Ostensibly, not much has changed for the New England Patriots since their disappointing loss in Super Bowl XLVI nearly seven months ago. But a few personnel moves – particularly on defense – have the 2012 edition looking stronger and poised to return to the big game in New Orleans this February.
Let’s take a look at the key additions and subtractions made by the Patriots this offseason:
The most noticeable absence on either side of the ball is running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Although he was part of a backfield committee and amassed just 667 yards on the ground, the Pats will have to find a way to replace the Law Firm’s 11 rushing touchdowns – the most by a Patriot since Corey Dillon’s 13 scores in 2006. While the trio of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead should be able to fill the statistical void this season, what will definitely be missed and hard to replace is Green-Ellis’ dependability taking care of the football. BJGE has 536 touches in his NFL career and has never fumbled the football; an important attribute for a lead rusher on a team that prides itself on minimizing mistakes.
The loss of Chad Johnson and his 15 receptions can hardly be considered a loss. His departure will only enhance a strong receiving core by increasing the number of targets for everyone else. In addition, seeing Chad head-butt his way off of the Dolphins roster this preseason reaffirms how his absence from the Patriots will only reduce the potential for any in-season shenanigans, distractions and/or marriage proposal touchdown celebrations.
When a team with a poor pass rush loses the two defensive ends that finished first and second on the team in sacks last season, it has to be considered significant. Mark Anderson and Andre Carter helped make the Patriots pass rush at least somewhat respectable in 2011, with their 20 combined sacks comprising half of the entire team’s total. And while New England has certainly made every effort to improve this area in the offseason via draft and free agency (and shifting outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich to defensive end), the pass rush is one of the biggest question marks going into the season.
While Matt Light’s skills had diminished over the past few seasons, his retirement will leave a leadership void in the locker room. The same can be said for Kevin Faulk, a Belichick favorite for what seems like two decades, who is currently a free agent.
As fantasy football players can attest, the difference between Brandon Lloyd and Brandon Lloyd playing in a Josh McDaniels offense is enormous. Lloyd has thrived when operating in McDaniels-led offenses in previous stints with both the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams. Signed to be Tom Brady’s fourth receiving option behind Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Lloyd’s presence and ability to flourish in this type of system now makes this offense downright lethal.
While his signing did not cause a huge splash, it’s worthwhile to note the addition of linebacker Bobby Carpenter. The former first round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, Carpenter brings a tireless work ethic and so far in camp, has fit the mold of a “Belichick player” with his versatility and willingness to try just about anything. With his football IQ and athletic pedigree, Carpenter is a candidate to be the latest veteran to experience a renaissance after coming to Foxboro.
In April, the Patriots turned some heads during the NFL draft when they bucked their trend of stockpiling picks only to trade down. New England instead used their two first round picks to improve their defense, selecting two potential stars whose impact could be felt as soon as this season.
With the twenty-first pick in the draft and their first in round one, the Pats took Chandler Jones, a defensive end/outside linebacker from Syracuse. The 6’5”, 260 lb. Jones is an athletic hybrid pass rusher who is an ideal fit for the Patriots’ combination defense where he can be utilized as a defensive end in a four-man front package or as an edge-rushing linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Their second pick at 27 was used to select linebacker Dont’a Hightower from Alabama. At 6’4” and 270 lbs., he is a hard-hitting force that, like Jones, will add versatility to a defense that thrives on flexibility.
The Patriots took defensive players with four of the next five selections (including defensive back Tavon Wilson with their second-round pick) making it quite clear that their main focus of the offseason was shoring up their porous defense.
In 2012, the Patriots will have two new coordinators running the offense and defense. Well…kind of.
While Josh McDaniels joined the team late last year, this season he reclaims his old job of offensive coordinator following the departure of Bill O’Brien. In 2007, McDaniels was the OC for the undefeated Patriots when they set NFL records for points and touchdowns scored. His familiarity with Belichick, the players and the system ensures a level of continuity for an offense that appears even better than last year and looks poised to steamroll many defenses yet again.
Since defensive coordinator Dean Pees left after the 2009 season, the title has been vacant. This year, Matt Patricia takes the helm after spending nine seasons with the Patriots as linebackers coach, serving as the primary defensive play-caller for the last two. His work is cut out for him as he takes control of a unit that ranked second-to-last in team defense. By using six of their seven draft picks on defense and actually appointing a defensive coordinator, the Patriots are dedicated to improving an area that used to be their strength during the championship years of the early 2000s and Patricia seems like the right man for the job.