New England Patriots: Grading Every Position Unit at the Start of Camp
At the start of training camp, the New England Patriots boast a roster primed for another run at the AFC title and a berth in an eighth Super Bowl. After several shrewd additions on defense, it's hard to bet against the Patriots claiming a fourth Lombardi trophy.
A possible Achilles' heel can be found at wide receiver. The position group is deep, but the established order and amount of game-breaking talent is far from clear.
It's a similar situation at running back. The Pats have a lot of bodies at the position but still lack a truly reliable choice.
However, having quarterback Tom Brady still at the helm means the New England offense will again be potent.
Here are full grades for every positional unit on last season's conference runners-up.
This team remains a Super Bowl contender as long as Tom Brady is under center. The 36-year-old is still as accurate as any passer and remains deadly in clutch situations.
Brady came under fire after the playoff loss to the Denver Broncos. However, his offensive line was as much to blame for the woes that day.
If there's one concern it's that Brady's average yards per completion was down considerably, from 7.6 to 6.9, last season. Tight end Rob Gronkowski's injury, along with the absence of a true vertical burner, were factors in this decline.
The Patriots caused something of a mild stir when they selected Jimmy Garoppolo in Round 2 of the 2014 NFL draft. But this needn't be viewed as particularly controversial.
Brady is, after all, in the twilight of his career. It makes sense to identify his young successor. To that end, the competition between Garoppolo and previous Brady mark two in-waiting, Ryan Mallett, will be one of the more interesting features of camp.
The Patriots have been very successful running the ball in recent seasons. They ranked ninth in rushing offense last season, one year after ranking seventh in 2012.
The success is built on a committee approach of a rotation of runners attacking behind superb, power-based blocking. The only problem is that come playoff time this team has consistently lacked a workhorse it could trust.
Ball security has been a major issue. It has certainly plagued Stevan Ridley, otherwise one of the most talented runners in football.
He will compete with bruiser Brandon Bolden and draft steal James White for carries this season. White could surprise many. He is a crafty runner who picks holes well and fights for extra yards.
Another name in the mix is Shane Vereen. In fact, Vereen is always in the mix thanks to his speed and versatility as a receiver.
The latter quality is something New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels must make greater use of. Vereen can't just be viewed as somebody worked into the offense to compensate for the loss of Gronkowski.
He needs to be included in more formations, even if it means putting him in tandem with a featured runner. His 47 receptions from 2013 is a tally that must increase.
That's quite likely if Vereen manages a clean bill of health this season. NFL.com Fantasy writer Matt Franciscovich stated that is something this team is counting on:
New England is hoping for a healthy return from the dynamic Shane Vereen, who missed time with a wrist injury last season. When he did play, he put up some impressive numbers in a short amount of time.
Consistency and efficiency are the keys at this position. A healthy rotation is fine, and the Patriots shouldn't necessarily alter their committee approach.
But there comes a point in every season when Brady needs to turn to a running back he knows he can trust to deliver in the biggest games.
There's probably as many questions at wide receiver than any other position group on the roster. However, there's little question about the main playmaker in this rotation.
That distinction belongs to Julian Edelman. The ex-special teams standout made that distinction his own after recording 105 catches last season.
Edelman has that initial quick burst to escape inside coverage, along with the fiery, defiant temperament to scrap for yards after the catch. What he doesn't really possess is the talent to stretch defenses deep.
Perhaps the only receiver who does is Aaron Dobson. The 6'3", 200-pounder has the height and long-striding speed to get behind coverage shells.
His health and availability will be major factors this season. MassLive.com writer Nick Underhill previously reported the team's expectation Dobson will participate during camp.
However, Dobson is now expected to start camp on the PUP list, per ESPNBoston.com reporter Field Yates.
It would be equally helpful if Danny Amendola could stay healthy. That's not something he's managed at any point during his pro career. It's a shame because Amendola offers a lot of what Edelman can do underneath, along with some deceptive vertical speed.
A surprising boost could be offered by Brandon LaFell. At 6'3" and 210 pounds, the ex-Carolina Panthers pass-catcher has the combination of a sturdy frame and good quickness many in this rotation lack.
Finding a candidate to stretch the field is significant here. With Edelman, Gronkowski and Vereen causing havoc underneath, Brady needs a deep outlet to complete a perfectly balanced passing game.
Every Pats fan knows the story here. When Rob Gronkowski is healthy, this is one of the strongest groups at this position in football. When he's not, this offense slows to a timid crawl.
Gronkowski is still football's most complete tight end. Moving "Jokers" are the vogue at this position, but Gronkowski is still an ode to the days when tight ends blocked regularly and were good it.
It also helps that he's a mismatch against level of coverage and from any alignment. Of course, all of that is only relevant when he's on the field.
The 25-year-old made just six starts last season, having made 11 the season before. It would help if the team had more competent depth.
Michael Hoomanawanui is a capable blocker with some receiving chops. But nobody is going to confuse him for a dynamic playmaker any time soon.
The questionable cover behind Gronkowski explains the decision to host former New York Jets and Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller. It also explains bringing in Nate Byham. He joins D.J. Williams and undrafted free agent Asa Watson in a pretty uninspiring rotation.
The Patriots need another veteran body at this position.
Normally a team strength, the O-line has some explaining to do following that postseason loss in Denver. The group was completely manhandled by the Broncos' defensive front.
In particular, mammoth D-tackle Terrance Knighton had the kind of game usually reserved for New England's monster in the middle, Vince Wilfork. The ease with which Knighton overpowered interior blockers and split gaps had to alarm head coach Bill Belichick.
Of course, it didn't help that the Patriots went to Colorado fielding a reshuffled offensive front, something that was a recurring theme last season. The root of the problem was an injury to tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Shifting interior players such as guard Logan Mankins to cover any gaps that appeared on the outside was no solution at all. Mankins is too valuable on the inside to be drawn away from the middle of the trenches.
The powerful veteran with a nasty edge is the kind of player you love if he's on your team, but detest if you cheer for anyone not wearing Patriots colors. Vollmer's return and Mankins resuming full-time guard duties will get this group back to its formidable best.
It's also encouraging that Belichick didn't write off the failings in the playoffs as a mere blip. Instead, he used them as an opportunity to infuse this group with some young talent.
Draft picks Bryan Stork, Jon Halapio and Cameron Fleming were added. Halapio, a scrappy and mobile guard, could be a steal if he stays healthy.
If the return of one big body will help the offensive line, the return of two will make a night and day difference to the defensive front. Belichick will be ecstatic to welcome back Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
While an ecstatic Belichick is tough to envisage, Wilfork's impact on the defense is not. The 6'2", 325-pound behemoth is the player who allows the Pats to seamlessly shift between 3-4, 4-3 and nickel looks.
Wilfork's place as Belichick's ultimate chess piece up front, will depend a lot on his health, following surgery to repair the torn Achilles that doomed his 2013 campaign after just four games.
Fortunately, the signs are positive that Wilfork has made good progress in his recovery, as Boston.com scribe Eric Frenz noted:
He showed signs of progress at the team's organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, making the transition from the players practicing in the bubble to those practicing with the rest of the team. Wilfork's ability to move all over the line will continue to be a huge asset to the Patriots' defensive front.
With Wilfork and Kelly, who is returning from an ACL injury, back in the middle, last season's 30th-ranked run defense won't be so generous this term.
But given the health status of this veteran pair, depth is sure to play an important role in New England's season. That's why the team drafted Dominique Easley with its top pick.
Easley is a different D-tackle to what the Patriots have been used to in recent seasons. He's got genuine athletic range and excellent initial quickness.
While Kelly and Wilfork will control gaps, Easley will split and dart through them. That is, of course, once he's healthy. The former Florida ace is also recovering from a torn ACL.
That could mean Belichick is once again reliant on no-name retreads such as Joe Vellano, Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga. It's the latter two who have the best chance of sticking around. Jones is a useful interior pass-rusher, while Siliga boasts the size to absorb multiple blockers.
Things look a little more settled outside the tackles. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are versatile rush ends who can flip-flop between a three-point stance or a standing alignment, depending on the defensive call.
Jones has awesome natural talent, but it would be nice to see him dominate games a little more often. Having some beef back in the middle will certainly help.
It will also help the Patriots to have a valuable situational pass-rusher in the form of veteran Will Smith. He offers key versatility that Belichick will love to exploit, per Ben Volin of The Boston Globe:
Smith also has good positional versatility, having played 4-3 defensive end, 3-4 defensive end, and 3-4 outside linebacker. He mostly lined up on the right side, but said he’s willing to play on the left, and has been doing some during offseason practices. Jones is the right defensive end in the base defense, but can move inside on passing downs.
If he's fully recovered from, you guessed it, a torn ACL, Smith will prove to be a very shrewd acquisition. His presence will leave rangy special teams demon Michael Buchanan battling with sixth-round pick Zach Moore to stay relevant.
This position is fully loaded, provided everyone gets and stays healthy. Belichick certainly needs them to. His multiple-gap technique scheming relies on versatile linemen to make it work.
This can be a position of considerable strength if Jamie Collins builds on his initial promise. Last season's second-round pick proved to be an all-action playmaker, capable of disrupting offenses from every level of the defense.
Collins is cat-quick and smart in coverage, aggressive and direct on the blitz and surprisingly stout against the run. Collins' progression will be helped by the presence of roving monsters Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo.
Hightower in particular is an interesting player in this scheme. He can work outside or in the middle and even drop down to defensive end in certain fronts. It's the type of role former Patriots assistant coach Pepper Johnson played for years under Belichick with the New York Giants.
Depth rates as something of a concern here when considering Chris White and Steve Beauharnais are still around. However, one interesting addition to keep an eye on is James Anderson.
An underrated former starter with both the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears, Anderson could be a major help in nickel schemes. That's something the Patriots need due to the size and sometimes plodding range of players like Mayo.
Anderson is lighter than Mayo and Hightower at 235 pounds. He can work well in coverage and has good quickness and timing on the blitz. He would make a good partner for Collins on nickel fronts.
Now that Darrelle Revis has brought his "Revis Island" act with him to New England, this secondary is a major strength. Revis may not quite be the dominant force he once was, but he's still streets ahead of most at his position.
Snaring Revis, along with adding ex-Seattle Seahawks' king-size cornerback Brandon Browner, is a major boon to the more aggressive schemes of coordinator Matt Patricia.
The Patriots have relied on more man coverage behind aggressive blitz concepts in recent seasons. Having Revis and Browner press receivers on the outside will let Patricia and Belichick push the blitz button more often.
Depth could be solid, provided Alfonzo Dennard can avoid trouble and Logan Ryan develops. Veteran Kyle Arrington is also a useful sub-package defender.
The main question mark exists at safety. Converted cornerback Devin McCourty has been opportunistic at free safety. However, he still surrenders as many big plays as he creates, particularly from single-high looks.
Sadly, McCourty won't receive quality cover from Patrick Chung. At strong safety, Tavon Wilson is still raw, yet there isn't significant competition from Duron Harmon. This is a weak position no matter who wins the job.
The dubious state of the safety position, coupled with thin and suspect depth, prevents this position from receiving an A grade.
New England's special teams are generally solid and should remain so this season. Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen are both capable kickers.
The coverage units are aided by players like Buchanan. The only question mark is the return game. Too often Belichick has to risk starters like McCourty and Edelman in order to manufacture some big plays.
A definite choice must emerge during camp.
Looking Ahead to the Season
It's hard to look past the Patriots representing the AFC in this season's Super Bowl. While the NFC picture is as murky as trying to avoid stepping in a puddle while walking through a thick fog, the American Conference is clearer.
That means it will again be the Pats and Broncos vying for supremacy. The latter won the fight last season, but it takes a brave man to bet against Belichick thwarting Denver quarterback Peyton Manning in another AFC title game.
Belichick had the right game plan in last season's clash. He just didn't have the personnel to properly put it into action.
Pressure up the middle, a necessity against Manning, was denied without Wilfork and Kelly on the field. Meanwhile, the press-based coverage schemes that are ideal for Denver's flat-track bullies at receiver, were destroyed when big-bodied corner Aqib Talib left the field.
This offseason can be read as Belichick's attempt to right every wrong from that game. His efforts have been good.
Drafting Easley was a risk worth taking to earn a more dynamic inside presence. Smith and Anderson could also add a lot in rotational roles.
But getting both Revis and Browner was the real coup. They are specialists in man coverage of the ultra-physical variety.
The Patriots are now amply prepared for Manning and his offense. The only thing that will stop Belichick's group is a regression on their own offense.
That will happen if a field-stretching receiver fails to emerge, Gronkowski can't stay healthy, mistakes persist in the running game or if the O-line is again hit by injuries.
That's a lot of question marks for one side of the ball. At least Brady is still around.
If the Patriots can find the right answers to those questions, they'll again be contesting the right to go the Super Bowl.