Position Check: Assessing New England Patriots' Strengths and Weaknesses

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2017

Position Check: Assessing New England Patriots' Strengths and Weaknesses

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Despite winning the NFL's most recent Super Bowl, the New England Patriots have been hard at work this offseason improving their roster. With headline-grabbing moves and a series of trades, Bill Belichick and Co. have managed to put a fresh stamp on an already strong roster.

    Even with the 2017 draft still on the horizon, we should have a pretty good idea of what New England's roster is going to look like in 2017. The question is whether there are any glaring weaknesses on the team and if the Patriots can bolster them before the regular season.

    This is what we're going to examine here. We'll run down each position group for New England and determine if that area of the roster is a team strength or a team weakness. We'll also try to identify ways the team can improve either through the April 27-29 draft or the remnants of free agency.

    Since the Patriots do boast a championship-caliber roster, we'll be grading each position group on a bit of a curve. We'll be comparing position groups with other units around the NFL and with the Patriots roster as a whole.

Quarterbacks: Strength

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    Tom Brady has five Lombardi Trophies. You might say he helps make the quarterback position a strength.
    Tom Brady has five Lombardi Trophies. You might say he helps make the quarterback position a strength.Bob Levey/Getty Images

    You could easily argue that the quarterback position is the strongest position on New England's entire roster. In fact, you might say it's the strongest position group in the entire NFL. This is just how it is when you have Tom Brady under center.

    Sure, Brady might be 40 years old when the season opens, but he also has five Lombardi Trophies and is still playing at a high level. Unless we see a Peyton Manning-like sudden decline, Brady is likely to remain one of the league's top starters this season. Last season, he was rated first overall among quarterbacks by Pro Football Focus.

    "I've been a huge fan of Tom Brady for a long time and consider him one of the greatest if not the greatest of all time. And he's doing it at 39," Green Bay Packers quarterback recently told Evan Daniels on Fox Sports' The Sidelines podcast. "And the way that he takes care of his body is really a model for all quarterbacks."

    The Patriots also have plenty of insurance at the quarterback position. The team currently has Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett sitting behind Brady—and the Patriots proved they could win with either man last season.

Running Backs: Weakness

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    Players like James White bring versatility to New England's backfield, but the group is currently unbalanced.
    Players like James White bring versatility to New England's backfield, but the group is currently unbalanced.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    We're not going to pretend that the Patriots don't have a lot of talent in their backfield. James White and Dion Lewis are two of the shiftiest, most versatile backs in the entire league right now, and the team added former Cincinnati Bengals utility back Rex Burkhead in free agency.

    However, we're considering this position group a weakness right now because the team currently lacks a bruising, early-down back like the one the team had in LeGarrette Blount last offseason.

    Burkhead, who is a solid 210 pounds, could be that guy, but with just 87 pro carries under his belt, it's impossible to know.

    Of course, it shouldn't be difficult to remedy this situation. The Patriots could bring in a guy like Adrian Peterson and they could target a middle-round draft prospect like Oklahoma's Samaje Perine or Pittsburgh's James Conner.

    Naturally, the team could choose to simply bring Blount back for another run.

    "I know LeGarrette Blount would like to return to the Patriots," NFL Media's Ian Rapoport recently said on Up to the Minute Live. "I know the Patriots would like him back."

    Should New England make a move to bring in a power back, this position immediately becomes a strength.

Tight Ends: Strength

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    Does Rob Gronkowski make tight end a position of strength for the Patriots? Yes. Yes, he does.
    Does Rob Gronkowski make tight end a position of strength for the Patriots? Yes. Yes, he does.Elsa/Getty Images

    Based on Rob Gronkowski's physical appearance at WrestleMania 33—and New England's apparent lack of concern regarding it—we're going to assume that Gronk is going to be back to 100 percent heading into the 2017 season.

    When you have a healthy Rob Gronkowski on your roster, the tight end position is a position of strength.

    However, Gronkowski isn't the only pass-catching tight end on New England's roster. The team traded for 27-year-old tight end Dwayne Allen earlier this offseason.

    Allen is a 6'3", 265-pound move tight end who managed to rack up 406 yards and six touchdowns with the Indianapolis Colts last season. He would likely be a No. 1 tight end on several different NFL rosters, but due to the presence of Gronkowski, he becomes Brady's No. 2 target at the position.

    Not only do the Patriots have elite talent at tight end, they have solid depth. Calling this position group anything other than strong would be silly.

    Should Gronkowski get hurt again, though, this could quickly change.

Wide Receivers: Strength

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    Just how dangerous might Brandin Cooks be in New England's offense?
    Just how dangerous might Brandin Cooks be in New England's offense?Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Heading into the 2017 season, the Patriots' wide receiver corps appears to be as talented as it has been during the Brady era.

    Julian Edelman has developed into one of the league's most dependable receivers, and he has definitely earned Brady's trust. Chris Hogan is a terrific deep threat, and Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell are quality complementary options. Plus, as you might have heard, the Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks this offseason.

    Cook is a true breakaway threat, both downfield and after the catch. He adds the kind of home-run threat New England hasn't really enjoyed since the days of Randy Moss.

    "I do cringe," Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said of the Cooks addition, per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport.

    After adding Cooks, the Patriots now have two wideouts rated within the top 32 by Pro Football Focus in 2016 and four rated within the top 100. When you consider the attention New England's tight ends are going to command, it feels like it will be virtually impossible for opposing defenses to contain every receiver on any given play.

Offensive Line: Strength

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    Left tackle Nate Solder anchors a pretty solid Patriots offensive line.
    Left tackle Nate Solder anchors a pretty solid Patriots offensive line.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    The offensive line of the Patriots definitely isn't perfect. The team has a weak spot in second-year guard Joe Thuney, who was rated 138th overall among guards by Pro Football Focus last season. The team also potentially needs a succession plan in place for left tackle Nate Solder, who is entering the final year of his current contract.

    As a group, though, the Patriots line is one of the better units in the NFL. Pro Football Focus rated the group 11th in pass blocking and third in run blocking for 2016. Patriots quarterbacks were sacked just 24 times during the regular season.

    Brady was only sacked 15 times in 12 regular-season games.

    New England can certainly afford to bring in depth along the line, especially after parting ways with longtime tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Given the remaining talent on the open market, the Patriots would likely look to the draft to accomplish this. They would likely turn to the draft to bolster the tackle position or to bring in competition for Thuney as well.

    If New England doesn't add a significant piece to its line, though, there will be no reason to panic.

Defensive Line: Strength

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    Big, athletic defenders like Malcom Brown help give the Patriots one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL.
    Big, athletic defenders like Malcom Brown help give the Patriots one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The defensive line of the Patriots was good last season and it appears to have gotten even better since.

    Things start at the interior, where defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Alan Branch anchor the front. Branch and Brown were rated 17th and 22nd overall, respectively, among defensive tackles by Pro Football Focus in 2016.

    New England then has an emerging pass-rusher at the end position in third-year man Trey Flowers. Pro Football Focus rated him 14th overall among 4-3 ends last season.

    While ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard have both left the team since Super Bowl LI, the Patriots also traded for young talent Kony Ealy. At just 25 years old, Ealy has yet to reach his full potential at the end position and could have a long and bright future in New England.

    New England also added former Baltimore Ravens defensive end Lawrence Guy in free agency. Guy, who played primarily as a 3-4 end in Baltimore, brings a lot of versatility and talent to New England's defense. He was rated 14th overall among 3-4 ends by Pro Football Focus last season and he should help anchor the line when the Patriots are in an odd front.

    "They're getting a blue-collar, I would say undervalued, player around the league," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of Guy, via the Ravens official website.

Linebackers: Strength

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    The presence of Dont'a Hightower helps make linebacker a strength for the Patriots.
    The presence of Dont'a Hightower helps make linebacker a strength for the Patriots.Jerome Davis/Getty Images

    Even with standout Dont'a Hightower back on the team for 2017, it was tempting to call the linebacker position a weakness for the Patriots. Outside of Hightower, the team doesn't have stars or players who truly do any one special thing.

    However, we're still considering this group a strength because as a group, guys like Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and Elandon Roberts do exactly that the Patriots need them to do.

    Plus, with Hightower the only linebacker consistently on the field in New England's more unconventioanl sub-packages, his greatness carries a lot of weight at the position. According to Pro Football Focus, no linebacker aside from Hightower and the departed Jamie Collins saw more than 400 defensive snaps at any one position.

    Hightower was rated fifth overall among inside linebackers by Pro Football Focus last season.

    New England could certainly look to add a talented young linebacker in the draft, and the lack of star power could be part of the reason why sub-packages were so prevalent last year. However, this is still a group that would look pretty strong on a lot of other 4-3 base defenses.

Cornerbacks: Strength

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    Assuming Malcolm Butler plays for the Patriots, cornerback should again be a strength this season.
    Assuming Malcolm Butler plays for the Patriots, cornerback should again be a strength this season.Elsa/Getty Images

    Cornerback Malcolm Butler might be unhappy with his current contract situation, but the Patriots appear to have no interest in parting ways with the restricted free agent.

    "I'm rooting, I hope, he's with us and signs his offer sheet and plays for us," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com.

    As long as Butler returns, the Patriots should have a very strong group of cornerbacks in 2017. He was rated fifth overall among all cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus last season. The Patriots added former Buffalo Bills standout Stephon Gilmore, fresh off his first Pro Bowl, in free agency as Butler's running mate.

    While I would have liked to see New England retain Logan Ryan, the addition of Gilmore should keep New England's secondary rolling. He is a young, physical man-coverage specialist whom the Patriots obviously grew to respect while facing him twice a year in the AFC East.

    The Patriots have a solid third corner in Eric Rowe, who was rated 49th overall by Pro Football Focus last season.

    It remains to be seen whether or not the addition of Gilmore makes this group better than it was a year ago. However, if the unit is close to what it was a year ago, it will still be one of the stronger cornerback units in the league.

Safeties: Strength

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    Devin McCourty has emerged as one of the best safeties in the game today.
    Devin McCourty has emerged as one of the best safeties in the game today.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    We have to call the safety position a position of strength because of how well the trio of Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung operated in 2016. They helped field the league's 12th-ranked pass defense, which allowed just 237.9 yards per game through the air. That defense was rated first in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus.

    However, we do have to note there was a weakness withing the safety group last season and it was Chung. Pro Football Focus rated the 29-year-old safety third-worst at his position in 2016. McCourtey, meanwhile, was rated fourth overall among safeties.

    Only two safeties allowed more yards when targeted than the 518 yards allowed by Chung last season.

    So while the safety group is still a strength, the Patriots could make it an even bigger one by finding an upgrade over Chung. They might be able to do this by moving Harmon into the starting role ahead of Chung or by targeting a box safety with some coverage skills in the draft.

    New England might also want to kick the tires on former Bills safety Aaron Wilson, who from a talent standpoint is probably the best remaining free-agent safety. However, Williams has an extensive injury history, and the future of his playing career may be in question after last season was ended by a neck injury.

    Williams would first have to decide that he wants to continue playing, and the Patriots likely wouldn't bring him in until after the draft. Yet it would be typical for Belichick to bring a guy like Wilson over from a division rival and get the most out of him.

Special Teams: Weakness

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    New England's special teams unit isn't bad, but it was one of the weaker units on the team last season.
    New England's special teams unit isn't bad, but it was one of the weaker units on the team last season.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    The New England special teams unit definitely isn't terrible. On some other teams, it might even look like a strength. However, the group definitely had its issues in 2016 and doesn't exactly measure up to the rest of the roster.

    Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been a reliable piece of the team for more than a decade. However, he made just 84.4 percent of his field-goal attempts last year and had a reoccurring issue with extra points. Punter Ryan Allen was serviceable, but he was rated just 28th overall at his position by Pro Football Focus.

    New England also had some serious issue with the return unit. While Edelman and Amendola were both solid options, when the team turned to other players, it spelled disaster. Not wanting to overwork Edelman and with Amendola injured, Cyrus Jones was given a chance to return both kickoffs and punts.

    Jones was rated the league's worst return specialist by Pro Football Focus.

    Assuming Amendola remains on the roster this season, a reduced offensive role could allow him to lock down the return job full time. However, there is still room for improvement along the special teams group, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see New England bring in kicking and punting competition for training camp.

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