by Jason Kelly
The 2015-2016 season was a tumultuous, emotional, and yet, exciting one for the New England Patriots and their fans. The Patriots once again found themselves in the AFC championship game competing for a chance to go to their second straight Super Bowl. Unfortunately, even Tom Brady and his vaunted offensive prowess couldn’t get past the eventual Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos and their stifling defense. The game itself was closer than it seemed, as the Patriots only lost by 2 points and were a 2-point conversion away from completing one of the most incredible comebacks in NFL history. This was after three and half quarters of Tom Brady getting the snot kicked out of him by the pass rush of the Denver Broncos. That game, along with its result, highlighted some glaring problems on the Patriots roster.
As the offseason gets under way some of the dominoes have already started to fall in New England. Earlier this week, the Patriots released wide receiver, Brandon LaFell and tight end, Scott Chandler. This move really came as no surprise to anyone, as both LaFell and Chandler had drastically underwhelming seasons, especially given how much was expected of each of them. Chandler was brought in last offseason to be a legitimate #2 tight end in the Patriots offense. The purpose behind this was to take some of the pressure off of Rob Gronkowski and prevent opposing defenses from double-teaming him. Needless to say the experiment failed, as Chandler only managed 23 catches for just 259 yards throughout the whole season.
Brandon LaFell also had a disappointing season. Especially considering how strong of a 2014 season LaFell had, where he collected 74 catches for almost 1,000 yards (953) and 7 touchdowns. LaFell’s 2015 season was a massive letdown, as he only caught 37 passes for just 515 yards and had ZERO touchdown receptions. The writing was on the wall for LaFell and Chandler, so it is no surprise that the Patriots cut them both in order to free up some cap room.
So now comes the fun part: who will the Patriots spend all of that extra money on? First, we must examine what needs the Patriots have both on offense and on defense. Overall, the Patriots have a very strong roster, so there really aren’t any obvious holes at any position. However, that does not mean that the Patriots still can’t add a big free agent to improve the roster, and there are certainly plenty of candidates out there. Let’s take a look.
Mario Williams (DE — 31 yrs old)
Mario Williams / Img courtesy of CBS Sports
Mario Williams was released by the Buffalo Bills this week after a frustrating season in which he claimed he was not being used the right way on the defense by head coach, Rex Ryan. Williams has made his mark in the NFL by being a fierce pass rusher from the outside edge, which he was asked to do less of this past season in Buffalo. Rex Ryan would design defensive plays that would force Williams to drop back in coverage and play more like a linebacker than a defensive end. Naturally, this did not thrill Williams, who had recorded 10 or more sacks in his past 3 seasons in Buffalo, while recording just 5 sacks this past season. Now he is a free agent, and he would be a great fit here in New England as a pass rusher. the Patriots already have Chandler Jones in that position, but after his embarrassing, “synthetic weed” incident and a lackluster performance following that in the playoffs, Jones may have earned himself a one-way ticket out of New England. Another issue as it pertains to Jones is the Patriots’ upcoming free agents. The Patriots will have to pay not only Chandler Jones, but also Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Malcolm Butler after the 2016 season. There is now way they can afford to keep all four of these players, and Jones seems to be the odd man out given the high level of play exhibited by the other three. Signing Mario Williams would allow the Patriots to trade away Chandler Jones, which would eliminate his cap hit and likely result in the Patriots amassing a few extra draft picks. Williams would be a good fit here as long as the money is right. It’s also safe to assume that he’d have a little extra motivation to beat up on the Buffalo Bills whenever he faces them again.
There are quite a few offensive linemen that are available this offseason that the Patriots should take a look at. the offensive line was arguably the biggest weakness of the 2015 Patriots team, and it cost them dearly in the AFC championship game. With Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer coming off of injury-laden seasons it would behoove the Patriots to try and scoop up one of these guards or tackles to buy some insurance for the offensive line. Some of the names on this free agent list include Alex Mack (Center), Russel Okung (Outside Tackle), J.R. Sweezy (Guard), and Alex Boone (Guard). And that’s only to mention a few, there are many other viable options at offensive line should the Patriots decide to spend the money. This would be a good place for the Patriots to spend some of their cap money given that offensive linemen generally don’t command large salaries, and it is a dire need for this team.
Mohamed Sanu (WR — 27 yrs old)
Mohamed Sanu / IMG courtesy of StandingSports.com
Mohamed Sanu would be a great fit for New England’s offense. Sanu is a versatile and skilled receiver who would benefit from moving out from under the shadows of A.J. Green and Marvin Jones and becoming a preferred target on another team. Sanu, at 6’2, has the size and speed on the outside that a quarterback like Tom Brady would be able to exploit to his advantage. Sanu has also been known to run the ball and even throw a few passes in some trick plays that he ran in Cincinnati. A coach like Bill Belichick would love to have an athlete like Sanu lined up on the outside on his offense. The best part is that Sanu would not be able to demand big money and would likely come to New England on a fairly cheap contract.
William Gay (CB — 31 yrs old)
William Gay / IMG courtesy of wpxi.com
This one seems like a long shot, to be honest, but Gay would be a good extra corner to have here in New England. Malcolm Butler proved last season that he is the real deal and he solidified his place as the #1 corner on the New England Patriots. The Patriots’ #2 corner is Logan Ryan, who had some very good moments last season but has also struggled to play at a consistently high level. This is why New England should consider bringing in a solid veteran like William Gay. Gay was the shining star on Pittsburgh’s porous secondary last season, and while he isn’t exactly an impact defensive player he can certainly give the Patriots a deep and balanced secondary, and that is never a bad thing to have. The reason why this seems like a long shot is because of reports that the Pittsburgh Steelers are already looking to re-sign William Gay. However, the Patriots could always swoop in with a better offer to try and lure Gay away from the, “Terrible Towels” in favor of Patriot blue and silver.
The Patriots are actually one of the few NFL teams that don’t have to really do anything in free agency. They made it to the AFC Championship game with a decimated roster and an awful offensive line. The Patriots only have to make a few small changes to improve the roster and they could very well find themselves back on the road to the Super Bowl in the 2016-2017 season.