The most pressing concern: Jimmy Garoppolo has never taken a meaningful NFL snap
1. By season’s end, tight end Martellus Bennett will be considered one of the most valuable offseason acquisitions of 2016, if not the most. Even before the Patriots traded a fourth-round pick to Chicago for Bennett, they had the NFL’s most diverse offense out of two tight end sets. In these packages they employ a litany of formations, run concepts and aerial tactics. Obviously, the Gronkowski Factor is huge. Opposite Gronkowski last season was either Scott Chandler, a purely north/south mover, or Michael Williams, a suspect blocker. (Both are gone now.) In Bennett, the Patriots have attained a poor man’s Gronk. He can align anywhere on the field, from a traditional line of scrimmage tight end spot to the slot and even out wide. Also like Gronk, he’s a willing and able run-blocker. If the Patriots want, they can spread out in an empty pass set and throw on one down, then line up in a heavy condensed set and call some sort of power run on the very next down. Defenses are going to have a miserable time matching up to this.
2. Along these same lines, running backs Dion Lewis and James White are both extremely valuable to the passing game. Prior to tearing his ACL last year, Lewis was sensational on quick slants and receiver screens when aligned out wide in an empty backfield set. White was also proficient here, though his best damage comes on routes that attack the weak side out of the backfield (especially the weak side opposite a “trips” receiver arrangement). All of these routes propagate the quick-strike passing game that Tom Brady has perfected.
3. Speaking of Brady, did you know he’s suspended the first four games? Any analysis of how Jimmy Garoppolo will do in the future Hall of Famer’s stead is pure speculation. Garoppolo has never taken a meaningful NFL snap. The Patriots system is set up to help him. The inverted formations out of “12” personnel—i.e., when a running back or a tight end is out wide and a receiver is aligned inside—almost always force the defense to reveal prior to the snap whether it’s man or zone coverage. That’s obviously valuable information. And when it’s zone, Garoppolo will often have a slot receiver matched against a linebacker inside. Usually that’s an easy six or seven yards. When it’s man, the Patriots have an array of motion and stack release elements, as well as natural pick routes, to get guys open. The reads in this system become very defined.
4. I was wrong last year when I asserted that Julian Edelman was a product of New England’s system. It’s true that the scheme, with all of its quick option routes, fits Edelman perfectly. But that scheme was also much less potent when Edelman was out with a broken foot last year. In fact, the numbers are overwhelming. With Edelman in the lineup (including playoffs), the Patriots went 10-1 while averaging 32 points a game and 320.6 yards passing. When he was out, the Pats were 3-4, averaged 23 points a game and 236.3 yards passing.
5. Don’t expect opposing defenses to blitz very often. The Patriots’ quick-strike passing game usually negates blitzers, so the best use of those defenders is to put them in shallow coverage. Defenses that rushed only three and dropped eight last year gave the Patriots problems. The more bodies in coverage, the longer Brady has to hold the ball. The longer Brady holds the ball, the more his mediocre offensive line gets exposed.
6. Signs that New England’s defense is remarkably well coached: consistent rallying to the ball and tackling; quality depth provided by no-name guys; versatility in front seven looks; versatility of safeties in man coverage. With the exception of the variety of front seven looks, all of these things pertain to fundamentally sound execution, not crafty scheming. The Patriots are not a complex defense; they’re a classic bend-don’t-break unit that does a lot of basic things extremely well.
7. Jamie Collins is one step away from being the best all-around stack linebacker in football. His speed in open space and fluidity in traffic are unmatched.
8. It will be interesting to see how cornerback Malcolm Butler performs in his contract year. The Patriots last season were comfortable with Butler shadowing opposing No. 1 receivers as long as those receivers weren’t overly big. Guys Butler played well against—often contrary to what the stats may have said—included Antonio Brown, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. But what the stats often did not show were the times that Butler got beat deep when the ball wasn’t thrown. Butler walks that fine line between aggressive and risky play. This will lead to big plays in 2016. The question is: for the Patriots or for their opponents?
9. A name to put in the back of your mind: Geneo Grissom. The 2015 third-round pick does not have enough girth to start on a Patriots defense that requires its ends to set the edge hard against the run. But Grissom does have the speed to turn the corner as a pass rushing specialist. He should get plenty of opportunities; the Patriots don’t have any premier edge rushers.
10. The Patriots have two safeties—Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung—who can match up to quality tight ends in man coverage. That’s invaluable in today’s NFL, where so many formations are dictated by flexible tight ends.
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