One star tight end sits in jail, charged with murder. The other remains a question mark, beset by injuries. The other top three receivers from last season have all moved on. With Brady under center, New England remains a contender
So, what now? The Patriots find themselves without their most valuable player not named Tom Brady, and the presumptive end of Aaron Hernandez’s career (and possibly free life) could redefine an offense that has ranked among the top three in scoring in each of the past three seasons. The popular sentiment is that owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick must get this organization back to “The Patriot Way,” an artful catchall description for how this franchise won three Super Bowls (and appeared in a fourth) with mostly blue-collar role players.
Some believe that in the nine years since New England last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy—nearly a decade, can you believe it?—the club has drifted from its roots. Yet during the supposed nine-year deterioration of The Patriot Way, the team posted an NFL-high 98 regular season wins … not to mention the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history and two more Super Bowl appearances. The Patriots aren’t a once-proud organization that must rediscover its way. They’re a well-run franchise that has been thrown an unforeseeable curveball by the Hernandez murder allegations. They did the right thing by immediately dumping him. Now they must figure out how to move on without him.
With Aaron Hernandez gone and Rob Gronkowski a question mark coming off forearm and back surgery, you might expect the Patriots to reconfigure their entire offense. Especially considering their three other receiving leaders from last year, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead, are no longer around.
Perhaps a return to the schematic Patriot Way—winning with defense and ball control—is in store. After all, this is an offense that ranked seventh in rushing last season and has the ground weapons to get even better. Stevan Ridley, with his great lateral agility and burst, is coming off a 1,263-yard Pro Bowl campaign. Behind him, fellow third-year pro Shane Vereen has deceptive speed and quickness on the outside. Newcomer LeGarrette Blount can push for short-yardage duties, though with his heavy feet and upright style, he probably won’t beat out compact downhill runner Brandon Bolden or James Develin. And don’t forget that veteran pickup Leon Washington is also in the mix.
The surfeit of running backs is complemented by a potentially dominant front line. If four-time All-Pro guard Logan Mankins can stay healthy (last season he missed six games with ankle and calf injuries) and uber-athletic third-year tackle Nate Solder can keep progressing, the Pats will have the most mobile left side blocking duo in football. This, along with the reliability of center Ryan Wendell and guard Dan Connolly—two smart, fine-tuned blockers, particularly on the move—will make for a very potent front, especially on power runs. The only concern is whether skilled right tackle Sebastian Vollmer can overcome his back problems. But even if he can’t, 2011 fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon could probably step in.
So, yes, the Patriots have all the pieces to be a dominant running team. This would be sensible for an offense that just lost its dynamic tight end, and it’s the same formula the Patriots rode to three titles.
It would also be the wrong approach. The NFL has changed over the last decade. It’s a passing league now. And while the Patriots don’t have many proven receiving weapons, they still have innovative offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. And they still have Tom Brady. Wrong as it may sound, Brady is a much better quarterback now than he was during the Pats’ title years. Instead of changing their groundbreaking system, the Patriots should (and likely will) call “next man up” and lean on Brady even more.
The Patriots have the right resources to do this. Daniel Fells can become the new Aaron Hernandez. He might not have Hernandez’s natural talent, but his skill-set is similar. Jake Ballard, back from the knee injury that wiped out his 2012 season, could fill Rob Gronkowski’s role. So could undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld. (Gronk is unlikely to play in Week 1 but is expected to return soon.)
Danny Amendola is the new Wes Welker. And if Amendola goes down with injuries, there’s always Julian Edelman. The new Brandon Lloyd is second-round rookie Aaron Dobson, a supremely gifted, strong-handed playmaker. There’s also fourth round pick Josh Boyce, undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins and special teams maven Matthew Slater. Thompkins has been very intriguing in camp and the preseason. Taking Woodhead’s spot in single-back spread sets will either be Shane Vereen (who was tremendous in this capacity against Houston in the last season’s wild-card game) or Washington.
Just because there is a similar player stepping into these roles doesn’t mean this offense will be same. Nearly every player mentioned is a downgrade from the guy he’s replacing. And there are still serious question marks: What can Gronkowski provide? Can Amendola stay healthy? Will Ballard’s knee hold up? Can anything of substance be expected from the rookies, given that young players in the past (and even some veterans) have struggled with the copious sight adjustment and option routes of this intricate system?
There are concerns, for sure, but the Patriots don’t have to abandon their cutting-edge system. With perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, they can run the same system with less talented players. This could mean replacing some of the two-tight end sets with three-receiver sets while maintaining many of the same offensive concepts. Brady is a master at diagnosing the defense before the snap, buzzing through progressions after the snap, manipulating the defense with subtle mechanics and delivering balls with pinpoint accuracy. All of these attributes make the game easier for his receivers.
There isn’t real concern as to whether the new players are talented; it’s a matter of them learning the system well enough to run it at breakneck speed. That’s really what made this No. 1 ranked offense so special last season. The Patriots averaged just six yards per play, seventh best in the NFL. But they ran an NFL record 74 plays per game. In order for New England to keep playing fast, the new weapons must be comfortable in the system.
Aside from Hernandez being cut, re-signing Aqib Talib was New England’s biggest offseason move. Though he’s viewed as a No. 1 man-to-man corner, Talib only signed a one-year deal ($4.97 million) that suggests Kraft and Belichick have reservations about the 27-year-old’s desire to improve (he mainly needs work in zone coverage). That they still brought Talib back after trading for him last season suggests they also appreciate his raw talent in an otherwise mediocre secondary.
With Talib, the Patriots can play man coverage across the board. Without him, they can’t. There’s a domino effect with the other corners. Second-year pro Alfonzo Dennard, with his fluid movement and compact strength, matches up well against most No. 2 receivers. But he’s not polished enough to compete with No. 1’s. Kyle Arrington has developed into a fine No. 3 slot corner, but is a tremendous liability as a starter on the outside. Marquice Cole is better than most No. 4 corners, but worse than many No. 3s. The same is likely true about former No. 33 overall pick Ras-I Dowling, who has been limited by injuries to just nine games over his first two years.
Playing man coverage gives Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia more freedom in deploying their safeties. Not being big on blitzes, they prefer to either play both safeties over the top (known as “two-man”) or play one over the top and the other roving underneath (generally known as “man free lurk”). If Talib is suddenly removed from the equation, the safeties would become more contained and this secondary would be compelled to go with safer zone coverages. As we saw last season, it’s easy to exploit zones. In the nine games prior to Talib’s debut in New England, the zone-oriented Patriots surrendered 7.6 yards per pass attempt. In the six games Talib played (he missed one game with a injured hip), the man-oriented Patriots surrendered 6.8 yards per attempt.
Keeping both safeties in coverage often means a conservative defensive scheme, which is antithetical to what people associate with a Belichick-coached defense. But it’s been years since Belichick used his complex concoctions of rotating hybrid coverages, 3-4 blitzes and innovative new schemes each week. Belichick caters to his personnel. When the Pats were winning Super Bowls, he had a bunch of uncommonly shrewd veterans such as Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, a precocious Richard Seymour and, later, Rodney Harrison and Asante Samuel. But in recent years, he’s had a lot of disappointing young draft picks and no-name free agents. (His fault, he’s the de facto GM.) Consequently, Belichick’s schemes have been simpler.
Expect Belichick to stick with man coverage as his foundation, and to be a little more creative with his safeties (less “two-man”, more “man-free lurk” variations). A more experienced Devin McCourty can bring good range to centerfield. This will allow veteran pickup Adrian Wilson, who is likely to start ahead of last year’s mistake-prone second-round pick, Tavon Wilson, to play in the box. That’s really the only way the elder Wilson can be effective; with age he’s become savvier near the line of scrimmage but stiffer in open space against the pass.
Wilson alone might be enough of a wild card to quench whatever thirst Belichick may have for more disguises. If so, that would allow the front seven to focus more on straightforward execution. The Patriots have enough talent here to just line up and play.
It starts with a linebacking corps that’s on the rise. Fourth-year pro Brandon Spikes is the most physical downhill run defender in the NFL. Hopefully his desire for a big free-agent contract after this season won’t distract him from the valuable work he does so well (like blowing up blocks). Spikes doesn’t have great change-of-direction speed or agility, which makes him a bit vulnerable in coverage. That said, he should be able to fend off the faster Dane Fletcher and get snaps in most nickel packages.
As good as Spikes can be, the fact that Jamie Collins was drafted in the second round indicates the team just might be willing to let Spikes’ big payday come elsewhere. Collins is raw and may project only as a pass-rusher in the short-term, but what if he could develop into a starting Will backer, with five-tool veteran Jerod Mayo sliding to the middle? Mayo is instinctive against the run and effective against the pass (particularly in underneath zone). The hope is more of his tackles this season will be gobbled up by Dont’a Hightower, last year’s first-round pick who is progressing adequately on the strong side.
Though Belichick will likely keep his front schemes pretty basic, he’ll still use an array of different three-and four-man lines. And he’ll also play a variety of different gap concepts. But don’t expect a lot of complexity or disguises.
Belichick will, however, dial up an interior linebacker blitz a few times each game, not just because Mayo and Spikes are excellent gap-shooters, but because the Patriots don’t have a particularly explosive front four. Last year, end Rob Ninkovich’s eight sacks led the team. Commendable as his opportunistic play and steady improvement have been, there’s not a team in the league that genuinely fears Ninkovich off the edge. In fact, his strong suit is actually stopping the run as a play-side linebacker. Chandler Jones, a first-rounder last season, has the lateral strength and pliability to record double-digit sacks, but he lacks the speed to ever lead the league.
Jones could be an excellent nickel defensive tackle (a role currently played by Jermaine Cunningham), but second-year backups Jake Bequette and Justin Francis aren’t pure enough edge rushers to warrant him sliding inside. The Patriots could catch lightning in a bottle with ex-Brown Marcus Benard outside, but don’t hold your breath.
Even in the base 4-3, these ends may find themselves occasionally lining up inside given a paucity of depth at defensive tackle. At least there’s nothing to worry about with the starting defensive tackles. Wherever he lines up, Vince Wilfork remains as destructive as ever. He’s incredibly nimble for someone bigger than most Zipcars. Next to Wilfork will be ex-Raider Tommy Kelly, who still has good power and initial quickness after nine years.
No one sits around debating who the top five kickers in the NFL are, but if they did, Stephen Gostkowski’s name would almost always come up. At punter, the Patriots brought in Ryan Allen to challenge Zoltan Mesko. The fourth-year pro really struggled in 2012 but will likely wind up keeping his job. As for the return game, it’s never been a major emphasis of Belichick’s, though that could change now that he has Leon Washington. The eighth-year veteran has eight career kick return touchdowns.
Without question, the Patriots’ offense is significantly less talented than it was a year ago. But with Brady still under center, the coaching staff still intact and a defense destined to improve, New England remains not only heavy favorites in the AFC East, but also a contender in the AFC.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.