Look for Stevan Ridley to become the Pats' next feature back.
Last season, the New England Patriots came just a few minutes short of winning their fourth Super Bowl title, losing in heartbreaking fashion to the New York Giants. Though the Pats are lucky enough to bring back much of their core talent this season in hopes of taking another shot at the Lombardi Trophy, they still have several big shoes to fill if they hope to make a deep run in 2012-13.
Several key contributors to last season's campaign have departed via free agency or retirement, and the Pats must hope their recent draft picks and signings can fill the void in production.
Defensive end Mark Anderson (10 sacks) left for a big contract with the Buffalo Bills, while starting halfback BenJarvus Green Ellis cashed in on his reputation for consistent production and ball security to score a three-year deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. Longtime LT Matt Light also bid farewell to the NFL after 11 seasons on the Patriots' offensive line, leaving the Pats with a gaping hole on QB Tom Brady's blindside.
The Patriots also hope to improve on last season's 31st-ranked defense, which put tremendous pressure on Brady and the offense to score consistently.
GM/coach Bill Belichick targeted defense in this year's draft, using his first six picks on that side of the ball in hopes that an infusion of youth, talent and athleticism will help prevent a repeat of last year's Swiss-cheese defense. Belichick zeroed in on his front seven in particular, using three of his first four picks on defensive linemen and linebackers and signing several free agents to bolster his pass rush.
With New England's needs in mind, let's take a look at five players who will be major contributors in the Pats' chase for an elusive fourth Super Bowl title.
The Patriots offense was once again prolific in 2011-12, ranking in the top five in scoring, passing yards, total yards and touchdowns during the regular season. Still, their offense had one major weakness last season: it lacked a deep threat to stretch the field and prevent opposing defenses from double-teaming TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and WR Wes Welker.
The Giants exploited this weakness in Super Bowl XLVI when a hobbled Gronkowski left the Patriots with few available big-play threats to spread the defense. It allowed the Giants to stack the middle of the field.
The Patriots made finding a deep threat a priority this offseason. They were able to land a star at a more-than-reasonable price when they signed WR Brandon Lloyd for three years, $12 million total. Lloyd is familiar with Patriots' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels from their days in Denver and St. Louis, where McDaniels served as head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively.
According to an ESPN Boston Radio interview, Lloyd took a discount to play for McDaniels and listed him as a major factor in choosing New England. "I think I just fit the mold for what Josh is trying to accomplish in his offense," said Lloyd. "That's why I was so successful in Denver, and in turn, St. Louis."
There are certainly risks associated with acquiring Lloyd: it's not often that a player of Lloyd's caliber changes uniforms six times without repeated off-the-field issues. Still, Lloyd's big-play ability (he led the NFL with 1,448 yards and 18.8 YPC in 2010) and success with McDaniels (119 catches, 1,953 yards and 14 touchdowns in 25 games together) make him a risk worth taking, especially at that price.
If Lloyd plays to his full potential, he could rack up huge numbers in a Patriots offense where double-teaming any one player leaves a great playmaker open. With a healthy and dedicated Lloyd, the Patriots offense might be as unstoppable as it has ever been.
The Patriots have been looking for a player like Chandler Jones since Willie McGinest left for the Cleveland Browns in 2006. McGinest played the role of the “Elephant” in Belichick’s defensive scheme, as he was blessed with the rare ability to rush off the edge from a three-point stance as a defensive end and from a standing position as an outside linebacker in the 3-4.
Since his departure, the Patriots have tried to fill the Elephant role with free agents such as Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas, as well as high draft picks such as 2010 second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham. None of these players lived up to expectations, and without a strong pass rush, the Patriots gradually fell from their perch as a top-five defense during their back-to-back Super Bowl years, bottoming out as the 31st-ranked defense in 2011-2012.
Enter Chandler Jones.
The Pats traded up six picks in the 2012 draft to select Jones, a third-year defensive end out of Syracuse. Jones stands 6’5”, 266 lbs.—almost exactly the same size as McGinest during his playing days.
Jones' versatility and motor make him a perfect fit for the Pats' defensive scheme. His freakishly long arms (he has an 86" wingspan) and strong initial burst give him the potential to be a threat coming from the outside on passing downs, and they should help him in setting the edge against the run.
Though certainly a first-round talent, Jones is still fairly raw for such a high pick: He managed only 22 reps on the bench press at the combine and plays too upright for an NFL defensive end (allowing offensive linemen to gain too much leverage on him after the initial burst).
Still, if he can continue to fill out his frame (he put on 21 pounds last year), he has the potential to be one of the top defensive players to come out of the 2012 draft. He will almost certainly be given a chance to start this season, and if he improves his strength and technique, Jones can be a major contributor to the success of the defense.
Short-term expectations for 2011 first-round pick Nate Solder were low prior to last season, as his rookie campaign was slated to be one of development under offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. After an early-season injury to RT Sebastian Vollmer forced Solder into a starting role, he fared well under the pressure, starting all 19 games (including playoffs).
This year, the expectations for Solder will be much higher, as he replaces longtime LT Matt Light, who announced his retirement after the season.
While Light will likely never be considered a Hall of Fame-caliber left tackle, he was a steady, dependable player and Pats fans can only hope that Solder will protect Tom Brady's blindside with the same level of consistency.
Solder rises too high out of his stance at times, which can make his freakish height (6'8") work against him in terms of leverage. But he has the size (320 lbs.), quickness (he's a converted tight end) and instincts to shut down defensive ends.
With his first full offseason and training camp awaiting him, Solder can work to improve his footwork and technique under the brilliant Scarnecchia, and he would benefit from putting on another 10-15 pounds.
Solder possesses all the necessary tools to be a great LT in the NFL, and if he can put it all together this season, the Patriots might be set at a crucial position for the next decade.
Though he wound up on IR after a hip injury in an early-season game against the San Diego Chargers, Dowling has the requisite size (6’2”, 200 lbs.) and speed (he runs a 4.46 40-yard dash) to be a starting corner in the NFL.
Dowling was arguably the best ball-hawking corner in his draft class with 35 pass deflections and eight INTs in his first three years at Virginia. Though he was widely regarded as a first-round talent, he slipped into the top of the second round after he missed most of his senior year with knee and ankle injuries and pulled up at the combine with a hamstring injury.
Though fellow CB Kyle Arrington had seven interceptions in 2011, he gambles too often, and lacks the rare combination of discipline and ball-hawking skills that Dowling possesses to be the consistent playmaker the Patriots desperately need on defense.
With Dowling, the sky is the limit. He has the potential to be a lockdown corner in the NFL, but he needs to stay healthy in order to realize that potential. If he stays on the field in 2012, Dowling should get another shot at a starting corner position, especially if the Pats decide to make McCourty’s move to safety permanent.
The Patriots have lacked a big-play running threat since Laurence Maroney’s career began its long downward spiral in 2008. BenJarvus Green-Ellis—their starting running back since Maroney was placed on IR four seasons ago—provided a dependable, fumble-free rushing option but lacked the breakaway speed to be an explosive back in the NFL.
Green-Ellis departed for the Bengals this offseason, leaving a hole at the starting halfback position for the Pats. Fortunately they have Stevan Ridley, a young runner with the potential to break out next season if given the chance to star as their next feature back.
Ridley excelled in limited opportunities during his 2011-12 rookie campaign, averaging 5.1 YPC over 87 carries. Even if he is unable to produce at that level over a full season, Ridley will provide a burst between the tackles that will help prevent the offense from becoming too one-dimensional.
The biggest knock on Ridley is his fumbling woes: He lost the trust of Coach Belichick after he fumbled in back-to-back games at the end of the season (including the divisional playoff against Denver).
If he can shore up his ball protection, Ridley can be an above-average back in the NFL.