With all the hype surrounding young exciting players on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball for the New England Patriots, two veteran off-season acquisitions that are receiving less focus may offer more potential for immediate impact. There may be no two players on the Patriots roster who will have a greater affect on helping the Patriots improve in areas of need than return specialist Leon Washington and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. Kelly generated a bit of buzz early in training camp with his veteran presence and play, but both he and Washington have been overshadowed lately by the exciting young wide receivers and the emergence of Zach Sudfeld, now affectionately known as ‘Baby Gronk‘. I’m still not sure how you can refer to someone who’s 6’7 – 260 as ‘baby’, but I digress. Let’s take a closer look at Washington and Kelly, the two veteran additions who are likely to have the most immediate impact on the Patriots ability to address two key weaknesses from the 2012 season.
The Patriots have struggled in recent years in the return game, ranking near the bottom of the league in return yardage the past two seasons – 25th in 2012 and 29th and 2011. As Bill Belichick and company frequently and correctly assert, you have to excel in all three phases of the game to win championships and that kind of production in the return game is simply not championship caliber. In both of the last two seasons the eventual Super Bowl champion ranked in the top ten in the league in return yardage – Baltimore was second last year and the New York Giants were seventh in 2011. It should come as no surprise just how important it is to win the field position battle in the NFL.
Recognizing their weakness in that area of special teams, the Patriots signed return specialist Leon Washington as a free agent back in March. Washington spent the last three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks where he averaged more than 25 yards per return each season. Last season, Washington ranked second in the NFL averaging 29 yards per return, behind only Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones. Washington’s credentials as a return specialist really can’t be questioned. He is tied with Josh Cribbs for the most career kickoff returns for touchdowns with eight and holds team records for kickoff returns for touchdowns for both the Seahawks and the Jets. It’s safe to assume that with Washington the Patriots will see an improvement in this area in 2013.
What makes Washington even more valuable is the veteran presence he adds to the running back room. With young running backs like Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen still growing as NFL players, his presence there can only help. Both players really leaned on former Patriot Kevin Faulk in their rookie seasons so hopefully Washington can help fill that void and contribute positively to their maturation as players.
Former Patriots coach Pete Carroll, now the head coach for the Seattle Seahawks and Washington’s coach for the previous three seasons was effusive in his praise for the return specialist. “He has tons of skills. He’s an exciting returner who takes the special teams aspect as seriously as it’s ever been taken. He’s one of the all-time greats”, said Carroll. It’s likely that Carroll and the Seahawks would not have released Washington if it weren’t for the three million dollars he was due to count against their salary cap in 2013.
Another area of weakness for the Patriots over the past few seasons has been their inability to consistently generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While it’s been heavily debated whether the lack of a consistent pass rush has been the real cause of the inconsistent play in the Patriots secondary, the reality is that it’s likely a combination of ailments. Defenses generally thrive or suffer as a unit. When one area is going well it helps the rest of the defense. If you can get to the quarterback quickly he’ll have less time to make plays downfield and if you can cover in the secondary well, your pass rushers have more time to get to the quarterback. Regardless of your philosophy, the Patriots just haven’t been that good at generating pressure off the edge or from the interior of the line. While throughout his career, Vince Wilfork has been the class of the NFL at his position, the Patriots have consistently lacked someone who can play effectively alongside him and help generate pressure inside on opposing quarterbacks.
As Mike Dussault of Pats Propoganda pointed out in this critique of the 2012 Pats defense, what the team really lacked was someone who could play alongside Wilfork as another down lineman and generate consistent pressure inside. Tommy Kelly may be just that player. Kelly, who signed as a free agent in April and spent his entire nine-year career previously with the Oakland Raiders, had been a consistent presence on the interior of the defensive line for the Raiders over the past decade. Over the past nine seasons in Oakland, Kelly collected 34.5 sacks and nearly 300 tackles. Earlier in his career, the Raiders moved Kelly around the line more in an attempt to create mismatches. While that versatility is certainly something that the Patriots covet, it’s not something we’re likely to see this year from Kelly in New England. One, because that’s something the Patriots like to do with Wilfork, but also because at this stage of his career, Kelly’s more of a traditional defensive tackle and will be pretty well cemented next to Wilfork in 4-3 alignments.
The value that Kelly adds is not only the pressure he can generate on the quarterback, but the respect offensive lines will have to pay him, which should provide more opportunities for players like Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the edge. If Kelly and Wilfork can consistently create enough of a headache for the interior of opposing offensive lines, it will allow Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia to be more creative with blitz packages. This was apparent on Tampa Bay’s first offensive play on Friday night when Brandon Spikes rushed the middle on a redirection to Kelly’s side to bring down Josh Freeman. A play even more indicative of Kelly’s value was Rob Ninkovich’s sack of Mike Glennon, in which Kelly was double-teamed. While Ninkovich beat his man on the outside, it’s the respect the Buccaneers had for Kelly that allowed Ninkovich to exploit that one-on-one matchup. The fact is that Kelly’s presence on the defensive line can’t be ignored and should help the Patriots defense rush the passer more effectively in 2013.
Both Washington and Kelly have base salaries of less than a million dollars in 2013. Their signings are two examples of the kind of low-risk, potentially high-reward moves Bill Belichick and the Patriots have excelled at making over the past decade and what’s enabled them to be consistently competitive over that span. If Washington can help improve the Patriots performance in the return game and Kelly can help create a more consistent pass rush, the Patriots will have addressed two important needs at great value.