Shane Vereen should see significantly more touches in 2013.
Ever since their unprecedented introduction in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots have always prided themselves on being a complete team.
Head coach Bill Belichick and the front office constantly reaffirm that notion, signing free agents based on value rather than splash, and stockpiling draft picks, all to create a strong middle-class.
While the Patriots can probably rely on Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork to wreak havoc once again at their respective positions, the stars can only propel New England over the top if they have a sturdy foundation to rely upon. During the team's Super Bowl years, hard, unspectacular work from the likes of Troy Brown and Tedy Bruschi made Brady's heroics possible.
The Patriots have turned over their roster the last few seasons, drafting an astounding 35 players since 2010, 24 of which are currently on the roster. Even excluding this year's draft, that makes for 17 out of 28—and that is ignoring such undrafted free agents as Justin Francis, Ryan Wendell and Dane Fletcher.
With a solid core in place, it's time for New England to stop relying so much on its stars, as that top-heavy formula has not produced results in the playoffs. Here then are five players who Patriots fans should expect to help fill that void in 2013.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com
When the Patriots inked the CFL free agent, many initially viewed Armond Armstead as a luxury at defensive tackle, one who could be a situational interior pass-rusher.
However, given the releases of 2012 part-time starters Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, Armstead may not be such a luxury anymore.
Of course, Armstead's greatest value in the first place was his versatility. If veterans Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly hold up, the Patriots would probably maximize his value by using him as a moveable piece around the front-seven.
After his signing, an anonymous general manager illuminated Armstead's value to Dan Pompei of NationalFootballPost.com:
The question is what position will he play? The answer is he might play several, especially under the coaching of Bill Belichick. Given his dimensions, Armstead probably is best suited to be a five technique defensive end. But the personnel men I surveyed for this story also mentioned the following possibilities: three technique, nose tackle, and nickel rusher/outside linebacker in a 3-4.
“You have to imagine him to project him,” one of the front office men said. “He’s a talent. You get him now and worry about what position he plays later. He can be so versatile because he is quick off the snap. He’s a jack of all trades.”
In Armstead's CFL highlights video, it appears he generally lined up at the 3-technique, or even over the center. With New England's need for a third rusher to complement Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, it doesn't necessarily matter where Armstead lines up.
Considering the results they got from Jermaine Cunningham lining up in the interior last season, the length and athleticism of Armstead may be just what the pass rush needs.
Stunningly, the Patriots weakest position may be tight end, at least heading into the season.
Though Jake Ballard and Zach Sudfeld have gotten the most attention as potential replacement candidates, Daniel Fells may actually have the most complete skill set of any healthy New England tight end.
For starters, Fells is the best proven receiver of the current corps. In spite of his virtual non-existence in the offense last season, Fells does have 92 career receptions, and has generally sported impressive yards per catch totals over his career.
His receiving numbers belie an ability to produce from different receiver positions, a valuable asset given Aaron Hernandez's release.
With the Rams, Fells not only demonstrated the capabilities of a typical Y-tight end receiver, but also his ability to line up as the Z receiver in the slot. Even in extremely limited reps last season, he exhibited his natural receiving ability with this diving catch against Seattle.
As Mike Clay of ProFootballFocus.com notes, the Patriots often went with three receivers in passing situations last season when either Gronk or Hernandez was unavailable. However, given their equally concerning instability at receiver, the Patriots just need someone to step up as a reliable receiving option, regardless of position.
If Fells could develop a rapport with Tom Brady, that would allow the Patriots to stay in the "12" personnel packages they have favored so much the past three seasons. Still, flipping those numbers might provide a better solution.
If the Patriots were to play a "21" package instead (that is, two running backs and one tight end), that would probably allow them to place their best offensive athletes on the field.
Clearly, Patriots fans aren't the only ones thinking that, since Bill Belichick has reportedly played Shane Vereen at receiver this spring, according to the team's website.
The move is hardly surprising, given Vereen's well-renowned receiving skill set coming out of Cal. Although Vereen has just 15 receptions in his career (including the postseason), he has parlayed that modest total into a whopping 16.9 yards per catch average. That ranks 12th among all receivers with at least 10 catches over the past two seasons.
With Danny Woodhead's offseason departure, Vereen is poised to become the Patriots' next explosive receiving back. According to Sean Tomlinson of theScore.com's NFL blog, Vereen lined up out wide for 19 percent of his snaps, a high among all NFL running backs.
It's that kind of versatility that makes many believe Vereen could capably replace Hernandez as the versatile "Joker" on offense, as noted by Field Yates of ESPN.com (Insider subscription required):
He might leapfrog from the backfield to a flexed out alignment to a wide receiver alignment in three successive plays. He was successfully used as a split wide receiver on occasion in 2012, taking advantage of man coverage against linebackers...The Patriots have long excelled at dictating matchups, something they can explore further with Vereen this season.
A versatile player in that mold stresses a defense by forcing it into pre-snap adjustments. The Texans used James Casey in this way, as did the Vikings with Percy Harvin (and the Packers do with Randall Cobb), among a handful of other players with such a skill set.
The Harvin and Cobb comparisons may seem far-fetched for now, but if Vereen finally receives a significant amount of reps, he could become the Pats' newest mismatch for opposing defenses.
For much of last season, Kyle Arrington looked nothing like the receiver who led the NFL with seven interceptions in 2011. His 5'10" frame was ill-suited to play outside corner, and taller receivers ruthlessly exploited that mismatch, consistently making plays on balls in the air.
However, following the Aqib Talib trade (and subsequent shuffling of Devin McCourty to safety), Arrington was able to move into the slot, where his quickness is much better suited. Doug Kyed of NESN.com perfectly illustrated Arrington's defined niche last season:
Arrington’s strength has long come from that inside role. Before Dennard emerged and the team traded for Talib, though, Arrington was forced into a role as an every-down starter. The fifth-year player is best in more confined space on the field, and especially when the ball is in front of him, rather than when he has to run deep with a wide receiver. When Arrington is forced into that role of covering the sideline, the pass interference calls start to come, and Arrington gets beat down the field.
The Pats rewarded Arrington's improved play with a surprisingly lucrative four-year, $16 million deal, including a $6.5 million signing bonus. That essentially pays Arrington like a starting cornerback. Since the Patriots were in sub-package personnel on 57.4 percent of their snaps last season, Arrington can expect a heavy workload in 2013.
As the Ravens exposed in the AFC Championship Game, having even just one weak link in the Patriots' secondary can derail the whole season.
New England's toughest AFC rival, the Broncos, can trot out Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and old friend Wes Welker. The Patriots' defense must be completely in-sync to combat that juggernaut, and that includes Arrington replicating his second-half performance of a year for this whole season.
OK, this is cheating a bit, but it's nearly impossible to distinguish which receivers the Patriots can rely on this season.
By all accounts, Danny Amendola has developed a nice rapport with Tom Brady, and he should be good for Wes Welker-like production if healthy.
However, the Patriots are facing a shortage in receiving options for the first time since the eye-opening Reche Caldwell experience in 2006.
The lone 2012 holdover is Julian Edelman, and many expect an increased role will bring better production for the fifth-year receiver. However, it's fair to question Edelman's redundancy with Amendola, and whether such a diminutive pairing would clog the intermediate areas of the field.
Aaron Dobson would be a better complement, as his 6'3" and 204-pound frame is eerily reminiscent of another Marshall deep threat who used to roam Foxboro (i.e. Randy Moss).
Unfortunately, the second-rounder appeared lost during spring practices, dropping passes and missing OTAs with an undisclosed injury. Similarly, fourth-rounder Josh Boyce missed all of the spring sessions while recovering from his broken foot.
With the two rookies behind the eight ball, that provided an opportunity for some unheralded receivers. Veteran Michael Jenkins and undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins took most of the first-team reps alongside Amendola. Free-agent acquisitions Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins were mostly invisible.
Going back to the 2006 season, Patriots fans remember how close their team came to the Super Bowl. In fact, they were a third-and-4 conversion away from sealing the AFC Championship Game with two minutes left (skip to the 3:03 mark of this video if you can stomach it).
But though they got close, no Patriots' receiver could get open when it mattered most. Pats Nation is hoping they don't have to learn that lesson again in 2013.