New England Patriots 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Tom Brady arguably had the worst statistical season of his career last season, completing 60.5% of his passes (lowest since 2003), for an average of 6.92 YPA (lowest since 2003), 25 touchdowns (lowest in a full season since 2006), and 11 interceptions, a QB rating of 87.3. That QB rating was the 4th worst of his career and the lowest since 2003, when the NFL’s rules didn’t favor the quarterback nearly as much as they do now. Those numbers were all significant declines from 2010-2012, when he completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 8.02 YPA, 109 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions, a QB rating of 104.6.

Part of the issue was Brady’s lack of supporting cast offensively. Rob Gronkowski played just 7 games and 390 snaps because of injury. Aaron Hernandez obviously is gone. Wes Welker is in Denver and free agent replacement Danny Amendola struggled through injuries, leaving Julian Edelman to step up as Brady’s primary option in his absence. Only Matt Stafford had more passes dropped than Brady (53), and those 53 passes were for 487 yards in the air, also 2nd to Matt Stafford.

The Patriots also had issues upfront on the offensive line as Brady was pressured on 32.1% of his drop backs, the highest percentage of drop backs he’s been pressured on since at least before 2007. That still ranked in the bottom half of NFL quarterbacks, but that was more of a testament to Brady’s quick release than anything (2.39 seconds from snap to throw on average last season, 5th fastest in the NFL). Brady’s one weakness has always been pressure. Over the past 5 seasons, he only has completed 471 of 980 passes (48.1%) for 6281 yards (6.41 YPA), 43 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions under pressure, as opposed to 2050 for 2930 (70.0%) for 23969 yards (8.18 YPA), 187 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions while not under pressure.

However, part of the issue was also Brady himself. Brady was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked quarterback, which is very good, but he was 3rd in both 2011 and 2012. He’s also seen his QB rating drop from 111.0 to 105.6 to 98.7 to 87.3 over the past 4 seasons from 2010-2013. The decline he’s showing is a concern considering as he’s heading into his age 37 season. He’s getting to the point in his career where he could hit a wall in terms of his abilities at any time. He’s still a top level quarterback (for example, his actual passing grade was 5th among quarterbacks last season on Pro Football Focus), but I’d still rank Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and maybe Philip Rivers ahead of him. He could prove me wrong and have a vintage year this year, but that’s where I’d put him right now.

A lot of people like to mention the Patriots winning 12 games and going to the AFC Championship despite a weakened supporting cast as a reason why Brady is a top, top level quarterback and maybe even was the true MVP last season (he did get one MVP vote). I think that’s an overly simplistic view. The Patriots weren’t as good as their record suggested last season.

They had about 10.5 Pythagorean wins, 8th in the NFL, despite an unsustainable 62.50% fumble recovery rate. They finished 7-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including 6-1 in games decided by a field goal or less. They finished 8th in rate of moving the chains differential. If they had played last season the same way 100 times, they probably would have finished about 10-6 on average. They did win a playoff game, but that was on the back of an insane performance from LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 166 yards and 4 touchdowns on 24 carries. Brady was only 13 of 25 for 198 yards in that game. That’s especially concerning when coupled with Tom Brady’s age.

The good news is the Patriots’ supporting cast around Brady should be significantly improved compared to last season. Part of that has to do with the fact that they should have fewer injuries last season, when they had the 4th most adjusted games lost, including serious injuries to Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Sebastian Vollmer, Vince Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo. They also added more talent this off-season, specifically upgrading the injury prone Aqib Talib with dominant man cornerback Darrelle Revis.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Patriots signed Danny Amendola to a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar deal last off-season to replace Wes Welker. Their logic was that Amendola was 4 years younger and had shown the potential to be for the next 5 years what Welker was for the last 5 years at a reasonable rate. That didn’t work out, at least in the first year of Amendola’s deal, so Julian Edelman had to step up as the Patriots’ #1 receiver. It took him a little bit, but he was very good in the 2nd half of the season.

In the first 8 games of the season, Edelman caught 48 passes for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns, which is good, but he was better in the second half of the season, catching 57 passes for 592 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also caught a higher percentage of his targets in the second half of the season, catching 57 of 78 (73.1%), as opposed to 48 catches on 68 targets in the first half of the season (70.6%) He also had two games in which he graded out well above average on Pro Football Focus in the first half of the season and two games in which he graded out well below average, while in the second half of the season he had four games in which he graded out well above average and none in which he graded out well below average. On top of that, had two more games in the post-season in which he graded out well above average, catching 16 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown on 22 targets in two post-season games.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Tom Brady played much better in the 2nd half of the season, once he started to have the same kind of familiarity with Edelman that he once had with Wes Welker. Over his first 8 games, Brady completed 55.7% of his passes for an average of 5.94 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. In the other 8 regular season games, he completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.85 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. Brady graded out well above average in 2 of his first 8 games and well below average in 3 of his first 8 games. In the other 8 games, he graded out well above average in 5 games and well below average in 1 game. The Patriots averaged 33.1 points per game over their final 8 games, as opposed to 22.4 points per game over their first 8 games. The issue was their defense went from allowing 18.0 points per game to 24.3 points per game as injuries struck.

Overall, Edelman had a very strong season. Even excluding his strong post-season, he finished the regular season with 105 catches for 1056 yards and 6 touchdowns. He averaged 1.76 yards per route run. For comparison’s sake, Wes Welker averaged 1.64 yards per route run in 2013. Edelman did get more targets as he was a bigger part of New England’s offense, but he also caught a significantly higher percentage of his targets (71.9% to 67.0%) even though he commanded more of the defense’s attention.

As a result, Edelman was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade, while Welker came in at 37th. The Patriots offense wasn’t as good last season without Welker, but that was largely a result of the absence of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They probably shouldn’t have paid Danny Amendola all that money, but they made the right decision letting Welker go. Welker is a declining player going into his age 33 season who missed 3 games with injury last season. Amendola deal aside, the Patriots are getting a better deal long-term with Edelman than Welker (who will make 6 million in a contract year in 2014). The Patriots gave Edelman a deserved 4-year, 17 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, as he goes into his age 28 season.

Still, the Patriots do need to become less reliant on Edelman and have other receivers step up for Brady to throw to. Edelman is still a former undrafted one-year wonder who had 69 catches in the previous 4 seasons, while missing a combined 16 games over those 4 seasons. Rob Gronkowski would be the best candidate to step up, considering how good he is when he’s healthy. Gronkowski has been a top-3 tight end in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including last year when he graded out 2nd despite playing just 390 snaps in 7 games.

Gronkowski has caught 184 passes for 2709 yards and 32 touchdowns over his last 34 games, which is 87 catches for 1275 yards and 15 touchdowns over 16 games. He’s averaged 2.38 yards per route run over his career, including 2.47 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons and 2.75 yards per route run last season. That’s insane for a tight end. For comparison, Jimmy Graham has averaged 2.19 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons and he’s widely considered the best receiving tight end in the NFL. Gronkowski, when healthy, is a better pass catcher and he’s also easily a better run blocker. He struggled a little bit as a run blocker last season, after coming back from a broken arm, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked tight end in 2010 in run blocking grade, 1st ranked in 2011, and 4th ranked in 2012. When healthy, he’s easily the best, most complete tight end in the NFL.

Over the past 3 seasons, Tom Brady completes 65.3% of his passes for an average of 8.07 YPA, 81 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions when Gronkowski plays (36 games, including playoffs) and the Patriots score 32.8 points per game. When Gronkowski isn’t on the field, Brady completes 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and the Patriots score 28.0 points per game (19 games, including playoffs). Gronkowski played 6 of the Patriots’ final 8 games last season, which is a big part of the reason why Brady and the Patriots’ offense played so much better in the 2nd half of the season. He didn’t play in the post-season, when their passing game fell short.

The issue with Gronkowski is obviously injuries. He’s missed 14 games of the past 2 seasons combined and has missed the Patriots’ last 4 playoff games, not playing in a playoff game since the 2011 Super Bowl. He had back problems in college. He struggled in the Super Bowl through an ankle problem. He broke his arm in 2012 and re-broke it in the playoffs. He had 5 surgeries on that arm, including 3 surgeries to treat an infection. He also had another back procedure. And then last December, he tore his ACL.

He’s currently more likely than not to be back for week 1, about 9 months removed from his torn ACL, although who knows with the Patriots and how tight-lipped they are with injuries. The good news is he did seem to have put all of his past injuries behind him last season, when he was dominant in 7 games. This is his first major leg injury and he’s only going into his age 25 season. The bad news is that ACL injuries usually take a while to return to full strength from and he could be less than 100% all season even once he returns. Leg injuries also can lead to other leg injuries. He also doesn’t inspire confidence that he won’t suffer another injury. His durability is a serious problem. All that being said, it’s likely that the Patriots will have him for more games, more snaps, and more production this season than last year and possibly even than 2012 (55 catches for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games on 743 snaps). More importantly, they’ll probably have him for the playoffs.

Another guy who should have better health this season is Danny Amendola. Amendola caught just 54 passes for 633 yards and 2 touchdowns last season, which obviously was a disappointment for the Patriots. He only missed 4 games, but he was limited all season with a groin injury. When healthy, he can be a great wide receiver. He averaged 2.04 yards per route run with the Rams in 2012 despite having Sam Bradford at quarterback. The issue is he’s never been able to stay healthy. He’s missed a combined 24 games over the past 3 seasons, not excluding the other games he’s been limited with injury. However, if I had to bet on it, I’d bet on him being more productive this season than last. He’s once again having a strong off-season (like he did last off-season) and he seems to be over that groin issue.

Aaron Dobson is another guy who should be more productive this season than last season. The 2013 2nd round pick caught 37 passes for 519 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. The average first round pick rookie wide receiver averages 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Dobson was able to post comparable numbers despite missing 4 games and despite being a 2nd round pick. It’s a testament to Dobson’s athleticism and upside and Tom Brady’s ability to get the most out of his receivers. He averaged 1.65 yards per route run. He had a serious issue with drops, dropping 9 passes to those 37 catches and only caught 37 of 71 targets (52.1%), but he definitely flashed. He should be better in his 2nd year in the league and could be a lot better.

Dobson was only one of three rookie wide receivers the Patriots had last season. Josh Boyce caught 9 passes for 121 yards as a 4th round rookie and now is on the roster bubble. Kenbrell Thompkins played a bigger role as rookie, catching 32 passes for 466 yards and 4 touchdowns on 355 routes run, but that’s just an average of 1.31 yards per route run and he only caught 32 of 69 targets (46.4%). The 2013 undrafted rookie is also on the roster bubble. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and free agent acquisition Brandon LaFell are locked into roster spots.

LaFell and Dobson will compete to be the #3 wide receiver. LaFell, a 2010 3rd round pick, comes over from Carolina. He caught 167 passes for 2385 yards and 13 touchdowns in 4 seasons, proving to be a marginal receiver at best, averaging 1.36 yards per route run, including just 1.18 yards per route run last season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 94th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade in 2013. He’s a solid blocker and a big body at 6-2 211, but he lacks explosiveness. There’s some talk they could line him up at tight end kind of, the way they did with Aaron Hernandez, but there’s no evidence that they will.

The reason people are wondering whether or not they’ll do that is because they really lack a #2 tight end. DJ Williams is currently their “move” tight end in the old Aaron Hernandez role, but the 2011 5th round pick has 9 career catches and isn’t much of a blocker. Michael Hoomanawanui is a decent blocker, but offers nothing as a pass catcher with 37 catches in 4 seasons since being drafted in the 5th round in 2010. The 6-4 260 pounder can’t really play that “move” tight end role. This is a bigger issue if Gronkowski misses time, but not having a good #2 tight end will still hurt them either way. The Patriots will run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets this season.

The Patriots were planning on having running back Shane Vereen replace a lot of Aaron Hernandez’s production last season in a Darren Sproles type role, lining up all over the formation in passing situations. That didn’t work out because Vereen too was bitten by the injury bug, missing 8 games with a broken wrist. He’s someone else who should be more productive this year than last year as that injury is now long behind him. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade last season, despite only running 200 routes. He caught 47 passes for 427 yards and 3 touchdowns on 66 targets on 200 routes run, an average of 2.14 yards per route run that was 2nd only to Darren Sproles among running backs. He did that all in 8 games and could have a big season this year. Overall, barring major injuries and young players not developing, the Patriots’ receiving corps should be better than it was last season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Patriots also have a key contributor coming back from injury on the offensive line and it should make them a better unit as a result. That player is right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who only played 516 snaps in 8 games before breaking his leg last season. He was dominant before the injury, on his way to probably the best season of his career in his 5th year in the league. He still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle despite the limited playing time. No offensive tackle played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher.

Vollmer has been a very solid player since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s been a top-23 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons, doing so in 2011 and 2013 despite playing 6 and 8 games respectively. The issue is he’s never played a full 16 game season and he’s missed 25 games in 5 seasons. Having him back healthy will be a boost to this offensive line as Marcus Cannon, a 2011 5th round pick better off as a 6th offensive lineman, struggled a little bit last season when forced into the starting lineup.

Nate Solder will continue to start at left tackle. The 2011 1st round was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked offensive tackle in his first year as a starter in 2012 and then took it to the next level in 2013, grading out 9th. He was abused by Von Miller, but there’s no shame in that and he was very good the rest of the season. The Patriots have already picked up his option for 2015 and he’s one of the best young blindside protectors in the game.

Logan Mankins will continue to man the left guard position, as he’s been doing since the Patriots drafted him in the first round in 2005. Mankins is already going into his age 32 season, which is a concern, especially since he hasn’t been as good over the past few seasons, struggling through various injuries and starting to show his age. A top-10 guard in every season from 2007-2010, including #1 in 2008, Mankins has graded out 27th, 18th, and 19th in the last 3 seasons respectively. Last year he run blocked well, but actually graded out significantly below average as a pass protector, allowing 9 sacks. He should have another solid season left in him at the very least, but he’s not the same player anymore.

The bigger issues are at center and right guard. Ryan Wendell, a 2008 undrafted free agent, broke out in his first year as a starter in 2012, after flashing as a reserve earlier in his career, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center. He really struggled in pass protection, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked center in pass protection that season, which is an offensive linemen’s most important job, but he was #1 by far as a run blocker, so he made up for it.

However, in 2013, he still struggled in pass protection and wasn’t nearly as good as a run blocker. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked center overall. Instead of replacing him, the Patriots gave him a 2-year, 3.25 million dollar contract this off-season, though they did draft Bryan Stork in the 4th round. Stork could push him at some point as a rookie if he continues to struggle. Another option is playing Marcus Cannon at right guard and moving Dan Connolly to center. Either way, they’re unlikely to get good play from the center position.

Connolly is currently at right guard. Like Mankins, he too is going into his age 32 season. Unlike Mankins, he’s never been that good. A marginal starter for a few seasons, last year was probably the worst year of his career, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. His days as a starting caliber player are probably over. Marcus Cannon could push him for the starting job.  It’s a solid offensive line, a better offensive line than last year, but there are more issues than you’d like for a team with a quarterback whose play declines as much under pressure as Brady does.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Stevan Ridley had a breakout year in 2012 as the 2011 3rd round pick rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries (4.36 YPC). He was off to an equally good start in the 2013 season, rushing for 562 yards and 7 touchdowns on 131 carries (4.29 YPC) through 9 games. However, he lost a fumble in 3 straight weeks (4 total on the season) and got benched against Denver. The rest of the way, he had just 66 carries for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns (4.24 YPC) in 7 games, including playoffs.

LeGarrette Blount took over as the primary back and combined to rush for 944 yards on 182 carries in the regular and post-season, an average of 5.19 yards per carry. He also rushed for 11 touchdowns. He’s gone, signing in Pittsburgh, so it looks like the Patriots will trust Ridley as their feature back again. Aside from his fumbling issues (9 fumbles in 3 years on 574 touches), Ridley’s biggest issue is that he’s not a receiving threat, with 19 catches in 3 years. He had just 17 in his collegiate career as well. Shane Vereen makes up for that as a receiver out of the backfield in passing situations.

If Ridley’s fumbling problems come back, the Patriots options to replace him as the lead back aren’t great. They could give Vereen more of a role as a runner, even though the small 5-10 205 pounder has just 121 carries in 3 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011 (4.26 YPA). Brandon Bolden is their 2nd best big back. He’s flashed, rushing for 545 yards and 5 touchdowns on 111 carries (4.91 YPA) in his career as a 2012 undrafted free agent, but he’s had problems with injuries, which was a big issue for him in college as well. That’s a big part of the reason why he wasn’t drafted. James White is another option. They drafted him in the 4th round in this past draft.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Vince Wilfork is the big re-addition on the defensive line as he returns from a torn Achilles suffered in week 4 of last season. His absence was evident last season as their run defense up the middle was, at times, pathetic. Some of that had to do with Wilfork’s dominance against the run. Some of that had to do with how poor their replacements were. With Wilfork and fellow veteran Tommy Kelly out for the season, the Patriots had to turn to a pair of rookies, Chris Jones, a 6th round pick cut by the Texans in final cuts, and Joe Vellano, an undrafted free agent rookie. They played 792 snaps and 672 snaps respectively, which was a big issue.

Jones was the biggest issue. People can point to his 7 sacks as a reason why he had a good season, but that’s the opposite of reality. Those sacks were coupled with just 1 quarterback hit and 13 hurries on 440 pass rush snaps, a 4.8% pass rush rate. He probably won’t have close to 7 sacks on his next 440 pass rush snaps if he doesn’t improve his pass rush abilities. Rushing the passer wasn’t even his biggest issue as he got destroyed against the run, being pushed off the line with ease.

He ranked as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked defensive tackle against the run by far and their worst ranked defensive tackle overall. Vellano was better and actually pretty impressive for an undrafted rookie, but he still ranked 56th out of 69 eligible defensive tackles. Sealver Siliga got playing time down the stretch and impressed, but there’s no guarantee he could have continued that into 2014. The good news is that none of Jones, Vellano, and Siliga will start the season higher than 4th on the depth chart at defensive tackle.

Wilfork’s return will obviously help things. He was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2012, 23rd ranked defensive tackle in 2011, and would have been their composite 16th ranked defensive tackle in 2010 had he not played a fair amount of 3-4 defensive end that season. However, I’m skeptical that he’ll be the same Vince Wilfork, going into his age 33 season, coming off of a torn Achilles.

Tommy Kelly, meanwhile, is coming off of a torn ACL going into his age 34 season. He played alright on 223 snaps last season before going down, but he was awful in 2012, grading out 74th among 85 eligible defensive tackle. I’m very skeptical he can continue to be a starting caliber player at his age, coming off that injury. He’ll be pushed for the starting job in training camp by 1st round rookie Dominique Easley. Easley is coming off of his own injury, tearing his ACL in his final season at Florida, after tearing the other one back in 2011. He’s a serious injury concern already at such a young age and was a surprise pick 29th overall, but he has top-10/top-15 talent when healthy.

At defensive end, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will remain the starters. A lot of teams believe in rotating their defensive ends. The Patriots apparently don’t as Jones and Ninkovich were 1 and 2 in the NFL in terms of snaps played among defensive linemen as they played 1142 and 1114 snaps respectively. They only missed 24 and 52 snaps respectively all season and played 71.4 and 69.6 snaps per game respectively. It’s very impressive, but they definitely had a good amount of bad snaps as a result of overuse.

Rob Ninkovich is the more impressive of the two, grading out Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end, including #1 against the run, while Jones graded out 23rd. He had a good amount of pass rush production, but much of that was just because he played so many pass rush snaps. He had 9 sacks, 14 hits, and 46 hurries on 552 pass rush snaps, a 12.5% pass rush rate that is solid, but unspectacular. He also graded out below average as a pass rusher on Pro Football Focus. Jones also played much better against the run than as a pass rusher. He graded out 13th as a run stopper, but 12th worst as a pass rusher, with 13 sacks, 14 hits, and 39 hurries on 637 pass rush snaps, a rate of 10.4%.

Both of them could be better this season if they played fewer snaps and got more breathers, which would be good as the Patriots ranked 2nd worst as a team in terms of team pass rush grade on Pro Football Focus last season. This is especially true of Chandler Jones, an incredibly athletic 2012 1st round pick going into his 3rd year in the league. I don’t know if Ninkovich can improve on the best season of his career as he goes into his age 30 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 15th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011, and 16th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2010. The versatile front 7 defender has found a home for himself in New England, after being drafted in the 5th round in 2006 and bouncing around from the Saints to the Dolphins back to the Saints from 2006-2008.

The issue is the Patriots don’t have very much depth at the position. Michael Buchanan struggled mightily on 122 snaps as a 7th round rookie last season. Jake Bequette was a 3rd round pick in 2012, but he’s played just 43 snaps uninspiring snaps in 2 seasons. Zach Moore was a 6th round pick in this past draft. Will Smith was a free agent acquisition, but he’s going into his age 33 season after missing all of the 2013 season with injury and grading out 2nd worst among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012. He might not even make the roster. Their best option might be to have linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower rush the passer some in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Collins and Hightower are two young linebackers who could break out in new roles. Brandon Spikes is gone, which hurts because he was a very solid player, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked middle linebacker in 2013, 9th in 2012, 18th in 2011, and 9th in 2010. However, he’s only a two-down player who has played 694 snaps, 742 snaps, 364 snaps, and 356 snaps in those 4 seasons respectively, while grading out 1st, 1st, 19th, and 4th in run grade respectively, in those 4 seasons since the Patriots drafted him in the 2nd round in 2010.

With him gone, their linebackers fit together better and might even be a better unit. Dont’a Hightower will move into his collegiate position of middle linebacker and have to play less often in coverage, which is good for him. That could allow him to rush the passer in sub packages more often, something he did in college and something he’s had moderate success doing in 147 career pass rush snaps. At the very least, the move will put him in a more natural spot and keep him out of coverage less. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ 12th and 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in run grade over the past 2 seasons respectively and he played fantastic football down the stretch last season. He could be ready to break out.

Jamie Collins, meanwhile, could be ready to break out as well as he moves full-time into a starting role. The 2013 2nd round pick is a converted collegiate defensive lineman who flashed on 302 regular season snaps last season and then was dominant in the playoff win over Indianapolis, playing every snap, recording a sack, 2 hits, and a hurry on 9 pass rush snaps, recording 4 stops (tackling within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down), allowing 2 catches for 12 yards on 5 targets and recording an interception. He was also solid in the playoff loss to Denver. He could play some defensive end in sub packages, but if he continues to show himself as an all-around player, they might just make him a true three-down outside linebacker.

Another positive is that the Patriots get Jerod Mayo back from injury. Mayo missed 10 games with a torn pectoral last season. The concern for his health going into 2014 should be limited as the 2008 1st round pick had missed 5 games in 5 seasons prior to this injury. It was also an upper body injury instead of a lower body injury and he’s already a full participant at OTAs. When healthy, Mayo is one of the better 4-3 outside linebackers in the game. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2012 and 7th ranked in 2011, after converting from being a 3-4 middle linebacker, where he wasn’t quite as good.

The one interesting and underrated free agent acquisition the Patriots made this off-season was the addition of linebacker James Anderson on a veteran’s minimum contract late in the off-season. Anderson isn’t a very good linebacker and he’s going into his age 31 season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season and worst ranked against the run.

However, he was 6th at his position in coverage grade and could be an asset for the Patriots in sub packages if they decide they don’t want either of Collins or Hightower to be the primary 2nd linebacker in sub packages. That could happen because coverage isn’t the primary strength of either of them and both can rush the passer. Anderson could be a valuable, sub package coverage specialist in a limited role (200-300 snaps would be my guess). Despite losing Spikes, it’s a talented linebacking corps that fits together very nicely.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Easily the biggest acquisition of the off-season for the Patriots was Darrelle Revis. It’s a popular narrative that Revis Island is “done” after Revis tore his ACL in 2012 and then got cut by the Buccaneers after 1 year with the team. However, he was cut because he wasn’t worth his 16 million dollar salary to a Tampa Bay team that is transitioning to more zone coverage, not because he played poorly. He’s well worth the 12 million the Patriots are paying him this season to play in their man coverage based coverage scheme.

After the Patriots signed Darrelle Revis, I tweeted that the NFL’s top cornerbacks were #1 Richard Sherman, #2 Darrelle Revis, and #10 everyone else. There’s a huge gap between the top-2 cornerbacks in the NFL and the rest of the NFL’s cornerbacks. All of the top cornerbacks on the market this off-season had warts, even if it was a very strong cornerback market.

Brent Grimes was going into his age 31 season with an injury history. Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Sam Shields and Aqib Talib all had inconsistent histories. Alterraun Verner was the most consistent of the available free agent cornerbacks, making 64 starts in 4 years and grading out in the top-24 on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, but he’s never finished in the top-10. All those guys are in the “#10 everyone else” range. Once Darrelle Revis hit the open market, he was miles better than everyone else who was available this off-season.

Showing the volatility of the cornerback position, just two cornerbacks finished in the top-15 on Pro Football Focus in both 2012 and 2013. One was Richard Sherman (#2 and #6) and the other was Jason McCourty (#6 and #10). Darrelle Revis probably would have been the other one if he hadn’t torn his ACL in 2012, which looks like a fluke injury when you look at the rest of his history, as he’s missed just 3 games in his other 6 seasons combined.

In 4 of his last 5 healthy seasons, he’s graded out in the top-3 on Pro Football Focus among cornerbacks (he was #8 in the other season), incredible considering the volatility of the position and how difficult it’s become to be a dominant man coverage cornerback in today’s NFL. That includes a 2013 season in which he graded out #1 among cornerbacks, fueled by a first place finish in yards allowed per coverage snap, despite a poor pass rush in front of him. People still don’t throw on Revis. Another year removed from his injury, Revis should only be better in 2014. Since 2008, Revis has allowed 43.1% completion, 5.41 YPA, and 12 touchdowns, while picking off 20 passes, a QB rating allowed of 50.5. He essentially turns every quarterback who dares to throw on him into a drunken Mark Sanchez. You can’t say that about anyone else.

Richard Sherman is probably a better cornerback because of his superior ball hawking abilities. He also doesn’t have a torn ACL on his record and he’s three years younger, with Sherman going into his age 26 season and Revis going into his age 29 season. However, Revis is right there as the #2 cornerback and miles ahead of everyone else. Short of acquiring Richard Sherman (which would obviously not have been possible), there’s nothing more than that the Patriots could have done this off-season to upgrade the cornerback position and replace Aqib Talib than signing Revis. The Patriots now have the legitimate ability to take away one side of the field on defense, something they haven’t been able to do since Ty Law. He’ll also help the pass rush get a few more coverage sacks.

Talib, by the way, has never graded out higher than 16th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, nor he has ever played all 16 games in a season. Talib was 58th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 69th in composite grade among cornerbacks (between Tampa Bay and New England) in 2012. He was dominant for the first 6 games of the 2013 season, before suffering an injury, allowing 13 of 33 completion and picking off 4 passes in the process, but he’s never been able to sustain that. Revis can sustain high level play and give them the shutdown cornerback Talib was for those 6 games, when the Patriots allowed 16.2 points per game (back when Wilfork and Mayo were healthy as well).

Brandon Browner was the Patriots’ other free agent addition at cornerback. Browner will be suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, but he should help them upon his return. Browner had graded out above average in all 3 seasons as a starter since coming over from Canada before the 2011 season. He’s graded out 37th, 22nd, and 42nd in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. The concern is he’s missed 12 games over the past 2 seasons with a combination of injury and suspension and now he’s facing another 4 game suspension.

The good news is the Patriots have an absurd amount of depth at the cornerback position as a result of the Revis and Browner acquisitions. Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan will compete to start opposite Revis in Browner’s absence, with Dennard being the early favorite. Dennard fell to the 7th round of the 2012 draft because of off-the-field problems and has had issues in the past 2 seasons as well, including spending time in jail. He had 2nd round talent though and was solid as a rookie, grading 30th among cornerbacks in 10 games. Last season, fell to 70th in 2013 in 13 games, which is a big part of the reason why the brought Browner in. Still, Dennard is an adequate short-term fill-in for Browner.

Logan Ryan, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and impressed in limited action as a rookie, grading out 30th at his position despite playing just 608 snaps. The Browner acquisition will also allow Kyle Arrington to focus on the slot, which is the 5-10 196 pounder’s specialty. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ 30th, 44th, and 19th ranked cornerback in the last 3 seasons respectively.

The fact that either Ryan or Dennard could be their 5th cornerback when Browner is back shows how much depth they have at the position. There’s been some talk that they could move Ryan to safety as a result of that. It’s unclear how the 5-11 191 pounder would fit at the position, but getting him more opportunities to be on the field is a worthwhile endeavor. Ryan would compete with another 2013 3rd round pick out of Rutgers, a natural safety Duron Harmon.

Unlike Ryan, Harmon wasn’t supposed to be a 3rd round pick. In fact, he probably wasn’t supposed to be drafted. The Patriots’ scouts told Belichick not to take him that early and that they could get him later and no major draft outlets were spending much time on him, certainly not as a day 2 pick, but the Patriots took him anyway. He impressed as a rookie on 431 snaps and is the front runner for a starting job now that Steve Gregory is gone. Tavon Wilson is also in the mix at safety. He was impressive on 476 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2012, but only played 17 snaps last season, despite all the injuries the Patriots had in the secondary and Wilson’s ability to play both cornerback and safety. It seems like Wilson, another player drafted earlier than everyone expected, was a mistake of a draft pick, at least at this point.

Whoever starts there will start opposite Devin McCourty. Revis isn’t the only top level defensive back the Patriots have on the roster as McCourty has quietly developed into one of the best safeties in the game over the past 2 seasons. McCourty was a rookie All-Pro in 2010 and a deserving one, as the 1st round pick graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback that season. McCourty struggled in 2011, grading out below average, and then was moved to safety about halfway through the 2012 season.

In 2012, he was as good as he was in 2010, if not better, grading out 8th among cornerbacks on 534 snaps (no cornerback played fewer snaps and graded out higher) and 14th among safeties on 564 snaps (only Troy Polamalu played fewer snaps and graded out higher). His composite grade would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. 2013 was his best season yet as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked safety. Primarily a deep safety (9.1% of snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, fewest in the NFL last season among safeties), he’s New England’s version of Earl Thomas or Jairus Byrd. The Patriots don’t have a perfect secondary, but they have two big-time impact players and a lot of depth. It’s one of the better secondaries in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Patriots were lucky and unlucky in different ways last season. They had an unsustainably high fumble recovery rate (62.50%) and went an absurd 6-1 in games decided by 3 points or fewer. However, they also had the 4th most adjusted games lost in the league and had significant players miss time and/or be limited with injuries (Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Sebastian Vollmer, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo).

They’ve done a good job adding talent this off-season and are a significantly better team than they were for most of last season. They weren’t as good as their 12-4 record suggested they were last season, but now they probably are. I’ll do official record predictions at the end of all my previews, but the Patriots have a very good chance at another high win total as they are one of the most talented teams in the NFL and coached by arguably the best head coach in the NFL. In the last 13 seasons, the Patriots have had 12 seasons of 10+ wins, 11 division titles, 10 seasons of 11+ wins, 8 seasons of 12+ wins, 8 AFC Championships appearance, 5 Super Bowl appearances, and 3 Super Bowl victories. They should be right in that range once again, barring Tom Brady hitting the wall in terms of his abilities.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in AFC East

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