Active offseason in New England earns Pats B in PFF grades
It’s always an active offseason in New England. Even if the Patriots aren’t involved in many splash free agent signings, Bill Belichick and company consistently look to find undervalued players around the league while adding depth to their playoff-bound roster. They often employ a “see what sticks” mentality in overstocking positions, and that will certainly be the case heading into training camp as positions like wide receiver, defensive tackle, guard, tight end and others appear loaded with options that will likely sort themselves out with on-field performance and attrition.
Below is a compilation of the New England Patriots’ 2016 offseason transactions, including free-agency moves and draft picks:
Offseason Grade: B
Free agency and trades
New Arrivals: RB Donald Brown, DT Terrance Knighton, TE Martellus Bennett, WR Nate Washington, WR Chris Hogan, TE Clay Harbor, LB Tony Steward, DE Chris Long, DT Markus Kuhn, DE Frank Kearse, CB E.J. Biggers, LB Ramon Humber, LB Shea McClellin, G Jonathan Cooper
Re-Signings: RB LaGarrette Blount, S Nate Ebner, FB James Develin, RB Tyler Gaffney, OT LaAdrian Waddle
Departures: DT Akiem Hicks, WR Brandon LaFell, WR Josh Boyce, WR Brian Tyms, DT Dominique Easley, DT, TE Scott Chandler, LB Eric Martin, LB Darius Fleming, CB Leonard Johnson, CB Rashaan Melvin, DT Chris Jones, S Tavon Wilson, LB Dane Fletcher, LB Jerod Mayo, DT Sealver Siliga, RB Steven Jackson, LB Dekoda Watson, DT Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, G Kevin Hughes, G, WR Brandon Gibson, CB Tarell Brown, CB, G/C Ryan Wendell, DE Chandler Jones
The first thing that stands out is the addition of former first-round picks. After two injury-riddled seasons in 2014 and 2015, New England is hoping that Chris Long can regain his pass rush prowess that saw him post four straight impressive pass rush grades from 2010 to 2013. McClellin was a popular mock-draft choice for the Patriots when he came out in 2012 but he was ineffective for the Chicago Bears, whether putting his hand down to rush the passer or playing off the ball in a traditional linebacker role. He’s a reclamation project at this point, as is guard Jonathan Cooper who came over from Arizona in the Chandler Jones trade.
As for Jones, replacing his production is the biggest concern of the offseason. He’s never been an elite pass rusher, but he’s ranked between 25th and 40th in three of his four years in the league and he’s played at least 80 percent of snaps when healthy the last three years. Expect a larger role from DE Jabaal Sheard who was excellent a year ago (best defensive lineman on the team) while 2015 fourth-round rookie Trey Flowers as well as Long should make up for some of Jones’ lost snaps.
The other key additions are Martellus Bennett at tight end, who is just one year removed from top-5 tight end status as he adds a strong all-around complement to Rob Gronkowski (see table below). DT Terrance Knighton is a worthwhile one-year flier after three straight strong years of play. Keep an eye on WR Chris Hogan, who appears to be the front-runner to replace Brandon LaFell’s production as an outside receiver option, though he’ll face a lot of competition from fellow veterans and an influx of youth.
2016 NFL draft
2 (60) Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama
3 (78) (via New Orleans) Joe Thuney, G, NC State
3 (91) Jacoby Brissett, QB, NC State
3 (96) Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska
4 (112) (from New Orleans) Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia
6 (208) Kamu Grugier-Hill, CB, Eastern Illinois
6 (214) Elandon Roberts, ILB, Houston
6 (221) Ted Karras, G, Illinois
7 (225) (from Dallas via Seattle) Devin Lucien, WR, Arizona State
With no first-round pick, New England loaded up in the second and third rounds, starting with versatile CB Cyrus Jones. He played on the outside at Alabama, but he has the skills to play in the slot where he has a chance to step onto the field right away with Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan on the outside. Thuney adds versatility to the offensive line after ranking as a top-20 guard in 2014 and a top-5 offensive tackle in 2015. Two other players who could have immediate impact, WRs Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien will be thrown into the mix as options at outside wide receiver. Mitchell’s +17.5 receiving grade ranked 16th in the draft class while the strong-handed Lucien was one of our draft sleepers at No. 92 on the PFF Draft Board. Brissett is more of a developmental option at quarterback while Valentine adds some run-stopping potential after grading at a strong +21.4 on 466 snaps the last two years.
New England is always one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl and 2016 will be no different. Even with QB Tom Brady’s pending four-game suspension, they have enough firepower on offense – aided by the addition of Bennett – and there is a strong nucleus returning on defense to make another Super Bowl run. The offensive line has regressed the last two years due to youth and injury, but the return of OTs Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer as well as the development of their plethora of young interior linemen should see improved play up front. Throw in the return of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and this should be the best Patriots line in a few years.
Defensively, LBs Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower are two of the league’s best while CB Malcolm Butler took on number one receivers for much of 2015 and performed admirably with an 81.1 overall grade. The back-7 looks strong, though it’s the defensive line that could prove to be the most important factor in the New England’s push for another Super Bowl. They need Sheard to build on his career year while Flowers or Long steps in to ease the loss of Jones. A bounce-back from DE Rob Ninkovich would prove valuable as would a strong season from Knighton on his one-year deal. If the “see what sticks” approach proves to work on the defensive line, the Patriots will be difficult to beat, especially when Tom Brady is back on the field.