2014 Preview: New England Patriots

As one of the most enduring franchises over the last decade the Patriots remain a team to be reckoned with in the AFC and Ryland Norris reviews them here.

| 2 years ago
2014-team-preview-NE

2014 Preview: New England Patriots


2014-team-preview-NEAfter three straight appearances in the AFC title game but no Super Bowl wins to show for it, the New England Patriots responded with one of the more aggressive free agency periods of Bill Belichick’s tenure.

The signing of former rival Darrelle Revis is the headline, but equally intriguing was the usually safe Patriots taking a risk by drafting defensive tackle Dominique Easley – an elite talent with significant injury history – in the first round. The Patriots are counting on these two players to be the final pieces of the puzzle for a young defense that is talented but has yet to develop into an effective unit.

With several of their best players – Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer, and Rob Gronkowski – returning from season-ending injuries, the Patriots enter 2014 once again poised to be in the mix for a Super Bowl title. Here are five reasons to think they can get over the hump and five reasons to temper expectations.

Five Reasons To Be Confident

1. Return of Gronk

No doubt Rob Gronkowski is the most important player on the Patriots after Tom Brady. In the six games he stayed healthy his impact on the offense was dramatic – a 10 points per game increase. When Gronkowski was available the Patriots took full advantage by targeting him a league-leading 30% of the time that he ran a route, an effective strategy given his 2.75 Yards Per Route Run also lead the league. Gronk was so strong as a pass catcher in six and a half games that his receiving grade (+12.3) was good enough to place him second among tight ends on the year. The last time he logged a full season he received the highest overall grade PFF has ever given a tight end, and there’s no reason not to expect similar production if he can stay healthy this year.

2. Defensive Line Depth

While the Super Bowl champion Seahawks won thanks in part to great defensive line depth, the Patriots had almost none. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich played the most snaps at their position. Season-ending injuries to Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork forced rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano into three-down roles as well. Fatigue was certainly a factor when the Patriots only pressured Peyton Manning on three of 43 drop-backs in the AFC title game. Things will be better this year as the Patriots responded this offseason by drafting Dominique Easley in the first round and resigning Vince Wilfork. Easley’s potential as an interior rusher is exciting for a defense that has let opponents convert at least 40% of third downs five years running. Together with late-season pickup Sealver Siliga (+7.1 run defense in final seven games) Wilfork should improve a run defense that crashed to 30th without him last year.

3. Linebacker Trio

Yes, team captain Jerod Mayo and his +18.6 overall grade from 2012 (highest for a traditional 4-3 linebacker that year) are returning after missing nearly all of last season. Even more exciting for Patriots fans is the way Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower finished last season. Collins burst onto the scene with a dominant performance against the Colts that earned him PFF’s highest single game grade for a 4-3 outside linebacker last year (+7.0). No Patriot finished the season stronger than Hightower, with a +18.5 grade in the final six games. The timing of those six games is no coincidence as that is precisely when Collins started getting regular snaps. Playing next to Brandon Spikes forced Hightower into a coverage role (-7.1) which is not his strong suit. With versatile and complementary skill sets this is the best line backing group the Patriots have had since they were winning Super Bowls.

4. Strong Secondary

The biggest move of the Patriots’ offseason was signing Darelle Revis to replace Aqib Talib at cornerback. Talib got a lot of credit for his play in New England but outside of a three-game stretch from Weeks 2 thru 4, he left with a cumulative -13.4 grade. As PFF’s highest-rated cornerback from last year Revis (+18.6) will be a significant upgrade. Joining him in New England is Brandon Browner, whose height will be a nice complement to the scrappy but under 6-foot-0 trio of Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, and Alfonzo Dennard. With Devin McCourty, PFF’s top-rated safety from last season (+19.4), also part of the secondary the Patriots’ pass defense should finally turn the corner into an elite unit after being a weakness for years.

5. Brady

Starting the season without the top six receiving targets from the year before was always going to require an adjustment period. With next best weapons Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen getting injured in Week 1, and starting running back Steven Ridley lasting 15 snaps before fumbling and landing in Belichick’s doghouse, the offense became a quagmire. Not helping matters was an offensive line that, despite playing together the year before, had regressed significantly. Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly, in particular, would go on to finish the season with a combined grade 55.6 points lower than the year before. It took Brady eight games to adjust, but over the second half of the regular season he posted PFF’s highest passing grade (+22.6) while the Patriots’ offense finished the season second in points scored.

Five Reasons To Be Concerned

1. Interior of the Offensive Line

The culprit for season-ending losses even during the best of times, the offensive line is the No. 1 concern for the Patriots heading into the season. While the tackles were solid, the interior was home to some of the worst pass blocking in the league. Center Ryan Wendell had PFF’s lowest Pass Blocking Efficiency rating, and Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly combined to give up the most pressures of any pair of guards outside of Indianapolis. By trading Mankins a week before the 2014 season, clearly the least of the teams concerns in the interior, Belichick is showing faith that new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo can somehow make it work in his first season taking over for the highly respected Dante Scarnecchia.

2. Second Safety Spot

While the rest of the secondary is settled, the second safety position is a mystery. Duron Harmon looked solid as a rookie when called upon last year, but seemingly hasn’t been able to lock down the job heading into the regular season. Behind him are former second-round picks Tavon Wilson and Patrick Chung, but their skill sets are more limited to a strong safety-only role. In search of a better coverage option the Patriots have experimented with cornerbacks Arrington, Ryan, and Dennard as safeties this preseason. Harmon should ultimately be the starter but it has to be a concern that he didn’t win the job outright already.

3. No Lead Back

Four years after being drafted, both Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen enter make-or-break years. Although they’ve both shown talent, neither player has performed consistently enough, especially playing against defenses that are primarily focused on stopping Brady and the passing game. With the passing game struggling last year the opportunity was there to step up, but neither player was able to capitalize and LaGarrette Blount seized the starting job by the end of the season. The Patriots drafted James White in the fourth round this year, but he hasn’t shown enough of a spark as a runner this preseason, averaging only 2.8 yards per carry for a -2.9 rush grade, to challenge for a starting job yet. After letting Blount sign with Pittsburgh the Patriots are giving Ridley and Vereen one more year to step up and show they can handle the job.

4. Outside Receiver

Amidst the skill position turmoil Julian Edelman seized the opportunity to become Brady’s primary target last year. As the only receiver to play even half the teams snaps he delivered 105 catches while finishing with a +12.0 grade in the final eight games (including playoffs). Edelman aside the Patriots will need somebody among the group of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Danny Amendola to step up after all three posted negative pass grades last season. Newcomers Brandon LaFell and tight end Tim Wright will help by bringing much needed height to one of the shortest receiving corps in the league. Yet drops could be a problem with all five wide receivers on the roster dropping at least 11% of catchable balls last season.

5. Linebacker Depth

There is very little experience behind the starting trio. So far the only backups on the roster are Chris White, a special teams only player evidenced by a -5.0 defensive grade this preseason [update: White was released since this piece was submitted], and Darius Fleming who has yet to play in the league after missing his first two seasons with back-to-back ACL tears. The Patriots have experimented with bringing back a 3-4 defense this preseason which might help, but they’re still going to need a contribution from the backup linebacker position at some point. After a year in which injuries and lack of depth forced the defensive line to play extended snaps and wear down, the Patriots should be careful to have their linebackers avoid the same fate this year.

 

  • davathon

    The Patriots can’t win a Super Bowl without cheating.

    They’re easily the most fragile team in the NFL. It’s doubtful Gronkowski, Wilfork, and Brady all finish the season healthy. With their weak O-line and Miami’s excellent D-line, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brady gets hurt in week 1. It’s going to be hot + rainy. The Pats O-line won’t be used to the weather. I predict Cameron Wake + Randy Starks will Milachi-crunch Brady to the DL in the 4th quarter.

    • Ken

      That’s a laughable statement. Two pass plays away from another 2 Super Bowl rings, but yeah we totally need to “cheat” to win. Just making it to the Super Bowl is extremely difficult in and of itself. And I’m not going to get into an argument over spygate, I’ll let Cower, you know the coach of a team we beat in the playoffs when we were “cheating”, do the talking.

      “We didn’t lose the game because of any ‘Spygate,’ because of them having any additional things,” Cowher told 93.7 The Fan on Wednesday. “[If] they’re guilty of anything they’re guilty of arrogance because they were told not to do something but it was something everybody does. They got caught doing it with a camera.”

      Cowher, who coached the Steelers from 1992-2006, said what the Patriots did happened regularly in the NFL before the league allowed coordinators to relay plays to their quarterback and defensive signal-caller via a helmet radio.

      “Stealing someone’s signals was a part of the game and everybody attempted to do that. We had people that always tried to steal signals,” said Cowher, whose 2004 team won 16 consecutive games before losing to the Patriots in the AFC title game. “What happened when we lost that game is they outplayed us. It had nothing to do with stealing signals or cheating or anything else.”

    • Robert Snell

      Can you be anymore dumb! For one! Fins fans shouldn’t throw stones considering they were found to have done the same thing in 06″ to the Pats before it was against the rules and to even say “ExcuseGate” had anything to do with them winning 3 Superbowls is just a dumbass thing to say.. I summit to u.. Why didn’t it win them the Super Bowl in 00″,02″,05,06 too? Cause it didn’t have shit to do with it! The only reason Pats won 3 Superbowls was because of having the best defense which we all know that equals Championships and having the “GOAT at QB” and lastly they had the overall best team those years… Now fuck off troll!

  • Yesares

    Chris White is no longer in Pats 53 men roster, was released last Sunday:

    http://www.patriots.com/team/transactions.html

    So, lack of LB depth is even more worrysome than stated by PFF. I fully expect Pats will sign 1 or 2 LBs in next days.

    • Robert Snell

      They will be playing a lot of 3/4 which makes Nink,Jones,and Fleming all LBs

      • corners

        still weak in the middle of your lb core with no fillers if someone goes down.

        Imagine if you lose one of your olb’s?

        • rogue

          That’s true for any team. Injuries, they’re a bitch, but they’re part of the game.

        • rogue

          Your post makes no sense.

    • rogue

      I’m surprised they cut Beauharnais. He wasn’t much on coverage, but was solid against the run. White sucked in the preseason.

    • Ryland

      Yeah, but he’s already back.

  • cmon

    Darius Fleming isnt a rookie…

    • corners

      “Darius Fleming who has yet to play in the league after missing his first two seasons with back-to-back ACL tears.”

      • rogue

        He’s a “1st year” player. Look at any roster:
        “R” – rookies
        “1” – 1st year player

    • Ryland

      Yeah I meant to write first year player since he’s never played a snap.

  • Rick

    AFC is a two horse race…. New England has the benefit of hosting Denver for the third year in a row, (in November once again), and play in a much easier division.. They should have the inside track to home field advantage unless they blow it.

  • rogue

    Agree 100% with this article. PFF pinpointed the Pats strengths and shortcomings.

    That said, I think BB’s trust is misplaced in Ridley and Vereen and hope that he keeps both on a short leash. It’s unlike BB to hold onto mediocre players for more than 3 years. Jonas Gray is on the practice squad after an impressive preseason. If Ridley’s dropsies continue, Gray might get the call. White caught over 35 passes in his final year at Wisconsin. He could take over if Vereen gets hurt as scheduled. I miss Danny Woodhead. :(

    If Mayo can return to his 2012 form, the LB unit will be better than that of the SB title teams.