The Patriots' quarterback competition is pretty settled, but what about the other positions?
The New England Patriots pride themselves on being a complete team, with every player on the 46-man game day roster contributing in some way. So while stars like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski get the most media attention, it's actually the depth contributors that can propel a team from being a playoff contender to a Super Bowl threat.
The Patriots' 2013 depth chart looks a bit stranger than in seasons past. While most positions are well-stocked after years of defensive drafting and development, certain other positions are almost catastrophically thin. The receiving corps, for instance, experienced massive personnel turnover this offseason, while the tight end position is in turmoil for well-documented reasons.
Training camp is just around the corner, though, providing an opportunity for coaches and fans to truly evaluate who might contribute to New England's championship aspirations in 2013. Those who can shine in the sweltering July sun will earn the first chance to contribute when the heat really turns up in the fall.
While every training camp has its share of surprises and disappointments, here's a snapshot of the Pats' depth chart as camp begins.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com
1. Tom Brady
2. Ryan Mallett
Entering his 14th season, Brady is still an undeniably elite quarterback. If you wanted to nitpick, you could point to his declining success with deep passes, but that also partially stems from the Patriots' lack of a true vertical threat in recent seasons. Any quarterback who loses Randy Moss, arguably the greatest deep threat of all-time, will likely show some regression in that area.
Brady is the most important player to New England's success, but the Pats have always emphasized being ready in case No. 12 goes down. For now, it appears that third-year player Ryan Mallett has the clipboard-holding job on lockdown. Also, Mallett's physical tools are enticing enough to make him potential trade bait, though the lack of game action likely limits his return value to a mid-round pick, at best.
Of course, the Patriots' third-string quarterback Tim Tebow is receiving a bit more attention than usual. He faces an uphill battle to make the roster, though, given the stability of the top two options. However, if he were to show enough promise in camp, perhaps the Patriots would be more aggressive in their attempt to trade Mallett, which would open up a spot for Tebow. But with depth issues at other positions, the Pats probably aren't looking to carry three quarterbacks.
1. Stevan Ridley
2. Shane Vereen
Stevan Ridley was one of the team's biggest breakout stars last season, and he enters 2013 as the undisputed lead back. Ridley played only 44.8 percent of the snaps last season, but that was partially due to the offense's record-setting number of plays. But with so many new faces, the Patriots might want to slow things down a bit this season. If so, Ridley is poised to make another jump, even after he was already a top-10 back last season.
Shane Vereen is potentially the wild card that could keep the Patriot machine humming. Much hubbub has arisen from Vereen's trial at receiver in spring practices. Indeed, his skills come closest to replicating that of the departed Aaron Hernandez, which means we could see him cast as the offense's moveable "Joker" piece.
If the Pats do indeed employ more "21" personnel, the insurance policies behind the starters will be critical. Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount are considerably less explosive, though both have proven capable of handling a secondary workload. Leon Washington's impact will probably be on special teams, but he does have 146 career receptions, so he would probably be the third-down back in the event of a Vereen injury.
1. Danny Amendola
2. Julian Edelman
For all the Patriots' problems at receiver, the slot should be dependable at the start of the year. By all accounts, Amendola and Brady have forged quick chemistry, a development reminiscent of Wes Welker's immediate ingratiation into the offense upon his arrival in New England. In fact, with no jersey numbers during spring practices, it almost looked as if No. 83 never left.
Behind him, Julian Edelman returns as the lone receiver to catch a pass in a Patriots uniform in 2012. Edelman has never really received extended reps due to Welker's presence, but his familiarity with the system gives him a leg up on the competition this season. Several pundits have already targeted Edelman as a prime breakout candidate for 2013, if healthy.
But therein lies the rub with this duo. The two have combined to miss 30 out of a possible 64 games combined in the last two seasons alone. Amendola's injury history is a bit flukier, but both have relatively small frames that aren't well-suited for punishment. With the questions at outside receiver, at least one must hold up the whole season to provide some semblance of stability at the position.
1. Michael Jenkins
2. Aaron Dobson/almost anyone else
Not exactly Swann and Stallworth here, as the Patriots have plenty of quantity at the moment, but no sure bets for impact players at the position.
The nine-year veteran Jenkins enters camp as the default top option, if only because his experience allows him to not appear totally lost in the complex offense. Jenkins won't move the needle much, but he should be good for something similar to what Deion Branch provided the past few seasons.
Dobson gets the primary nod behind Jenkins, if only because it's hard to imagine the Patriots burying his potential down the depth chart with such a pressing need. Technically, Kenbrell Thompkins took first-team reps alongside Jenkins and Amendola in OTAs, though, and according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, the undrafted rookie's emergence may have contributed to Donald Jones' release. Nevertheless, Thompkins doesn't stand out much physically, a limitation shared by most of the receiving core.
Rookies Josh Boyce and Mark Harrison fell behind in OTAs due to foot injuries, and veteran Lavelle Hawkins was virtually invisible.
At this point, the Patriots have a lot of stock invested in shaky commodities.
1. Rob Gronkowski
2. Michael Hoomanawanui
Gronkowski is the big asterisk here. If No. 87 is healthy, he instantly solidifies the position and likely helps the passing game remain at a top-10 level. Recent reports about his recovery from back surgery have been encouraging, though he still has a long ways to go before the Week 1 opener in Buffalo. Any setbacks will likely prevent him from playing, though there are no guarantees, even if everything proceeds smoothly.
If Gronk misses time, the depth chart essentially becomes irrelevant, as the Pats would then have a smorgasbord of specific skills to utilize in certain situations. Hoomanawanui was quite effective last season, grading out as the fifth-best pass-blocking tight end, according to Pro Football Focus. Gronk's absence would likely place focus on the running game, thereby enhancing the "Hooman's" role.
Other options include Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard and undrafted surprise Zach Sudfeld. Ballard is more of a traditional in-line Y tight end, while Fells comes closest to replicating Hernandez's old moveable F tight end role. But Pats fans are most excited about Sudfeld, whose hulking frame and soft hands make a promising combination.
We still have to see what he can do with pads, and Sudfeld did have a significant injury history in college, but he provides promise at a position that once had so much of it.
1. Nate Solder
2. Will Svitek
The payoff of the Richard Seymour trade, Solder started all 16 games last year and emerged as one of the best young tackles in the NFL. According to STATS LLC, Solder allowed just 3.5 sacks last season and received a holding penalty just once. Considering the Patriots' high-volume attack, fans couldn't have asked for much more from the first-year starter.
Technically, Sebastian Vollmer would probably slide over from the right side if Solder ever went down, but for the purposes of this exercise, we'll list swing tackle Will Svitek behind him here. The 31-year-old Svitek started all 16 games for the Falcons in 2010 and 2011 before missing last season with an arm injury. As an insurance policy, his experience gives the Pats a fairly solid fill-in option.
1. Sebastian Vollmer
2. Svitek/Marcus Cannon
Vollmer's return gives the Pats one of the best bookend tackle combinations in the league. The big German tackle re-signed for four years this offseason, an incentive-laden pact that is dependent on playing time. Vollmer has only missed more than two games in a season once (he missed 10 games in 2011), but his chronic back problems are a real concern. Indeed, even though he played 15 games through some serious pain, last season may have been his worst ever.
Besides Svitek, third-year pro Marcus Cannon is the Patriots' other option at tackle. Cannon filled in once for Vollmer, playing well in New England's Thanksgiving slaughter of the Jets last season. Though Cannon was a tackle at TCU, his limited mobility makes him a better fit at guard (more on that later), but in a pinch, he's proven capable of filling in.
1. Logan Mankins
2. Nick McDonald
Mankins' toughness and leadership remains exemplary, even if injuries have caused his play to dip a bit the past two seasons. Mankins was clearly laboring at times in 2012, but the stats don't look as bad as they may have seemed when watching him play. However, with a surgery-free offseason to recover, expect the ninth-year veteran to be as nasty as ever in 2013.
McDonald could technically fill in at every offensive line position, as his versatility is a significant factor in his inclusion on the roster. As noted by ESPN Boston's Field Yates and Mike Reiss, McDonald played all five positions in training camp last season, providing invaluable versatility. Considering that a team usually only carries seven lineman on gameday, the back-ups must be ready to play anywhere. McDonald embodies that mindset, something that may help him make the roster once again in 2013.
1. Dan Connolly
Connolly is probably the shakiest starter among the incumbents, as his age and littered injury history make him a bit of a shaky bet. Additionally, the 30-year-old had his worst season in 2012, though part of that may have stemmed from his transition from center to guard. While Connolly is still a passable starter, the Patriots have a player who may actually be an in-house upgrade.
You'll notice that I featured a picture of Cannon in this slide instead of the starter Connolly, and with good reason. Many expect Cannon to break out this season, as he possesses exemplary size and athleticism. Remember, Cannon projected as a second- or third-rounder before non-Hodgkin's lymphoma dropped him to the fifth round in 2011. That low-risk gamble looks like a steal now (though we've certainly heard that before).
Perhaps if Cannon could match Connolly's kick-returning prowess, that would improve his odds of starting.
1. Ryan Wendell
Wendell was arguably the most underrated performer on the Patriots last season, leading the NFL in snaps and providing stability to the interior of the line. Kiernan Hogan of Pro Football Focus wrote a great feature on Wendell in the site's "Secret Superstar" series, in which he highlighted Wendell's run-blocking ability. Wendell graded out at +27.5, the third-best mark among all linemen in the league last season.
Behind him, Connolly has experience at center, starting there for the team in 2011 following Dan Koppen's Week 1 season-ending injury. Even if he gets displaced by Cannon, Connolly and his versatile skills should still find a place on the roster.
1. Chandler Jones
2. Justin Francis
Jones is arguably the best breakout bet on the Patriots roster for 2013. Even while an ankle injury rendered him invisible in the second-half of his rookie campaign last year, Jones still graded out as one of the better defensive ends in the league, per AdvancedNFLStats.com. With an offseason focused on bulking up and adding strength, the second-year end may be New England's best pass-rusher since Richard Seymour.
Behind him, the Pats have some interesting young talent. Francis gets the nod here based on playing time from last season. The undrafted rookie not only made the team, but he jumped ahead of more highly-touted prospects like Jermaine Cunningham and Jake Bequette on the depth chart. His season highlight was a three-sack performance in Week 17 against the Dolphins.
Bequette may also push Francis for a reserve pass-rushing role. The third-rounder essentially took a redshirt season in 2012, but he comes with enough promise that the team felt he was worth developing. If Bequette proves that he learned something on the sidelines, he may get the nod on passing downs.
1. Rob Ninkovich
2. Jermaine Cunningham
Pats fans know that Ninkovich, who set career-highs with eight sacks and five forced fumbles in 2012, played very well last year. However, some may be surprised to know that, according to AdvancedNFLStats.com, Ninkovich was second among defensive ends in added win probability (WPA+), trailing only 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Perhaps because of his underdog background, most portray Ninkovich's success as a result of hard work rather than natural ability. While it's true that the 29-year-old has arguably the best motor on the Patriot defense, it's time to acknowledge the fact that his talent and production are sustainable. For a defense devoid of substantial playmakers in recent years, Ninkovich has been a highly underrated component.
If Ninkovich is one of the team's greatest overachievers, Jermaine Cunningham might be an equally great underachiever. Cunningham did show flashes last season as an interior rusher, but he saw his playing time evaporate after his four-game suspension. With so many young pass-rushers, Cunningham's career in a Patriot uniform is clearly at a crossroads entering his fourth season.
1. Vince Wilfork
2. Marcus Forston
Wilfork remains the most important player on the defense, even entering his age-31 season. His versatility along the line makes it a bit foolish to pigeonhole him in this slot, though, as he defies his body type by being an equally dominant edge presence. Even though his stats will never be particularly gaudy, his ability to collapse the middle of the pocket often catalyzes big plays.
Last season saw some conflicting opinions of Wilfork's performance. Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus actually graded out Wilfork as one of the league's worst defensive tackles midway through last season, pinpointing the Patriots' switch to a 4-3 scheme and his increased responsibilities as the main reasons why. However, according to AdvancedNFLStats.com, Wilfork still finished second behind Geno Atkins in +WPA among DTs, embodying the difficulty of quantifying his true value.
Behind Wilfork, Marcus Forston is arguably the player who benefited the most from the respective release of both Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick. As an undrafted rookie, Forston actually made his way onto the active roster before the playoffs last season, though he was a healthy scratch in the AFC Championship Game. Injuries caused his draft stock to plummet in 2012, so it'll be interesting to see if Forston's talent wins him a roster spot in 2013.
1. Tommy Kelly
2. Armond Armstead
The competition for the second defensive tackle spot is one of the best stories going into training camp. For now, the nine-year veteran Kelly has a slight leg up, if only due to his previous track record.
Despite his meager 1.5-sack total last season, Kelly had the second-most sacks of any defensive tackle over the previous two seasons with 14.5. His release from Oakland was largely due to his $6.5 million salary and the Raiders' calamitous cap situation. At 32 years old, Kelly may still have enough mileage left to provide the Patriots with a sorely-needed interior pass-rusher.
Of course, if Kelly isn't up to the challenge, CFL import Armond Armstead may be. Armstead is one of the more tantalizing prospects on the team, given his excellent production for the Toronto Argonauts and his reputation as being the equivalent of a second- or third-round pick, which he probably would have been if he had not suffered a heart attack in 2010.
Armstead still has to prove that he can be as effective at playing the 3-technique in America as he was in Canada, but apart from Wilfork, he is easily the most athletic DT on the Patriots' roster.
1. Brandon Spikes
2. Dane Fletcher
As much as the Patriots defense has gotten smaller and faster, Spikes remains a vestige of the old thumpers like Willie McGinest and Ted Johnson. According to Pro Football Focus, since they started grading five years ago, Spikes' +35.5 run grade is the fourth-best in that time span. That's even more impressive considering the grades are cumulative and Spikes has only been active for three of those years.
Unfortunately, Spikes is a significant liability in pass-coverage, despite what his seven defended passes in 2012 would lead you to believe. His two-down limitation creates the need for another linebacker to join Jerod Mayo on third down, a problem the Pats have had for years now.
Enter Dane Fletcher. Fletcher is not as flashy of a name as Dont'a Hightower or Jamie Collins, the other candidates for the third-down role, but his 4.61 40-yard dash time and 6.93 3-cone drill time would have been among the best at the 2010 combine, had he been invited. Those times are indicative of a quickness and agility needed for sub-package linebackers, which may very well be Fletcher's primary role in 2013.
1. Jerod Mayo
2. Dont'a Hightower
Both Mayo and Hightower are starters in the 4-3 base package, and both may share the field at times in the Patriots' sub package that only calls for two linebackers. Their potential three-down ability provides the Patriots' greatest hope of solidifying the middle of the defense, though Hightower still has a ways to go in coverage.
Mayo's steady tackling and competitive coverage is one of the surest commodities on the team, and Hightower has the potential to evolve into a similar player. Coming out of Alabama, the consensus was that Hightower's smarts made him an asset in zone coverage, but his size hindered his ability to stick in man. While that may not change, he certainly has a greater pass-rushing ceiling than Mayo, as his four sacks as a rookie last year are more than Mayo has recorded in any season.
Conspicuously absent here is rookie Jamie Collins, though the 2013 second-round pick will undoubtedly have a substantial role. Collins' renowned versatility means that he will line up all over the front seven, but his role will be more situational this year. In that sense, he's like the Vereen of the defense, a moveable piece whose athleticism is meant to create mismatches.
1. Aqib Talib
2. Kyle Arrington
Talib's acquisition changed the complexion of the Patriots' defense in 2012, making his return the most important re-signing of the offseason. His ability to credibly cover top receivers one-on-one freed up the Patriots to play man coverage instead of the soft zone that fans had wearily become accustomed to. While Talib's 0.49 +WPA does not look particularly impressive, that came in just seven games. Extrapolated to a whole season, his 1.12 rating would have moved him from 78th to 22nd among cornerbacks.
Arrington is listed here because he is the team's No. 3 corner, but he ideally would never actually play this position. Arrington showed tremendous improvement after moving to the slot, where his quickness and size is better suited. Considering the Patriots were in sub packages over half the time last year, Arrington will still play close to starter snaps in 2013.
1. Alfonzo Dennard
2. Ras-I Dowling
This spot may be in flux at the beginning of the year. According to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Dennard's roster status is reportedly safe, but he will still likely see some sort of suspension from Roger Goodell for his detrimental conduct.
That would be a significant blow to the secondary considering how well Dennard played last year. Despite playing just 10 games and starting in six of them, Dennard was still seventh among rookie cornerbacks in terms of targets, according to Pro Football Focus. His ability to hold up under that pressure was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2012.
In his place, disappointing 2011 second-rounder Ras-I Dowling may get his sink-or-swim chance. According to Luke Hughes of NESN.com, Dowling was the biggest winner of spring practices, flashing the coverage skills that made him a high pick. Ironically, Talib's size and coverage skills are essentially what the Patriots sought from Dowling, whose injuries have limited him to eight games in two seasons. If he can finally stay healthy, he could solidify the Pats' shaky cornerback depth.
1. Adrian Wilson
2. Tavon Wilson
The elder Wilson was one of the Pats' key free-agent acquisitions this offseason, even at age-33. Wilson's 6'3" and 230-pound frame makes him one of the largest safeties in the league, which is no coincidence given the Patriots' lilliputian safety tandem last season. Wilson essentially acts as a coverage linebacker against tight ends, and his run support is valuable on early downs as well.
However, the younger Wilson might be the more complete player if he can become more reliable in coverage. Wilson showed a knack for the ball with six combined turnovers last year, though his role diminished after Devin McCourty moved to safety. Still, according to Doug Khyed of NESN.com, there is a chance that Tavon could overtake Adrian for the starter's role by the end of training camp.
There is one player who was left off this list that actually started every game in which he was healthy in 2012: Steve Gregory. Gregory is a bit redundant with McCourty's presence, though, and he wasn't always the most capable tackler last year. Indeed, Gregory seems like a backup at best, perhaps competing with special-teamer Nate Ebner for the final safety spot on the roster.
1. Devin McCourty
2. Gregory/Duron Harmon
Talib's acquisition was important not just for his presence but also because of its subsequent domino effect. McCourty's move to safety as a result of the trade stabilized the back-end of the defense, as his ball-hawking skills and instincts finally provided New England's corners with a reliable security blanket over the top.
When listed as a corner, McCourty's 1.44 +WPA last year ranked ninth. Comparing that number to other safeties, however, McCourty would have ranked sixth. The success of the 2013 Patriots' pass defense largely rests on his surgically-repaired shoulders, for he is the best playmaker the team has had in the secondary since Asante Samuel.
As previously mentioned, Gregory possesses some similar skills to McCourty, though the drop-off would be steep if Gregory had to become the starter. Rookie Duron Harmon, the Pats' annual head-scratcher in the draft, will probably be a special-teams contributor in 2013. However, his 6'1" and nearly 200-pound frame is solid for a safety, so it's worth seeing how he develops.
1. Leon Washington
2. Julian Edelman
Washington's potential to boost the team's return game is underrated. His 29.0-yard kick return average with the Seahawks last season was nearly eight yards better than the Patriots' 21.2-yard average from their returners, which already sounds impressive enough.
But take a look at the difference as measured by Football Outsiders' all-encompassing DVOA measurement. On kick returns, Seattle earned about 9.1 points in 2012, greatly dwarfing the Patriots' mark of 2.2. For reference, that seven-point gap was about the difference between the Broncos' second-ranked offense and the Lions' 17th-ranked unit.
Washington also returned punts, albeit with a paltry 8.7-yard average that ranked 37th last year. This might be a bit of a dilemma for the Pats, as Julian Edelman's 13.1-yard average since his rookie season is tops among regular returners. But with Edelman's fragility and potentially larger role at receiver this season, it may be wiser to preserve him.
Nonetheless, Washington's kick return ability may make him a huge offensive contributor who barely plays any offensive snaps.
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Punter: Zoltan Mesko
Long Snapper: Danny Aiken
As the link on the previous slide indicated, the Patriots had one of the better special teams units in 2012, so we shouldn't expect much change in that area.
Gostkowski endured some calls for his head following his last-second shank against the Cardinals in Week 2, but his numbers essentially ended in line with his career averages. And only hardcore Patriot followers know Aiken's name, which is a good thing if you're a long snapper.
The only bit of intrigue surrounds Mesko, who has competition from rookie Ryan Allen. There's an argument that Mesko's $1.3 million salary and impending free-agent status might make him a surprise cut in favor of the two-time Ray Guy Award winner. However, a more likely scenario sees Allen on the practice squad, while Mesko plays out his contract as a reliable, though scarcely-used, commodity.