Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 3/26/12
The 2011 AFC Champion New England Patriots have not made a huge splash in early free agency nor should they with a team that has won 27 regular season games over the past 2 seasons.  But the front office led by Head Coach Bill Belichick and Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio have filled some major needs, adding weapons on both sides of the ball.

The class highlight has to be wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who put up career numbers in the Josh McDaniels (Denver in 2010, St. Louis in 2011) offensive system and signed a very affordable deal at 3 yrs/12 million. When you see some of the other deals lesser wide outs are signing throughout the league, that contract might be the most team friendly in the entire NFL. Clearly Lloyd knew where he wanted to play and did not chase money. All together, New England has resigned 5 internal free agents and 10 street FAs. Lets look at the rest of the Pats early signees.  


OFFENSE



Clearly the team saw the lack of depth behind star wide receiver Wes Welker and long time veteran Deion Branch as a weakness and the club worked hard to add weapons for future hall of fame quarterback Tom Brady. New England franchised Wes Welker and the two sides are reportedly working on a long-term deal, a favorite of team owner Robert Kraft, #83 is a good bet to be in Patriots uniform for the rest of his career. Branch also re-upped late last week for 1 more year and his strong relationship with Brady had 2 be a major selling point. The team brought back ex-Patriot Donte’ Stallworth (2007), who is still a deep threat and hurt New England while playing for the Redskins in 2011. Many are intrigued by the inking of ex- Colt Anthony Gonzalez, who has battled injuries for the past 2-3 seasons,  but is very effective when he suits up.  More of a slot inside receiver (a JV Wes Welker type) than an outside burner, he could be very effective in Foxboro if he regains his health.



Lloyd is Lloyd, a pro who battles for balls deep and runs tremendous routes. He is sneaky fast and will be in- EASILY- the best offense he has played for during his productive NFL career.  To augment the 3rd year Tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, TE Daniel Fells was inked and fits like a glove. He is a good all around TE and can give either Gronk or Aaron a blow while serving as a 3rd inline blocker in power formations, a VERY underrated move here.  Belichick likes to add project type players he has a history or background with and this year’s addition is OL Robert Gallery, who played for former Belichick assistant Kirk Ferentz at Iowa (1999-2003).  The 2nd overall pick in the 2004 draft has battled some injuries over the past 3 seasons (30 games out of 48) but has played a variety of positions in both Oakland and Seattle.   The Patriots have some questions on the offensive line with Matt Light rumored to be retiring, LG Logan Mankins undergoing surgery for a ACL tear and RG Brian Waters not getting any younger.



After Welker and Branch were brought back into the fold, the team focused on their interior offensive line and signed versatile C-OG Dan Connolly. Connolly started most of the season at C after long time snapper Dan Koppen was lost for the year after breaking his ankle in week 1. He can play any interior spot and as we have all seen, is a great kick off return man! The Patriots had to make resigning either Dan a high priority in early free agency. Meanwhile, backup quarterback Brian Hoyer signed his restricted free agent tender late this week and will continue to serve his apprenticeship with Brady in Foxboro.


DEFENSE



New England has signed depth type players to create competition and injury insurance on all levels of their defense. So far, two players stand out in the class- Defensive end Jonathan Fanene and Safety Steve Gregory. Fanene can play all over the line and in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme and is more of a 1st and 2nd down player than 3rd, a player that will work well with Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson. Gregory is a very good special teams player with in the air ball skills, In an ideal world he would be a 3rd Safety. Undersized but tough, another good fit for New England. DE-OLB Trevor Scott is a better fit as a 4-3 end and early down run stuffer   but could play 3-4 Outside Linebacker as well. A good 2nd effort guy on the pass rush and seems to be a good fit in this system. CB Will Allen is viewed as a veteran depth guy who can cover in nickel and dime packages. A heady veteran he could even play some Free Safety in obvious passing downs.



CB Marquice Cole is 4th-5th corner type and core special teams guy with speed and quickness. He lacks size and would need to be matched up vs. smaller slot type wide outs in the defense.  Defensive tackle Marcus Harrison was on the Pats for about 5 minutes in 2011, the former 3rd round draft choice in 2008 of the Chicago Bears, he has played mostly in Tampa 2 4-3 defense and is clearly a reclamation project.  Spencer Larsen can play on either side of the ball at Linebacker, fullback or tight end and is an n excellent special teams player.  He also played for McDaniels in Denver and offers huge roster flexibility to a team that looks for it.  New England re-upped with special teams captain Matthew Slater, who started some games at safety in 2011 while occasionally drawing some reps at wide out. #18 is all over the place on coverage units and is one of the better interviews on the team.  Resigning Slater was one of Belichick’s top priorities entering free agency.


SUMMARY



The Patriots continue to show why they have become the model franchise in the NFL since 2001 and these shrewd moves drive home the point. They enter the draft with 4 picks in the first 64 selections and have one of the younger rosters in the league. The team could use another pass rusher, 3 down safety and coverage linebackers, they have cap room as well after Brady recently redid his deal, saving over 7 million in cap money . Rumors in the Boston area have the team trying to lock up Gronkowski and Hernandez before they enter year 3 of their rookie deals. Look for the team to add a veteran running back, another offensive lineman and possible veteran pass rusher (Dwight Freeney?)  before the draft.  New England looks to be a strong bet to repeat as AFC Champions in 2012. 



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