Projected Lineups: New England Patriots
It wasn’t a classic New England Patriots season as the offense took a step back early on before evolving into more of a running attack late in the season. The defense appeared to be the strength of the team at the beginning of the season, but a string of injuries forced a slow decline that became exposed by the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship.
Despite the turmoil, New England won yet another AFC East championship on the strength of a number of dramatic comebacks. They’re still the division favorites heading into 2014, but they have some re-tooling to do throughout the roster.
– Player markers are colored per class on a six-step ‘Poor’ to ‘High Quality’ scale based on their overall performance and the league’s elite are marked separately in blue.
– Colored outlines suggest a potential change in class.
– Underlined players will be 30+ years old for the 2014 season.
– Red player names suggest injury risks.
– Click on the image to enlarge.
– One of the major stories of the Patriots’ 2013 season surrounded their tight ends and wide receivers as quarterback Tom Brady found himself throwing to a new cast of characters, including three rookie wide receivers. None of the rookies established themselves as steady threats, but Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins flashed some potential that could make them viable options in the future. Still, there are a number of question marks at wide receiver as well as tight end where only an injury-prone Rob Gronkowski resides.
– While the offensive line has been relatively stable through the years, the Patriots showed some weakness on the interior this past season. Center Ryan Wendell was unable to build on a surprisingly solid 2012 and he hits the market as a free agent, while right guard Dan Connolly earns the orange marker after two consecutive years as the line’s weakest link. The tackle spots look good as Nate Solder continues to emerge as one of the league’s best young left tackles while Sebastian Vollmer may be the best right tackle in the league, though health concerns have crept up in the past couple years.
– It was an interesting year on the defensive line for New England as starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly were both lost for the season by Week 5. That forced undrafted rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano to play quite a few snaps with less than stellar results, but it also helped uncover a potential hidden gem in Sealver Siliga who emerged as a quality run stuffer grading at +7.6 on 221 snaps. It was the complete opposite at defensive end where starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich played 1,142 and 1,114 snaps respectively, the top two totals ever tracked for defensive linemen since 2008.
– Despite losing LB Brandon Spikes to free agency, Dont’a Hightower’s late emergence in the middle should have the Patriots feeling good about their linebacking corps heading into 2014. Jerod Mayo will return after missing most of 2013 while Jamie Collins flashed his potential in a Divisional Round gem of a +7.9 performance.
– On the back end, Devin McCourty was our top rated safety at +18.7 and the season looked promising with CB Aqib Talib playing an outstanding six games before battling injuries for the rest of the season. New England has to debate his worth in free agency as they’re left with a solid, yet unspectacular group of cornerbacks.
2014 Cap Situation
Only eight teams have less money available than the Patriots who currently sit almost $4 million over the cap according to overthecap.com. It doesn’t appear that they’ll be major players in free agency, especially with looming decisions on Talib and WR Julian Edelman. A couple veteran cuts and/or restructures should open the necessary room, but it’s likely that we’ll see another year of the Patriots looking for free agent bargains later in the process.
The most obvious potential cuts are Wilfork and Connolly. Wilfork has been a staple in the New England defensive front as well as a top notch leader in the locker room, but with nearly $8 million of cap space opening up if he’s cut, something will have to be done in order to keep him in New England. Connolly would provide nearly $3 million of savings, so his -12.9 overall grade makes him a likely casualty.
Opportunities from the Roster
Prior to his playoff breakout, Collins would certainly make this list, but he already appears to be entrenched in the starting lineup for 2014. Assuming Vollmer bounces back and Connolly is let go, Marcus Cannon could make the move inside to Connolly’s right guard spot. Cannon graded at -1.9 overall on 578 snaps in 2013, most of which came at right tackle. At defensive tackle, Chris Jones and Vellano struggled for the most part in every-down roles, but they could emerge as valuable players in more of a rotation. Siliga should also be right in the mix for a starting spot depending on Wilfork’s status. Safety Duron Harmon posted a solid +1.2 grade on 431 snaps and he could become a viable replacement for SS Steve Gregory at some point.
Projected lineups by team:
Follow Steve on Twitter.