We’re just a week removed from the Super Bowl, but the very busy offseason in the NFL has already started, with several players around the league being released to set team courses for 2013.
The Patriots were still going through player and positional evaluations last week, but coach Bill Belichick’s now-annual appearance at Pebble Beach probably means that the heavy lifting has been done in that regard.
Next will likely be plotting out the offseason road map, where Belichick and personnel chief Nick Caserio attack the team’s weaknesses by figuring out whether to plug any perceived holes via free agency or the draft.
They’ll stack a free agency board just like the draft, and figure out which players fit their system, and at what price.
Once free agency concludes, attention goes to the draft. The Patriots have their own picks in the first three rounds (29th, 59th, 91st), and two seventh-round selections (one from the Buccaneers). They traded their fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks for Aqib Talib, Albert Haynesworth, and Chad Ochocinco, respectively.
What follows here is one man’s opinion on the Patriots’ weak points and how they’ll go about filling those spots. We’ll purposely be light on free agent names because it’s so early in the process that it’s difficult to tell who will be available.
■ Offensive explosiveness: Probably the biggest question concerns Wes Welker. He may still be the game’s best slot receiver, and most every team needs one. But do these Patriots? If they had only Rob Gronkowski at tight end, the answer would be an absolute yes. But with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez signed to big, long-term contracts, we’re not so sure.
We’ve addressed this before, but the Patriots have to be discussing the direction of the offense. If you take Welker out of the mix, they can tweak the offense only slightly, making Hernandez the slot receiver, and he and Gronkowski can rule the middle of the field.
If I’m the Patriots, I let Welker walk, I don’t pay Brandon Lloyd’s $3 million option (making him a free agent), and I use that money to find the best X receiver on the market to threaten defenses down the left sideline. Lloyd was close, but not quite the right guy. He could also come in the draft if the Patriots can identify, for the first time since Deion Branch and David Givens in 2002, a real talent.
As far as the Z receiver on the right side, who is more of a yards-after-the-catch guy, I’d re-sign Julian Edelman. But the Patriots have to find another viable player in free agency or the draft. No more broken-down veterans like Anthony Gonzalez. Perhaps the Rams’ Danny Amendola could be had on a decent contract given all his injuries, or the Browns’ Joshua Cribbs.
■ Secondary: The Patriots will try to re-sign Talib, as they should, since they used a fourth-round pick to get him. But it has to be a very fair contract given his off-field and injury problems.
If Talib leaves, I would fill the secondary with a first-round pick/Ras-I Dowling at left cornerback, a re-signed Kyle Arrington at nickel back, Alfonzo Dennard at right cornerback, Devin McCourty at free safety, and Tavon Wilson at strong safety. You don’t draft a guy 48th overall, like Wilson, to be only a dime back.
Steve Gregory should move back to a nickel/dime/valuable backup role.
■ Right tackle: Unless the Patriots can get Sebastian Vollmer to agree to a hometown discount extension before free agency, I’d let him walk. Teams do this all the time. The Patriots should be able to find a right tackle internally (Marcus Cannon, Markus Zusevics, and Kyle Hix are candidates) or in the draft. Vollmer’s back issues and the way he faded at the end of the season are too much of a concern. You can’t pay at every position on the line, even if your quarterback is Tom Brady.
■ Defensive line: The Patriots signed two CFL products, tackle Armond Armstead and end Jason Vega, to bring more pass rush, but they still need to look for pass-rushing ends and tackles. Justin Francis will be stronger in Year 2, and you’d like to think the Patriots would get something out of 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette.
■ Linebacker: They need to find a linebacker who is capable of covering next to Jerod Mayo in the nickel package. If the Patriots thought Brandon Spikes was better than Dont’a Hightower in coverage in the AFC Championship game, that’s a fairly strong indictment of where they are.
■ Kickoff returns: Jeff Demps should be able to fill that role admirably, if he can stay healthy.
So in summation, my offseason plan would be to let Welker, Lloyd, Talib, Donald Thomas (who will get starter guard money), Patrick Chung, and Vollmer walk in free agency. Re-sign, at the right price, Edelman, Arrington, Danny Woodhead, Trevor Scott, and Marquice Cole.
As far as signings, I would make a top stretch-the-field X receiver my No. 1 priority, followed by value signings at Z receiver, cornerback, and defensive line.
In the draft, I would go receiver/cornerback in the first round, cornerback/receiver in the second, right tackle in the third, and the two seventh-round picks would be spent on a fast linebacker and another cornerback.
One X-factor: Could the Patriots pull off a player-for-player trade using quarterback Ryan Mallett?
ERIC THE MISREAD
Mangini gets Seely’s support
Even though he left after the 2008 season, Brad Seely is still the longest-tenured coordinator the Patriots have had under Bill Belichick. He served 10 seasons, which bests Josh McDaniels (going on five), Scott O’Brien (going on five), and Charlie Weis (five).
At the Super Bowl with the 49ers, Seely talked about his decision to leave for the Browns in ’09.
“It basically came down to I thought I had a better situation where I was going to be the assistant head coach, so I went to Cleveland,” said the special teams coordinator. “I just thought it was a better job, you know? So that’s why I left.”
Seely was hired by former Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini in Cleveland. Mangini was on his first job after being fired by the Jets in ’08, one year after he turned in the Patriots for the Spygate episode.
Mangini has been out of coaching since the Browns staff was fired in 2010, and Seely thinks Mangini has gotten a bad rap.
“Extremely bad,” Seely said. “I think a lot of people have misread what kind of person he is. He’s a good person, he’s extremely bright, and when he went to the Jets, for whatever reason, they were always hammering the guy about being one type of individual and that wasn’t what he was.
“He’s a good guy who’s smart and was a good head coach, I thought. He was in a couple tough situations. I think he’s gotten a bad rap, yeah.
“I think it was really a media portrayal of what he was. He followed guys [Romeo Crennel and Herm Edwards] that were . . . I don’t know if you’d say they were player’s coaches or easier on their players than what we were used to, and so it was just different for him. And so sometimes that can be portrayed as good or bad, if you’re successful. And we weren’t successful enough.”
The Browns had two 5-11 seasons.
Seely said that Mangini, who has been mentioned as a candidate with the Saints, should at least be a defensive coordinator.
“He could easily be, yes,” Seely said. “He’s got the talent and knowledge to be that, without question. I don’t know how much he’s tried to get one of those jobs. But I think he’s interested.”
High praise for an old boss
San Francisco defensive backs coach Ed Donatell spent two seasons in that capacity under Josh McDaniels with the Broncos, and has little doubt in his mind that McDaniels will be a successful head coach the second time around.
“I think he’s going to get another chance,” Donatell said. “I think he’s a sharp guy in all areas of the game.
“He’s a terrific coach. He sees a lot of what’s going on. I have a lot of respect for him as a technician, teacher and his passion for the game. He’s very talented. I think this guy has a bright future. He’s going to get another chance and he’s going to do even better the next time.”
Donatell is unsure why Broncos fans hated McDaniels (11-17 in less than two seasons), because Donatell saw “99 percent good” with the program McDaniels installed.
Donatell wasn’t surprised to see McDaniels pass on jobs this offseason.
“I think he just wants to go and have a couple more good years, and that time will come,” Donatell said. “He’s so young , he’s got all his life to be a head coach, and maybe after going out and coming back, he’ll just make himself a little better.
“We all do, if you’re any good. When I go back out and do the next thing, I’m going to be way better than I was last time. And I would think he would be no different.”
The 49ers blocked the Saints from interviewing Donatell for a defensive coordinator spot because he’s under contract.
“I respect that teams have to make plans and keep their continuity, too,” said Donatell, who previously coordinated the Packers’ and Falcons’ defenses. “They work hard and they give us choices to sign these contracts. We make that choice to sign it. So if we want to have that security for our families and sign it, that’s the part that goes there.
“I definitely aspire to do that. There’s no question about that. But I also know a good thing. Jim [Harbaugh] has created a great working environment, so nobody’s in a hurry to get out of here. There’s no question this staff is going to put some guys out in the next couple of years.”
Reid defers snap decision
New Chiefs coach Andy Reid was understandably cautious when asked about the future of quarterback Matt Cassel, the former Patriot. “I’m going to just let that play out,’’ Reid told the Kansas City Star. “We’re too early in the process to know that. We’ll continue to evaluate it. We’re evaluating him just like we do a free agent. That’s what you do, and the thing about that is it takes time. I think he realizes that. That’s how it works when there’s a change.’’ Cassel was benched midway through last season and is due to make $7.5 million. Reid seemed more eager to talk about quarterback Ricky Stanzi, the team’s fifth-round pick in 2011 out of Iowa. “I watched a ton of his [video] from college,’’ Reid said. “I watched all of it. I watched everything he has from here. There’s just not that much of it. That’s a hard [evaluation]. You want to see them in games. I’ve heard good things about him, both of those guys, and actually Brady [Quinn], too. But with Stanzi, you just don’t have as much information. Matt, you’ve got a little better feel about just because there’s more snaps. Matt’s a good football player.’’
1. Eagles coach Chip Kelly made an interesting choice hiring Billy Davis as defensive coordinator. He wasn’t exactly a rousing success with the 49ers (2005-06) and Cardinals (2009-10). Davis is the fourth defensive coordinator for the Eagles in the four seasons since the death of Jim Johnson in ’09.
2. People deserve second chances, but something doesn’t feel right about Gregg Williams being back in the game (as a Tennessee assistant) following his one-season ban because of the bounty scandal. I think it speaks to the desperation of Titans coach Mike Munchak to retain his job.
3. Ray Lewis’s pre-Super Bowl interview with Shannon Sharpe — Lewis said, “God has never made a mistake,” when talking about the 2000 double murder in which he was implicated — was absurdly tone deaf. Just say you feel for the family members and hope they find justice and peace.
4. Not only did Adrian Peterson win the MVP coming off knee reconstruction, but he played the final seven games with a sports hernia. Now he’s just showing off.
5. San Francisco receiver Randy Moss showed little urgency with his route running for much of the Super Bowl. With a chance to win his first title on the line, it was fairly unbelievable to watch.
The recap on restructuring
Last year, the Patriots restructured the contract of Tom Brady to free $7.2 million of salary cap space. Smart teams do that very seldom, because it can hurt future caps. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome explained the reasoning why: “The only time we consider restructuring guys’ deals is if a player becomes available that we think has great value and is worth us restructuring the deal to get it done. It also has to be a player we think has a very good chance of playing out his contract. That’s when you get in trouble, is if you restructure the deal, all of a sudden the player’s abilities fall off the cliff and you have to let him go and you have to eat all that acceleration right away. We have a good nucleus of young players who are still under their first contract, which will allow us to not have to do that.” The Ravens redid four veteran contracts after their last Super Bowl victory in 2000, and it hurt the team in the long term. “We will not repeat what we did in 2001,” Newsome said.
The NFL named Dean Blandino vice president of officiating, succeeding Carl Johnson, who has become the league’s first full-time official. Blandino was an instant replay official from 1999-2003, then managed the replay program until ’09. After three years in the private sector, Blandino returned in 2012 as director of officiating . . . Players from New England schools invited to the NFL combine, which starts Feb. 20 in Indianapolis: Boston College — tackle Emmett Cleary, tackle John Wetzel, tight end Chris Pantale; Connecticut — cornerback Dwayne Gratz, linebacker Sio Moore, defensive end Trevardo Williams, cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson; Massachusetts — tackle/guard Stephane Milhim; New Hampshire — defensive tackle Jared Smith. If you know of any others, please send a note at email@example.com . . . Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta on the Patriots’ linebackers: “We knew that was a good matchup for us. We knew that taking advantage of the middle of the field with some of their linebackers would be good for us. I don’t think we did that enough during the first half, and then in the second half we really started to be aggressive, especially down the middle and made some big plays. That was really the turning point in the game.”
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.