Breaking Down All the New Faces on the 2015 New England Patriots
Meet the new New England Patriots. Same as the old New England Patriots.
Well, not quite.
Of course, we've all heard enough at this point about the departures of cornerback Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard, but there's still plenty left to be said and plenty left to develop with regard to the arrivals of the new faces to the organization: draft picks, free-agent signings, trade acquisitions and everything in between.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has the next three months to get everyone up to speed and work them into the system before the start of the 2015 regular season. The process will be a little different for each player, as will the end result.
Bradley Fletcher may be wearing the Patriots' No. 24 in 2015, but no one will mistake him for Darrelle Revis. He has a similar frame at 6'0" and 196 pounds, but he allowed some gaudy numbers into his coverage in 2014.
According to Pro Football Focus, Fletcher yielded 1.79 yards per snap he played in coverage. That's the eighth-highest average in the NFL out of 116 qualifying cornerbacks. He also allowed nine touchdowns with only one interception, although he did break up 18 passes thrown his way and allowed only 53 percent to be completed.
Fletcher has played a significant role on defense for years but has not been a primary starter. Since entering the league in 2009, he has started only eight games in his career. He has played at least 1,000 snaps in each of the past two years and three of his six years in the NFL.
Fletcher has been one of several cornerbacks earning opportunities in the Patriots defense in OTAs, and he could compete for a starting job this summer in training camp.
The Patriots had their eye on Jabaal Sheard in the draft when he was coming out of Pittsburgh in 2011. They had another opportunity to add him to their defense this offseason, and now that he's had four years of experience in the NFL, he could be even more ready to contribute than he was back then.
Sheard played defensive end in the Cleveland Browns' 4-3 defense in his first two years in the league, amassing 15.5 sacks in that time. When the Browns switched to a 3-4 front, however, his production took a dip, and he has put up only 7.5 sacks in the past two seasons.
The Pats could use the 6'3", 264-pound edge defender in either front, but it's clear which one he's been most successful in. That being said, he could also stand up as an outside linebacker in the Patriots' 3-4 scheme.
Sheard played 690 snaps for the Browns in 2014, and his playing time has gone down in each of his four years in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. The Patriots will not ask Sheard to bear the burden of the defense either, instead slotting him into a backup role behind Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.
Over the years, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has earned a reputation for adding players from division rivals who have given him trouble in the past. Former Miami Dolphins slot receiver Wes Welker is a prime example, and former Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler could be the latest one.
In the past four seasons (eight games), Chandler has caught 28 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns against the Patriots, which accounts for 15 percent of his receptions, 18 percent of his receiving yards and nearly 24 percent of his receiving touchdowns in that time.
The Patriots will probably not ask him to be the top tight end—that distinction belongs to Rob Gronkowski—but Chandler could find his way into a significant role in the offense. In the first few weeks of practices, he had been working privately with Gronkowski and Tom Brady in individual red-zone drills.
Could this be the return of the two-tight end offense? Only time will tell, but with two big-bodied tight ends like Chandler and Gronkowski, the Patriots could put defenses into a bind of whether to stack the box against the run or play off the line in coverage when both men are on the field at the same time.
As we've alluded to in several slides here, the Patriots have built a reputation for a lot of things in recent years, and one of them has been drafting unexpected strong safeties on Day 2 of the NFL draft.
This year, Stanford safety Jordan Richards was the dubious selection. It's not a particularly surprising pick for the Patriots; his ability on special teams, his football intelligence (stemming from his father's coaching history) and his overall versatility make him the perfect Patriots prospect.
The coaching staff may have to work around what NFL.com's Lance Zierlein calls "obvious coverage limitations" and "below-average instincts when asked to play deep safety," but the Pats will love his "extended range in run support" and willingness to embrace the "physical side of the position."
The Patriots will hold quite the deep competition for the starting spot at strong safety, with Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon all gunning for the top spot.
The Patriots have developed a reputation for drafting defensive linemen in the first round under Bill Belichick. In fact, six out of his 15 first-round selections have been defensive linemen.
Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown is the latest addition to that list. The 6'2", 319-pound defensive tackle and first-team All-American proved his draft stock with a strong 2014 campaign that saw him land among the finalists for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy (nation's top defender) and the Outland Trophy (top interior defensive lineman).
He may be a big man and may be pigeon-holed as a gap-stuffing defensive tackle as a result, but he has impressive penetrating ability. He notched 15 tackles for loss in 2014, becoming the first defensive lineman to lead Texas in tackles for loss since 1984. He also had 12 tackles for loss in 2013.
In what's sure to be a defensive-tackle-by-committee approach, Brown will rotate in a group with Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch, Chris Jones and 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley.
The departures of the cornerbacks have taken the spotlight and the headlines, but one underrated departure for the Patriots could be Dan Connolly. Despite a horrendous start to the 2014 season on the offensive line, the Patriots were not swayed into maintaining continuity up front, but they also decided not to sit on their hands at the position.
The fourth-round selection of Tre' Jackson most likely comes with a seal of approval from former Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who extensively scouted offensive linemen during the run-up to the draft.
At 6'4" and 330 pounds, Jackson has size that other Patriots interior linemen have not had in recent years; the Patriots have fielded a smaller, "finesse" group of blockers. Nothing about Jackson's game screams finesse, but he is one tough guy who knows how to dominate in the running game by pushing his man off the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots should be hopeful that they can coach some technique into him so that he can be a fit for whatever they ask him to do.
With injuries to Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower keeping both men out of action during practice this offseason, the Patriots had no choice but to go after some veteran linebackers to add depth; if nothing else, those players could at least run the defense in the interim. One of those players, Brandon Spikes, is already gone.
Dane Fletcher, however, is still kicking around and has a lot of value to the team. The 6'2", 245-pound linebacker has played mostly in the middle throughout his five-year career and has also offered contributions on special teams. He spent the first four years of his career in New England, so he already knows this system, which is an added bonus if he ever needs to step in to a bigger role in a pinch.
To get all that value out of a player at a contract worth only $745,000, according to ESPN's Mike Reiss, is quite the bargain. The Patriots are hoping, however, that they never have to take out a claim on their insurance policy.
The running back position has been and will always be by committee for the Patriots, and that may hold true this year more than ever. Former New Orleans Saints running back Travaris Cadet may be a running back by name only, having totaled 45 receptions against only 11 rushing attempts in his three-year career.
That imbalance could be due in part to his ability to line up wide as a receiver, a skill which was used to its fullest in Saints head coach Sean Payton's innovative offense and one the Patriots have used in their backs over the years. Running backs like Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen have all exhibited that ability at one point or another in their career.
Two things those backs could do that Cadet has not yet proved he can do is run the ball between the tackles and block in blitz protection. Cadet hasn't played much of a role in pass protection, with only seven snaps in pass protection in 2014 and eight snaps his entire Saints career, per Pro Football Focus.
If Cadet aims to become the full-time third-down back in the Patriots offense, he'll have to brush up in that area first.
With the quantity, and quality, of cornerbacks the Patriots lost this offseason, it should come as no surprise that the team went on a shopping spree of cornerbacks of all shapes and sizes.
At 5'9" and 195 pounds, no one will confuse former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert McClain as a physically imposing perimeter cornerback, but his abilities have always been best suited for the slot. That being said, his performance has not always been sterling.
According to Pro Football Focus, McClain was in the bottom 10 in the league (out of 45 qualifying corners) in yards per coverage snap and coverage snaps per reception in 2013 and in the bottom 20 (out of 61 qualifying corners) in both categories in 2014.
The Patriots hope that a change of scenery can bring about more success for McClain.
The most recent addition to the team could also be one of the most important. As the third-string quarterback, Matt Flynn wouldn't ordinarily see much (if any) action in meaningful games, but with Tom Brady's four-game suspension looming large, Flynn is one Jimmy Garoppolo injury away from being "the guy" for the Patriots until Brady returns.
The former Green Bay Packers quarterback is no stranger to filling in for an injured passer; he started four games for the Packers in 2013 when Aaron Rodgers was out with a broken collarbone. Flynn guided his team to a 2-2 record in that time, with a 61.4 completion percentage, seven touchdowns and four interceptions.
Flynn would not be asked to carry the burden of the franchise; most likely, he would be called upon to keep the team afloat and to manage the offense in a short stint in a true emergency-type situation—and that's assuming he even makes the roster.
Flynn had an effective performance against the Patriots in his first-ever NFL start way back in 2010, but he didn't do much more than manage the game. If he can do that for the Patriots instead of against them, they should be OK in any brief period of time that he would be the starter.