Friday, September 5, 2014

Patriots 2014 Season Primer!

Last year the Patriots replaced nearly 50% of their offensive starters. This year, less than 20% (not counting running back LeGarrette Blount -- that was Stevan Ridley’s job). Constant change might be be the norm, but some years just don’t measure up like others.

Still, there is plenty to chew on, and I’m just the guy to help put it together for you. Here is your catch-up blog entry on the comings and goings, and what changes to expect in 2014.


Hello: WR Brandon LaFell, WR Brian Tyms, TE Tim Wright, RB James White, QB Jimmy Garoppolo, T Jordan Devey, and T Cameron Fleming.

Good-bye: RB LeGarrette Blount, G Logan Mankins, QB Ryan Mallett, WR Austin Collie, TE Matthew Mulligan, and OL Will Svitek.

1. Offensive Line on the Line

The Patriots had two significant losses on the offensive line: their best lineman, Logan Mankins was traded to Tampa Bay, and their longtime coach Dante Scarnecchia retired.  Mankins is reportedly being replaced by right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and Scarnecchia was replaced by Dave DeGuglielmo, a nine-year NFL veteran.

Mankins’ play slipped last season, but at his age he was very likely to have had a return to his All-Pro form in 2014. So that leaves big shoes to fill for Vollmer, who might be up to the task if he can stay healthy (he’s battled back problems the last few years). The Mankins trade was clearly a money move, and the Patriots will use the salary cap space to re-sign other players. However, there is a chance this comes back to bite them, given that he helped protect Tom Brady’s blind side.

As for the DeGuglielmo, he has his work cut out. His squad includes four undrafted players, four players in their first or second year in the NFL, and only two players drafted in the first two rounds. And he steps in to replace a legend in Scarnecchia, who made chicken salad out of chicken feathers year after year.

If Mankins had stayed, I would have predicted that the new coach would have been a one-year improvement. That often happens when long-time coaches are replaced (not that he would have been as good as Scarnecchia in the long run). But with Mankins in Tampa Bay, expect the offensive line to struggle -- they ran hot and cold in the preseason. And that could bode ill for the offense, especially early in the year.

2. Two Tight Ends Again?

Tight end Tim Wright came back in the Tampa Bay trade, and he had the following stat line in his rookie campaign last year: 54 catches, 571 yards, and 5 touchdowns. And that was with Josh Freeman and Mike Glennon throwing to him. Translate that to the New England offense and Brady, and there might be a wee bit of improvement.

But don’t go trading Megatron for Wright for your fantasy team just yet. He still has to prove he can learn the offense, and he has to gain Brady’s trust. But if he accomplishes those two things, he will diversify the Patriots offense in ways not possible with the dreck the Pats carried at second tight end last year.

If Wright can duplicate his output from last year, it would more than triple what the Patriots got from the non-Rob Gronkowski tight ends in 2013 (14 catches for 152 yards). And with Brady at the helm, there is a good chance Wright will do even more than he did in Tampa -- and that would re-usher in the two-tight end offense.

3. Still no Deep Threat

Danny Amendola wasn’t it last year, and neither was Kenbrell Thompkins. And so far, it doesn’t look like newcomer Brandon LaFell will be it this year. The Patriots haven’t had a legitimate deep threat since Randy Moss was traded in 2010.

Not that they can’t win without a deep threat. But the search continues at this point; they didn’t find it in LaFell -- so the pressure will continue to be on Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski to produce in the middle of the field.

4. New Quarterback in Town

Second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo beat out last year’s #2 QB, Ryan Mallet for second place on the depth chart. In fact, the Patriots liked him so much, they shipped Mallet to Houston for a sixth- or seventh-round pick in 2015.

It’s a big risk to have only a rookie backing up Brady. Garoppolo showed well in the preseason, but that is no guarantee of in-season performance. Remember that Matt Cassel looked horrible in the 2008 preseason, but led the team to an 11-5 record after Brady was knocked out of the season.

Still Garoppolo outplayed Mallet in August, and that should hearten Patriots fans who might worry that Brady gets dinged and misses a few games.


Hello: CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner, CB Malcolm Butler, S Patrick Chung, LB Darius Fleming, and DL Dominique Easley.

Good-bye: CB Aqib Talib, LB Brandon Spikes, S Steve Gregory, LB Dane Fletcher, DL Tommy Kelley, and DL Andre Carter.

1. The Secondary Revamp: 2014 Version

By all accounts Revis is one of the top three corners in the game, and he is far more durable than Talib. So he should solidify one side of the field, opposite last year’s starter Alfonzo Dennard and perhaps the newly acquired Browner (after his four-game suspension to start the season). The new corners also allow Kyle Arrington to cover slot receivers exclusively, something he excels at.

Any way you slice it, there is more size and skill at cornerback than there has been in years. And that should take the pressure off the safeties.

Which is a good thing, because there is a lot of uncertainty at safety, after solid starter Devin McCourty. Tavon Wilson played well in the preseason, and Duron Harmon made a bit of a splash with some big hits, but I thought Nate Ebner played the best of the safeties in the preseason, especially at forcing the run. And he’s fifth or sixth on the depth chart to start the year.

That tells me they either have a ton of talent at the position, or that behind McCourty it’s a rotating group of nobodies who will be a drag on the team. As a fan, one hopes for the former, but until someone distinguishes himself, watch out for long passes to the non-Revis side of the field. Teams that like to go deep will be salivating to play the Patriots early in the year.

2. Depth Problems

Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, and Vince Wilfork are solid along the defensive line. And second year players Joe Vellano and Chris Jones will swap time, making them more effective than they were last year, when they had to replace Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. They were okay playing every down, but should be better platooning.

The problem comes behind them. If you’ve heard of Sealver Siliga, Zack Moore, Michael Buchanan, and Dominique Easley -- well, then you’re as much of a Patriots nut as I am. This is the risk you run when you cut Tommy Kelly; the drop-off can be severe if one of your starters goes out. Jones has been hurt, and Easley hasn’t played all preseason, so no one knows what happens when the inevitable first injury hits.

Depth is also a problem at linebacker. We all know Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, and we should know breakout star of late last year, Jamie Collins. I won’t even mention their backups, because you wouldn’t know them anyway. But perhaps a bigger concern is that there are only two of them.

The Patriots can ride out one injury on the defensive line; two if Easley is any good. But any linebacker injury leads to a pretty steep talent drop.

Last year the team was decimated on defense when their four best defensive players went out: Mayo, Wilfork, Kelly, and Talib. No team can sustain that many losses. However, the 2014 Pats have set themselves up at corner and safety, but left themselves vulnerable at defensive line and linebacker. Very vulnerable.

Special Teams

1. And the Kickoff is Taken By… Whom?

LeGarrette Blount, Josh Boyce, and Leon Washington are gone, and they took 70% of the kickoff returns with them. Not that kickoffs are a big part of the game any more; but the Pats need *someone* to field kicks.

The Schedule

And here goes with my annual attempt to predict which games the Patriots will win and lose for the season.  Take it with a grain of salt -- I am usually close in the final record, but not as accurate with which games go which way.  As always, the season is broken up into quarters.

First Quarter

  • The Pats start their year in Miami, and frankly this game has me worried. The Dolphins installed an up-tempo offense that should be doubly effective in the heat, and their skill position players have given the Patriots fits in the past. Combine that with Miami’s excellent pash rush, the Patriots mediocre O-line play in the preseason, and the lack of depth on the defensive front seven, and I predict the Patriots lose their first season opener since 2003.

  • Next up is a trip to Minnesota to take on the Vikings, and the Patriots should win in a shoot-out. As good as Tom Brady is at home, he’s incredibly efficient in domes, and the Pats also know all of QB Matt Cassel’s weaknesses.

  • The Raiders stop by Foxboro for the Pats home opener, and there is no reason this shouldn’t be a two-touchdown win for the Patriots.

  • The Chiefs game would be very worrisome if they had more receiver talent to compliment running back Jamaal Charles -- but they don’t. Problem is, Kansas City is a tough place to play. And even though Bill Belichick usually outschemes Andy Reid, in a game this close, take the crowd noise under the Monday night lights. Loss #2.

Second Quarter

  • For the second year in a row, the Pats play the Bengals in week five. Two differences: this time it’s in Foxboro, and the Bengals have a bye week prior to this matchup. Cincy can’t depend on crowd noise to slow the Patriots offense this year, and I don’t think they have the firepower to keep up with the Pats in Foxboro. Sounds like win #3.

  • The following week should be a cakewalk in Buffalo. The Bills traditionally have given the Patriots more trouble in week 1 than any other time, and they’ve also played better in Foxboro than Buffalo. This year Belichick will have plenty of tape on Buffalo to prepare for this game, so it should go in the win column.

  • A Thursday night game comes next, facing the Jets in Foxboro. Jets head coach Rex Ryan likes to pull off surprises against New England. But unfortunately for him, the Thursday night home teams win 66% of the time, so the Patriots should win this one.

  • The sacrificial Bears come to town ten days later. Chicago QB Jay Cutler is 0-2 versus New England, completing less than 60% of his passes, for 160 yards a game, and has 1 touchdown to 4 ints. And Belichick is dominant versus the NFC; sounds like a recipe for a 6-2 record!

Third Quarter

  • Here is why I think the Patriots will beat the Broncos in Foxboro. (1) Denver has division games sandwiching the Pats game, the Patriots play the Bears and then have a bye. (2) Talib is a waste against the Patriots receivers; he can’t shut them down because they are shifty-small guys, a bad matchup. (3) Peyton Manning plus crowd noise usually ends worse than expected.

  • After a bye week, the Pats travel to Indy for a Sunday night game against the Colts. If you watched last year’s playoff blowout, you might think this would be an easy win for the Patriots. But the Colts have a bye the previous week, just as the Patriots do. And the Colts have excellent skill position players on offense, and their defense thrives on the home field noise. Add to that the Patriots notorious slow offensive starts after bye weeks, and it is time for loss #3.

  • The dome-field Lions come for a late-November visit to windy Foxboro. They play a division game four days later on Thanksgiving, and that plus the weather should be just enough to distract them and let the Patriots walk away with the win. A close one, but the Lions are famous for folding under pressure.

  • The Packers are a popular choice to make the Super Bowl, and the have the kind of diversified offense that gives the Patriots fits. In Lambeau, after the Broncos/Colts/Lions sked, this looks like loss #4.

Fourth Quarter

  • The last part of the season begins with a trip to San Diego. I’m not sold on Chargers’ head coach Mike McCoy yet, and this game comes in the middle of a brutal schedule for them (three division games with the Raiders, Broncos, and Chiefs, along with contests against the Rams, Ravens, and 49ers). I see a Chargers letdown this week, and a Patriots win.

  • The make-good game for their opening day loss is having the Dolphins stop by for a beating in the middle of December. You’ll hear a lot of “the weather won’t affect us” coming from the Miami players in the lead-up to the game. But you won’t hear much of it when they are on the way home with yet another Foxboro loss.

  • The Pats travel down to New York next, for a tilt with the Jets. Rex Ryan is likely to be coaching for his job, and they have a pretty easy schedule around this game, so I’ll go out on a limb and predict Rexy pulls it out.

  • And finally, the Bills stop by Foxboro for their annual Mail-It-In Bowl. Buffalo will likely be out of playoff contention, and they’ve shown through the years that they are patsies late in the year, especially when it comes to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.


That makes the Patriots 11-5, likely division winners, but not in contention for a playoff bye.

Statistical Oddity of the Century: Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach, not one single NFL team has a winning record against the Patriots. And only the Carolina Panthers are at break-even (2-2). (Credit to Kraft Sports for the stat.)

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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