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Looking ahead to the offseason

Running back – This is first and foremost on the list. Against the Broncos, there were opportunities for Corey Dillon to make some big runs but he only got seven and eight yards out of them. Seven and eight yards isn't bad but they could have been big plays. That was a problem all season long. The Patriots produced no big plays out of the running game. New England had only five runs of more than 20 yards on the season with a 31-yard scamper by Patrick Pass against the Saints being the longest. The Broncos didn't respect the Patriots running game and that allowed them to blitz as much as they did. John Lynch even said after the game they blitz more when they don't fear a team's running game so no one in Denver was overly concerned about Dillon running the football against them.

So, what's wrong? Was it injuries, the offensive line, Dillon getting up there in age or a combination of the three? No one really knows the answers to those questions - except maybe Dillon himself - but even if he regains some of his old form, the Patriots need to upgrade the running back position. Let's say it was injuries that slowed Dillon down this year and he comes back and plays well next season. What happens if he gets hurt? Kevin Faulk is a good player but he can't carry the load at running back and Pass misses more games than he plays. Faulk is a major part of the offense catching balls out of the backfield and breaking a draw every now and then but he isn't going to carry the ball 25 times a game.

The Patriots have tried to find running backs in the middle rounds of the draft and it hasn't worked out. It's time to grab a young back the team can fall back on should Dillon be nearing the end of his career or gets injured. Tom Brady took too much punishment this year and a lot of that had to do with defenses sending more heat because the New England ground game was so inept. Expect the Patriots to draft a running back on day one of this year's draft. It may not be in the first round but it shouldn't be long after that. The team needs some youth and big-play ability at the running back position if they want to improve on this year's dismal rushing performance.

Linebacker – It's hard to imagine that the strength of the team needs to be addressed in the offseason but with Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi getting up there in age, it's time for New England to start acquiring young linebackers and groom them to replace the studs they already have. In order to play the 3-4, teams usually like to have six solid linebackers they can depend on in case of injuries. Well, the Patriots have four. Some of that has to do with Ted Johnson's retirement and misfires in free agency but the Patriots have also ignored the linebacker position early on in the draft over the past several years. Granted, after signing Monty Beisel and Chad Brown, New England thought they were stacked at linebacker for the 2005 season but neither player performed up to the level the Patriots expected them to.

This is a position the Patriots should hit hard in the draft and this is the time to do it because this draft is loaded with quality linebackers. Ohio State's A.J. Hawk and Alabama's DeMeco Ryans will probably be off the board (Hawk for sure) by the time the Patriots pick but if Iowa's Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, Virginia's Kia Parham, Maryland's D'Qwell Jackson, Florida State's Ernie Simms or Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter are still available when the Patriots select, they may be too good to pass up. Keep an eye on Carpenter. The versatile linebacker can play both inside and outside in the 3-4. Hawk overshadowed Carpenter at Ohio State but he's an excellent player who could be another Mike Vrabel in the Patriots defensive scheme. It's way, way too early to project which position the Patriots will target in the first round of the draft but they do need young linebackers and Carpenter is the kind of player the Patriots historically go after. He's intense, versatile and most important: very productive. Carpenter looks to be a good fit for the Patriots, so he's a player we will be watching a lot of film on and spending some time with at the NFL Combine in February. Expect to be hearing plenty more about the Buckeyes linebacker and many other draft prospects in the coming months.

Safety – This one is pretty obvious. Artrell Hawkins did a solid job coming in mid-season and playing a position he hadn't played since his college days at Cincinnati but he isn't the long-term answer at safety. Rodney Harrison may or may not be back but either way, the team needs to add depth at the position. I would expect the Patriots to address this area via free agency. There are going to be some good safeties on the open market this year - Tank Williams, Adam Archuleta, Chris Hope, Corey Chavous, Dexter Jackson, Keion Carpenter, Will Demps - and Belichick has a track record of taking veteran defensive backs and fitting them into his system. The Patriots could draft a young safety as well but they will almost certainly add a veteran free agent who can come in and start right away. Plus, Randall Gay – who can play both safety and corner – and Guss Scott will both be back next season and with James Sanders entering his second year, this is one area that should be vastly improved in 2006.

Cornerback – The Patriots were just decimated by injuries at the cornerback position this year so it's kind of hard to predict how things will shake out next season. The team does have three good young corners in Gay, Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel. It's difficult to predict if veteransDuane Starks, Chad Scott or Tyrone Poole will be back but it's probably doubtful at best that any of them return to New England next season. The Patriots will most likely bring in an experienced corner. Whether that cornerback played for the Jets this season or not has yet to be determined but they will add one or two veteran corners in the offseason, much like they did this year. Let's just hope things work out better for the Patriots at this position in 2006 than they did in 2005.

Cornerback is also an area the Patriots may target in the first round of the draft but it's not really a great year for corners. After Virginia Tech's Jimmy Williams and Florida State's Antonio Cromartie, no cornerbacks really stand out as blue-chip prospects at the moment according to most draft insiders but that could change over the next three months. If the Patriots don't draft a corner early, look for them to target another Ellis Hobbs-type of player in the middle rounds. New England has had a lot of success over the years drafting quality cornerbacks in the later rounds.

Receiver – This will become an even bigger concern if the Patriots lose David Givens. If Givens leaves via free agency, expect the Patriots to try and replace him with a veteran. One name to watch is the 49ers Brandon Lloyd. He has a chance to be a really good receiver in the NFL but playing with poor quarterbacks in San Francisco has hurt his production. Lloyd is a possession receiver with hands like glue and he would make a nice 1-2 punch with Deion Branch. Lloyd is a restricted free agent so he would cost a fourth round draft pick to obtain him but he's an intriguing prospect nonetheless. If the Patriots are looking at unrestricted free agents, three names to look out for are Antwaan Randle El, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius. Jurevicius is a Patriots kind of player and he seems like he would be a good fit for this team if they decide to go that route. Belichick has gushed over McCardell in the past so he may be appealing if the Patriots are looking for a receiver in the open market.

The future of Troy Brown is also up in the air and if the Patriots lose both Givens and Brown, this position will need some serious realignment. New England has drafted only two receivers high under Belichick and Scott Pioli – Branch and Bethel Johnson – so they are one out of two. The problem with drafting a receiver in the first round this year is the upcoming draft isn't loaded with highly rated pass catchers. Out of the receivers that have declared for the draft so far, only Ohio State's Santonio Holmes looks to be a sure-fire first round selection at this point. Again, things can change over the next few months but this isn't expected to be one of the better drafts for receivers.

One name to keep on the radar screen is Notre Dame's Maurice Stovall. Stovall wasn't used right at Notre Dame until Charlie Weis got there but he exploded on the scene this season, making a ton of big plays for the Irish. Stovall is a big receiver who has a knack for going up and outfighting defenders for the ball and because Weis and Belichick are so close, Stovall is a player the Patriots could become more intrigued with as the draft draws near.

Of course there's always Terrell Owens. In all honesty, there's probably a better chance of Belichick cutting a rap album with 50 Cent than there is of Owens becoming a Patriot. In other words, don't hold your breath.

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