Breaking Down New England Patriots Roster After 2014 NFL Draft
The New England Patriots, already armed with one of the NFL's deepest rosters, added nine rookies to through the draft. With the flurry of undrafted signings slowing down, the 2014 roster construction phase is essentially complete.
While in-season injuries and circumstances will change the picture, we can now evaluate the Patriots roster without any sudden additions. Apart from a few camp competitions at the bottom of the depth chart, the team that will take the field Week 1 in Miami has been assembled.
So where do the Patriots stand headed into spring practices and minicamp? Here's a post-draft look at the state of every position on the New England roster, with a full recap of the offseason moves and analysis of the potential depth chart.
The most stable position on the Patriots roster looks set not only for this season, but up through 2017. So long as he's healthy, Tom Brady will be the lifeblood of New England's championship hopes. Even approaching his age-37 season, Brady's erudition has helped minimize the inevitable decline stemming from physical regression.
Backup Ryan Mallett has been the subject of numerous trade rumors, but Adam Schefter debunked the Mallett-to-Houston buzz by the end of the draft. After investing a third-round pick in Mallett, it's suboptimal that he will most likely never receive a meaningful snap for development. Still, with three years in the system, Mallett safeguards the Pats from a 2011 Colts type of disaster in the event of a Brady injury.
The quarterback most Patriots fans will want to talk about, however, is surprise second-rounder Jimmy Garoppolo. As I stated after his selection, Garoppolo is a raw prospect with the poise and mechanics to succeed, though he will need multiple years before he is really ready for game action.
Assuming Mallett leaves to seek a starting job after this season, Garoppolo will have three seasons to sit behind Brady. As a second-round pick, Garoppolo receives a four-year contract that will carry him through the 2017 season, coincidentally the same year that Brady's current pact expires.
At some point, the Patriots will need to embrace the post-Brady era, and Garoppolo's selection finally provides a potential timetable. For 2014, it will be the same status quo in Foxborough.
This is a position that could be in flux next offseason. The trio of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are all entering the final years of their rookie contracts. Though none figure to break the bank, the Pats might not want to triple or quadruple their financial investment at running back when considering their truly egalitarian backfield philosophy.
For 2014, however, Ridley and Vereen figure to take the majority of the snaps. The two backs complement each other well—between Ridley's hard-charging one-cut power style and Vereen's receiving ability and shiftiness. The Pats are covered on all three downs.
Behind them, Brandon Bolden should replace the departed LeGarrette Blount as Ridley's power-running backup. Bolden was miscast as a receiving back after Vereen's broken wrist last season, as he is much better suited for between-the-tackles, inside-zone runs. As a "Core 4" special teams contributor, Bolden provides plenty of value beyond the offensive backfield as well.
Fourth-round rookie James White now provides the best Vereen insurance, as the ex-Wisconsin Badger compiled a career-high 39 catches during his final season in Madison. White's vision, patience and decisiveness are an ideal fit for the Pats' zone-blocking scheme, and he should see a fair amount of snaps his rookie season.
Ridley and Vereen have tantalized and frustrated Pats fans throughout their three years in Foxborough, the former because of chronic fumbilitis and the latter because of untimely injuries. Because of those histories, the Pats did well to add a high-floor projectable back in White.
The state of the Patriots wide receivers essentially boils down to the trio of second-year players. Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins provide a nice array of skills, and their development will likely determine how versatile and reliable New England's passing game is next season.
Of the three, Dobson appears to have the highest ceiling. After a drop-filled first quarter of the season, Dobson thrived upon Rob Gronkowski's return, demonstrating significantly improved timing with Tom Brady to emerge as an outside-the-numbers threat. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken foot during the Week 11 contest in Carolina, derailing the rest of his season.
One position the Patriots can bank on is the slot receiver, a constant source of production throughout the Brady era. Julian Edelman provided Welkerian production in his breakout 2013 season, and Danny Amendola figures to supply more consistent production after playing nearly the entire campaign with an injured groin.
The bottom of the depth chart should include free-agent signing Brandon LaFell and special teams captain Matthew Slater. LaFell might serve as Dobson insurance, though he frustrated Carolina fans by never translating his physical tools into consistent results.
Elsewhere, rookie seventh-rounder Jeremy Gallon and second-year Mark Harrison might also compete for roster spots. The two could not provide a greater contrast; the 5'8" Gallon will look to make the team as an elusive slot receiver and kick returner, while the 6'3" Harrison screams red-zone target.
Overall, stability is the buzzword surrounding the position this year. A year after catastrophic and unforseen turnover, Brady currently has 11 of his top 12 receivers from 2013 under contract. It's a welcome change that should foster an improved passing attack after an uncharacteristically erratic year last season.
Perhaps no position is so heavily dependent on one player for the Patriots. Tight end looks like the position with the greatest variance of possible outcomes in 2014, largely due to the uncertain health of All-Pro Rob Gronkowski.
According to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, Gronkowski recently noted that while he's improving, it is too soon to determine if he will be ready for the season. The regular-season opener in Miami is almost exactly nine months removed from when he tore his ACL and MCL against Cleveland. The latter injury delayed the surgery by a month, which cost Gronk valuable recovery time.
After last season's frustrating week-by-week uncertainty, it appears the Pats might be in for a redux in 2014. When Gronkowski was in the lineup between Weeks 7 and 14, New England was the second-highest scoring team in the league behind Denver, per Pro-Footballl-Reference.com.
While no one can match Gronkowski's massive domino effect on the rest of the offense, it's a bit distressing that the Patriots did not add much insurance at the position. New England passed on multiple tight ends in the first two rounds of the draft, opting for pass-rushing help in Dominique Easley and a potential Brady successor in Jimmy Garoppolo.
Thus, it's largely status quo at the position. Michael Hoomanawanui will be back as an in-line blocking "Y" tight end, while D.J. Williams could make the roster as a receiving "F" tight end. Matthew Mulligan left in free agency, though he is a replaceable cog. The Pats did add several undrafted free agents, including 6'8" East Carolina behemoth Justin Jones.
Still, the Patriots were crippled without Gronkowski last year. Not only did they lose their best all-around skill position player, but the one-dimensional nature of the other tight ends robbed New England of their coveted formational versatility. Gronk's health is one of the most important ingredients toward the Patriots' Super Bowl aspirations, a reality that is certainly frightening to the Foxborough faithful.
The offensive line figures to see more turnover than any other unit on that side of the ball. After shaky seasons from starting center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly, the Pats reinforced the trenches with urgency, selecting three offensive linemen on Day 3 of the draft.
Florida State center Bryan Stork appears to have the best chance of immediately starting, while guard Jon Halapio and tackle Cameron Fleming are more developmental projects. The Pats could save $3 million on the cap by shedding Connolly's contract, while Wendell signed a relatively cheap two-year deal that provides little job security. The two veterans will be on the hot seat this training camp, with neither holding a guaranteed roster spot, let alone a starting position.
The Pats are much more stable at tackle, with a pair of rock-solid bookends in Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. Left guard Logan Mankins is the soul of the offense, infusing a nasty swagger that sets the tone for the rest of the unit. Marcus Cannon was also impressive at right tackle after Vollmer went down last year; the Pats could kick him inside to guard, where he was originally drafted, to grant more playing time.
After the Patriots did not select an offensive linemen in 2012 or 2013, the depth is much more tenable following this year's draft. With Josh Kline, Braxton Cave and Chris Barker also having a year of development, there should be plenty of fruitful competition this summer.
If there's one big takeaway from the three draft picks, it's that all three rookies are massive, powerful prospects. The power zone run became the Patriots' bread-and-butter at the end of last season, and this offseason's activity suggests that the Pats are looking to transition toward a more efficient, ball-control philosophy.
After injuries made this unit perilously thin by the end of last season, the Patriots should be much deeper following recoveries and offseason additions. The biggest addition (literally and figuratively) will be Vince Wilfork. Combined with one-gapping penetrator Tommy Kelly, the Pats should have a nice complementary veteran duo in base packages.
The bookend tandem of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich was extremely durable last year, playing nearly every snap. That was more out of necessity than design, as the defensive end depth was essentially barren. Jones and Ninkovich should see more controlled snaps this year, which could benefit their sometimes inconsistent pass-rushing productivity.
First-rounder Dominique Easley is the most exciting addition. Easley's disruptive interior penetration is unlike anything the Pats have employed since Richard Seymour, and if healthy, he adds a game-changing talent to the defense. Easley is recovering from his second torn ACL, but should still play a role as a versatile pass-rusher in sub-packages this year.
Beyond those regular starters, the Patriots have a nice spectrum of skill sets—edge-rushing from Will Smith, Michael Buchanan and raw sixth-rounder Zach Moore, two-gapping run-stuffing from Sealver Siliga and 3-techniques in Chris Jones and Armond Armstead. It's a significant departure from last year, when the Patriots were reliant on overmatched emergency additions to play huge snaps.
There are still numerous health concerns here, particularly in the interior. Unlike last season, however, the Patriots have enough quality to stem the tide.
If the defensive line was left vulnerable in 2013, the linebackers look like they could be this year's weak link. That might appear confusing to some Patriots fans who see the rock-solid starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
It's true that those three form an excellent foundation, with complementary skill sets that represent a nice, young foundation. However, at the moment, it appears 2013 seventh-rounder Steve Beauharnais is currently the fourth linebacker. Beauharnais was active for two games last year and played just a single defensive snap, which came in junk time against Baltimore. Meanwhile, the likes of Chris White, Ja'Gared Davis and offseason signing Josh Hull figure to contribute strictly on special teams.
Thus, it should not be difficult to see how injuries could send this unit into catastrophe. The defections of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher will hurt, as both reliably fulfilled specialty roles. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Spikes' plus-11.6 run defense grade was the highest of any middle linebacker in the league. Fletcher was also a sub-package and core special teamer during his Patriots tenure.
Undrafted rookie James Morris could make the roster as a base-package presence. In addition, NEPatriotsDraft.com's Mike Loyko reported that the Patriots gave a large signing bonus to Michigan's Cameron Davis, indicating an interest that could bode well for his roster chances.
However, by failing to address the position in the draft, New England has left itself vulnerable in the event that one of its starters suffers a long-term injury. Ironically, the lack of overlap among the three starters could prove damaging. None of the other two represent an ideal replacement for Mayo's intelligent sideline-to-sideline coverage, Collins' versatility in space or Hightower's physical edge-setting presence.
Unless Beauharnais or an undrafted rookie demonstrates unexpected readiness this preseason, linebacker could be a dicey proposition in 2014.
After years of instability and draft busts, it appears the Patriots have finally stabilized the cornerback position. Despite Aqib Talib's offseason departure, Darrelle Revis represents one of the few players who could actually upgrade the Pats' press-man coverage scheme.
Indeed, the Patriots are one of several teams attempting to copy the Seattle Seahawks' transformative hybrid Cover 3 defense. With a true man-to-man, shutdown corner in Revis, New England has a weapon few outside the Pacific Northwest can match.
Brandon Browner, an original "Legion of Boom" member, will seek to shore up the right cornerback position opposite Revis once he serves his four-game suspension to start the season. Browner struggled amid an injury-plagued 2013 season, but despite a lack of top-end speed, his intimidation at the line of scrimmage has made him a nightmare for outside receivers in the past.
The Pats also have a pair of talented young corners in Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan. Over two seasons, Dennard has held his own in man coverage on the outside despite size limitations. While Demaryius Thomas exposed him in the AFC Championship Game, Dennard is still a tough, competitive corner whose ball skills and intelligence make him an asset going forward.
Ryan, meanwhile, had a pleasantly surprising rookie season, picking off five passes and providing invaluable depth during Talib's various injury stints. There has been buzz about Ryan converting to safety, and according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, Bill Belichick said Ryan would play multiple positions in camp.
Ryan certainly has the range and instincts to play safety, though his skill set and size might provide too much overlap with incumbent starter Devin McCourty. Regardless, with veteran slot corner Kyle Arrington also around, the cornerback position is deeper than it has ever been in the Belichick era.
While the nature of the cornerback position draws more individual attention, a rangy free safety is becoming an increasingly indispensable ingredient in today's spread-oriented passing games. Thus, while Revis may be a better player who receives more publicity, Devin McCourty is as important to the Patriots' pass defense.
After a topsy-turvy start to his career at cornerback, McCourty has since turned into one of the league's better centerfield security blankets. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded McCourty out as the best safety in the league last season, with a plus-18.7 overall grade. His instincts have stabilized the back end and provided some cohesion to a young and evolving secondary.
McCourty will have a new starter next to him, as fellow Rutgers alum Duron Harmon will likely assume the majority of the strong safety snaps following Steve Gregory's offseason release. I did a detailed film breakdown of Harmon earlier this offseason, and found that his headiness and football IQ should serve him well headed into a larger role. Harmon does not necessarily possess the physical tools (hip fluidity, explosion, etc.) to become a significant playmaker, but he should be a reliable (if unspectacular) contributor.
However, if either starter goes down, the Patriots could be in trouble. Sixth-rounder Jemea Thomas is a versatile prospect who could contribute in 2014, but Thomas is much more comfortable in the box, and thus an inadequate coverage replacement.
Much like linebacker, the Patriots' safety depth is essentially composed of special teams contributors, as the likes of Tavon Wilson, Patrick Chung, Nate Ebner and Kanorris Davis do not warrant significant defensive roles. Consequently, while still underappreciated by some Pats followers, McCourty is arguably the most indispensable defender for New England when considering the drop-off to a potential replacement.
The Patriots kicking game should be stable. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is coming off the best season of his career, and punter Ryan Allen improved toward the end of his rookie season, particularly in directional accuracy. Long snapper Danny Aiken has some camp competition in Charley Hughlett and undrafted rookie Tyler Ott, but he did little last year to suggest that he should lose his job.
The return game could see a little more flux. The Pats lost primary kickoff returner LeGarrette Blount to the Steelers, leaving an open competition for the role. Josh Boyce has the speed to take over the role, and he did return nine kickoffs in 2013. Rookies James White, Jeremy Gallon and Jeremy Deering will also likely see reps during training camp.
Additionally, if Julian Edelman builds upon his 2013 season, he will quickly become an indispensable part of the offense. Consequently, the Pats might not want to expose him to big hits on punt returns, much like how they took Wes Welker off punt return duty towards the end of his Patriots career.
Danny Amendola has punt returning experience, and would likely be the favorite to fulfill the open role. The aforementioned kick return candidates might also see reps returning punts.