Shutdown Corner Offseason Blueprints: New England Patriots

Eric Edholm

After the Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII, all 32 teams officially entered the offseason and started plotting how they could position themselves for a shot at Super Bowl XLIX. Shutdown Corner will look at the offseason blueprint for each of the 32 NFL teams, presenting one team a day (using the 2014 draft order, starting with the Houston Texans and finishing with the Seahawks), leading you right up to the start of free agency on March 11.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 2013 record: 12-4

Projected current salary-cap space (according to OverTheCap.com): $12.7 million under the cap

Key free agents: CB Aqib Talib, C Ryan Wendell, LB Brandon Spikes, WR Julian Edelman, RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, OT Will Svitek, LB Dane Fletcher.

Possible salary-cap casualties: DT Vince Wilfork, OG Dan Connolly, NT Isaac Sopoaga, DT Tommy Kelly.

Draft situation: The Patriots own the 29th pick in the first round. They swapped their fifth-round pick for the Philadelphia Eagles’ sixth-round pick in the Sopoaga trade.

[Be sure to check out Shutdown Corner's NFL free-agent rankings. Click here for the list of offensive players, and click here for the list of defensive and special teams players]

Revisiting 2013: Early on, Tom Brady struggled to mesh with his new, weakened group of pass catchers with Rob Gronkowski still returning from offseason surgery. The Patriots started out 4-0 thanks to an improved defense but did not hit their offensive stride until later. Still, all things considered, this had to be one of Bill Belichick’s best coaching jobs ever, as he managed the roster beautifully amid scores of injuries on both sides of the ball. By the end of the season, the offense and defense were fairly gutted but the team finished 12-4 as the No. 2 seed in the AFC with all four losses by one score on the road. The regular season included incredible comebacks against the New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos that added to the Belichick-Brady legend. But the Patriots ran out of gas in the AFC championship game, falling at Denver, as it was clear the Patriots had no answers for Peyton Manning.

Reasons for optimism: Belichick and Brady proved that they still have the special ability to will games their way, even if everything around them isn’t perfect. The Patriots proved they are as adept as any team in the NFL at adapting to their personnel, as they embodied a power-run game at season’s end that became something of their trademark and should remain a vital part of their identity in Brady’s final years. The defense should take a step up with several key players back from injury, and the division once again looks to run through Foxborough until further notice.

Glaring hole to fill: There might not be one desperate need to fill right now, but that depends on free agency. If either Talib or Edelman walk, cornerback and receiver could be vaulted to the top of the list of needs. But prior to that happening, the team really could use another tight end. The release of Aaron Hernandez left a huge void in the passing game, and Gronkowski appears to be one of those insanely gifted players who has an injury-prone career. The Patriots really need another pass catcher to fill their “F” position, as well as a “Y” tight end who can be a forceful in-line blocker. The Patriots were at their offensive best when Gronk and Hernandez were taxing safeties and linebackers with their diverse receiving skills. Brady needs to have those kinds of options again.

Toughest decision: The Patriots eschewed placing the franchise tag on Talib, unwilling to pay him a one-year tender of more than $11 million. They just don’t see the value there. That said, they like Talib and want him back, but the market appears to be an inflated one if the smaller Brent Grimes is getting $16 million guaranteed and an average per year of $8 million. Big corners such as Talib are all the rage, and they are hard to find. Some team — maybe the Washington Redskins, who seldom are shy this time of year — is likely to come in and offer Talib a fat contract. The Patriots likely would let him walk in that situation, even though there appears to be mutual interest in his return. Talib leaving would make corner a far more pressing concern.

Best-case offseason scenario: Getting Talib back could prove difficult, but losing Edelman would be a salt-in the-would blow that would bring back bad memories of Wes Welker last offseason for Patriots fans, so that likely can’t happen again. Even with Edelman back in the fold, you can expect the Patriots to add another veteran wideout (or tight end) in free agency to add to the young stable they already have. A lot of what they do outside the draft might rely on some salary-cap massaging, and yet getting Wilfork to redo his deal won’t be simple. The team also needs to fortify the middle of the offensive and defensive lines, add a pass rusher, add safety, running back and linebacker (Spikes is as good as gone) depth and perhaps consider grooming another young quarterback with Ryan Mallett a year from free agency and Brady turning 37 in August.

Previous Blueprints: 32. Houston Texans; 31. Washington Redskins; 30. Jacksonville Jaguars; 29. Cleveland Browns; 28. Oakland Raiders; 27. Atlanta Falcons; 26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers; 25. Minnesota Vikings; 24. Buffalo Bills; 23. Detroit Lions; 22. Tennessee Titans; 21. New York Giants; 20. St. Louis Rams; 19. Chicago Bears; 18. Pittsburgh Steelers; 17. Dallas Cowboys; 16. Baltimore Ravens; 15. New York Jets; 14. Miami Dolphins; 13. Arizona Cardinals; 12. Green Bay Packers; 11. Philadelphia Eagles; 10. Kansas City Chiefs; 9. Cincinnati Bengals; 8. San Diego Chargers; 7. Indianapolis Colts; 6. Carolina Panthers

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!