Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

04 Apr 2013

State of the Team: New England Patriots

by Andy Benoit

The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that there are 12 defensive starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.

Color Legend:

  • Star
  • Good
  • Adequate
  • Jury’s still out
  • Just a guy
  • Upgrade needed
  • No longer on the team

Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.

Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.

Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.

Click here for an archive of all State of the Team articles.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

OFFENSE

OVERVIEW

As long as Tom Brady is on the field, the Patriots offense is dangerous. They can play any brand of football out of a multitude of different formations and personnel packages. They control the tempo and dictate the terms of engagement. Last season, for the first time in years, they had a genuinely threatening ground game. Naturally, they leveraged this into a genuinely threatening play-action game. There’s a belief that most of what New England does hinges on having two versatile tight ends on the field. Last season, however, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez played together in just five regular season games, and New England still found ways to prosper.

BACKFIELD

QB: Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett
RB: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden; Lost: Danny Woodhead

Brady said last November that the game has become much easier for him. He’s playing that way. Most of the time, he beats the defense before the ball is even snapped. That’s a big reason why his running backs have had so much success. Brady’s tempo and pre-snap recognition give the Patriots a consistent advantage in numbers or angles on the ground. It helps that the sturdy Ridley consistently gets to the hole with good tempo and has nice short-area agility. Vereen consistently took advantage of his opportunities last season, both as a receiver and an outside runner. Expect him to assume a larger role now that Woodhead is gone.

RECEIVERS

WR: Danny Amendola, Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins, Matthew Slater; Lost: Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd

TE: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Michael Hoomanawanui, Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells

The Patriots don’t just operate with quick tempo between the snaps, they operate with it during the snaps. Their three-step timing pass game is incredibly tough to defend. New England’s passing attack didn't go vertical very often last season, in part because Lloyd didn’t quite pan out the way they’d hoped. More than that, though, the underneath nature of Welker and the flexibility of Gronkowski and Hernandez just made it easier to play underneath. Expect more of that this season. As long as he’s healthy, Amendola can fill Welker’s shoes -- and he can actually stretch the field a little more, too. The rest of the depth chart at wideout is a mess, but the Patriots really just need one other guy to emerge and be solid. Most likely, that guy is not currently on the roster.

OFFENSIVE LINE

LT: Nate Solder LG: Logan Mankins C: Ryan Wendell RG: Dan Connolly RT: Sebastian Vollmer

Backups: Marcus Cannon, Nick McDonald; Lost: Donald Thomas

Solder is as athletic as any offensive tackle in football. If he stays on his current track of development, he’ll garner Pro Bowl honors this season. Mankins had uncharacteristic struggles at times in 2012, but is still arguably the best guard in the entire league. His ability to pull on power runs is a staple of this offense. Wendell and Connolly are both good survivors; they know how to compensate for their limitations and succeed in this offense. Vollmer is easily a top-five offensive tackle if healthy. If he can’t stay on the field, Cannon, who played a fair amount when injuries hounded the front five midway through last season, will get the nod.

DEFENSE

OVERVIEW

There’s a belief that Bill Belichick loves to change his foundational defensive scheme from week to week. Really, Belichick just bases his scheme on his personnel. Several years ago, his personnel was very experienced and uncommonly smart, as he had guys like Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison. So, Belichick did change his scheme from week to week. That was an unusual collection of veterans, though. A few years ago, bad drafting had left the Patriots with mostly inconsistent role players on defense. So, Belichick’s defensive foundation featured safe vanilla zones. Last year, good drafting left the Patriots with more talent in the front seven. So, Belichick went back to diversifying his front-seven schemes. The back four was still bland until a midseason trade for cornerback Aqib Talib. That brought forth a quasi-No. 1 corner and moved everyone in the secondary down a peg and into a more fitting position. Belichick suddenly scrapped the vanilla zones and went to man concepts behind more diversified blitzes. With the same defense essentially intact, look for the Patriots to build on that in 2013.

DEFENSIVE LINE

DE: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette; Lost: Trevor Scott

DT: Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Myron Pryor

Wilfork is as domineering a force as the NFL has to offer. He looks like a nose tackle, which is a role he’s great in. But with the Patriots now being almost exclusively a 4-3 team, Wilfork plays more one-gap concepts. The beauty is this can change at any minute, as Wilfork is a beast no matter what technique he plays. His presence makes life very easy on Deaderick and Love. Outside, Jones is a budding second-year stud with great length and lateral flexibility. Ninkovich has blossomed into a solid edge-setter, and he showed more speed around the corner in the second half of last season.

LINEBACKER

OLB: Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Jeff Tarpinian; Lost: Tracy White

ILB: Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher

Spikes is the best pure downhill thumper in football. In space, he’s somewhat limited, but able to get by. Mayo is an every-down force who moves well, quickly recognizes offensive designs, and handles a variety of assignments. He could, however, stand to be a little firmer in pass defense, particularly in picking up targets out of the backfield. Hightower is a solid first- and second-down role player right now, but he has the potential to become at least a semi-star.

SECONDARY

CB: Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Malcolm Williams, Marquice Cole; Lost: Josh Barrett

S: Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson; Lost: Patrick Chung

The return of Talib means the return of New England’s two-man defense. Don’t be surprised if this season it becomes more of an attacking, man-free/roving defense, thanks to the addition of Wilson. The ex-Cardinals safety is a fierce hitter and instinctive in-the-box hunter. He’s also a horrible read-and-react cover guy, which is why "man free" is a coverage that makes a lot of sense. McCourty has the range to be a lone centerfielder. At the other corner spots, Dennard was very impressive down the stretch in his rookie season. As long as he’s not in jail, he’ll start. Arrington gets picked on outside, but he has developed into a solid defender inside.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Stephen Gostkowski P: Zoltan Mesko

Gostkowski isn't as strong on kickoffs as he was earlier in his career, and he has some surprising field-goal misses over the last couple years.

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Posted by: Andy Benoit on 04 Apr 2013

47 comments, Last at 13 Apr 2013, 1:24am by Lelouch vi Britannia

Comments

1
by RussNovak (not verified) :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 4:58pm

I don't think Gostkowski's leg has gotten weaker, I think he's concertedly trying to have the other team return the ball, since the Pats often tackle the returner before the 20. Entice a return out of the other team and have them consistently start two or three yards short of where they'd be if he kicked it into the stands. A longer field for a shoddy defense.

3
by Tino (not verified) :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 5:46pm

There's no way a coach, especially a percentages guy like Belichick, would allow his kicker to let the other team return the ball if he could kick it out of the end zone. Gaining 2 or 3 yards of field position (if your coverage is perfect) is hardly worth the chance of a longer return.

8
by RickD :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 6:46pm

I'm pretty sure Belichick prefers touchbacks.

2
by patsguy (not verified) :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 5:06pm

Two man? In the playoffs and second half of the season Pats played majority of cover 1. Rover was usually non mayo LB or SS. Mccourty almost exclusively played CF. Otherwise they played cover 3.

4
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 6:03pm

So how did a defense with 5 greens, a blue, and no pinks or lower in the starting rotation manage to be that shitty?

9
by RickD :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 6:48pm

They really weren't "that shitty" after they got Talib.

Chandler Jones was out at the end of the season. And when Talib went down in the Ravens' game, that left the secondary too thin.

21
by Sifter :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 11:33pm

Looking at DVOA, it says NE's defense was -0.8% (14th) in weighted DVOA vs 1.3% (15th) in full season DVOA. Tells em there was no obvious improvement with Talib's presence in the back end of the season - by stats at least. Weeks 13-17 were a good run (4 negative DVOA performances for the D in 5 games), but then again so was weeks 4-8 without Talib (4 negative DVOAs as well).

Of course logic says they should be better with Talib, but it wasn't as obvious in the play-by-play as it was on paper.

22
by RickD :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 12:46am

Talib only played 6 regular season games for the Pats. You're going to have to do a bit more than look at weighted DVOA, which includes 2 games when he was sidelined.

And really, I don't think DVOA is calibrated so finely that the presence or absence of one player can be accurately measured by such a small sample size.

In any case, I wasn't positively making the claim that the Pats' defense with Talib was significantly better than it was without him. But I was saying that, with him, it wasn't "shitty." It was about average.

10
by mgoetze (not verified) :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 6:49pm

They played the beginning of the 2012 season with McCourty/Arrington at CB and Gregory/Chung at S. That just wasn't good enough. If this secondary stays healthy (and out of jail) it will be a serious upgrade.

14
by nick c (not verified) :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 8:25pm

Cole and gregory should be pink. Also if spikes is green it reflects an averaging of his great run and poor pass defending abilities.

38
by Joe R (not verified) :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 3:14pm

The defense really wasn't that bad. Teams were often coming from behind, which means a lot more passing (and extended games). PPG is a bad metric to judge offensive/defensive quality.

That being said, the defense certainly wasn't good, but improved dramatically w/ Talib's addition.

5
by Snack Flag (not verified) :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 6:07pm

Sebastian Vollmer is easily a top 5 offensive tackle when healthy? Even though he can't play left tackle?

7
by mgoetze (not verified) :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 6:44pm

Who says Vollmer can't play LT? He did just fine playing there in his rookie year when Matt Light was injured.

11
by RickD :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 6:51pm

Seriously. Vollmer could play LT for a lot of teams. If he didn't have the back issue he surely would have landed a well-paying free agent contract.

15
by Snack Flag (not verified) :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 8:46pm

He hasn't played much left tackle since 2009. Yes, injuries had something to do with it, but if he was "top 5 when healthy", then I'm pretty sure BB would have had him there instead of Solder (who has experienced his share of growing pains) even if he was only at 90%.

I don't doubt that Vollmer could start at LT for a lot of teams with crappy left tackles. But so could Andre Smith and a lot of other good RTs. I just want to know how Vollmer is a top five offensive tackle. He's really solid, but he's up there with Joe Thomas, Ryan Clady, Duane Brown, Staley, Ferguson, Matt Kalil, a healthy Jake Long, Russell Okung, etc?

16
by theslothook :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 9:43pm

This is probably a question for Ben Muth, but is it a given that left tackles can easily play right tackle while most if not all would have a harder time switching to left? I guess both sides have different skill requirements, but I wonder if its so mutually exclusive for right and not for the left.

32
by Dean :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 8:51am

The theory is that the left tackle is most likely to face a defense's best pass rusher. The arm length and the agility are the two "measurables" that scouts look at when projecting guys as LT/RT. If your arms are a hair to short for LT, they project you as a RT; shorter yet, they project you as a G. You get the idea.

40
by Ben Muth :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 4:19pm

Best way to think about it is to compare it to finishing with your left hand in basketball. Tim Duncan and Andrew Bynum are both really good post plays that can finsih hooks either way. Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson are very good post players that can't really do that. Some OTs can flop back and forth pretty seamlessly while other really struggle with it. Obviously LTs should be better at this since theyre generally better athletes but they can get so used to pass setting one way, they have a hard time doing it the other. Tyron Smith is a guy that's a great athlete that should be able to play LT but played RT for so long in college and the pros that he looked terrible on the left last year.

Also, Pats OT situation is phenomenal. I love Vollmer and think he's the best RT in football. Top 5 overall tackle may be pushing it but not by much. I think SOlder is on his way to joining the Clady, Brown, Thomas upper-echelon of LTs. And Svitek is as good as a swing tackle as you can reasonably afford in the NFL.

The guards looked old at times and losing Thomas hurts, but they should be fine if they still healthy. Like Wendell as a an above average starter that doesn't make much.

41
by Ben Muth :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 4:19pm

Best way to think about it is to compare it to finishing with your left hand in basketball. Tim Duncan and Andrew Bynum are both really good post plays that can finsih hooks either way. Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson are very good post players that can't really do that. Some OTs can flop back and forth pretty seamlessly while other really struggle with it. Obviously LTs should be better at this since theyre generally better athletes but they can get so used to pass setting one way, they have a hard time doing it the other. Tyron Smith is a guy that's a great athlete that should be able to play LT but played RT for so long in college and the pros that he looked terrible on the left last year.

Also, Pats OT situation is phenomenal. I love Vollmer and think he's the best RT in football. Top 5 overall tackle may be pushing it but not by much. I think SOlder is on his way to joining the Clady, Brown, Thomas upper-echelon of LTs. And Svitek is as good as a swing tackle as you can reasonably afford in the NFL.

The guards looked old at times and losing Thomas hurts, but they should be fine if they still healthy. Like Wendell as a an above average starter that doesn't make much.

20
by jonnyblazin :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 11:00pm

You'd think if Vollmer was a top 5 tackle he'd have gotten a better contract than he did.

23
by RickD :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 1:00am

Well, there's a difference between saying "top 5 when healthy" and talking about what a realistic contract should be. Like I said, if front offices thought his health was unlikely to be an issue, he would get a better contract. But with Vollmer, "when healthy" is a significant caveat.

FWIW, the position I'm arguing is that he can surely play LT, not that he's "Top 5." That kind of analysis is beyond my competence.

30
by CBPodge :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 8:04am

Surely this should have been "a top five right tackle"?

46
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 04/10/2013 - 6:47pm

I don't understand the reasoning why an RT can't be a top-5 OT. Many top pass rushers line up on both the left and right side (for example, Peppers, Matthews), and there are plenty of good pass rushers on the right side, so I don't see much reason to distinguish between the two any more, except for historical reasons.

6
by theslothook :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 6:21pm

I think its a bit disingenuous to say that the pats run game was dangerous for the first time in years in addition to intimating the success of their run game is a product of their pass game. First of all, Pats have had near league leading dvoa in the running game for several years - they just ran a higher volume of plays this year. In addition, if all it took was a great passing offense to produce even a decent run game - then you never would see ind, sd, gb, and NO at various times sporting bottom of the league run dvoa's while also having league leading pass offenses. The truth is, the pats benefit from talent to do both.

12
by RickD :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 6:55pm

Inaccurate, perhaps.

"Disingenuous"?

13
by theslothook :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 7:05pm

You're right. I should have gone with misleading.

19
by jonnyblazin :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 10:57pm

I'm also not sure how good the Pats RBs are. Its tough to evaluate because I feel like Brady sets up the running game so well. They obviously have a great rushing attack, but it seems to me to be more based on scheme than RB talent.

24
by RickD :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 1:07am

I think it's clear that Ridley is a better back than Green-Ellis. Vereen is on the cusp of proving himself.

Ridley is in that second tier of RBs who will have good careers but will never be considered stars. He is their best RB since Dillon's record-setting (for the Pats) season. But he's not at the Dillon level, and likely never will be.

Before the Pats drafted these two, they had a fairly weak running game for years.

So, no, the passing threat alone doesn't help them find holes. If that's all it took, Maroney would not have been such a bust.

27
by theslothook :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 2:05am

Just to offer a slight correction, Ridley and Vareen were drafted in 2011 - Going over the recent pats history - 2007(which was largely made up of maroney and taylor - the run dvoa was rated 2nd in the nfl. A year later it was rated 4th. In 2009 it was 9th. In 2010 it ranked 2nd. And then in 2011 it was rated 4th and in 2012(the year Ridley and vareen really took over as starters) - it was 4th.

The truth is, Ne's machine has pretty much given Brady a great run game most of his 2nd half career tear. How they do it isn't so obvious, but it sure doesn't appear to be tied to their running backs - though I wouldn't go as far as to say ridley is a complete nobody.

34
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 9:30am

"How they do it isn't so obvious,"

Sure it is. Go back and look at Aaron's playoff previews.

No team runs against more 6-man fronts than the Patriots. If you have even decent run-blocking lineman, you're almost guaranteed DVOA-based rushing success.

36
by theslothook :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 1:31pm

I think my general premise was ... a great passing offense doesn't necessitate a great rush offense. If it were really about 6 man fronts, the colts would never have dipped into the low 20s, nor would the chargers or No. THat leads me to believe this is an offensive line issue too. And I say it isn't so obvious but what I really mean is - Ne manages to maintain this degree of excellence despite the roster turnover too.

37
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 3:09pm

The Colts dipped because of the general decay of the talent around Manning. That they managed to be an even average rushing team speaks volumes.

But go look at the Colts from before the 2008 decline. They look just like the current Pats. Hell, so did that era's Eagles.

DVOA loves teams that run like Reid Eagles teams. Oddly, it hates the 2005 Pats. Not sure what happened that year.

39
by theslothook :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 4:04pm

While I accept that the pats have an easier time running because of the general nature of their pass game, I don't think it alone is a good enough explanation. I think we do agree more or less, just somewhere about the proportions. I still think you cant just replace Ne's offensive linemen with average guys(say the jets) and just expect that their run game won't decline.

42
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 4:58pm

I'm not saying their line is average. I'm saying their rushing reputation in inflated by their play style.

But then, I tend to place more valuable on the styles that can rush even when you expect it, as opposed to only when you don't. That's just the opposite of passing out of the wishbone.

43
by mgoetze (not verified) :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 6:37pm

"The truth is, Ne's machine has pretty much given Brady a great run game"

You got it the wrong way around... Brady has given NE a great run game (by reading the defense and making sure the right play is being used). Well, Brady and his elite offensive line, that is.

47
by Lelouch vi Britannia (not verified) :: Sat, 04/13/2013 - 1:24am

Obviously the O-line's talent is a big component, but one can never undervalue the impact of Dante Scarnecchia's coaching. That guy probably has an impact as big as or bigger than Brady reading the defense correctly (though Brady's forcing defenses to go with a six-man front is probably more valuable).

28
by BJR :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 4:43am

NO has one of the most efficient run offences in the league, and has done for several seasons. IND less so, but I'm pretty sure their run game never dipped much below league average during the Manning years. I also can't recall SD with a terrible run game whilst they were still a force. Perhaps there were brief periods when each of the above teams run game was plagued by injury and therefore lousy, but I'm sure Green Bay are fairly unique in fielding great pass offence and awful run offence year-in year-out.

29
by dmstorm22 :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 5:28am

The Saints have ranked 10, 1, 21, 2, 11 in run DVOA from 08-12. SD ranked 19-31-18 from 08-10 (their best three offensive seasons as a pass-first team). The Colts ranked 27-21-12 from 08-10 (the last three Manning years, when he had injured and bad o-lines).

GB actually has been decent, ranking 17-2-10-7-13 from 08-12 (Rodgers' career).

Of course, that is all by DVOA. Conventional stats has IND being even worse in those years, and SD being as bad.

35
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 9:32am

This is why I've never trusted DVOA's evaluation of rushing. It just doesn't pass the face test. Even the Packers players lament their inability to rush the ball, but DVOA says it's just fine!

44
by ammek :: Sat, 04/06/2013 - 9:14am

Rushing DVOA incorporates runs by QBs and WRs, and recognizes the value of not fumbling. The Packers are extremely good in all these categories. However, they were 31st in running back yards per carry last season, and have frequently ranked poorly in second-level and open-field yards.

It's not the stats themselves, but how you use them.

17
by KJ (not verified) :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 9:58pm

I can't help but feel like Love, Deaderick, Gregory, and Fletcher pretty much define "Just a guy" but maybe I'm spoiled from watching a lot of good pats teams?

25
by RickD :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 1:10am

Deaderick is better than "just a guy."

Gregory is the epitome of "just a guy," if there can be such a thing. Fletcher shouldn't be on the field except on special teams.

18
by jonnyblazin :: Thu, 04/04/2013 - 10:50pm

Didn't Talib have some of the worst stats by FO numbers (by success rate and yards per pass)? I think it was 38% success rate. Not to say he's not important to the quality of the Pats defense, but the numbers don't necessarily bear out that he's a good CB.

26
by RickD :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 1:13am

" As long as he’s not in jail, he’ll start. "

(quiet whimpering)

31
by j (not verified) :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 8:09am

throw out the first game talib played sidelined one more game and the second half of ravens game

33
by Dean :: Fri, 04/05/2013 - 8:53am

Not sure either of the two RBs should really be green. They should probably be black.

45
by Mehllageman56 (not verified) :: Sat, 04/06/2013 - 5:24pm

Perhaps I'm being unfair, but I don't think Jones should be rated as green if the Jets's Coples isn't. They both had issues that dropped their draft status plague their rookie seasons (Jones missed games due to injury, Coples did not play as much to begin the season due to poor practice habits). They both showed a lot of promise, and finished close in their sack totals. Bottom line for the Patriots defense is that they need another edge rusher, preferably one with less of an injury history. Lucky for them this draft is full of edge rushers.