2016 cheat sheet: New England Patriots
To get you ready for the 2016 NFL season, the PFF analysis crew is assembling team “cheat sheets” to catch you up on the latest changes, grades, and rankings of note involving your NFL team.
2016 brings yet another season of high expectations for the New England Patriots, though they’re dealing with unprecedented obstacles with quarterback Tom Brady facing a four-game suspension to start the season. Still, the offense has playmakers, and the defense has become a strength in recent years, and that should once again be the case this season. The pieces are in place for another Super Bowl run, but getting through that first four games will be crucial.
Three biggest things to know
1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo has to keep things in check.
With Brady’s suspension, it’s on third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to keep the offense afloat in the first quarter of the season. New England is the perennial favorite to win the AFC East and earn a bye in the playoffs, but as we’ve seen in recent years, home-field advantage could be the difference maker in another Super Bowl for the Patriots. The key for Garoppolo will be getting the ball out of his hands quickly and into the hands of his playmakers. We’ve seen him have bouts in which he holds the ball too long, with his 2.52-second average time to throw in a subpar game versus the Packers last preseason compared to 2.30 in a strong outing against Saints. If he continues to sharpen his decision-making this preseason, the Patriots should be in good shape during the first quarter of the season and beyond.
2. The defense should be good again, but they have to replace Chandler Jones.
While he may not be an elite pass-rusher, Jones is a good one, and he rarely came off the field during his time in New England. It appears the Patriots will have an all-hands-on-deck approach to replacing Jones, using a combination of young players and veterans with Trey Flowers, Chris Long, Shea McClellin, and Geneo Grissom all vying for playing time. Last year, free-agent pickup Jabaal Sheard was the Patriots’ best all-around defensive lineman, while DE Rob Ninkovich usual playing time as a three-down option will be limited given his recent triceps injury. New England needs someone to step up opposite Sheard in order to replace Jones’ production.
3. The offensive line must improve.
It didn’t help that starting left tackle Nate Solder went down injured after only 230 snaps of action last season, forcing right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to play out of position on the left side for much of the year. When healthy, Solder and Vollmer form a solid pair; however, it looks like the latter may miss the entire 2016 season due to a hip injury, meaning Marcus Cannon will likely fill in at RT. That leaves the interior to sort out; rookie guard Joe Thuney has impressed early (more below) and he may start at left guard. The Patriots have drafted four guards over the last two years, so they have some youth to sort through, while the center position will likely be filled by second-year player David Andrews, who hasn’t been spectacular early on in his career. No matter which way it unfolds, the offensive line must improve after ranking 26th in the league in pass-blocking efficiency last season.
Key arrivals and departures
Top three draft picks: CB Cyrus Jones (Round 2, pick No. 60 overall, Alabama), G Joe Thuney (Round 3, pick No. 78 overall, N.C. State), QB Jacoby Brissett (Round 3, pick No. 91 overall, N.C. State)
Signed in free agency: DT Terrance Knighton (Redskins), WR Chris Hogan (Bills), DE Chris Long (Rams)
Left via free agency: DT Akiem Hicks (Bears), WR Brandon LaFell, S Tavon Wilson
Acquired by trade: TE Martellus Bennett (Bears), G Jonathan Cooper (Cardinals)
Departed via trade: DE Chandler Jones (Cardinals), C Bryan Stork (Redskins)
Cut: DT Dominque Easley
Retired: LB Jerod Mayo
Rookie to watch
Joe Thuney, G, N.C. State (Round 3, pick No. 78 overall)
After grading out as a top-20 guard in 2014 and a top-five tackle last season, N.C. State’s Joe Thuney ranked 51st on the PFF draft board heading into the 2016 draft. He’s stepped right in at guard for the Patriots during training camp, and early in the preseason, and he’s carried over the same strong performance that we saw from him in college. Despite a guard position that has a number of young candidates vying for playing time, Thuney might just be the favorite to step right in as a starter.
Highest-graded player of 2015
Rob Gronkowski, TE, 96.7 overall grade in 2015
Gronkowski is making a run at being considered the best tight end of all time, and his case is as strong as any as he enters his seventh year in the league. He posted the top receiving grade among tight ends last season, at 95.9, and tied for first with a run-blocking grade of 86.8; it doesn’t get much better than that. The Patriots are known for creating mismatches on offense, and Gronkowski is the ultimate mismatch-creator. He can line up in-line and stretch the seam as a receiver or set the edge as a blocker, but he can also line up in the slot or on the outside, forcing defensive coordinators to alter game plans and schemes in order to find a coverage defender capable of matching up with Gronk’s size, speed, and catch radius. Finding that coverage defender has proven a difficult task.
Breakout player watch
Trey Flowers, DE
After grading as the No. 2 edge defender in all of college football in 2014, Flowers was drafted in the fourth round in 2015 in what PFF deemed as one of the steals of the draft. As a rookie, he was banged up and saw the field for only four snaps, in what essentially amounted to a redshirt season.
Flowers is a stout run defender (best run-defense grade in the nation in 2014), and he should at least see time on early downs as the Patriots look to replace Jones’ snaps after the trade to the Cardinals. Despite not showing the classic burst of an edge rusher, Flowers is quietly a strong pass-rusher, capable of pushing the pocket from the outside and using his hands to get to the quarterback. He posted the nation’s seventh-best pass rushing grade in 2014, doing so while going against SEC tackles on a weekly basis. With Jones’ departure, the door is open for Flowers to establish himself as a contributor on the Patriots’ defense.
Base defense (2015 season grades shown)
Offense with three WRs (2015 grades shown, Brady listed as first-string QB)