New England Patriots 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors, More
Football's popularity has made the NFL a 365-day season in terms of media coverage, but the commencement of the regular season marks a stark—and welcome—departure in coverage responsibilities.
The focus is no longer on projection and conjecture, instead shifting to analysis of concrete, meaningful action.
As arguably the league's most stable organization, the New England Patriots are one of the few teams that make for easy prognostication. Surprises will occur, but the core of the roster and the impressive, bottom-line win tally should remain constant in 2014.
So rather than reading too deeply into individual offseason moves and preseason exhibitions, it's more useful to consider how each unit may contribute to a more significant team-oriented goal.
Head coach Bill Belichick has always sought to craft the most versatile and game-plan-proof squads possible. We can evaluate units and players based on how likely they are to fulfill that mission, even though the regular-season results will provide the ultimate evaluation.
As a caveat, the roster-building process never ends, which means some of the back-end players could be off the team by the time you see this.
All depth charts are accurate as of the morning of Sep. 1. With that in mind, keep reading for a deep dive into every position, players to watch, important games and more.
1. Tom Brady
2. Jimmy Garoppolo
Many believed that Garoppolo had done enough to supplant Mallett as the backup and render the necessity of a third quarterback irrelevant.
While it appeared Belichick had initially taken a cautious approach by keeping all three quarterbacks, ESPN.com's report on Mallett's trade to the Houston Texans reaffirmed that the rookie had shown enough to earn the No. 2 job.
After playing just a single series over the last two preseason games, the omens were there for Mallett.
Burning a roster spot on a third quarterback was likely redundant, and in the event of a doomsday injury scenario to Brady, Garoppolo appears competent enough to help weather a short-term absence.
In regards to the Mallett trade, it's worth noting that the Pats could have received a compensatory draft pick had he left in free agency next summer.
However, the compensation likely would have been no different than the conditional seventh-rounder—which could turn into a sixth-round pick—the Patriots received at these waning stages of the offseason, when assimilating a new quarterback is practically impossible. The St. Louis Rams can attest to that.
Many will fret over some of the depth question marks throughout the rest of the roster, and we will cover those in short order.
Still, even without Mallett, Garoppolo's precocious preseason showing indicates that the Patriots possess both short- and long-term security at this position.
1A. Shane Vereen
1B. Stevan Ridley
2. James White
3. Brandon Bolden
Ridley and Vereen are essentially co-starters in this offense. There was much hullabaloo—such as this piece by ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss—over Ridley potentially failing to make the roster, but the two fourth-year backs complement each other so well.
With such contrasting skill sets, look for the Patriots to divvy up the workload based on a weekly game-plan-specific basis.
Vereen may end up with more snaps—11/Posse (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) personnel figures to serve as New England's primary formation—but do not expect either to play more than 40 percent of the total offensive snaps.
Ridley should benefit if the Patriots lean on 12/Ace (2 WR, 1 RB, 2 TE) more than they did last season.
Therefore, Rob Gronkowski's health could have a massive indirect effect on whether or not the—perhaps unfairly—beleaguered Ridley bounces back in 2014.
White and Bolden will still retain more important niches than most reserve running backs. The Patriots experimented with two-back, three-receiver sets (20/Pony personnel) throughout the preseason, an intriguing grouping that could create a multifaceted attack out of spread shotgun packages.
White, in particular, played prominent snaps in that grouping. Bolden is likelier to make an impact as a core special teamer.
When talking about preserving offensive versatility, many rightfully point to the tight end position as the critical pivot point. With that said, the running back position also contributes its share of mismatches. If the players stay healthy, the diversity of skill sets here should make the position a huge asset.
1. Julian Edelman (Flanker)
2. Danny Amendola (Slot)
3. Kenbrell Thompkins (Split End)
4. Aaron Dobson
5. Brandon LaFell
Suspended: Brian Tyms
Though the wide receiver group is far from a collection of All-Pros, the Patriots' continuity at this position should lead to a much more rhythmic passing game than the sputtering unit that frustrated Foxboro last September.
LaFell is the only new addition, but the Patriots are not counting on him. However, Belichick has praised the veteran's relatively seamless integration into the system.
Edelman and Amendola figure to receive the majority of the targets. The Pats' passing game revolves around controlling the center of the field, as all those five-yard hitch and smash routes will test the defense's patience while hopefully opening up deeper seam, fade and post throws.
The two have combined to play just two full 16-game seasons, though, so health could be an issue by midseason.
At some point, Dobson figures to overtake Thompkins for the outside "X" receiver role based on the former's superior physical skills.
Thompkins has clearly improved, as his confidence and route-running assurance were evident throughout the preseason. Nevertheless, Dobson overcame a slow start to his offseason as well, and given how well he moved in the preseason finale, the former second-rounder should climb up the depth chart in short order.
For those wondering, Tyms' roster spot is not assured past his four-game suspension. He provides valuable insurance in the event of an injury—especially to one of the bigger outside receivers—but this is a solid group that does not necessarily need a sixth member if all are healthy.
1. Rob Gronkowski
2. Tim Wright
3. Michael Hoomananwanui
4. James Develin
Even with Wright's acquisition, this position remains heavily Gronk-centric. In projecting the roster last week, I reiterated that the Patriots offense is essentially a different unit with Gronkowski, whose presence allows for a plethora of game-planning and play-calling wrinkles.
There's no need to further describe Gronkowski's importance.
Second-year tight end Wright is an intriguing "F" tight end, as his size (6'4", 220 lbs) and fluid movement skills are reminiscent of Aaron Hernandez's.
Wright is unlikely to make the same impact as Hernandez because of how late he arrived in the offseason process, but he did ably handle a significant workload in the final preseason game.
The vanilla, ubiquitous offense in that game is a far cry from the specialized game plans the Patriots will run during the regular season, though, so expect a slow integration for Wright.
If he can assimilate into the offense by season's end, he should provide an option in the slot and as the off-line tight end in Ace Wing personnel. That could turn into the Patriots' go-to red-zone personnel, so keep an eye on how many snaps Wright plays as the offense approaches the goal line.
Hoomananwanui and Develin are nice blocking options who will be important when the Patriots decide to turn to power gap-blocking personnel—as they did in the second preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
With that said, their receiving ability is limited beyond flat routes, so do not expect consistent weekly playing time for either, barring injuries.
Starters: Nate Solder (LT), Sebastian Vollmer (LG), Ryan Wendell (C), Dan Connolly (RG), Marcus Cannon (RT)
Reserves: Josh Kline (G), Jordan Devey (T/G), Bryan Stork (C), Cameron Fleming (T), Chris Barker (G/C)
This unit remains in total flux after the shocking Logan Mankins trade, making for an unusual and precarious situation surrounding a typically stable unit.
It's anyone's guess as to which starting five the Patriots will roll out on opening day. No single five-man grouping took hold through the preseason, so until the experimenting yields a satisfactory group, expect change and growing pains as the line struggles to forge its chemistry.
For now, the move of Vollmer to guard stems from a report from Ben Volin of The Boston Globe over the weekend.
Many have clamored for Marcus Cannon to find his way into the starting lineup after an impressive stint in 2013, but given his lack of reps at guard, it appears the Patriots could be banking on Vollmer to kick inside instead.
No one really knows how Vollmer would fare inside, though having the mauling Solder-Vollmer combination on the left side might simply physically overwhelm opponents.
It's also still unclear who will start at center or right guard, as Josh Kline could very well take over at the other guard position, while Connolly also took most of his camp reps at center.
The rest of the reserves are mostly comprised of young, developmental talent.
Devey took many first-team reps this preseason, but while his versatility is a plus, he appeared overwhelmed at times and could likely use a year on the bench. Fleming and Stork are fourth-rounders whom the Pats will eventually look to groom into starters, but neither figures to see the field unless multiple injuries occur.
Ultimately, this is a unit whose early-season performance is unlikely to match the talent that exists on paper.
The Patriots are well-stocked with current and future talent, and the position is relatively cost-controlled after the Mankins trade. Still, look for opponents to throw plenty of misdirection rushes at this line until it develops some form of sustainable chemistry.
Defensive Ends/Outside Linebackers
Starters: Chandler Jones (RDE/ROLB), Rob Ninkovich (LDE/LOLB), Dont'a Hightower (DE/SAM/WILL)
Reserves: Michael Buchanan (DE), Zach Moore (DE), Darius Fleming (ILB/OLB)
It is inaccurate to try and pigeonhole the Patriots defense into a single front-seven grouping, hence all the labels here.
The Pats will play 3-4-4, 4-3-4, 3-3-5, 4-2-6 and 2-4-6 fronts all season, but the hybrid fusion between 3-4 two-gapping and 4-3 one-gapping concepts are what really represent the foundation of this defense.
With that in mind, expect aggressive, attacking one-gapping from these players. Jones and Ninkovich remain the bedrocks of the defensive line, as both figure to remain among the league's best all-around edge players, whether they are in two- or three-point stances.
Hightower is likely to receive plenty of snaps as well. After spending his first two season primarily as an interior run-stuffer, Hightower openly pined for an increased edge-rushing role this year, per ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss. It appeared he received his wish throughout training camp and the preseason, so expect more pass-rushing and less coverage from Hightower in sub-packages.
The depth here is a bit tenuous, as Buchanan remains a talented pass-rusher whose length and bend are often compromised by poor gap discipline and long, circuitous rush routes to the quarterback.
Moore is far too raw to play more than a handful of snaps per game as well, so perhaps a veteran like Will Smith or Andre Carter could sign midseason in the event of an injury.
Fleming impressed this summer with his versatility and strength at the point of attack. He represents more of an early-down, run-stuffing option, but if Hightower truly does play more as a defensive end in 2014, Fleming could see some snaps.
Defensive Tackles/Inside Linebackers
Starters: Vince Wilfork (NT), Dominique Easley (3-technique), Jerod Mayo (MIKE/WILL), Jamie Collins (SAM/WILL/JACK)
Reserves: Chris Jones (3-tech), Joe Vellano (3-tech), Kelcy Quarles (3-tech) Sealver Siliga (NT), Bruce Gaston (NT)
This unit presents the most versatile starters, as all four of Wilfork, Easley, Mayo and Collins can play inside or outside. The latter two are particularly valuable three-down linebackers capable of covering tight ends, blitzing or providing sideline-to-sideline run containment.
However, the Patriots do appear a bit overstocked at this position, which might hint at an imminent move.
NEPatriotsDraft.com's Mike Loyko suggested that Jones could be headed to the eight-week injured reserve list once he is eligible on Sep. 1. Jones is likely a projected starter or co-starter with Easley, so while it would not be ideal to burn the one-time return provision this early, Jones is a player worth using it on.
The injuries to Jones and Siliga might force the Patriots to stay heavy in numbers for the first month.
The acquisitions of Quarles and Gaston were New England's two most notable moves of the post-cutdown flurry, clearly indicating a desire to beef up inside. The former is a particularly intriguing undrafted prospect. Quarles' 9.5 sacks at South Carolina last year exceeded that of much-ballyhooed teammate Jadeveon Clowney.
Like the outside front-seven positions, the interior could be thin if one or more starters go down. The Patriots have stocked much of their roster with unproven youngsters.
Acquiring cheap talent is rarely a poor idea, but one wonders if poor injury luck could leave the Patriots inexperienced at too many positions.
1. Darrelle Revis
2. Malcolm Butler
3. Alfonzo Dennard (Slot)
4. Kyle Arrington
5. Logan Ryan
Suspended: Brandon Browner
This depth chart will remain fluid until Browner returns from his four-game suspension.
Revis figures to shadow receivers all season. While he isn't set to have many challenges in the first month, he will become extraordinarily valuable when the Pats must face the likes of Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Brandon Marshall and Keenan Allen in a brutal midseason stretch.
For now, Butler looks like the surprise option opposite Revis. The undrafted rookie played with the starters throughout the preseason and did nothing to suggest that he was overwhelmed by the first-string duties.
That may change when the regular season starts, but the Belichick-ian meritocracy likely means that Butler will start against the Miami Dolphins this week. At the very least, his physicality and ball skills portend a promising developmental prospect who should remain on the roster all year.
Dennard received most of the slot cornerback snaps over the final two preseason games. Though his fearless press coverage has made him a palatable outside corner, his size (5'10", 200 lbs) is a better fit inside.
The slot may not be Dennard's permanent home, especially in the event of an injury, but it appears the Patriots are simply trying to find snaps for the promising third-year corner.
Arrington and Ryan received numerous snaps at safety this preseason, likely indicating that they are being prepped for roles as super-subs.
That might befuddle some Pats fans eager to see more of the ball-hawking Ryan after an impressive rookie season. However, Ryan struggled mightily throughout the preseason, and it appears that he needs more time to settle into a defined role.
Arrington's intelligence could make him a legitimate option at safety, where he will not need to turn and run with bigger and more physically talented wide receivers.
In the event of an injury to Devin McCourty, Arrington's instincts could make him the top replacement.
1. Devin McCourty (FS)
2. Duron Harmon (SS)
3. Patrick Chung
4. Tavon Wilson
5. Nate Ebner
Since switching to free safety midway through the 2012 campaign, McCourty has arguably been the Patriots' most valuable defensive back.
His range and improving instincts have made him one of the league's top security blankets, and he is the player toward whom the Patriots' press-coverage corners will funnel the opposing receivers.
The rest of the safety group is rather redundant in skill set, so perhaps we'll see some future movement here.
For now, we'll call Harmon the starting safety opposite McCourty, as he flashed well in terms of in-the-box physicality against the run this preseason. The second-year pro has more upside than his competition, but the Pats are unlikely to expand his role too quickly after he was essentially a bit player for most of 2013.
Chung could very well be the starter in his second Patriots stint, though his coverage limitations are severe. He essentially brings the same tool kit as Tavon Wilson, and both figure to contribute heavily on special teams.
There's no natural replacement for McCourty here in the event of an injury, which is likely the reason why so many cornerbacks got reps at safety this preseason.
Look for a committee to play next to McCourty on early downs, with Arrington, Ryan or Dennard coming on in sub-package personnel.
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Punter: Ryan Allen
Long Snapper: Rob Ninkovich (?)
Special Teamer: Matthew Slater
Kick Returner: Slater/Shane Vereen/James White
Punt Returner: Julian Edelman
Danny Aiken was the surprise cut here, and the Patriots are currently without a long snapper as a consequence.
Ninkovich is the only player on the roster with previous long-snapping experience, but the Pats figure to snap up someone imminently—perhaps Aiken or Charley Hughlett, whom they employed in minicamp.
Kick returner is also a question, as the releases of Josh Boyce and Roy Finch leave the role wide open. Slater has the most experience with 30 career kick returners, though he has just eight over the past four seasons. WEEI.com's Christopher Price opined that the duties would be split between Slater, Vereen and White, though only White recorded a return this preseason.
Still, the kicking game remains strong, while Edelman's slippery agility and vision make him one of the league's most dangerous punt returners.
New England has traditionally fielded one of the league's most fundamentally sound units—Football Outsiders had the unit second overall in DVOA—and that dependability should carry over into 2014.
Dan Connolly, G
With Logan Mankins' release, the previously on-the-bubble Connolly looks like a lock for the starting lineup—at least at the beginning of the year. New England's heavy draft investment in the offensive line this year could eventually expedite Connolly's departure, but for now, his veteran reliability is necessary.
After struggling in pass protection last season, Connolly fared better in the preseason, grading out at a roughly league-average plus-2.2 overall (subscription required).
The Patriots' starting interior line remains a fluid situation, but Connolly surprisingly looks like the stablest asset of the unit.
Logan Ryan, CB/S
After a promising rookie season in which he demonstrated ball-hawking instincts, Ryan has struggled the entire preseason. His minus-3.9 overall grade during the exhibition slate ranked 187th out of 202 (subscription required) qualified cornerbacks.
Seeing him playing deep into the fourth game against the New York Giants was an ominous referendum on his place on the depth chart.
However, Ryan has the talent to rise from a bit role, most likely as either a slot corner or deep-half safety. The latter role may not be utilized much, as the Patriots seem unlikely to play much Cover 2 or Cover 4 when they possess excellent press coverage corners on the outside.
Still, it would be surprising if Ryan did not emerge as an important sub-package presence.
Tim Wright, TE
New England's newest tight end may not make fans forget about Mankins, but he is a potentially valuable weapon. Even if the days of wreaking havoc out of 12 personnel are likely gone, the 6'4" Wright is an imposing, athletically gifted target who can threaten the seams and emerge as a red-zone threat.
The latter is particularly important, as the Patriots struggled in that area without Gronkowski last season.
Wright is in a tough position after arriving so late in the offseason program, but his physical tools make him a moveable chess piece that affords more play-calling and game-planning versatility.
Dominique Easley, DT/DE
It seems strange to call a first-rounder an X-factor, but Easley's role is that of an interior pass-rushing specialist.
That Belichick was willing to invest so highly in a role-specific player indicates the defense's shift toward heavy sub-package usage, as he has passed on prospects like Clay Matthews in the past because of their purported base-defense limitations.
It is fair to expect a learning curve from a rookie returning from an ACL injury, though, so Easley's rookie season may mirror that of Jamie Collins in 2013.
Even if Easley's impact is limited early, the Pats would gladly accept a pass-rushing infusion late in the year against top-notch offenses in the postseason.
Week 9 vs. Denver Broncos
No surprise here. At least on paper, Denver and New England remain the class of the AFC headed into the season. There is an excellent chance that this game determines home-field advantage in the conference, so hosting the game at Gillette Stadium is an important plus for the Patriots.
The Broncos will provide the ultimate litmus test for the pass rush, as Peyton Manning's impeccable pocket awareness and quick release make him among the most difficult quarterbacks to pressure—even with his limited mobility.
New England's helplessly ineffectual rush was among the main reasons for the AFC Championship Game loss last year, and someone like Easley or Buchanan could loom as an important X-factor.
Week 11 @ Indianapolis Colts
Even though the Patriots are usually excellent after bye weeks, this is a tough spot in spite of the extra week. Lucas Oil Stadium is not the same cozy hornet's nest as the RCA Dome was, but the Pats have fared poorly in the Hoosier state (three losses in past four games, excluding Super Bowl XLVI loss).
The Patriots have fared well in two meetings against Andrew Luck, in part because of Luck's need to force throws to compensate for a leaky defense.
New England should still put up points against a meager Indy defense this season, but Luck's continued maturation makes this an extremely difficult road contest.
Week 13 @ Green Bay Packers
Inter-conference matchups are the least important games in terms of seeding and tiebreakers, but playing at Lambeau Field should provide a telling barometer of where the Patriots stand headed into the stretch run.
Green Bay is built similarly to New England, in that both are deep, well-rounded teams with a nice blend of steady veteran cornerstones and promising young talent (especially on defense).
Aaron Rodgers is unlike any quarterback the Patriots will face, and his first career start against the Pats should provide plenty of headaches for the defensive coaching staff.
Week 1 @ Miami Dolphins
The Patriots have not lost their opening game since 2003, but the Dolphins should at least threaten that 10-season unbeaten streak.
Miami's pass rush has given the Patriots offense problems in the past, while the running back tandem of Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller will test New England's gap containment discipline in Bill Lazor's spread scheme.
If there's a clear advantage for the Patriots, it's that the Dolphins' offensive line remains in flux after last season's debacle. The right side looks particularly weak, with Samson Satele, Shelley Smith and rookie Ja'Wuan James as the likely starters.
Rob Ninkovich will need to post a big game to prevent Ryan Tannehill from stepping into the deep sideline throws he excels at.
Week 5 vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Scoff if you like at Andy Dalton and his new contract, but the Bengals remain an extremely well-rounded team—even if their quarterback's inconsistencies limit their long-term ceiling.
Cincinnati flummoxed the Patriots last October in an ugly 13-6 victory, dominating an undermanned New England offense at the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots should be healthier on offense, and Revis' presence neutralizes Cincy's greatest weapon in A.J. Green. However, Dalton still has the ability to control the middle of the field with Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard and Mohamed Sanu.
The Bengals remain loaded with defensive playmakers that should provide a stiff test for Brady and the offense.
Week 14 @ San Diego Chargers
This is the culmination of the Patriots' toughest stretch of the season. After four consecutive games against Denver, Indianapolis, Detroit and Green Bay, a trip out west provides no rest for what will surely be a weary Patriots squad.
Philip Rivers should once again lead one of the league's most efficient offenses, one whose reliance on quick, high-percentage, in-breaking routes should test the patience of the Pats defense.
The Patriots should put up points on the Chargers, but fatigue and attrition will require an extremely mentally tough effort to win.
Result: Super Bowl loss
A relatively soft first half should bolster the Patriots to their fifth consecutive first-round bye. With reasonable health, it would be a shock to see New England finish with anything less than 11 wins, especially considering the mediocre stasis that characterizes the rest of the AFC East.
A third Super Bowl loss in the Brady-Belichick era—and what would be the fifth in franchise history—would surely be tough to stomach, but that raw result isn't what people should focus on.
The deeper NFC seems likelier to produce a dominant team, whereas it is not difficult to imagine the Patriots or Broncos cruising through a softer conference.
Rather, this is an indication that the Pats have constructed a roster talented and versatile enough to ably match up against any type of team. Injuries will eventually create weaknesses, but it might take a particularly crippling run to truly create a hole that the depth cannot overcome.
Championships are often defined by timely breaks, and the Pats have been slightly unfortunate not to receive more over the past decade—in fairness, they received plenty from 2001-04.
Another year without a Lombardi Trophy would be painful for fans to stomach, but the Foxboro faithful should at least appreciate how the Patriots unfailingly continue to extend their championship window.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).