Patriots Looking Ahead

I want to just blame Marcus Cannon and the rest of the offensive line for the Patriots loss in Denver last Sunday. I want to say it is as simple as, if Nate Solder is healthy they win that game in a route. Sadly that isn’t true. The breakdown was in the system and the design. Poor play from the offensive line sure didn’t help though.

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So since it was a systematic failure. Let’s take a look at the setup going forward, where can the system be fixed in terms of personnel because we know they aren’t going to the change the X’s and O’s, just get better Jimmy’s and Joe’s to implement them.

OFFENSIVE LINE

We will start with the Offensive Line because it’s where the focus of my disdain is currently and the coach is already gone and has yet to be replaced. That’s not a big deal.

They fired the coach, which makes sense, but not entirely fair. When you lose the only first round pick and your franchise left tackle you are immediately at a disadvantage. That being said, they apparently wanted to move in a different direction after a down year overall from the offensive line.  

Under Contract

  • Nate Solder (27) presumptive left tackle if he returns from injury.
  • Sebastian Vollmer (31) presumptive right tackle if Solder returns from injury. Unless he gets cut for cap reasons. Not sure Pats can take that risk without knowing that Solder is ready to return to pre-injury form right away.
  • Marcus Cannon (27) presumptive cap casualty or restructure. Backup tackle if not.
  • Josh Kline (26) backup guard. will play in roationational role.
  • Bryan Stork (25) presumptive center.  
  • Tre’ Jackson (23) presumptive starter at guard.
  • Shaq Mason (22) presumptive starter at guard.
  • David Andrews (23) backup center.
  • Chris Baker (25) backup guard/practice squad player.
  • Keavon Martin (25) backup tackle/practice squad player.

Unrestricted Free Agents

  • Ryan Wendell (29) likely done as a Patriot.

Restricted Free Agents

  • LaAdrain Waddle (24) likely to be in camp with Pats to see if he can regain his pre-injury ability. if so could replace Cannon as the swing tackle.

Exclusive Right Free Agents

  • Cameron Fleming (23) will return as the 4th tackle, 5th guard, 4th TE. Has shown both promise and inconsistency, sometimes during the same series. Needs development.

Overall the wouldn’t expect the Patriots to spend any serious draft capital (top 4 round pick) on lineman. This groups has a nice blend of youth (average age 25 years old) and experience. It’s also not going to be overly expensive. Even resigning Waddle and Fleming the cap hit of the lineman is going to be between 16-17% of the total cap number.

In the end my worst fears are assuaged, as long as Solder returns to form.

QUARTERBACK

They are fine here so let’s make it quick.

Under Contract

  • Tom Brady (38) he is the starter until he retires, or gets killed because Marcus Cannon misses another block.
  • Jimmy Garoppolo (24) the question becomes when do you move Jimmy G so that you can get value for the unknown quantity. That is if you believe Brady is indeed going to play past 2018. I do not think that Jimmy G is going to resign here on a backup, cap friendly deal. I think he wants the chance to start, and in the QB diminished NFL I expect someone to give him that chance.

The Pats will likely, almost assuredly, bring in a late round pick or undrafted free agent for camp and probably even a veteran, journeyman type guy just to make throws in camp and play out the second halves of preseason games.

The 2 QBs are going to cost the Pats about 10-11% of the salary cap. A solid number and obviously mostly, Brady. Brady, as always, is a potential restructure that would lower the % for 2016.

RUNNING BACK

A marginal disaster after Dion Lewis went down, needs to be addressed, but goes hand in hand with the offensive line.

Under Contract

  • Brandon Bolden (25) is a great special teams player and if Matthew Slater ever moves on I expect Bolden to take over that captain role without missing a beat. As a RB he is a better than OK pass catcher, a hard runner with good pad level, but mediocre vision who is best used in emergency situations.
  • Dion Lewis (25) when healthy he was the most explosive back the Patriots offense has seen in a pass catch role. His quickness was elite, his hands were elite and his vision was elite. Those skills have never been the problem from Lewis, staying on the field has been, and was again in 2015. I expect him to get every opportunity to prove he is healthy.

  • James White (23) is a guy I like a lot more than most, because I like him more as a traditional runner than I do as a pass catcher. He was assumed to be the Shane Vereen replacement, until Dion Lewis got that job. Then he was assumed to be the Lewis replacement. He just doesn’t have either of those guys elite quickness, even if his hands are comparable. I think White is best served as an off tackle runner, a role I’m not sure exists with the Patriots and as such we may never see him excel as a Patriot.

  • Tyler Gaffney (24) has now spent 2 years recovering from an ACL tear. I’m not sure what anyone can reasonably expect from him physically at this point, but mentally I expect him to come in and know his assignments inside and out.

Unrestricted Free Agents

  • LeGarrette Blount (29) was again the Patriots leading rusher and, if healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him rejoin the Patriots.
  • Steven Jackson (32) wasn’t good, wasn’t bad, wasn’t really able to show if he actually has anything left in the tank. If he wants to play a full season I can very much see the Patriots bringing him to camp.

There is a definite need to develop a running game that opposing defense at least need to pretend to care about stopping. A power back may do that, a complete offensive line could do that or a slight shift in scheme adding more runs that are off tackle, instead of in between the tackles. I don’t think there is a “right” answer in this scenario, outside of overall health.

FULL BACK

Under Contract

  • Joey Iosefa (24) his debuted was like a tv movie, but in the end he probably isn’t the next James Devlin. I don’t think he is bad, but full back is such a low priority position in the NFL these days, if you aren’t great you aren’t hanging around. He will be back to compete, but I’m not sure he sticks, especially if Devlin is back and healthy.

Restricted Free Agent

  • James Devlin (27) if he is healthy he will certainly be back. Brady seemed more upset about Devlin’s injury and being put on IR than he did about the year he had to spend on IR. Will have to prove he is healthy though. Potential PUP candidate.

WIDE RECEIVER

  • In a very non traditional way the Patriots are very well set at WR even if it doesn’t appear they can stretch the field at all.

Under Contract

  • Danny Amendola (30) is very much a potential cap casualty, but I expect him to be back, even if it is under a new deal. Adds dimension and flexibility to the offense when it is at it’s full complement of weapons and is a nice insurance policy if Julian Edelman gets hurt.
  • Julian Edelman (29) was having another excellent season before an injury derailed it. Was very good in the playoffs, even though he was hurt. Back and full health he should be the #1 WR target again in 2016.
  • Brandon LaFell (29) never seemed completely healthy in 2015. Could be a potential cap casualty if the Patriots think they can replace his production with a cheaper option. Looking at the free agent WRs though I don’t think that is likely.
  • Matthew Slater (30) is listed as a WR because he has to be listed somewhere, but doesn’t run too many routes anymore.
  • Keshawn Martin (25) went out and earned himself a role and a contract. Provided solid kick return ability and showed some explosions when he got the ball in space. Will need to work on his ability to separate from coverage, both off the line of scrimmage and route running, to be a true weapon for the Pats.
  • Aaron Dobson (24) are we still talking about this former second round pick? Of course we are because he looks like one of those stud WRs that teams draft and never let go of. And on occasion he has played like those studs too. He seemed to be turning the corner before getting hurt. If he comes back with the corner turned completely he will be a dangerous addition to the Pats offense. If not he will be out of the league.
  • Chris Harper (22) the good people of New England pretty much hate Harper right now for muffing a punt in Denver in the regular season. That doesn’t mean he lacks value though. I expect him to compete for a role in the Pats WR group. It will be a tough nut to crack if everyone is healthy, but he should make it a fun competition to watch.
  • Deandre Carter (22) spent time on the practice squad and is likely to get a good shot at being a part of the team. In fact I believe he is probably more likely than Harper to make the team outright without injury.

Unrestirceted Free Agents

  • Brandon Gibson (28) looked very good in training camp and early preseason action before being injured and heading to injured reserve. I would expect the Patriots to bring him back as they liked him a lot, and he seemed to make a nice addition to the WR corps.

Restricted Free Agents

  • Brian Tyms (26) will be back, the question becomes when and how effective will he be?

The competition for the later roles in the WR corps will likely be fierce and provide the Patriots with good depth and insurance in case of injury. The Pats will also likely add a low cost veteran free agent or two as well as an undrafted free agent or two.

TIGHT END

When you have the guy who building a career that can be counted among the best TEs of all time you are doing ok at TE.

Under Contract

  • Rob Gronkowski (26) the best TE in the game.
  • Scott Chandler (30) spent 2015 having a case of the dropsies. Will likely to have to take a paycut to return.
  • Michael Williams (25) big body blocking TE who has decent enough hands and feet that throwing him the ball isn’t a crazy idea once or twice every few weeks.
  • A.J. Derby (24) a converted QB. Spent 2015 on injured reserve. Fans will spend training camp 2016 finding out what he learned.

They are likely set at TE, unless they cut Chandler and don’t’ bring him back under a cheaper deal.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The defensive line was again a source of strength in 2015 after, but a little lackluster in the last couple of years.

Under Contract

  • Chandler Jones (25) as much he had a breakout year in 2015 he only had 8 of 17 games with a sack. He also had a bizarre off field issue. Likely plays 2016 looking to max out as a free agent in 2017.
  • Jabaal Sheard (26) came in and did pretty much exactly what I thought he would. Ate up blockers allowing his teammates to make play and against single blockers made big plays himself.
  • Rob Ninkovich (31) I never thought Ninkovich was bad, but he hadn’t had the production most had come to expect the last couple of years. I think that more speaks to the talent around him, than directly to him, but his renaissance in 2015 was a pleasant surprise. Should keep it up.
  • Alan Branch (31) is just about my favorite player to watch on the defense. Does his job exactly as he should and every now again slips into the backfield for a huge play.
  • Dominique Easley (23) was quietly becoming a dominant interior defensive lineman before he got hurt, can he come back and regain that form? He has in the past, but he can he play 16-20 games in a season? He hasn’t proved that yet.
  • Malcolm Brown (21) extremely solid bottom of round 1 pick who had a very, very nice rookie year. Expect him to build on it.
  • Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (27) a late 2015 signing that adds nice depth to the interior line. Should benefit from personnel around him and Patriots coaching.
  • Geno Grissom (23) 2015 third round pick that had a subdued season, but is a nice prospect and should be able to be developed as a backup/situational pass rusher.
  • Chris Jones (25) after his infamous game costing penalty in 2014, spent 2015 on the injured reserve. Showed flashes when healthy of being a significant contributor, will be interesting to see his value in returning to the field.
  • Trey Flowers (22) was active for 1 game in 2015 after being a 3rd pick, so basically an unknown.

Unrestricted Free Agents

  • Akiem Hicks (26) acquired for Michael Hoomanawanui in October, Hicks had a very nice and solid season contributing to the defensive line. I expect him back, but like another mid season acquisition, Akeem Ayers, Hicks may have put himself in line for a nice pay day.

Restricted Free Agents

  • Sealver Siliga (25) seems to have lost favor, but stepped into a more prominent role when Dominique Easley got hurt. Will be interesting to see if he regains his prior standing or if he will just be let go.

LINEBACKERS

I think this group is going to look a bit different starting in 2016.

Under Contract

  • Jerod Mayo (29) he is very much the guy who will be the first cap casualty. He just makes too much money based on the number of snaps he plays when everyone is healthy, and he got hurt again. He is a seemingly a great guy, and I’d like him on the team, but it will be for a far cheaper # than he currently is slated for if it happens.
  • Dont’a Hightower (25) is due a new contract and should get it. He has become the playmaker everyone expected immediately out of college. He can be the brains of this defense for a long time.
  • Jonathan Freeny (26) has found a role as a backup, situational player and that seems to fit him. When asked to do too much he falls on his face, but keep him in his comfort zone and he can be a contributor to more than special teams.
  • Jamie Collins (26) has evolved into maybe the most athletic linebacker in the league, which makes the fact that Owen Daniels twice burnt him on double moves in the AFC championship game, all the more surprising. He should be resigned as soon as possible because even after allowing those 2 TDs he made some amazing ranging plays on RBs and on Peyton Manning. .
  • Jon Bostic (24) will most likely be a cap casualty, if not he is a mediocre special teams player and third team back up.
  • Darius Fleming (26) has been a situation linebacker and special teamer when he isn’t donning a cape and rescuing folks from cars. He will likely continue in that role, unless he makes a big leap as a pass rusher on third downs.
  • Eric Martin (24) is a depth guy who goes back and forth from the active roster to the practice squad based on need.
  • James Vaughters (22) a recent signee. Will likely be a depth/practice squad guy unless he shows great impact in camp.

Unrestricted Free Agents

  • Dane Fletcher (29) spent 2015 on injured reserve. The Pats know what they have with Fletcher, so the only real question is, do they need that?
  • Dekoda Watson (27) unlikely to return for anything, but the veteran minimum, if even for that.

Exclusive Right Free Agents

  • Rufus Johnson (25) earned his way onto the roster, then got hurt midseason spending the rest of the year on the injured reserve. An intriguing prospect who will have a chance to make the team, as he did in 2015.

As a crop I like the Pats linebackers at the top, but I’m not so sure the depth is enough the way the defense relies on athleticism in the linebackers to stop the run. Hightower’s instincts and Collins athleticism can’t be duplicated. When you lose one of them you lose a huge weapon and have to alter the entire strategy at least a little.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This group proves that losing Darrelle Revis wasn’t the apocalyptic event that many thought it would be.

Under Contract

  • Devin McCourty (28) established himself as one of the best safeties in the league, and is a captain of the defense. Consistently has guys in the right place, prevents the big play regularly.
  • Patrick Chung (28) feels older doesn’t he? He returned from his time in Philly with a new respect for coaching and scheme I believe and it has showed in his play.
  • Jordan Richards (23) a second round pick in 2015 who didn’t get on the field much, 22% of the time on offense and about 50% of the time on defense. 2nd round picks have high expectations typically, but you’ve got to be really good to unseat a Patriots safety on defense or a gunner on special team. Richards shows promise, role should grow.
  • Logan Ryan (24) had easily his best year as the #2 corner opposite Malcolm Butler. Prevented some very good WRs from having much contribution more often than not. Still susceptible to an off day here and there, but showed great growth in 2015.
  • Duron Harmon (24) probably the Patriots defensive back with the the best hands and ball skills. He has found a nice niche in situational defense where he can play a sort of second free safety to McCourty and is seemingly encouraged to make plays on the ball. I’m not sure I want him doing much more than that right now, but he is certainly good at that.
  • Leonard Johnson (25) showed up out of nowhere off the Bucs injured reserve and stepped in as an aggressive nickel corner who could play some safety. Sure he got beat at times, but that’s the price you pay for aggressiveness at the nickel corner, and you can live with, as long as it’s situational.
  • Rashaan Melvin (26) a special teamer and depth player who has good size for a corner.
  • Malcolm Butler (25) emerged as the team’s top cover corner and had a very good year and made everyone in New England forget about that guy and his island.
  • Brock Vereen (23) I liked him as a rookie with the Bears and am excited to see what he is able to do under the tutelage of the Pats coaching staff.
  • Darryl Roberts (25) stashed on IR after a preseason wrist injury. Another pretty good sized corner, should be interesting to see if this 2015 late round pick develops.
  • Cedric Thompson (22) signed off the Dolphins practice squad in December. Was a 3 year starter in college, typical Patriots type signing.

Unrestricted Free Agents

  • Tarell Brown (31) highly unlikely to be back in a Patriots uniform.
  • Tavon Wilson (25) another highly unlikely return candidate. Over the years he has had numerous opportunities to secure a secondary job, but played on only 7% of the defensive snaps in 2015.
  • Nate Ebner (26) this could go either way. I expect the Patriots want him back, but it is likely that someone pays him to become that team’s version of Matthew Slater. If he gets that deal, I don’t see how the Patriots can justify paying both Ebner and Slater to be special teams studs alone.
  • Justin Coleman (22) his role became minimized when Leonard Johnson arrived. I imagine he will get plenty of camp invitations, but not sure how much guaranteed money someone will offer. Could be back with the Pats in camp with a chance to make the team or practice squad.

Exclusive Right Free Agents

  • Brandon King (22) will certainly return to the Pats and likely maintain his special teams role, if not grow it with the possible departure of Nate Ebner.

The defensive back depth and youth is impressive. Many of the roles are solidified for multiple years with good potential depth in the reserves. As is typical this unit, along with the linebackers, provides many of the special teamers, and often times balancing the ability to know and play the defensive scheme in concert with the special teams is a struggle. The Patriots seem to have a system that provides them insulation in both areas at both linebacker and defensive back.

KICKER

Under Contract

  • Stephen Gostkowski (31) I don’t care that he missed an extra point in the playoffs. He was bound to miss one eventually. Does it suck? Yup. He is still the best, most consistent kicker in the game and still one of the Patriots greatest draft picks ever.

PUNTER

Under Contract

  • Ryan Allen (25) I like Ryan Allen, but it almost feels like that time in a Patriots punters career where Bill Belichick decides to go another direction with no strong indicator of why. I doubt it, but if there is a left footed punter coming out of college this year, I expect him in Patriots camp at the very least.

LONG SNAPPER

Under Contract

  • Joe Cardona (23) had a very nice year and is returning to the Navy for active duty. Best of luck to him in that endeavor and thank you for your service.

Special teams are in great shape going forward.

Overall after putting this all together I didn’t realize how young the Patriots were as a team.

Here are the average ages of players under contract.

  • QB – 31
  • RB – 24.25
  • FB – 25.5
  • WR – 26.3
  • TE – 26.25
  • OL – 25.08
  • DL – 25.36
  • LB – 25.22
  • DB – 24.58

Hard to not be impressed with that balance on a team that has gone to the AFC championship 5 years in a row. Are there needs on the Patriots. Of course, and we will discuss those next week, but for now the Patriots base is solid and hard to argue that they can’t go back to the playoffs and/or AFC Championship game for a 6th straight time.

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