Monday, January 9, 2017

Patriots 2016 Regular Season Awards

With the Patriots on a playoff bye week, this is the perfect opportunity to give some virtual hardware for the best Patriots players and coaches this season.

Offensive Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: LeGarrette Blount and Julian Edelman

There’s a reason I name a “Non-Brady MVP” after every game; because no one else would ever be in the running if Tom Terrific were allowed in the conversation. Among his special accomplishments this year:
  • Set a new NFL record with a 28-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio
  • Took a career-low 15 sacks and tied his career-low with zero lost fumbles
  • His 112.2 QB rating and 67.4% completions are second only to his phenomenal 2007 season
Enjoy Brady while he’s playing. Remember that the starting quarterback just before Bledsoe/Brady locked down the position for two-plus dedaces was the immortal Jeff Carlson (career QB rating: 34.1).

Blount carried the load in the running game: 1,161 yards on 299 carries, and an NFL-best 18 touchdowns. And despite 306 touches on the year, he fumbled only two times and lost just one of them.

Edelman caught 4+ passes in every game except one (which they lost, of course), and he was incredibly consistent picking up first downs to keep the chains moving. He also topped 1,000 yards for the second time in his career (1,106).

Most Improved Offensive Player: Marcus Cannon
Honorable Mention: David Andrews, Nate Solder, and James White

Cannon really suffered under the two-year tutelage of former offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, and he caught a lot of grief for it. But his about-face under returning coach Dante Scarnecchia has been nothing short of incredible. He is the Pats best or second-best run blocker, and he’s done a great job protecting Brady from outside pressure.

Consider his 180-degree turnaround against Denver’s Von Miller. In the AFC Championship Game last January, Miller went around Cannon like he wasn’t even there. In the December rematch, Cannon used a novel technique to dominate the matchup, playing with his hands down until Miller engaged him, then using his size to push Miller around.

The resurgence of the O-line was also evident in the improved play of center David Andrews (especially good pulling on run plays), and the return to form of Nate Solder. Brady was sacked 38 times in 2015, but only 15 this year. And credit for that goes mostly to the players, aided by Scarnecchia.

White improved in catches (from 40 to 60), rushing yards (56 to 166), and yards per rush (2.5 to 4.3). He was more of a threat in the passing game, something he lacked entirely the year before.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Martellus Bennett
Honorable Mention: Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, and Joe Thuney

Take a talented tight end from Chicago (where he caught 90 passes from Jay “bleeping” Cutler) add him to an offense with Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady, and what do you get? The 2016 Offensive Newcomer of the Year! Bennett was the Patriots third attempt to rebuild the two tight-end offense post-Hernandez, and “Marty” proved the perfect match.

Bennett caught 55 passes for 701 yards, both good for third on the team. He also led the team with a career-high seven touchdowns and gained 12.7 yards per catch (second best of his career). Additionally, he blocked very well, both at the line and downfield, and he was more durable than Gronkowski, playing in every game this season and starting 12 of them.

Additionally, his ability to learn the offense should not be underestimated; there have been a lot of free agent receiver busts in New England over the years. Not everyone can learn the offense quickly enough to get playing time and build a rapport with Brady. But Bennett seemed to do everything well. May he play next to Gronkowski until Brady retires!

Speaking of receiver non-busts, Chris Hogan came over from Buffalo and immediately fit in. He totaled 38 catches for 680 yards on the year, a gaudy 17.9 yards per catch that was second on the team to Gronkowski.

The last rookie receiver who had the same impact as Malcolm Mitchell was Deion Branch. Mitchell's 32 catches for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns are similar to the 43 for 489 and 2 touchdowns Branch posted in 2002. And all this came after an elbow injury in the preseason almost finished Mitchell’s season before it started.

Not to be forgotten is rookie guard Joe Thuney, who came in unheralded but worked his way into the starting lineup and contributed to the massive O-line turnaround. He also tied David Andrews for highest percentage of offensive snaps this season.

Defensive Most Valuable Player: Alan Branch & Malcom Brown
Honorable Mention: Trey Flowers, Malcolm Butler, and Devin McCourty

In the closest race (and the most crowded field), defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown get the nod. The two were twin blocks of solid granite inside, stuffing one running back after another, and pushing the pocket back into opposing quarterbacks.

Both were central to the Patriots defensive resurgence in the second half. Their consistency inside allowed coaches to try other players at different positions and in a multitude of formations. And even though interior linemen rarely make tackles in the Patriots scheme, Branch and Brown ranked sixth and seventh on the team in tackles, respectively.

Trey Flowers would have won this award if he’d started earlier in the year. He led the team with seven sacks and had become a dominant lineman by the end of the season. He’s only 23 years old, so we could be seeing him for some time to come.

Butler is the closest the Patriots have to a shutdown corner. He isn’t quite there, but his competitiveness and drive to improve have him on the cusp of a huge payday, coming off a season with 50 tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery, and a team-leading four interceptions.

McCourty brought attitude and stability to the secondary. His primary responsibility being to make sure the team gave up as few big plays as they could, and he did pretty well there. The Patriots ranked second, giving up just 59 big plays on the season His impact is often underrated, but his knowledge of the defensive schemes and versatility allow the Patriots to give opposing offenses a lot of different looks to deal with.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Trey Flowers
Honorable Mention: none

Flowers could have won Defensive Newcomer, except he was a “redshirt rookie” last year – out for the year with an injury before he really got started. In addition to the facts listed above about Flowers, he did his best work on the bigger stages. Five of his seven sacks came against Seattle, Baltimore, and Denver, three of the toughest opponents the Patriots faced in 2016.

Flowers played less than one game in 2015, and no one was close to his level of improvement, so he owns this category alone.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Chris Long
Honorable Mention: Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts

Long still struggles to hold the edge on running plays, but his impact against the pass has been significant. He had four sacks and over a dozen QB pressures this year, while also knocking down three passes at the line of scrimmage. He also forced a fumble and made 35 tackles, and even dropped into pass coverage occasionally.

The linebacking trio were difficult to separate. Roberts started and ended the season strong, McClellin got better as the year progressed, and Van Noy came in at mid-season and is already the backup signal-caller when Dont’a Hightower is out. All solid additions, and an interesting group to watch in future seasons.

Special Teams Most Valuable Player: Nate Ebner
Honorable Mention: Ryan Allen and Jonathan Jones

It would be difficult not to give this award Ebner, who tied for the league lead with 19 special teams tackles. He was a beast this year, flying down the field with abandon, cutting off angles, and planting multiple returners in their tracks. Matthew Slater nearly retired this award the past few years, but Ebner was the Patriots best this season. Maybe something in that Olympic water down in Rio :)

Allen posted his best year in punting average (44.7 yards a kick), net average (41.4), and fewest return yards (134 for the season).

Jones was third on the team with eight special teams tackles, but he had more impact plays than Brandon King (nine tackles) and always stayed disciplined in his lane.

(Note that the Patriots 2015 special teams coverage units were probably underrated. They had three of the top 10 special teams tacklers in the entire league: King had 16 tackles, Slater 15, and Ebner 14.)

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Ryan Allen
Honorable Mention: Nate Ebner

As mentioned before, Allen had several areas of improvement. And his ability to pin teams deep was invaluable in several wins this year, notably against Miami, Houston, Baltimore, and Denver.

Ebner had a great year, but it wasn’t that much better than his already excellent 2015 campaign.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Jonathan Jones
Honorable Mention: none

Not a strong category for the Patriots, but rookie Jones was solid in his special teams play.
Before the season, Cyrus was supposed to be the “Jones” we’d all be talking about. But he had more special teams fumbles than the entire team the previous year, and he was riding the pine by the end of the season.

Most Valuable Coach of the Year: Brian Flores (linebackers)
Honorable Mention: Chad O’Shea (receivers)

To quote the old saying, Flores made chicken salad out of chicken feathers. He lost two starters from the previous year (Jamie Collins and Jonathan Freeney), was given two cast-offs from the NFC North (McClellin and Van Noy), a rookie (Roberts), and was asked to integrate defensive end Rob Ninkovich into the rotation.

The results were surprisingly good, as week after week he built a more cohesive unit that complimented each other’s strengths and overcame each other’s weaknesses. But season’s end the linebackers were no longer a question mark. Any injury at LB would still hurt in the playoffs, as depth is an issue. But even if that happens, Flores is likely to pull a rabbit out of the hat and make it work somehow.

In ten years with the Patriots, Flores has coached special teams, offense, safeties, linebackers, and he’s been on the scouting staff. If the Patriots need to fill their defensive coordinator position in the off-season (more on that later), don’t be surprised if Flores gets the gig.

As mentioned earlier, the list of receivers who never panned out in New England is surprisingly long. But O’Shea got good production out of newbies Hogan, Mitchell, and at the end of the year, Michael Floyd. Those three couldn’t be more different as receivers, and O’Shea made it all work.

Most Improved Coach of the Year: Matt Patricia (defensive coordinator)
Honorable Mention: Ivan Fears (running backs)

Patricia oversaw numerous changes in his front-seven, but somehow improved the defense enough to move them from tenth in 2015 to first in 2016 in points allowed. He called better games this year, his players tackled better and were more competitive on every play, and his defense literally shut teams down (one shutout and two games where they allowed only three points).

It should be no surprise that Patricia is in the conversation for several of the available head coaching positions. He might not get one; most owners want an offensive coach who can bring along a young QB. But Patricia is meticulous and innovative and should bear serious consideration.

Fears helped LeGarrette Blount and James White have the best years of their careers, both improving their play in the running and passing games.

Coaching Newcomer of the Year: Dante Scarnecchia (offensive line)
Honorable Mention: none

Scarnecchia managed an amazing turnaround on the offensive line. The line was passive and confused under former coach DeGuglielmo, and their problems were a large part of the reason the team lost in the AFC Championship Game last season. But Scarnecchia worked his magic, settling on a solid starting five and coaching them up all year until they were one of the better units on the team.

A very impressive job by any measure.

Enjoy the games this weekend and keep the faith!

- Scott

PS. 14-2 & 0-0!

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