Grading New England Patriots' Most Improved Positional Units
More than any recent offseason, there's been an astounding amount of negativity surrounding the New England Patriots. The Deflategate circus and Tom Brady suspension snowballed to catastrophic proportions, and free agency stripped away much of the non-Brady defensive core that could have propped the team up in the absence of its franchise quarterback.
However, dubbing the Pats on the verge of collapse would be premature. As hard as it might be to believe, the Patriots did make progress in a few key areas this offseason, particularly as Bill Belichick reshaped his roster to compensate for losses at cornerback, the position that anchored the defense in 2014. The Brady situation obviously throws a massive monkey wrench into everything, but that saga is largely out of the team's control at this point.
As Pats nation continues to reel, let's step back and add some perspective to this offseason, dissecting the areas where New England has made the biggest upgrades, which might allow the Patriots to weather whatever early-season storm clouds may arrive.
5. Interior Pass-Rusher
Pre-Offseason Grade: C-
The Patriots haven't had a strong interior pass rush in years, but perhaps 2015 is the year that changes. In fairness, this projection is mostly reliant on expected progress from 2014 first-rounder Dominique Easley, whose rookie campaign was essentially a wash amid lingering right knee soreness.
But if Easley does play next season at full health, there's reason to believe that he can be an important game-changer. Pats fans are likely concerned that knee issues forced the team to shut down Easley, considering that he tore both ACLs at Florida, but according to NFL.com's Kevin Patra, the defensive tackle has insisted that he will "be fully ready" for training camp.
New England can only hope that Easley delivers if he stays on the field. Per Pro Football Focus, which technically classified him as a 3-4 defensive end last year, Easley ranked 32nd out of 45 qualifiers in pass-rushing productivity. With just a single sack and 11 total quarterback hurries, it's hard to find a positive spin on his rookie season.
Still, I found some promising wrinkles in my film breakdown a few weeks ago, most notably with his surprising power and relentless motor. The concerning part was the absence of his trademark explosiveness, which made him so coveted at Gainesville. It seems likely that Easley's knee issues and ACL recovery (he last tore it in September 2013) robbed him of the quick get-off that was his best trait as a Gator. If a rested and recovered Easley regains that agility and explosiveness, he could yet deliver on the team's first-round investment.
New Grade: C+ (with room to improve)
4. Off-the-Ball Linebacker
Pre-Offseason Grade: A-
I had this position fifth until the recent signing of old friend Brandon Spikes, as first reported by NFL Media's Ian Rapoport. It was almost unfathomable to envision Spikes returning to Foxborough after his bitter split from the Patriots last spring, but whatever sore feelings bubbled to the surface then have apparently resolved themselves.
In Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, New England had one of the league's best combinations of three-down linebackers but virtually nothing behind them. Collins and Hightower made the position one of the Pats' biggest strengths, but the drop-off from the starters to the reserves was as large as any on the roster except perhaps quarterback and tight end.
Besides Spikes' return, the Pats will also presumably have Jerod Mayo, whose restructured contract saved New England over $4.1 million in cap space, per Spotrac. The defensive captain probably won't be around at this time next year under the same terms, given his unwieldy $11.4 million cap hit in 2016, but for now, he should provide nice insurance in the event that Hightower recovers slowly from major offseason shoulder surgery.
Along with veteran signee Dekoda Watson and sixth-rounder Matthew Wells, both of whom could be core special teamers, the Patriots' linebacker depth is significantly improved from where it was at the end of 2014. This is still a Collins and Hightower-centric unit, but the Pats have now reasonably minimized the drop-off after their two workhorses.
New Grade: A
3. Tight End
Pre-Offseason Grade: B+
It sounds ridiculous not to give any unit with Rob Gronkowski an A, but if we're grading this unit on its totality, there was room to complain about the fairly significant drop-off behind the All-Pro tight end. Tim Wright disappeared from the offense at the tail end of 2014, playing just 10 offensive snaps during New England's postseason run, per Pro Football Focus, leaving the Patriots vulnerable in the event of another Gronk injury.
With the addition of Scott Chandler, the Pats have their best Gronkowski complement since the end of the 2012 season. I just broke down Chandler this week, so head over here for a deeper dive into his skill set and potential fit. The CliffsNotes version is that, while Chandler is not the most physically gifted player, his size and football acumen could portend the return of "12" personnel as New England's base offensive package.
We also should not dismiss Wright, who came into a complex offense on the eve before the regular season. Expecting immediate contributions from any player would have been folly, let alone a second-year former undrafted free agent. Wright is probably the underdog to Chandler in the race to become New England's receiving "F" tight end, but the 6'4", 220-pounder still has an intriguing size-speed combo that could use a year to develop behind the scenes.
Along with sixth-round project A.J. Derby (who posted ridiculous predraft testing numbers) and veteran H-back Michael Hoomanawanui, tight end has arguably become New England's deepest offensive position, along with offensive tackle. No tight end in the league could really replace Gronkowski in the event of another injury, but his new sidekicks should afford Josh McDaniels significantly more game-planning and play-calling diversity.
New Grade: A
Pre-Offseason Grade: C-
Guard was a top priority for the Patriots on Day 3 of the NFL draft, where New England snagged a pair of ACC prospects in Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason. Even with 2014 starter Dan Connolly still unsigned, the rookies could represent a real upgrade and, more importantly, long-term stability at a spot that became a rotating door early last season.
The Florida State product was an obvious fit for the Pats, given Dave DeGuglielmo's apparent preference for thicker more powerful linemen than what Dante Scarnecchia rolled out during his tenure as O-line coach. The mauling 6'4", 330-pounder should compete immediately for a starting spot, assuming that the knee issues that caused his draft stock to fall don't become an in-season issue. One thing worth noting: Jackson played right guard at Tallahassee, which could potentially force Ryan Wendell across the line.
Mason is more of a developmental project, as he will face a steep learning curve in pass protection. The Georgia Tech product has virtually no pass-blocking background coming from Paul Johnson's triple option offense, but he does possess the agility and lower-body strength that would suggest he'll develop in that area. Although he was a center in college, Mason could theoretically shift to guard and compete for a starting spot there in 2016 while also serving as Bryan Stork's backup in the meantime.
There are obviously no guarantees when relying on rookies, and it would be encouraging to see some development this summer from in-house backups like Jordan Devey and Josh Kline. It's also anyone's guess as to how the Cameron Fleming experiment unfolds. Still, the draft infused much more upside and depth into a position that had precious little of either in 2014.
New Grade: B-
1. Edge Defender
Pre-Offseason Grade: B
No position received a bigger upgrade during the draft than New England's edge defenders, a surprising development considering that New England's biggest free-agent signing, Jabaal Sheard, also plays the position. The Pats invested three of their first four selections on the defensive line, as Bill Belichick's 2015 mantra is clear: win the trenches.
None of New England's new acquisitions necessarily figure to unseat starters Chandler Jones or Rob Ninkovich, but it's clear that the Pats have overused both in the past two seasons. Moreover, with how frequently the Pats use sub-package personnel, it's conceivable that Sheard, Jones and Ninkovich could form a lighter pass-rushing trio package, the type of change-up New England hasn't really had in recent seasons.
Rookies Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom don't have a clear path to playing time, but the former in particular could pay big dividends down the road. ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff has labeled Flowers the biggest steal from an SEC school, as the consensus was that he was more of a Day 2 pick. Though he lacks elite speed, the powerful and relentless Flowers produced at Fayetteville (18 career sacks and 47.5 tackles for loss) and could eventually develop into Ninkovich's successor as a strong-side end.
Much like how the Patriots remade their cornerback corps last offseason, the emphasis this year revolved around building a complete defensive line capable of excelling on all three downs. There's no surefire All-Pro talent like Darrelle Revis at the position, but this looks like a position capable of carrying the load in 2015.
New Grade: A