The NFL draft is over, which now leaves us in a period of extreme boredom on the news front. Not much will be happening over these next few months, so it is the perfect time for over-analysis on just about everything related to the Patriots.
Here is a quick breakdown of each positional group on the Pats, and how the new rookies fit in:
Coming into this offseason, I don’t think anyone envisioned the quarterback position to be one of the most talked about group of players in New England. Obviously, Tom Brady is the starter. No debating that. But it gets interesting when we begin discussing who the backup will be. Ryan Mallett is in the last year of his contract, and there are rumors flying over the place that include him being shipped to Houston. Of course, their second round pick, Jimmy Garoppolo, is also on the roster, and he brings a younger face to this group. If Mallett ends up staying with the Patriots, he will have his work cut out for him in earning the right to backup Brady.
This is one of the few areas on this team that seems to be stable as we move into the summer. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are the obvious top two backs, with Brandon Bolden, and rookie James White backing them up. I loved the pick of White in the fourth round this year, because he could really do some damage with this kind of Patriots offense. He won’t be getting a lot of touches, but by backing up Ridley and Vereen, he will usually have the opportunity of facing a tired defense, which bodes well for him, and the Patriots.
Are you ready for another year of Brady throwing to a bunch of short dudes?
I for one, am not. But unless New England pulls off an incredible trade with Houston, and brings Andre Johnson to town, that is what we will be seeing in 2014. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola can tear up the middle of a defense, and Josh Boyce flashed some excellent potential in 2013. But in the playoffs, you need to have someone that can simply create a natural mismatch, and go take advantage. That is where second year man Aaron Dobson will have to come in. Yes, I understand that Brandon LaFell could possibly be that guy, but at this point, I only see him as a complementary player. But Dobson is young, talented, and hopefully, hungry for success. He has all the tools needed to become a viable downfield threat, and I am looking forward to seeing him out on the field next year.
The success that this group will have hinges solely on the health of Rob Gronkowski’s knee. If Gronk comes out 100%, the Patriots will once again dominate the NFL with their tight ends. However if he suffers another setback, or gets injured again, then all bets are off. Michael Hoomanawanui is a fine blocker, and in the short-term, he is a solid tight end. But Hooman can’t be relied on to make plays in the passing game, or produce in the red zone on a consistent basis. As for the rookies, they have brought in three undrafted free agents thus far, including Benjamin Watson’s younger brother Asa, and Justin Jones, a mammoth out of Eastern Carolina. Both of these guys have talent, specifically Jones. If Jones can learn to utilize his athletic skills, and his size, he may form a formidable duo with Gronkowski over the next few years.
Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, and Cameron Fleming (the genius) appear to have the tackle position on lock. When healthy, Solder and Vollmer are two of the best pass blockers in the league, and Cannon proved to be a capable backup through the 2013 campaign. The big question remains on the interior, where the Pats were vulnerable last year. Logan Mankins is entrenched as the starter on the left side, but two rookies may threaten the jobs of Ryan Wendell, and Dan Connolly. Fourth round pick Bryan Stork was the best center in college football last year, and Jon Halapio is a solid young player as well. Will the two young guys beat out the veterans for a starting spot? Possibly. But at the very worst, Tom Brady now has a deep offensive line, which should help protect him in 2014.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will be the starters, and as of right now, it looks like they will only have Zach Moore, Will Smith, and Jake Bequette backing them up. A solid group, but nothing to brag about. Moore is an unproven rookie out of Concordia-St. Paul, Smith is an aging pass rusher coming off of a major knee injury, and Bequette is closing in on the official “bust” label. The best case scenario with this group is Moore turns out to be a diamond in the rough, and turns in a big season, and Smith finds one more good year deep inside of him, and makes the depth on the edge dangerous once again for the Patriots. Jones and Ninkovich will definitely have a big workload once again next year, but I think Smith and Moore will be able to come in, and give Belichick solid minutes to give Jones and Ninkovich a breather.
An area of weakness a few months ago is now a strength for New England. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are back, Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga, who gained valuable experience last year will also be in the fold, and most importantly, they acquired Dominique Easley in the first round of the NFL draft. The combination of Wilfork, Kelly, and Siliga will make it tough for opposing offenses to run against them, but adding Easley will give this unit an element that hasn’t been there in quite some time, which is a pass rushing presence in the middle. Easley is extremely explosive off of the ball, and throughout his career at Florida, he showed an innate ability to explode off of the ball, and disrupt the offense. He does have knee issues, so those will have to hold up if he wants to live up to his potential in the pros.
In terms of starting trios, there may not be a better group in the league than the one in New England. Jerod Mayo is one of the best in the game, Don’ta Hightower is physically imposing, and his pass defense has rapidly improved, and their secret weapon, Jamie Collins, is one of, if not the most athletic linebacker in the entire NFL. Collins can match up with most tight ends and running backs and hold his own, which is important, because covering these guys in today’s NFL is one of the top priorities your defense must have. As for depth, they may be okay, but it will depend on how the undrafted free agents pan out. Bill Belichick has signed two thus far, Cameron Gordon, and Deontae Skinner. Of course, Steve Beauharnais, second year man out of Rutgers is still on the squad, so the depth of this group will be something to monitor going forward.
I really am tempted to just write ‘Darrelle Revis‘ for this entire section. But I won’t. Revis is the best cover corner in the game, and having him on your side instantly makes your pass defense one of the best in the league. In addition to Revis, the Pats have Brandon Browner, Logan Ryan, and Alfonzo Dennard available to rule on the outside. That is going to be one tough group to throw against. They also have Kyle Arrington, who despite a bad reputation, is actually a good corner, as long as he is not on the outside. The second you put him outside the numbers, he will rip your soul out, and allow it to get by for a long gain. But if kept in the slot, Arrington is a quality cover man. The Pats have also signed undrafted free agent Travis Hawkins, who will find competition stiff when he meets up with all of these studs.
This will be one of the most interesting positions to watch this season. Devin McCourty is arguably the best safety in the league, so he will definitely be starting on opening day. As for who will be starting beside him, that is anyone’s guess. The Pats have Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson, and Jemea Thomas all competing, and all will be hungry to make a move towards the top of the depth chart. My best bet as of right now would be Harmon moving next to McCourty, with Thomas just behind him. Harmon showed a lot of promise in both coverage, and run defense in his rookie year, and hopefully he has only improved over the course of this offseason. I put Thomas after him almost by default. Wilson and Chung are just so bad, I can’t see them opening the season as the third safety on this team. Another reason I slid Thomas in behind Harmon, is because of his versatility, and physicality. He played all over the defense at Georgia Tech, and even though he isn’t that big, he brings the hammer when he delivers a hit on the opposition.
Nothing new here. Stephen Gostkowski returns as the kicker, and Ryan Allen as the punter. However New England will have three long-snappers once undrafted free agent Tyler Ott finishes his finals at Harvard, so that will be a positional battle worth watching.