The New England Patriots lost two key free agents today when running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and defensive end Mark Anderson signed deals with the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills respectively. The Patriots had hoped to resign both players but were unwillingly to match the more lucrative offers on the table from rival teams.
Both played prominent roles in New England last season. Green-Ellis was the team’s featured running back and led the team in rushing yards. Anderson began the season being used solely as a rusher in sub-packages but his role increased as the season progressed. He ended up tying Andre Carter for the team lead in sacks.
Bill Belichick will have to replace the production of these players either through the draft or free agency. Here is a look at how he might look to do so.
2011 Statistics: 667 yards rushing on 181 carries (3.7 YPA), 11 touchdowns, 159 yards receiving on 9 receptions
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a hard-nosed runner who excels in short yardage situations and in the red-zone. He has scored 24 regular season touchdowns for the Patriots over the past two seasons.
He is a very patient runner who does a good job of letting his blocks develop. This ability combined with his excellent lower-body strength enables Green-Ellis to consistently gain positive yards for his team.
He has yet to fumble the football in his pro football career. This is truly remarkable considering he has had 510 carries thus far. He is also a good pass-blocker as any running back who receives significant snaps. In the New England offense it was a necessity.
While consistency, reliability and toughness can all be pointed to as strengths of Green-Ellis’ game, explosiveness and big-play ability cannot. He averaged a very pedestrian 3.7 yards per attempt last season.
Green-Ellis would have been likely to assume a reduced role in New England this season had he resigned with the team. The team spent two high draft picks on running backs last season in Shane Vereen and Steven Ridley, and they will likely see their roles increase going forward.
Of the two, Ridley is more similar to Green-Ellis and stands to benefit more from his departure. He has the size to take on Green-Ellis’ role in the red-zone and in short yardage situations. Vereen is a smaller back with greater speed who may challenge Danny Woodhead for snaps on third downs if he can prove he can pass block well enough.
Belichick likes to have backs with different skill-sets on the roster, so he is likely to opt for a replacement who can replicate what Green-Ellis brought to the table for the Patriots. With two younger backs already on the roster, Belichick may be more inclined to look at veteran options, although he is likely to wait until after the draft so he can see what opportunities are available to address the position there.
Potential Free Agent Targets:
How should the Patriots replace BenJarvus Green-Ellis?
Potential Draft Targets:
Doug Martin (Boise State), Terrance Ganaway (Baylor), Robert Turbin (Utah State)
2011 Statistics: 29 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Mark Anderson was an under the radar signing for the Patriots last offseason but ended up playing a very effective role which became more and more important to the Patriots as the season wore on. Anderson produced 10 sacks in the regular season and 2.5 sacks in the postseason.
He began the season coming onto the field as part of the sub-defense on obvious passing downs. His role gradually increased to a point where he ended up playing nearly every snap in the Patriots Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.
Anderson thrived in the role of outside linebacker in the team’s 3-4 scheme which the team reverted to more and more towards the end of the season. He was able to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He has excellent length, quickness and is a very savvy pass-rusher.
He was also surprisingly effective in the run game. He was able to consistently set the edge and used his athleticism to good use and chase down plays from the backside. He does not give up on plays and his terrific motor helped overwhelm tackles on plays where receivers were covered down the field.
Anderson received a very big contract from the Buffalo Bills. His deal is worth $27 million dollars over 4 years with $8 million of that guaranteed. That offer would have been very difficult for the Patriots to match. While Anderson did well for them last season, he was only a role player for much of the season and his production has been very inconsistent over the course of his career.
The Patriots have signed Trevor Scott from the Oakland Raiders in free agency and he will help to fill the hole which Anderson has left behind. Rob Ninkovich performed well last season for the Patriots generating 6.5 sacks and 2 interceptions. He has shown steady improvement in his time in New England and the Patriots will be hoping his play continues on an upward trend in 2012.
However, more help will be needed. Andre Carter, who is a free agent, ended last season on injured reserve with a serious quad injury and he has not been resigned as of yet. His age is also a concern as he will be 33 years old when the 2012 season kicks off.
How should the Patriots replace Mark Anderson?
While the market for running backs has been slow (and some good options remain available), the same cannot be said for pass-rushers. Few impact players have hit the market and the few who have done so have proved very expensive to sign.
Patriots fans have been crying out for the team to draft an impact pass-rusher for years and this could be the year they actually go ahead and do so. They are armed with two picks in each of the first two rounds so they have ample ammunition to secure whichever player they want to target in the draft.
Whitney Mercilus, Nick Perry and Andre Branch are all high quality players who should be available in the second half of the first round where the Patriots currently hold two selections. Mercilus produced 16.5 sacks last season for Illinois, a figure which led the nation. Vinny Curry and Chandler Jones would also be good options for the Patriots and should be available in the second round.
Potential Free Agent Targets:
Potential Draft Targets:
Quinton Coples (North Carolina), Melvin Ingram (South Carolina), Courtney Upshaw (Alabama), Whitney Mercilus (Illinois), Nick Perry (USC), Andre Branch (Clemson), Vinny Curry (Marshall), Chandler Jones (Syracuse)