligent players at safety and are willing, as in the case of Hawkins (5'10", 195), to sacrifice size and speed for a player who will always be in the right place at the right time.
Florida's Reggie Nelson plays the game with great energy, is always around the ball and could be a fantastic pickup in Round 1. Miami's Brandon Meriweather is another good fit on the field but has character issues off it, which could cause the Pats to shy away. Arkansas' Chris Houston and Marcus McCauley could go near the end of Round 1, or Daymeion Hughes could be a choice in Round 3. Hughes is a good cover man but hasn't shown good speed and will fit in a Cover Two system.
On offense the pressing needs are at WR and OT. The team has addressed the receiver position but will look for a tackle to bolster the O-line and protect Brady's blind side. Matt Light played well in the postseason but doesn't have the athletic ability or quickness to cut off the angle against the speed rush. He could move in to OG if the Pats can address tackle. Central Michigan's Joe Staley is tall, with long arms, and can get his hands on the defender and lock on. Though his level of competition and technique are not where they need to be, his raw strength and quickness make him tough to defeat. The Pats like those middle-round linemen, blue-collar players who are smart, tough and competitive.
Another thing to expect is that the Pats won't have most of these picks by the time the first day of the draft is over. Belichick and Scott Pioli are known for their draft day deals and love to stockpile picks, then combine them to move up and get a player they like. Watch for plenty of action on Day One.