As the New England Patriots make roster moves and cuts to the roster to get down to 53, the initial releases made on Friday seem to indicate a shift in philosophy on the offense. On defense, the big surprise moves have been the release of pass-rushing defensive end Marcus Benard and perennially injured cornerback Ras-I Dowling. On offense, the Patriots surprised with the release of two veteran tight ends as former New York Giants tight end Jake Ballard and tight end Daniel Fells were both released. With the surprising turnover at tight end, is there a change in the works for the Patriots offense?
With Fells and Ballard released, it leaves New England very thin at tight end. Tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui, undrafted free agent rookie Zach Sudfeld, and injured Rob Gronkowski are the three tight ends on the roster (pending final cuts to get down to 53 and subsequent roster maneuvers). That puts the fullback position into the spotlight as the Patriots have fullback James Develin getting a large amount of playing time in the preseason.
While teams around the league began copying New England’s “12” personnel package (one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers) with two tight ends with a big, inline, blocking and receiving threat tight end and an athletic, pass-catching “flex” or “joker” tight end split off the line, the Patriots had the advantage with that grouping because no team had the players with the off-the-chart talent such as Rob Gronkowski and the athleticism of former tight end Aaron Hernandez. Teams such as the Baltimore Ravens tried to duplicate the success on offense with Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson and the Cincinnati Bengals are trying to replicate with tight ends Jermaine Gresham (infamously drafted by the Bengals ahead of Rob Gronkowski) and Tyler Eifert. Unfortunately, while teams may find a mobile tight end who can split out in a “flex” or “joker” position (as New England did this offseason with undrafted rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld), the issue is that no other team can find a blocking, receiving, red zone, match-up nightmare like Rob Gronkowski to make the personnel grouping so difficult to defend.
By necessity, the New England Patriots need to move away from their dependance on the “12” personnel package due to injuries and five offseason surgeries slowing Gronkowski and Hernandez sitting in a jail cell. Last season, the Patriots were forced to adapt due to injuries to both tight ends and the need for more playmakers and versatility at wide receiver (which doomed the team against Baltimore in the AFC Championship game) resulted in an offseason of injecting youth and athleticism at the position and almost turning the position over completely. While there is no plan to abandon the “12” personnel package, expect the Patriots to be spending more time in “11” personnel package (one running back, one tight ends, and three wide receivers) and this season possibly a return to the “21”personnel package (two running backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers), if a fullback makes the roster.
Now the Patriots could still sign another tight end released by some other team, or bring back tight end Daniel Fells at a reduced contract rate if he does not find another team to sign on with before or early in the season (see the MusketFire.com 53 Man Roster Projection: “Of course, it could easily be Fells released and Hoomanawanui could remain if he restructures his current deal, but Hoo-man has a better free agent market due to having some receiving skills and is less likely to restructure his deal. Fells should return, but a restructured contract may be part of the deal to return to the team. Both players are making more money than the Patriots like to pay backups or role players.”). The tight ends are not going away in this offense, but the Patriots learned their lesson from last season when their wide receivers were not able to make big plays in place of the tight ends, and the backups at tight end (Fells, Hoomanawanui) were strictly blockers and not receiving threats. There was a desperate need for playmakers at a position other than tight end, with or without Gronkowski and Hernandez.
The addition of a fullback to the roster can also help out in the running game, adding a physical presence to an offensive line that made a lot of positive plays for the offense by knocking back some lighter defenses trying to stop the Patriots aerial attack. Quarterback Tom Brady is on par with line of scrimmage maestro Peyton Manning as the two most dangerous quarterbacks behind center with time remaining on the play clock. Brady and Manning are superb at diagnosing the opposing defense and finding and exploiting any weakness. Often, the play is successful before the ball is snapped due to their mental prowess and ability to know when and where to pass or rush.
With running back Stevan Ridley and multi-purpose threat Shane Vereen getting the majority of playing time in the backfield, opposing defense will still be at a disadvantage if they go with a nickel or sub package to counteract the Patriots passing offense, especially on early downs. Last season, Ridley feasted on defenses with the secondary players backpedaling from the line of scrimmage at the snap to fill passing lanes and defensive ends and outside linebackers over-running the play to get penetration and rush the quarterback in an attempt to thwart quarterback Tom Brady, especially on “passing downs” and when the Patriots up-tempo offense had the defense out of position.
No matter what personnel grouping the Patriots line up in, they will be intent on finding and exploiting matchups With a healthy Rob Gronkowski and Zach Sudfeld lined up at tight end together, New England will still have their “12” personnel package matchup nightmare for quarterback Tom Brady to use to find holes in the defense. The question becomes what wrinkles offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels adds to further evolve the Patriots offense in order to add explosion and playmaking. The two-tight end offense is not over in New England, but it is likely not going be to the only matchup issue the Patriots throw at opposing defenses in 2013.