Patriots 2015 Preview: Complete New England Guide for Preseason, Season

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IAugust 5, 2015

Patriots 2015 Preview: Complete New England Guide for Preseason, Season

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    After going all-in in 2014, the New England Patriots went back to their quiet and calculated approach in the 2015 offseason. Even without the high-profile moves of yesteryear, the Patriots ended up with a large haul of free agents, draft picks and trade acquisitions. 

    There have been changes all over the roster, on both offense and defense, but particularly in the secondary and on the offensive line. For the most part, the 2015 Patriots will look similar to the 2014 Patriots, but the real question is whether the results will be similar to what they were last year.

    Make no mistake; where the Patriots are different, they are dramatically different. The losses of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback will not be easy to make up for.

    But what kind of impact will those changes have on the team? Here's a preview of the key storylines, battles and games to watch in the preseason and the regular season.

Full Schedule

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press
    Preseason 1vs. Green Bay Packers
    Preseason 2at New Orleans Saints
    Preseason 3at Carolina Panthers
    Preseason 4vs. New York Giants
    1vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
    2at Buffalo Bills
    3vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
    5at Dallas Cowboys
    6at Indianapolis Colts
    7vs. New York Jets
    8vs. Miami Dolphins
    9vs. Washington Redskins
    10at New York Giants
    11vs. Buffalo Bills
    12at Denver Broncos
    13vs. Philadelphia Eagles
    14at Houston Texans
    15vs. Tennessee Titans
    16at New York Jets
    17at Miami Dolphins

New Faces

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    Outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (93) is trying to fit into a rotation with the likes of Chandler Jones (95), Rob Ninkovich (50) and Zach Moore (90) off the edge.
    Outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (93) is trying to fit into a rotation with the likes of Chandler Jones (95), Rob Ninkovich (50) and Zach Moore (90) off the edge.Charles Krupa/Associated Press


    For the past two years, the Patriots have relied on Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to play nearly all the snaps at defensive end and outside linebacker. This year, that changes with the arrival of veteran Jabaal Sheard. Sheard has been much more successful in a 3-4 defense, where he logged 15.5 sacks in his first two years in the league, as opposed to the defensive end spot, where he has logged just 7.5 sacks in the past two seasons.

    The bigger question, however, is at the cornerback position. The Patriots added veterans Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain to the secondary, although neither one is guaranteed to be a factor in the starting lineup. Both men have struggled to this point in their careers and allowed a combined 216 receptions on 351 passes thrown their way in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus.


    With Vince Wilfork out of the picture, the Patriots have decided to kick-start a youth movement on the defensive line. With the selection of Malcom Brown in the first round of the draft, the Patriots have given themselves a solid three-man interior line that could feature any combination of Brown, Dominique Easley and Sealver Siliga. Brown could slot in as a nose tackle or a defensive end in the 3-4 or as a defensive tackle in the 4-3.

    The selection of Brown was a surprise because most people did not expect him to be available at that point. The selection of safety Jordan Richards in the second round was a surprise for a different reason, namely that most people did not expect him to be drafted until much later. The Patriots don't have a major need at strong safety, so we may not see a whole lot of Richards in his rookie year.

    With the departures of so many key cornerbacks, the focus of the defense has shifted from suffocating man coverage to suffocating pressure on quarterbacks. The Patriots added Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers and Xzavier Dickson to help boost their front seven and give more depth at the defensive end/outside linebacker position.

What to Watch in the Preseason

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Cornerback Combinations

    Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler are among the top three cornerbacks on the depth chart. The third spot and everything else behind it are in question. We could see a combination of veterans such as Bradley Fletcher, Tarell Brown and Robert McClain and young players such as Daxton Swanson, Darryl Roberts, Jimmy Jean and others.

    There are at least eight different players competing for roster spots at cornerback, and only six at most will make the final cut. The players who earn their reps at the beginning of games should not necessarily be considered locks for the roster. A big part of deciding on the depth chart will be finding out which players have the most versatility to line up in other spots.

    It's not just about which players are on the field; it's about who they are on the field with and where they are lining up.

    Offensive Line Groupings

    So far in training camp, the top grouping on the offensive line has included Shaq Mason and Tre' Jackson at the guard spots.

    While those two rookies may be front-runners for starting jobs, several backup positions need to be hammered out. Much like the secondary, the depth at the offensive line spots will be determined not just by the best players but also by the players who can play multiple positions. Marcus Cannon is a prime example, as he is a player who has filled in at various guard and tackle spots in his career.

    Look at not only which players are playing but also where they are playing and who they are on the field with.

3 Most Important Regular-Season Games

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    Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12, left) and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18, right) will meet for the 17th time in Week 12.
    Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12, left) and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18, right) will meet for the 17th time in Week 12.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Week 1 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

    You can never call a Week 1 game a must-win. That being said, with Tom Brady potentially out of action for the Patriots' season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, this could be the first time we get to see Jimmy Garoppolo start a regular-season game. This game will color our perception of the potential for the Garoppolo era.

    The Steelers have employed one of the game's most exotic defenses over the years, sending blitzes 37.7 percent of the time in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus. Garoppolo is inexperienced at reading NFL defenses, so the Patriots should be expecting the Steelers to try to confuse and confound Garoppolo into making bad decisions and errant throws. 

    Week 2 at Buffalo Bills

    Everything I wrote about the Steelers defense could also be applied to head coach Rex Ryan's defensive scheme. Under Ryan, the New York Jets sent a blitz after the quarterback 33.1 percent of the time in 2014. Garoppolo's experience at Eastern Illinois, while valuable, was not a prep course on NFL defensive schemes.

    The Patriots could be walking into a hostile environment in Buffalo in Week 2, so Garoppolo's communication skills could be put to the test. There is added importance to this game due to the repercussions of wins and losses in divisional-rivalry games.

    Week 12 at Denver Broncos

    Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have squared off 16 times, but this could be the last time we see them do battle.

    Once again, the Patriots and the Denver Broncos are both expected to be front-runners to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. This will be the first time the Patriots have traveled to Denver since the 2013 AFC Championship Game, a memory the Patriots would probably like to forget.

    The Broncos had home-field advantage that year, and this game could ultimately determine which team ends up with the No. 1 overall seed in the conference and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

This Season Will Be Successful If...

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    Tom Brady (12, left) could be suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season, opening the door for Jimmy Garoppolo (10, right) to take his place.
    Tom Brady (12, left) could be suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season, opening the door for Jimmy Garoppolo (10, right) to take his place.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Patriots Stay Afloat Without Tom Brady

    Of course, this depends on whether the Patriots are without Brady at all in 2015. There's a possibility Brady will play every game in 2015, as Brady and the NFLPA are set to fight his suspension in court on August 12, according to Albert Breer of NFL Network.  

    If Brady has to miss one, two, three or all four games in 2015, the spotlight will immediately shift to second-year quarterback Garoppolo. The Patriots drafted Garoppolo in the second round in 2014 as an insurance policy for Brady and as the quarterback of the future, but he may be the quarterback of the present if Brady can't play for any length of time.

    If Brady is out of the picture, Garoppolo will have a heavy burden to carry. He'll become only the third person to play quarterback in significant situations for the Patriots since 2002. The Patriots can't afford to lose every game Garoppolo starts, but they can't expect to win every game he starts either. 

    All Garoppolo has to do is not blow it. If the Patriots go .500 with Garoppolo at quarterback, Brady can put on his Superman cape and save the day. After all, Brady and the Patriots dug themselves into a 2-2 hole through four games last year and went on to win the Super Bowl, which brings me to the next way the Patriots' 2015 season will be successful...

    The Patriots Make It to the Super Bowl

    Really, this is the only measure of success in New England. If the season doesn't end in the final game of the year, it's not really a success, not by the lofty standard the Patriots have created for themselves.

    Sure, the nation bemoans the losses of Revis, Browner and Wilfork, but Bill Belichick has taken the Patriots to Super Bowls with duct tape and cardboard holding together his defense. 

    There are a few threats to the Patriots in the AFC—namely the Indianapolis Colts, the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers and the Broncos—but none of those teams can be considered head and shoulders above the Patriots. That is to say, any game between the Patriots and any of the four teams above should be a close contest.


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