The 5 Biggest Issues Facing the New England Patriots with OTAs Wrapping Up
As the New England Patriots wrap up their scheduled OTAs this week, a few potential issues with their 53-man roster stick out like a sore thumb.
The defensive backfield—perhaps the best in the league on paper—certainly isn't one of them. The Patriots also can't complain about a quarterback spot featuring an elite veteran and two backups with upside. After that, you can start poking holes in nearly any positional group.
Uncertainty at Linebacker
The trio of Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo figures to have a stranglehold on the starting linebacker positions in 2014, but the second wave—including nickel linebackers—is still up in the air.
Brandon Spikes' pass rush won't be there. Dane Fletcher's coverage is gone. The New England Patriots need a young player or a veteran to step into their roles.
Steve Beauharnais has turned heads this offseason, but he only played one snap last season. A more experienced linebacker will likely get the first chance at playing on third down, and newly signed James Anderson looks like a good bet. Mike Reiss from ESPN.com takes a look at Anderson's coverage abilities:
He consistently showed an ability to open his hips and carry a tight end down the field as he still runs well. In the season finale, Anderson's ability to drop deep in middle coverage made a potential touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson a tougher throw than it would have been otherwise (it was thrown too high and was incomplete).
Overall, Anderson seemed more effective playing backwards than towards the line of scrimmage, with a little bit of a knack for dropping out of a blitz look and making a play as a pass defender. The biggest knock on Anderson in the passing game was a mental error we saw in the season finale as he failed to scoop up a loose football on what initially appeared to be an incomplete pass (the ball slipping out of Rodgers' hand) but was actually a fumble that the Packers advanced for a touchdown.
At 6'2" and 235 pounds, Anderson isn't going to be in on running downs. If Bill Belichick brought him in, it will be to replace Beauharnais.
Josh Hull, Chris White and Ja'Gared Davis will all compete for spots on the roster as well.
Lack of Proven Tight End Depth
There are enough bodies behind Rob Gronkowski, but not nearly enough proven production. D.J. Williams accounted for 15 snaps in 2013, while Michael Hoomanawanui logged over 700 mostly unspectacular snaps.
After the veterans, undrafted free agents Asa Watson, Justin Jones and newly signed Kyle Auffray round out the possibilities for the 53-man roster. After last year's disappointing production sans Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Bill Belichick can't be happy with that level of depth.
Free agents Dustin Keller and Jermichael Finley both have visited New England and could be signed at any point if the Patriots are comfortable with the still injury situations of these two veterans. Each would add a dynamic presence if healthy.
If offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has to roll with what he has, expect a lot of "11" personnel with three wide receivers on the field.
Skill Position Logjams
Too many roster-caliber players is a first-world problem that won't gain much sympathy from other franchises around the NFL. Unfortunately, having too many similar options can be an issue. When reps get spread between a ton of players, it is tough to build chemistry.
Splitting repetitions in the slot and at "Z" are Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Josh Boyce, Jeremy Gallon, Kenbrell Thompkins, Brandon LaFell and Matthew Slater. The role of third-down running back has seen James White, Shane Vereen, Roy Finch and Brandon Bolden all getting reps in OTAs, while White, Stevan Ridley, Stephen Houston and Jonas Grey are all getting looks as the feature back.
These aren't camp bodies. All of these players want practice reps and playing time. They aren't all going to get it. Look for some paring to be done—via injured reserve or not—early on during training camp.
Possible Changes Along the Interior Offensive Line
Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly did little to inspire confidence during their less-than-illustrious campaigns last year, as evidenced by the New England Patriots drafting two interior linemen—Bryan Stork and Jon Halapio—in the 2014 NFL draft.
While changes due to physical talent could be coming, the loss of chemistry and experience would be palpable if both Wendell and Connolly were left out of the starting lineup. Tom Brady is no Peyton Manning before the snap, but he changes things enough that the interior linemen need to be up to speed with a large swath of the intricate Patriots offensive playbook.
A more measured approach—perhaps releasing only one of the two veterans—seems like the prudent response. The importance of continuity on the offensive line is tough to oversell.
Former third-round Jake Bequette logged a whopping 14 snaps in his sophomore season. Michael Buchanan—seventh-round selection in 2013—was replaced by an ineffective Andre Carter halfway through his rookie year.
If the New England Patriots continue to have problems developing their young pass-rushers—this is not a recent trend as Jermaine Cunningham, Shawn Crable and Markell Carter can attest—their talented secondary will pay the price.
With the addition of sixth-round pick Zach Moore, the Patriots now have three young rushers on the team: Moore, Buchanan and Bequette. If one doesn't step up in 2014, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will once again be called upon to handle too much of the pressure-creating duties.
They can only handle that work load for so long before they break down.