New England's offseason to date can be summed up in two words -- talent retention. The Patriots have spent the bulk of the last month re-signing free agents that were key part of the team's division title last year. Atop the list was Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork, but also included were 10-sack linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, longtime third-down back Kevin Faulk, starting guard Stephen Neal and cornerback Leigh Bodden, who tied for the team lead with five interceptions in his only season in Foxborough.
With all the work to keep its free agents, the only notable players that have departed at this point are tight ends Chris Baker (released) and Benjamin Watson and defensive end Jarvis Green. None could be considered a huge loss, although the team is essentially without a tight end option.
But it's one thing to retain your own talent and another to get better as a team by filling needs. New England has done nothing close to the latter, having inked only wide receiver David Patten (out of football a year ago) and Jets special teamer/OLB Marques Murrell. Not exactly an injection of new talent.
With eight draft picks this April, including a trio of second-rounders that give the Patriots four of the top 53 selections, New England will be a big-time player on draft weekend. Whether it's moving around to land potential immediate contributors at remaining spots of need like outside linebacker, wide receiver and tight end or standing pat, Bill Belichick and Co. clearly are putting a lot of faith in this year's draft class to help New England improve from a year ago.
1. Defensive end/Outside linebacker: Whether it's in the four-man fronts that the team ran a bit more often in 2009 or in New England's traditional 3-4 sets, the Patriots must find a legitimate pass rusher. An inability to get to the quarterback, save for Tully Banta-Cain's overachieving and misleading 10 sacks, has been the major flaw in the New England defense for the last two seasons.
2. Wide receiver: Randy Moss isn't getting any younger or more productive. Wes Welker is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and is likely to open 2010 on PUP. And New England never found a No. 3 option behind those productive vets last fall. The Patriots must find at least two legitimate receiving options to work with Moss and developing youngster Julian Edelman.
3. Inside linebacker: Jerod Mayo battled a knee injury for a somewhat disappointing sophomore season. Former undrafted second-year player Gary Guyton was miscast on the inside in 3-4 fronts. And beyond those two young player New England has little talent or depth at inside linebacker. That's a problem, even playing behind one of the best nose tackles in the game in Vince Wilfork.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: NT Vince Wilfork (tendered at $7.003M; re-signed March 5 for $40M/5 yrs, $25M guaranteed/$18M SB).
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--OLB Derrick Burgess had an extremely quiet five sacks in his first season in New England after joining the team via training-camp trade from the Raiders. He drew curious high praise from Bill Belichick late in the year and could get a chance to return to the team at a position at which it is dangerously thin.
--P Chris Hanson had what may be best described as another "blah" year in New England. The Patriots have been happy with his situational punting in the past -- he had the fewest punts returned in the NFL -- but the team could and should look to upgrade at the spot after using the draft to add a young kicker and long snapper in recent years.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT (not tendered offer)
--RB Chris Taylor (not tendered at RFA) was on injured reserve and has never played for New England. If he's brought back it will be as a camp body.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (*indicates restricted because of uncapped year)
--*K Stephen Gostkowski (tendered at $1.759M with second-round pick as compensation) is a former All-Pro. He had a decent season, and even showed improvement on his kickoffs. He'll get a decent tender and be back.
--*G Logan Mankins (tendered at $3.268M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) is becoming a perennial Pro Bowler. He would have been a top lineman available if he were unrestricted.
--*LB Pierre Woods (tendered at $1.176M with no compensation) had a chance to increase his role in 2009 given New England's lack of depth at outside linebacker. He played in 16 games with five starts, but was lackluster at best and remains a special-teams/backup type.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--LB Gary Guyton (tendered at $470,000) played a significant role for the team in his first two seasons, including 16 starts out of necessity last fall. Ideally, probably a versatile sub player.
--LB Bret Lockett (tendered at $395,000).
--LB Tully Banta-Cain: UFA; $13.5M/3 yrs, $6M SB.
--CB Leigh Bodden: UFA; $22M/4 yrs, $10M guaranteed.
--RB Kevin Faulk: UFA; $2M/1 yrs, $1M SB.
--OG Stephen Neal: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--NT Vince Wilfork: FFA; $40M/5 yrs, $25M guaranteed/$18M SB.
--TE Alge Crumpler: UFA Titans; terms unknown.
--LB Marques Murrell: Not tendered as RFA by Jets; terms unknown.
--WR David Patten: FA; terms unknown.
--TE Chris Baker (released).
--DE Jarvis Green: UFA Broncos; $20M/4 yrs.
--LB Junior Seau (retired).
--TE Benjamin Watson: UFA Browns; $12M/3 yrs, $6.25M guaranteed.
Patriots Offseason Update: 3/20
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