Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Patriots 2012 Off-Season: Defense

Unlike on offense, the Patriots off-season moves definitely improved their defense. Their precipitous fall in 2011 forced them to reconsider how they acquire players and prepared them for a change of scheme sure to be made in 2012. But lingering questions must be answered before passing full judgment.

Here is part two of my off-season overview -- this time the focus is on the defense.

Free-Agent Departures

Much like on offense, the Patriots lost only one significant player and one semi-significant player. However, that might not have been enough losses for a defense that ranked 20th in defensive passer rating, 28th in defensive yards per pass, and a middling 15th in points allowed.

Defensive end Mark Anderson left in free agency, compounding the hit by signing with the  division rival Buffalo Bills. Anderson was not a perfect fit in New England, but he was better than many recent free-agent signings. He started only one game in 2011, but his numbers (10 sacks, and 29 tackles from the defensive end position) are all the more impressive for a part-time player.

The only other loss of any significance is linebacker Gary Guyton, who went to another division rival, the Miami Dolphins. Guyton lacked the speed to cover tightly enough in the passing game and the size to hold up against the run long-term. He was valuable as a part-time fill-in, but when he replaced Jerod Mayo or Brandon Spikes, the drop-off was noticeable.

Free-Agent Arrivals

In free agency, Patriots made no big splashes on the defensive side of the ball. They filled in some depth and brought in players who can thrive in what should be a switch back to the 3-4 defense.

Defensive ends Jonathan Farene (6-4, 292 pounds) and Scott Trevor (6-5, 255) have the size to play outside linebacker/end in the 3-4. And defensive tackle Marcus Harrison (6-3, 316) is another space-occupying linemen to add to the Patriots stable of such players. And those moves, along with the draft (more on that later) indicate that the 2011 change to a 4-3 will be a one-year experiment and the team will switch back to the 3-4 this year.

The team also added veteran defensive backs Will Allen from Miami and Steve Gregory from San Diego. On most teams you'd say neither has a chance to start, but the Patriots defensive backfield was a shambles last year. So even a 33-year old soon-to-be-safety like Allen can earn a starting spot if Devin McCourty can't return to his 2010 Pro Bowl form.

Players Drafted

The Patriots switched up their usual "trade down" philosophy, instead trading up twice in the first round to get players they coveted. It was a stunning turn of events, catching most of the media and fans off-guard. But they had to get better players to reverse the disastrous move to a 4-3 and get back to head coach Bill Belichick's familiar 3-4.

Either of the first two picks could fill a void left six years ago when Willie McGinest went to Cleveland. Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones (6-5 , 260) and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower (6-3, 270) both have the size and speed to bring outside pressure and hold up against the run in the "elephant" position made famous by McGinest.  (Hightower can also play inside linebacker -- important versatility with oft-injured Brandon Spikes slotted next to Jerod Mayo.) And the Patriots did not trade up to watch them sit, so expect one or both to crack the starting lineup.

The Patriots also grabbed highly touted Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette, who at 6-4, 265 is in the same mold as the first-rounders. Most observers expected Bequette to go a lot earlier in the draft. He provides even more competition for those valuable starting spots, something Belichick likes to have at all positions (except for the starting quarterback).

The rest of the draft showed the weakness of the Patriots secondary. They took Illinois free safety Tavon Wilson, Ohio State defensive back Nate Ebner, and Nebraska corner back Alfonzo Dennard. 2011 featured by far the worst Patriots defensive backfield since owner Robert Kraft bought the team -- a span of 18 years. This draft simply confirmed it; they must get better players (and coaching) in the secondary.

X-Factor Players

Three big question marks hang over the Patriots defense as the team nears training camp. If these X-factors go in their favor, the defense will be much improved. But if they go the other way, the defense will struggle again, especially late in games when teams have figured out their schemes for the week.

First and foremost, the Patriots must re-sign defensive end Andre Carter. An injury cost Carter a chance to play in the post-season last year, but his dynamic skills and non-stop motor earned him whatever the Patriots have to pay to retain his services. He played the "elephant" position better than any of the pretenders to McGinest's throne, and after five years of looking, the Patriots can't let him slip through their fingers.

Safety Patrick Chung and his injury-prone body are next on the list. Chung is similar to Bob Sanders (during his Colts seasons), an impact player who was invaluable as long as he stayed on the field. Chung doesn't have quite the impact Sanders did, but he steadies the secondary and brings a physical attitude. If he stays healthy, his presence is as important as anyone this side of Carter.

And lastly, Devin McCourty needs to return to form at corner. The team shifted him to safety at the end of 2011.  But it would be a waste of talent to have McCourty (who was a legitimate Pro-Bowl corner as a rookie in 2010) play safety instead of corner. There were indications that his problems last year stemmed from the different techniques associated with the 4-3.  If that's true, he should round back into peak form with the move to the 3-4 this year.


The defense played better as 2011 went along, but they were never anywhere near a top-ten unit. The signing of Albert Haynesworth and associated move to a 4-3 couldn't have gone worse. Haynesworth was cut before mid-season, a promising rookie corner regressed, the team gave up big plays week after week, and the ended the season with a safety tandem of McCourty and wide receiver Matthew Slater.

The switch back to the 3-4 should be a foregone conclusion. They found 3-4 personnel last year (Carter and the 2012 free agent signees), they drafted 3-4 personnel this year (just the right size to play outside, with the versatility to move inside if necessary), and their veterans played better in the 3-4 in previous years (Mayo, McCourty, and Vince Wilfork).

Grade: B+ (upgrade to A+ if they sign Carter).

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Patriots 2012 Off-Season: Offense

The 2012 Patriots off-season featured a lot of depth-building and some key additions that could bring new dimensions to an already excellent offense. There were also changes on defense that underlined a different philosophy of player acquisition, and the team made some underplayed changes to the coaching staff.

After five months of work to improve the team, here is the first of two parts of my off-season overview -- focusing today on the offense.

Free-Agent Departures

The Patriots only lost one key piece and one complimentary player on offense -- so far.  Training camp is likely to bring more changes. But for now, here are the players who left the team since last year.

By far the biggest loss of the off-season is left tackle Matt Light, who retired after 11 years, 3 Pro Bowls, and an All-Pro 2007 season. Light received mixed reviews from fans, but he started 87% of the games since entering the league, including 90 of 96 possible starts in the last 6 years. And despite fan ambivalence, left tackle play dropped of significantly when Light was sidelined.

Steady running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis got his free agent payday with Cincinnati. Green-Ellis will never be mistaken for a Pro-Bowler, but he rushed for 24 touchdowns the last 2 seasons (third in the NFL), averaged 4.0 yards a carry for his career, and still has never fumbled in the NFL. His steady play will be missed, but the Patriots passing game carries the team, so there was no way they would pay him as much as Cincinnati.

The Patriots cut media Chad Ochocino, but in the end it makes no difference. Ochocinco never learned the offense and was either a non-factor a net-negative for the team last season.

Free-Agent Arrivals

For a team that finished 2011 second in the NFL in yards-per-pass and third in quarterback rating, the Patriots free-agent signings belied some insecurity about their passing game. They signed three receivers to diversify the passing attack, and also added a running back and a guard to provide depth and flexibility.

They brought in receiver Brandon Lloyd (late of St. Louis) who flourished under Josh McDaniels system, with a stat line that impresses even now: 77 catches for 1,448 yards (18.8 ypc), 32 plays of 20+ yards, and an amazing 72 first downs (93.5%). Lloyd might not break as many big ones this year, but if he can help keep the chains moving and provide a secondary target in the red zone, the signing will pay off in spades.

Receiver Jabar Gaffney returns to the Patriots after a standout season in Washington. He notched 68 catches for 947 yards and 50 first downs -- and that was with Rex Grossman and John Beck slinging the ball. His rapport with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gives him a chance to unseat Deion Branch and provide a more effective outlet receiver.

Donte Stallworth also came over from Washington, but no guarantee he will even make the team. He was a complimentary player for the Patriots in 2007; however, that was a long time ago, and he hasn't impressed lately.

Longtime Colts running back Joseph Addai was added for depth and experience, along with the possibility of replacing Kevin Faulk as the third-down back. Addai's performance was down in 2011, suffering along with the entire Colts offense. He is one of the Patriots "value" signings with big upside and very little risk; however, they need a more productive and better blocking back on third down than incumbent Danny Woodhead.

Seattle guard Robert Gallery was brought in to shore up an offensive line that suffered too many injuries last year. Only guard Brian Waters started all 16 games on the offensive line in 2011, and the mixing and matching caused real problems with quarterback protection. Head coach Bill Belichick has always been impressed with Gallery, and the hope is that he will help stabilize the line.

X-Factor Players

Even with the added talent, two of last year's best players need to continue their excellent performances, and two positions are in need of players to step up their games.

Receiver Wes Welker alternatively complained and then accepted and then complained and then accepted being franchised. Oh the flip side, tight end Rob Gronkowski received the richest contract ever for a tight end, even though he had a few years left on his rookie deal. However, both players need to put the contracts behind them and concentrate on continuing their incredible production.

Welker still makes the offense go, averaging 7.6 catches, 98 yards, and almost 5 first downs a game. No one this side of Tom Brady is as important to the offense. And after an otherworldly 2011, Gronkowski can't get comfortable with his new riches. Opponents will target him from the opening snap of the season, and no one knows how well he will recover from the high ankle sprain that limited him in the Super Bowl.

Second-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen must avoid the sophomore slump and step in for Green-Ellis. Ridley learned the offense and blocking schemes well enough to earn playing time last year, but he'll have to correct his late-season fumblitis to stay on the field in 2012. Vereen's injury-plagued 2011 cost him important development time; however, if he stays healthy the Patriots are very high on his skills.

The last X-factor is a two-man race to replace left tackle Matt Light. Two years ago, Sebastian Vollmer looked like the heir apparent, but his play has slipped since then and he was relegated to part-time in 2011. And as a rookie, last year's first-round draft pick Nate Solder saw more playing time at tight end than tackle. One of these two has to step in and protect Brady's blind side, or the offense will be down at least a notch or two.

Coaching Changes

Last but certainly not least are two key changes on the offensive coaching staff.

Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien left for Penn State, and former Patriots coach Josh McDaniels returned from a three-year hiatus to replace O'Brien. Expect this change to work out well. O'Brien was good but not as creative as McDaniels. And McDaniels worked three years outside the organization, and his fresh perspectives are desperately needed on a New England staff that remains far too insular.

The second coaching change will likely result in a downgrade. Tight ends coach Brian Ferentz arrived with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the three of them made mincemeat of NFL defenses for two seasons. The two young tight ends might be talented enough that coaching doesn't matter. But it's more likely that new tight ends coach George Godsey (second year in the NFL) won't get the same production out of the pair. Godsey's best hope is that McDaniels comes up with novel new ways to get Gronkowski and Hernandez room to work with.


Uncertainty at left tackle and running back, along with less production from the tight ends, outweighs the improved receiving corps and the return of McDaniels. Center Dan Koppen will also be back from injury to solidify the offensive line. But without a doubt Ridley and Vereen will have rough patches, and it is difficult to imagine Gronkowski catching lightning in a bottle for a second straight year.

Some up, some down, but overall a neutral off-season for the offense. Not bad given their 2011 stats. But they should have worked just a bit harder to improve.

Grade: B