5 Players Not Named Tom Brady Who Are Critical to the Patriots' Success in 2013
You know it has been a tremendously rough offseason when two of your team's five most important players (Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez) depart, and a third (Rob Gronkowski) is in danger of kicking off the season on the PUP.
Even in the salary cap era, that kind of roster turnover is a tough pill to swallow for a team with Super Bowl hopes.
Still, if there's a team that understands the importance of building a team from the ground up—with an emphasis on depth over top-heaviness—it's the Pats, who always seem to be ready with the next man up, be it Eugene Wilson in 2003 or Shane Vereen in the divisional round last year.
So Pats fans can be confident that Bill Belichick and the coaching staff will put their new batch of "most important players" in the best position to succeed.
Let's take a look at five players the Pats will need to have big seasons in 2013 if they hope to take another shot at the Super Bowl.
On a whim, I've decided to keep Rob Gronkowski off this list and only include players who are healthy enough to play right now.
Chandler Jones, Defensive End
A pair of ankle injuries derailed Chandler Jones' season in the second half, but the potential he flashed in the first half revealed a truly dynamic three-down player.
Jones racked up six sacks in just his first eight games, displaying an impressive array of swim and spin moves for a 22-year-old. He also displayed solid ball skills, forcing three fumbles in his first six games and knocking down five passes in his rookie season.
But what separated Jones' first half from other first-round pass-rushers like the Seahawks' Bruce Irvin was his ability to set the edge and defend the run.
Jones' pass-rushing ability was never in question, but at 6'5", 266 pounds he was considered too long and lean to put up a fight against bigger offensive tackles. A lot of edge-rushers who can't bull rush rely so heavily on a quick burst off the line that they yield the edge to runners, and that was a concern for Jones coming into the season.
Jones proved his doubters wrong by holding the edge impressively prior to the ankle injuries, maximizing his strength by leveraging his long arms against blockers and using his quickness to beat rushers to the outside. Jones graded positively against the run in five of his first eight games by ProFootballFocus' (subscription required) grading metrics.
The Patriots didn't make any major moves on the outside of a defensive line that ranked just 23rd in adjusted sack rate per Football Outsiders, which means Jones enters 2013 as their highest-upside edge-rusher on a line that needs to start generating pressure.
His ability to play all three downs means he'll be counted on as a centerpiece of the Patriots' 2013 defense, and if they hope to improve their defensive line play, they'll be relying heavily on Jones to realize his star potential next year.
Danny Amendola, WR
Nobody is expecting Danny Amendola to be Wes Welker.
Irrespective of their similar skill sets, no player should be counted on to produce as consistently as Wes Welker did from 2007-2012. Not even Welker, going forward.
So let's cut the comparisons and focus on the absolute—Amendola may well be the focal point of New England's offense next year.
The Pats enter the offseason with bigger question marks at all non-Amendola pass-catching positions than they've had since 2006, when their leading receiver was Reche Caldwell. Brandon Lloyd is absent along the sideline, Aaron Hernandez vacated the "Move" tight end position, and Rob Gronkowski's status is in question as the "Y" tight end.
That leaves Amendola as the most talented weapon in Tom Brady's arsenal.
It's practically a given that Amendola will get his chance to shine, as the slot receiver position is a huge component of the Patriots' offense. In the last five seasons, the only year Welker didn't rank in the top 10 in receiving targets was 2010, his first year back from an ACL/MCL tear.
It's up to Amendola to make the most of those targets and become the dependable, high-efficiency receiver New England sorely needs.
Aqib Talib, CB
The stats may not bear out Aqib Talib as an elite cornerback: He graded out positively in pass coverage in just six of his 12 games last season, per ProFootballFocus' grading metrics.
But Talib's importance does not simply lie within the vacuum of his own individual performance.
His ability to play man coverage against the opponent's top receiver makes him incredibly valuable to the Patriots. Not having to double the opponent's best weapon allows the Patriots to free up their safeties and linebackers and use them creatively in deep shells, robber coverages and disguised blitzes, among countless other things.
Talib's presence and physicality pairs perfectly with his counterpart Alfonzo Dennard, who, like Talib, excels at physical press-man coverage.
With Talib and Dennard playing man-under, the Pats can keep Devin McCourty at safety in a deep shell, where he excels as a center fielder. That allows the other safety to drop into zone, cover a TE underneath or blitz, while limiting the number of pass-catchers the LBs have to cover. With the LBs free to blitz, the onus on the defensive line to generate pressure-rushing only three or four is lessened.
So, I'd argue that Talib's ability to respectably cover the opponent's top receiver is one of the lynchpins of the entire defense. Yeah, he's important.
The Entire Offensive Line
It's cheating, I know. I feel kind of guilty about lumping them all together.
But it's impossible for me to pick just one of these guys.
Do I single out Nate Solder, the 25-year-old entrusted with Tom Brady's blind side for the second straight year?
What about Ryan Wendell, the former undrafted free agent out of Fresno State who emerged as one of the most dependable centers in the NFL last year? The same Wendell who led the NFL in snaps between his time at center and on special teams?
Or perhaps Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly, the two interior starting guards responsible for keeping interior pressure from spooking/injuring Tom Brady?
Maybe even Sebastian Vollmer, the German giant power-blocker responsible for getting push along the right end (where the Pats were sixth in the NFL in rushing, according to Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric)?
No, I think it's best to keep them as a unit on this list. After all, this unit returns with a level of continuity and familiarity that the Pats' skill players won't enjoy this upcoming season. If the Pats' offensive line can keep Brady upright long enough for plays to develop, the turnover with the skill players won't matter nearly as much.
Vince Wilfork, DT
Yeah, I'm going with two defensive linemen on this list.
I think it's reasonable to double down in this case: I believe improvement from the defensive line is the key to improvement from the defense, and improvement from the defense is the only way the Pats remain a top-tier Super Bowl contender next year with all the offensive turnover.
Wilfork needs to be the same dynamic, reliable high-motor player next season if the Pats want to improve their pass rush. His ability to disrupt the interior of the line and draw extra blockers is huge, even if his sack totals aren't flashy.
Wilfork's never going to be a darling of ProFootballFocus' metrics (he ranked just 12th overall among DTs by their grading system last season), but he's arguably the most important player on the Pats besides Brady.
Wilfork can move all around the line and draw double-teams, making everyone else's job easier. He is an elite two-gap player who wreaks havoc on runners who try to bust inside holes open. And yes, he can drive his man back into the QB (he's an underrated part of this play).
Wilfork is the the key to the success of that defensive line, and he needs to be his healthy, productive three-down self at age 31 this year.