The New England Patriots know the pain that the San Francisco 49ers are in the process of enduring this week. Not only did they suffer the same disappointment two weeks ago, when their season ended without a Super Bowl ring, but they also suffered defeat when favored in last year's Super Bowl when they couldn't score a late touchdown. The 49ers somewhat beat themselves in the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens, but when the Patriots lost to the Ravens it wasn't because of uncharacteristic mistakes. Injuries, coaching decisions and execution on the day played a part, but realistically, the Patriots simply didn't improve enough from 2012 in Indianapolis to 2013 in Foxboro.
Even though the disappointment of losing in the Super Bowl hits home harder than losing in the Championship round, on some level this team should be more disappointed that they didn't lift the Lombardi Trophy this year. The Patriots retained their key cogs from last year's roster, but also added the dynamic Brandon Lloyd, three top draft picks to their defense and revamped the secondary. Lloyd added a dimension to help make the Patriots' offense the most balanced and explosive in the NFL, while Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower proved to be impressive rookie starters when healthy. However, Tavon Wilson only contributed in a limited role and the Patriots' secondary as a whole couldn't cope.
On the outside, the Patriots finished the season with two new starting cornerbacks compared to the end of last season. Alfonzo Dennard was a late round draft pick who proved to be a high-quality starter once he broke onto the field, while Aqib Talib was acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the regular season. Talib and Dennard were definitely improvements over Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington on the outside, but the overall depth at cornerback was still a glaring problem. Considering most teams in the NFL have three starting caliber receivers, having just two cornerbacks capable of covering starting caliber receivers is logistically a problem. When one of your top cornerbacks is also injury prone, Talib, then you're inviting trouble onto yourself.
Arrington proved capable of excelling in the slot, but once he moved outside to replace Talib in base defenses, he was once again exposed. That, coupled with Devin McCourty's inability to cover players in man coverage, meant that the Patriots' cornerbacks were completely dependent on the talent and durability of their starters. In fact, McCourty struggled so much as a cornerback this year that he was moved to safety when Talib arrived in Foxboro. McCourty played well after Talib's arrival, but his partnership with Steve Gregory was still susceptible to breakdowns in coverage and didn't offer up a physical presence capable of sticking to tight ends. Gregory and McCourty were definitely an improvement over James Ihedigbo and Patrick Chung, but they also were still one of the worst pair of starters in the whole league. It's possible that the Patriots could replace both safety starters again this off-season.
Second round draft pick Wilson will be looked to as a potential starter after a year of development, while instead of signing the cheap fix in free agency, like they did last year with Gregory, the Patriots have plenty of top quality options to invest in in free agency this off-season. The Buffalo Bills' Jairus Byrd leads the safety class coming available this year, but it is unlikely that he ever even reaches the open market as he is very important for the Bills' defense. The Patriots would love to snatch him away from their divisional opponents as he offers a physical presence and potential for turnovers that doesn't currently exist on their backend. Byrd is young, but experienced. That combination will make him a very expensive property on the free agent market.
Instead of looking to the top young talent available, the Patriots could be attracted to that veteran toughness that has served them so well in the past. Ronde Barber may have spent most of his career as a cornerback, but after moving to safety last season he excelled. Barber would fit in with the Patriots' defense the way fellow former Buccaneers' defensive back Talib did when he arrived this past season. The Patriots lack physicality all over their secondary and Barber would help alter the attitude of the whole unit. Much like Barber, New York Giants' safety Kenny Philips is also an intimidating physical presence who would help the Patriots suppress opposing teams' tight ends. Philips is a very talented player who doesn't always play to his ability, but is coming off of an impressive year. At 26 years of age, Philips will be a hot property on the market, requiring the Patriots to beat out multiple other teams for his signature. Philips, William Moore, Dashon Goldson, LaRon Landry and Louis Delmas could all potentially land in New England to improve the physicality of their secondary.
While all of those players are perfect fits with the Patriots, the favorite to sign in New England should be the Baltimore Ravens' Ed Reed. Reed is past his prime, but just won his first Super Bowl ring and has always been a favorite of Bill Belichick. Reed is 34 years of age and would offer the Patriots a similar addition to that of Barber, except in a different style on the field. While Barber is a tough tackling underneath safety, Reed has built a career on patrolling behind cornerbacks and linebackers while reading situations to create turnovers. Depending on whether Tavon Wilson develops into a starter or not, the Patriots could sign Reed and another of the free agents available or look to an early round of the draft to add a starter to the position.
Even though all of the names listed play the safety position differently, in fact there is a mixture of free safeties and strong safeties on the free agent list, the Patriots are only searching for talent rather than specific role fits. Today's passing NFL with a focus on physical specimens at tight end requires all safeties to be very versatile regardless of their reported position. Strong safeties must be able to run, while free safeties must be big enough to stick to tight ends. The differences between the free and strong safety positions are fading into extinction as the game continually evolves. There is a premium on talent in today's secondaries opposed to finding role players who can mesh together into a until capable of containing opposing offenses.
The Patriots have plenty of options at safety this off-season, but Bill Belichick can't afford to go the cheap route like he did last season. Abram Elam, Jim Leonhard, Chris Crocker and Chris Hope may offer various levels of value to different rosters, but the Patriots have plenty of players of that caliber on the back-end. Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson will be under contract unless released, while Devin McCourty will fill some role whether that be at cornerback or safety. Ras-I Dowling will also return, although anything from him will be a bonus considering his injury-plagued career so far.