Thinking about OTAs and training-camp battles isn't nearly as juicy as talking about air pressure, or so the NFL would have you believe. While the austere consequences of Deflategate are largely out of the New England Patriots' control, Bill Belichick and Co. must now figure out how to best weather the Jimmy Garoppolo era in Foxborough, however brief that ends up being.
Garoppolo's own talent and grasp of the playbook will determine his success, but New England can also help him schematically, as it did by installing moving pockets and simplified reads in his Week 17 finale last year. Apart from play-calling, though, personnel groupings could also force the defense into an uncomfortable situation before the snap, thereby giving Garoppolo the edge he'll need.
Enter Scott Chandler and the potential return of two-tight end sets. The Patriots' usage of "12" personnel (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB) has declined the past two seasons for obvious reasons, but in inking Chandler away from the division-rival Buffalo Bills this offseason, perhaps the package that was so en vogue from 2010-12 makes its reappearance.
Belichick won't roll out two tight ends just for the sake of it, but there's reason to believe that Chandler truly represents New Engalnd's best key to offensive diversity. Continuing the X-factor series that started with Logan Ryan and Dominique Easley, let's dissect why Chandler might suddenly become a vital cog in the Patriots' season following recent developments.
A Patriot Killer
It's no secret that Bill Belichick has made a habit of seeking out veterans who have performed well against the Patriots, most notably Wes Welker. Part of that stems from scouting bias—those games are the closest look an organization gets at an opposing player, after all—but with Chandler, his per-game averages clearly illustrate that he's simply been a different player against New England:
|Chandler Career Splits, NE vs. Everyone Else|
|vs. NE (9 games)||4.7||3.1||42.7||13.7||0.4|
|vs. Others (66 games)||3.5||2.3||26.3||11.3||0.2|
There's a big difference in those splits, of course. Prorated to a 16-game season, his averages against the Patriots would sum out to a 50/683/6 stat line, roughly similar to what the likes of Jason Witten and Charles Clay posted in 2014. Conversely, the larger sample size averages out to a 37/421/3 line over 16 games.
The Patriots wisely did not overpay for the smaller sample size, a common free-agency sin among the league's less stable organizations. Chandler's modest two-year, $5.3 million contract makes him the 31st-highest paid tight end in the league based on annual average, per Spotrac. New England will always have its salary books skewed toward the tight end position so long as Rob Gronkowski remains dominant and under contract, but Chandler enables them to improve the position at a cost-efficient price tag.
Reviewing the game tape, Chandler looks like a fundamentally sound and schematically versatile player, descriptions that should be music to Belichick's ears. I rewatched all of Chandler's games against the Patriots dating back to 2012 and found a couple of noticeable traits. Most significantly, Chandler possesses a keen understanding of body positioning, using his 6'7", 260-pound frame well to box out linebackers and safeties in coverage:
This is critical, as Chandler isn't exactly the speediest tight end. Unlike Tim Wright, for instance, Chandler doesn't have the ability to create a ton of separation. According to NFL Draft Scout, Chandler posted a 4.87 40-yard dash time at his pro day back in 2007, a torpid mark that has probably gotten slower after 75 games in the league.
Thus, Chandler has learned to work around his natural physical limitations to carve out a role as a receiving threat. I was encouraged that he consistently demonstrated soft hands and an ability to high-point the ball. Buffalo enjoyed sending him down the seams, where his size became a huge advantage against trailing linebackers or safeties. These screencaps should also entice fans thinking about Chandler's potential on red-zone route concepts:
Chandler is not the type of player who is going to force a defense to adapt to his skill set and wreck the opposition's game plan. That's perfectly fine, of course, since that duty belongs to his teammate, Rob Gronkowski. The towering tight end depends on proper schematic utilization to succeed, which places a lot of the burden of expectations on Belichick and Josh McDaniels.
An "F" Complement?
Chandler's measurables might lead one to pigeonhole him as a traditional in-line "Y' blocking tight end. In truth, that is far from how Buffalo typically utilized him, especially when Chan Gailey was head coach in 2012. For instance, when Chandler scored two touchdowns against the Patriots in Week 4 of that season, they came with him aligned as the point man in trips bunch (video here) and as an inside slot receiver (video here).
Doug Marrone had Chandler pinned to the line of scrimmage more frequently, but the 2012 tape would suggest that Chandler might be more intriguing as an "F" tight end removed from the core of the formation. That's essentially the role that Wright occupied last season, and it's where the incarcerated Aaron Hernandez previously excelled.
For instance, here's a play from last season's Week 6 meeting when the Bills had Chandler aligned as a "wing" tight end (next to the tackle, but off the line). This type of backfield alignment is common among receiving backs and shiftier receivers like Randall Cobb, as it forces the defense to reveal who is in coverage on the player and disguises the route the receiver will run.
In this instance, the play call worked to perfection for the Bills, as Chandler outleveraged Pats safety Patrick Chung immediately off the snap. Part of this is Chung's fault, as he took a poor angle on the swing route, but this was always going to be a difficult cover based on the play design:
Moreover, I think Chandler should be capable of succeeding from different alignments because of his football IQ. His best asset, besides his frame, is his ability to recognize zone coverages and settle down in open spaces. Patriots fans were likely driven crazy by how often Chandler seemed to get open, often settling down right between a pair of defenders:
That should make him a nice fit for New England's option-oriented passing game, which requires tight ends and wide receivers alike to adjust their routes based on opposing coverage concepts. Make no mistake, Chandler is not a pure receiver in the way that Wright is—Pro Football Focus had him down for 235 run-blocking snaps last season, over a quarter of his 769 total snaps—but based on the Pats' personnel, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Chandler shift to a more receiver-oriented role.
On his own, Chandler is not a game-changer. For all his strengths and intelligence, he is still a lumbering player without the speed to blow by linebackers or the technique to excel as a top-line blocker. That certainly played a role in the slow start to Chandler's career, as the 2007 draftee did not catch his first pass until 2010.
However, assuming Garoppolo does start the season as the Pats' signal-caller, Belichick will face significant pressure to generate creative schematic advantages for his callow quarterback. The opening quarter of New England's season doesn't present too many defensive powerhouses—only Buffalo finished higher than 20th by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric—but against Garoppolo, defensive coordinators can still win by disguising pressure schemes and scrambling the quarterback's mind before the play even starts.
Therefore, the Patriots need to find a way to force defenses to simplify their schemes. Two-tight end personnel is the easiest avenue towards that end game, as it becomes exceedingly difficult for most defenses to cover all their bases without conceding an exploitable mismatch. If Chandler can be effective playing a multifaceted role for 40-60 snaps per game, that could be a sneaky X-factor toward helping the Pats weather their early-season sanctions.