How often does this happen? The Super Bowl champions come off a season during which they outscore all but five teams and they return 10 offensive starters plus most of the key reserves. Yet heading into the offseason, there are gaping holes needed to be filled at two skill positions: wide receiver and tight end.
It's unusual, but the Patriots faced exactly that situation once all the post-Super Bowl title hype began to settle down. While a team will take points however they come, the 371 points New England scored in 2001 were somewhat deceiving. Any team that averages little more than 193 passing yards per game, which ranked a lowly 22nd in the NFL, can stand some improvement.
Head Coach Bill Belichick admitted adding weapons was a focus this offseason, saying a look at the Patriots red zone statistics made it clear the team needed to be more productive with scoring opportunities. However, these may not be focal points in the draft this weekend.
Several moves have been made through the free agent market to improve at both wide receiver and tight end. Donald Hayes, a 6-4, 208-pound target, brings big-time size on the outside, something New England managed to succeed without last season. If they can stay healthy, newcomers Christian Fauria and Cam Cleeland could provide substantial upgrades at the tight end spot.
Out of those three, the offense should be able to find a dependable red zone target. Why is this a major area of concern? In 52 trips inside the opposing 20-yard line last season, the Patriots scored 25 touchdowns. That number is decent enough, but the passing game faltered in scoring position down the stretch. In 16 red zone possessions from Week 12 on, New England passed for just one touchdown. This after the Patriots threw 12 touchdowns in their first 36 such possessions.
Of the two positions, wide receiver is a more likely target in the draft for New England. One way or another, bodies will be added here before training camp. The Patriots carried 11 receivers into camp each of the last two seasons under Belichick, but right now they have just six. Hayes, Troy Brown and David Patten are the sure bets for next year's roster. The presence of those three also provides the chance for a potential draft pick to develop for a while without as much pressure to step in immediately.
Belichick has not drafted a receiver in two drafts for New England. The last receiver tabbed on Day One of the draft by the Patriots was Tony Simmons, a disappointing second-round selection in 1998. Holdovers Fred Coleman, Jimmy Farris and Scott McCready are largely unproven, with Coleman being the only one to appear in any NFL games. Depth is a concern at this position, which will quite likely be addressed at least once in the draft.
Try as they might, New England hasn't found a solid all-around tight end since Ben Coates was in his prime. Hopes are that Fauria and Cleeland can stabilize the position. Fauria inked a three-year deal and is the favorite to nail the starting job down, though Cleeland may be the more talented player at the position.
As for the rest of the group, Belichick stated recently the team has not given up on 2001 draft picks Jabari Holloway and Arther Love, though neither saw the field as rookies. Also in the mix is Jermaine Wiggins. The Patriots know what they have in Wiggins, who is not viewed as a fulltime player, but could carve a niche again as a pass-catching backup. Fullback Scott Dragos could also get a look if bodies get short.
After winning a Super Bowl with the limited Rod Rutledge as their starter, the Patriots have to feel confident they already have improved the position. With three veterans having significant NFL playing time and two second-year players who are basically rookies-plus, the position is pretty well stocked already. New England brought six tight ends into training camp each of the last two years, but the quintet already on the roster should provide enough competition and depth as is.
A draft pick at tight end seems quite unlikely, unless one of the supposed can't-miss prospects somehow slips lower than expected. Belichick has shown he isn't afraid to pick based on what he terms player-value, regardless of position.
Check back Tuesday for a look at the offensive line.