New England Patriots 2015 NFL Off-Season Preview

Positions of Need

Guard

The Patriots’ offensive line got better as the season went on, but it was still their Achilles heel and somewhere they need to add this off-season. They especially need help at left guard, where Dan Connolly graded out 72nd out of 78 eligible guards last season. He’s a free agent going into his age 33 season and the Patriots should aim higher in terms of a starter at that spot for next season.

Defensive End

Dominique Easley was drafted in the first round in 2014, but he struggled through knee problems as a rookie, grading out below average on 270 snaps as a rookie. His knee issues date back to his collegiate days, as he tore both of his ACLs in college. He should have a bigger role in 2015, but he’s hard to trust going forward. Vince Wilfork, meanwhile, could be a cap casualty this off-season, while Chris Jones, a 2013 undrafted free agent, has struggled in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL. In 2013, he was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked defensive tackle and he graded out 42 out of 47th eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2014. The Patriots need to add to their defensive line this off-season.

Running Back

With Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen set to hit free agency, the Patriots need to replenish depth behind LeGarrette Blount, a solid lead back, but tough to trust and useless in the passing game. James White is a 2014 4th round pick who struggled on 31 snaps as a rookie, while Jonas Gray had a 201 yard game and did little else after that. They especially need a complementary back who can help in the passing game like Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, and Shane Vereen have done before for the Patriots, assuming they don’t re-sign Vereen.

Outside Linebacker

Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are a solid edge rusher duo, regardless of scheme, but they had no depth behind them in 2013, which is why they played 1142 and 1114 snaps respectively, 1st and 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in snaps played respectively. The Patriots added Akeem Ayers for depth purposes in 2014 when Chandler Jones got hurt and he did well in that role, but he’s a free agent this off-season. If he’s not retained, they’ll need to replenish depth, especially with Ninkovich going into his age 31 season and coming off the first season in which he graded out below average in 5 seasons as a starter.

Cornerback

There’s a chance Darrelle Revis won’t be back with the Patriots in 2015, as they need to work out a long-term deal with him to avoid paying him 20 million next season. That would leave Brandon Browner, Logan Ryan, and Kyle Arrington as their top-3 cornerbacks, but none of those 3 players are #1 cornerbacks and Browner could be a cap casualty after committing 19 penalties in 12 games this season. He’s owed 5.5 million non-guaranteed in 2015 and the Patriots can save that entire amount on the cap by letting him go.

Safety

If Devin McCourty isn’t retained as a free agent this off-season, they’ll need to replace him. Duron Harmon is an internal option, but the 2013 3rd round pick has only played 714 snaps in 2 seasons in the league so, while he’s flashed, he’s unproven and they’ll need to find competition for him in the case that McCourty leaves.

Key Free Agents

S Devin McCourty

McCourty entered the NFL as a cornerback, moved to safety in the middle of the 2012 season and has pretty much been dominant wherever he’s been. He’s graded out above average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league since the Patriots drafted him in the 1st round in 2010 and, with the exception of 2011, he’s been an elite player in every season. In 2010, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback. In 2012, his composite grade across cornerback and safety would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. And in the last two seasons, he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 1st and 8th ranked safety respectively. He and Eric Weddle are the only two safeties to grade out in the top-8 in each of the last 2 seasons. The top safety in this free agency class, McCourty is expected to get between 8-9 million annually, which would make him one of the highest paid safeties in the NFL. He’d be worth it.

OLB Akeem Ayers

Akeem Ayers, a 2011 2nd round pick, graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league with the Titans, including 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013. However, the Titans’ incompetent new regime didn’t seem to know how to use him and he played just 10 snaps for them before being traded to the Patriots for a swap of late round picks mid-season. In New England, they had no problem figuring out how to use him and he provided much needed depth as a 3-4 outside linebacker, grading out above average on 390 snaps. There’s a reason why the Patriots were Super Bowl winners this year and the Titans went 2-14. Ayers can play both 4-3 and 3-4 outside linebacker, but he’s a better pass rusher than he is in coverage so he’s probably a better fit for a 3-4, where he’ll get more pass rush opportunities. On a strong edge rush market, Ayers could be a nice, cheap option for teams in need of pass rush help.

RB Shane Vereen

Vereen saw just 188 snaps in 2011 and 2012 combined, but the 2011 2nd round pick was expected to be a big part of their post-Aaron Hernandez offense in 2013. He was when he was on the field, but he missed 8 games with injury. 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, very impressive numbers in 8 games. Going into 2014, he was expected to put up big receiving numbers, assuming he stayed healthy. He did stay healthy, playing all 16 games, but in that sense, his 52 catches were a disappointment. Still, he hits free agency as a valuable, versatile #2 back. He’s only averaged 4.18 yards per carry on 217 carries in his career, but what he does as a pass catcher could get him close to the 3.5 million annually he reportedly covets.

RB Stevan Ridley

Ridley, a 2011 3rd round pick, rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries (4.36 YPC) in his 2nd year in the league in 2012, but he’ll come cheap this off-season. There’s a reason for that. In the two seasons since, he’s rushed for 1113 yards and 9 touchdowns on 272 carries (4.09 YPC) and he’s coming off of a torn ACL he suffered midway through last season. He’s also useless as a pass catcher, with 23 catches in 52 career games and has 9 career fumbles on 672 career touches. He’ll have to settle for a one-year, prove it deal this off-season, but he could be a smart buy low option for a running back needy team. A return to New England as a backup behind LeGarrette Blount would make some sense.

G Dan Connolly

Dan Connolly is a smart, versatile interior offensive lineman who can play both guard positions and center, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons, including 67th out of 81 eligible guards in 2013 and 72nd out of 78 eligible guards in 2014. Going into his age 33 season, he should be a reserve next season. The Patriots should find an upgrade at left guard this off-season and bring Connolly back on a cheap deal as a reserve and a veteran presence.

Cap Casualty Candidates

CB Darrelle Revis

Darrelle Revis is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, grading out 3rd in 2008, 2nd in 2009, 18th in 2010, 1st in 2011, 1st in 2013, and 4th in 2014, with a torn ACL in 2012 that didn’t slow his career down in between. However, Revis is owed 20 million in 2015, including a 12.5 million dollar bonus scheduled to be paid out on the first day of free agency. The Patriots never really intended to pay him that when they signed him last off-season. There’s a small chance they do, given how good he is, but more likely he’ll be released, saving them 20 million on the cap. The Patriots would then try to bring him back on a long-term deal as a free agent. Their preferred option would be to work out an extension with him before then, but that’s no guarantee.

DE Vince Wilfork

Wilfork wasn’t bad in his first season back from a torn Achilles, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 defensive end, but he’s going into his age 34 season and the Patriots can save 8.5 million in cash and 8.067 million on the cap by letting him go this off-season. He’s a fan favorite, he’s been with the team for 11 years, and he played well last season, but that’s just too much to pay to an aging player when you have cap problems and other players to keep long-term.

WR Danny Amendola

Danny Amendola was signed by the Patriots to a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago to be the long-term replacement for Wes Welker. That didn’t happen, though fortunately for the Patriots, Julian Edelman became what they were expecting Amendola to become. Amendola missed 4 games with injury in 2013 and, though he played all 16 games in 2014, he struggled mightily overall and was well behind Edelman and Brandon LaFell on the depth chart. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 93rd ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible on 466 snaps. He played well in the post-season, but that might not be enough for him to stick around. His 4.5 million dollar salary for 2015 is non-guaranteed and too rich for a mediocre, injury prone #3 wide receiver. The Patriots would save 2.1 million on the cap by letting him go.

CB Brandon Browner

Brandon Browner did some nice things for the Patriots after his return from suspension, but his 15 penalties in 9 games was absurd and caused him to grade out below average overall, 19 penalties in 12 games if you include the post-season. That has been a perennial issue for him. The Patriots can save 5.5 million in cash and cap space by letting him go this off-season. Obviously, it’s much easier to give up on him if they are able to re-sign Revis. I’d like to see them keep Revis, let Browner go and go forward with Revis, Logan Ryan, and Kyle Arrington as their top-3 cornerbacks in 2015.

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