New England Patriots Offseason State of the Union
The 2015 spring workout program is done. Training camp is about a month away. Now is as good a time as any to catch up on the New England Patriots from an overall perspective.
A lot will change between now and the start of the regular season as the Patriots trim down their roster from 90 to 53 players. Starters will emerge from the pack, backups will fall to the wayside, some players will remain on the practice squad, and others will be looking for work elsewhere.
That being said, we still have a good idea of what the team will look like in 2015. Much of what will be determined at this point is piecemeal to the big picture.
So, where do the Patriots stand heading into training camp? Here's a state of the union on their status.
As long as Tom Brady is on the roster, the Patriots won't be facing too many questions about the quarterback position—that is, unless it's Week 4 and the Patriots are 2-2, in which case push the panic button if you please, but don't be shocked if Bill Belichick scoffs at your line of questioning.
That being said, the Patriots are still waiting for word on whether Brady will be available for the beginning of the season. The face of the franchise faces a four-game suspension for his alleged role in the Deflategate controversy, and if he is unable to play, backup Jimmy Garoppolo will finally live up to the nickname "Jimmy Gameday."
Garoppolo may not have the razor-sharp accuracy of Brady or the cerebral mentality and supreme understanding of NFL defenses, but he has a moldable skill set and enough tools to work with for a short period to start the NFL season.
Whoever is playing quarterback, he will have continuity and talent at his disposal. Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski all return for another go-around with the Patriots, and all appear primed to build off their campaigns in 2014—assuming good health.
The biggest question mark is on the offensive line, where the Patriots are still figuring out their starters at both guard spots. Ryan Wendell could be plugged back into the right guard spot, but he was absent at OTAs and minicamp, and several rookies and backups got opportunities in his stead. Tre' Jackson, Shaq Mason, Caylin Hauptmann, Marcus Cannon and Josh Kline all earned reps at guard.
Once the Patriots flesh out the rest of their offensive line, everything will be set in place.
No more Stevan Ridley plus no more Shane Vereen equals no more consistency at the top of the Patriots depth chart at running back.
LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden, James White, Travaris Cadet and Tyler Gaffney will all compete for snaps, carries and catches in the backfield. The former three (Blount, Gray and Bolden) are at their best as between-the-tackles hammers, while the latter three (White, Cadet and Gaffney) serve a purpose in the passing game.
With six options, not all will make the roster, but at least the Patriots have covered all their bases and can field a running back for any situation. What they lack is a back who can take the field for every situation.
As mentioned in the previous slide, though, the running game will also depend upon the Patriots finding answers on the offensive line. Nate Solder, Bryan Stork and Sebastian Vollmer are locked in as starters (assuming all are healthy), but the blocking in the middle will be so important for guys like Blount, Gray and Bolden.
Besides Brady's suspension, the talk of the town in the Northeast has been among folks who are trying to figure out what the Patriots will do with their secondary. With Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard all gone, the Patriots are going to have to switch it up from what we saw last season.
Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Daxton Swanson, Bradley Fletcher, Robert McClain, Darryl Roberts and others will be competing for the snaps, and for now, it would seem like Ryan and Butler are the front-runners for the starting jobs. That's based just on their experience in the defense and the ability they have shown to execute in the past, but with so many combinations showing up at practice, there's some room for movement.
The bigger focus of the pass defense this year will be the big guys up front. With several additions at the outside linebacker spots (veteran Jabaal Sheard and rookies Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Xzavier Dickson), the Patriots are likely to mix things up a bit in their pass-rush packages—though that's nothing out of the ordinary.
Look for a mix of 3-4 and 4-3 fronts from the Patriots as they try to keep opposing offenses off balance and guessing.
Over the years, one thing you could count on from the Patriots is that as long as Vince Wilfork was on the field, they would be fielding a solid run defense. In two of the past three years, they ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards allowed per game—the lone exception being the 2013 season when Big Vince missed 12 games.
This year, they'll be without Wilfork, and there's no hope of his returning now that he's signed with the Houston Texans. The Patriots will instead turn to Sealver Siliga to fill the Wilfork role as a gap-stuffer in the middle of the line, and rookie Malcom Brown could also fill that void.
Second-year defensive tackle Dominique Easley is more of a pass-rushing interior lineman, and at 6'2" and 290 pounds, he's not really the prototypical two-gapping defensive tackle. The Patriots are hoping he can stay healthy this year after he ended the 2014 season on injured reserve with a knee injury.
The Patriots must also be hopeful for good health for Dont'a Hightower, one of the team's top linebackers over the past three years. He suffered a torn labrum and could be out through training camp, according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald. Jerod Mayo has been rehabbing a torn patellar tendon and has also been out. Jamie Collins was missing from practice, though it's unclear why he was absent.
Assuming good health for those three, there's no reason the Patriots should take a step back in their run defense.
Consistency is the name of the game for the Patriots' specialists, with one small change. Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen will most likely reprise their roles as the starting kicker and punter, respectively, but the long-snapping duties are up for debate.
Thanks to the franchise tag, the Patriots will get one more year with Gostkowski before they face a big decision on whether to keep their veteran kicker or move in another direction. He had a career year in 2014, with a career high in field-goal percentage (94.6), and over the past two years, he has made more field goals than any other kicker in the league.
Allen only punted 66 times in 2014, ranked 24th among punters, but he had 25 of his 66 punts downed inside the 20, which tied for 17th. His average of 46.4 yards per punt ranked 10th in the NFL, and his net average of 39.9 yards per punt ranked 12th. Those numbers are by no means otherworldly, but they are effective and good enough for the job.
As for long-snapping, the Patriots will turn to rookie Joe Cardona from Navy, as long as he gets officially cleared to play. If not, they may have to scramble to find a different long-snapper; former Patriots long snapper Danny Aiken is still a free agent, so perhaps he could get the call.
As long as Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are manning the switches for the Patriots' coaching staff, there won't be any questions about this group.
Tom Brady makes McDaniels' job easier, but his imprint on the offense is felt every time the Patriots run a wide receiver screen or a shotgun handoff. And now, with two big tight ends at his disposal (Scott Chandler and Rob Gronkowski), the Patriots can really throw teams off with their run-pass decisions and can get creative with their play calls from those formations.
Don't forget about defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, either; his job is a thankless one because of Belichick's history as a defensive guru and the blurred lines between where Belichick's job ends and Patricia's job begins. That being said, an obvious wrinkle of linebacker pressure has been more prominent with Patricia as the defensive coordinator than it ever was before he took the job, so he's already leaving his mark.
There are few, if any, concerns with the coaching staff, which is one of the best in the league.