New England Patriots 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

I saved the Patriots for last intentionally and it’s not because I was trying to save the best for last with the defending Super Bowl champion. I did that because I wanted to maximize the odds that I’d be writing this preview at a point when Tom Brady’s status for the first 4 games wouldn’t be up in the air. That proved to be impossible. Brady was suspended for 4 games in early May after a supposedly independent report from Ted Wells suggested it was more likely than not that Patriot employees intentionally altered the air pressure of the AFC Championship balls to a non-legal level and that Tom Brady more likely than not knew about this. The team also lost their 1st and 4th round picks in 2016 and was fined a million dollars.

The Patriots chose not to appeal the team punishment, but Brady appealed this suspension in June. That didn’t go well because Commissioner Roger Goodell served as the arbitrator. Goodell announced in July that he was upholding the suspension, causing Tom Brady’s legal team to sue in federal court. Legal proceedings have been swift and it sounds like the case will be resolved before the start of the season, with both sides due in court multiple times before then. However, as of this writing, there is some percentage chance between 0% and 100% that Tom Brady will miss the first 4 games of the season with suspension and we don’t know what that percentage is, making it very tough to do a season preview for them.

Before I get into what a possible Brady suspension would mean for this team, I want to take a look at Brady’s case. Brady’s side is likely to argue a number of things. First, they are going to argue that the Ted Wells report is not as independent as it claims to be, because of Ted Wells’ personal relationship with league executives, and they will try to back up this claim with evidence of missed steps in the investigative process by Wells. They will also argue that Goodell didn’t have the ability under the CBA to delegate the handing down of the suspension to league executive Troy Vincent, which then allowed Goodell to be a “neutral” arbitrator on this case.

Brady’s best argument is that there is nothing in the rules, nor any precedent, that allows for a player to be suspended for an equipment violation like this, as the rules only mention a fine as a punishment. In the past with similar equipment violations, the punishment has only been a fine. The NFL will argue that a suspension was still warranted because of the Patriots’ history of skirting the rules and because Brady seemingly didn’t fully cooperate with the investigation because he didn’t turn his phone over. However, Brady was never implicated at all in Spygate, never receiving as much as a fine or even a warning from the NFL. As for Brady’s refusal to turn over his cell phone, the NFL doesn’t have subpoena powers and cannot force a player to turn over their cell phone. Under the advice of his lawyers not to set a bad precedent, Brady refused to turn over his physical phone.

There’s undoubtedly more to both sides of the story than we know, but it seems like the NFL once again mishandled player discipline. The NFL has had little luck with their suspensions standing when ruled on by an independent 3rd party over the past, especially in federal court. The NFL lost their case against Jonathan Vilma and the rest of the BountyGate players, their case against Ray Rice, their case against Greg Hardy, and their case against with Adrian Peterson, with all four suspensions getting nullified immediately.

Antonio Cromartie, of the rival New York Jets, made the point well publicly this week that he’s on Tom Brady’s side because he doesn’t feel like the Commissioner being allowed to make up his own rules on discipline is a precedent that any player should want to see happen and, as much as Brady being suspended 4 games would help the Jets’ playoff chances, fairness is more important. This opinion seems to be shared by the rest of the league because, while 72% of NFL players believe Brady and the Patriots to be guilty, only 16% are upset by it, 68% say that they think other teams do the same thing, and 58% do not consider the Patriots cheaters. On top of that, 78% of players consider Brady’s punishment too harsh and a whopping 88% of players do not think that Roger Goodell should be handling player discipline. While the circumstantial evidence does suggest that Brady at least knew about this and didn’t put a stop to it, I think it’s hard to argue that, in fairness under league rules, he deserves to miss a quarter of the regular season.

It remains to be seen how many games Tom Brady will be allowed to play this season, but, in the long-term, the debate over DeflateGate will be a legacy one, about whether or not this and Spygate lessen Brady’s legacy. I don’t believe it does. Taking some air out of the ball and being able to watch recorded public practices certainly doesn’t hurt a player’s ability to perform, but he’s hardly the only player to bend the rules, as evidenced by those polls and as several others have admitted this off-season, including Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, and if you think those are the reasons why Brady has been successful in his career, you don’t understand the game.

If Brady struggles by his standards on the field this season, it won’t be because the ball now has the minimum amount of air in it, instead of slightly less than the minimum amount. It’ll be because he’s going into his age 38 season and, depending on the result of his lawsuit, because he missed 4 games to start the season and it threw off his rhythm. In 7 healthy seasons (excluding 2008) since Pro Football Focus’ start in 2007, Brady has graded out 2nd (2007), 11th (2009), 8th (2010), 3rd (2011), 2nd (2012), 6th (2013), and 4th (2014). Brady looked to be on the slight decline in 2013 and to start 2014, but turned it around in a big way mid-season last season, en route to his 4th Super Bowl.

He’ll be missed for sure if the suspension is upheld. Jimmy Garappolo excites a lot of people long-term, but, as of right now, he’s an inexperienced 2nd year quarterback who went in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft and whose limited NFL success has mostly come on the practice field and during the pre-season. Garappolo has completed 19 of 27 career regular season attempts for 182 yards, a touchdown, and no picks, flashing, but doing so in very, very limited, mostly meaningless action. He’d be an obvious downgrade from Tom Brady.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Regardless of who is under center, tight end Rob Gronkowski figures to be a monster offensive weapon for them. It’s possible that, with Brady aging, Gronkowski has become their most important offensive player. He’ll obviously need to stay healthy though as, at this point last year, he was coming back from a torn ACL and was a serious injury concern. When he had January 2014 surgery on that knee, it was his 7th surgery since November 2012, including 5 on a twice broken arm, and one on his back.

When Gronk was limited to 7 games in 2013, only 3 of those 9 missed games were because of the torn ACL, as he missed 6 games to start the season with arm and back problems. Throw in a significant high ankle sprain that limited him severely in the Super Bowl after the 2011 season and the fact that his back problems dated back to his collegiate days at the University of Arizona, when he missed an entire season with a back injury, and you had a guy that, even only going into his age 25 season, looked like damaged goods and someone who might never be the same again.

Instead, Gronk was Pro Football Focus’ best tight end by a wide margin in 2014, winning Comeback Player of the Year in the process. He finished 15th in the NFL in receiving yards and had 116 more yards than Greg Olsen, who was 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards this season. That was despite the fact that he wasn’t 100% to start the season, catching just 13 passes for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season, and despite the fact that he didn’t play in a meaningless week 17 game for precautionary reasons. That means that Gronk had an 11 game stretch in which he caught 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns from the tight end spot. The Patriots moved the chains at an 80.87% rate in those 11 games (and went 10-1), as opposed to 65.47% in their other 5 games (2-3), propelling them to finish 6th in the league on the season in rate of moving the chains.

Gronk made it through the whole season injury free and was nothing less than he’s always been when on the field, possibly the most valuable offensive skill position player in the NFL (excluding quarterbacks). He’s caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker. He’s easily the top tight end in the league.

In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When Gronk doesn’t play, over that stretch of time, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. Gronkowski has made Brady look better than he is over the past few years and he can do the same for Garappolo, to some extent. He’s 100% injury wise right now, but, if he were to get hurt again, it would be devastating for this offense.

Top wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are not nearly as good and could see a serious statistical dropoff in the first 4 games of the season if Brady doesn’t play, something that could continue if Brady isn’t quite his old self upon return. Edelman has put up solid numbers over the past 2 seasons, putting up a 105/1056/6 slash line in 2013 and a 92/972/4 slash line last season and even graded out 34th among eligible wide receivers in 2013. However, he graded out below average in 2014 and prior to 2014 he was a 2009 7th round pick who had played 930 career snaps and missed 16 games with injury. I’m not trying to diminish his development, but he’s a marginal starting wide receiver whose recent production is largely the result of Tom Brady. He’s younger than Wes Welker and better than he would have been, but he’s a poor man’s version of Welker in his prime at best.

LaFell put up decent numbers in 2014 as well, putting up a 74/953/7 slash line and grading out 33rd among eligible wide receivers. However, he too benefitted from playing with Brady. Prior to last season, he never really played that well, as the 2010 3rd round pick caught 167 passes for 2385 yards and 13 touchdowns from 2010-2013, proving to be a marginal receiver at best, averaging 1.36 yards per route run, including just 1.18 yards per route run in 2013. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 94th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade in 2013 and below average in 3 of 4 seasons. He’s a marginal starting receiver as result and one who will have trouble repeating the best season of his career in 2015. LaFell and Edelman are decent and complement each other well, but they’re an underwhelming pair of starting wide receivers.

Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola will compete for the #3 receiver job. After the Patriots lost Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Aaron Hernandez two off-seasons ago, they brought in Amendola and Dobson to replenish their receiving corps and essentially act as Edelman and LaFell did last season. Amendola got a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar contract, while Aaron Dobson was a 2nd round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Neither of them lived up to expectations, allowing an opening for Edelman to breakout as a starting caliber player and causing the Patriots to sign LaFell to play opposite him.

Amendola was forced to take a pay cut down to 2.25 million for the 2015 season and, owed 5.5 million non-guaranteed in 2016, is likely in his final season in New England. Amendola graded out above average in 2013, but played just 581 snaps in 12 games thanks to injuries. He was healthy for all 16 games in 2014, but struggled mightily, grading out 93rd among 110 eligible wide receivers on just 466 snaps. He did play decent down the stretch though, catching 27 passes for 242 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 7 games of the season, including the playoffs.

That gave the Patriots hope that Amendola could bounce back in 2015 and become the player who averaged 2.04 yards per route run in 2012 with the Rams, which is why the Patriots brought him back. However, he’s an injury prone player (24 games missed in the last 4 seasons), who is going into his age 30 season, who has never played more than 679 snaps in a season (dating back to going undrafted in the 2008 NFL Draft), and who hasn’t had a good season since 2012. He could win the #3 receiver job, but I don’t see him having a fantastic year or anything. Dobson, meanwhile, graded out 98th among 111 eligible wide receivers on 557 snaps as a rookie and then was limited to 57 nondescript snaps in 2014 by injuries. He’s recovered from those injuries and has drawn positive reviews in practice, but he’s on his last chance and seems like a long-shot for the #3 job, as of this writing.

The winner of that job will see the field about half the time, playing in 3-wide receiver sets. The Patriots have a decent fullback in James Develin that they’ll use on occasion, while free agent acquisition Scott Chandler is the #2 tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and will see a decent amount of action. Chandler replaces Tim Wright, who graded out above average on 357 snaps in one season in New England, coming over in the Logan Mankins trade. He was surprisingly waived this off-season, despite two more very affordable years left on his rookie contract.

The 6-7 265 Chandler is a very different player than the 6-4 220 Wright and is more of a replacement for Michael Hoomanawanui than anything. Chandler should be an upgrade over Hoomanawanui, who graded out 58th among 67 eligible tight ends last season, but only by default. Chandler graded out above average in all 3 seasons from 2011-2013 as a starting tight end, on an average of 769 snaps played per season, but graded out below average last season on 744 snaps, 47th among 67 eligible tight ends. Things won’t get better for him, as he heads into his age 30 season. He’d be a significant downgrade from Gronkowski if Gronk were to get hurt. Rob Gronkowski elevates this receiving corps to a new level on his own, but, outside of him, they lack weapons in the receiving corps, making them very vulnerable to another possible Gronkowski injury and making life hard for Jimmy Garrapolo (or whoever starts the season at quarterback) than you’d expect.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Patriots had a lot of trouble on the offensive line last season, especially in pass protection (29th in team pass blocking grade). They particularly struggled at left guard. Dan Connolly saw the most action there last season, making 10 starts, but graded out 72nd among 78 eligible guards. Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey also made starts there, but both struggled, especially the latter, who graded out 70th among 78 eligible guards on just 306 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. Cannon wasn’t quite that bad at any one position, but saw action at many different offensive line positions and struggled everywhere about as much as Devey did at guard.

This season, with Connolly retiring ahead of his age 33 season, the Patriots are expected to start 4th round rookie Tre Jackson, which is unlikely to be a serious upgrade. The Patriots like Jackson, but are largely starting him out of a lack of other options. His competition includes fellow 4th round rookie Shaquille Mason, a guard out of Georgia Tech that is currently penciled in as the backup center, and veterans Devey and Cannon. Cannon is the better of the two because he did grade out above average on 160 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2011 and 178 snaps in 2012, but he’s struggled mightily over the past 2 seasons and certainly isn’t a legitimate starting option. Devey, meanwhile, had never even played a snap as a 2013 undrafted free agent prior to last season’s struggles and is no lock to even make the roster. Jackson’s only real competition is Josh Kline, a 2013 undrafted free agent who has been respectable in 412 career snaps, but he’s certainly not a dependable starter either.

Connolly actually began last season at center, but 4th round rookie Bryan Stork took over as the starter week 4 and made 11 starts the rest of the way, holding his own, grading out 23rd among 41 eligible centers. He’s not a great starter, but he could be solid again in his 2nd year in the league. Stork stepping up as a respectable pivot mid-season really helped the Patriots’ offense and made sure they wouldn’t have to start both Connolly and Devey.

Right guard Ryan Wendell also saw some time at center last season before Stork locked down the job, but primarily just played guard. Wendell spent 2012 and 2013 as the Patriots’ center and had drastically different performances in those two seasons. Wendell burst onto the scene in 2012, grading out 2nd among centers, but finished 31st among 35 eligible in 2013. He appeared to be a one-year wonder, given that the 2008 undrafted free agent had played just 566 career snaps prior to his one good year as a starter in 2012, but he played pretty well at right guard this season, grading out slightly above average. Overall, he averages out as a solid starter, like he was last season, but he’s very inconsistent. He’s also a much better run blocker than pass protector. He hasn’t graded out above average as a pass protector in any of his 3 seasons as a starter, not even in 2012, but he graded out 1st among in run blocking in 2012 and 10th last season (58th out of 78 eligible in pass protection).

The Patriots’ struggle for consistency wasn’t just on the interior of their offensive line last season. Nate Solder had a down year, grading out below average for the first time in his career, but he has a good chance to bounce back. The 2011 1st round pick graded out 34th in as a rookie, 17th in 2012, 9th in 2013, and only struggled last season because, as was revealed after the season ended, Solder had been treated for testicular cancer the previous off-season. He played better down the stretch, grading out above average in his final 13 games, and I expect that to continue into 2015. Now fully healthy and going into the final season of his contract, Solder should get a solid sized payday within the next calendar year.

On the other side, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was the Patriots’ most reliable offensive lineman last season. He made all 15 starts that mattered (he sat for the Patriots’ week 17 contest when they had the #1 seed locked up), graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked offensive tackle, and was the Patriots’ only offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average in both pass protection and run blocking. This is nothing new for him, as he graded out 8th, 17th, 19th, 14th, and 21st respectively in 5 seasons from 2009-2013, but what was new for him is that he didn’t get hurt, after missing 22 games with injury in his first 6 seasons in the league combined (after going in the 2nd round in 2009). He’s hard to trust injury wise, especially going into his age 31 season in 2015, but he should remain one of the best right tackles in the game when healthy. With a full season of Stork at center and Solder back to 100%, the Patriots’ offensive line should be better this season, but they still have problems.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

In 2011, the Patriots used a 2nd and a 3rd round pick on the running back position, taking Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley respectively, with the idea of having Vereen, a smaller, quicker back with good passing down skills, working in tandem with Ridley, a talented between the tackles runner with no passing down skills. Both had up and down careers in New England, but both also had stretches of strong play. Stevan Ridley graded out 8th and 13th in pure run grade among running backs in 2012 and 2013 respectively, rushing for a combined 2036 yards and 19 touchdowns on 468 carries over those 2 seasons (4.35 YPC), while Vereen caught 99 passes in 2013 and 2014 combined and graded out 12th and 10th respectively among running backs in pure pass catching grade in those two seasons respectively. Both left as free agents this off-season though.

Ridley won’t be hard to replace, as the Patriots actually ran better after Ridley tore his ACL week 6 last season. He was replaced at first by Jonas Gray, who rushed for 412 yards and 5 touchdowns on 89 carries (4.63 YPC) on the season, and then by LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 281 yards and 3 touchdowns on 60 carries (4.69 YPC), after coming over mid-season from Pittsburgh. Blount also totaled 189 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 47 carries in 3 playoff games as the lead back. Ridley, meanwhile, was at 3.62 YPC before going down with injury. Blount returns as the favorite to lead this team in carries, but head coach Bill Belichick is known for having no loyalty to running backs so Jonas Gray is right in the mix for carries on a team that didn’t have a single running back hit 100 carries last season (Vereen had 96 carries and averaged 4.07 yards per carry).

Blount is the more proven of the two backs, as Gray is a 2012 undrafted free agent who never had a carry prior to last season. Blount is also a former undrafted free agent, falling out of the draft in 2010 for behavioral reasons, but has rushed for 3258 yards and 25 touchdowns on 704 carries in 5 seasons in the league, an average of 4.63 YPC. He’s bounced from Tampa Bay to New England to Pittsburgh back to New England because of those same behavioral issues, but Bill Belichick has always kept him in line and I expect that to continue. Both Gray and Blount graded out significantly above average as runners on Pro Football Focus last season, so the Patriots are going to be fine in that aspect, but they also have just a combined 34 career catches in a combined 80 career games, so they’re both useless in the passing game.

Vereen will be much tougher to replace for that reason. It’s currently a three-way battle between Travaris Cadet, Brandon Bolden, and James White for the job and at least one, if not two of those players won’t even make the final roster. White’s roster spot seems to be the most in danger, as the 2014 4th round pick has struggled this off-season. He caught 39 passes in his senior year at Wisconsin, but played just 31 snaps as a rookie and hasn’t done much on the practice field to win over the coaching staff.

Cadet is probably the favorite. He has a mere 3.36 career YPC on 11 carries, but caught 38 passes with the Saints last season and graded out above average in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in the first significant action of the 2012 undrafted free agent’s career. Brandon Bolden is an internal option. He’s a much better runner, with a career 4.56 YPC, but he has just 25 career catches, has never graded out above average as a pass catcher, has only once graded out above average overall, and has missed 10 games with injury in 3 years in the league, since going undrafted because of injury concerns in 2012.

Bolden probably has the safest hold on a roster spot because he plays special teams well, but he’s no lock to exceed the mere 30 offensive touches he had last season. My guess is Cadet wins the passing down job, Blount and Gray make the team as the 1st and 2nd running backs, and Bolden makes the roster as a special teamer and insurance. The Patriots figure to still pass to running backs a decent amount in 2014, but I don’t see anyone catching the 52 balls that Vereen caught last season and they will miss him. The Patriots don’t have any great running backs, but they have a bunch of running backs who can play roles and Bill Belichick figures to use his running back stable to its fullest once again. It’ll be maddening from a fantasy football standpoint, but it should get decent results on the field.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Patriots’ lost 3 of their top-4 cornerbacks, in terms of snaps played last season, this off-season, including Darrelle Revis, arguably the best cornerback in the NFL and the biggest reason why the Patriots were able to finish 13th in rate of moving the chains allowed last season, after years of bad defense. Because of that, they had to either reload at the cornerback position or reinvent themselves defensively this off-season. They didn’t do the former at all, but they did the latter to some extent, by adding edge player Jabaal Sheard, formerly of the Cleveland Browns.

Sheard, a 2011 2nd round pick, has emerged as a solid player, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and 16th ranked in 2014. The Patriots already had two solid edge players in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich prior to bringing in Sheard, but Sheard was such a bargain (11 million over 2 years) and Jones and Ninkovich averaged 66.1 and 67.3 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons, the two highest per game snap averages among players at their position. As part of their reinvention on defense, they will rotate 4-3 defensive ends far more often and also regularly play all three on the field at the same time in sub packages. Sheard has experience playing in both a 4-3 and a 3-4. He graded out below average in both of his seasons as a 4-3 defensive end, but those were also his first two seasons in the league, so he won’t necessarily struggle back in a 4-3 in New England.

Jones is the biggest of the trio at 6-5 265, so he’d be tasked with rushing the passer from the interior sub packages, which he has some experience with. Jones is also probably the best of the trio. The 2012 1st round pick has graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the NFL, including 11th among eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014, despite missing 6 games with a hip injury. He does have some injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, but he’s healthy now and could have the best season of his career in his age 25 season in 2015, now playing a much more manageable amount of snaps. He has experience in a 4-3, as well as a 3-4, playing in a 4-3 in his first 2 seasons in New England in 2012 and 2013 and playing in one in college at Syracuse.

While Jones is on the way up, Ninkovich seems to be on the way down, going into his age 31 season. He graded out below average last season, snapping a 5-year streak of grading out above average. He definitely has bounce back potential, after grading out 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2011 and 6th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. He’s not completely over the hill yet and he too should benefit from a smaller snap count, but he’s getting to the point where he can’t be trusted as more than a solid starter. Still, it’s a solid trio. Sheard definitely won’t make up for all of the Patriots’ losses in the secondary by himself, but the Patriots should get good pass rush this season, which would help their secondary at least a little.

The Patriots also made a big addition at defensive tackle this off-season, drafting Malcom Brown in the 1st round, though he was largely a replacement for Vince Wilfork, who was cut ahead of his age 34 season, after grading out 13th among 3-4 defensive ends last season. Still, the Brown pick makes it two straight years where they’ve drafted a defensive tackle in the first round, as they drafted Dominique Easley in the first round in 2014, so there’s definitely potential at the position. Easley is more of a pass rusher, while Brown is more of a run stuffer, and the Patriots are hoping they can blossom into a fearsome duo inside in the future.

Easley’s rookie year didn’t really suggest that he can live up to those expectations though. It’s certainly not too late for him to turn it around, but Easley tore both his ACLs in college at Florida, was limited to 270 nondescript snaps by knee problems as a rookie, and is still not at 100%. It seems unlikely that Easley will again ever be the top-5 talent that he would have been before the injuries. The Patriots should just hope that he can stay healthy this season and play solid in an expanded role.

Easley will probably see the majority of his snaps in sub packages as an interior pass rusher, along with Jones, Ninkovich, and Sheard. Sealver Siliga looks like the favorite to start in base packages alongside Brown, but, like Brown, he’s going to be largely a two-down player this season. Siliga is a great fit for that role though, as the 6-2 307 pounder has graded out above average both overall and as a run stopper in each of his last 3 seasons in the league. The 2011 undrafted free agent has played just 467 total career snaps, maxing out at 242 in 2014, but he’s definitely deserving of more playing time, which he should get this season.

Christopher Jones finished 2nd among Patriot interior defensive linemen in 2014, grading out 42nd among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on 511 snaps, after grading out dead last among 69 eligible defensive tackles on 792 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013, largely playing out of desperation. He won’t have to play much this season, which is good. It’s a solid defensive line, but an unspectacular one that won’t make up for their losses in the secondary.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Another player who will give the Patriots pass rush productivity, as he did last season, is linebacker Jamie Collins. Collins only blitzed 85 times last season, but managed to record 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 16 hurries, an outstandingly good performance in that aspect for the collegiate defensive end. Collins isn’t just a good blitzer though, as he’s developed into one of the best overall linebackers in the game, easily making the position switch from college to the pros. He graded out 3rd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season. With the Patriots moving to a 4-3, Collins will move back outside, where he flashed on 302 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2013. He’s technically just a one-year wonder because he’s only been a starter in the league for one year, but, going into his age 26 season, Collins seems like a budding superstar linebacker.

Dont’a Hightower will remain in the middle in the Patriots’ new 4-3, after grading out 2nd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, one spot ahead of Collins and only behind Luke Kuechly. Like Collins, he seems like a budding superstar. Also like Collins, Hightower helped with pass rush, adding 8 sacks, 9 hits, and 17 hurries on just 156 blitzes. The 2012 1st round pick graded out 8th and 12th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012 and 2013 respectively and then dominated upon moving back to his natural, collegiate position of middle linebacker in 2014. Only going into his age 25 season, Hightower should continue this play into 2015 and beyond and is one of the best middle linebackers in the game.

The Patriots’ third linebacker, Jerod Mayo, used to be one of the best linebackers in the game, grading out 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012. However, he’s been limited to 12 games over the past 2 seasons by a torn pectoral and a torn patellar tendon and now has been relegated to two-down work, stopping the run in base packages. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because he had guaranteed money owed to him either way. The Patriots still made him take a pay cut down to 4.5 million from 9.1 million.

He played pretty well against the run in 2014 before going down, but a torn patellar tendon is incredibly tough to come back from. That injury is about as bad as it gets because the patellar tendon is far larger than any knee ligament. When you tear it, your kneecap gets dislodged and shoots up into your thigh because the patellar tendon is what holds the kneecap in. It’s also what surgeons use to make new knee ligaments when you tear one. The history of guys who tore their patellar tendon and then returned to form is basically none existent. He’ll likely never be as good as he used to be, but he could still be a solid two-down player in arguably the best 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL. Because of how Hightower and Collins have stepped up over the past two seasons, Mayo is no longer needed like he once was.

Grade: A

Secondary

I mentioned earlier how much the Patriots lost at cornerback this off-season. Before I get into detail about that, I want to start with the good, which is the safety position, specifically Devin McCourty, who was brought back on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal this off-season. That is the 2nd highest average annual salary in the league for a safety, but he was well worth it. McCourty started his career as a cornerback, grading above average in his first 3 years in the league at that position, including 7th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2010 and 8th in 2012 on just 534 snaps.

McCourty played such few snaps at cornerback in 2012 because he moved to safety mid-season, finishing the season 14th among safeties on 564 snaps. His composite grade across both positions would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. He then followed that up by grading out 1st among safeties in 2013 and 8th in 2014. There’s been some talk that McCourty could be moving back to cornerback this season, with so many losses at the position. That hasn’t been substantiated by anything yet, but it is the Patriots so you never know. I don’t expect him to move back full-time to cornerback, but it would make sense for the Patriots to have him play on the slot in sub packages.

That’s because the Patriots’ safety depth is so much better than their cornerback depth, meaning they are much better equipped to play with 3 safeties on the field in sub packages than the traditional 3 cornerbacks. Patrick Chung returns as a starter opposite McCourty, after getting a 3-year, 8.2 million dollar extension during last season. Chung was a huge surprise for the Patriots in 2014, playing all 16 games and grading out 12th among safeties.

How well he played wasn’t really a surprise, as the 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league, though he’s never been as good as he was last season. What’s most surprising is the fact that he stayed healthy, after missing 18 games from 2010-2013. It’ll be tough to count on him to stay healthy and repeat the best season of his career again in 2015, especially since the Patriots’ lack of talent at cornerback means Chung won’t be able to play within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 67.7% of snaps again, 5th among eligible safeties. That could lead to him getting exposed in coverage more than he was last season.

The Patriots also have a pair of good backups, Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards. Harmon was a 2013 3rd round pick and has graded out above average on 431 and 283 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Richards, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in this past draft, but he wasn’t seen as a highly rated prospect and figures to be the Patriots’ 4th safety at best. Still, given that the 5-11 212 pound Chung doesn’t play nearly as well in reverse as he does moving forward, both Richards and Harmon could carve out sub packages roles, especially if McCourty starts playing on the slot.

Of course, as good as the Patriots’ safeties are, they can’t completely mask their losses at cornerback. Darrelle Revis (1032 snaps), Brandon Browner (591 snaps), and Kyle Arrington (451 snaps) were 1st, 2nd, and 4th respectively in snaps played among cornerbacks in 2014 for the Patriots and they all left this off-season. Browner won’t really be missed, after grading out 79th among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014, and Arrington was only alright, but Revis will be impossible to replace, given that he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback.

Logan Ryan was 3rd on the team among cornerbacks in snaps played last season and looks like he’ll slide into a starting job by default. The 2013 3rd round pick graded out above average on 608 snaps as a rookie and, even though he graded out below average on 519 snaps, he wasn’t horrible in 2014. He’s a steep downgrade from Revis and he only has 13 career starts, but he’s also only going into his age 24 season and could be a decent young starter for them. He’s pretty much the only cornerback on the team who is locked into some sort of secure role.

2nd year player Malcolm Butler is penciled in as the other starter, while veteran journeyman Robert McClain is penciled in on the slot. Butler well known for his Super Bowl clinching interception, but, while that was a great play, it’s also important to remember that he went undrafted in 2014 and graded out below average on 187 regular season snaps. Even though he graded out above average on 33 post-season snaps, he’s still incredibly unproven. McClain, meanwhile, had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback, but he proved to be a one year wonder (the 2010 7th round pick played a combined 134 snaps in 2010-2011). He graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014, with his worst season coming in 2014, when he graded out 90th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. Neither inspires much hope in me.

Both players will have to hold off Bradley Fletcher and Tarell Brown, also journeyman veterans added as free agents this off-season. And, of course, it’s possible the Patriots rarely use 3 cornerbacks, favoring 3 safeties instead. As I mentioned, that’s probably a good idea because neither Fletcher nor Brown seems fit for a serious role, just like Butler and McClain don’t. Fletcher started all 16 games at cornerback last season for the Eagles, but he was horrible, grading out 92nd out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. Fletcher was a 3rd round pick of the Rams’ in 2009, but last season was the first season in his career that he made all 16 starts and, though he’s had decent success as a reserve in his career, he’s not a starting caliber cornerback. He’s a depth cornerback at best and not a very reliable one, as he’s missed 25 games in 6 seasons in the NFL.

Brown, meanwhile, is probably a little better than Fletcher, but didn’t sign with the Patriots until late July. He was a 3-year starter in San Francisco, grading out 32nd, 13th, and 31st in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Brown turned down a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal from the 49ers last off-season, instead choosing to bet on himself and rehab his value after missing 3 games and being limited in others by rib problems in 2013, but that seems to have been a mistake. Brown made 3.5 million over 1 season in Oakland, missed another 2 games with injury, and graded out below average, leading to a minimum deal in New England. There’s even talk that 7th round rookie Darryl Roberts, seen as a steal by College Football Focus, could see playing time at some point. The Patriots like him and with good reason, but I don’t think he’ll be ready for action as a rookie. It’s a far cry from last year’s secondary and that will really hurt a defense that finished 13th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2014.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Patriots were Super Bowl champions last year and were a much better team down the stretch en route to winning the Super Bowl, particularly on offense, as Rob Gronkowski got back to 100% and the offensive line turned things around. However, the Patriots might not be able to carry their strong offensive play from early October through the Super Bowl into 2015 because Tom Brady could be suspended for the first 4 games of the season, which would really throw their offense’s rhythm off. Even if Brady does play all 16 games, he’s going into his age 38 season and can’t keep playing like this forever.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots’ defense is without a doubt worse, thanks to the loss of Darrelle Revis, among others. They still have some strong parts, including Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Devin McCourty, the latter of whom the Patriots did manage to keep as a free agent this off-season, and they have a solid defensive line. However, this defense is not going to be the same in 2015 as it was in 2014 and I think the same can be said of the rest of the team. It’s tough to make a prediction with Brady hanging in limbo, but I don’t think they’ll be as good and they might cede the division to Miami. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Patriots after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): The Patriots got Tom Brady back for the first 4 games, but they still have other problems. Their cornerbacks are a mess, Brady is 38, Brandon LaFell and Bryan Stork are already out for at least the first month of the season, thinning their offensive line and receiving corps, and they share a division with a much improved Miami team. I have them in 2nd in a virtual tie record wise with the Dolphins and they certainly could win the division again, but I’m taking Miami. Both teams will be tough in the playoffs.

Prediction: 11-5 2nd in AFC East

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