Help Wanted: New England Patriots

| April 22, 2011

In 2010, the Patriots went 14-2 with the sixth youngest team in the NFL – they aren’t in desperate need for very much.
 
That said, for the second consecutive year the Patriots failed to even win one postseason game so it’s not like they have everything figured out.
 
With four of the top 60 picks in the NFL draft, it seems likely the Patriots will address most of their needs by trying to replicate their 2010 draft success. If they decide to trade their way down the draft board (as they’ve become famous for doing,) they could look to add a few key free agents to address their needs.
 
 
 

Outside Linebacker/Defensive End

Want to take a stab at guessing the Patriots’ top four pass rushers in 2010? Go ahead, take a guess. Did you say: Mike Wright (+10.7), Rob Ninkovich (+5.7), Kyle Love (+2.0), and Dane Fletcher (+1.7)? Did you even get one of them? Doubt it. After losing Mike Wright – PFF’s top interior lineman in terms of Pass Rushing Productivity – to a head injury in week 11, the Patriots were left without a player whose pass rush rating ranked higher than 15th.
 
The Patriots’ inability to get to the passer with any regularity was one of the major reasons they were among the bottom three teams in terms of passing yards allowed per game. In fact, if not for stellar play from rookie Devin McCourty (7th best CB coverage rating) the Patriots may have challenged the Texans for the dubious distinction of being the worst pass defense team in the league. The point is, if you don’t have a player able to pressure the quarterback without having to send the blitz, then you give the quarterback too much time to find an open receiver. Moreover, if you’re forced to blitz to generate pressure then you’re giving the quarterback an opportunity to burn you by finding the openings left by blitzing defenders.
 
In their three losses, the Patriots pass rush (QB sacks + QB hits + QB Pressures) averaged 9.33, or about half as effective as in their wins 16.5.
 
The Patriots could look to one of their two first round picks to address their pass rushing woes, or to a couple of free agents. The best two available free agents “fits” for the Patriots are Cullen Jenkins and Manny Lawson. Jenkins amassed the second most QB disruptions of all 3-4 defensive ends and the 3-4 OLB Lawson seemed to find his groove last year as he generated more QB pressure on a per play basis then guys like Clay Matthews, James Harrison and Cameron Wake.
 

Offensive Line

With the retiring of Stephen Neal (+4.8) and potential losses of both Matt Light (+6.4) and Logan Mankins (+19.9), the offensive line could possibly wind up being the Patriots biggest need.
 
The biggest loss of the group would certainly be Mankins who – despite missing the first 8 games of the season holding out – finished as the third highest rated guard in the NFL. Though Dan Connolly filled in well during Mankins’ absence, the impact Mankins makes when he is on the field is undeniable. All year Mankins only allowed 2 sacks and 6 pressures; Connoly allowed 2 sacks, 6 hits, and 19 pressures.
 
At 33 years-old, Matt Light may have reached the end of the line with the Patriots. If Light is to leave in free agency then the Patriots would likely slide Sebastian Vollmer (+6.1) over to the left side and not lose anything at all. The candidates to fill in for Vollmer on the right side are not nearly as proven. Quinn Ojinnaka and Mark LeVoir are the only other players on the Patriots roster who played any snaps at tackle in 2010…a whopping combined 105 snaps between them.
 
If Light and/or Mankins can’t come to an agreement, offensive line will be a position the Patriots will need to immediately address with draft picks or free agency.
 
…Unless of course the Patriots are content with Tom Brady going down for another season and seeing if Brian Hoyer can fill in as admirably as Matt Cassel did.
 

Safety

Though running back and wide receiver are more commonly discussed needs, ranking 25th in total defense screams “NEED!” louder than ranking 1st in offense. Though some of the blame can be attributed to lack of pass rush, the Patriots’ safety play was downright awful in 2010.
 
Other than Patrick Chung (+1.1) who is developing into a good run-stopping strong safety, the free safeties were certainly a liability. Brandon Merriweather (-10.1) consistently took bad angles to the ball. James Sanders (-5.3) played better than Merriweather for the most part, but a memorable game-saving interception of Peyton Manning overshadows his poor play over the course of the year.
 
Want to know the worst stat of all? The opposing QB rating when throwing at the Patriots’ safeties in coverage…93.7! In other words, a rating that is just better than Joe Flacco’s 93.6 rating for seventh best in all of football.
 
In what is reportedly a weak draft class of safeties, the Patriots may consider looking to free agency to address this concern. Considering their play in 2010, Michael Huff and Eric Weddle would be considerable upgrades at free safety. However, with a plethora of safeties still under contract it seems most likely the Patriots will cross their fingers and hope for a bounce back year from Merriweather.
 
 

  • thadjw

    So do you think that the Pats drafting Dowling was a good move?

    Really like your work. Keep it up. And one other question is (not stats based) — What guy do you think the Pats should have drafted for passrush? You seem to say that DL has been better when guys were healthy… but that they need a OLB to rush.

    Do you think Quinn would have been a good fit in a trade-up? Could Cameron Jordan have been good for them after he dropped a bit?

    It seems like the team’s thinking was closer to yours’ than most draft “experts” in terms of needs!

    -TJ

    • Rodney Hart

      Let’s just first set a realistic bar on Dowling: he probably won’t play as good as McCourty did in his rookie season. The play that we saw from McCourty was almost unreal. With that said, I still think that it was a good move because if he plays to his potential, he will solidify a very important position in today’s passing-first NFL.

      I am a bit of a draft junkie, so Quinn seemed like an interesting option. What I would say about that Quinn, however, is that he would be being asked to switch to OLB from DE. From my own personal experience (I play DE on a semipro team now), people underestimate the difficulty of the transition. It’s not just a matter of whether the guy has the speed and athleticism to make the change, you also have to consider that job responsibilities are different so until the player can become more instinctive and react to plays they don’t play to their full athleticism because they spend time thinking. A great example of this is Manny Lawson, who it took a number of years before he started playing the position with any reasonable success (Lawson was +13.0 in 2010). Lawson who is now a free agent would be a great addition to help the pass rush as we have him rated as the 9th best 3-4 pass rush OLB in 2010.

      Cameron Jordan could have been a good fit as a 3-4 DE, but I am not convinced he was a pass-rush guy. He drew a lot of comparison’s to Richard Seymour, who is without question a great player, but he never was one for the flashy plays. In my opinion Jordan will be a more immediate impact player for the Saints…just not as flashy as Quinn.

      In terms of trading up/trading down, the question is a good one. I think people have become inpatient with the Patriots since it seems they never cash in on their stockpile of picks. Ultimately, you only trade up if you believe “YOUR GUY” is there at the right cost…the Patriots obviously didn’t think Quinn was that.