Monday, August 29, 2016

Patriots' Roster Projection, Part Deux - Of Linebackers, Wasted Pot Roast And Waiver Wires...

"If you really want that player and you just can't bear to live without them, then you shouldn't be exposing them to the wire." - Bill Belichick

This year, more than any in recent history, the Patriots' head ball coach faces the very real prospect that he is going to lose a good percentage of his cuts to other teams - that's what happens when your roster is loaded from top to bottom with the kind of talent that the Dark Master has collected this offseason.

Especially on the defensive side of the ball, where he has to make some crazy choices on players who may not have been highly regarded before Belichick got his hands on them, but certainly are now that scouts for other teams have seen them in action for three preseason games - his words above in response above to a reasonable question about if the fear of other teams claiming his young talent off the waiver wire is a consideration for molding his roster...

...and he's right.  If you really don't want to lose a player, then keep him on the roster.  It's really that simple, but this is also another occasion where Belichick minimizes a process that has to be tugging at his heart-strings and tearing out what's left of his thinning lettuce.

There are some kids that you know he would love to see slide through the waiver wire unclaimed - but it's a 24 hour countdown that has the powers that be at NFL headquarters with cell phones taped to each ear and a brace of mathematicians at the ready, armed with scientific calculators in an attempt to determine which team has precedence over another in the claiming process.

The one golden lining with the process is that over a thousand players will be floating in a macabre purgatory, uncertain of their futures in football, so there is always the chance that some of the players are either overlooked or just not a priority to teams who are other-motivated, either by injury or attrition.

Of course, many are told not to leave town unless informed that they have been claimed, as upon being informed of their release, Belichick will have told them that he will sign them to the practice squad the second that the 24 hour claiming period has expired - and if another team does claim them, well, it's a chance that all teams have to take.

"If you're prepared to waive them, then you've got to be prepared to lose them.  That's just the way it is."

It sucks, for sure, but it also can't be helped, as it is the nature of life in the National Football League.

Quarterbacks - 2

Jimmy Garoppolo
Jacoby Brissett
Tom Brady (Suspended)

A quarterback controversy seems to be brewing in the minds of some media members.

No, not between Garoppolo and Brady after the incumbent returns from a month-long vacation courtesy of Roger Goodell and his megalo-maniacal temper tantrum, but between Grop and rookie Brissett, who at times has outshone both of the players ahead of him on the depth chart - but Belichick quashed that notion by claiming, "We want to get Jimmy ready for the Arizona game."

That's not going to stop the speculation, particularly if Prince Ali struggles in his first couple of starts, but the fact of the matter is that Garoppolo is working with a cast of players who will mostly be looking for work after final cutdowns against the opposition's number one defense, and things should look much different once all of the offense's normal top weapons are back in the huddle.

Brissett's time will come.

Running Backs - 5

LeGarrette Blount
James White
Tyler Gaffney
Brandon Bolden
James Develin
Dion Lewis (PUP)

If the Carolina game showed us anything on the offensive side of the ball, it is that the Patriots have a running game, and that Blount and Gaffney are in a dead heat - not for a roster spot, but as to splitting snaps as the power back when the games count.  The Panthers' defensive front seven are as stout a group of run defenders as you will find in the league, and both backs found room to run.

White is entrenched as the passing back, as are Bolden as a core special teamer and Develin as the crazed fullback. D.J. Foster ends up on practice squad if he goes unclaimed, as the kid has a future as a passing back in a league where the position becomes more highly valued as time wears on - and may be a late-season call up if Lewis is unable to return.

Tight Ends - 3

Rob Gronkowski
Martellus Bennett
A. J. Derby

The only question with this group is whether Clay Harbor is doing enough to dislodge Derby's grip on the final roster spot.  For certain, his work as a blocker was on full display against Carolina, but Harbor's calling card is as a receiver, and he's just not gaining separation in the pattern.  We can expect to see plenty of both players against the Giants in the final preseason game, with the third tight end spot on the line.

Receivers - 6

Julian Edelman
Chris Hogan
Aaron Dobson
Malcolm Mitchell
Keshawn Martin
Matt Slater
Danny Amendola (PUP)

The connection between Edelman and Garoppolo seems tenuous, and that has to improve before the season opener - so Belichick has a vested interest in playing both in the preseason finale, even if he has to hold Brady out of the game completely.

Speaking of Brady, he really seems to like Dobson and targeted him right off the bat when he entered the game on Friday night, and for a big gainer, and he showed a nice rapport with Hogan as well.  There really isn't much drama with the roster spots other than with the everybody-hates-Dobson crowd, and the uncertainty surrounding Amendola's health status and whether he will be on the PUP to start the season.

DeAndre Carter and Devin Lucien should wind up on the practice squad, should they clear waivers.

Offensive Linemen - 9

Nate Solder (LT)
Marcus Cannon (RT)
Joe Thuney (LG)
David Andrews (C)
Jonathan Cooper (G)
Ted Karras (G)
Shaq Mason (G)
Cameron Fleming (T)
LaAdrian Waddle (T)
Sebastian Vollmer (T - PUP)

Jonathan Cooper doesn't cost the Patriots $2.4 million against the cap to sit on the bench, so returning to practice on Monday has to be seen as the gateway to him starting at right guard.  When healthy, he is a nose tackle's worst nightmare - when he's not, he's a colossal bust.  It's tough to gauge a player who hasn't played, but his cap hit alone suggests that if he is on the roster, he will start.

That puts Shaq Mason on the bench, but one injury away from realizing the right guard spot - and, really, that is the position with any drama left to it at all.

Solder is having a tough time with speed rushers, but Cannon seems to be reenergized at the right tackle position, perhaps due to the realization that this could be all for Vollmer, and this is his chance to reward Belichick's faith in him.  Thuney is a Logan Mankins-like revelation at left guard and Andrews is the classic feel-good story - and Karras could be another.

Fleming and Waddle are capable swing tackles - with Waddle in the same circumstance as Mason, as one more injury to Solder or if he continues to struggle against speed rushers could have him manning the blind side.  Fleming is, essentially, a tight end, as he reports as eligible when he enters the game more times than not.

Offensive total: 25

Defensive Line - 9

Chris Long (DE)
Rob Ninkovich (DE)
Malcom Brown (NT)
Alan Branch (DT)
Anthony Johnson (DT)
Vincent Valentine (DT/NT)
Jabaal Sheard (DE)
Trey Flowers (DE)
Geneo Grissom (DE)

It was tough leaving Markus Kuhn off the list, but who else do you cut?  Branch is a proven commodity while Johnson and Valentine have played their way onto the roster with brutish intensity - and there isn't a defensive end on the current roster that is going anywhere.  The only way that Kuhn sticks is if the team decides to use it's IR designation on Ninkovich, but the feeling here is that the team is saving that just in case of a major injury somewhere else.

Just like everywhere else on this loaded roster, there are players that simply lose out on the numbers game.

Terrance Knighton didn't even make it to the roster trimdown to 75 players scheduled for Tuesday, as New England threw their wasted hunk of pot roast in the dumpster, and taking a $250k dead money hit to be rid of him, though the $1.7 million in cap space more than makes up for that - a move that most people saw coming after he didn't play in that "all important" third preseason game, losing his snaps to Valentine.

As far as defensive ends are concerned, there is no better collection in the league than what Belichick has assembled, though injury concerns could potentially leave them thin on the edges - probably why Belichick went out and stole Barkevious Mingo from Cleveland...

Linebackers - 5

Dont'a Hightower
Jamie Collins
Barkevious Mingo
Shea McClellin
Jonathan Freeny

An area of concern not even a month before camp started is now fully loaded and one of the fastest and most athletically violent linebacking tandems in the league.

Barkevious Mingo was added to the roster on Thursday and Jonathan Freeny was signed to a two year extention on Saturday, assuring New England that their weakside had an athletic freak opposite the "perfect" strong side linebacker in Jamie Collins, and also that the team had settled on the veteran saavy of Freeny to back up Dont'a Hightower on the interior.

Oh, and, there's still Shea McClellin, who has the versatility to back up all three linebacker spots.

Unfortunately for rookies Elandon Roberts and Kamu Grugier-Hill, that may mean their days in Foxborough have been cut short.  But if both clear waivers, there is little doubt that they will be back on the practice squad.

Cornerbacks - 5

Malcolm Butler
Logan Ryan
Cyrus Jones
Justin Coleman
Darryl Roberts

After the punking that the Patriots corners put on the Carolina Panthers' receivers on Friday night - a set of receivers who had every size advantage imaginable on the diminutive New England corners - these guys have every right to strut like a gang of mad peacocks. Diminutive in stature only, as Brown, Jones and Coleman each had something for their larger foes, and Logan Ryan showed impressive technique and a willingness to stick his nose in the running lanes.

Those four are as locked down as you can get, which leaves just one open spot and a handful of young fire-pissers vying for it - and we've seen enough of all of them to make a solid case for each, but at this point, in my eyes, we hope to see Cre'von LeBlanc and Jonathan Jones wind up on Practice Squad to develop their game.

Safeties - 6

Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Jordan Richards
Nate Ebner
Brandon King

The only unit on the defense in which there was no major changes, because there was no need of an upgrade.

For the defense that the Patriots run, the safety corps has to be considered the best at what they do in the league.  While Ebner and King rarely impact things on the defensive side of the ball - they make their bones by being special teams core four studs - their status as reliable depth is overlooked, especially King, who has all the tools to be a first-rate strong safety or weakside linebacker, which goes to show just how good he is on special teams that his efforts are concentrated there, solely.

Both Harmon and McCourty picked off passes on Friday night, and both times while the players were playing the deep third and took advantage of the play of their teammates in the front seven.

Defensive total: 25

Specialists - 3

Stephen Gostkowski (K)
Ryan Allen (P)
Joe Cardona (LS)

Yawn.  Consistently excellent otherwise, Gostkowski missed a couple of field goals on Friday night, though one was because of a bad Cardona snap and the other was just a regular old 53 yard miss.

Let's call it a bad night.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Mail Call - Talking Running Game, Play Calling And The State Of The Offensive Line

Most football fans would take a running back who has averaged 4.6 yards per carry and has rushed for 4,000 yards during a six year career. Those numbers are not elite nor ground-breaking in any way, but they are solid.

Would a back with those kinds of numbers be welcome in New England?

How about a guy who also has doubled as a kick returner, compiling an elite 27.1 average on 22 career touches in that capacity?  How about the fact that this back gets better the more critical the situation, averaging 4.8 yards per carry on 76 career playoff carries and has found paydirt 38 times in his career?

Admit it, you'd love to have this running back in the Patriots backfield.

Well, you already do, and his name is LeGarrette Blount.

Many questions sent in for this particular mail call have been of the knee-jerk variety regarding the running back position and who the Patriots are going to bring in to replace the injured Dion Lewis and, not surprisingly, statements regarding their lack of confidence in Blount.

All anyone has to do who doesn't believe that Blount is vital to the success of the Patriots' offense is just look at what happened to said offense when Blount went down for the year in the Texans game.  For the season, the Patriots averaged a pathetic 3.7 yards per carry, but were averaging 4.0 before Blount went down and an even 3.0 after he was finished for the season...

...and in the playoffs that dipped to an abysmal 2.6 yards per carry.  Needless to say, the Patriots' running game didn't scare anyone after Blount went on the shelf, particularly in the playoffs, when both the Chiefs and Broncos sent their pass rushers without prejudice, overwhelming an offensive line who didn't have time to anchor in their stances, leaving quarterback Tom Brady a human piƱata.

Could another back do the same job as Blount, or better?  Sure, but how many of those backs could step right into the Patriots' complex concept-based scheme and be as effective?

The answer is, not many.

Let's give some love to Blount.  He's proven that he can carry the load, and the opposing defenses respect the Patriots' running game when he's in the lineup.

Now on to this week's questions:

Given the reported injury statuses of Vollmer and Mason, what sort of early season performance can we expect from the offensive line?  How do these injuries change how the Pats scheme in the run/pass game? - Darel (Utah via Foxborough Free Press)

There is no denying that the injuries are disappointing from the standpoint of cohesion and technique in pass protection, but not all is lost.

The Patriots run a "slide protection" scheme, meaning that on one side of the line, the tackle, guard and center will move in unison in the same direction, with a power step directly lateral (with no ground given), slide his other foot to match the first step , then thrust forward with the third step, delivering the initial punch to rock the defensive lineman.  The linemen on the other side, usually the strong side, will take on rushing defenders man-to-man, with a back stepping up into the gap created by the two concepts, taking on blitzers.

It is far too complicated for the space we have here, but it goes without saying that it takes chemistry between all of the linemen to pull this off - and it is exactly why Cannon taking over for Vollmer makes the most sense, for he knows the scheme inside and out.  What helps the cohesion of the linemen is having capable tight ends or a tight end and a sixth offensive lineman, usually on the weak side.

Now, you may hear throughout Patriots' games the referee announce "Number 71 is eligible", which means that swing tackle Cam Fleming is lined up on the weak side, leaving the strong side to one or more tight ends, and Fleming's job is to help the left tackle control speed rushers, while one or both tight ends release into the pattern, one of them chipping the edge rusher back into the path of the strong side tackle.

What all of this means is that the way that the Patriots use their tight ends and swing tackles takes a lot of pressure off of the linemen - kind of like a cornerback having safety help over the top - leaving them free to play with raw power and technique, so the state of the line as it is isn't as dire a situation as it would be with most teams.

The same goes for the running game, where one of the tight ends or the eligible lineman will pull into the gap to lead the back through.


If Lewis does, indeed, start the regular season on PUP, does White have the chops to be productive enough in the running game to be more than just a receiving threat? - Darel (Utah via Foxborough Free Press)

You know, White definitely has the ability in the running game.  We saw it in college and we've seen just a smattering of it this preseason.  The thing is with White is that in college, he had Wisconsin's massive wall blocking scheme to run behind and in the pros, it's been the zone blocking scheme that relies on backs cutting against the grain into holes created by pulling guards and by tight ends with wham blocks.

We've seen his subtle style in space, so it's entirely possible that he could do the same thing between the tackles.

More than anyone else, White could use a better blocking cast than the one we saw last season.  The players were capable, but when the team had to use 26 different line combinations, including 13 different starting lineups, continuity and precision in the running game is tough to accomplish.  If the Patriots can find the right line combination - hell, just stick with one - White can be productive in the running game.


We all know we get one of each, so who do you think is the surprise keeper and who is the surprise cut? - Ken (New Jersey via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

In all honesty, I had Bryan Stork listed as a cut, but upon waking on Wednesday morning, I discovered that Belichick had beat me to the punch.  Again.

I don't know how much of a surprise it's going to be, but three-tech tackle Anthony Johnson has played his way into a roster spot on the defensive line and I also believe that Elandon Roberts has shown well enough to create a niche for himself along side Kamu Grugier-Hill among the linebackers.  Cornerback Jonathan Jones could make the team as well.

The surprise cuts shouldn't be all that surprising either, as Aaron Dobson should get a pink slip along with a plethora of other receivers.  Clay Harbor is going to have to have a huge couple of weeks to make the team, and at this point I wouldn't be surprised to see Jonathan Cooper get the axe.


Is Cannon the answer? - Todd (Connecticut via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

This is the season when Cannon finally grasps the right tackle position and owns it.  Read more here.


With Vollmer and Mason out, what do you project the starting lineup to look like and do you expect Scar to go with a set unit or are they destined to rotate this season? - Rick (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Josh Kline and Marcus Cannon.  Of course, the right side is a question mark, especially at guard where Mason was set to dominate, and for them to go with the undersized Josh Kline would be a major step down in the running game - but the alternatives are limited. Ted Karras is a mauler and an interior street fighter, but doesn't handle speed rushers all that well.

Jonathan Cooper is an elite talent that would easily be considered the starter, but he is a china shop on a field full of bulls.  Tre Jackson would need to come off the PUP in the next couple of days to have any shot of regaining his right guard spot from last season.

That leaves Kline and Karras as the available guards.  Look for Karras to wedge his way into the lineup at some point, as the guy is potent in the slide protection scheme.


Do the Patriots have any plans on returning to the UK anytime soon? - Keith (Belfast, Northern Ireland via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

Unfortunately, the NFL doesn't have a rotating schedule or anything that might give us an idea of when the Patriots might return to the land of Fish and Chips, no set formula, per se.  About the best I can do for you on that front is to forward information regarding this year's international series games, for which there are three contests in the United Kingdom.

Week 4 - Colts vs. Jaguars at Wembley Stadium
Week 7 - Giants vs Rams at Twickenham Stadium
Week 8 - Redskins vs Bengals at Wembley Stadium

Patriots' owner Robert Kraft is a huge proponent for putting a team in London, and it has been a dream of many at NFL headquarters for a long time, so there's that...


Will Bill trade with the Browns for Josh Gordon? - James (Canada via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

Very doubtful, James.  The Patriot Way cuts him off at the pass.


Is there any area that concerns you about this team? - Daniel (Maryland via The Belichickians)

Honestly, no - at least not on the field.  Allow me to elaborate:

"There were two main issues that plagued the running back corps last season, and both needed to be addressed in the offseason.  The first being addressing the lack of tangible depth, as New England had no one to carry the load after they lost both scatback Dion Lewis and power back LeGarrette Blount, rendering the offense one-dimensional.

No one needs to tell Patriots' fans how ugly that was, nor how frustrating it was to watch the offensive line being overwhelmed like a earthen levee trying to hold back a tsunami, the lack of a running game allowing Patriots' opponents to load up their pass rush, knowing that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had next-to-nothing to attack the middle of the defense with.

The second issue was that McDaniels has a bad habit of ignoring the tenets of the offensive philosophy by passing to score, then passing to try and win - as evidenced by the Patriots logging the lowest number of running plays in the history of the franchise.

Some of that had to do with the injuries, but the pace was already set way before Blount went down with three games remaining on the Patriots' schedule - and that can't happen again if New England hopes to ascend to the pinnacle of professional football." - Foxborough Free Press, August 7, 2016

Those who follow this blog already know that I have a pretty big problem with the way that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels handles the running game.  I could go on and on about his track record in the second halves of games, relying on the short passing game to eat the clock when they have a running game for that very purpose.

My concern is for balance on offense, and the answer to that rests solely on the narrow shoulders of McDaniels.


How many guys look to start the season on PUP?  There are many banged up players who need time to recover, and none bigger than Danny Amendola. - Daniel (Maryland via The Belichickians)

Well, the number can't be any more than what they started camp with, per NFL rules, as a player has to be on the preseason PUP in order to be eligible for the regular season PUP.  That said, there are only four players still on the Patriots' PUP: Amendola, Tre Jackson, Sebastian Vollmer and Dion Lewis - the latter two shelved for at least the time period that the PUP runs for, which is until after week six of the season.

Jackson is recovering from a knee procedure and has been seen infrequently around Patriots' Place, so his status appears to be in doubt, while Amendola has been a participant in conditioning drills separate from the rest of the team, but appears to be running well and is likely the only player remaining on the PUP that could be activated by the team prior to the regular season.

But should they activate him, or save him until eligible to be activated to ensure full health?  The answer to that is found in the depth chart, where he would be buried and no better than the fourth receiving option behind Gronkowski, Bennett, Edelman and maybe even James White, so it may be that Belichick plays it safe with him and keeps him on the PUP.

Let's call it money in the bank.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

For Patriots' Marcus Cannon, Vollmer Injury Opens Opportunity

When word surfaced on Sunday that starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer had undergone shoulder surgery and was done for the season before it even started, the news was met with gloom by New England Patriots' fans, because they saw what happened last season with the offensive line and injuries.

And though many still blame the offensive line for what happened in 2015, the truth of the matter is that injuries to running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount forced the Patriots into a one-dimensional air show that left the offensive line on their heels and at the mercy of opposing pass rushers, as defensive coordinators sent everything they had after Brady, knowing that the Patriots had no running game to counter their aggression.

Of course, there were injuries along the offensive line, but none so debilitating that they couldn't have been overcome, and even if New England would have been healthy along the line, the sheer numbers that opposing defenses sent against them would have dictated similar results.  But that doesn't ease the minds of the fans or the media - and rightfully so, as whatever it was that happened last year wasn't going to cut it in 2016.

But the Vollmer injury impacts the offensive line in ways that the season-ending injury to left tackle Nate Solder didn't last season.  Vollmer filled in for Solder on the left for most of the season, but Solder just doesn't have that kind of versatility - so the onus on the strong side falls on sixth-year swing tackle Marcus Cannon...

...scary stuff to most, as Cannon has suffered the scourge of fans and media alike for nearly his entire career in Foxborough due to what has been seen as ineffective play, but a deeper look inside the player and the scheme eschews the traditional thoughts on Cannon's play.

Hammered by cancer coming out of college, Cannon sat out the bulk of his rookie season on the team's NFI (Non-football Injury) list, returning in week 10 and giving coaches and fans a reason to be optimistic about the gargantuan tackle's prospects as a fill-in for starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who was struggling with back problems.

A first-round talent, Cannon slid down draft boards after irregularities in his blood work during the 2011 NFL combine revealed he was suffering from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, many feeling that his career was in jeopardy and that he probably wouldn't be drafted at all, despite his glowing scouting reports...

...many of which called him one of the more athletic tackles coming out of college which, when coupled with a massive 6' 5", 356 pound frame had Cannon listed as one of the top offensive linemen in the draft - all of which seemed to make Cannon the steal of the draft when New England General Manager Bill Belichick selected Cannon in the fifth round, and particularly when Cannon made it back to the field after completing treatment for the malady.

Unfortunately for both Cannon and the Patriots, life as a swing tackle saw him filling in at guard and tackle on both sides of the line throughout the following seasons, and never being able to settle in at just one position.  Most saw this as a failure on Cannon's part, but there is a reason why he was always the first player called upon when an injury occurred on the line.

But as a journeyman along the line, Cannon has never really been able to settle in on just one position, and has had to adjust his skill set to fit the need of the team - which is not how Belichick likes to handle players as a coach, as he prefers to add a player's distinctiveness to the collective rather than force a square skill set to fit into a round hole.

For example, at the start of the 2014 Super Bowl season, Cannon started the season at left guard, the thinking being that his massive frame and powerful anchor would help keep opposing pass rushers out of quarterback Tom Brady's face, but he struggled when teams lined up faster three-tech tackles against him, as chronic issues with his right foot wouldn't allow him to plant and drive when the rusher would go to his outside shoulder...

...and after three games of watching Brady getting planted up the middle, Cannon was reverted back to his swing tackle role, as Josh Kline and Ryan Wendell filled in the remainder of the season - this after all of Cannon's pro experience was at the tackle positions.

Many were down on Cannon after that episode, but he had fans in the people who counted the most, in Belichick and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

"Love his physicality, love his passion for the game." Scharnecchia raved of Cannon, adding, "He's a smart kid, a great kid to coach, driven to be very good. I think he's a really good tackle. I like what he's doing, I like how he's doing it.  Every day is a growth for him. He's a special kid, He's a starting quality player."

But 2015 brought more struggles, as a season ending injury to starting left tackle Nate Solder and his primary backup, LaAdrian Waddle, in the same game pressed Cannon into service on Brady's blind side.  Cannon re-injured his right foot in the following game - a nasty case of turf toe - and was out of the lineup for a month before returning on the left against Buffalo and getting beat like he stole something before being replaced by Vollmer.

His struggles on the left upon his return were encapsulated by NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth during the game, who pointed out that Cannon was getting beat around the edge because of the same reason he couldn't handle the left guard spot earlier in his career, the chronic issues with his right foot that wouldn't allow him to plant and anchor properly.

Belichick moved him back to the right, where he stayed the rest of the year and started to grow into the position, gaining praise from Belichick, who said he played his finest game as a Patriot in the divisional playoff win over Kansas City.

So Cannon is a right tackle.  His turf toe is healed and he's looked good-to-very good in the first two preseason games - a lot of it due to concentrating solely on the position mixed in with the return of Scarnecchia after a two-year hiatus, who preaches consistency and isn't a big fan of moving players around.

But one thing is certain: Cannon performing well and finally grasping a position for his own can only help the Patriots' offense.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Patriots' White Has Proven His Worth

Patriots' Nations was collectively stunned on Sunday, when news broke that electrifying passing back Dion Lewis was scheduled for minor surgery on the same knee that he tore his ACL, setting him back until November before he was expected to return to the Patriots' roster.

All over social media, fans were decrying the loss of Lewis and his video game elusiveness and wondered openly how New England head ball coach Bill Belichick would ever be able to replace the production of the player the national media had labeled a human joystick and Patriots' receiver Julian Edelman had nicknamed "Little Dirty".

Many names were mentioned, from Ray Rice to Karlos Williams to any number of running backs rumored to be on their individual teams' roster bubble, most either forgetting about third-year Wisconsin product James White who was not only already on their roster, but had already proven himself up to the task of carrying on the passing back role, or completely discounting his production when he filled in for Lewis down the stretch.

When Lewis went down with an ACL in early November against the Washington Redskins, he had amassed 388 yards on 36 receptions, averaging five catches and 55 yards per game in seven contests - but once White took over the primary passing back duties, he actually surpassed most of those those totals, gaining 410 yards on 40 receptions in eight games, averaging 5 catches and 52 yards per game, while also outscoring Lewis four touchdowns to two.

This is not to discount the style that Lewis brings to the field, nor his production - rather, this merely shows that White accomplished the same type of production, but even that doesn't tell the full story.  Once Lewis was out, it took quarterback Tom Brady a couple of games to warm up to White being in the lineup, then the two caught fire...

...hooking up 28 times in the final five games down the stretch for 315 yards and three of his touchdowns, then adding seven catches for 84 yards in two playoff games. All told, White ended up with 47 catches for 494 yards in 10 games including the playoffs, rivaling anything that even Shane Vereen accomplished in his tenure with New England.

In all fairness, White has never proven to be an effective between-the-tackles ball carrier and is much more effective on the jailbreak screen and on the wheel routes in the flat, which the Patriots use as an extension of their running game, but he appears to have upped his production in the running game this preseason, averaging four yards per carry.

He is capable of more, as his college numbers border on elite, his senior season at Wisconsin gaining 1,444 yards for an average of 6.5 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns behind the Badgers' massive offensive line - this despite splitting carries with future San Diego Charger Melvin Gordon.

So while not having Lewis available for the first couple of months of the season, it is entirely possible that the team keeps him on the active PUP list and activates him after week six - whether he is ready or not - or they could place him on the injured reserve with a return designation and bring him back a few weeks later, which puts him in line for action down the stretch in the regular season...

...but until then, and probably continuing on past that point, the onus will be on James White to shoulder the load as the Patriots' passing back - and as we've seen, he has already proven his worth in that capacity.

Patriots Balanced On Offense In Two Preseason Wins; Trending For Regular Season?

"There is so much talent at the tight end position and so much depth and skill at the passing back position, that Belichick could play an entire game using nothing but a short-yardage, Jumbo package - a 23 Personnel, if you will, meaning two running backs and three tight ends.  Nothing really weird about it and a pretty easy offensive package for a defense to match up with...

...until you remember that you are playing the Patriots, who have brought out Dion Lewis and James White as their running backs and have tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Bennett split wide outside the numbers with H-back Harbor in the slot.  No wide receivers on the field, yet your secondary is doomed.  This is what happens when you mess with Bill Belichick." - Foxborough Free Press, May 30, 2016

Back in May when I was giddy with excitement over the prospects of Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick being able to line up three skilled tight ends in his concept-based offensive scheme, I kinda-sorta jokingly introduced a wild thought that New England could line up in a 23 personnel "Jumbo" package and steamroll opposing defenses.

That was before redshirt sophomore A.J.Derby exploded onto the scene, literally from nowhere to shove free agent pick up Clay Harbor halfway out the doors at Patriots' Place, and if Derby has another outing this coming Friday in Carolina like has had in the first two preseason games, Harbor will most likely be looking for work come cutdown day.

That was also before Tyler Gaffney, himself a redshirt, also arrived with a thump - taking turns with a rejuvenated looking LeGarrette Blount trucking folks on the second level to form a lethal "next shoe", power running tandem - which is an awesome thing in and of itself, but even more so now that it appears that passing pack Dion Lewis will continue to rehab his bum knee on the PUP list to start the season...

...leaving James White as the only true passing back in the offense, which, as we've seen the second half of last season and all through preseason, isn't a handicap on the offense at all because if we didn't have Lewis to marvel at, we'd be doing the same thing with White.

For certain, the entire Patriots' offense has a different look and feel to it this season, and is steaming towards a huge departure from the finesse, take-what-the-defense-gives-you routine that has gotten them to five consecutive AFC Title games and won them one Super Bowl to what appears to be a return to the physicality of the millennial teams that won by punching folks in the mouth and not worrying too much about repercussions.

And that's what football is about, after all, right?  That's why these guys are decked out in all kinds of padding, helmets, cups, etc., because football is a physical sport - three yards and a cloud of dust. Despite some "innovators" trying to make it about over the top speed, it still comes down to being able to take what you want, a violent game of ground acquisition in which to be successful, an offense must be balanced in their attack.

Thus far in the preseason, the Patriots have thrown the ball 53 times, completing 43 passes for an even 500 yards and a touchdown, while running the ball 56 times for 265 yards and three scores.  If that's not balance, I don't know what is.

But, as always, simple stats can be deceiving - as they are in this case.

Of those 56 pass attempts, 37 have gone to tight ends or backs - a full two-thirds of the attempts, and when combined with the touches on the ground, the most physical of the Patriots' skill position players have handled the ball an astounding 85% of the time.

Sure, the Patriots' top receivers in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola haven't seen the field in preseason, which should account for some of that disparity, but the fact that top tight end Rob Gronkowski hasn't played at all and free agent pickup Martellus Bennett has played very sparingly, cancels that out - so with the numbers being as they are, can we expect a similar shift in philosophy during the regular season?

Of course, no one but Bill Belichick and his hair dresser knows for sure, but the odds of them running with a 22 personnel alignment - and even a 23 personnel "Jumbo" package are pretty good, given the immense amount of talent among the backs and tight ends, even now that Lewis has to undergo a second surgery on his knee and will probably not be ready until midseason.

Even so, there has been an increased emphasis on getting the ball in the hands of the running backs, with White and power back Tyler Gaffney seeing the majority of the targets, and the emergence of Derby, who is really more like a gigantic possession receiver than a traditional tight end, has opened the door for the ability to run a Jumbo package as a matter of course, rather than just as a short yardage formation.

It is not beyond the spectrum of possibility that we could see Gronkowski, Bennett and Derby lined up as receivers with any number of combinations at running back, such as White teamed with Blount or Gaffney - which opens up the entire playbook for the offense, and causes a lot of pre-snap confusion for the defense.

Will they actually do something like that?  It's a good bet that you will see it more than most people think, but just like with Gronk and Marty, it doesn't make much sense to keep Edelman on the sidelines, nor Hogan for that matter, so the predominant alignment will probably be the one back-two tight end 12 personnel...

...and even then, the Patriots will have some of the top talent in the league on the field at the same time, and isn't that what Belichick is striving for?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Initial Patriots' Roster Projection Reveals Juggernaut In The Making

Juggernaut (n); any large, destructive, overpowering force or object, such as war, a giant battleship or a powerful football team. -

New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick has slowly but surely shifted his philosophies on both sides of the ball. going from his standard 4-3 alignment on defense to a safety heavy 4-2-5 "Big Nickle" formation that features a fortress for a defensive line and perhaps the best trio of safeties in the NFL that support two athletic linebackers, allowing them to flow to the ball virtually unimpeded...

White is explosive and powerful in the short area spaces
...while on offense, he finally has the jumbo package that he's always wanted, featuring a set of dominating tight ends flanking a young but improving line, and a running game that can go anywhere from a Thunder and Lightening approach to a 22 or 23 personnel formation that relies on pure heft and violent intent to shove folks out of the way and take what they want by force.

It's a beautiful thing, but maybe not so much for Belichick at this moment in time, as he has so much of a good thing at virtually every position that he has some difficult decisions to make to get his team down to just 53 players less than two weeks from now.

Obviously, there are many young players that could revert to the practice squad, but Belichick's charges are so loaded with talent that many will find themselves scooped up by other teams if they hit the waiver wire at final cutdowns.

Needless to say, the Dark Master has his work cut out for him to juggle the roster, not just to keep the best 53 players, but also to keep talented youngsters to develop on his practice squad.

It's an awesome problem to have.

Offense (25)

Quarterbacks (2)

Jimmy Garoppolo
Jacoby Brissett
(Tom Brady - Suspension)

There is really no question regarding roster spots here, at least until Brady returns from his four-game suspension.  At that point, a couple of different variables come into play, such as a market developing before the trade deadline for Garoppolo and the readiness of Brissett.

Running Backs (5)

LeGarrette Blount
James White
Tyler Gaffney
Brandon Bolden
James Develin
(Dion Lewis - PUP)

It is quite possible that Lewis starts the season on the PUP.  Fortunately for New England, the passing back position is well cared for by White, who continues to impress with his short-area burst and subtle elusiveness.  Blount and Gaffney form a power back combination not seen in Foxborough for decades while Bolden is a core special teamer and a capable emergency fill in.

Tight Ends (3)

Rob Gronkowski
Martellus Bennett
A.J. Derby

The rise of Derby to grasp the third tight end spot makes this core group even more scary than they were before, which would have been hard to imagine a couple of weeks ago.  Derby is a fluid, big and fast pass catcher who will effectively free up one of the wide receiver spots once Brady or Lewis returns to the field.

Receivers (6)

Julian Edelman
Chris Hogan
Danny Amendola
Malcolm Mitchell
Keshawn Martin
Matt Slater

Amendola and Mitchell are nursing ailments, but are expected to be part of the rotation in a largely devalued area of the passing game - devalued because the focus of the offense appears to be the big and powerful tight ends and the emerging running game, which is poised to dominate the "skill position" spots, leaving a maximum of two spots in the lineup for wide outs - and many times just one.

Offensive Linemen (9)

Nate Solder
Joe Thuney
David Andrews
Shaq Mason
Sebastian Vollmer
Ted Karras
Josh Kline
LaAdrian Waddle
Cameron Fleming

It appears that the interior offensive line is in for an extreme makeover, as Thuney has excelled at the left guard spot, pushing Mason to right guard, for which he is better suited as a drive blocker.  Stork may have fought his way out of a roster spot while Cannon still has shown no inclination of being an answer at swing tackle.  Karras is in a fight with Josh Kline for an interior spot, while Waddle and Fleming have shown enough to edge out Cannon.

If Vollmer starts the season on the PUP, which is entirely possible, one could conceivably add Cannon back to the mix.  This is one scenario which begs for attention, and perhaps should be a focus next offseason in free agency or the draft.

Defense (25)

Defensive Linemen (10)

Rob Ninkovich
Jaball Sheard
Chris Long
Shea McClellen
Trey Flowers
Geneo Grissom
Malcom Brown
Terrance Knighton
Anthony Johnson
Vincent Valentine

All six defensive ends are adept at setting the edge, and there may not be a deeper overall group of edge players in the league.  Ninkovich and Sheard  are the projected starters, though there will be a healthy situational rotation in place to keep everyone fresh - which also goes for the interior of the line, which is massive.  Brown, Knighton and Valentine are space eaters with plus-athleticism while a trimmed-down Johnson has renewed his career as the team's lone three-tech.

Linebackers (4)

Dont'a Hightower
Jamie Collins
Elandon Roberts
Kamu Grugier-Hill

In the big nickle, which the Patriots are in frequently enough to call their "base", Hightower and Collins form the best one-two punch in the league.  Collins may be the best overall talent on the defense and frequently slices through gaps caused by the bigs up front to blow up plays in the opponent's backfield, while Hightower roams the second level like a man possessed.  Roberts could find himself on the practice squad instead of the active roster, but has performed admirably.  Hill is a special talent as a weakside tweener and should be developed on the roster.

Cornerbacks (5)

Malcolm Butler
Logan Ryan
Cyrus Jones
Darryl Roberts
Jonathan Jones

Belichick kept just four corners last season, but this year's crop of pass defenders combine to make perhaps the deepest, most talented camp unit in years.  Butler, Ryan and Jones are locks, while Roberts is flexing his muscles and has taken over the race for the dime back, though there are several young greyhounds on the camp roster who could leapfrog him.  Jonathan Jones is by no means a lock as, in truth, the last corner spot is deep with young talent and it could go to anyone.

Safeties (6)

Devin McCourty    
Patrick Chung        
Duron Harmon
Jordan Richards     
Nate Ebner             
Brandon King

Only four of the six safeties see the field as part of the alignment, as Ebner and King make their bones as core special teamers, but what an incredibly talented group of blue liners Belichick has built over the years.  McCourty is a former corner who helps out as such in the big nickle, while Chung reduces down into the box where he is a force against the run.  Harmon is the key as he is as capable a centerfielder as there is in the game, running a sub 4.4 and possessing ridiculous sideline to sideline range.

Specialists (3)

Stephen Gostkowski (K)
Ryan Allen (P)
Joe Cardona (LS)

Absolutely no drama here - as solid a group as there in in the NFL.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Patriots' Derby Tightens Grip On Roster Spot

If Patriots' fans didn't have A.J. Derby on their 53-man roster projections before the preseason schedule began, perhaps they should now.

Considered a typical "Redshirt Sophomore" by those who are familiar with the way Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick handles his personnel, Derby has exploded onto the scene in Foxborough with two impressive outings, totaling nine receptions in 11 targets in games against the New Orleans' Saints and Chicago Bears, for 118 yards and a highlight reel touchdown grab.

Not bad for a guy who has exactly nine college games at the position on his very limited resume.

Derby is, by trade, a quarterback.  He has been training his entire life to be a signal caller, but after spending a couple of years riding the pine at Iowa, then having been switched to linebacker, Derby left the alma mater of his descendants, attending Coffeyville Community College in Kansas in order to play quarterback at the college level...

...then accepting a scholarship to Arkansas in his senior year, but switching to tight end just to get on the playing field since the quarterback position was ably-manned, and ended up being a raw but talented tight end, who actually got to start one game at quarterback against Rutgers, going 19 for 36 against the Scarlet Knights, throwing for a score and a pick.

But his ticket to the NFL was punched as a tight end by Belichick, who knows a thing or two about elite tight ends, and saw enough in Derby to draft him in the sixth round last season, despite him missing the last two games of his college career with a knee injury that required surgery to repair.

How very convenient, as Belichick was able to expose the 6' 5", 265 pound Derby to waivers at the end of camp, then revert him to the team's IR, where the coaching staff worked with him on the playbook and his technique while the strength and conditioning coordinator helped him to both rehab his knee and to strengthen his lower body.

The result of his "redshirt" year has been on full display this preseason, and it makes Belichick look like a genius.  Again.

Though the size of a traditional in-line tight end, Derby is a hybrid pass catcher known in some circles as a "Joker" tight end, meaning that he is too fast for linebackers to cover and too big and strong for most defensive backs.

Sound familiar? It should to Patriots' fans as the team was already rich with them in the persons of All World tight end Rob Gronkowski and like-skilled newcomer Martellus Bennett, whom we have seen line up anywhere from off tackle to the slot to split wide, so it seems almost unfair that New England has introduced yet another of these rare beasts to their already loaded arsenal, but that's what the forward-thinking Belichick has done for years, at almost every position... the point that his 2016 team is stacked at almost every position, making them the odds-on favorite to win their fifth Lombardi trophy.

If one were pressed to label Derby's position, it would have to be in the "move" tight end position, where you would find him more in the slot or split wide than on the end of the line, because his blocking technique needs refinement, but he has worked himself into the position for not just making the team as the third tight end, but also for significant playing time.

If Derby continues to grow as a pass catcher this preseason, it will obviously impact the roster, but more for the wide receiver corps than any other unit on the team - which is good, because besides the obvious roster locks - Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell - the other receivers vying for a spot on the fifty-three have done little, if anything, to distinguish themselves.

Though his separation and route running have been pristine, two plays from the Patriots' 23-22 win over the Chicago Bears stand out, demonstrating his skill set and toughness.

The first was his touchdown catch, lining up in-line and getting a clean release up the seam, Patriots' starter Jimmy Garoppolo hitting him in stride between two closing defenders, who sandwiched Derby after the catch, and the second, a hanging floater along the sideline from backup signal caller Jacoby Brissett that Derby had to climb a ladder to go get, coming down just in time to take the football equivalent of an uppercut...

...managing to stay inbounds, then bouncing to his feet and acknowledging his teammates accolades as they all went nuts in response to the play of the night.

Of course, Derby isn't going to unseat either Gronk or Bennett, but after the demonstration he's put on thus far in the preseason, there is little doubt that Belichick knew what he was doing when he selected Derby with a lowly sixth round pick in last year's draft.