04 Apr 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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