The Patriots have thrown up a bunch of points over the past few seasons, scoring 33.1 points per game dating back to the 2010 season, by far most in the NFL. Green Bay has scored the 2nd most at 28.7 points per game. Last season, they had their highest points total over that 3 year stretch, averaging 34.8 points per game, the 3rd highest average since the NFL switched to a 16-game schedule, behind the 2007 Patriots and the 2011 Packers.
They’ve also had the NFL’s top offensive DVOA in 2 of the last 3 seasons and in terms of all-time offensive DVOA, dating back to 1991, they’ve ranked in the top-10 in each of the last 3 seasons, ranking #1 all-time in 2010, #6 all-time in 2011, and tied for #10 all-time in 2012 (they also ranked #2 in 2007). They’ve been easily the top offensive team in the NFL over the past 3 seasons. Their defense hasn’t always been great, but their offense has propelled them to top-12 all-time finishes in DVOA in both 2010 (#3) and 2012 (#11), along with their #2 all-time finish in 2007. Last year, they had a 3-year high in defensive DVOA, ranking 15th, and they also ranked 9th in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 20.7 points per game.
However, this off-season their offense took a major hit. Of their top-5 receivers from last year, 4 are no longer with the team and the other, Rob Gronkowski, has had 5 surgeries in the last calendar year, leaving his status for the start of the season very much in doubt. Wes Welker signed with the Broncos and Danny Woodhead with the Chargers. Brandon Lloyd has been released. And Aaron Hernandez, well, he could be going away for a long-time. He was released by the team in late June on the day that he was arrested for what eventually was revealed to be murder, not just obstruction of justice, in the Odin Lloyd case.
I don’t foresee Tom Brady having a major decline (even at age 36) so whether or not they can continue to produce the kind of points they’ve been producing over the past few seasons is going to be largely dependent on their new receiving corps. It’s hard to imagine them being a bad offensive team or even an average offensive team, but they could be a noticeably worse offensive team (even 4-6 points per game fewer would have a noticeable effect on this team and their ability to win games). I’ll get to the receiving corps and whether or not I think they’ll continue to be a top level offensive team in the receiving corps section.
Defensively, they should be largely the same. It’s an improved unit over what it’s been in recent years, but it’s not a top level unit by any stretch of the imagination. One thing that ordinarily would be a sign of an impending decline in win total is the Patriots’ absurd turnover margin from 2012. They had a turnover margin of +25, 41 takeaways and 16 giveaways, by far the best in the NFL.
That tends to be unsustainable on a year-to-year basis. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.
However, the Patriots could be an exception for a number of reasons. For one, they didn’t recover an absurd amount of fumbles last season. In fact, they recovered less than 50% of fumbles that hit the ground, recovering 46.7%, and they still were +14 in fumbles. They were just very good at holding onto the football and knocking the football out, which is more sustainable than being good at recovering the ball once it hits the ground.
The 2nd reason is that they have an elite quarterback. Tom Brady isn’t going to suddenly start throwing a bunch of interceptions. Brady’s 2012 interception rate of 1.3% was only slightly below his 6-year interception rate (dating back to 2007), which is 1.6%. His career interception rate is slightly higher at 2.1%, but even if he had thrown an interception on 2.1% of his attempts last year, it would have only been 5 more interceptions. A slight decline in ability given his age and the decline of his supporting cast could lead to a few more interceptions, but this is a guy who has never thrown more than 14 interceptions in a season and a guy who has one of the best career interception rates of all time (2nd lowest all-time among eligible quarterbacks behind Aaron Rodgers). He’s not going to start tossing a bunch of picks.
The third reason is that the Patriots always seem to be able to have impressive turnover margins and defy the aforementioned trend. Tom Brady’s ability to avoid interceptions is part of it, but it’s more than that. They frequently rank among the best in the NFL in takeaways and fumbles. They’ve been +16 or better in turnovers in 4 of the last 6 seasons, averaging +15.5 over that stretch and +23.3 over the past 3 years. After New England and Green Bay (+12.7), no other team is better than +6.5 (Atlanta) over that 6 year stretch. I think we’re at the point where we can consider them an outlier. They may decline a bit in this aspect this season, but they can be expected to once again pick off a lot of passes, force a lot of fumbles, fumble infrequently, and of course rarely throw an interception as long as Tom Brady is under center.
Brady himself probably won’t significantly decline this season. He’s going into his age 36 season, but has shown no significant signs of decline. Last season was the worst of his past 3 seasons as he “only” completed 63.0% of his passes for an average of 7.6 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, but those were still all at or above his career averages. He could, however, see a statistical and production drop-off if his supporting cast doesn’t live up to what it’s been recently.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
As I mentioned, whether or not the receiving corps can live up to what it’s been recently is going to be the single most important factor in whether or not the Patriots can continue to throw up massive amounts of points and win a lot of games. It’s the only significant difference on offense from last year to this year and it’s such an important discussion for that reason.
Wes Welker is gone, after signing a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal with the Broncos. The Patriots only offered him 10 million over 2 years, but were willing to pony up 28.5 million over 5 years with 10 million guaranteed for replacement Danny Amendola, which suggests that they feel that Amendola can not only replace Welker, but give them a younger upgrade.
Amendola and Welker have similar backgrounds as former undrafted smallish slot receivers who went to Texas Tech and came to New England from “lesser” franchises. Amendola, coming over from St. Louis, is two years older than Welker was coming over from Miami, but he also has 100 more receptions in just 10 more games. He’s certainly more proven than Welker upon arrival, which is why he commanded a larger salary. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be better.
Welker’s biggest advantage over Amendola is his sturdiness. Welker missed just 3 games in 6 seasons with the Patriots, while Amendola has played in just 42 of 64 possible games to this point in his career. Sure, Welker benefitted from tearing his ACL at the end of a season rather than in the beginning, but that was just a fluke injury and one he returned from incredibly fast. Amendola, meanwhile, has been on the injury report a ton over his career, especially the last two seasons, with various ailments. Playing the slot and going over the middle can definitely lead to injuries, especially when you’re catching 100+ passes per season in there. Welker is built like a truck and built to handle all of those hits. Amendola just might not be.
On top of that, Welker’s greatest talent was his chemistry with Tom Brady and that’s something Amendola might not necessarily have. Amendola is a more talented player and a more versatile player who the Patriots will use outside on occasion because of his better height and speed, which they almost never did with Welker, but it might not translate to better production. Welker averaged 112 catches per year over the past 6 years, making him responsible for roughly 30% of the Patriots completions over that time period.
All that being said, Amendola will still be productive and if he plays all 16 games he should catch 100+ passes. Assuming he doesn’t get hurt, he’s not a serious downgrade and it’s very possible that if the Patriots had kept Welker, who is going into his age 32 season this year, they might have seen him decline noticeably. Amendola could very well be an upgrade in that sense and he’s 4 years younger and still in the prime of his career, so he’ll give them more years.
The Patriots really seemed to prefer signing Amendola over Welker, low-balling Welker, while giving Amendola a more lucrative deal and targeting him early in free agency, reaching an agreement with him before Welker had even signed with the Broncos. They’re usually right about this type of thing. I think they made the right move for the future and I don’t expect them to noticeably miss Welker’s presence this season, assuming Amendola doesn’t get seriously injured.
Brandon Lloyd was their 2nd leading receiver last year, but he should be the easiest to replace. Lloyd did catch 74 passes for 911 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, but he’s still available as a free agent for a number of different reasons and the Patriots appear to have made the right move cutting him and going with a youth movement on the outside.
Lloyd had those 74 catches for 911 yards on 129 targets, a 57.4% completion and just 7.1 yards per attempt, both significantly lower than Brady’s numbers throwing anywhere else. He also dropped 7 passes and averaged just 2.4 yards after catch per catch, 6th worst in the NFL and worst among anyone who caught as many passes as he did. He also averaged just 1.53 yards per route run, 49th in the NFL out of 82 eligible, despite having a great quarterback throwing him the ball. Brady made him look a lot better than he is.
On top of that, he’s going into his age 32 season and has been known to be a bad teammate. The fact that his biggest believer Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels didn’t put up a fight for him to be kept around on what was not even that big of a salary is very concerning. There’s a reason he’s still unsigned as of this writing and he may remain unsigned going into the season.
In his place, the Patriots have 3 young receivers, 2nd round rookie Aaron Dobson, 4th round rookie Josh Boyce, and undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins. It’s very tough to rely on a rookie receiver, let alone three of them, but reports out of Patriots Training Camp have been very positive on this trio and their chemistry with Tom Brady. Brady should be able to make them look better than they are, like he did with Lloyd. The biggest concern here is mental lapses with players in the first year of their career and their first year in a complex playbook.
Aaron Hernandez would seem to be a big loss at the tight end position, but Brady was without Hernandez for much of last season and it didn’t seem to affect him negatively. In fact, he actually produced better WITHOUT Hernandez last year. He completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 8.0 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 1 interception in 7 games without him last year, leading the offense to 38.9 points per game and a 5-2 record. With him, he completed 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.3 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, leading the offense to 30.8 points per game and an 8-3 record.
Now, I’m not arguing that Brady is better off without Hernandez. That’s not a big enough sample size to support what would be a pretty absurd statement. However, Brady adapts to changing receiving corps better than maybe any quarterback in the NFL. Losing Hernandez won’t hurt him nearly as much as it would hurt another quarterback. Remember, from 2001-2007 Brady had 5 different leading receivers in 7 years and only Randy Moss, who the Patriots got for a mere 4th round pick, ever did anything of note before or after joining forces with Tom Brady. Aside from Moss, those receivers were Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell, David Givens, and Deion Branch. Ben Watson was his tight end. This year, undrafted rookie Zach Sudfield is expected to be the move tight end in Hernandez’s absence this season, though he won’t see nearly as many snaps as Hernandez would have. He’s looked good in Training Camp, however.
Rob Gronkowski, however, is a different monster. Brady completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.6 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while leading the offense to 35.8 points per game and a 7-3 record in the 10 games where Gronk played and wasn’t limited. In his other 8 games, he completed just 58.7% of his passes for an average of 7.4 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while leading the offense to 31.6 points per game and a 6-2 record.
Those numbers aren’t bad and they further prove that Brady can produce and put up points no matter who is running routes for him, but they’re noticeably worse. Unlike Hernandez, Gronkowski is not just a big wide receiver. He catches the ball as an inline tight end better than anyone in recent memory and his impact as a run blocker and as a goal line target are much harder to replace. Despite his limited playing time, he was still ProFootballFocus’ #1 tight end last season, a spot he held by a large margin in 2011. Also despite his limited playing time, Gronk was 7th among tight ends in receiving yards last season and still led the position in touchdowns. He was 4th at his position in run blocking grade, which he was #1 in the prior season. He also has an absurd 36 touchdowns in his last 35 games, dating back to the midpoint of his rookie season. He’s by far the most irreplaceable of their receivers from last year’s receiving corps.
Fortunately for Brady, Gronkowski is still on the roster. That much is certain, but that’s about where the certainty ends. Gronk has had 5 surgeries in the last calendar year, 4 on a broken arm that wouldn’t heal and a 5th on his back, which is the one that has his status for the start of the season in doubt. He had the surgery in June and was given roughly a 3 month recovery period. He also had back surgery in college, which is why he fell to the 2nd round of the draft.
Of course, because these are the Patriots, we’re not going to be able to find out anything about his status until right up to the start of the season. Reports this week have ranged from “he’ll be ready for week 1” to “he’ll start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list and miss at least the first 6 games.” However, even conservative estimations should have him back by the middle of the season, giving him plenty of time to get re-acclimated for the stretch run and the post-season.
The Patriots are still by far the best team in their division and once again have a very easy regular season schedule, especially to start the season (only 2 of their first 8 games are against teams that finished .500 or better last season) so getting him 100% by the post-season is going to be the biggest thing. Even conservative estimations suggest they should be able to do that, assuming the increasingly brittle Gronk doesn’t reinjure himself. I actually think there’s a solid chance Gronk played more snaps (743) and has more production (55/790/11) than he did last year and that would be a very good thing for this offense. Daniel Fells and Jake Ballard, two blocking type tight ends, would play in Gronk’s absence for any games he misses.
The X-factor in the receiving game is running back Shane Vereen. Vereen will likely be taking over Danny Woodhead’s old pass catching back role and Woodhead was 5th on the team with 40 catches for 446 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, before leaving for San Diego this off-season. Vereen, however, has the ability to be even more than that. The 2011 2nd round pick is a more talented and explosive back and, including the playoffs, he had 15 catches for 254 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns on just 117 pass snaps last season. He’s been lining up all over the formation this off-season and he could be the Patriots’ version of Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush.
The Patriots’ receiving corps might not be as good as it’s been recently, but they have some talented players for Brady to throw to. They’ll have to reinvent their offense again, using fewer two-tight end sets, but they have more depth outside at wide receiver and they also have Vereen. Brady should once again make the best of it and lead this offense to a bunch of points. It’s still better than what he had pre-2007. Scoring 30 points per game and leading the NFL in points again isn’t improbable.
One thing the Patriots could do to reinvent their offense this season is running more. They certainly have the running back talent to do so. 2011 3rd round pick Stevan Ridley rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 attempts last season. The Patriots’ strong passing game and offensive line undoubtedly helped, but he still had 2.5 yards per carry after contact, broke 29 tackles, and was ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked running back in rushing grade. The Patriots hadn’t had anything like him at the running back position since Corey Dillon was in his prime. Before him, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a plodder and nothing else. Before him, Laurence Maroney was inconsistent, ranging from solid to all kinds of crap. It hadn’t been since Dillon’s final season in 2006 that the Patriots had a back with Ridley’s explosiveness.
They have plenty of depth at the position as well. Shane Vereen will serve as a solid change of pace back, in addition to lining up all over the formation as a receiver. Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount, meanwhile, will compete to spell Ridley on running downs. Bolden flashed as an undrafted rookie last year, rushing for 274 yards on 2 touchdowns on 56 carries, but injuries limited him, as they did throughout his collegiate career, which is why he went undrafted. Blount, meanwhile, had a great rookie year in 2010 in Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent, rushing for 1007 yards and 6 touchdowns on 201 carries, but his work ethic led to struggles in 2011 and then to him losing his starting job in 2012. He was traded to New England this off-season and they will try him as a reclamation project.
The Patriots ran plenty last season, ranking 2nd in rushing attempts behind Seattle with 523. However, they could run even more this season as they didn’t actually run on that high a percentage of their plays last season. They also ranked 4th in the NFL with 641 passing attempts. They just ran a ton of plays because of their super hurry up offense. No team ran more than the 74.3 plays per game they ran last season because no team ran plays faster than they did last season, running one roughly every 25 seconds.
That type of offense can put a lot of pressure on your defense if you’re not moving the ball consistently, but the Patriots had a ridiculous 7.4 first downs for every punt last season. For comparison, Denver was 2nd with 5.7 first downs per punt. As long as they’re continuing to move the ball well this season, I don’t see why they wouldn’t continue to run this type of offense. They’re spending much of Training Camp practicing with Chip Kelly and the high octane Eagles this off-season so I don’t see that changing any time soon. There will be plenty of rushing attempts either way, but they could actually lead the league in rushing attempts this season if they decide to run more often. 550 rush attempts is not unrealistic so Ridley should get plenty of carries. Vereen and Bolden/Blount will also see carries.
As I mentioned, the Patriots excelled in run blocking last season, ranking 2nd to the 49ers on ProFootballFocus. However, it’s much more important that they excel in pass protection, which they also did last season. The Patriots ranked 9th in the NFL on ProFootballFocus in pass blocking and 14th in pass block efficiency. As a result, Brady was pressured on just 25.0% of his drop backs, 3rd among eligible quarterbacks.
This is incredibly important because Brady’s one weakness is that he does not throw well at when his timing is disrupted. Let me say it this way: Tom Brady is a bad quarterback when his timing is disrupted, more so than any other franchise quarterback in the NFL. No quarterback sees his completion percentage drop under pressure like Brady.
Last season, he completed just 40.4% of his pressured throws, 33rd out of 38 eligible, roughly a 23% drop from his regular completion percentage. Playoffs included, he completed 38.0% of his passes under pressure and 68.8% of his passes when not under pressure. This is nothing new. Over the past 4 seasons, he only has completed 280 of 592 passes (47.3%) and thrown 27 touchdowns to 16 interceptions under pressure, as opposed to 1389 for 1999 (69.5%) with 128 touchdowns to 31 interceptions while not under pressure.
Of course, good luck pressuring him. Not only does he have a great offensive line in front of him, but he also helps them out and makes them look even better than they are because he has one of the quickest releases in the NFL. His 2.42 seconds to throw ranked 5th in the NFL last season and in 2011 he ranked 6th taking 2.47 seconds to throw. You also can’t just blitz him because he’s one of the best quarterbacks against the blitz in the NFL, completing 471 for 740 (63.6%) for 6235 yards (8.4 YPA) and 55 touchdowns to 8 interceptions when blitzed over the last 4 seasons. However, if you can beat the Patriots’ offensive line quickly with only 4 guys, Brady is very, very unbeatable. This isn’t new knowledge though. I guarantee every team around the league knows this, but it’s much, much easier said than done.
The Patriots return all 5 starters from last year’s offensive line and, with the exception of right guard Dan Connolly, all of them should start in the same spot again. Connolly was the weak point of their line last season, grading out only average. Going into his age 31 season, he’ll have to hold off Marcus Cannon, who has graded out significantly above average in 338 snaps in his career, for the starting job. Cannon was seen as a 2nd round prospect by some teams prior to the 2011 NFL Draft, but he fell to the 5th round because he was diagnosed with lymphoma shortly before the draft. Now almost 2 years in remission, Cannon looks like a steal for the Patriots and someone who could have a great year if he wins the starting job.
The rest of the offensive line is the same. 2011 1st round pick Nate Solder broke out on the blindside in his 2nd season in the league, after playing well as a swing tackle, primarily on the right side, as a rookie. In 2012, he was ProFootballFocus’ 17th ranked offensive tackle and he could be even better in his 3rd year in the league in 2013.
Opposite him, Sebastian Vollmer was retained as a free agent. He was ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked offensive tackle last season, 4th among right tackles. A 2009 2nd round pick, Vollmer has been great since day 1, grading out 10th in 2009, 18th in 2010, and 23rd in 2011, despite only playing 6 games with injury in 2011. He’s a minor injury risk and he has some knee and back problems that limited his market in free agency, forcing him to settle for a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal with the Patriots, but he’s only missed 5 games in the other 3 seasons combined and he’s practicing fine in Training Camp.
On the inside of the offensive line, Logan Mankins will continue to play left guard. He’s going into his age 31 season and has been limited by various injuries over the past two years, but he’s still graded out well above average in both seasons. He was a top-6 guard on ProFootballFocus from 2008-2010 before injuries, despite playing just 9 games in 2010 due to a holdout. He remains one of the better guards in the NFL, but he’s on the decline.
Rounding out the line, the Patriots have Ryan Wendell at center. Wendell played incredibly well in his first season as a starter in 2012, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked center. He was #1 among centers in run blocking, though he did grade out below average in pass protection. He’s still a one year wonder, but it’s worth noting he graded out above average on 566 snaps as a reserve in 2010 and 2011, so there’s a good chance he can keep this up.
At the very least, 4 of the Patriots’ 5 starting offensive linemen are above average players and that’s at the very least. It’s one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. If it were Brady’s offensive line that were in shambles and not his receiving corps, there’d be reason for concern, but I do believe the Patriots will be able to continue putting up lots of points. There’s still a lot of talent around Brady, especially at running back and on the offensive line. It’s still more talent than he had pre-2006.
On the defensive line, the Patriots have a potential breakout star in defensive end Chandler Jones, the 21st pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Jones didn’t have a lot of production at Syracuse due to injuries, but his off the charts athleticism sent his stock soaring in the months before draft day. Jones measured in at 6-5 266 with 35 ½ inch arms at The Combine, drawing comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul. While he didn’t match JPP’s 40 time with a nondescript 4.87, he showed his athleticism with a 35 inch vertical and a 10 foot broad jump. Experts agreed he had the frame to get up to 280-285 comfortably and that while he might not do a whole lot as a rookie, he had a bright future.
Those who considered him a project had to be shocked by how well he came out of the gate in 2012. Through 8 games, heading into the Patriots’ bye, Jones had 6 sacks, 8 hits, and 20 hurries and won Defensive Rookie of the Month in September. He was on pace for 12 sacks, 16 hits, and 40 hurries, which would have put him among the best pass rushers in the league as a mere rookie. He did all this while grading out above average against the run as well. However, injuries again found him. He only missed 2 games the rest of the way, but injuries sapped his explosiveness and he managed just 1 hit and 8 hurries (with no sacks) the rest of the way.
However, with a full year under his belt, Jones still has plenty of potential going into his 2nd year in the league and beyond. He turned just 23 in February and, even after injuries sapped his production, his rookie year still exceeded expectations of those who thought he was a project. He finished the year as ProFootballFocus’ 16th ranked 4-3 defensive end. If he can stay healthy in his 2nd year in the league, the sky is the limit for him and he could easily have a double digit sack year.
Opposite him, the Patriots have another above average starting defensive end, the underrated Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich moved to the defensive line full time last season, starting 14 games at defensive end and 2 as a tweener linebacker who moves to the line on passing downs, which was his original role in 2011. He could play some linebacker again this season if injuries strike, but the Patriots prefer him on the line.
He graded out above average at both positions, played the run well, and had 9 sacks, 8 hits, and 25 hurries on 505 pass rush snaps, a modest, but not terrible 8.3% pass rush rate. He graded out slightly below average against the run. The Patriots added another tweener linebacker to the mix in 2nd round rookie Jamie Collins, who will provide depth at both positions and possibly see some pass rush snaps in sub packages. Justin Francis and Jermaine Cunningham, both of whom graded out well below average last season, remain the top defensive end reserves.
At defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork is the big name. Wilfork has graded out significantly above average in each of the last 5 seasons, including two top-10 seasons and last year had his best year in 3 years, grading out 11th at his position. The big 6-1 325 pounder took a little bit to get adjusted to playing 4-3 defensive tackle rather than 3-4 nose, but he’s always had tremendous movement ability for his size and last season graded out above average both as a run stopper and a pass rusher, though he was better against the run. The only concern is he’s going into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.
The Patriots did lose Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love this off-season, releasing both of them. They were just run stopping rotational players, but they didn’t really replace them. Tommy Kelly will start next to Wilfork, but he was one of the worst defensive tackles in the league last year in Oakland, grading out 74th out of 85 eligible. Going into his age 33 season, he’s unlikely to get better and he also reportedly has had some really attitude and work ethic issues. Perhaps the Patriot Way can get the most of him, but I think it’s much more likely he remains one of the worst starting defensive tackles in the NFL.
With two aging starters, the Patriots could really use their young reserves stepping up. Armond Armstead was signed this off-season, coming over from the CFL. Armstead was at one time a highly rated prospect at USC, but a heart attack caused him to go undrafted and forced him to go to Canada to prove himself. He did just that, making the All-Star team as a rookie with 6 sacks and now comes back to America hoping to follow in the footsteps of Cameron Wake and Brandon Browner as CFL success stories. The Patriots signing him was described by some people are getting a free 3rd round pick as he likely would have gone in that range if eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft. Marcus Forston is the other young reserve. The 2012 undrafted free agent played just 8 snaps as a rookie and despite positive reports about him, he remains much less likely than Armstead to have a positive impact, especially this season.
The Patriots may have the best 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL and it makes sense considering how much they’ve focused on the position early in the draft of late. I already mentioned Collins, a 2nd round rookie who will see a minimal role this season, but Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo are both former 1st round picks, while Brandon Spikes was a 2nd round rookie. All 3 have panned out.
Mayo is the best of the bunch and one of the best non-rush linebackers in the NFL, really coming into his own since the Patriots moved to a 4-3 defense, which allowed him to play 4-3 outside linebacker and really use his sideline to sideline ability. He’s graded out 7th and 2nd respectively in 2011 and 2012 among 4-3 outside linebackers and can be considered one of the best in the NFL at the position.
Hightower is the other every down linebacker. He’ll play outside in base packages, but move to middle linebacker in place of Spikes in sub packages. Despite being limited to 579 snaps as a rookie with injury and playing one game at middle linebacker, he was still ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. Going into his 2nd year in the league, he could be even better and really emerge as an above average starter.
Spikes in the middle is a pure two-down linebacker who comes off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back, but he’s great at what he does, which is stopping the run. No middle linebacker had a higher run stopping grade than he did last season and overall he graded out 9th at his position. He also was above average against the run in 2011, though not the top middle linebacker in the league. He should remain a talented run stuffer.
New England’s defense got better as the season went on. Before week 11, the Patriots allowed 22.4 points per game and 8.0 yards per pass attempt in 9 games. In their final 7 games, they allowed just 18.4 points per game and allowed just 7.2 yards per attempt. What was the difference? Well, the addition of Aqib Talib at cornerback and the development of rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard into a starter allowed week 1 starters Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington to move to safety and slot cornerback respectively.
Talib allowed 22 catches on 33 attempts for 304 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception, while deflecting 2 passes and committing 3 penalties with the Patriots. Those raw numbers don’t look great, but he usually lined up on opponent’s #1 receivers and his presence made the rest of the secondary better. They really missed him in their playoff loss to the Ravens. He’s also been better in the past, grading out noticeably above average in each of his first 4 years in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008.
Dennard was the better of the two starting cornerbacks, grading out above average on 601 snaps, allowing 31 catches on 61 attempts for 436 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 5 penalties. He was especially good down the stretch, allowing 15 catches on 30 attempts for 234 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 4 passes and committing 1 penalty from week 11 on through the end of the regular season. He was very impressive for a rookie and he could be even better in his 2nd season in 2013, his first full season in the league as a starter. He was seen as a 2nd round prospect before getting arrested for assaulting a police officer a week before the draft and he’s a perfect fit for the Patriots’ coverage scheme.
They may have found a steal with him. The one issue is that he was arrested again this off-season for DUI, which may have been in violation of his probation and lead to a suspension or in season jail time (he’s currently scheduled to serve his 30 day sentence for assaulting a police officer next off-season). If he were to miss time, 3rd round rookie Logan Ryan would probably see action, which would be an obvious downgrade. However, Dennard didn’t actually fail a breathalyzer test. The officer just said he didn’t blow hard enough. That could make the charges much tougher to have stick.
With Talib and Dennard outside, it allows Kyle Arrington to focus on the slot. On the outside last season, Arrington allowed 20 catches on 28 attempts, but he only allowed 26 catches on 42 attempts on the slot. He’s not a great player in either place, but the 5-10 196 pounder is clearly a more natural fit on the slot. He graded out just about average overall last season.
With Talib, Dennard, and Arrington at cornerback, it allows Devin McCourty to play safety, where he is awesome. This isn’t to say he was bad at cornerback, but McCourty allowed just 5 completions in 8 games at safety. He was great in both spots and his composite grade would have made him the #4 ranked safety and the #5 ranked cornerback, but I think safety is a better fit for his skill set. In his first full season at the position, he could really emerge as one of the top safeties in the NFL.
The one hole in the secondary is the other safety spot. Adrian Wilson was signed to start in that spot, but he graded out below average last season and started coming off the field in obvious passing situations down the stretch. He lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 62.3% of his snaps last season, 5th most among safeties, and is a pure box safety. He was better in 2011, actually grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked safety, so he could bounce back, but he’s also going into his age 34 season so his best days are probably behind him.
He may just be a pure box safety and come off the field in base packages for a coverage specialist safety. Tavon Wilson, a tweener defensive back who went in the 2nd round in 2012, could be that safety. He graded out significantly above average on 476 snaps as a rookie. Overall though, the secondary is trending upwards, as is the defense as a whole. They could continue to rank in the top-10 in scoring defense, like they did in 2012, even if they don’t force quite as many turnovers.
Do I really need to say anything about Bill Belichick? He’s the best in the game. No active Head Coach has won more regular season games, won more post-season games, made more Super Bowls, won more Super Bowls, and kept his current job longer. He’ll remain the Patriots’ Head Coach as long as he wants and when he retires he’ll join the 22 Head Coaches currently in the Hall of Fame. He already has more wins than every Hall of Fame Head Coach, with the exception of 5. No Head Coach in NFL history has coached as few seasons as Belichick and won as many games. He also has a chance to be 3rd or 4th all-time in wins when all is said and done. Tom Landry (29 years) is 3rd with 250 wins and Curly Lambeau (33 years) is 4th with 226 wins.
The demise of the Patriots is much exaggerated. They still have the Brady/Belichick combination and they still have plenty of supporting talent. This has been the best team in the NFL over the past decade, averaging 12.2 wins per game over the past 11 seasons and, in a parity filled league, they’ve never won fewer than 9 games in a season. They’ll continue to win a bunch of games this season, compete for a 1st round bye in the weaker AFC, and go into the playoffs as one of the favorites for the Lombardi. Once they get there, it will be all about executing, which is something they haven’t done as they were expected to over the past few seasons, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do so this year.
In the regular season, they should win at least 5 games in their weak division again. They’re 16-2 in the division over the past 3 seasons and the division hasn’t gotten noticeably better. Outside of the division, they host Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Cleveland. Tampa Bay and Cleveland should be easy wins, while New Orleans isn’t a good road team. They’ve lost just 3 home games over the past 3 seasons and they probably won’t lose more than 1 of those games. Worst case scenario, they’re 9-2 through the 11 games I’ve mentioned. They’re road schedule is tougher as they go to Atlanta, Carolina, Houston, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, but I’d be surprised if they lost more than 3 of those games. I think 11-5 is a conservative estimation for them and I have them at 12-4, essentially their average season over the past 11 seasons.
Projection: 12-4 1st in AFC East