Five Predictions for the Patriots 2011 Regular Season
5. Taylor Price Will Be a Key Component to the Offense
When Taylor Price was drated in the third round, one of the key questions tagged on him was how would he handle the complexity of the Patriots offense. Price came from a collegiate offense that was very primitive and faced a monolithic task of grasping the Patriots complex offense as a rookie. The fact that he couldn't participate in mini-camps due to Ohio's graduation schedule also proved to derail Price's transition.
During the first few weeks of the 2010 training camp, reporters commented on how crisp Price's route running was, as well as his seemingly terrific hands. However, after the first weeks and as the playbook incrementally started being incorporated into practice, reports had Price falling being. His play started regressing. Couple in the fact that Price didn't provide much special teams contribution and the fact that Brandon Tate provided the Patriots with a good kick returner, and it'll come to no one's surprise that Price was inactive for 15 games.
A "redshirt" year seems to have benefited Price however. Reports from the Patriots 2011 training is that Price is consistently playing well, showing good hands and route running. He's also used his elite speed to haul in deep catches from the quarterbacks as well. All reports coming out of training camp is that Price is consistently playing well, despite not participating in any minicamps thus far in his professional career.
While Price won't be taking away any playing time from the Patriots' top three receivers (Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Chad Ochocinco) I believe he'll provide the Patriots with some key plays this season.
One has to understand that Deion Branch is very injury prone and expecting him to be healthy a full season is very unrealistic. In the event that Branch misses time (or Chad Ochocinco), I believe Price will be the most viable option to replace him. Some would argue for Brandon Tate, but in terms of skills (hands, route running, and speed) Tate hasn't shown much in his full season as the Patriots third receiver. Tate consistently dropped passes (or failed to catch throws) on very crucial plays last season. And while many consider Tate a deep threat, I simply don't see any substantial evidence for the claim. In my opinion Tate's speed is very overrated seeing as he wasn't able to run an official, electronically timed 40 yard dash at the NFL combine. Aside from kick returns, Tate rarely shows any elite speed, especially on deep passes, in the football field.
Unlike Tate, Price ran a very fast 40 yard dash in the NFL Combine, among the best times for a wide receiver in his draft (4.41). Considering that speed, Price is easily the Patriots best option as a deep threat, whilst considering the age of Chad Ochocinco, who was never really known for being a deep threat.
However, Price will have to fight really hard however, to receive significant playing time, considering Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski prowess as pass catchers
4. Rob Gronkowski Will Develop into a Top 5 TE in the NFL
Rob Gronkowski had one of the most dynamic rookie seasons by a TE in NFL history. Gronkowski caught 42 catches for 546 yards (averaging 13 yards a reception) along with an extraordinary 10 TDs as a rookie. The only other TE in NFL history to catch 500+ yards and 10+ touchdowns in a season was Mike Ditka, who had the best rookie season by a TE in NFL history (some even consider Ditka to be the best TE in NFL history). To put Gronkowski's season in contemporary context, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, all didn't produce overall their rookie season what Gronkowski was able to accomplish in 2010.
But what makes Gronkowski so special, is how complete of a TE he truly is. I would say from watching him play that among the top pass receiving TE in the NFL there is no better blocker than Gronkowski.
Before the 2010 draft Gronkowski was often compared to Jason Witten. Hearing these comparision by NFL analysts and scouts made me very exicited seeing as how Witten is my favorite TE in the National Football League. The comparisions were mainly a result of how complete both players are. Both have extremely good hands, solid route running (in Witten's case excellent route running), and both are tremendous blockers.
Despite Gronkowski's historic rookie season, it seems like the second year TE is hungrier for more. Reports from training camp by the Patriots Football Weekly writers have lauded Gronkowski's utter dominance in training camp thus far. Here are some of the quotes:
"TE Rob Gronkowski, once again, was unguardable running pass routes against linebacker coverage. He ran great routes, got open with nice juke moves, and caught everything thrown his way, even with ‘backers sometimes draped all over him."
"Hoyer found Rob Gronkowski for a score, badly beating Sergio Brown for one of the tight end’s many scores on the night. Gronkowski was one of the biggest stars of the practice, displaying his incredible hands throughout the various red zone segments. In one red zone drill he almost toyed with Patrick Chung before beating him for the touchdown. At this very early point he looks ready to pick off where he left off as a rookie"
If Gronkowski continues to impress has he has the only obstacle that'll stop him from becoming the best TE in the NFL is the number of passes that comes his way.
3. Devin McCourty Will Establish Himself as a Top 5 CB in the NFL
The Patriots 2010 draft seems to be developing into perhaps the best draft the franchise has ever conducted and one of the major reasons is the development of Devin McCourty. Aside od Mike Haynes no CB in the franchise's history could claim to have had a better season.
McCourty's play in the 2010 seasons was absolutely stunning: 82 tackles (69 solo, 13 ast), 17 passes defensed, 2 FF, 1 Sack, 7 INTs. McCourty's 84% solo tackle rate is phenomenal, and speaks greatly to McCourty's tackling technique and ability to bring players down in open space (something Belichick has praised him for).
McCourty's greatest skill however, doesn't show up on the stat sheet: Throughout my Patriots fanhood I've never seen a Patriots CB that's better than McCourty at defended deep passes down the field. From about mid-season, it seemed that every deep pass thrown McCourty's way was either intercepted or broken up by McCourtry.
McCourty's ability to stay on the field has also been very good. I believe the only plays McCourty missed in his rookie season were a couple of plays after slightly getting hurt defending a deep pass down the sideline against the Vikings.
Like the last two players in this slideshow McCourty's play during training camp has also been very good. Reports have it that he is constantly playing tight coverage and has intercepted both Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Mallet on occasion.
Out of every player on the Patriots roster, McCourty tops the list of players I'm excited to see play next season.
2. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez Will Combine for 20 Touchdowns
Along with Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez' rookie season was also among the 10 best rookie seasons by a TE in NFL History.
The duo combined for 87 receptions, 1,109 Yards, and 16 touchdowns. Keep in mind that Hernandez missed the last two games of the season after injuring his hip in touchdown celebration against the Packers.
Reports out of Patriots' training camp was that Hernandez started off to a slow start, not playing terribly but not doing much to impress either. However, after Gronkowski left the field a couple of days ago due to what seemed like heat related symptoms, Hernandez took center stage and performed really well.
From Andy Hart, Patriots Football Weekly:
"With Gronkowski out of action, Aaron Hernandez got a ton of catches to catch the ball and took full advantage. Brady seemed to go to his second-year tight end on seemingly every other throw and with good success. The new No. 81 caught everything, a number of which went for touchdowns. After a slow start to camp, Hernandez seems to be picking up the pace of late."
Out of the two TE, Hernandez' ability is more conducive to gaining more yards, and Gronkowski to produce more touchdowns. Theoretically Hernandez should be targeted more often. But the emergence of Taylor Price might take away opportunities for Hernandez not only to be targeted but to be on the field as well. If Price continues his stellar play in training camp he'll receive more reps in spread packages that would have otherwise belonged to Hernandez.
The addition of Chad Ochocinco to the offense may be both a benefit and a obstacle for Gronkowski and Hernandez to put up big stats. Ochocinco should get 100+ passes thrown his way this season, and when you consider that both Welker and Branch should also receive 100+ targets their direction the amount of passes thrown to both Gronkowski and Hernandez should be in the range of 180 targets.
On the flip side Ochocinco's presence will take away some of the attention from "G-Force and H-Bomb." Whilst, teams will do everything in their power to stop Gronkowski from scoring in the red-zone, doing so will open up opportunities for both Ochocinco and Branch to score touchdowns. It's been well established by analyst that teams have consistently doubled teamed Welker in the red-zone since '07 so it's really unrealistic to think that they'll all of a sudden stop doing so.
If teams focus too much on Gronkowski and Hernandez in the red-zone, at some point they'll realize that the stragedy simply isn't effective, since that would call for Ochocinco to constantly be single covered inside the red-zone. A change of philosophy would be to either leave Gronk and Hernandez single covered or risk everything by blitzing Tom Brady.
In end, despite the schemes that will be presented I see the dynamic duo improving on last season's spectacular performance and putting up 20 combined touchdowns, which might be record for two TEs on one team.
1.Tom Brady's 2011 Season Will Either Be Average or Historic
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Tom Brady's past three full regular season performances saw him produce two of the greatest seasons by a QB in NFL history.
Here are his stats in his last three full regular seasons:
1093 Comp/1635 ATT (66.85), 13104 YDS (8 Y.AVG), 114 TD, 25 INT, 108 PR
While his 2009 season was anywhere from spectacular, the two outliers are tremendous, among the two best seasons by a QB all-time.
With the 2011 season underway, Brady seems to be poised to put up another great season. With the tremendous depth the Patriots have in almost every position on offense, they seemed to be set up well for another great regular season run.
Everything the Patriots could control seems to be going well, the teams greatest obstacle however, is something they can't control: The Patriots have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL next season.
Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders mentioned after the 2009 season that the Patriots might have faced the toughest pass defense schedule in the past 15 NFL seasons. Well, the 2011 Patriots schedule may challenge that feat.
The Patriots play six teams that were rank top 10 in the league in terms of passing yards allowed per game last year, including the top 3. They Patriots also play the Eagles, who acquired two of the top CBs in the via. free agency and trade. The Patriots play nine of the top 16 teams in passing yards allowed. The Patriots play four of the of the top 10 teams in points allowed last season.
Mind you, that I am extrapolating from last season's statistics, nevertheless it seems that in terms of defense the Patriots face some very tough pass defenses next season.
If Brady stays healthy, he has a great chance of producing another historic season by an NFL quarterback.