CHICAGO - DECEMBER 12: Julius Peppers #90 of the Chicago Bears rushes against Matt Light #72 of the New England Patriots at Soldier Field on December 12 2010 in Chicago Illinois. The Patriots defeated the Bears 36-7. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The 2011 NFL season is officially underway, and with it comes free agency. Even though they finished with the best record in football at 14-2, the New England Patriots still have three areas of concern that they need to address during free agency. For more Patriots coverage, visit Pats Pulpit
After four and a half months of waiting, football fans rejoiced on Monday as the NFL Lockout was finally lifted after the players and owners agreed on a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement. Because of the late agreement, we are just now getting to one of the most hectic times in the NFL - free agency.
Tuesday marked the first day that teams could negotiate with free agents and negotiate trades with other teams. While nothing can become official until Friday, many teams have already agreed in principle with free agents.
With the exception of the acquisition of several undrafted rookie free agents, the Patriots have been somewhat quiet on the free agency front. While the average fan could say that they seem to be pretty set to open the season with an almost identical roster to last season, there is room for improvement on this 2011 Patriots team.
When looking at this roster currently, there are three different areas that clearly jump out to me that the Patriots need to address during free agency. It all starts with re-signing a free agent of their own.
Re-Sign Left Tackle Matt Light
Since the 2001 season, Matt Light has been protecting Tom Brady's blind side and has been doing it very effectively. In fact, Light, left guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Koppen have formed one of the best offensive lines in the league today.
The three-time Pro-Bowler has kept Brady safe and well protected for nearly ten years, as Brady's extremely low career sack percentage at 4.9 percent ranks at the top of the league rankings every year. Brady can certainly credit his offensive line for his two NFL MVP seasons and six Pro Bowl selections.
Having drafted Colorado tackle Nate Solder with the seventeenth pick in this year's draft, Light may be expendable to the Patriots. However, many experts around the league believe that Solder will need time to develop into the dominant tackle everyone expects him to become. But remember, Solder made the transition from tight end to left tackle only two seasons ago, so it may be wise to keep the more experienced Light around a little while longer so Solder can develop.
Light, who turns 34 on August 3, may not be at the form he once was, but he surely has at least two good years of solid, Pro-Bowl caliber protection left in him. I think the Patriots need Light back, and believe that Matt Light wants to come back to the only team he's ever known. With that in mind, a two-year deal from Kraft and the Pats seems reasonable for both sides.
With Tully Banta-Cain Out Of The Picture, Sign A Pass Rusher Off The Outside Edge
With the shocking news coming in Tuesday that the Patriots plan to cut ties with outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, New England appears to be in the market for another pass rushing outside linebacker.
Banta-Cain had a down year on a relatively weak pass rush last season, as he totaled five sacks and 36 tackles while splitting time with Rob Ninkovich, the team's primary left outside linebacker against the pass.
While there aren't very many pass rushing outside linebackers that can be classified as a difference maker, there are a few options Bill Belichick and company might consider. Guys like Mathias Kiwanuka of the Giants, Manny Lawson of the 49ers, and Matt Roth of the Browns seem to jump out at me.
Out of the three names listed, Kiwanuka is probably the one with the most name recognition. Kiwanuka's season last year was shortened due to a neck injury, but managed to record four sacks through three games played. His best season came in 2008, where he totaled 35 tackles and eight sacks. Kiwanuka would fit very well in Belichick's 3-4 scheme as an outside pass rusher off the left in place of Banta-Cain.
Roth and Lawson are smaller, but more reasonable names the Patriots may target. In Eric Mangini's 3-4 scheme with the Browns last season, Roth compiled a career-high 59 tackles with 3.5 sacks for a very bad Cleveland defense. Roth would feel almost right at home in the Patriots defensive scheme, as Mangini was once a pupil of Belichick's in New England.
Like Roth, Lawson ran a similar 3-4 defense in his time in San Francisco. Lawson declined a little in 2010 after putting career highs in tackles with 49 and sacks with 6.5 in 2009. Last season, Lawson only managed a small dip in tackles with 44 and lowered his sack total to just 2.5.
Pursue A Tall, Veteran Deep Threat Wide Receiver (No, I Don't Mean Randy Moss)
In the playoff game against the New York Jets last season, one thing that was clearly going in the Jets favor was their cornerback tandem of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, who completely shut down the Patriots' wide receivers. The Pats' two top wide receivers in Wes Welker and Deion Branch are both short range, slot-receivers, not deep threats.
The Patriots once had a deep threat, and his name was Randy Moss. However, Mr. Moss and Mr. Belichick weren't always on the same page. This led to the Patriots trading away Moss to the Vikings for a second-round pick. While Brady and the Patriots passing attack didn't seem to suffer on paper, Brady clearly didn't have that stretch receiver he could go to against the Jets.
Belichick has tried installing young Brandon Tate as the team's deep threat, but that doesn't seem to be working out to this point. The free agent market could have the answer to the Patriots' problem.
The market has guys like Plaxico Burress, Braylon Edwards and yes, Randy Moss who would fall under the category as a big and physical deep threat. As a Patriots fan, I know the last thing Bill Belichick wants on his team is another guy with character issues. The first two options mentioned have a criminal background, and I don't think Belichick would embrace the idea of re-signing Moss.
Assuming the Patriots won't pay Sidney Rice the money he wants, the free agent market seems to have two players who fit the bill. The Jaguars' Mike Sims-Walker and Chargers' Malcom Floyd are both considered deep threats. Last season with the Jaguars, Sims-Walker suffered a bit of a decline after his breakout 2009 season (63 rec, 869 yards, 7 TD). He still managed to catch 43 passes for 562 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged 13.1 yards per reception
Floyd, meanwhile, was a big factor to Phillip Rivers' success last season in San Diego. There, the 6-foot-5 receiver caught 37 balls for 717 yards and six touchdowns. Floyd seems to be the best option for a deep threat on the open market on paper, as he averaged nearly 20 yards per reception.
One name that may show up on the open market that I view as the best fit for the Patriots is Chad Ochocinco of the Bengals. There are several rumors that the highly marketable receiver's time in Cincinnati has come to an end, and could be cut or traded. At 6-foot-1, Ochocinco would certainly fit what the Patriots need in terms of size. He also has the best track record out of the two mentioned above. The six-time pro bowler has expressed interest in coming to New England and has a big fan in Bill Belichick. Seems to be a good fit to me.