After the defense gave up yardage at an alarming rate last year, Head Coach Bill Belichick spent the offseason rebuilding with a mix of youth and veteran role players. They now boast impressive depth all over the roster surrounding a strong nucleus of players who are coming into their prime.
Of course the one consistent piece has been quarterback Tom Brady; still one of the best in the league. As long as he continues to play at a high level, the Patriots will be in the Super Bowl mix once again.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Brady Has New Weapons
As I mentioned back in March, the Patriots offense has room to improve, and they brought in two impact wide receivers that could help take the passing game to even higher levels. WR Brandon Lloyd rejuvenated his career under current Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels when the two were in Denver and his knowledge of the offense and ability to run deep and intermediate routes should bring a new dimension to the offense. WR Jabar Gaffney returns to New England where he was always one of quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite targets (and he was our 25th-rated WR last year at +5.7 overall grade). It often takes a lot to earn Brady’s trust, but Gaffney is already there and he should be a contributor in 3-WR sets. Lloyd and Gaffney should become nice complements for a team that already has a number of options to target in the middle of the field.
2) Year of the Tight End: Part 3
After the Patriots started the “tight end” trend in 2010, much of the league has attempted to duplicate their 2-TE system. Good luck with that. It’s not so much a trend as it is the Patriots finding two uniquely talented players and putting them in great position to succeed. Rob Gronkowski was one of the most dominant players in the league last year, and his size, hands and after-the-catch ability often caused his outstanding blocking ability to be overlooked. When you put it all together, he’s the most complete tight end in the league.
By contrast, Aaron Hernandez is basically a wide receiver who is just big enough to lineup in-line to keep his tight end label. He was our most elusive non-RB last season, and New England noticed, as they eventually gave him carries in the backfield as well. Hernandez may be the most important piece to the Patriots’ no-huddle offense as defensive coordinators have to make a decision to put a linebacker, safety, or cornerback in the game to control him. No matter the decision, the Patriots’ offense will line him up all over the formation and prove the defensive coordinator wrong.
The scary part is that Gronkowski and Hernandez are entering their third season and they should be on their way to the prime of their careers.
3) Linebacker Becoming a Strength
For years, Belichick-led defenses were generally praised for strong play up front, particularly in the linebacking corps. This hasn’t been the case recently, though the pieces may finally be in place for Belichick to relive his glory days. At linebacker, veteran Jerod Mayo is surrounded by third-year starter Brandon Spikes and rookie Dont’a Hightower who is built in a similar mold. Mayo is a solid ever-down player who feeds off Spikes’ ability to blow up offensive lineman and create room to roam and make tackles. Hightower was drafted to be a mix of both as he’s been lining up at every linebacker position on the defense. Belichick may finally have the linebacking pieces in place to run his defense at a high level.
4) Cornerbacks Might be able to Cover
Going into last year, the Patriots were boasting a Pro Bowl cornerback in Devin McCourty but he struggled through a difficult 2011. If he can get back to his rookie-year form, the Patriots have a chance to feature a deep group of cornerbacks. Kyle Arrington graded at +2.0 last year while playing primarily on the outside, but he may be better suited to play in the slot. Second-year CB Ras-I Dowling showed some ability before being lost for the season after Week 2. He has impressive size and athletic ability to play on the outside. McCourty’s struggles opened the door for CB Sterling Moore to step up during last year’s Super Bowl run and his last-second pass deflection sealed the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. If all goes well, it looks like the Patriots have four CBs they can trust to improve upon last year’s poor pass defense.
5) Weaknesses Becoming Strengths
As mentioned, Belichick did a good job of bringing in players to fill specific roles. Lloyd and Gaffney should be able to open up the passing game outside the numbers. The interior pass rush was lacking last season, and Jonathan Fanene was brought in to push the pocket in nickel and dime packages. Also in sub packages, the Patriots have lacked a solid coverage linebacker to pair with Mayo, and players such as Bobby Carpenter and SS Tavon Wilson may be able to fill that role. With so much attrition during the year, the middle part of the roster is vital in staying competitive and the Patriots have added impressive depth and role players that should get them through the rigors of a season.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Moving Parts on the Offensive Line
The offensive line has not been a question mark in quite a while in New England, but it’s been the talk of training camp to this point. It starts with the retirement of left tackle Matt Light who finished off his career with a solid season protecting Brady’s blindside. Second-year OT Nate Solder moves into his spot after seeing time at RT and as an extra tight end during his rookie season. Though Solder exceeded the low expectations he had as a developmental prospect, he had enough lapses in pass protection (grading -9.4 in that area) that Patriots fans may miss Light’s unsung consistency.
At guard, Logan Mankins is coming off his worst season since we started grading in 2008, though it was later revealed that he played parts of the season with a torn ACL. He is still recovering and on the PUP list. Last year’s right guard, Brian Waters, was the best lineman on the team, and he has yet to arrive at training camp. He’s expected to return in time for the season, but talks of possible retirement leave an uneasy feeling until he officially makes his return.
Longtime center Dan Koppen is coming off a season-ending injury which saw the Patriots cycle through three different options at the position. Despite his consistency over a solid career, Koppen may be in danger of getting released, further adding to the moving pieces on the offensive line. Finally, expected starting RT Sebastian Vollmer is also on the PUP list after battling injuries all last season.
When you add it all up, the Patriots have one starter retired, one fighting for a roster spot, and three either injured or not yet at camp. It doesn’t matter how many new weapons Brady has to play with if the front five is not protecting him.
2) Who is Going to Run the Ball?
Though the Patriots are a pass-first team, they’ve also featured an efficient running game the last few years. No one exemplified this consistency more than departed free agent Benjarvus Green-Ellis. He always did a good job of keeping the offense on schedule by avoiding negative plays. In addition, every announcer in the NFL tried to jinx him on a weekly basis by reminding us that he’s yet to fumble in his career. Green-Ellis moves on to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Patriots will look to Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden to carry the load. Throw in Danny Woodhead in passing situations, and it appears to be a deep group, but the lack of experience could be a concern. Ridley showed some explosiveness last season, but ball security issues had him losing carries by the end of the year. Vereen is the fastest of the backs, but he was unable to stay healthy last year and he’s fighting to get to the top of the depth chart. There’s certainly some talent, but the lack of a proven runner is a concern going into the season.
3) Who Replaces Andre Carter and Mark Anderson?
Lost in all of the criticism of the defense is the fact that the Patriots had their best pass rush in years, and it came primarily at the hands of two free agent additions who are no longer with the team. Andre Carter was an outstanding all around defensive end until he was lost for the season Week 15. There’s still a chance that he re-signs with the team if the Patriots feel he’s healthy enough to contribute. Mark Anderson is definitely not returning, as he signed with the Buffalo Bills. Anderson filled in admirably for Carter after spending much of the season as a pass rush specialist. Between him and Carter, the Patriots had a consistent outside pass rush threat for the first time in a while.
So who replaces Carter and Anderson? There are plenty of options, starting with first round pick Chandler Jones. Early returns are encouraging, but relying on a rookie pass rusher is always a risk. Also in the mix are Rob Ninkovich, Trevor Scott, Jermaine Cunningham and rookie Jake Bequette. New England has a lot of pass rushing production to replace.
4) Will There be Improved Safety Play?
Safety play was lacking in 2011 as Belichick turned to special teamers, street free agents, and even wide receivers to fill the void throughout the season. Nothing worked consistently, and safety remains a question mark coming into this season. SS Patrick Chung has had solid moments in his three-year career, but he was expected to have more of an impact at this point. FS Steve Gregory was brought in from the San Diego Chargers, but his -10.8 grade does not inspire confidence. In the draft, New England selected Tavon Wilson in the second round, though that pick was generally viewed as a major reach for a player who was not even on some draft boards. There’s a lot still to shake out on the back end of the defense.
5) Can Wilfork Handle the Workload?
It’s not often a 350-pound defensive tackle is able to play 87% of a team’s snaps, but that’s what Vince Wilfork did last season. Always one of the better run stoppers in the league, Wilfork expanded his repertoire and stayed on the field on passing downs. Though our grades on him are not great (-5.1 Pass Rush), I believe Belichick gave him the extra snaps in order to shore up their sub package run defense which had been lacking for a few years. While the run defense improved, the increased workload could be difficult to bounce back from, particularly for a player going into his ninth season. If he’s up to the task, the Patriots have a valuable piece who garners the attention of opposing offenses, but if proves to be worn down, they’re left with a big hole in the middle of the defense.
What to Expect
It should be another strong year in New England, especially once the offensive line gets sorted out. The roster is prepared to handle the grind of the NFL season and the defense should be better overall. When it comes to playoff time, it will be on Brady’s shoulders to play to his usual level, as the last few playoff losses have been marred by inconsistent play by the offense.