Commentary

Lining up the Patriots' biggest needs

Updated: January 24, 2011, 9:08 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

In assessing the New England Patriots and their primary areas of need entering 2011, it's all about attitude. Power, strength, talent and nastiness at the line of scrimmage should be priority No. 1 -- on both sides of the ball.

In the past three playoff losses, the Patriots have lost the battle at the line of scrimmage. On defense, they've either been run over or haven't been able to generate enough heat on the quarterback. On offense, they have faltered in protecting quarterback Tom Brady.

With this in mind, here is one ranking of the team's most pressing needs:

1. Defensive line

Vince Wilfork's seventh season turned out to be his best, as he moved from end to nose on a week-to-week basis and finished third on the team with 87 tackles. One of the main reasons the Patriots did that is because Wilfork is their best lineman and it was a way to match up against an opponent's strength.

Wilfork also masked other weaknesses on the defensive line. Such movement wasn't necessary when the Patriots had a defensive line of Ty Warren, Wilfork and Richard Seymour. To get back to being a dominant defense, this is where it starts.

2. Outside linebacker/pass-rusher

The Patriots' defense ranked 32nd in the NFL on third down as opponents converted 47 percent of the time. So even when the Patriots knew the opponent had to pass, they still couldn't produce enough consistent pressure to get off the field.

Bill Belichick's decision-making at this spot is deserving of scrutiny, beginning with waiting for Derrick Burgess at the start of training camp only to find out he wasn't the answer. The same mistakes can't be made two years in a row.

3. Offensive line

With two-time Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins scheduled for unrestricted free agency, center Dan Koppen in the last year of his contract and right guard Stephen Neal unlikely to return at a $3 million price tag, the Patriots have potential for big-time change on the interior of the offensive line.

[+] EnlargeMatt Light
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonWhether Matt Light returns will be a factor in the strength of the Patriots' offensive line.

This is an area where the Patriots have struggled in the past three playoff losses, and while there are young players who have been groomed in the pipeline, there's a need for another blue-chipper. The tackle spot is a bit stronger, especially if veteran left tackle Matt Light is re-signed.

4. Running back

BenJarvus Green-Ellis played 41 percent of the offensive snaps and Danny Woodhead was at 39 percent, so the Patriots have that one-two punch returning in 2011. This need is more to complement them as Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk are all free agents.

The Patriots liked Thomas Clayton enough to claim him on waivers twice, so he'll be in the mix, but the need doesn't stop there.

5. Safety

Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders enter the last year of their contracts, which leaves Patrick Chung as the lone player at the top of the depth chart who is signed beyond 2011. Sanders is scheduled to earn $2.8 million; is that too rich for a team that had him as No. 3 on the depth chart for the playoff loss to the Jets?

The Patriots also could re-sign Jarrad Page, who was paid a significant total of $1.75 million in 2010 as their fourth option (17 percent of the snaps). Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett are also in the mix, so the Patriots have options. If a team approaches the Patriots about a trade, this is the likely area.

6. Wide receiver

Arguably no spot has sparked as much debate, with some analysts targeting it as a top priority after the Jets had success shutting down the outside of the field in the playoffs. Should that much stock be put into one game? After all, the Patriots had scored 30-plus points in each of the eight games leading up to that contest.

Deion Branch and Wes Welker, the top two players on the depth chart, enter the final year of their contracts. Still, the Patriots have Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and Taylor Price, who all figure to be on the roster.

7. Cornerback

First-round draft choice Devin McCourty is a stud who should only get better, while the return of veteran Leigh Bodden from a shoulder injury that cost him all of 2010 would give the team a solid one-two punch. Kyle Arrington has shown he belongs.

[+] EnlargeDarius Butler
Elsa/Getty ImagesWas Darius Butler's spotty season just a sophomore slump or a sign of (bad) things to come?

After those three, there are questions, such as "Will Darius Butler improve or was his sophomore slipup a sign of things to come?" and "Is Jonathan Wilhite worth his $1.2 million price tag?"

8. Quarterback

The Patriots have carried just two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster the past two years and have been fortunate to not have it come back to haunt them. Considering that more than 60 quarterbacks started at least one game in 2010, and Tom Brady is coming off surgery to his right foot, grooming a second young signal-caller behind Brian Hoyer shouldn't be overlooked. Practice squad quarterback Jonathan Crompton is a possibility.

9. Specialists

The Patriots are anticipating kicker Stephen Gostkowski's return to health, and Zoltan Mesko has proved to be a capable punter. The one area that could be addressed is snapper, where the Patriots thought they had it covered with 2009 sixth-round draft choice Jake Ingram before things broke down. Veteran Matt Katula filled in for the second half of the season and proved capable.

10. Tight end

After hitting it big with Rob Gronkowski (second round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth round) in the 2010 draft, and with veteran Alge Crumpler under contract for 2011, this area is well stocked.

11. Inside linebacker

With Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Gary Guyton and Dane Fletcher all returning, it would be a surprise if the Patriots address this area high in the draft or aggressively in free agency.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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