5 New England Patriots Facing Make-or-Break Seasons Ahead of Minicamp
As the New England Patriots approach mandatory minicamp practices, optimism continues to reign. Though the Pats' championship-less drought is approaching the decade mark, the 2014 roster's blend of foundational veterans and high-upside youth makes the Patriots one of the NFL's deepest teams.
Competition may breed maximum results for the team, but a few players will know there will be pressure on them to perform in the coming months.
Some of these players are competing for their jobs, while others will attempt to fend off competition for roles they've held in the past. Bill Belichick's mindset is immovably oriented towards the future, so a player's worth to the team is only as great as his potential in 2014 and beyond.
With that in mind, here are five Patriots whose fates could truly swing either way in the upcoming practices and in the season ahead.
5. Jake Bequette
At this point, the 2012 third-rounder is a total unknown. Jake Bequette compiled 23.5 career sacks at Arkansas but has played a paltry 43 defensive snaps in two seasons, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Bequette's draft status will do him no more favors headed into his third season. The Patriots' defensive end depth was severely lacking in 2013, causing starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to play an untenable percentage of the snaps. New England addressed that need this offseason, inking veteran Will Smith to play an ancillary pass-rushing role. Jamie Collins and Dominique Easley also possess the versatility to play a wide technique in sub packages.
Thus, Bequette must demonstrate significant progress for the Patriots to preserve a roster spot for him. It's hard to say how many defensive end spots the Pats will reserve, given their hybrid defensive scheme that calls for both 4-3 and 3-4 concepts. However, there is a very real possibility that Bequette, Michael Buchanan and sixth-round rookie Zach Moore are competing for just a single roster spot.
At this point, Bequette is likely last in the pecking order. He played 122 snaps last season, demonstrating raw but undeniable potential as an edge-rusher. Moore is similarly unrefined but has all the tools to turn into a rotational pass-rusher in the future.
Bequette has now had two redshirt seasons. Unless he shines in the preseason, it appears the former Razorback will go down as another mid-round bust in the recent litany of them in Foxboro.
4. Ryan Wendell
After an impressive 2012 season that seemingly solidified the center position, Ryan Wendell regressed significantly in 2013. Considering how vital interior protection is to Tom Brady's success, Wendell could not only lose his starting role, but his roster spot altogether.
According to the Erik Frenz, writing for the Boston Globe, Wendell, Dan Connolly and 2014 fourth-rounder Bryan Stork all took first-string reps at center during OTAs. If there was any doubt, Bill Belichick has clearly established that there will be an open competition for the starting role.
Wendell struggled mightily with bigger defensive tackles last season, and the Pats are slated to face the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Geno Atkins, Dontari Poe and Terrance Knighton this year. Indeed, Wendell compiled a minus-14.0 overall grade that ranked third worst among centers last season, per Pro Football Focus. Though he was only a slightly below average run-blocker, Wendell was the worst pass-blocking center in the league last year, as no one gave up more than his 37 pressures.
No matter how you slice it, Wendell was one of the worst regular linemen in the league in 2013. His previous track record suggests a better player, but Brady's health is nothing to mess around with.
Wendell signed a relatively modest two-year, $6.85 million contract, per Spotrac.com. It's a pact the Patriots could move on from relatively painlessly, as the $850,000 signing bonus represents the only guaranteed money. If Wendell cannot rebound immediately, New England has enough depth that it will find a better option and move on.
3. Kyle Arrington
The much-maligned Kyle Arrington will almost certainly be on the final roster. Arrington's cap hit would be about $1.2 million higher if the Pats released him, per Spotrac.com, so it makes little sense to shed his contract at this time.
However, with the offseason additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, Arrington's playing time is no longer guaranteed. Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan have shown promise as outside corners, and both could challenge the incumbent slot corner for snaps in nickel packages.
In truth, most of Arrington's woes have come on the outside, as he has generally proven adequate in the slot. Last season, he conceded a reception every 9.3 coverage snaps in the slot, per Pro Football Focus, a mark that ranked 11th in the league. Among the 28 regular slot corners, that ranked slightly above average.
Arrington does not bring a particularly sexy element to the secondary, but he is the longest-tenured member of the unit. His experience on special teams could also goose his roster contributions if Dennard and/or Ryan pass him on the defensive depth chart.
Though the Pats could save a bit of money by cutting Arrington after next season, he would still account for $3.25 million in dead money on the cap. New England could kick the can down the road and designate him as a post-June 1 cut, which would move the $3.25 million hit to 2016 (the final year of his deal), but the more likely scenario sees the 27-year-old on the roster for at least the next two seasons.
As veteran depth, the Patriots could do much worse than Arrington. However, with two promising young corners lurking, he will need to cut out the occasional lapse to sustain his accustomed place on the depth chart.
2. Vince Wilfork
It may seem unfair to label 2014 "make-or-break" for a player who has given as much to the organization as Vince Wilfork. Nonetheless, it's the cold reality of the NFL that the 32-year-old now sits on a year-to-year basis with the Patriots because of the contract he signed.
According to Spotrac, Wilfork's three-year, $23 million deal only contains $2.6 million in guaranteed money. However, his cap hit for 2015 inflates to $8.43 million due to a $4.5 million roster bonus.
That figure is a lot to pay for someone who might only be a two-down player at this point. For reference, that cap hit would rank fourth among defensive tackles this season, per Spotrac. The expected rise in the salary cap could help the Pats absorb some of that hit, but it still seems unlikely to represent good value.
The good news is that Wilfork appears ahead of schedule in his recovery from the torn Achilles that ended his 2013 campaign. MassLive.com's Nick Underhill relayed some encouraging signs from OTAs:
We saw the defensive tackle increasingly take on a bigger role in each of the three OTAs that were open to the media, and by the end he was taking part in 11-on-11 drills and was able to plant his leg and take on would-be blockers. It’s too soon to tell if he will be fully healthy in time for training camp, but things appear to be headed in the right direction.
The Patriots have enough depth and complementary skill sets that they likely will not need Wilfork to play more than 50 percent of the snaps. If Wilfork proves healthy and an effective run-stuffer in his return, his value as one of the most respected voices on the team would likely ensure his return in 2015.
1. Stevan Ridley
According to Pro-Football-Reference, 31 running backs since 2000 have accrued as many rushing yards in the first three years of their career as Stevan Ridley. This season will likely determine whether Ridley's career bears a closer resemblance to that of Marshawn Lynch and Maurice Jones-Drew or Julius Jones and Domanick Williams.
Though Ridley is in no danger of losing his roster spot, his in-season leash figures to remain short. Since his career started, only Ben Tate has fumbled more frequently than Ridley among running backs, per PFR.
According to NFL Media's Albert Breer (via NFL.com's Chris Wesseling), the Patriots are not planning to open extension talks with Ridley, who is an impending free agent next offseason:
It's hardly a surprise, as Ridley fell out of favor once again due to ongoing ball-security issues late last season.
Per Breer, a motivated Ridley is a little lighter and faster this offseason and is focusing on fixing his fumbling woes. With Blount out of the picture, Ridley is a good bet to lead New England's backfield in carries for a third consecutive season.
The fumbles are correctable, but more concerning is Ridley's relative lack of explosion. While he has a reputation as a powerful downhill runner, Ridley averaged just 2.18 yards after contact per attempt last season, 20th among running backs, per Pro Football Focus. His breakaway percentage (rushing yards from runs of 15 or more yards) was also just 18.3 percent, well below his 25.0 percent mark from 2012.
Ridley clearly possesses the talent to emerge as one of the league's best power-running backs. Reaching that ceiling is far from a certainty, but considering the type of dimension he could add to the New England offense, no other player on this list faces a more consequential campaign.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).