Ranking New England Patriots' Top Offseason Moves Following 2014 NFL Draft
The NFL offseason has two distinct phases: the roster construction portion and the training portion. With the 2014 NFL draft in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots and the rest of the league have officially moved on toward the latter phase.
Minicamp and training camp will provide ample intrigue in terms of tracking breakouts and disappointments, though padded practices and preseason contests only go so far in revealing a player's true talent. However, before moving on, it's worth taking a look back to see how the Patriots have built the roster that will vie for the franchise's fourth Super Bowl this coming season.
New England is typically quiet during transaction season, preferring to seek out safety and value rather than making a big splash. Thus, this offseason was out of character, with a few flashy free-agent signings as well as the selection of an unexpected boom-or-bust first-round draft pick.
So which offseason personnel decisions will have the greatest impact on the team's 2014 campaign? Here's one view on which moves will hold the most important implications.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required), unless otherwise noted.
5. Reloading the Offensive Line
The offensive line has been an underrated constant throughout the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. While the skill-position personnel has undergone numerous drastic transformations over the past decade, the offensive line has generally excelled with year-to-year stability and excellent development of younger prospects.
However, entering the 2014 season, the Pats offensive line looked like a potential weakness, particularly on the interior. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the tandem of Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell combined to allow 79 pressures on Brady last season. The former was fourth-worst among guards, and the latter was the worst among all centers.
Consequently, the Pats layered the line with plenty of competition, spending three of their Day 3 draft picks on offensive linemen. Center Bryan Stork looks like he has the most immediate potential to start, while guard Jon Halapio and tackle Cameron Fleming are more likely to be developmental prospects.
As NESN.com's Doug Kyed broke down following the draft, there is now a numbers surplus along the line. The quartet of Wendell, Connolly, Halapio and Josh Kline could be competing for as few as two roster spots. New England kept eight offensive linemen last year, and six—Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Stork, and Fleming—look like locks to make the team this season, barring injury.
Which players the Patriots choose to keep will reveal plenty about their offensive philosophy in 2014. Wendell (6'2", 300 lbs) and Connolly (6'4", 305 lbs) are lighter and more fluid athletes who are better suited for outside-zone blocking schemes, whereas Halapio (6'4", 320 lbs) and Kline (6'3", 310 lbs) are larger bodies who could allow the Pats to adapt more of a power-oriented approach.
4. Re-Signing Julian Edelman
The slot receiver has always been an integral part of the Patriots passing game. After Wes Welker's departure and Danny Amendola's Week 1 injury left the position vulnerable last season, Julian Edelman emerged as Tom Brady's favorite and most reliable target, compiling 105 catches, 1,056 receiving yards and six touchdowns—all career highs.
Thus, re-signing Edelman this offseason was vital—not simply because of his 2013 production but also to ensure that Brady would not need a new security blanket for the third consecutive season. The advanced numbers support the gaudy traditional stats; Edelman's 54 receptions on 73 slot targets represented the fourth-highest catch rate among all NFL receivers.
Considering the type of production they received, the Pats did well to keep Edelman on a very reasonable four-year, $17 million pact. His cap hit will never rise higher than $5.25 million it will reach in 2017, the final year of the deal. For perspective, that cap hit would rank 19th among receivers in 2014, per Spotrac.com. Considering how high the cap could rise over the next few years, Edelman's deal figures to represent a significant bargain by the end of its duration.
The only concern for the 27-year-old Edelman is his injury history. Last year was his first 16-game season, which is quite ironic considering that he bore by far his most significant workload. The diminutive Edelman will likely always be an injury risk considering how many hits he takes, but if he stays reasonably healthy the Patriots offense should have a steady chain-moving machine over the next four years.
3. Drafting Dominique Easley
Since trading away Richard Seymour prior to the 2009 season, the Patriots have lacked any semblance of an interior pass rush. First-round pick Dominique Easley has the talent to outstrip Seymour's All-Pro production, but as SportsOnEarth.com's Mike Tanier illustrates, the gap between his floor and ceiling is cavernous:
Dominique Easley could be the next John Randle or the next Steve Emtman. He could finish his career with 138 sacks or just 19 games started. He could make the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the Knee Surgery Hall of Fame.
Among defenders in this year's draft, only Jadeveon Clowney has as much upside as Easley. But Easley is a bigger risk than Clowney. Clowney might not be motivated enough to achieve his full potential. Easley may spend his entire career in Dr. James Andrews' waiting room.
By now, every Patriots fan understands the risks that come with Easley's pair of torn ACLs. Many are dissatisfied with New England's refusal to adopt an "all-in" mentality in order to maximize the twilight years of the Brady-Belichick era, much unlike what the AFC rival Denver Broncos have done with Peyton Manning. However, Easley is the type of prospect who fits that swing-for-the-fences mentality, as the Pats have incurred considerable risk to potentially land a top-10 talent.
It's encouraging to see that Easley maintained his explosive get-off and short-space agility following his first ACL tear. At his Florida pro day, Easley told reporters that he was about 80 to 85 percent healed, per Fox Sports' Scott Carter. Upon being drafted, however, Easley offered no updates on his condition, per ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss.
After suffering his latest ACL injury in September, it's reasonable to expect Easley to start the regular season on time. Considering how few pass-rushing sub-package options the Pats had last season, Easley could make an important impact this year, even while playing only 50 to 60 percent of the snaps.
2. Keeping Vince Wilfork
For weeks, it appeared the Patriots were destined to lose top run-stuffer and locker-room leader Vince Wilfork. However, by reaching a compromise to keep Wilfork on a restructured deal, the Pats may have kept the solution to the defense's biggest problem last season.
New England's 2013 struggles against the run were well-documented. After Wilfork went down with a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 4, the Pats conceded 4.5 yards per rush, finishing 26th in the league in that area. Moreover, New England gave up 43 runs of at least 10 yards over that same time span, per Pro-Football-Reference, which was good for seventh-most in the league.
No one can say for sure that Wilfork will represent a cure-all panacea. The veteran defensive tackle accrued a surprisingly average plus-0.2 run defense grade in three games and one series last year, highlighted by a minus-4.0 performance in Week 2 against the Jets. Obviously, three games is a tiny sample size, but at 32 years old Wilfork is no sure bet to recapture his dominant form.
The Patriots will likely try to help Wilfork by limiting his workload to early downs. Part of Wilfork's value derived from his role as a rare three-down defensive tackle, but such a heavy burden may no longer be realistic for him. Wilfork played 81.8 percent of the snaps in 2012 and a whopping 86.6 percent of them in 2011.
New England might maximize his production by limiting him to 50 or 60 percent of the snaps this year. Still, that does not mean Wilfork cannot remain an integral part of the defense, as he is really the only player fit to consistently play a two-gapping 0- or 1-technique along the defensive line. Even if he only returns at 75 to 80 percent of his former self, Wilfork could be one of the most valuable parts to the team's defense this season.
1. Signing Darrelle Revis
The shocking addition of Darrelle Revis is not only the most impactful Patriots move of the offseason, but it is arguably the most important of any move in the league. Less than 24 hours after losing Aqib Talib, Revis' addition preserved New England's status as a top championship contender.
Adding one of the league's best man-to-man cornerbacks to the Patriots' press-man coverage scheme should result in a beautiful marriage. As Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen suggests, pairing Revis with the similarly physical Brandon Browner should afford Bill Belichick tremendous game-planning versatility:
However, the key is Revis playing the open-side cornerback position. In this diagram, he is in a “solo” call. That means man coverage with no help over the top initially (can pick up the free safety).
You utilize his skill set as a coverage corner to eliminate the X receiver while you take away the slot and put a tent over the closed side of the formation.
Cover 1 (or any single-high-safety defense) should be at the top of the call sheet every week for the Patriots defense after picking up Revis and Browner via free agency, but there is always room to get creative and use game plan-specific schemes when you have corners who can win in man coverage.
After years of draft busts and free-agent flops, it appears as though the Patriots have finally constructed a deep and talented secondary. With promising young depth in Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard as well as veteran slot corner Kyle Arrington, the Patriots appear to boast their deepest secondary of the Belichick era.
While spread offenses have taken over the league, the Seattle Seahawks proved that the correct defensive antidote is still the best championship formula. The Patriots have focused their offseason on replicating that blueprint, and Revis is the singularly talented trump card that few other teams can match.