32 Teams in 32 Days: New England Patriots
Overall, 2012 was another successful season in New England. The team finished as the second seed in the AFC after going 12-4 and led the NFL with a +226 point differential. The Patriots failed to reach their ultimate goal however, falling to the Ravens in the AFC Championship. They’ve been in the press this offseason much more than Bill Belichick has liked, mostly for all the wrong reasons. The big question right now is have the Patriots made the right moves to get back to the Super Bowl this season?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Consistency on the Offensive Line
The Patriots boasted one of the league’s best offensive lines in 2012, and all five starters will return to this year’s team. The group allowed pressure on just 25% of dropbacks and finished second in our cumulative run blocking grades. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer each enjoyed strong seasons and center Ryan Wendell was our highest rated run blocker at his position. Guard Logan Mankins should bounce back from a subpar season now that he is finally healthy for the first time in several years. Dan Connolly was the line’s weak link in 2012. If he continues to struggle in 2013, look for Marcus Cannon to replace him at right guard. Cannon has impressed in limited playing time (+4.1 in 182 snaps 2012) at right tackle and right guard, and has been working with the first team so far in training camp.
2. Improvement of Second-Year Defenders
The Patriots defense has been much maligned in recent seasons and for good reason. The team has responded by focusing heavily on that side of the ball in the past few drafts. The stop unit seemed to take a step in the right direction in 2012, thanks in no small part to the contributions from its rookie class. DE Chandler Jones was a contender for PFF’s Rookie of the Year award last year, before he was slowed by several ankle injuries. Jones excelled both in run defense and as a pass rusher, and graded out at +14.3 in the season’s first 8 games. Fellow first round pick linebacker Dont’a Hightower enjoyed a solid, if unspectacular campaign in 2012. He finished the season with positive grades in run defense, pass coverage and as a pass rusher, which helps to illustrate his versatility. CB Alfonzo Dennard impressed after becoming a starter midway through the year. Dennard finished his initial tour with a QB Rating Against of 75.6, 20th best among qualifying corners. Coach Bill Belichick has often said that players improve the most between their first and second seasons. Should that theory prove true with this group, the Patriots figure to have impact players at all three levels of their defense in 2013.
3. Full Season at Safety for Devin McCourty
Defensive back Devin McCourty was drafted as a corner and started 2012 at that position. Injuries and poor play from the Patriot safeties forced the coaching staff to move McCourty to free safety in order to stabilize the secondary. The versatile defender played well at both positions, grading positively in every game except for one, when he finished with a grade of -0.1.
At safety, McCourty allowed a reception once per 61.4 snaps in coverage. That mark that would have led all safeties by a significant margin had he finished the season with enough snaps to qualify. McCourty also made 3 interceptions and did not allow a single touchdown on the year. The Rutgers product should improve in 2013 after his first full offseason working as a free safety in this versatile defense.
4. Run Defense
New England’s defense has struggled to defend the pass in recent seasons but their run defense has rarely been a problem. The team finished third in our cumulative run defense rankings in 2012. Brandon Spikes sets the tone for the group as he led all inside linebackers with a +15.1 run defense grade while forcing five fumbles. The Patriots will have every starter return to their front seven in 2013 with the exception of DT Kyle Love, and all six returning players graded positively as run defenders last season. New addition Adrian Wilson will look to bounce back from an inconsistent 2012 campaign with the Cardinals. The Patriots will be hoping that the hulking safety can return to his 2011 form when he finished second among all safeties with a +8.7 run defense grade to go along with his league-best +15.4 grade in coverage.
5. Tom Brady
Quarterback Tom Brady was excellent once again in 2012, grading below -0.5 as a passer just once. Though he recently celebrated his 36th birthday, Brady has shown no sign of slowing down despite the tread on his tires. Brady is still an elite quarterback by almost any measure. Last season, he finished sixth in our PFF QB Rating and finished fourth in passing grade (+37.9), passing yards and touchdowns. He threw just eight interceptions with only RGIII having fewer among qualifying quarterbacks. Brady will need to continue to play at a high level, especially given the unusual amount of turnover at the offensive skill positions that has occurred this offseason.
Five Reasons to Be Concerned
1. New Faces at Wide Receiver and Tight End
Brady’s top five targets last season were: wide receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, running back Danny Woodhead, tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Today, only Gronkowski remains on the roster, and he is currently recovering from a slew of offseason surgeries. Expect new receiving option Danny Amendola to be Brady’s top target, at least until Gronkowski is able to return to the field. Amendola has often been compared to Welker due to their similar stature and playing style. Amendola is younger, bigger and faster than Welker but he has been quite limited in recent seasons due to injury. The former Ram has a huge set of cleats to fill and will be expected to contribute immediately. The potential of the rest of the depth chart at receiver and tight end is largely unknown. TE Jake Ballard showed promise during the 2011 season with the Giants (+6.5 with 4 TD’s), but he is also recovering from injury at this time. Ballard’s primary roster competitor is Daniel Fells who was underwhelming at best last seaso and he is hardly a lock to make the roster. Unproven receiver Julian Edelman and rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins are currently competing in camp for playing time across from Amendola.
2. Schematic Changes on Offense
For the past two or three seasons the Patriots have built their offense around their star tight ends. Hernandez’s athleticism created matchup problems for opposing defenses. He was too fast and agile to be covered by most linebackers, meaning that many teams treated him as a wide receiver and brought in an extra defensive back to cover him. This meant that New England’s base offense had a significant size advantage over the nickel defenses it was attacking. Without a suitable replacement for Hernandez this advantage disappears. It seems likely that the Patriots will be using 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), more often than the 12 personnel packages (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) that they have relied upon in recent times. This could have a trickledown effect on the team’s running game, as they will not be able to overpower undersized nickel defenses with two tight ends anymore. The Patriots quietly finished seventh in rushing yards for 2012, with Stevan Ridley (+8.5 run grade, forced 29 missed tackles) enjoying a breakout year, but he will have to prove himself again this season in his team’s new look offense.
3. Unproven Cornerbacks
It seems like the Patriots have been trying to patch up the cornerback position since Asante Samuel signed with the Eagles after the 2007 season. Last season’s midseason trade for Aqib Talib seemed to stabilize the secondary for the first time in more than five years. However, Talib was not at his best in 2012, finishing near the bottom of our coverage grades (-5.4) among corners. Though he clearly has room to improve this year, having Talib at the left cornerback spot allows the team to line up the rest of their secondary at positions that maximize their individual skill sets. Kyle Arrington has struggled at times when playing on the outside, but his play drastically improved when he played in the slot. He allowed a reception once per every 10.2 snaps in coverage in the slot last year, the seventh best figure among qualifying cornerbacks. Dennard played well at right cornerback last season, allowing McCourty to play at free safety. Dennard’s legal status is currently in limbo however, the result of a off-the-field incident earlier in the offseason. Though the position seems to be more stable than it has been in years, question marks remain.
4. Covering Tight Ends and Running Backs
Patriots linebackers and safeties have also struggled in coverage in recent seasons. As great as Spikes is in run defense, he was one of the least effective players at his position in pass coverage in 2012. The former Gator allowed 1.2 yards per each snap in coverage with only two inside linebackers faring worse. Reports out of camp suggests that rookie LB Jamie Collins, the team’s top draft choice, excels in coverage but he is obviously unproven at the professional level. One development to keep an eye on is the possibility of new safety Adrian Wilson taking snaps at linebacker in sub packages. He certainly has the size to play in the box, and could be more effective in coverage than the team’s options at linebacker.
5. Pass Rush Must Improve
New England’s pass rush has been middling at best in recent memory. If the defense is to decisively turn a corner, they simply must improve in this area. Jones is expected to improve in his sophmore effort and DT Vince Wilfork did grade positively as a pass rusher in 2012. Free agent addition DT Tommy Kelly was once a prolific interior pass rusher (7.7 Pass Rushing Productivity in 2010; third best among defensive tackles), and any production from the former Raider would give the Pats a presence next to Wilfork that has been missing since injuries ended Mike Wright’s career. Rob Ninkovich is better than he gets credit for (9 sacks in 2012), but he also has room to improve after grading negatively as a pass rusher in his past campaign. On paper, this group should be more effective at getting after quarterbacks than they were last year, but there is little depth behind them should they struggle or face injuries.
What to Expect
As long as Brady stays healthy and continues to perform at a high level, this team should remain a contender in a weak AFC. While there are legitimate concerns at every level of the pass defense (pass rush, coverage from linebackers and secondary) and an unusual amount of new faces at wide receiver, the team has enough areas of strength to overcome these concerns and win consistently. No team in the AFC East can really challenge the Patriots at this point and the team should win this division without much difficulty. However, given the high standards that the team has set for itself during the Belichick era, only a Super Bowl victory will ultimately make 2013 a successful season in New England.
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