New England Patriots 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

I’ve talked a lot about parity in my previews before. One team that hasn’t been subject to the ups and down of the NFL over the last decade is the New England Patriots. Since 2001, the Patriots have 9+ games every season, won double digit games in 10 of 11 seasons, made the playoffs 9 times, won 12+ 6 times and 13+ 5 times. They’ve made it to the playoffs 9 times, the AFC Championship game 6 times, and the Super Bowl 5 times, winning 3. Tom Brady has a career regular season record of 123-35 and a postseason record of 16-6. Nobody has done it better than Brady and Belichick over the last 11 seasons.

I’ve talked a lot about the parity in turnovers from season to season before as well.  Since 2002, there have been 36 teams with 20 or fewer turnovers. In their next season, those teams, have had, on average, 9.64 more turnovers and won 2.69 fewer games. Teams with differential of +15 have had a differential 16.35 points lower and won 2.3 fewer games the following season.

However, teams with elite quarterbacks seem to be pretty immune to this. The Indianapolis Colts had 20 or fewer turnovers 5 times in the last decade and actually won an average of 0.4 more wins the following season. The Patriots, meanwhile, appear on that list twice. One year was their 16 win season in 2007, after which they won just 11 games, but that was with Tom Brady missing most of the season. The other year was 2010 and last year they did it again and won just 1 less game. They also had differentials of +15 or more in those two seasons, as well as in 2003, when they won 14 games. They followed that season up with a 14 win season.

Discounting 2008 when Brady was hurt, the Patriots have ranked in the top-6 in scoring offense in each of the last 4 seasons. Discounting 2008 and 2009, when Brady was still getting his legs back under him, the Patriots have had a top-3 scoring offense in each of the last 3 seasons, including two 1st place finishes. Last year, when they averaged 32.1 points per game, was actually their worst total and they’ve averaged 33.8 points per game in the 2007, 2010, and 2011 seasons.

Tom Brady gets a new weapon to play with this season, Brandon Lloyd, who is the best deep threat they’ve had since Randy Moss. Meanwhile, 2011 3rd round pick Stevan Ridley looks like he could be their best running back since Corey Dillon. He also reunites with Josh McDaniels, who was his offensive coordinator in their record breaking 2007 season, when they averaged a record setting 36.8 points per game and finished the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. Life is good in New England. Barring major injuries, the Patriots remain the favorite in a weak AFC with an easy schedule.

Quarterback

Excluding 2008, when he barely played, and 2009, when he was still getting healthy, Tom Brady has completed 1123 passes for 1681 yards (66.8%) for 13941 yards (8.3 YPA), 125 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. He’s won 43 of 48 regular season games and made two Super Bowls. He didn’t win the big one, but he pretty much has done everything short of that and the only reason to think he can’t win it this year is the fact that no Super Bowl loser has won the Super Bowl since the Dolphins won Super Bowl XII in 1973. Still, if anyone can snap a close to 40 year streak of disappointment from Super Bowl runner ups, it Tom Brady. It’s scary to think that you can make legitimate arguments that one or both of two other quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees) are actually better than Brady right now.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Despite his great success in 2007, 2010, and 2011, Tom Brady has really only had a true deep threat receiver in one of those 3 seasons. I doubt count Moss half assing 5 games in the start of the 2010 season. If anything, he hurt Brady in those 5 games because he still looked like Moss, but he wasn’t the same and caused Brady to mistrust him and that led to unnecessary and risky deep throws.

The Patriots added one this offseason as they went out and got Brandon Lloyd. Well, maybe that statement is not exactly correct. Lloyd essentially went out and got the Patriots. Lloyd took a major pay cut to sign with the Patriots, signing for just 12 million over 3 years. When you consider that Vincent Jackson got 5 years, 55.5 million and Robert Meachem got 4 years, 26.9 million, and Laurent Robinson got 5 years 32.5 million, Lloyd was the biggest steal of the offseason. How could the Patriots not sign him when he was that desperate to play for them?

Lloyd had good reason to be that desperate to play for them. Not only do the Patriots have a great quarterback to get him the ball and represent a good chance to win a Super Bowl, but they also allow him to reunite with Josh McDaniels, under whom Lloyd has become a breakout star in the last 2 seasons.

McDaniels and Lloyd are awesome together. Before McDaniels was fired as Head Coach in Denver in 2010, Lloyd caught 60 passes for 1153 yards and 9 touchdowns in 12 games with Kyle Orton as his quarterback. In 2011, he was traded to St. Louis, where McDaniels was the offensive coordinator. He caught 51 passes for 683 yards and 5 touchdowns in 11 games with an injured Sam Bradford, AJ Feeley, and Kellen Clemens at quarterback.

In the last 2 years, he has 111 catches for 1836 yards and 14 touchdowns in 23 games with McDaniels. Over 16 games, that’s 77 catches for 1277 yards and 10 touchdowns. With Kyle Orton, AJ Feeley, Kellen Clemens, and an injured Sam Bradford throwing him the football. Now he has Tom Brady throwing him the football. Credit him for making a decision for football reasons and not financial ones.

He’s reportedly putting on quite a show in Training Camp. Receivers don’t have a good track record when switching teams, but Lloyd looks poised to be an exception because he’s not learning a new system. He probably won’t quite have those aforementioned extrapolated numbers, but only because the Patriots have so many other great receivers to throw the ball to.

Speaking of those other great receivers, they figure to take a bit of a statistical hit this season because Lloyd will eat away some of their targets. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still fantastic players. The player who could have the biggest statistical hit is Wes Welker. Welker had 122 catches for 1569 yards and 9 touchdowns last year and the latter two of those stats were career highs. However, he was 2nd in the league in targets, which probably won’t happen again this season.

He also wasn’t quite as good down the stretch as he was early in the season. After catching 45 passes for 740 yards and 5 touchdowns in his first 5 games, he caught “just” 106 passes for 997 yards and 5 touchdowns in his last 14 games, including the playoffs. Having Lloyd opposite him could make him more efficient though because defenses will have to respect the deep ball once again, something they didn’t used to have to do. That will open things up underneath for Welker.

Tom Brady was only 23 of 73 on balls that went 20+ yards in the air last season. Some of that is slightly diminished arm strength as he ages (35 this offseason), but a big part of it was just not having anyone to catch those passes. Only 4 quarterbacks attempted fewer deep throws than Brady did, as he went deep on just 10.1% of his attempts last season. Lloyd will make everyone better in the receiving corps, even if their statistics don’t show it, because teams will have to respect the deep ball once again in 2012.

Rob Gronkowski essentially was their deep threat last season, but he’s just a tight end. He’s no ordinary tight end, however. Including playoffs, he caught 107 passes for 1585 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was also an above average run blocker and his 15 broken tackles were 2nd in the league to teammate Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez had an amazing 28 broken tackles, which not only led tight ends, but wide receivers too. Calvin Johnson was 2nd with 19. In fact, only Brandon Marshall has at least 21 broken tackles among all tight ends and wide receivers in the last 4 seasons.

Hernandez caught 98 passes for 1098 yards and 9 touchdowns, including playoffs last year. Tom Brady was 346 for 470 (73.6%) for 4420 yards (9.4 YPA), 39 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions when throwing to Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez. Throwing to everyone else, he was 131 of 216 (60.6%), 1719 yards (8.0 YPA), 7 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions (the rest were throw aways and other non-targets). Brandon Lloyd will undoubtedly help.

Lloyd wasn’t the only offseason addition in the receiving corps, just the most important. The Patriots also signed a familiar face, Jabar Gaffney. Gaffney was with the Patriots from 2006 to 2008 and should be able to have an impact this season because he’s also familiar with Josh McDaniels. McDaniels was his offensive coordinator for all of his 3 seasons in New England and his Head Coach for 2 years in Denver from 2009 to 2010.

Opposite Lloyd in Denver in 2010, Gaffney caught 65 passes for 875 yards and 2 touchdowns and last year he caught 68 passes for 947 yards and 5 touchdowns, all career highs, in Washington, despite Rex Grossman and John Beck throwing him the ball. He’ll be a good 3rd receiver and allow the Patriots more offensive flexibility as they weren’t really able to use many 3-wide receiver sets last year and when they did, they were that successful out of them. Aside from their two starting receivers, wide receivers played a total of just 696 snaps for the Patriots last year in 19 games and #3 wide receiver Chad Johnson-Ochocinco-Johnson caught just 16 passes for 297 yards and a score on 32 targets.

Deion Branch, meanwhile, will move from the starting lineup to the #4 receiver role, where he’s definitely an above average player. He’s aging, heading into his age 33 season and struggled down the stretch last season, but he’s always had strong chemistry with Tom Brady and is still a good route runner. The Patriots have plenty of receiving depth.

They also signed 3 more tight ends this offseason, signing Jake Ballard, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Daniel Fells. Ballard will likely spend the entire season on IR and was mostly claimed on waivers for 2013 and beyond, but Shiancoe and Fells will compete for the #3 tight end job. They didn’t have a 3rd tight end last year, but in 2010, Alge Crumpler had an impact in that role, playing 604 snaps. Like Crumpler, Shiancoe and Fells are veterans who are great run blockers.

The Patriots have so much offensive flexibility this season, more than last season, and with Josh McDaniels back, they once again have a brilliant offensive mind coordinating it all. The only issue is age, as Welker is heading into his age 31 season, Lloyd is heading into his age 31 season, and Gaffney is heading into his age 32 season. Still, that probably won’t be a huge problem just yet in 2012, so Tom Brady has to be thrilled with his offensive weapons. Unless Brady’s abilities decline noticeably in his age 35 season (also not likely an issue just yet), he could once again have one of the best seasons of his career and the Patriots should once again score a ton of points.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One other reason that Tom Brady has to be thrilled is the potential breakout of running back Stevan Ridley, a 3rd round pick in 2011. Ridley has the potential to be the Patriots’ best running back since Corey Dillon. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the perfect running back for the Patriots because he never fumbled and could run through holes. With how good the passing game and offensive line are, all the Patriots needed him to do was not fumble (0 fumbles in 557 career carries) and run through holes opened up by the offensive line against spread out fronts who are fearing the pass.

However, he was not explosive at all and didn’t do anything after contact. In his career, including playoffs, BJGE had 1305 yards after contact on 557 carries, just 2.3 yards per carry after contact. Before him, Laurence Maroney was inconsistent, ranging from solid to all kinds of crap. It hasn’t been since Dillon’s final season in 2006 that the Patriots have had a back with Ridley’s explosiveness.

Ridley averaged 5.1 yards per carry including playoffs last season, with 3.1 yards after contact, rushing for 462 yards on 91 carries total. He was good enough in limited action for the Patriots to let BJGE go and make him the lead back and he’s been impressing in Training Camp. He did fumble last season, something BJGE has never done, fumbling twice and lost one, but he only fumbled 3 times in college so he’s pretty sure handed when it comes to protecting the football.

One thing Ridley doesn’t do is pass catch as he had just 17 catches in his collegiate career and 5 last year. However, BJGE didn’t either and that didn’t matter much. Ridley will come out of the game on passing downs and the Patriots have plenty of other options in the receiving game, as I’ve detailed. The Patriots also have another back capable of pass catching, 2011 2nd round pick Shane Vereen.

Vereen managed just 57 yards on 15 carries (3.8 YPC) last season in 5 games thanks to injury and for now has been surpassed by Ridley, a later draft pick in the same draft. However, he’ll have an impact too as a change of pace back and he caught 74 passes in college. The Patriots also have Danny Woodhead, who has settled into Kevin Faulk’s old role nicely. He’s caught 52 passes in the last 2 seasons as a situational player. They lack a proven back, but they have backs with upside and with how good their passing game and offensive line is, they don’t need much from the backs.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Speaking of that offensive line, they ranked 11th in pass blocking efficiency last season. Brady was pressured on just 26.6% of his drop backs last season, 7th best in the NFL out of eligible quarterbacks. This is nothing new as he’s been pressured on 536 of his 1975 drop backs in the last 3 seasons, just 27.1%. This is good because Brady doesn’t quite have elite pocket presence like some other elite quarterbacks. He’s taken a sack on 15.7% of those pressured drop backs, which is good, but not great.

He also only has completed 220 of 441 passes (49.9%) and thrown 23 touchdowns to 13 interceptions under pressure over the last 3 season, as opposed to 994 for 1425 (69.8%) with 94 touchdowns to 24 interceptions while not under pressure. If you want to nitpick his game, this is the area to do it. If you can beat his offensive line with 4 guys (like the Giants), Brady is stoppable.

It’s also worth noting that as long as his offensive line can beat the opponent’s defensive line, he can tear any secondary apart. You can’t just blitz him because he’s 345 for 546 (63.2%) for 4609 yards (8.4 YPA) and 34 touchdowns to 8 interceptions when blitzed over the last 3 seasons. And his offensive line frequently wins the battle because Belichick and company also know that Brady is beatable when pressured without blitzing, so they’ve made sure to build a great offensive line in front of him. They also ranked 3rd as run blockers on ProFootballFocus last year.

Long time left tackle Matt Light is gone, but the Patriots made sure they were prepared for this day by using the 17th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft on Nate Solder, who will be the left tackle this year. Solder played mostly right tackle as a rookie, in place of an injured Sebastian Vollmer. He played alright, allowing 4 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures, while committing just 5 penalties and run blocking well, while playing essentially 16 full games, including playoffs.

Vollmer missed most of last season with injury, but he was very good in 2010 at right tackle, allowing just 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, and 31 quarterback pressures, committing 5 penalties and run blocking well. He was even better in 2009 as a 2nd round pick rookie, allowing just 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, and 11 quarterback pressures in 10 starts, while run blocking incredibly well and committing just 4 penalties. The Patriots could have Vollmer and Solder switch sides if needed as Vollmer does have some experience on the left side, but, for now, Solder will be the left tackle and Vollmer will be the right tackle.

The Patriots also have a pair of great guards, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Mankins had a bit of a down year last year, allowing 5 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 18 quarterback pressures, while committing 8 penalties, but he was still an above average run blocker and a solid starter overall. He’s been much better in the past.

Waters, meanwhile, has been one of the league’s best guards for years and that was no different at the age of 34 last year, despite signing with the Patriots right before the start of the season. He was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked guard, allowing 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 11 quarterback pressures, while committing 6 penalties. He’s much better as a pass protector than a run blocker.

There are issues with both of them. Waters has yet to report to Training Camp as of this writing with an “excused absence” and a vague “issue,” leading to some speculation that he could retire before his age 35 season. Mankins, meanwhile, is not practicing after having surgery on his knee after the Super Bowl and his status for week 1 is reportedly in doubt. Unfortunately, these are the Patriots so they’re not really giving the media news on either of them so their status remains in limbo right now. Mankins will be back eventually and should be ready by week 1, but Waters is someone to worry about for Patriots fans.

If Waters retires, Dan Connolly, a mediocre starter, will move from center back to guard, giving Dan Koppen back his old job at center. Those two are currently competing for the center job. That’s a big drop off. If Waters retires and Mankins misses any time, the Patriots are out of luck as they’d have to rely on either the inexperienced Marcus Cannon, currently listed at right tackle, the inexperienced Ryan Wendell, who did play well in limited action last season, or the veteran Robert Gallery, who struggled mightily as a starter in Seattle last season. Mankins probably won’t miss much, if any time, however.

As I mentioned, Connolly and Koppen are competing for the center job. Connolly started every game except week 1 there last season and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd rated center out of 34. Koppen, meanwhile, was once a solid starter, but he missed all of last season with a broken leg and is now heading into his age 33 season. I think he deserves the job more. In 2010, he was ProFootballFocus’ 11th rated center.

Still, the Patriots have a strong offensive line which will be good pass protecting and run blocking once again this season. As long as Brady is protected and doesn’t have an unexpected drop off his abilities at age 35, he should continue to tear up opposing secondaries. He has an even more talented and more versatile receiving corps this season and a potential breakout year from Stevan Ridley would also really help as it would make their offense more two-dimensional. They’ve also rehired Josh McDaniels, which should have a positive effect on their offense. In 2007, 2010, and 2011, they have ranked in the top-3 in scoring and averaged over 32 points per game in each season and 33.8 points per game overall. I think they can do that a 4th time this season.

Grade: B+

Defense

While the offense is great, the defense could use some work. They ranked 15th in the league in points per game allowed last season, allowing 21.4 points per game, but they allowed the 2nd most yards in the league and ranked 30th in defensive DVOA (though 3rd offensively and 4th overall). They get better the closer you get to the goal line, somehow, which is a good thing, but it can lead to poor offensive field position, as it did in their Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Still, there is reason to believe they’ll be better on this side of the ball this season. They used their first 6 draft picks on defense, including 4 in the first 3 rounds, and they should have fewer injuries defensively than the large amount suffered last season.

Defensive Line

One area of the Patriots’ defense that wasn’t a big problem was their front 7. They ranked 24th against the run, allowing 4.6 YPC, which isn’t good, but including playoffs, they did have 57 sacks, including playoffs, and ranked a solid 14th in the regular season with 40. The Patriots are losing two key pass rushers, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, who combined for 26 sacks, 22 quarterback hits, and 60 quarterback pressures on 866 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 12.5%. Carter was also very good against the run, ranking 4th among 4-3 defensive ends against the run, and 11th overall.

In order to try to replace them, the Patriots used the 21st overall pick on defensive end Chandler Jones, who figures to be a week 1 starter. Jones is incredibly raw as a pass rusher, but he can play the run right now and he has crazy upside. He’ll be part of a defensive end rotation and may come out on passing downs as a rookie.

The Patriots also signed Trevor Scott, who didn’t have a good year in Oakland last year, but he was a solid situational pass rusher in 2010 with 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits, and 19 quarterback pressures on 233 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 9.9%. He’s an ideal fit for their scheme and the Patriots may be able to get the most out of him.

Also in the rotation is 3rd round rookie Jake Bequette and Rob Ninkovich, a converted linebacker. Ninkovich has plenty of experience rushing the passer and playing defensive end as he’d move down to the line on passing downs, but now it looks like he’ll be there full time. He had 9 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 35 quarterback pressures on 439 pass rush snaps last season, an 11.8% rate.

He was also very good against the run, ranking 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers in that aspect on ProFootballFocus and 10th overall. That might not be the case now that he’s a full time defensive end because he’s undersized at 252 pounds. Defensive tackles Brandon Deaderick and Jonathan Fanene can also play some defensive end, as could linebacker Dont’a Hightower, in a similar role to Ninkovich’s from last season. They also haven’t ruled out re-signed Andre Carter, who is still unsigned coming off a leg injury at age 33.

At defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love will be the starters again. Wilfork, who also played some defensive end in the playoffs, is great against the run, but struggles as a pass rusher with just 7 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 23 quarterback pressures on 714 pass rush snaps, good for a below average 4.7% rate. Kyle Love, meanwhile, was a decent starter last season who only had to start because Albert Haynesworth disappointed.  He stopped the run well, but didn’t get much pass rush with just 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 14 quarterback pressures, a 4.9% rate.

Converted ends Brandon Deaderick and Jonathan Fanene will provide depth at defensive tackle and play roles as situational pass rushers, as will Gerard Warren, who played surprisingly well last year, in limited action. He’s heading into his age 34 season, though. Deaderick, meanwhile, struggled last year at 4-3 defensive end, especially as a pass rusher, but he was playing out of position.

Fanene, meanwhile, played out of position at defensive end in Cincinnati last year, playing the run well, but struggling as a pass rusher. They should be better as situational rushers at defensive tackle. The Patriots have a lot of players who could have impacts and will, as always, use lots of different fronts and get the most out of their player’s different abilities. I don’t really worry about their defensive line play or pass rush.

Grade: B

Linebackers

One of the players who suffered an injury last season, as I mentioned, was linebacker Jerod Mayo. He missed 2 ½ games with injury, which isn’t much, but it’s worth noting. When healthy, he’s a very good linebacker who can play every down. He can play every linebacker position and ranked 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers on ProFootballFocus last year.

Brandon Spikes and rookie Dont’a Hightower, the 25th overall pick, are both great run stuffers, but struggle in coverage. Spikes played well when healthy last year, but he missed all of 8 games with injury and large parts of 2 other games. He was missed as he ranked 17th among middle linebackers against the run and 18th overall. It’s no coincidence their run defense was much better in the playoffs once he was back and healthy.

Gary Guyton rotated in for him in obvious passing situations, though he struggled in that role last season. He’s been replaced by Bobby Carpenter. Carpenter is a former bust of a 1st round pick who has played sparingly over the past few seasons with multiple different teams, but the Patriots like him so maybe he’ll be an upgrade as a passing down specialist linebacker.

Hightower, meanwhile, will also only be a 2-down run stuffer as a rookie, coming out when the Patriots go to the sub package and their 2-linebacker sets. He could, however, as I mentioned, play defensive end on passing downs, as he did at the University of Alabama. He should be able to replace Rob Ninkovich, who is now a full time defensive end, and with better health, this group should play very well in 2012.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The secondary was the biggest problem defensively for the Patriots, who ranked 29th in the league, allowing 8.0 YPA despite the great pass rush. Devin McCourty struggled after a strong rookie year, leaving Kyle Arrington to be the #1 cornerback, which he actually did a good job of after struggling in 2010.

McCourty and Arrington have each had strong years in the past 2 years, though unfortunately not concurrently. In 2010, McCourty allowed 58 completions on 104 attempts (55.8%) for 614 yards (5.9 YPA), 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 12 deflections, and 5 penalties, making the Pro Bowl in the process, while Arrington allowed 48 completions on 74 attempts (64.9%) for 726 yards (9.5 YPA), 4 touchdowns, 1 interceptions, 5 deflections, and 3 penalties

Last season, the two basically flipped. Arrington was the league’s leader in interceptions and allowed 69 completions on 119 attempts (58.0%) for 1032 yards (8.7 YPA), 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 7 deflections, and 3 penalties, while McCourty allowed 69 completions on 111 attempts (62.2%) for 1074 yards (9.7 YPA), 6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 8 deflections, and 5 penalties.

McCourty has played slightly better over the past 2 years combined and has more upside for the future as a 2010 1st round pick. Meanwhile, Arrington’s strong season in 2011 was mostly tied to his 7 interceptions and that type of thing can differ greatly from year to year. Both allowed high YPAs, which is a big part of the reason why they ranked so high in YPA allowed as a team. I expect Arrington to regress, McCourty to bounce back, and the Patriots’ pass defense to overall improve as they’ll only have one cornerback with an incredibly high YPA. They’ll be closer to the 21st ranked pass defense (7.1 YPA) that they had in 2010, not great, but improved.

Arrington could even be pushed for a starting job by Ras-I Dowling, a 2011 2nd round pick who missed most of his rookie year with injuries, another player who was a loss because of injuries. Dowling played just 93 snaps and he was supposed to be the nickel cornerback. Instead, guys like Sterling Moore, Antwaun Molden, Nathan Jones, Leigh Bodden, and even offensive players like Julian Edelman had to play cornerback, which they did for the most part unsuccessfully. If healthy, Dowling should be an upgrade even if he doesn’t win the starting job, but it’s worth noting that his injury problems go back to his days as a collegiate player at Virginia. Currently, however, he’s healthy and participating in all offseason activities including Training Camp, a very good thing.

Another major injury that the Patriots had in their secondary was to safety Patrick Chung. He missed 9 games with injury last season and was not right when healthy, as the 2009 2nd round pick had the worst season of his career. When healthy, he’s a solid starter, but he does have an injury history beyond last season. He’s really their only good safety so they need him to be healthy. In his absence, guys like Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, and even offensive player Matt Slater had to play safety next to James Ihedigbo, who was horrible as well.

Ihedigo was ProFootballFocus’ 78th ranked safety in coverage out of 84 and he ranked 57th overall. The Patriots signed Steve Gregory in the offseason, but he was even worse, ranking 75th in coverage and 72nd overall. They also used a 2nd round pick on Tavon Wilson, but I think he was a reach. The Patriots grabbed him after frantically trying to trade down, unsuccessfully. It was a bad safety class, so they really didn’t have much choice, needing a safety. He probably won’t play much as a rookie though, unless Chung gets hurt again, a possibility.

The Patriots don’t have the most defensive talent, but they should be able to get the most out of it. They’ll have a solid pass rush even with the loss of Mark Anderson and their secondary should be better with a potential bounce back year from Devin McCourty and the return of Patrick Chung and Ras-I Dowling from injury. They also suffered injuries at linebacker to Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo last season, which hurt.

With better health, they should resemble their 2010 defense (19th in DVOA) rather than their 2011 defense (30th in DVOA), but that might not translate to an improved scoring defense after exceeding their DVOA by 15 spots and ranking 15th with 21.4 points per game. They also exceeded their DVOA in 2010 by allowing just 19.6 points per game, 8th in the league, so there may be a trend here. My prediction, however, is a middle of the pack scoring defense.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Do I really need to say anything about Bill Belichick? He’s the best in the game. No Head Coach has more duties and he executes them all well. He coaches well, he schemes well, he drafts well, he makes smart player acquisitions. He drafted Tom Brady in the 6th round and then when Brady went down, he still coached the team to 11-5 with a 7th round pick Matt Cassel. You don’t win 10+ games in 10 of 11 seasons with as many responsibilities as he has without being incredibly talented.

Grade: A

Overall

The Patriots have been a model of consistent excellence in the NFL over the past 11 seasons. No team has won more regular season games, playoff games, or Super Bowls in that stretch. As long as Brady is healthy and Belichick is coaching, they’ll be competitive. In a weak AFC against a weak schedule, they have to be considered one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win the AFC and get the #1 seed for the 3rd straight season. Their offense will be one of the best in the league again, maybe even better than last season, and their defense won’t be too bad.

Speaking of that easy schedule, they should be able to go at least 4-2 in the division with the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. They went 5-1 in the division last year and will probably do that again. Outside of the division, they host Arizona, Denver, Indianapolis, Houston, and San Francisco. That’s not the easiest slate, but they almost never lose at home, going 40-8 at home, including playoffs since 2007, as opposed to 28-12 on the road.

Their other 5 games send them to Tennessee, Baltimore, Seattle, St. Louis, and Jacksonville. Their opponents have the worst combined 2011 winning percentage of any team’s opponents (.453). They play just 5 games against teams I have making the playoffs and no teams I have winning more than 10 games. They should be able to cruise to anywhere from 12-14 wins once again, barring injuries.

Projection: 13-3 1st in NFC East

Offense

I’ve talked a lot about parity in my previews before. One team that hasn’t been subject to the ups and down of the NFL over the last decade is the New England Patriots. Since 2001, the Patriots have 9+ games every season, won double digit games in 10 of 11 seasons, made the playoffs 9 times, won 12+ 6 times and 13+ 5 times. They’ve made it to the playoffs 9 times, the AFC Championship game 6 times, and the Super Bowl 5 times, winning 3. Tom Brady has a career regular season record of 123-35 and a postseason record of 16-6. Nobody has done it better than Brady and Belichick over the last 11 seasons.

I’ve talked a lot about the parity in turnovers from season to season before as well.  Since 2002, there have been 36 teams with 20 or fewer turnovers. In their next season, those teams, have had, on average, 9.64 more turnovers and won 2.69 fewer games. Teams with differential of +15 have had a differential 16.35 points lower and won 2.3 fewer games the following season.

However, teams with elite quarterbacks seem to be pretty immune to this. The Indianapolis Colts had 20 or fewer turnovers 5 times in the last decade and actually won an average of 0.4 more wins the following season. The Patriots, meanwhile, appear on that list twice. One year was their 16 win season in 2007, after which they won just 11 games, but that was with Tom Brady missing most of the season. The other year was 2010 and last year they did it again and won just 1 less game. They also had differentials of +15 or more in those two seasons, as well as in 2003, when they won 14 games. They followed that season up with a 14 win season.

Discounting 2008 when Brady was hurt, the Patriots have ranked in the top-6 in scoring offense in each of the last 4 seasons. Discounting 2008 and 2009, when Brady was still getting his legs back under him, the Patriots have had a top-3 scoring offense in each of the last 3 seasons, including two 1st place finishes. Last year, when they averaged 32.1 points per game, was actually their worst total and they’ve averaged 33.8 points per game in the 2007, 2010, and 2011 seasons.

Tom Brady gets a new weapon to play with this season, Brandon Lloyd, who is the best deep threat they’ve had since Randy Moss. Meanwhile, 2011 3rd round pick Stevan Ridley looks like he could be their best running back since Corey Dillon. He also reunites with Josh McDaniels, who was his offensive coordinator in their record breaking 2007 season, when they averaged a record setting 36.8 points per game and finished the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. Life is good in New England. Barring major injuries, the Patriots remain the favorite in a weak AFC with an easy schedule.

Quarterback

Excluding 2008, when he barely played, and 2009, when he was still getting healthy, Tom Brady has completed 1123 passes for 1681 yards (66.8%) for 13941 yards (8.3 YPA), 125 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. He’s won 43 of 48 regular season games and made two Super Bowls. He didn’t win the big one, but he pretty much has done everything short of that and the only reason to think he can’t win it this year is the fact that no Super Bowl loser has won the Super Bowl since the Dolphins won Super Bowl XII in 1973. Still, if anyone can snap a close to 40 year streak of disappointment from Super Bowl runner ups, it Tom Brady. It’s scary to think that you can make legitimate arguments that one or both of two other quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees) are actually better than Brady right now.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Despite his great success in 2007, 2010, and 2011, Tom Brady has really only had a true deep threat receiver in one of those 3 seasons. I doubt count Moss half assing 5 games in the start of the 2010 season. If anything, he hurt Brady in those 5 games because he still looked like Moss, but he wasn’t the same and caused Brady to mistrust him and that led to unnecessary and risky deep throws.

The Patriots added one this offseason as they went out and got Brandon Lloyd. Well, maybe that statement is not exactly correct. Lloyd essentially went out and got the Patriots. Lloyd took a major pay cut to sign with the Patriots, signing for just 12 million over 3 years. When you consider that Vincent Jackson got 5 years, 55.5 million and Robert Meachem got 4 years, 26.9 million, and Laurent Robinson got 5 years 32.5 million, Lloyd was the biggest steal of the offseason. How could the Patriots not sign him when he was that desperate to play for them?

Lloyd had good reason to be that desperate to play for them. Not only do the Patriots have a great quarterback to get him the ball and represent a good chance to win a Super Bowl, but they also allow him to reunite with Josh McDaniels, under whom Lloyd has become a breakout star in the last 2 seasons.

McDaniels and Lloyd are awesome together. Before McDaniels was fired as Head Coach in Denver in 2010, Lloyd caught 60 passes for 1153 yards and 9 touchdowns in 12 games with Kyle Orton as his quarterback. In 2011, he was traded to St. Louis, where McDaniels was the offensive coordinator. He caught 51 passes for 683 yards and 5 touchdowns in 11 games with an injured Sam Bradford, AJ Feeley, and Kellen Clemens at quarterback.

In the last 2 years, he has 111 catches for 1836 yards and 14 touchdowns in 23 games with McDaniels. Over 16 games, that’s 77 catches for 1277 yards and 10 touchdowns. With Kyle Orton, AJ Feeley, Kellen Clemens, and an injured Sam Bradford throwing him the football. Now he has Tom Brady throwing him the football. Credit him for making a decision for football reasons and not financial ones.

He’s reportedly putting on quite a show in Training Camp. Receivers don’t have a good track record when switching teams, but Lloyd looks poised to be an exception because he’s not learning a new system. He probably won’t quite have those aforementioned extrapolated numbers, but only because the Patriots have so many other great receivers to throw the ball to.

Speaking of those other great receivers, they figure to take a bit of a statistical hit this season because Lloyd will eat away some of their targets. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still fantastic players. The player who could have the biggest statistical hit is Wes Welker. Welker had 122 catches for 1569 yards and 9 touchdowns last year and the latter two of those stats were career highs. However, he was 2nd in the league in targets, which probably won’t happen again this season.

He also wasn’t quite as good down the stretch as he was early in the season. After catching 45 passes for 740 yards and 5 touchdowns in his first 5 games, he caught “just” 106 passes for 997 yards and 5 touchdowns in his last 14 games, including the playoffs. Having Lloyd opposite him could make him more efficient though because defenses will have to respect the deep ball once again, something they didn’t used to have to do. That will open things up underneath for Welker.

Tom Brady was only 23 of 73 on balls that went 20+ yards in the air last season. Some of that is slightly diminished arm strength as he ages (35 this offseason), but a big part of it was just not having anyone to catch those passes. Only 4 quarterbacks attempted fewer deep throws than Brady did, as he went deep on just 10.1% of his attempts last season. Lloyd will make everyone better in the receiving corps, even if their statistics don’t show it, because teams will have to respect the deep ball once again in 2012.

Rob Gronkowski essentially was their deep threat last season, but he’s just a tight end. He’s no ordinary tight end, however. Including playoffs, he caught 107 passes for 1585 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was also an above average run blocker and his 15 broken tackles were 2nd in the league to teammate Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez had an amazing 28 broken tackles, which not only led tight ends, but wide receivers too. Calvin Johnson was 2nd with 19. In fact, only Brandon Marshall has at least 21 broken tackles among all tight ends and wide receivers in the last 4 seasons.

Hernandez caught 98 passes for 1098 yards and 9 touchdowns, including playoffs last year. Tom Brady was 346 for 470 (73.6%) for 4420 yards (9.4 YPA), 39 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions when throwing to Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez. Throwing to everyone else, he was 131 of 216 (60.6%), 1719 yards (8.0 YPA), 7 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions (the rest were throw aways and other non-targets). Brandon Lloyd will undoubtedly help.

Lloyd wasn’t the only offseason addition in the receiving corps, just the most important. The Patriots also signed a familiar face, Jabar Gaffney. Gaffney was with the Patriots from 2006 to 2008 and should be able to have an impact this season because he’s also familiar with Josh McDaniels. McDaniels was his offensive coordinator for all of his 3 seasons in New England and his Head Coach for 2 years in Denver from 2009 to 2010.

Opposite Lloyd in Denver in 2010, Gaffney caught 65 passes for 875 yards and 2 touchdowns and last year he caught 68 passes for 947 yards and 5 touchdowns, all career highs, in Washington, despite Rex Grossman and John Beck throwing him the ball. He’ll be a good 3rd receiver and allow the Patriots more offensive flexibility as they weren’t really able to use many 3-wide receiver sets last year and when they did, they were that successful out of them. Aside from their two starting receivers, wide receivers played a total of just 696 snaps for the Patriots last year in 19 games and #3 wide receiver Chad Johnson-Ochocinco-Johnson caught just 16 passes for 297 yards and a score on 32 targets.

Deion Branch, meanwhile, will move from the starting lineup to the #4 receiver role, where he’s definitely an above average player. He’s aging, heading into his age 33 season and struggled down the stretch last season, but he’s always had strong chemistry with Tom Brady and is still a good route runner. The Patriots have plenty of receiving depth.

They also signed 3 more tight ends this offseason, signing Jake Ballard, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Daniel Fells. Ballard will likely spend the entire season on IR and was mostly claimed on waivers for 2013 and beyond, but Shiancoe and Fells will compete for the #3 tight end job. They didn’t have a 3rd tight end last year, but in 2010, Alge Crumpler had an impact in that role, playing 604 snaps. Like Crumpler, Shiancoe and Fells are veterans who are great run blockers.

The Patriots have so much offensive flexibility this season, more than last season, and with Josh McDaniels back, they once again have a brilliant offensive mind coordinating it all. The only issue is age, as Welker is heading into his age 31 season, Lloyd is heading into his age 31 season, and Gaffney is heading into his age 32 season. Still, that probably won’t be a huge problem just yet in 2012, so Tom Brady has to be thrilled with his offensive weapons. Unless Brady’s abilities decline noticeably in his age 35 season (also not likely an issue just yet), he could once again have one of the best seasons of his career and the Patriots should once again score a ton of points.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One other reason that Tom Brady has to be thrilled is the potential breakout of running back Stevan Ridley, a 3rd round pick in 2011. Ridley has the potential to be the Patriots’ best running back since Corey Dillon. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the perfect running back for the Patriots because he never fumbled and could run through holes. With how good the passing game and offensive line are, all the Patriots needed him to do was not fumble (0 fumbles in 557 career carries) and run through holes opened up by the offensive line against spread out fronts who are fearing the pass.

However, he was not explosive at all and didn’t do anything after contact. In his career, including playoffs, BJGE had 1305 yards after contact on 557 carries, just 2.3 yards per carry after contact. Before him, Laurence Maroney was inconsistent, ranging from solid to all kinds of crap. It hasn’t been since Dillon’s final season in 2006 that the Patriots have had a back with Ridley’s explosiveness.

Ridley averaged 5.1 yards per carry including playoffs last season, with 3.1 yards after contact, rushing for 462 yards on 91 carries total. He was good enough in limited action for the Patriots to let BJGE go and make him the lead back and he’s been impressing in Training Camp. He did fumble last season, something BJGE has never done, fumbling twice and lost one, but he only fumbled 3 times in college so he’s pretty sure handed when it comes to protecting the football.

One thing Ridley doesn’t do is pass catch as he had just 17 catches in his collegiate career and 5 last year. However, BJGE didn’t either and that didn’t matter much. Ridley will come out of the game on passing downs and the Patriots have plenty of other options in the receiving game, as I’ve detailed. The Patriots also have another back capable of pass catching, 2011 2nd round pick Shane Vereen.

Vereen managed just 57 yards on 15 carries (3.8 YPC) last season in 5 games thanks to injury and for now has been surpassed by Ridley, a later draft pick in the same draft. However, he’ll have an impact too as a change of pace back and he caught 74 passes in college. The Patriots also have Danny Woodhead, who has settled into Kevin Faulk’s old role nicely. He’s caught 52 passes in the last 2 seasons as a situational player. They lack a proven back, but they have backs with upside and with how good their passing game and offensive line is, they don’t need much from the backs.

Grade: B-

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Offensive Line

Speaking of that offensive line, they ranked 11th in pass blocking efficiency last season. Brady was pressured on just 26.6% of his drop backs last season, 7th best in the NFL out of eligible quarterbacks. This is nothing new as he’s been pressured on 536 of his 1975 drop backs in the last 3 seasons, just 27.1%. This is good because Brady doesn’t quite have elite pocket presence like some other elite quarterbacks. He’s taken a sack on 15.7% of those pressured drop backs, which is good, but not great.

He also only has completed 220 of 441 passes (49.9%) and thrown 23 touchdowns to 13 interceptions under pressure over the last 3 season, as opposed to 994 for 1425 (69.8%) with 94 touchdowns to 24 interceptions while not under pressure. If you want to nitpick his game, this is the area to do it. If you can beat his offensive line with 4 guys (like the Giants), Brady is stoppable.

It’s also worth noting that as long as his offensive line can beat the opponent’s defensive line, he can tear any secondary apart. You can’t just blitz him because he’s 345 for 546 (63.2%) for 4609 yards (8.4 YPA) and 34 touchdowns to 8 interceptions when blitzed over the last 3 seasons. And his offensive line frequently wins the battle because Belichick and company also know that Brady is beatable when pressured without blitzing, so they’ve made sure to build a great offensive line in front of him. They also ranked 3rd as run blockers on ProFootballFocus last year.

Long time left tackle Matt Light is gone, but the Patriots made sure they were prepared for this day by using the 17th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft on Nate Solder, who will be the left tackle this year. Solder played mostly right tackle as a rookie, in place of an injured Sebastian Vollmer. He played alright, allowing 4 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures, while committing just 5 penalties and run blocking well, while playing essentially 16 full games, including playoffs.

Vollmer missed most of last season with injury, but he was very good in 2010 at right tackle, allowing just 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, and 31 quarterback pressures, committing 5 penalties and run blocking well. He was even better in 2009 as a 2nd round pick rookie, allowing just 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, and 11 quarterback pressures in 10 starts, while run blocking incredibly well and committing just 4 penalties. The Patriots could have Vollmer and Solder switch sides if needed as Vollmer does have some experience on the left side, but, for now, Solder will be the left tackle and Vollmer will be the right tackle.

The Patriots also have a pair of great guards, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Mankins had a bit of a down year last year, allowing 5 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 18 quarterback pressures, while committing 8 penalties, but he was still an above average run blocker and a solid starter overall. He’s been much better in the past.

Waters, meanwhile, has been one of the league’s best guards for years and that was no different at the age of 34 last year, despite signing with the Patriots right before the start of the season. He was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked guard, allowing 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 11 quarterback pressures, while committing 6 penalties. He’s much better as a pass protector than a run blocker.

There are issues with both of them. Waters has yet to report to Training Camp as of this writing with an “excused absence” and a vague “issue,” leading to some speculation that he could retire before his age 35 season. Mankins, meanwhile, is not practicing after having surgery on his knee after the Super Bowl and his status for week 1 is reportedly in doubt. Unfortunately, these are the Patriots so they’re not really giving the media news on either of them so their status remains in limbo right now. Mankins will be back eventually and should be ready by week 1, but Waters is someone to worry about for Patriots fans.

If Waters retires, Dan Connolly, a mediocre starter, will move from center back to guard, giving Dan Koppen back his old job at center. Those two are currently competing for the center job. That’s a big drop off. If Waters retires and Mankins misses any time, the Patriots are out of luck as they’d have to rely on either the inexperienced Marcus Cannon, currently listed at right tackle, the inexperienced Ryan Wendell, who did play well in limited action last season, or the veteran Robert Gallery, who struggled mightily as a starter in Seattle last season. Mankins probably won’t miss much, if any time, however.

As I mentioned, Connolly and Koppen are competing for the center job. Connolly started every game except week 1 there last season and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd rated center out of 34. Koppen, meanwhile, was once a solid starter, but he missed all of last season with a broken leg and is now heading into his age 33 season. I think he deserves the job more. In 2010, he was ProFootballFocus’ 11th rated center.

Still, the Patriots have a strong offensive line which will be good pass protecting and run blocking once again this season. As long as Brady is protected and doesn’t have an unexpected drop off his abilities at age 35, he should continue to tear up opposing secondaries. He has an even more talented and more versatile receiving corps this season and a potential breakout year from Stevan Ridley would also really help as it would make their offense more two-dimensional. They’ve also rehired Josh McDaniels, which should have a positive effect on their offense. In 2007, 2010, and 2011, they have ranked in the top-3 in scoring and averaged over 32 points per game in each season and 33.8 points per game overall. I think they can do that a 4th time this season.

Grade: B+

Defense

While the offense is great, the defense could use some work. They ranked 15th in the league in points per game allowed last season, allowing 21.4 points per game, but they allowed the 2nd most yards in the league and ranked 30th in defensive DVOA (though 3rd offensively and 4th overall). They get better the closer you get to the goal line, somehow, which is a good thing, but it can lead to poor offensive field position, as it did in their Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Still, there is reason to believe they’ll be better on this side of the ball this season. They used their first 6 draft picks on defense, including 4 in the first 3 rounds, and they should have fewer injuries defensively than the large amount suffered last season.

Defensive Line

One area of the Patriots’ defense that wasn’t a big problem was their front 7. They ranked 24th against the run, allowing 4.6 YPC, which isn’t good, but including playoffs, they did have 57 sacks, including playoffs, and ranked a solid 14th in the regular season with 40. The Patriots are losing two key pass rushers, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, who combined for 26 sacks, 22 quarterback hits, and 60 quarterback pressures on 866 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 12.5%. Carter was also very good against the run, ranking 4th among 4-3 defensive ends against the run, and 11th overall.

In order to try to replace them, the Patriots used the 21st overall pick on defensive end Chandler Jones, who figures to be a week 1 starter. Jones is incredibly raw as a pass rusher, but he can play the run right now and he has crazy upside. He’ll be part of a defensive end rotation and may come out on passing downs as a rookie.

The Patriots also signed Trevor Scott, who didn’t have a good year in Oakland last year, but he was a solid situational pass rusher in 2010 with 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits, and 19 quarterback pressures on 233 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 9.9%. He’s an ideal fit for their scheme and the Patriots may be able to get the most out of him.

Also in the rotation is 3rd round rookie Jake Bequette and Rob Ninkovich, a converted linebacker. Ninkovich has plenty of experience rushing the passer and playing defensive end as he’d move down to the line on passing downs, but now it looks like he’ll be there full time. He had 9 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 35 quarterback pressures on 439 pass rush snaps last season, an 11.8% rate.

He was also very good against the run, ranking 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers in that aspect on ProFootballFocus and 10th overall. That might not be the case now that he’s a full time defensive end because he’s undersized at 252 pounds. Defensive tackles Brandon Deaderick and Jonathan Fanene can also play some defensive end, as could linebacker Dont’a Hightower, in a similar role to Ninkovich’s from last season. They also haven’t ruled out re-signed Andre Carter, who is still unsigned coming off a leg injury at age 33.

At defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love will be the starters again. Wilfork, who also played some defensive end in the playoffs, is great against the run, but struggles as a pass rusher with just 7 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 23 quarterback pressures on 714 pass rush snaps, good for a below average 4.7% rate. Kyle Love, meanwhile, was a decent starter last season who only had to start because Albert Haynesworth disappointed.  He stopped the run well, but didn’t get much pass rush with just 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 14 quarterback pressures, a 4.9% rate.

Converted ends Brandon Deaderick and Jonathan Fanene will provide depth at defensive tackle and play roles as situational pass rushers, as will Gerard Warren, who played surprisingly well last year, in limited action. He’s heading into his age 34 season, though. Deaderick, meanwhile, struggled last year at 4-3 defensive end, especially as a pass rusher, but he was playing out of position.

Fanene, meanwhile, played out of position at defensive end in Cincinnati last year, playing the run well, but struggling as a pass rusher. They should be better as situational rushers at defensive tackle. The Patriots have a lot of players who could have impacts and will, as always, use lots of different fronts and get the most out of their player’s different abilities. I don’t really worry about their defensive line play or pass rush.

Grade: B

Linebackers

One of the players who suffered an injury last season, as I mentioned, was linebacker Jerod Mayo. He missed 2 ½ games with injury, which isn’t much, but it’s worth noting. When healthy, he’s a very good linebacker who can play every down. He can play every linebacker position and ranked 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers on ProFootballFocus last year.

Brandon Spikes and rookie Dont’a Hightower, the 25th overall pick, are both great run stuffers, but struggle in coverage. Spikes played well when healthy last year, but he missed all of 8 games with injury and large parts of 2 other games. He was missed as he ranked 17th among middle linebackers against the run and 18th overall. It’s no coincidence their run defense was much better in the playoffs once he was back and healthy.

Gary Guyton rotated in for him in obvious passing situations, though he struggled in that role last season. He’s been replaced by Bobby Carpenter. Carpenter is a former bust of a 1st round pick who has played sparingly over the past few seasons with multiple different teams, but the Patriots like him so maybe he’ll be an upgrade as a passing down specialist linebacker.

Hightower, meanwhile, will also only be a 2-down run stuffer as a rookie, coming out when the Patriots go to the sub package and their 2-linebacker sets. He could, however, as I mentioned, play defensive end on passing downs, as he did at the University of Alabama. He should be able to replace Rob Ninkovich, who is now a full time defensive end, and with better health, this group should play very well in 2012.

Grade: B+

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Secondary

The secondary was the biggest problem defensively for the Patriots, who ranked 29th in the league, allowing 8.0 YPA despite the great pass rush. Devin McCourty struggled after a strong rookie year, leaving Kyle Arrington to be the #1 cornerback, which he actually did a good job of after struggling in 2010.

McCourty and Arrington have each had strong years in the past 2 years, though unfortunately not concurrently. In 2010, McCourty allowed 58 completions on 104 attempts (55.8%) for 614 yards (5.9 YPA), 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 12 deflections, and 5 penalties, making the Pro Bowl in the process, while Arrington allowed 48 completions on 74 attempts (64.9%) for 726 yards (9.5 YPA), 4 touchdowns, 1 interceptions, 5 deflections, and 3 penalties

Last season, the two basically flipped. Arrington was the league’s leader in interceptions and allowed 69 completions on 119 attempts (58.0%) for 1032 yards (8.7 YPA), 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 7 deflections, and 3 penalties, while McCourty allowed 69 completions on 111 attempts (62.2%) for 1074 yards (9.7 YPA), 6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 8 deflections, and 5 penalties.

McCourty has played slightly better over the past 2 years combined and has more upside for the future as a 2010 1st round pick. Meanwhile, Arrington’s strong season in 2011 was mostly tied to his 7 interceptions and that type of thing can differ greatly from year to year. Both allowed high YPAs, which is a big part of the reason why they ranked so high in YPA allowed as a team. I expect Arrington to regress, McCourty to bounce back, and the Patriots’ pass defense to overall improve as they’ll only have one cornerback with an incredibly high YPA. They’ll be closer to the 21st ranked pass defense (7.1 YPA) that they had in 2010, not great, but improved.

Arrington could even be pushed for a starting job by Ras-I Dowling, a 2011 2nd round pick who missed most of his rookie year with injuries, another player who was a loss because of injuries. Dowling played just 93 snaps and he was supposed to be the nickel cornerback. Instead, guys like Sterling Moore, Antwaun Molden, Nathan Jones, Leigh Bodden, and even offensive players like Julian Edelman had to play cornerback, which they did for the most part unsuccessfully. If healthy, Dowling should be an upgrade even if he doesn’t win the starting job, but it’s worth noting that his injury problems go back to his days as a collegiate player at Virginia. Currently, however, he’s healthy and participating in all offseason activities including Training Camp, a very good thing.

Another major injury that the Patriots had in their secondary was to safety Patrick Chung. He missed 9 games with injury last season and was not right when healthy, as the 2009 2nd round pick had the worst season of his career. When healthy, he’s a solid starter, but he does have an injury history beyond last season. He’s really their only good safety so they need him to be healthy. In his absence, guys like Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, and even offensive player Matt Slater had to play safety next to James Ihedigbo, who was horrible as well.

Ihedigo was ProFootballFocus’ 78th ranked safety in coverage out of 84 and he ranked 57th overall. The Patriots signed Steve Gregory in the offseason, but he was even worse, ranking 75th in coverage and 72nd overall. They also used a 2nd round pick on Tavon Wilson, but I think he was a reach. The Patriots grabbed him after frantically trying to trade down, unsuccessfully. It was a bad safety class, so they really didn’t have much choice, needing a safety. He probably won’t play much as a rookie though, unless Chung gets hurt again, a possibility.

The Patriots don’t have the most defensive talent, but they should be able to get the most out of it. They’ll have a solid pass rush even with the loss of Mark Anderson and their secondary should be better with a potential bounce back year from Devin McCourty and the return of Patrick Chung and Ras-I Dowling from injury. They also suffered injuries at linebacker to Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo last season, which hurt.

With better health, they should resemble their 2010 defense (19th in DVOA) rather than their 2011 defense (30th in DVOA), but that might not translate to an improved scoring defense after exceeding their DVOA by 15 spots and ranking 15th with 21.4 points per game. They also exceeded their DVOA in 2010 by allowing just 19.6 points per game, 8th in the league, so there may be a trend here. My prediction, however, is a middle of the pack scoring defense.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Do I really need to say anything about Bill Belichick? He’s the best in the game. No Head Coach has more duties and he executes them all well. He coaches well, he schemes well, he drafts well, he makes smart player acquisitions. He drafted Tom Brady in the 6th round and then when Brady went down, he still coached the team to 11-5 with a 7th round pick Matt Cassel. You don’t win 10+ games in 10 of 11 seasons with as many responsibilities as he has without being incredibly talented.

Grade: A

Overall

The Patriots have been a model of consistent excellence in the NFL over the past 11 seasons. No team has won more regular season games, playoff games, or Super Bowls in that stretch. As long as Brady is healthy and Belichick is coaching, they’ll be competitive. In a weak AFC against a weak schedule, they have to be considered one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win the AFC and get the #1 seed for the 3rd straight season. Their offense will be one of the best in the league again, maybe even better than last season, and their defense won’t be too bad.

Speaking of that easy schedule, they should be able to go at least 4-2 in the division with the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. They went 5-1 in the division last year and will probably do that again. Outside of the division, they host Arizona, Denver, Indianapolis, Houston, and San Francisco. That’s not the easiest slate, but they almost never lose at home, going 40-8 at home, including playoffs since 2007, as opposed to 28-12 on the road.

Their other 5 games send them to Tennessee, Baltimore, Seattle, St. Louis, and Jacksonville. Their opponents have the worst combined 2011 winning percentage of any team’s opponents (.453). They play just 5 games against teams I have making the playoffs and no teams I have winning more than 10 games. They should be able to cruise to anywhere from 12-14 wins once again, barring injuries.

Projection: 13-3 1st in NFC East

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