New England Patriots: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit Before Camp

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IJuly 23, 2015

New England Patriots: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit Before Camp

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots are proof that you don't need to be a straight-A student to win a Super Bowl.

    Even on their way to Glendale, Arizona, to win their fourth Lombardi Trophy, the Patriots were a few "right answers" short of a perfect score on their final 53-man roster.

    Grades are inherently subjective; one person might see an A, another might see a B. For our purposes, we'll define the grades as follows:

    • A: solid starters and quality backups
    • B: solid/quality starters and questionable backups
    • C: questionable starters and/or backups
    • D: poor starters and/or backups
    • F: awful starters and backups

    Not every position is going to be an A. That's where good coaching comes into play. Thanks to head coach Bill Belichick's ability to plug pieces into his system, the Patriots were able to overcome their shortcomings to beat the Seattle Seahawks

    That being said, last year's roster was arguably one of the most talented the Patriots have had since Belichick became the head coach in 2000. It stands to reason, then, that they would finish the season as the best team in the league. 

    This year's roster is a step back in some areas, a step forward in others. In the end, expect the Patriots to remain one of the league's elite teams regardless of how they grade out at each of the position groups. 

Quarterback

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    Quarterback Tom Brady (above) may or may not be available to the Patriots for the first four games of the regular season.
    Quarterback Tom Brady (above) may or may not be available to the Patriots for the first four games of the regular season.Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    There's no question that the Patriots have one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The question is whether or not he will be available to them in Weeks 1-4. 

    Right now, the answer is no, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has yet to give word on whether or not Brady's four-game suspension will be reduced, redacted or reinforced. Even then, there's no telling whether Brady's next course of action will be to take the appeal to court or simply accept his punishment.

    Either way, Jimmy Garoppolo will be the one waiting in the wings to play any snaps that Brady may not be able to play. The second-year quarterback was drafted to be the future of the franchise, and while this may not be the dawning of that era, it will be a glimpse into it. With a quick release and solid footwork, Garoppolo has the physical tools to be successful in the Patriots offense. The mental tools, however, remain a mystery. 

    It's hard to get a full read on Garoppolo from preseason games and 27 regular-season throws, but he has a high ceiling and he'll get a chance to start his ascent to that ceiling if Brady misses any time.

    Grade: A+

Running Back

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    Running back LeGarrette Blount (above) has proved he can be the bell cow for the Patriots offense in the past.
    Running back LeGarrette Blount (above) has proved he can be the bell cow for the Patriots offense in the past.Associated Press

    The Patriots have assembled their depth chart in such a way that they have a different running back that they can call on for any situation they may face. What they do not have, however, is one back who has proved he can answer the bell in every situation possible. 

    LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden and Jonas Gray all have proven ability as between-the-tackles runners. Tyler Gaffney, James White and Travaris Cadet all can run the ball, but they each add value on third downs in the passing game: Gaffney as a blocker, White and Cadet as pass-catchers.

    Obviously, all six backs will make the final cut. The Patriots have kept as many as five backs in the past, but there should be four who make the cut from this group: Blount, Bolden, White and Gray. Cadet will have to prove he's more versatile than "just" a receiving back (albeit a very talented one) if he wants to make the cut.

    Blount is the most likely back to end up as the bell cow, as he has proved he can do it in the past; White should get opportunities in the passing game; Bolden and Gray are good spell-backs for Blount when the Patriots need to milk the clock. 

    Grade: B

Wide Receiver

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    Wide receivers Brandon LaFell (19, left) and Julian Edelman (11, right) are a perfect one-two punch for the Patriots offense.
    Wide receivers Brandon LaFell (19, left) and Julian Edelman (11, right) are a perfect one-two punch for the Patriots offense.Steven Senne/Associated Press

    For years, Patriots fans have been clamoring for a "deep threat" in the mold of Randy Moss, who has the long speed to force defenses to back up and open up underneath windows for the myriad slot receivers at the Patriots' disposal. That search has included free agents and draft picks alike, but the Patriots seem to have finally found their man in Brandon LaFell. He's not the prototypical burner, but he has enough size and speed to win one-on-one matchups on the outside and get open on deep routes.

    Between Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, the Patriots have a capable combo of slot receivers who are interchangeable and can complement each other when on the field at the same time. Their quickness, awareness of location on the field and what kind of defense the opponent is running and toughness on throws over the middle make them perfect fits for the Patriots offense.

    Aaron Dobson was supposed to be the X receiver before LaFell took that spot away from him. An injury-plagued 2014 campaign led to a lost season for the former second-round pick, but 2015 is a new year and Dobson is already showing up with strong performances in spring practice. Brian Tyms is not going down without a fight, though, and the 6'3", 204-pound receiver has an eerily similar skill set to Moss—albeit not of the same magnitude.

    Josh Boyce and Brandon Gibson could also push for roster spots, and depending on how many receivers the Patriots keep, there could only be room for two of the four of Dobson, Tyms, Boyce and Gibson. 

    The Patriots have built strong depth and will end up releasing a talented player to the open free-agent market. 

    Grade: A-

Tight End

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    Rob Gronkowski (87, left) has developed into one of the best tight ends in the NFL today—possibly ever.
    Rob Gronkowski (87, left) has developed into one of the best tight ends in the NFL today—possibly ever.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Rob Gronkowski is one of the league's best tight ends, if not the best one in the NFL. The 6'6", 265-pound monster is equally dominant as both a pass-catcher and a run-blocker. The 2014 season was the first in which Gronkowski stayed healthy from start to finish, and the first since 2010 in which he was available to the team in the postseason.

    Now, the Patriots are going back to what Gronkowski helped make en vogue back in 2010: the two-tight end offense. With the acquisition of Scott Chandler, the Patriots have opened the door to formations that include two tight ends standing at more than 6'6" and weighing more than 260 pounds apiece. Both of these big men are capable blockers, but are also formidable receivers.

    Defenses will never know whether the Patriots are planning to run or pass, and even if the defense thinks they have it pegged, Brady can always change the play call at the line of scrimmage.

    Backing up Gronkowski and Chandler will be veteran Michael Hoomanawanui, sixth-round draft pick A.J. Derby and undrafted free-agent Jimmay Mundine. The Patriots are not likely to carry five tight ends into the regular season, so expect Derby and Hoomanawanui to get the nod as the backups while Mundine makes a bid for the practice squad.

    The Patriots have lacked depth behind Gronkowski in the past; this year, they have an abundance of it.  

    Grade: A+

Offensive Line

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    Bryan Stork (66, left) brought stability to the Patriots offensive line when he stepped in as the starting center in 2014.
    Bryan Stork (66, left) brought stability to the Patriots offensive line when he stepped in as the starting center in 2014.Associated Press

    The Patriots offensive line was its weakest link to start the 2014 season. Once that group stabilized, the offense began to click and the Patriots were on their way to Super Bowl glory. Fast forward to the 2015 offseason, and once again the Patriots are faced with some significant questions up front.

    There's no doubt about the tackle spots, where Nate Solder is plugged in on the left side and Sebastian Vollmer is anchoring the right side. The center spot is also secured by second-year starter Bryan Stork. The doubts creep in at the guard spots, though, where the Patriots could be fielding a brand-new pair of interior linemen.

    Rookie Tre' Jackson should slot into Dan Connolly's old spot at left guard, but there's still some wonder over the starting right guard. It could be Ryan Wendell, the former center who played right guard last year; it could be Caylin Hauptmann, a third-year journeyman who earned some opportunities at the position this spring; it could also be rookie Shaq Mason, who played center at Georgia Tech but has the skill set for the guard spot.

    At this point, it's really anyone's guess. But with three spots secured and two spots up for grabs, it's safe to say there are still some questions in the starting lineup. There aren't as many concerns on the bench, though, where experienced backups like Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming are waiting to contribute in any way they can.

    Grade: B+

Defensive Line

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    Defensive tackle Malcom Brown (above) could be a Day 1 starter in the Patriots defense.
    Defensive tackle Malcom Brown (above) could be a Day 1 starter in the Patriots defense.Associated Press

    On talent alone, the Patriots defensive line is one of the most underrated units on the team. 

    There's 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley, an explosive interior lineman whose injury history is troubling but whose upside is limitless if he can stay healthy. There's third-year veteran Sealver Siliga, the most obvious heir to Vince Wilfork's spot at the nose tackle position. There's Malcom Brown, the Patriots' 2015 first-round pick who has the versatility to line up at nearly any spot the Patriots could ask of him—be it at defensive tackle in a 4-3 or defensive end in a 3-4, even at nose tackle.

    And there's also the bench. Chris Jones and Alan Branch aren't the most dynamic defensive linemen in the league, but both men have the capacity to play multiple spots on the line and have plenty of NFL experience to be prepared to step onto the field at a moment's notice.

    Between those five defensive linemen, the Patriots have enough depth and talent to answer the bell in almost any situation and regardless of what scheme they are running in any given week. 

    Grade: A-

Outside Linebacker/Defensive End

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    Jabaal Sheard (above) will line up at either defensive end or outside linebacker for the Patriots, depending on the scheme.
    Jabaal Sheard (above) will line up at either defensive end or outside linebacker for the Patriots, depending on the scheme.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Given the Patriots' tendency to switch up their defensive scheme from week to week, and sometimes from series to series, it's impossible to simply lump all their edge defenders into one group as either defensive ends or outside linebackers. Edge defenders in the Patriots defense need to be able to carry out multiple assignments.

    Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are privy to that knowledge, given their experience in the Patriots defense. The two have anchored the end of the line in the 4-3 defense and have also stood up to play outside linebacker in the 3-4. It would be a reasonable assumption that they would once again be the starters in 2015.

    Don't sleep on Jabaal Sheard, though; the fifth-year veteran has played both defensive end and outside linebacker for the Cleveland Browns over the first four years of his career, although he had more success at defensive end (15.5 sacks in two years) than outside linebacker (7.5 sacks in two years). 

    There's also a host of rookies and young defenders to keep in mind here. Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers and Xzavier Dickson will all be competing for snaps in relief duty of Jones, Ninkovich and Sheard. All three players have the ability to play in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme, and be productive pass-rushers in either front. 

    The Patriots have always had solid starting talent here, but top to bottom, this unit looks much better than it has in the recent past.

    Grade: B+

Linebacker

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    Dont'a Hightower (left) and Jamie Collins (right) team up to form a powerful combo of linebackers.
    Dont'a Hightower (left) and Jamie Collins (right) team up to form a powerful combo of linebackers.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    If healthy, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo are the starting trio of linebackers in a base 4-3 front. The key words there: "if healthy." Hightower and Mayo are both still recovering from offseason surgery (shoulder and knee, respectively), and their statuses for the beginning of training camp are in doubt. 

    When the Patriots go to their nickel defense, or when they are in a base 3-4 alignment, one of their top three linebackers will have to come off the field. 

    There are also some talented backups that could work their way into the rotation. Dane Fletcher has knowledge of the Patriots defense and experience on special teams, which makes him a perfect veteran presence to round out the depth chart. 

    James Morris looked ready to be a top backup and special teams player last year before an ankle injury landed him on injured reserve. Morris and former Miami Dolphins backup Jonathan Freeny earned a lot of the opportunities in spring practices with Mayo and Hightower out of action. Both men will compete with rookie Matt Wells and veterans Chris White and Darius Fleming in backup/special teams roles.

    No matter who ends up with the jobs, the Patriots appear to have covered their bases in terms of finding talented backups with special teams potential.

    Grade: A-

Cornerback

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    Logan Ryan (26, above) will be one of the primary cornerbacks in the Patriots defense.
    Logan Ryan (26, above) will be one of the primary cornerbacks in the Patriots defense.John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    We've finally come to the one position where there are significant lingering question marks. 

    Patriots fans are sick of hearing it, but the departures of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner have left the team with gaps in their starting lineup. Those holes will be filled by Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, though it's fair to wonder whether those two will fill those holes as effectively as their predecessors.

    Of course, they may not need to be quite as dominant as Revis and Browner, thanks to what appears to be a changing defensive scheme that will put less pressure on its cornerbacks by way of putting more pressure on the opposing quarterback.

    The Patriots' options further down the depth chart are not particularly reassuring. Between Daxton Swanson, Darryl Roberts, Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain, the Patriots hope they can find at least two cornerbacks capable of contributing on a semi-regular basis in nickel packages. 

    Swanson has been a minicamp marvel for the past two springs, but while he failed to ride that momentum to the 53-man roster last year, he'll need to crack the final lineup this year as he no longer has practice squad eligibility.

    Roberts is a rookie, but he earned a lot of opportunities this spring and has the size (6'0", 182 pounds) and speed (4.36-second 40-yard dash at Marshall's pro day) to hang with NFL receivers. He also played some gunner on special teams this spring, further proving his value to the roster. 

    Veterans McClain and Fletcher have struggled recently, but both are talented players who could benefit from a change of scenery and a change of scheme. Expectations should be kept reasonably low for these two for the time being; the two allowed a combined 108 completions on 185 passes thrown their way last season, according to Pro Football Focus

    The Patriots pass defense may not take a dramatic step backward just because of the changes at cornerback, but don't be surprised if the secondary is no longer the unit that anchors the defense the way that it did last year. 

    Grade: C+

Safety

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    Devin McCourty (32, above) has become one of the better free safeties in the NFL.
    Devin McCourty (32, above) has become one of the better free safeties in the NFL.Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots were able to lock up safety Devin McCourty on a five-year, $47.5 million contract, meaning they get to hang onto one of the best free safeties in the NFL for another half-decade. What they're doing at the strong safety spot for the next year, however, remains open. 

    Patrick Chung was the starter in 2014, and he put on a redemption tour after being cast off by both the Patriots (2012) and the Philadelphia Eagles (2013). He finished the year as Pro Football Focus' 12th-highest-graded safety, and he excelled against the run. He's likely to reprise that role in 2015, but will he still be the starter?

    Third-year safety Duron Harmon spent most of the 2014 season coming in off the bench, providing a second deep safety in pass coverage where his sideline-to-sideline speed and route recognition ability were most valuable. Harmon and Chung complement each other well, but Harmon's skill set in pass coverage may be more necessary this year than it was last year. 

    Whether it's Harmon or Chung, the starting spot appears to be in good hands. 

    The backup spots are still a bit of a question mark, though, as Jordan Richards became the latest in a long line of surprising second-day draft picks at strong safety. Richards' skill set is closer to Chung's for his limited coverage ability, solid run defense and special teams contributions. Nate Ebner has been a special teams ace throughout his career and will probably not play much on defense. 

    The Patriots appear to have set themselves up pretty nicely at the safety position, which is important when there are as many questions at cornerback as the Patriots currently have. 

    Grade: B+

Special Teams

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    Punter Ryan Allen (6, left) and kicker Stephen Gostkowski (3, right)
    Punter Ryan Allen (6, left) and kicker Stephen Gostkowski (3, right)Elsa/Getty Images

    Move along people, nothing to see here.

    The Patriots love consistency on special teams, and that's exactly what they have in 2015. The Patriots hit Stephen Gostkowski with the franchise tag, which makes sense considering he is coming off one of the best years of his career. He hit 94.6 percent of his field-goal attempts in 2014 and has hit 93.6 percent over the past two seasons. 

    At punter, Ryan Allen is the man and there's no one to stop him. The Patriots don't even have another punter on the roster. Allen's punts netted an average of 40.5 yards last season, which was the ninth-highest for any punter in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus

    The long-snapping duty is the only thing that's changing. Danny Aiken remains unsigned, but the Patriots drafted Navy's Joe Cardona to replace him. Cardona is still awaiting approval from the Navy to play football this season, but according to David Steele of Sporting News, the Navy is leaning toward allowing him to play. 

    As long as Cardona holds up his end of the bargain, the special teams unit will be in good hands this season.

    Grade: A-

    Unless otherwise noted, all practice notes and quotes obtained firsthand. All advanced stats provided by Pro Football Focus. All salary-cap and contract information provided by Over The Cap

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