Breaking Down the New England Patriots Depth Chart After the Peak of Free Agency
The dust is still settling following the first wave of NFL free agency. That said, each team's roster has more certainty than it did on March 12—when players could officially sign with teams.
Now, organizations like New England Patriots must ask the following questions: Where do new acquisitions fit? How will departing free agents be replaced? And will past draft picks live up to their potential?
Head coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and the rest of the Patriots hierarchy have time to answer these concerns. The ship hasn't sailed yet, either, since the NFL draft is still looming in late April.
Nonetheless, it's time to take a look at where the roster stands. Here's a breakdown of New England's depth chart in wake of the offseason frenzy.
Note: TBD signifies unsigned players or future draft picks yet to be determined.
Starter: Tom Brady
Second String: Ryan Mallett
Third String: Mike Kafka
At this point, it's safe to say that Tom Brady isn't losing his job as New England's No. 1 quarterback. He did reach a contract extension in February that will keep him a Patriot until he's 40 years old. He did pass for 137 touchdowns over the last four seasons. And at age 35, he did take his team to the AFC Championship Game. He's showing little to no signs of regression.
However, the battle for second string should be a more contested one.
2011 third-round pick Ryan Mallett is the incumbent. The former Arkansas Razorback stands in at 6'6", 245 pounds, and can throw missiles. He hasn't gotten much opportunity to do so, though, totaling just one completion for 17 yards in four career games.
But will Mallett be Brady's understudy for the next five years? Don't hold your breath. Mallett would be 29 and on his second contract with the Patriots if that were to transpire. In addition, the gunslinger known as "Big Tex" has gotten some attention on the trade market from QB-needy teams.
Barring a trade, though, Mallett should be the No. 2 Patriots quarterback in 2013. He will have to hold off Mike Kafka, a former Philadelphia Eagles fourth-rounder who was signed to a "futures" deal in January. The 6'3", 225-pound Northwestern product was 11-of-16 passing for 107 yards and two interceptions in 2011. The 25-year-old hasn't played since.
All in all, Brady will be atop the depth chart as long as he has a name plate in the Patriots locker room. As far as the No. 2 spot is concerned, Mallett's potential was enough to make former Patriots backup Brian Hoyer expendable last summer, so he could do the same to Kafka. Nonetheless, Kafka would make for a solid No. 3 guy or practice squad call-up.
Starter: Stevan Ridley
Second String: Shane Vereen
Third String: Brandon Bolden
Fourth String: Leon Washington
Fifth String: Jeff Demps
The Patriots found a lead back last season in 2011 third-round pounder Stevan Ridley. The former LSU Tiger tallied 290 carries for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. His yards per carry reduced for 5.1 in 2011 to 4.4 last season, and his fumbles increased from one in 2011 to four last season. But regardless, the 24-year-old back has been able to run off tackle and into the end zone.
Behind Ridley, there's another 2011 draft choice yet to reach his ceiling: Shane Vereen. The former second-rounder played in only five games as a rookie, but saw an uptick to 13 games in 2012. The 5'9", 205-pound back has been in and out due to injuries, but showcased versatility and explosion as last season progressed. He netted 91 receiving yards and a score on Nov. 11, then racked up 83 receiving yards for two TDs in the AFC Divisional Round.
Vereen proved he could be New England's change-of-pace back. And in turn, the beloved Danny Woodhead is now a San Diego Charger.
Further down the depth chart lies Brandon Bolden, a between-the-tackles runner whose solid 5'11", 220-pound frame can take a hit. As an undrafted free agent, the ex-Ole Miss Rebel signed on with the Patriots for three years, $1.455 million to go with a $15,000 signing bonus, per Spotrac.com. That offer was far steeper than what most undrafted prospects get. Bolden has earned his keep also, rushing for 274 yards and two touchdowns in limited work last year.
The running back position is capped off with Leon Washington, a speedy Pro Bowl returner who touched the ball only 27 times outside of special teams last season. He will make his greatest impact fielding kicks and punts.
Washington's presence brings us to Olympic silver medalist track star Jeff Demps, who informed the Patriots he'd like to do both sports. Demps is an absolute blazer, but two-sport athletes on the bottom of the depth chart don't exactly get the same approval that a Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders would.
Demps could very well be around Foxboro next season—and he did get paid like a playmaker should last August—yet it's hard to say he's anywhere else but No. 5 on the depth chart.
Starter: James Develin
Second String: Tony Fiammetta
With all the pass-first offenses implementing an extra wideout over a bulked-up blocker, the fullback position is quickly becoming extinct in the NFL.
That's not the vote of confidence James Develin and Tony Fiammetta were looking for.
Last season, the 24-year-old Develin saw work in his first NFL game. The former Brown Bear has taken the long way to the 53-man roster after stints with the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League, the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad, as well as New England's.
Tony Fiammetta, on the other hand, was a fourth-round selection by the Carolina Panthers in 2009. He spent time with the Dallas Cowboys in 2011 before signing on with the Pats last offseason. He was placed on the exempt/left squad list last training camp, which effectively ended his 2012 season. According to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com,Fiammetta had to "take care of a family issue and looks forward to returning to the Patriots in 2013."
Despite their efforts, there's a chance that neither Develin or Fiammetta will make the Patriots next season. But they do have a shot, and that's all they can ask for.
Starters: Danny Amendola, TBD
Second String: Donald Jones, TBD
Third String: Kamar Aiken, Matthew Slater, Andre Holmes, Jeremy Ebert
For now, newly signed slot target Danny Amendola is leading off the depth chart. The 27-year-old got paid starter money to be what some have called "Wes Welker's replacement." Amendola really broke on to the scene with the St. Louis Rams in 2010, totaling 85 catches for 689 yards and three scores. But over the last two years, the once undrafted Texas Tech Red Raider has played in just 12 games due to upper-body injuries.
Amendola projects as the No. 1 "Z" receiver, but the team's No. 1 "X" receiver is probably not currently on the roster. The spot where Lloyd used to roam could soon be revamped with a younger field-stretcher. The Patriots could address this by investing a Day 1 or Day 2 draft pick in a receiver, or perhaps by trading a third-round pick for Pittsburgh Steelers restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders.
Assuming another pass-catcher enters the fold, that leaves the freshly signed Donald Jones and current free agent Julian Edelman as the No. 3 and No. 4 receivers.
The 25-year-old Jones caught 41 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns for Buffalo last season. He has a physical 6', 208-pound body and can fill in as the "X" receiver. The 26-year-old Edelman has been on the market for a while and remains unsigned, which may indicate a return to New England as a backup slot receiver and punt returner.
This would leave Kamar Aiken, Matthew Slater, Andre Holmes and Jeremy Ebert as the third-stringers.
The 23-year-old Aiken was active for one game with the Patriots in 2012, but did not record a catch. Mathew Slater may be a wide receiver, but his Pro Bowl efforts on special teams are what make him a roster lock. Andre Holmes, a 6'4", 223-pound ex-Dallas Cowboy has caught two passes in the league, but is an athletic option with practice squad experience. Lastly, 2012 seventh-round pick Jeremy Ebert fills out the depth chart, but could move up with an impressive summer.
Starters: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez
Second String: Michael Hoomanawanui, Jake Ballard
Third String: Daniels Fells, Brad Herman
The top two tight end jobs are pretty well cemented. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are just 23 years old, but the duo has combined for 3,510 receiving yards and 40 touchdown grabs over the last two years.
Hoomanawanui and Fells only totaled nine catches for 194 yards, although their presence as blockers kept the chains moving. The 24-year-old Hoomanawanui has re-signed with the Patriots and figures to be a solid No. 3 tight end moving forward. The 29-year-old Fells—who creates a cap hit of over $3.8 million for 2013 and 2013 (per Spotrac.com)—may be a little too costly for the Pats' future plans.
If that's the case, then former New York Giants waiver steal Jake Ballard could end up a backup next to Hoomanawanui. Ballard missed all of last season after undergoing ACL reconstruction and microfracture surgery. As ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss points out, the 25-year-old's contract was tolled because he missed all of 2012. In other words, he won't be an unrestricted free agent until after the 2014 season.
This crowded group may leave Fells and 2012 undrafted pickup Brad Herman as the third-stringers, or odd men out.
Starter: Nate Solder
Second String: Markus Zusevics
It looks like the No. 17 overall pick in the 2011 draft is coming into his own. The 6'8", 320-pound converted tight end started all 16 contests at left tackle last season. He had to fill the void left by longtime Patriot Matt Light, and he did just that. Solder's gig as the starter is undoubtedly intact.
For now, Markus Zusevics is second in command at left tackle. The Iowa alum went undrafted last year after tearing a pectoral muscle while lifting in the bench press at the NFL combine. He was activated from the reserve/non football injury list in November but did not play in 2012.
It wouldn't be a surprise to the New England add a swing tackle capable of playing both ends of the line in the draft of free agency. But for the time being, it's Solder and Zusevics protecting Tom Brady's blind side.
Starter: Logan Mankins
Second String: Nick McDonald
Logan Mankins is a five-time NFL All-Pro. And having played through a torn ACL for entire season, he is one of the toughest players in all of football. With good reason, the 31-year-old will be the top left guard on the Patriots once again in 2013, but injuries did hamper his effectiveness.
According to ProFootballFocus.com's Jeff Deeney, Mankins didn't play up to his contract in 2012.
Injuries limited Mankins to just 10 games in the regular season, and while his run blocking was more than solid, his Pass Blocking Efficiency rating ranked only 22nd among 50 guards who played enough snaps to qualify.
If all ends well, Mankins will be healthy for the start of next season. But he does have a reliable backup in Nick McDonald, who can play all across the offensive line.
The 25-year-old Grand Valley State product saw work in 12 games last season, even starting one. Greg A. Bedard of The Boston Globe finds McDonald to be a "better run blocker than a pass blocker." Still, his value as a spot starter at a variety of positions is what makes the former practice squad player an asset.
Starter: Ryan Wendell
Second String: Nick McDonald
Last training camp, the position battle at center was supposed to come down to Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly. But ultimately, Koppen found a home with the Denver Broncos, Connolly took over at right guard for Brian Waters, and the man snapping the ball to Tom Brady ended up being Ryan Wendell.
Wendell didn't make Coach Belichick and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia regret it. The 2008 undrafted free agent started all 16 games and played the most snaps of anyone in the NFL, per FootballOutsiders.com.
The 27-year-old Wendell was not only a mainstay in the center of the line, he was effective too. Belichick explained Wendell's worth to Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe:
I think everybody has a lot of confidence in him. He’s a tough kid, has good balance, low center of gravity, plays on his feet, plays strong. He’s smart, he handles things like a good football player would — just making good decisions, seeing the game, doing the right thing when there are two or three different things that could happen but just instantly doing what’s best for that play. He’s an instinctive player.
Wendell has encrusted himself as the center for next season. And behind him is aforementioned utility man Nick McDonald, who can step in and contribute anywhere his services are needed.
Starter: Dan Connolly
Second String: Nick McDonald
Third String: Marcus Cannon
When Brian Waters did not report to camp, Dan Connolly merged right over to guard. He started the 14 games he played in, and looks to start all 16 games next year.
Connolly did suffer a back injury last season and also had shoulder surgery this offseason, reports Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe. Durability is a slight concern for the 30-year-old. He did earn a three-year, $9.75 million deal after a solid 2011 campaign, cites Spotrac.com.
As a byproduct of Thomas's departure, the Patriots have a couple men who can sub in at right guard. The first is—you guessed it—Nick McDonald. The second option is 6'5", 340-pound right tackle Marcus Cannon, who did see some snaps at guard in 2012.
Starter: Sebastian Vollmer
Second String: Marcus Cannon
Third String: Will Svitek
ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates was first to report that the 6'8", 320-pound Sebastian Vollmer re-signed with the Patriots on March 24.
The market may have not been as strong as Vollmer and his representatives first thought. The 2009 second-round pick is 28 years old with an injury history. He enjoyed his best year as a pro in 2012 and may have not been the safest investment for a new suitor.
But the bottom line is, the German native was one of New England's "Big Three" free agents along with Wes Welker and Aqib Talib. His signing keeps the starting five from last season in tact.
Dante Scarnecchia does have some options for depth behind Vollmer. One of those is 2011 fifth-rounder Marcus Cannon, who according to ProFootballFocus.com (via Christopher Price of WEEI.com) allowed just one sack, one quarterback hit and one quarterback hurry over 182 snaps last year.
The Patriots have also signed 31-year-old veteran Will Svitek, who last played for the Atlanta Falcons in 2011. He has started 16 of his 61 career games, so he figures to be in the running for a reserve spot.
Starters: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich
Second String: TBD, Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham
Third String: Jake Bequette, Marcus Benard, Jason Vega
Trading up for Syracuse's Chandler Jones paid off for the Patriots. The rangy defensive end set the foundation for what should be a very successful NFL career. Lining up as the starting right end, Jones totaled 45 tackles, six sacks, three forced fumbles and five pass deflections over the course of 14 games.
Across from the 6'5", 260-pound Jones was former linebacker and long snapper Rob Ninkovich, who had a career year in 2012, posting 58 tackles, eight sacks and a staggering five forced fumbles. That type of production should keep the 29-year-old Purdue Boilermaker in a starting role next year.
Beyond Jones and Ninkovich, there's a cramped group of pass-rushers. And there has been talk of a veteran like John Abraham or Dwight Freeney joining the bunch, as both have met with the Patriots per Field Yates of ESPNBoston.com.
Although neither free agent has signed with the team, acquiring one of them cannot be dismissed just yet. Yates sees Abraham—ex-Atlanta Falcon and New York Jet—as the best fit:
Where Abraham would fit best is as a sub rusher, something the Patriots could use to complement their top duo of top rushers in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. It's unclear if the Patriots remain interested in Abraham, but he'd be a quality addition to the roster.
The 34-year-old Abraham would work well in the second unit, but may impinge upon the playing time of second-year Rutgers product Justin Francis and 2010 second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham. The two put together a total of 5.5 sacks last season.
In the final tier of Patriots ends are 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette, former Cleveland Brown Marcus Benard and ex-Canadian Football League edge-rusher Jason Vega. It will be an especially pivotal training camp for these three players.
Starters: Vince Wilfork, Armond Armstead
Second String: Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick
Third String: Myron Pryor, Marcus Forston, Tracy Robertson
There are no qualms about the efforts of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
The 31-year-old Miami Hurricane will be one of the starters in New England's 4-3 defense next year. Wilfork can two-gap, and is unbelievably quick for his 6'2", 325-pound body. He did collect 48 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles last year, but his value never will really show up on the stat sheet.
The spot next to No. 75 is where things get murky. For now, the potential is there for Armond Armstead to be the guy.
The former USC and Canadian Football League standout was signed Jan. 22. The 6'5", 300-pound ex-Toronto Argonaut was given $655,000 in guaranteed money, per Mike Reiss and Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston.com. The Patriots wouldn't have done so if the front office didn't believe in his abilities to push the pocket. A heart attack in 2010 took him off the draft radar, but now that Armstead is healthy, he has a chance to become a steal.
After Armstead, there's Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick. Both of whom saw starting time in 2012. However, Love is more of a run-stuffer and Deaderick is more of an end in a 3-4 front. They netted three sacks last season.
Rounding out the depth chart is oft-injured 2009 sixth-round pick Myron Pryor, second-year Miami product Marcus Forston and first-year player Tracy Robertson, formerly of the Houston Texans. They'll have to stick out to stick on the 53-man roster.
Starters: Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo
Second String Jeff Tarpinian, Niko Koutouvides
Another one of New England's first-round trade-ups in 2012, Dont'a Hightower played like the "thumper" he is last season. He looked the part across from 2008 first-rounder Jerod Mayo too.
The 23-year-old Alabama outside linebacker made 60 stops, brought down quarterbacks for four sacks and recovered two fumbles, returning one for a touchdown. Meanwhile, the 27-year-old Mayo tacked on his second Pro Bowl year by totaling 147 tackles, three sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception.
It's apparent that the starting strong-side and weak-side spots are brimming with talent. Hightower and Mayo have been well worth their high draft selections to this point.
Behind him Hightower is Jeff Tarpinian, a former practice squad player who has made the jump to 53-man roster several times to fulfill linebacker and special teams responsibilities. Behind Mayo is Niko Koutouvides, a seasoned special teamer who has been cut and re-signed by the Patriots on multiple occasions.
Tarpinian and Koutouvides won't threaten the playing time Hightower and Mayo, but they do provide some depth and familiarity to the system.
Starters: Brandon Spikes
Second String: Dane Fletcher
Third String: Mike Rivera
With Brandon Spikes is quickly becoming one of the game's most menacing hitters at middle linebacker, New England's front is in good hands.
In 2012, the former Florida Gator totaled 92 tackles, one sacks and five forced fumbles. He's downhill backers who is better coming up than dropping back, but that's expected when you weigh 255 pounds.
Filling the role of sub linebacker is former Montana State Bobcat Dane Fletcher, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Fletcher is more agile than Spikes, and can hold his own in coverage. He inked a new deal in January.
At the bottom of the depth chart is Mike Rivera, who was cut and brought back last season. He's a special teamer who has expired his practice squad eligibility and can filter in on defense if need be.
Starters: Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington
Second String: Ras-I Dowling, TBD
Third String: Marquice Cole, Malcolm Williams
New England's cornerback position has finally found some continuity.
The Patriots managed to retain starting left corner Aqib Talib, who the team traded a fourth-round pick for. On top of that, Kyle Arrington is back on the books to play nickelback in what's become a three-wide receiver league.
Pairing the 27-year-old Talib next to the 26-year-old Arrington worked last season. But the emergence of 23-year-old rookie Alfonzo Dennard is what really made the secondary's personnel click. This trio is pretty well locked in atop the depth chart, except for the unsure future surrounding Dennard's legal troubles.
If Dennard does miss any time, the Patriots could keep Arrington in the slot and move former second-rounder Ras-I Dowling into the right cornerback spot. Dowling has struggled to stay healthy, since both of his first two NFL seasons have ended with on injured reserve.
There is another alternative as well: the draft. This year's class has a lot of talented cornerbacks who will come off the board in the first three rounds. If the Patriots nabbed one of them, the position would be in even more shored up than it already is.
The current depth chart is topped off with the re-signed Marquice Cole and Malcolm Williams. Cole is an outstanding special teams player who has journeyed up through the NFL as a reserve defensive back. Williams, a former TCU Horned Frog, has bounced up and down between the active roster and the practice squad. He has played special teams and dabbled at safety for the Patriots.
Starter: Devin McCourty
Second String: Steve Gregory
If there was any speculation as to whether Devin McCourty should be moved back to cornerback, it should be put to rest now.
It comes down to where the 5'10", 195-pound Rutgers Scarlet Knight looks most comfortable. It's at free safety.
McCourty's long arms and tremendous athleticism have helped him stay in front of the football. He's not getting turned around against the likes of Vincent Jackson and Brandon Marshall like he was in 2011.
And with Talib and Arrington re-signed at corner, the need for the 2010 first-round pick to join them is no longer there. His best value to the defense is at free safety.
Steve Gregory is set up to be the No. 2 free safety next season. He outlasted Patrick Chung—who's now a Philadelphia Eagle—at strong safety. But now, the landscape has changed. The Patriots have made some moves and Gregory's role may be altered to sub-packages.
When McCourty and Gregory were the starting pair in 2012, they had the ball skills. What they didn't have was size, and that made center field a landing zone for receivers.
Starter: Tavon Wilson
Second String: Adrian Wilson
Third String: Nate Ebner
After 12 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, four-time All-Pro Adrian Wilson signed with the Patriots during he first week of free agency. The 33-year-old is not the strong safety he once was, but he's a physical enforcer at 6'3", 230 pounds.
He's also the third safety with the last name of "Wilson" to be on the Patriots since 2007. And speaking of Wilson's, where does this leave second-year safety Tavon Wilson?
As Greg A. Bedard of The Boston Globe once said, "You don’t draft a guy 48th overall, like Wilson, to be only a dime back."
The younger Wilson found a niche as the "Money" defensive back in 2012. He finished his rookie season with 41 tackles, four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and six pass deflections.
But with a new year comes new expectations.
There's reason to believe the Patriots will go with youth at safety, and supplement the older Wilson in to cover tight ends. His presence will also give Wilson a mentor. After all, who better to learn from than a guy on the cusp of the 30 interceptions, 30 sacks club?
Make no mistake, Adrian Wilson will make an impact on the field in 2013. But the coaching staff wants nothing more than to see Tavon Wilson develop into a starter.
The No. 3 strong safety is 2012 sixth-round pick Nate Ebner, who was in a similar role as a rookie. As a former rugby player, Ebner is still learning the safety position. But for now, he's still a high-effort special teams stalwart.
Starting Plackicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Starting Punter: Zoltan Mesko
Long Snapper: Danny Aiken
Stephen Gostkowski had an up and down year in 2012.
The 2006 fourth-round pick out of Memphis missed the game-winning 42-yard field goal against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2. Five games later, he converted a 43-yard kick on the final play of regulation to force overtime, then the decisive 48-yard kick to give the Pats a win against the New York Jets in Week 7.
The 29-year-old finished the season with a rock solid field-goal percentage of 82.9, but that was the third-lowest efficiency of his seven-year career.
But at the end of the day, Gostkowski is one of the top kickers in the game. He may not have the strongest leg, but he has an accurate one. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Gostkowski ranks No. 11 all-time in field-goal percentage.
He shouldn't have any problem earning the nod again next year, and neither should punter Zoltan Mesko.
The three-year pro out of Michigan averaged 43.1 yards per punt, a career low. But he also saw 28 of his boots drop inside the opponent's 20-yard line, a career high.
Like Gostkowski, Mesko doesn't currently have any positional competition on the roster, and neither does long snapper Danny Aiken. And the less you hear about a long snapper, the better.
Overall, New England is pretty well set when it comes to its specialists.
Starting Punt Returner: Leon Washington / TBD
Kick Returners: Leon Washington, Matthew Slater / Jeff Demps
Leon Washington is one of the best kick returners in the game. The former Florida State Seminole has amassed eight kick return touchdowns in his NFL career. He averaged 29 yards per return in 2012—second to only Jacoby Jones of the Baltimore Ravens.
Washington is not as prolific as a punt returner. In fact, Julian Edelman averaged a higher return rate than the 30-year-old Pro Bowler did last season. But depending on what happens with Edelman, the Patriots could do far worse at punt returner than Washington. He has never returned a punt for a score, though. Edelman has three times.
As for Matthew Slater and Jeff Demps, they are alternate options at kick returner. Slater is ultilized more as a return blocker, while Demps' primary asset is his track speed. One things for sure: Devin McCourty is too valuable to the defense to continue to return kicks like he did in 2012.
Until Edelman is re-signed and Demps works out his dual-sport plans, Washington looks like do-it-all returner aided by the kick-return blocking help of Slater.