Predicting New England Patriots Starting Lineup After 1st Wave of Free Agency
Over the years, any changes to the New England Patriots roster have been like changing the labeling on your favorite beverage.
If the Patriots were a beverage, their labels would read: "New look, same winning flavor."
This year, with a few big changes to their championship formula of yesteryear, that slogan may be tested more than ever. Gone are Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, two key components of the secondary; gone is Vince Wilfork, a legacy defensive lineman who may have been the living, breathing definition of "heart and soul" to the Patriots.
But the Patriots forge forward with a new look, hoping to recapture anything resembling the winning flavor that brought them their fourth Super Bowl trophy.
Here's a look at the starting lineup that will be tasked with that seemingly impossible achievement.
QB: Tom Brady
I'd write "duh" and be done with it, but for any of the Jimmy Garoppolo enthusiasts still remaining from Week 4 of the 2014 season, here's the breakdown.
Tom Brady finished the 2014 season with higher numbers in nearly every category except pass completions, pass attempts and passing yards. His efficiency numbers (completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating) were all higher, as were his touchdowns, and his interceptions were fewer.
He's put it together in the regular season before while coming up short in the postseason, but his triumphant performance in the Super Bowl served as a strong middle finger in the face of his doubters. Four touchdowns and 74 percent completions against the best pass defense in the league for three years running—that's no small feat.
For the past 10 years, we've seen some of Brady's best football in attack mode as he's been seeking that elusive fourth Super Bowl ring. In 2015, we'll get to see what he does when he's in defense mode.
HB: LeGarrette Blount
With big changes on the horizon at running back, the Patriots made a series of under-the-radar moves that have added up to a depth chart that is ready to move on from the old and on to the new.
Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden were all set to hit the open market in 2015, but in the past 12 months, the Patriots have drafted James White, picked up Baltimore Ravens castoff Jonas Gray, snatched Tyler Gaffney off waivers (injured) from the Carolina Panthers, re-signed LeGarrette Blount and extended Bolden.
There are some holes in the stable, but the Patriots are now loaded with enough players to field a competent backfield. They may need to add a more talented scatback to replace Vereen, but they have plenty of options in terms of between-the-tackles backs.
TE: Rob Gronkowski
Picture this: two tight ends, both standing at least 6'6" and weighing at least 260 pounds, both of whom can block in the running game and can use their size to make catches in the passing game.
This picture has Bill Belichick wiping the drool off his chin.
Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler may not be on the field together all the time, but when they are, they will provide some matchup problems for opposing defenses that are trying to decipher whether the Patriots are preparing to run or pass. Getting a read on their plan may prove as difficult as reading Shakespeare in the dark at 2:00 a.m. with no sleep.
Covering them both may prove equally difficult. Gronkowski is a much more polished pass-catcher than Chandler, but the former Buffalo Bills starting tight end is no slouch either; he has averaged 45 receptions for 528 yards and four touchdowns in the past four seasons.
For his size and skill set, Chandler will make an excellent backup to Gronkowski if nothing else.
WR: Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola
Thinking about the Patriots' journey at wide receiver over the years is an exercise in mental gymnastics. Even just going back to 2012, when it was Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd doing a majority of the damage in the passing game, the Patriots endured a lot of change between 2012 and 2013 in losing both players.
Moving on to Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins presented some growing pains for the offense, but after a 2013 offseason with massive changes, the 2014 offseason brought only one addition: Brandon LaFell. Who knew, though, that they would continue to transform at receiver and would look even more different headed into the 2015 season.
The Patriots have pieced together a solid trio of wide receivers—especially if Amendola continues on his upward trajectory from the end of the 2014 season and the playoffs (23 receptions for 224 yards and three touchdowns in the final five games of the season).
If the Patriots can find one more big-bodied receiver like LaFell—perhaps a third-year leap from a fully recovered Dobson—their offense could continue to build off its positive momentum from the 2014 season.
OL: Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell, Sebastian Vollmer
The Patriots offensive line spent the early part of the 2014 season in flux, and although things finally settled down, there might be more shake-ups to come.
The only constant in the NFL is change.
Dan Connolly knows all about that; he has started at least 10 games in each of the past five seasons, playing anywhere from left guard to center to right guard. He hit the open market last week, and he is still available to sign a week later, but he's drawn interest from multiple teams at multiple positions, according to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport.
If Connolly ends up suiting up elsewhere in 2015, either Jordan Devey or Marcus Cannon could enter the lineup—unless, of course, the Patriots opt to draft a guard in April.
Either way, with Nate Solder, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer all in place for another year, the Patriots should still field a solid front line.
DL: Chandler Jones, Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley, Rob Ninkovich
Despite the tears shed in New England, the post-Vince Wilfork era had to begin at some point. The Patriots chose for it to begin in 2015, releasing the 11-year veteran and moving on to a young blooded defensive interior that consists of Sealver Siliga and Dominique Easley.
Siliga is the player who most closely compares to Wilfork, with a 6'2", 325-pound frame that allows him to plug multiple gaps, hold up his man at the line of scrimmage and even push him into the backfield a bit. He could play anywhere on the line in a 3-4 front or inside in a 4-3. Siliga had a thumb injury in 2014 but came back and finished the season strong as a starter throughout the playoffs and in the Super Bowl.
Easley, the Patriots' 2014 first-round pick, is more of a gap-penetrating defensive tackle who relies on quickness to make plays in the backfield rather than strength to help make plays at the line of scrimmage. Easley has dealt with injury problems throughout his career and finished the 2014 season on injured reserve with a torn ACL.
Jones and Ninkovich are mainstays up front, playing end in the 4-3 and on-the-line outside linebacker in the 3-4. Both have been bearing the load of the Patriots' pass rush for the past two seasons (Ninkovich has played 2,478 snaps in the past two seasons, Jones has played 2,037, according to ProFootballFocus.com), but now with versatile edge defender Jabaal Sheard in the fold, the Patriots could finally afford some rest for their two veterans.
LB: Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins
For two years straight, the Patriots have lost Jerod Mayo to an injury in Week 6. And for two straight years, their young linebackers have answered the bell. In 2013, it was a rocky road before linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins hit smooth sailing, but in 2014, nary an eye was batted when the two entered the season as top dogs, or when they each had to assume even bigger roles with Mayo once again gone.
And now, with Mayo returning from injury for the second time, the Patriots appear locked and loaded at linebacker.
Mayo, Hightower and Collins each has a role in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 front, and as mentioned earlier, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich sometimes play linebacker in the 3-4. The only missing piece was a rotational pass-rusher who can also fill in on the edge in either front, and with Jabaal Sheard, the Patriots have their man.
CB: Malcolm Butler, Alfonzo Dennard
What a wild ride for the Patriots secondary. From a muddied mess in 2011, to a unit in transition in 2012, to a unit with consistency (for the first time in a while at that point) in 2013, to a new but even better unit in 2014, and now back to the start in 2015.
From Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to Malcolm Butler and Alfonzo Dennard.
Most folks are expecting a step back for the Patriots secondary in 2015, and rightfully so, with so much talent on its way out. The Patriots cannot reasonably expect to run a similar scheme to the one they ran in 2014; how could they? With a group of cornerbacks that all stand below 6'0" tall, the Patriots are likely to run far more zone looks than man-to-man.
The Patriots pass defense could still be formidable, but it will most likely fall on the shoulders of the pass-rushers and the front seven to keep quarterbacks out of rhythm, as opposed to last year, when they could rely on tight man-to-man coverage downfield for extended stretches to cause fits for opposing passers.
S: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung
Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are back at it once again, as key parts of the secondary in a unit that is very much in flux in 2015.
McCourty nearly did not make his way back to New England—if you can feel the fire burning over Revis, imagine how hot those flames would feel if McCourty had also taken the money and run. Chung, on the other hand, remains the primary first- and second-down safety with Duron Harmon filling in on third downs.
The Pats will count on the two veterans, McCourty and Chung, to help keep things together, and their awareness in zone coverage and ability to recognize plays and route combinations will be imperative as they are relied on more heavily to make plays.
ST: Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen
Consistency is not always a good thing. For the special teams unit, it's the necessary thing.
The kickers have always been a topic of discussion in New England, and the Patriots didn't want to end up with their foot in their mouth by letting Stephen Gostkowski get away.
The Patriots put the franchise tag on Gostkowski, meaning he will be paid $4.54 million in 2015 and could once again hit the open market in 2016. That being said, he's also coming off one of the best seasons of his career, with a 94.6 percent conversion rate on his field-goal attempts. In the past two seasons, he has hit 93.6 percent of his tries and led the league in successful field goals each year (38 in 2013, 35 in 2014).
Ryan Allen rocked out as a rookie in 2013, with 29 of his 76 punts pinning the opponent inside the 20-yard line. He also averaged 45.9 yards per punt and a net average of 39.9 yards per punt, both in the top half of the league that year. He only had 66 punts in 2014, but 25 of them went inside the opponent's 20, and he averaged 46.4 yards per punt and 39.9 yards net on average.
With holdovers at both kicker and punter, the Patriots are hoping that they will continue to put their best foot forward on special teams.
Unless otherwise noted, all advanced stats provided by ProFootballFocus.com.