What Now for the Patriots' Offense?
Since New England’s Wednesday release of Aaron Hernandez, speculation as to how the team will replace him has been rampant. I’ve noticed that, for the most part, I’ve been disagreeing with the general consensus, especially when it comes to the roles of Shane Vereen and Jake Ballard.
So, instead of arguing the same points over and over on Twitter, I decided to put it all in one place.
Before I start, I want to point out the obvious: I’m not Bill Belichick. I can only speculate on how the team will adjust based on what we already know. My disagreement with the consensus is simply me analyzing the advanced data available to me here at Pro Football Focus and coming to a different conclusion.
Without further ado…
First of all, we need to talk about the idea that the Patriots will run the ball more now that they’re weaker in terms of pass-catching personnel.
I don’t think so.
First of all, a league-high 59 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps during the 2012 season came while they were ahead on the scoreboard. Additionally, the New England offense was very balanced relative to game situation. They were the league’s 12th pass-heaviest team with the lead, 15th pass-heaviest when behind, and 20th pass-heaviest when the game was tied. Overall, they called pass on 58 percent of their overall offensive snaps, which would seemingly qualify them as run balanced. Of course, teams tend to run more when they’re ahead on the scoreboard, and, as mentioned, no team led more often than New England last year. Taking it one step further, check out how often the New England offense called pass during each of the last five years:
2008: 57% | 2009: 58% | 2010: 55% | 2011: 61% | 2012: 58%
That’s pretty balanced year to year. You can obviously draw your own assumptions from the data I just laid out, but I think the safest ways to define Bill Belichick’s play-calling would be as “situational” and “balanced.” He’s going to run when he has to and he’s going to pass when he has to, taking what the defense is giving him in the meantime. He could focus more on the running game early in games this year, but it seems unlikely to make much impact on the team’s overall play-calling ratio.
What’s Jake Ballard worth?
Next up, I want to focus on tight end usage. This will relate directly to how the Patriots will replace Hernandez. Frankly, I don’t view Ballard as much of a threat for those targets.
Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez each went down with injuries at some point during the 2012 season. If we don’t include Hernandez’s three-snap Week 2 and Gronkowski’s seven-snap Week 19, the two were on the field together during only four of New England’s 18 games. It shouldn’t shock you then to know that the Patriots usage of two-tight end sets decreased by a significant margin from 2010 and 2011 to 2012. New England utilized two-tight end sets 59 percent of the time in 2010 (both player’s rookie season) and 76 percent of the time in 2011. That mark fell to 53 percent in 2012. Note that although the two players line up at wide receiver quite often, both are always considered tight ends for the purpose of the data I just referenced.
The fact that New England cut back on two-tight end packages last season says plenty, but it gets even more interesting when you split up the adjustments in personnel by week.
Both tight ends were on the field for all of Week 1 last season. WRs Julian Edelman (23 snaps) and Deion Branch (0) made little impact. Hernandez went down after three plays in Week 2 and went on to miss six of the team’s next eight games. Here is how they replaced him:
Week 2: Edelman played 72 snaps behind WRs Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Blocking TE Mike Hoomanawanui’s snaps increased to 19 from 12 in Week 1.
Week 3: Edelman went down with an injury after 34 snaps. Deion Branch picked up the slack with 41 snaps. Hoomanawanui played 17 snaps and H-Back Daniel Fells handled five.
Week 4: Branch played 36 snaps. Fells played 45 in a run-heavy display vs. Buffalo. Hoomanawanui played seven snaps.
Week 5: In another run-heavy game, Branch still played 57 snaps. Fells played 37. Hoomanawanui didn’t play.
Week 8: Branch and Edelman combined for 64 snaps. Fells played 23. Hoomanawanui handled only 18.
Week 10: Branch and Edelman combined for 70 snaps. Fells played only three and Hoomanawanui worked nine.
Week 11: Branch was out, leaving 51 snaps to Edelman and another eight for other wide receivers. Fells didn’t play. Hoomanawanui and Visanthe Shiancoe combined to work 41 snaps.
It should be pretty clear here that Belichick replaced Hernandez with wide receivers, especially when the team was passing the ball. When Hernandez played, he played. He normally didn’t come off the field for a more prototypical wide receiver when the team was looking to pass. He simply shifted to the outside or the slot and was targeted often.
Now, let’s see how the personnel changed when Gronkowski missed Weeks 12 through 20. He did appear in Week 17 for 25 snaps and played another seven in Week 19, but we’ll look at both of those weeks anyway.
Week 12: Note that Hernandez happened to return to action this week. He played 54 snaps. Fells played 56 snaps. Hoomanawanui and Shiancoe combined for 16. Edelman played 14 and WR Matt Slater played eight.
Week 13: Fells played 43 snaps, Hoomanawanui worked six, and Edelman worked 47.
Week 14: Hoomanawanui (43 snaps) and Fells (11) basically traded spots on the depth chart this week. Shiancoe worked 10 snaps. Slater and WR Donte’ Stallworth combined for 30 snaps.
Week 15: This week marked both the team’s pass-heaviest game of the season (75 percent) and a season-high in plays (92). Branch worked 52 snaps, while Hoomanawanui still played 38. Fells worked eight.
Week 16: Branch worked 33 snaps, compared to 48 for Hoomanawanui and eight for Fells.
Week 17: Gronkowski played 25 snaps this week, but Lloyd was limited to 30. Branch helped out as the No. 2 wideout, working 58 snaps. Hoomanawanui played 42 snaps and Fells was in on 22.
Week 19: Branch played eight snaps. Aside of Welker and Lloyd, no other wide receiver played. Hoomanawanui handled 50 snaps. RB Shane Vereen played a season-high 37 snaps, but only six came as a wideout.
Week 20: Branch played 38 snaps in the loss to Baltimore. Hoomanawanui and Fells combined for 46.
OK, so you catch the drift here. The Patriots went with a wide receiver Edelman/Branch when behind and went heavy Hoomanawanui/Fells when close/ahead. Of course, it wasn’t exactly that cut and dry. We definitely see more usage of the in-line blockers regardless of situation when Gronkowski was out, as opposed to when Hernandez missed time. Note that New England tight ends not named Gronkowski or Hernandez combined for 10 receptions last year.
What’s the moral of the story? Jake Ballard, a capable receiver, but more of an in-line player, is not going to fill in for Hernandez in the slot or out wide with regularity.
In fact, to take it a step further, Ballard may not even be used as the team’s No. 2 tight end behind Gronkowski. First of all, he hasn’t even eclipsed 1,000 career snaps, so we can’t call him an established veteran. Second, he’s still not 100 percent healthy. Third, are we sure he’s even better than Hoomanawanui and Fells, or maybe even rookie Zach Sudfeld?
Hoomanawanui is a pretty good player. He struggled with injuries in St. Louis, but he was a highly regarded blocker coming out of Illinois in 2010. In fact, according to our analysts, Hoomanawanui ranked out as the fifth-best pass-blocking tight end in football last season (not to mention 19th overall). The Patriots called pass on only 42 percent of his 348 snaps and Hoomanawanui protected Brady 45 percent of the time when on the field for a pass play.
Fells also played extremely well last year. He was our No. 12 overall rated tight end despite a negative grade as a receiver. He ranked as the seventh-best pass blocker and sixth-best run blocker. New England called pass on 37 percent of Fells’ snaps, which is extremely low.
Both are extensions of the offensive line, and both are certainly going to play over Ballard in rushing situations. As we learned before, that’s over 40 percent of the snaps on an average week. For reference, New England called pass on 63 percent of Hernandez’s snaps in 2012. The mark was 56 percent when Gronkowski was on the field.
As if the competition from Fells and Hoomanawanui weren’t enough, Zach Sudfeld is also in the mix. The 24 year old went undrafted in April, but he’s been making serious waves thus far in offseason workouts. He has impressive size (6’7/255) and had a strong 2012 season as a pass-catcher at Nevada, racking up 589 yards and eight touchdowns on 45 receptions. It’d be a surprise if Sudfeld made a major rookie-season impact, but he does provide Ballard with additional competition for reps.
For the record, Ballard graded out poorly as a blocker in his only season in the pros. He was good when he caught the ball, but did drop eight of his 69 targets (including the playoffs). He lined up in-line on 83 percent of his snaps. Ballard’s 11.3 average depth of target was sixth-highest at the position, which helped him to a strong yardage number despite only 43 receptions.
Unless Gronkowski misses significant action due to injury, I don’t view Ballard as a player even worth rostering in fantasy leagues this year. I realize he makes for an attractive handcuff for Gronkowski, but that’s where I think his value ends.
To Vereen or not to Vereen
The next debate surrounds how the Patriots will make use of Shane Vereen. It’s been suggested that he will play more of a move role similar to that of Hernandez. I’d argue that his role will be a lot closer to that of Danny Woodhead or, to a lesser extent, Darren Sproles.
Woodhead, of course, is now with the Chargers, which has opened up a major void in the Patriots’ backfield. Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and LeGarrette Blount are first, third, and fourth on the Patriots’ depth chart, respectively. All three are taller than 5’10”, weigh at least 220 pounds, and have been used as strictly between the tackle bruisers. Most importantly, the trio combined for 16 targets last season. Bolden and Blount didn’t play much, so the real player of note here is Ridley. The 2012 Patriots called pass on only 42 percent of his snaps and he was asked to block on 20 percent of the pass plays he was on the field for. That equated to only 200 pass routes in 18 games.
Woodhead, meanwhile, ran a route on 298 of his 430 snaps last season. The Patriots called pass on a whopping 80 percent of his snaps. Woodhead was clearly utilized by New England as a poor man’s Darren Sproles. He lined up in the backfield 83 percent of the time, which led to 40 of his 51 targets. Woodhead spent another 14 percent lined up out wide and was in the slot just two percent of the time.
Vereen, meanwhile, had nearly the same exact splits. He was in the backfield on 81 percent of his snaps, out wide on 18 percent, and saw only two snaps in the slot.
Even before Hernandez was waived, Vereen was primed to take on Woodhead’s role, which is certainly significant. There’s a clear void in the backfield on passing downs and none of Ridley, Blount, or Bolden are going to fill it. Hernandez did work from the backfield on around 5 percent of his snaps last season — and those are snaps Vereen can take on — but it’s hard to imagine Vereen regularly playing wide receiver on early downs and protecting Brady or running routes out of the backfield on passing downs. That’s especially the case when you consider the team’s propensity for using a blocking tight end on early/rushing downs and the fact that Ridley only plays half the snaps.
New England had a tailback on the field on 98 percent of this snaps last season. That’s where Vereen will be a good 80 percent of the time in 2013. Despite what seems like pessimism, I do anticipate 50 or so receptions for Vereen, which would rank among the leaders at the tailback position.
So who gets the targets?
If not Ballard and not (at least to a lesser extent) Vereen, who picks up the slack?
Get this. Going forward, the Patriots will be without the players responsible for 77 percent of their target total from last season.
Gone are Welker, Lloyd, Branch, Hernandez, Woodhead, Shiancoe, Stallworth, and Winslow. Excluding Woodhead and the five combined targets that came from the last three names I mentioned, there’s a clear theme: wide receivers. Welker, Lloyd, and Branch combined for 372 targets (including the playoffs) and 79 of Hernandez’s 102 targets came while lined up at wideout.
Amendola is a logical replacement for a large chunk of Welker’s targets. His durability is an issue, of course, but he should flirt with 30 percent of the targets when active.
Rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce will compete with veterans Julian Edelman, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, and Lavelle Hawkins for the No. 2 and No. 3 jobs. None of these guys stand out on the surface.
Dobson was a second-round pick in April and has a ton of upside, but the impact of rookie wide receivers tends to be hit or miss. A 6’3” down-field threat, however, he’s the most logical fit and the ideal replacement for Lloyd at split end. Lloyd underwhelmed during his one year with New England, but he did handle a massive 22 percent of the targets. Lloyd was on the outside on 93 percent of his snaps, spending 74 total in the slot.
New England needs someone in that spot.
Amendola? He’ll be on the other side of the field or in the slot in three-wide sets.
Gronkowski? In three years in pros (including the playoffs), he’s totaled 80 snaps on the outside. That includes only 14 in 2012.
Vereen? Sure. As we determined earlier, he’ll handle a half dozen or so a game. But wait a minute. In three-wide sets, Amendola is in the slot, which means two outside spots are open. Who else will play outside? A wide receiver will.
I realize these guys are underwhelming, but someone is going to pan out. They have to. There are no other options.
By the way, I know many are wondering about Julian Edelman. He’s had his moment in the spotlight, but I don’t anticipate him earning a starting job. We mentioned that he played quite a bit when healthy last year, but that was almost always as the No. 3 receiver. Edelman, a small 5’10”, is more of a slot man, but actually worked outside a lot last year, kicking Welker to the slot. If Edelman joins Amendola in the starting lineup this year, Brady would end up having to regularly choose from Gronkowski, a blocking tight end, Ridley, and a pair of sub-6-foot-tall receivers on early-down pass plays. My guess is 6’3” Dobson and 6’4” Jenkins have a better shot to earn the No. 2 job, which would get Brady a bigger target to replace 6’0” Lloyd and 6’1/245 Hernandez.
The Way I See It
I just did an absurd amount of analysis, so why not share my prediction for how the New England offense will operate in 2013?
I don’t anticipate Ridley’s role to change much. He’s going to be the between-the-tackles muscle and will handle most of the goal line work. If he struggles or gets hurt, Bolden will pick up the slack. Blount is on the roster bubble, but he has a decent shot to stick as depth. He won’t play much if all goes according to plan. Same goes for Tim Tebow.
Vereen is going to replace Woodhead. He’ll be in the game on a good chunk of the passing downs and will usually line up in the backfield. He’ll flirt with 50 receptions if he stays healthy. Touchdowns will be hard to find.
Amendola won’t leave the field much when healthy. He’ll flirt with 100 receptions, working outside on early downs and in the slot when three wide receivers are on the field. Dobson’s development is hard to predict, but he’s my bet for the No. 2 job. If he struggles, Jenkins or Jones (who isn’t guaranteed a roster spot) will hold down the fort. I think Edelman will earn the No. 3 job, but quick development from Boyce could change that. The Patriots will definitely use more three-wide receiver sets than they would’ve with Hernandez on the roster.
Gronkowski, when healthy, will be an every-down player, as usual. I mentioned I think the team cuts down on two-tight end sets, but they’re still going to use them on nearly every running play. I view Hoomanawanui as the favorite to line up as a blocker in those situations. Fells will be in the mix, as well. Ballard will see spot snaps and will finish second in targets at the position. Injuries or underwhelming play at the wideout position would result in more Ballard in-line on passing downs, which would split Gronkowski out into the slot. At the end of the day, Ballard’s best-case scenario (as long as Gronkowski is healthy), is a quarter dozen targets-per-game and the occasional touchdown. I don’t see much of an impact.
So that’s that. Think I’m off base on something? I’m interested to hear any and all informed responses. Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter at @MikeClayNFL