As the 2011 season came to an end for the New England Patriots, it was an eerily familiar situation for the team from Foxboro. Eli Manning and the New York Giants were driving the length of the field in the waning minutes of the Super Bowl, on their way to once again defeating the Patriots by scoring a last minute touchdown. The Eli Manning 38 yard sideline pass to Mario Manningham on the final drive has often drawn comparisons to the spectacular Manning to Tyree completion that helped the Giants defeat the Patriots in their first Super Bowl meeting back in 2008. Two huge plays that would keep the New York late game drives alive, allow the Giants to ultimately score, and deny the Patriots their place as the greatest dynasty in the history of the NFL. Instead, New England finds themselves 0-2 in their last 2 trips to the championship game and 3-2 in Super Bowls during the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era. More concerning for the Patriots and their fan base is the manner in which they have lost the Super Bowls; in both instances the New England defense was unable to come up with a big play during the most critical moments of the game and halt game winning drives. In fact, in their last 4 season ending losses in playoff games or in a Super Bowl, the Patriot defense has managed only 6 sacks for 22 yards, and a total of only 2 interceptions. The bottom line: when the spotlight has shined brightest on the New England defensive unit, they have been woefully inept at getting the job done. The Patriots need to make a big move in free agency to bolster their defense for the 2012 season and beyond; that move is to sign free agent Mario Williams .
The Patriot defense put up a total of 40 sacks in 2011, with 31 ½ of the sacks coming from the defensive line position. Breaking down the defensive line sacks even further, 20 were attributed to impending free agent defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter , who each were credited with 10. Should Carter and Anderson both decide to leave New England for greener, more lucrative pastures, there are no replacements to step in on the current Patriots roster. From 2008-2011, the Patriots have selected 38 players in the NFL draft; of those 38 selections, only 5 have been defensive lineman. Furthermore, only a single player was drafted before the 6th round at the defensive line position (Ron Brace was taken in the 2nd round in 2009). The other 4 linemen that New England has drafted on the defensive side of the ball since 2008 have been selected after 200 other players have come off the board. Brandon Deaderick , Kade Weston, and Darryl Richard are simply not going to get the job done. The 'Patriot Way' has been to not draft pass rushing defensive ends early in the draft, and it has not worked, leaving them woefully thin at the position and in need of instant improvement at the position. The player to step in immediately and provide the Patriots with an elite pass rush presence is Mario Williams. New England still has the option of putting out offers to Carter and Anderson at a price the Pats deem appropriate as well as pursue the best pass rushing threat available in free agency. Last season for the Texans, Williams was moved to the outside linebacker position and was having a resurgent season with 5 sacks, and 11 total tackles before tearing a pectoral muscle and being placed on IR after week 5. The versatility Williams showed in 2011 would allow the Patriots to line him up at his natural defensive end position as well as have him stand up as an outside linebacker in certain situations. However New England chooses to utilize Williams in their defensive scheme, one thing for certain is that he will put pressure on the quarterback. Williams has shown immense big play abilities, has amassed 53 ½ sacks, while also forcing 11 fumbles in his 6 years in the league.
Tom Brady and the New England offense remains one of the most potent units in the NFL and do not show any signs of slipping from that level. There is some in house work that needs to be done in the resigning of either Dan Koppen or Dan Connolly to shore up the center position, and bringing back Deion Branch at a reasonable number. Once that is taken care of, the Patriots can look to bring in Brandon Lloyd to be the deep threat that Chad Ocho Cinco never developed into. Should Lloyd price himself out of the range that New England is willing to pay then they can look to the draft to fill that wide receiver position. The Pats can use one of their two first round selections to draft Kendall Wright (who may be gone by pick #27) or the NFL combine stand out Stephen Hill. The offensive side of the ball is not a concern for New England, their time and energy need to be focused on getting the defensive unit solidified. The window of opportunity will not stay open indefinitely for the Patriots, and in the NFL today, teams can no longer just count on being able to win offensive shootouts on their way to championships. The New York Giants have shown what having a dominant pass rushing team can accomplish, winning 2 of the last 4 Super Bowls. The New England Patriots, more than any other team, has been witness to this philosophy and need to take it to heart. The Patriots have 6 draft picks in 2012, and all of their selections come in the first 4 rounds. They can no longer afford to draft defensive lineman late and hope they find a diamond in the rough. There is a diamond sitting out there in free agency and his name is Mario Williams. New England must sign Williams now, look to draft his eventual replacement early in this Aprils draft, and then bring the Lombardi trophy back to Foxboro.