Early Stat Projections for New England Patriots' Top Impact Players
When the lead-up to the 2014 NFL draft finally reaches its seemingly interminable conclusion, we can turn the page on the offseason and start speculation about how spring fantasy football will translate into tangible results in the fall.
Unlike most teams, however, the New England Patriots already have their 2014 core in place. No rookie will be asked to come in and contribute in a crucial role right away. Obviously injuries will create needs during the year, but for now, the Pats' depth is well-stocked at most positions.
Therefore, with the main framework in place, it's a bit more viable to project 2014 performances, even ahead of the draft. As arguably the league's most consistent franchise over the past decade, New England's stars are generally durable and reliable commodities that provide the foundation for a yearly championship contender.
With that in mind, here are a few pre-draft stat projections for the Pats' biggest offensive and defensive stars.
QB Tom Brady
The notion of Tom Brady as a system quarterback has been absurd for years now, but 2013 should have cemented any lingering criticism. Despite losing essentially his entire 2012 receiving corps and working with overmatched rookies at times, Brady still finished with a stellar stat line last year.
Largely due to early-season struggles as he acclimated to his new receivers, Brady's 25 touchdowns and 6.9 yards per attempt figures were all his lowest marks since 2006, and his completion percentage of 60.5 percent was his lowest since 2003.
However, given the otherworldly parameters Brady had established from 2007-2012, the fact that 2013 was only a small step back was truly remarkable. For a brief period, Brady and the passing offense actually recaptured their accustomed uber-efficient production. With Rob Gronkowski in the lineup from Weeks 7 to 14, Brady compiled a 64.1 percent completion percentage for a 95.8 quarterback rating, while throwing for 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Those are right in line with his typical recent numbers, illustrating that even at age 36, Brady still possessed game-changing ability. His game should age well, as despite declining deep-ball accuracy, his greatest strengths (manipulating defenders, pre-snap coverage identification, etc.) should remain intact for the duration of his career.
The 2014 offseason has represented the polar opposite of last year's fiasco in terms of offensive stability. At the moment, the Patriots are slated to return their top 10 reception leaders from last season. With a significantly less stressful offseason, look for Brady's numbers to rebound back to their customary levels.
Projected Stat Line: 31 TDs, 10 INTs, 4,500 passing yards, 64% completion percentage, 7.5 YPA
CB Darrelle Revis
Going into the offseason, the Patriots were expected to prioritize their own high-priced free agents and then dip into the free-agent market during the bargain shopping period. But in a 24-hour whirlwind, Aqib Talib's defection and Darrelle Revis' stunning arrival changed the complexion of New England's offseason.
The Patriots have never employed a defensive player as talented as Revis in his prime. Notions of Revis' decline in 2013 have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded out Revis as its top-rated cornerback last year. Moreover, Revis conceded a reception just once every 16.4 coverage snaps, second only to Richard Sherman.
Thus, in his age-29 season, Revis should fit beautifully into New England's Seahawkian press-man coverage principles. Another year removed from a torn ACL that derailed his 2012 season, Revis represents the Pats' trump card when they face the likes of Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green and Demaryius Thomas next year.
Revis' two-year contract is really a sham, as the $25 million cap hit in 2015, per Spotrac, ensures that the Patriots will release him before the massive roster bonus is due. Revis' contract in Tampa Bay was structured in a similarly guarantee-free pay-as-you-go method, illustrating his confidence that his performance will continue to warrant huge paydays, even without long-term security.
Revis has never lost by betting on himself, and there is little reason to believe a new trend will start in Foxboro. Whether or not Revis remains a Patriot beyond 2014 is a dubious proposition, but at least for next season, Patriots fans will be treated to impeccable man-to-man coverage.
Projected Stat Line: 4 INTs, 42 tackles; 60 targets, 32 receptions, 390 yards, 3 TDs conceded
WR Julian Edelman
It's not a stretch to suggest that Julian Edelman saved the Patriots offense last season. Amid the ruins of a depleted receiving corps, Edelman took the biggest opportunity of his career and turned in positively Welkerian numbers: 105 receptions, 1,056 yards and six touchdowns.
Edelman's slot numbers were even more impressive. With 54 receptions on 73 targets from the slot, Edelman's 74 percent catch rate was the fourth-best mark in the league last season.
After re-upping in New England, Edelman is no longer a secret. The Patriots have flipped over their offensive philosophy numerous times in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era but one constant has been the importance of the slot receiver. From Troy Brown to Deion Branch to Wes Welker and now Edelman, every Pats offense has employed a durable and reliable chain-mover to catalyze the passing game.
Edelman's talent is now undeniable, but the former stipulation might cause some anxiety. Until last year, the diminutive receiver had never played 16 games in a season, even in a much more limited role. His injury history has mostly consisted of nagging ailments all across the body—since 2009, Edelman has had ankle, forearm, hand, back, foot, thigh, concussion and thigh issues scattered across the years.
In some ways, it's almost more concerning that Edelman has experienced steady attrition rather than a couple of freak injuries. For a cross-sport comparison, ex-Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury earned much derision for his frailty, but apart from a pair of catastrophic rib and shoulder injuries, his health record is actually fairly spotless.
Thus, there's a possibility that 2013 was the outlier, and that Edelman is simply not built to play such a punishing position. He should be productive when healthy, but until he exhibits durability two years in a row, it's wise to hold off on expecting 16 games.
Projected Stat Line: 12 games, 80 receptions, 815 yards, 4 TDs
LB Jerod Mayo
For years, Jerod Mayo has been a vital cog in the middle of the Patriots defense. Perhaps due to a lack of flashy statistics like sacks and interceptions, Mayo has never really earned acclaim as one of the league's elite linebackers.
However, his season-ending pectoral injury cost the Pats their most versatile front-seven defender. Capable of playing the Will, Mike or Sam, Mayo is one of the few players to never leave the field, excelling as both an instinctive downhill run defender and a mobile coverage linebacker.
Even in just 407 snaps last year, Mayo made his mark. He conceded a reception just once every 12.1 coverage snaps, the second-best mark in the league among 4-3 outside linebackers. Moreover, with only two missed tackles all year, Mayo was the second-most efficient tackler at his position.
According to The Boston Herald's Jeff Howe, defensive end Rob Ninkovich reported that Mayo was "looking good" in his recovery. Considering that Mayo is already training at the Patriots facility, it seems safe to assume he'll be ready for on-field work at some point this offseason, whether it's in spring OTAs, minicamp or training camp.
At age 28, Mayo is in the prime of his career, so there should not be any impetus to address his position's long-term future. Jamie Collins' emergence and Brandon Spikes' defection could kick Mayo back to middle linebacker, where he started his career when the Pats were still a 3-4 defense. Many followers will not recognize the change, perhaps the greatest testament to Mayo's yearly reliability.
Projected Stat Line: 3.0 sacks, 2 PD, 2 FF, 93 tackles
RB Stevan Ridley
Entering his fourth season, Stevan Ridley is one of the most polarizing players on the Patriots roster. Despite a decisive and powerful one-cut running style that has made him a nice fit in New England's zone-rushing scheme, Ridley's persistent fumbilitis has cost him snaps throughout his brief career.
Those fumbling issues reached a crisis point last season, as Ridley was benched for much of the second half of the year after coughing up the ball twice in two critical contests against Carolina and Denver. LeGarrette Blount's emergence played a factor in Ridley's reduced usage, but the year was an indisputably disappointing encore to his 1,263-yard 2012 season.
Ridley received just 178 carries in 2013, a huge dip from the 290 times he touted the ball in 2012. However, his 4.3 yards per carry average last year was right in line with the previous season's 4.4 mark. Moreover, with seven touchdowns, Ridley reinforced his ability as a valuable goal-line back.
Indeed, when he holds onto the ball, there remains ample evidence that Ridley is a quality starting running back. He's not exactly a big-play back—with just seven runs of 15 or more yards, his 18.3 percent breakaway percentage (or percentage of a back's total yardage that comes from big runs) ranked 24th out of 32 qualified backs. Still, he is a solid schematic fit and especially thrives when the Pats turn to their up-tempo offense.
This season is a crossroads for Ridley as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. Fellow running backs Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are also pending free agents, so the Pats will face some difficult choices at the position next offseason. If Ridley holds onto the ball and hits this projection, he may end up pricing his way out of New England.
Projected Stat Line: 260 attempts, 1,170 yards, 9 TDs, 2 fumbles
DE Chandler Jones
Since dealing away Richard Seymour before the 2009 season, the Patriots have lacked a truly fearsome pass-rusher. Drafted in 2012 to fill that void, Chandler Jones has thus far exceeded expectations.
Billed as a raw product coming out of Syracuse, Jones surprised pundits by immediately winning a three-down role, one he has not since relinquished. With 17.5 sacks in two years, including an 11.5-sack 2013 season, Jones has been the Pats' best pass-rusher since his arrival.
However, it's too facile to look at the double-digit sack total and conclude that Jones had an entirely successful 2013 season. In fact, digging deeper, Jones actually compiled a minus-8.0 pass-rushing grade, ninth-worst among 4-3 defensive ends.
That's likely jarring to most Patriots followers. There were six games last year Jones compiled one or fewer hits and no sacks. For someone seen as a one of the NFL's brightest young pass-rushing stars, that's far too many instances where he was virtually non-existent.
On the flip side, Jones actually emerged as one of the league's best run defenders. His 7.7 percent run-stop percentage was 11th-best among 4-3 defensive ends, a vast improvement from his rookie season mark, where his 5.0 percent mark was 11th-worst at the position.
Patriots fans should not be discouraged by the underlying pass-rushing stats, either. If Jones can compile 11.5 sacks as an ostensibly unpolished pass-rusher, what will he produce when he refines his game and diversifies his arsenal?
It would also help if the Patriots spelled Jones more to preserve his legs on passing downs, as he played a whopping 97.9 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Jones is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential, a scary thought for opposing quarterbacks on New England's slate.
Projected Stat Line: 15.0 sacks, 3 FF, 43 tackles
TE Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski is easily the most difficult player to predict on this list. If Gronk could be guaranteed to play 16 games, he would almost certainly produce an eye-popping stat line and provide the Patriots tremendous versatility in both the passing and running game.
Of course, the problem with Gronkowski is availability itself. Coming off a surgery-riddled 2013 offseason and a torn ACL and MCL during the year, Gronkowski is no longer a surefire commodity. Dependence on his recovery left the Pats offense exposed at the beginning of last season. Knowing Bill Belichick's history, he will likely remedy that issue by planning as if Gronk will be unavailable going forward.
If Gronkowski does stay healthy, however, he propels the Patriots offense to an entirely different stratosphere. Between Weeks 7 and 14, New England scored 224 points, second only to Detroit. The Patriots also averaged 5.85 yards per offensive play, seventh-highest over that time span and well above their 5.41 full-season mark.
For now, the signs are positive on Gronkowski's rehab. Albert Breer of NFL Network reported on April 11 that the tight end was set to begin jogging, and The Boston Herald's Jeff Howe noted that Gronk was in attendance at the team's voluntary offseason workouts. Gronkowski was extremely deliberate in his forearm and back recoveries last season, so there is a precedent for what to expect in training camp.
Opening day at Miami is September 7, almost exactly nine months from his knee injury against Cleveland on December 8. It's likely foolish to project Gronkowski to play 16 games at this point, and Pats fans will always need to cross their fingers that he experiences no more medical setbacks.
Projected Stat Line: 12 games, 68 receptions, 995 yards, 11 TDs