As perennial contenders, the New England Patriots are used to seeing players flock to Foxborough for the opportunity to compete for Super Bowls. But an offseason centered around retention has gone worse than many projected, with New England's top two corners, longest-tenured defensive captain and most versatile running back all leaving for greener (i.e. more lucrative) pastures.
Moreover, the Pats have missed out on several of their top free-agent targets, with the likes of Reggie Bush, Percy Harvin and Stevie Johnson all spurning them at the altar.
The Patriots may have been the youngest Super Bowl champions in NFL history this February, but because of the losses suffered thus far this offseason, much of that young talent will need to grow up quickly if they are to put forth a legitimate title defense.
At the same time, it's probably unfair to overreact and assume that the Patriots are in a state of catastrophe. Bill Belichick is as adept a cultivator of talent as any coach in the league. For every Richard Seymour or Randy Moss who has departed unceremoniously, a Jamie Collins or Julian Edelman has taken a big leap forward and turned into a critical cog.
So which players are most likely to bear these responsibilities in 2015?
We won't get definitive clues to that question until training camp and preseason, but at this point in the roster's construction phase, these players look like top candidates to see big leaps in playing time next fall.
It feels as though Malcolm Butler's name has been legally changed to "Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler," and indeed, his championship-winning interception will always be one of the great NFL Cinderella tales. But with the defections of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, there's a real possibility that Butler will need to take the huge leap from nice story to a bona fide NFL-quality starter.
From New England's first preseason game last year against Washington, Butler looked like a promising fit in New England's press-man coverage scheme. The 2014 secondary was deep and remained relatively healthy, however, leaving Butler to the junk-time scraps. Excluding the preseason-like Week 17 contest, Butler played meaningful snaps in four games: Week 1 at Miami, Week 9 vs. Denver, Week 15 vs. Miami and the Super Bowl.
In a larger role, it's fair to question what kind of fit he'll be if the Patriots switch to more zone-heavy coverages, or at least off-man alignments. The latter is a likely development; Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan don't possess the size to jam big perimeter receivers, while recent free-agent signings Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain don't have the ball-tracking skills to play press.
Off-coverage will require Butler to read route releases and play with better eye discipline than he did as a rookie. Based on the four games I reviewed on film, quarterbacks consistently targeted Butler on sideline-comeback routes. These are difficult throws, but because Butler generally kept his eyes plastered to the receiver, he was unable to close the small throwing window and break up completions on multiple occasions:
This is a problem almost every rookie corner deals with, and one certainly wouldn't expect an undrafted corner to play with impeccable technique. Butler also had issues with subtle double-moves from receivers last year, another byproduct of reacting to receiver movements rather than reading their stems and anticipating releases.
In Week 15, ex-Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace blew the top off for a 50-yard bomb on the game's first play from scrimmage. In the screenshot progressions below, Butler initially gave Wallace way too clean a release off the line and allowed him to get space outside.
However, he compounded the problem by chopping his steps when Wallace gave a quick inside head fake, allowing the receiver to "stack" on top. Against a burner like Wallace, this type of sequence is an absolute death knell:
Without shutdown boundary corners, the Pats figure to play lots of the hybrid "pattern match" coverages that have become en vogue recently. To simplify, those coverages are zone-based in principle but often ask defensive backs to pick up a particular concept (ex: vertical outside breaker, inside seam, etc.) rather than a predetermined man.
Thus, the ability to read releases is indispensable. Butler will likely need time to develop that skill—increased reps in 2015 will help—but for now, it's encouraging that he's displayed the recovery ability to bail himself out of poor situations.
For instance, on this particular Week 1 play, he was picked twice—first by a slant, then by his own man. Nevertheless, he came back on this long cross-field drag route to break up the pass and force an incompletion:
There was also this 3rd quarter 3rd-and-3 during the Super Bowl, an underrated turning point in the game when considering that the Pats were down 10 at the time.
As often happened, Butler's man out-leveraged him with the outside release off the line. However, Butler recovered to plaster Jermaine Kearse, and though a perfect throw from Russell Wilson nearly beat him, Butler arguably forced this drop by increasing the degree of difficulty:
As you can see, there are plenty of raw elements to Butler's game; last season, opposing quarterbacks compiled a healthy 114.3 quarterback rating when targeting him, per Pro Football Focus. But there's also very real natural talent and a fearless edge to Butler's game that makes him an intriguing prospect worthy of optimism.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see him lose playing time to the veteran acquisitions early in the year, but with the best ball skills of any corner on the roster, expect Butler to work his way into the lineup eventually.
With the Vince Wilfork era over, many are fretting over the interior strength of New England's defense.
Sealver Siliga is a logical nose tackle successor, and while the four-year vet has shown promise as a two-gapping run-stuffer, he's probably limited exclusively to early downs.
The three-down bedrock that anchored New England's line over the past decade is gone, and it's likely that the Pats won't be able to replace him for 2015. However, there's one player who could at least replicate Wilfork's versatility to play all along the line.
Alan Branch started 44 of the 47 games he was active between 2011-13, playing for a pair of impressive lines in Seattle and Buffalo. Though Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams had overtaken him as Bills starters in 2014, there was nothing to indicate that Branch would not be one of the league's best rotational linemen.
But Branch had an offseason from hell last summer, landing in hot water with Doug Marrone after skipping voluntary workouts and failing his conditioning test. Following a DUI arrest, the Bills promptly cut Branch, who remained out of work until the Patriots swooped in on Oct. 29.
Branch was less of a bit player than some might have perceived, playing 31.7 percent of the defensive snaps from Week 9 on. In New England's 3-4 base package, Branch and Wilfork often lined up as 5-techniques (head up over tackle).
Here's an example of Branch's most common alignment from 2014:
The Jets run a traditional one-back Power-O on this play, a difficult play for D-linemen because of how many bodies are flowing downhill and initiating contact from favorable angles. Here, Branch did a good job of getting his hands into the guard's chest and shedding the block.
Considering that the pulling guard had linebacker Dont'a Hightower sealed off at the second level, this probably would have gone for a nice gain had Branch not made the play:
Branch only graded out at minus-1.1 against the run last year, so it's not as if he was consistent in this phase. There's evidence of Branch playing heavy snaps against the run at a high level; he graded out at plus-4.8 in 2013 and a whopping plus-11.9 in 2011, third-best in the league that year.
With the Patriots lacking girth behind he and Siliga, Branch must recapture that form in 2015.
At the very least, New England should ask him to return to his two-gapping roots. At 6'6" and 325 pounds, Branch certainly doesn't lack the size to provide an interior anchor.
This play from the Super Bowl is a textbook example of what the Patriots will want to see in 2014. Branch actually got washed out of the play, but his ability to eat up two blockers freed three defenders to attack Seattle's two-man read-option. That's a numbers advantage a defense will win every time:
Many aren't going to be overly enthusiastic at the idea of Branch playing a larger role. Mocking a defensive tackle to New England in the first round has been a common trend, and given the draft class' depth at the position, it's a sound idea to rebuild the pipeline at that position.
But the Patriots gave Branch a deal befitting someone who plays an important rotational role, and the second-year option suggests that they see the 30-year-old as someone who could be a promising part of their short-term future.
Branch won't be the central part of the line like Wilfork once was, and in sub-packages, first-rounder Dominique Easley will get a larger chance to shine. At the same time, though, Branch feels like the kind of player whose contract looks like a steal when he's playing heavy snaps in November.
Based on the importance of the passing back in the Patriots offense, New England's newest offensive acquisition could see a big uptick from his role in the Big Easy.
Travaris Cadet has had just 56 touches over three seasons, but in that time, he's flashed potential that could make him one of the league's more versatile and explosive receiving backs if he hits his ceiling.
The 6'1", 210-pound Cadet is built quite similarly to the departed Shane Vereen (5'10", 210 pounds) but is much rawer than Vereen was coming out of Cal. At Appalachian State, Cadet was a Kordell Stewart type of "slash" weapon, seeing time as a quarterback, running back, receiver and returner.
That's probably detrimental in today's era of specialization, but some of that cross-training is evident in Cadet's route running and open-field ability.
Cadet is a wild card in the sense that he aligns in a variety of spots -- wide in empty formations, stacked with other receivers in more compact formations (8:29, second quarter vs. Lions, 25-yard reception up seam), in the slot, and also in the backfield where he often motioned out before the snap. He was not involved in many traditional running plays. On a wheel route against the Cowboys (31-yard catch), he aligned in the left slot and the Saints capitalized when the safety took a poor angle.
The play against Dallas that Reiss mentions also highlights Cadet's sudden acceleration, the trait that stood out most on film. The play is a "switch" concept in which he crisscrosses routes with the outside receiver. Initially taking a flat angle outside, Cadet appeared to catch safety J.J. Wilcox off guard when he turned on the jets, zooming by for a big gain:
Indeed, most of Cadet's routes were quick-breakers in space designed to allow him to break free from slower linebackers. He was particularly effective when New Orleans sent him in motion, a wrinkle the Patriots often employed with Vereen as well. Receiving backs are typically limited in their route trees, but Cadet ran some fun receiver-like concepts that exposed his defender.
Check out this whip route against Tampa's Lavonte David, probably the third-to-fifth-best coverage linebacker in the league. Cadet's initial in-break caused David to concede his flat-foot read and turn his hips inside. From there, Cadet broke back outside lightning-quick, leaving David in the dust and earning an easy walk-in touchdown:
To be clear, these are just flashes, as Cadet played a mere 19.2 percent of the Saints' offensive snaps in 2014. Considering that backfield mates Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson all missed large chunks of the season with injuries, it's slightly disconcerting that Cadet never seized a larger role.
The Saints also didn't tender him an offer as a restricted free agent, suggesting that New Orleans didn't see the cost-controlled back as a meaningful asset in their reconstruction.
But that certainly doesn't preclude him from developing into a back worthy of an important situational role. On a per-snap basis, Cadet was extremely effective last season, ranking eighth among all backs in yards per route run and 18th among running backs in receiving DVOA, Football Outsiders' measure of success rate.
Most likely, Cadet feels like the type of back who could split passing-down responsibilities with James White as the former fourth-rounder acclimates himself into the lineup. It's unrealistic to expect White to play a heavy role after redshirting his rookie season, so expect to see a split similar to when Vereen and Danny Woodhead divvied snaps in 2012.
White may be the prospect New England is more familiar with, but Cadet appears more likely to contribute in 2015.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats via Pro Football Focus.