With the flurry of NFL offseason action nearly in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take stock of every team’s offseason. Find all our Offseason Report Cards here.
According to Vegas, common sense and recent history, the New England Patriots are the second-best team in the AFC. Have they done enough since last season’s title-game loss to Denver, their second straight stumble one step shy of the Super Bowl, to get over the top in 2014?
On the surface, it is a little hard to say yes.
Where they could improve most is in the secondary, thanks to the arrivals of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. (Browner will miss the first four games of 2014 on suspension.) Revis directly replaces Aqib Talib, now a member of those pesky Broncos, while Browner will join a mix that already includes Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard.
Beyond those additions and merely getting folks healthy again, the 2014 Patriots will resemble very closely the 2013 Patriots. Also leaving with Talib were RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Brandon Spikes and a gaggle of bit players like Andre Carter. Steve Gregory, an 11-game starter at safety, was not re-signed and has yet to find work elsewhere.
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The Patriots will drop in rookie RB James White for Blount on the depth chart, though the two are very different athletes. Bill Belichick and Co. will rely on in-house options elsewhere, including to replace Spikes at linebacker and Gregory at safety. Veteran DE/LB Will Smith was perhaps the most significant free-agent pickup outside of Revis and Browner, despite having missed all of 2013 with an injury.
Will any of the Patriots’ draft picks outside of White see significant playing time? The best bet is DT Dominique Easley, an oftentimes dominant interior presence for Florida. That is, before he tore his ACL last season. His recovery will be something to monitor as the regular season approaches. All of New England’s other selections will be penciled in as backups.
OT Sebastian Vollmer, RB Shane Vereen and WR Danny Amendola, among others, are back after sitting out several games each due to injury in 2013. Those re-additions alone should bolster the prohibitive AFC East favorites, and the expected top contender to Denver’s supremacy within the conference.
This again is a dangerous, talented team. But the Denver roadblock looms.
Best acquisition: Darrelle Revis, CB.
Aqib Talib was excellent for the Patriots during his year-plus stint there, to the point of being borderline irreplaceable. Darrelle Revis, at full health, is better.
The man who built Revis Island sure looked sprightly again last season in Tampa Bay, after an ACL injury ended his 2012 campaign in its infancy. In fact, Revis graded out as the NFL’s top cornerback on Pro Football Focus for 2013, 57 spots ahead of Talib. Those rankings belie Talib’s impact on the Patriots defense, both when he was in and out of the lineup, but they also speak to Revis’ place among his CB peers.
“I did finish all 16 games. I was slow and maybe sluggish in the beginning of the season but week to week, I got stronger and stronger,” Revis said of his 2013 performance. “Toward the end, I probably felt my best as a football player. That’s a thing where it took some time and I thank [the] Tampa Bay Buccaneers for everything they did to help me with my rehab throughout the course of the year. It was a big process to get through that and fight through it but right now I feel great. I’m just ready to play ball.”
If the Patriots receive the expected steps forward from 2013 draft pick Logan Ryan and 2012 seventh-rounder Dennard, plus continued consistency from Kyle Arrington, they certainly could improve on last season’s finish as the 18th-ranked pass defense. Add in Browner, who should join the lineup once his four-game suspension lifts, and this may be the type of unit capable of matching up with Denver should that rivalry again decide the AFC.
All of those hopes start with Revis, who should remain motivated by his second consecutive contract season — the Patriots convinced him to sign a one-year, $12 million deal, meaning that he could head to free agency once 2014 wraps. Impending free agency and the desire to prove himself off that knee injury led to a vintage Revis effort with Tampa Bay. Expectations will be even higher for him in New England.
Biggest loss: Brandon Spikes, LB.
New England received a glimpse at their future — and a very promising one, mind you — when Spikes hit injured reserve prior to last season’s playoffs. Without him, the Patriots had to drop then-rookie Jamie Collins into the starting lineup. He responded with a thunderous performance in a divisional-round win over the Colts, as his team held Indianapolis to just 69 yards rushing, the lowest total it had allowed since a Week 4 win in Atlanta.
Collins’ flash will have to become a full-time experience now that Spikes will be patrolling the middle of Buffalo’s defense. The Southern Miss product may be capable of such an upswing, but replacing the Patriots’ best run defender will be no easy chore.
“With Jamie I feel like he’s blossomed a lot sooner than anybody,” LB Dont’a Hightower, the team’s leading tackler last season, said of Collins. “I feel like he was a lot more mature in his first year than some people are in their third year. You couldn’t tell that he wasn’t a third- or a fourth-year player.”
That maturity will be put to the test in Spikes’ absence. Spikes brought an outspoken confidence to the middle of New England’s defense, particularly on first and second downs when he did the majority of his work. Spikes missed just one game over the past two seasons (not counting his two playoff absences), plus played more than twice as many snaps as did Collins in 2013.
So while Collins was highly impressive in his own playing time, he does face the challenge of attaining consistency. Though Spikes was limited as a three-down player, he had that aspect down.
Underrated draft pick: James White, RB.
LeGarrette Blount is a newly-minted Pittsburgh Steeler, so Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley are the obvious candidates to duke it out for the No. 1 RB job. White may have something to say about all that.
Arguably one of the most underrated draft prospects, period, White totaled 15 touchdowns and more than 1,700 total yards from scrimmage last season at Wisconsin. He did so despite living in the shadow of potential future superstar Melvin Gordon, just as he had stayed tucked behind Montee Ball for the previous couple of seasons.
In White, though, the Patriots found themselves a back capable of playing on all three downs — he caught 39 passes out of the backfield in 2013. How well a running back blocks plays a critical role in Bill Belichick’s depth chart, and White stood his ground as a protector for the Badgers, despite his limited strength.
Vereen continues to work his way back from the wrist fracture that cost him half of the 2013 season and Ridley fumbled away some of his snaps. The door might be open for White to make his mark early.
Looming question for training camp: Are we still talking about the wide receivers?
Oh so much was made about New England’s shoddy receiver depth last year, the dip in Tom Brady’s passing numbers more or less directly attributed to the inexperienced, underwhelming talent around him. In 2014, the situation may not be all that different.
Rather than make any big splashes at WR, either via free agency or in the draft, the Patriots played it rather carefully. They added fifth-year wideout Brandon LaFell, who is coming off a career-high 49 catches with the Panthers; they used a Round 7 selection on Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon, a diminutive but rather polished option. Other than that, the names are the same: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson and Matthew Slater.
Edelman was Brady’s go-to guy in 2013, hauling in a team-high 105 catches while topping 1,000 yards. The drop-off from there was precipitous — Amendola had 54 grabs in 12 games, Dobson and Thompkins finished with 69 catches combined.
A leap from either of those last two guys, both added prior to the 2013 season (Dobson as a second-round pick, Thompkins as an undrafted free agent) would shift some of the focus off Edelman … and quiet a lot of the critical chatter about Brady’s surrounding cast in the post-Aaron Hernandez era.
Nick Underhill, Patriots beat writer for MassLive.com, hyped the Thompkins bandwagon this week on Twitter: “I feel comfortable saying that Kenbrell Thompkins has been my MVP of the summer. A lot can change with pads, but he’s looked really good.”
A repeat performance from Edelman and, more importantly, keeping Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola on the field would make life a lot easier for Brady. Even if no one else emerges, that trio has shown itself to be fully capable of producing catches, yards and scores. Count anything additional from the remaining receivers as a bonus, albeit a needed one.