2014 Preview: New England Patriots
After 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.
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.