Fact or Fiction: New England Patriots Offseason Edition
Everyone enters the regular season with a certain set of expectations for how their teams will perform, and who will be the major contributors. Inevitably, our expectations are defied year after year.
No team does a better job of defying expectations than the New England Patriots. They don't care about your expectations; they only care about what's best for the team.
Put it this way: Not even Bill Belichick himself knows who will come out on top in the camp battles at wide receiver, running back and other positions.
When those battles are determined, we'll have a better idea for how things might play out, but for now, here's an early fact-or-fiction on several offseason topics around the Patriots.
The Patriots Will Run a 4-3 Defense
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The Patriots turned some heads in training camp last season as they lined up with more four-man fronts than in years past. They carried that over into the regular season, running predominantly a 4-3 defense until injuries dictated otherwise.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Patriots spent 12 percent of downs in the base 3-4, 29 percent in the base 4-3, 38 in a variation on a sub package with a three-man line and 13 percent in a sub package with a four-man line.
Many assumed that the Patriots would get back to running the 3-4 this season now that Bill Belichick has a full offseason to install and teach the system. Their personnel moves tell a different story though. An influx of edge rushing talent gives the Patriots defense the look of a unit that wants to get after the quarterback more than in year's past.
To get the most out of that talent, the Patriots would be wise to utilize a 4-3 alignment.
As usual, there will be a mix of the two. It just wouldn't be very Belichickian to show his hand at any point this offseason, or even during the season—the defense will likely be game plan oriented and based on what gives them the best chance to win. Don't be surprised, though, if that proves to be more four-man fronts than three-man fronts.
Devin McCourty Will Line Up at Safety
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There wasn't a whole lot of celebrating going on for Devin McCourty last year, but the rare occasions that there were, he was usually lined up at safety.
After bursting out of the gate as the best cornerback to come out of the 2010 draft, McCourty slouched worse than Quasimodo in 2011. When the team finally moved him to safety, it looked like he was in a much more comfortable place. That has led to heavy speculation about his role for 2012. Will he resume his duties as a full-time cornerback, or is he now relegated to the defensive safety net?
If practices are any indication, McCourty will be headed back to his original post at cornerback. His switch to safety was seen by some as a reaction to injuries at safety more than as a reaction to his poor performance at cornerback.
Steve Gregory Will Play a Big Part in Patriots Defense
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When the Patriots signed safety Steve Gregory at the beginning of free-agency, many wondered exactly what his role would be. He has started 21 games the past two seasons for the Chargers, and played 782 snaps (81.2 percent of the total) in 15 games with 13 starts in 2011. That playing time came primarily at safety, but he played some slot cornerback as well.
And on that note, perhaps the best thing he has going for him is his versatility. Safeties coach Brian Flores agrees. Per ESPN Boston:
He's done a good job during these OTAs and minicamp. He's bright. He's a team guy. Wherever we put him, he's done a good job, learning the defense. He's great. What I like about him is that he's a team-first guy. He's willing to learn all positions. He's very versatile, and he's smart.
Gregory may not have been a high-caliber signing, but his role in the defense figures to be substantial. The Patriots were looking for answers at safety last year, and Gregory gives them depth at the position if nothing else.
Between Gregory, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo, I like Gregory's chances to earn a starting job on the back end.
Rob Gronkowski's Contract Will Go to His Head
After signing a six-year, $54 million extension, some might worry that Gronkowski will become content with the money and won't be the record-breaking tight end he was last season.
I've yet to see any play where it looked like Gronkowski wasn't giving everything he had. This is a guy that genuinely enjoys the game of football, and whose party-hard lifestyle off the field is only matched by his play-hard style on the field.
Gord Gronkowski, Rob's father, was asked whether the big money would change his son. Per ESPN.com:
No, Rob is Rob. He still to this day will wear jeans that he had in high school, and shirts that he had in high school. We're not flashy people. And that's Rob all the way. The money, it's nice, don't get me wrong, but it will not change him. Rob will always be Rob the goofball.
And let this serve as your official proof:
Gronkowski asked if he made any big purchases with the new, big money. "No. You wanna buy me something? "— Mary Paoletti (@Mary_Paoletti) June 18, 2012
Stevan Ridley Will Lead the Team in Carries
As long as Stevan Ridley keeps the ball in his hands, he should see plenty of action in 2012.
Predicting a bell cow for the Patriots is about as sure of a bet as roulette, but is much less of a game of chance. Still, with so many possibilities, it can seem impossible to pin down Belichick's backfield.
Ridley carried the ball just 81 times in 2011, but gashed defenses at a 5.1 yards-per-carry clip. His performance was diminished only by a pair of fumbles against the Bills in Week 17 and the Broncos in the Divisional Round. It can't be a coincidence that Ridley didn't see another snap in the postseason after that game.
The only question now is whether he can hang onto the ball long enough not to lose more snaps.
Although he's far from the most versatile back on New England's roster, he's likely their most solid ball-carrier. Danny Woodhead could challenge for some carries, but has always been more of a utility back than a true ball-carrier. Shane Vereen has a bit of work to do, and although Joseph Addai presents a lot of value to the backfield, his future contributions are hard to project with his long history of injury.
That leaves Ridley as the front-runner for a majority of the snaps, and also carries.