We’re in the middle of the offseason, but right in the thick of draft season.
However, as much as a roster is built through the draft, free agency is a chance to add or retain key veterans, and in the case of the Patriots, they are one of the better teams in getting the best bang for their buck.
While there have been some swings and misses, most notably with Adalius Thomas, Bill Belichick has a solid track record of finding starters from other teams (Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin, Rob Ninkovich, Leigh Bodden, Andre Carter, Brian Waters, etc).
Since 2009, the Patriots have drafted many key contributors like Pat Chung, Sebastian Vollmer, Devin McCourty, The Boston TE Party, Brandon Spikes, Nate Solder and Zoltan Mesko and still have some high-upside prospects like Shane Vereen and Ras-I Dowling waiting in the wings.
This past season highlighted the recent draft success, but also revealed some weaknesses, particularly the team’s failure to draft and develop wide receivers. Chad Ochocinco was brought in to fill the void left by Randy Moss, but the former Pro Bowler was an utter bust.
Luckily for the Pats, the wide receiver market is loaded with vertical threats (Mike Wallace), size (Vincent Jackson), youth (Dwayne Bowe) and reliability (Marques Colston).
Beyond the young studs, there are also several veterans, specifically Reggie Wayne, who could latch on for a Super Bowl run and help develop a draft pick.
Although there are many intriguing options available, the Patriots first priority is to figure out what to do with their best receiver – Wes Welker.
Despite a backbreaking drop in the Super Bowl, Welker is clearly one of the most consistent receivers in the league and Tom Brady’s favorite target.
There’s no doubt that Welker will get franchise-tagged with the hopes of hammering out a multi-year deal, however it’s tough to invest a ton of money and years into a 5-foot-9 receiver who doesn’t have elite speed or vertical separation skills even in his prime.
The best option for the Pats would be to sign Welker to a three-year deal similar to the one Randy Moss signed after the 2007 season (3 years, $27 million), although it would probably take something closer to a 3/30 deal.
No matter what, the Pats need Welker back in 2012 and beyond. Once Rob Gronkowski went down in the AFC title game, it was clear the Patriots lacked reliable receiving threats beyond Welker and Aaron Hernandez.
Welker is the best slot receiver in the game, and with Hernandez/Gronk, the Patriots can attack the middle of the field. But in order to open up the middle of the field, they must find a viable outside receiver who can both stretch the field and attack the ball in the air.
If money was no issue, my top pick in free agency would be Vincent Jackson. The longtime Charger stands 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and has great vertical separation skills. He hasn’t caught more than 68 passes in a season, but he has an impressive 17.5 yards-per-catch average since he entered the league in 2005.
The Chargers haven’t been clear whether Jackson will play under the franchise tag for the second straight season or if they’ll lock him up with a contract, but if he hits the market, the Patriots should at least inquire about him.
Another guy the Pats may target with similar skills as Jackson, but at a lower price is Robert Meachem.
He entered the league as a first-round pick in 2007, but has been both inconsistent and a victim of the Saints spread-the-wealth system. However, he has both size (6-foot-2, 210) and speed (4.39). Meachem has been used exclusively as a deep threat in New Orleans, and those skills would seem to be a logical fit for what the Patriots need.
The last guy whom most fans and writers have pegged as a potential Patriot is Brandon Lloyd. The former Ram has enjoyed his best seasons playing in Josh McDaniels’ system, and by a stroke of luck, McDaniels re-joined the Patriots at the end of the season.
Lloyd doesn’t have the elite physical tools of a Jackson or Meachem, but has incredible hands and is a good route runner. Because of his inconsistent career, I’d be wary of handing him a deal with a ton of guaranteed money, but Lloyd could be a solid option.
With about $20 million in cap room, the Pats have plenty of options to address the wide receiver position in free agency. The question is whether they’re willing to shell out the big bucks for a premier player, or will they go for value?