Monday, August 24, 2015

New England Patriots' Projected 53 - Massive Overreaction Edition

Had Bill Belichick not taken Eastern Illinois University quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, he would probably be starting for another NFL team right now.

Most likely, speculation had it, as a member of the Houston Texans, who were poised to select Garoppolo with the top pick in the third round, just three picks later - but instead new Texans' coach Bill O'Brien, a former offensive coordinator under Belichick in New England, ended up trading for the man Garoppolo beat out for Tom Brady's backup.
Garoppolo (10) and White were stars on Saturday night

In fact, he's still stuck with Ryan Mallet, and Garoppolo has taken his place with Patriots' fans as their designated punching bag. But on occasion, such as Saturday night's performance in New England's come from behind victory over the New Orleans Saints, Garoppolo is seen in some circles as being NFL ready - and he may be.

But here's the thing: The Patriots need him to be ready. They need him to be awesome, because if Brady ends up riding NFL lightning for a quarter of the season and he's not ready to lead this offense, what is the point of all of this?

Garoppolo has his detractors, but hating on him because some idiots on social media suggest that he's the next coming of Brady isn't doing anyone any good - because he's not Tom Brady.

Brady at the point in his career that Garoppolo is at was blissfully unaware that in just a few short weeks would be coming into a tight game with the New York Jets after Drew Bledsoe was nearly killed when a vicious hit from linebacker Mo Lewis sheared a blood vessel in his chest.

Anyone remember that? Anyone remember how Brady struggled in his first few games and how as Bledsoe started nearing a return from the injury, the hate that he had to endure from the fans and media, most suggesting - loudly - that the job was Bledsoe's, no matter that Brady had taken hold of the offense and made it his?

Garoppolo is no Tom Brady, but Tom Brady has been Jimmy Garoppolo, or has at least chewed some of the same dirt that the second year clipboard holder has. This is not to say that Jimmy Garoppolo will ever be as successful as Brady, nor is it to say that he will ever be good enough to beat anyone other than second and third stringers...

...but what it does mean is that it's been 15 years since New England has had a back up quarterback who has a decent shot at becoming a legitimate NFL quarterback. Right now the Patriots have Tom Brady, so the fans can afford to slight the potential of Garoppolo, but how many teams out there would love to have the kid competing to be their starter?

Our projected 53 man roster:

Quarterbacks (2)

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo

Jimmy G needs a better nickname. And nothing stupid like Prince Aladdin, though he does bear a striking resemblance to the animated character. He also looks a lot like Christopher Reeve did in his prime, but Superman is a bit of a presumptuous moniker for someone who has thrown just 29 passes in actual NFL games.

Jimmy Football is generic, but if flows better than Jimmy G. and doesn't sound like a pack of tween girls have it stenciled on their school notebooks, and have posters of the devilishly handsome signal caller hanging on their walls...

So, Jimmy Football it is. And he backs up Tom Terrific and both are coached by Billy Ballgame.

Mother of God, I think I just turned into a tween girl....

Running backs (6)

LeGarrette Blount
Jonas Gray
James White
Dion Lewis
Brandon Bolden
James Develin

The Patriots are in a precarious spot with their running backs, in that both of their opponents thus far in preseason have almost completely ignored the passing game and have loaded up the box to stop the run.

Not having receivers of any experience will do that.

Gray looks explosive when he gets a clean hole and Blount's syrup-on-waffles flowing style is silently effective, but against the stacked boxes the versatility of White and Lewis shine brighter because both are polished route runners, are not afraid to lower their shoulder and deliver the blow and both are capable ankle-breakers in the open field.

What's more, both display a ton of intestinal fortitude in putting themselves between their quarterback and a blitzing linebacker - they might get trucked, but they put themselves in harms way and give their thrower an extra split-second to do his job.

That said, it's going to be tough to let go of one of them. Maybe they should just keep them both. It would mean cutting somewhere else, probably in the receiver corps, but when you have the capability of fielding a double threat of passing backs, what does that do to the opposing defense? Do they bring up two safeties? Do they assign two linebackers? And what about Gronkowski and Edelman and Lafell?

'nuf said.

Wide Receivers (6)

Julian Edelman
Danny Amendola
Brandon LaFell
Aaron Dobson
Chris Harper
Matt Slater

Where are these guys?

Edelman is dealing with a leg issue, as is Dobson. LaFell just recently has removed a walking boot and is supposedly working his way into shape. Irony of ironies? Amendola is the only fully healthy incumbent receiver on the roster.

We are left to assume that the aforementioned are just being coddled by the team until the games count for real, but the uncertainty surrounding the trio is maddening.

Harper has earned a spot on the roster, and Jonathan Krause is a name that is right there with him, though not quite as explosive a talent. Brian Tyms is likely done for the season with a foot injury and veteran Brandon Gibson's knee looks to have sustained some measure of damage during Saturday night's contest...

...but the most concerning development is that the Patriots have reportedly reached out to former Colt Reggie Wayne and have brought him in for a physical, shattering the perception of the assumption we were left to make - because if Wayne were to gain a roster spot after he lost his starting nod in Indianapolis last season because he couldn't gain separation, what kind of dark times are the pass catching corps about to encounter?

His signing could signal deep problems with the pass catchers, if he indeed is signed.

*Editor's note: Wayne was signed by New England to a one year contract on Monday afternoon.

Tight Ends (3)

Rob Gronkowski
Scott Chandler
Michael Hoomanawanui

Thank goodness for Rob Gronkowski. He hasn't seen much game action at all this preseason, but he has already proven time and again that he doesn't need much. The scary thing about Gronkowski is not just that he is an unassuming superstar and that his phenomenal skill transcends everything that we know about the tight end position, but that he is just now starting to enter his prime.

If Gronkowski continues on a path that keeps him healthy and focused, he will shatter every receiving record there is for the position - but that comes with time. Right now all that matters is that he is the number one pass catcher on this team and his very presence opens up space for all of the other "skill" position players to operate.

All we really know about Chandler is that he's wicked tall and has an ability to find the soft spot in a zone. This makes him a lightning rod for quarterbacks as a safety valve and a safe target in the back of the end zone - we've seen it when he was in the pattern with the quarterback carousel in Buffalo, now we just want to see him preform with a top shelf signal caller throwing him the ball.

Hooman is an interesting cat that the coaching staff absolutely loves and his spot should be secure, He's one of those guys that you forget about until he catches critical passes in the Super Bowl.

Be on the lookout for undrafted rookie free agent Jimmay Mundine, as he flashed some skill against the Saints and showed some solid footwork and desire to pick up yardage after the catch. He may not make the 53 man roster, but he could very well hit the practice squad.

Offensive Linemen (9)

Nate Solder
Sebastian Vollmer
Bryan Stork
Tre Jackson
Shaq Mason
Ryan Groy
David Andrews
Cam Fleming
Marcus Cannon

The lack of legitimate targets in the receiving corps has affected the entire offense, but perhaps hits the offensive line the hardest.

Without experienced receivers in the pattern, defenses are not going to respect the passing game, will assign press man coverage and stack the box to stop the run, daring one of the bubble players to beat them. Obviously the Saints weren't concerned with the New England passing game and they sent wave after wave of humanity to overwhelm the Patriots' offensive line before they could gain leverage and make a push.

The results were ugly, as the running game averaged only 2.3 yards per carry, but once Garoppolo started connecting with his no-name receivers and his backs curling into the pattern, the Saints had to start keeping their linebackers back in coverage which allowed the Patriots offensive linemen to start opening creases that the smaller passing backs could sprint through.

It's a vicious cycle, but one that the Patriots need to exploit to have success in the running game.

Offense total: 26

Defensive Linemen (7)

Sealver Siliga
Alan Branch
Dominique Easley
Malcom Brown
Chandler Jones
Jabaal Sheard
Rob Ninkovich

One thing that is becoming increasingly obvious is that Easley is more of a defensive end than a tackle, and that he still has much to learn at that position. It's a bit disappointing in that we were expecting some elite burst from the interior to go along with the run-stuffing capabilities of Siliga and Brown, but Brown may turn out to be that guy instead.

Brown showed his motor and deceptive speed in chasing down Saints' back Mark Ingram on a wheel route on Saturday night, and is just now starting to show his trademark burst from the one and three-tech while Easley has been pushed to the outside - and it is an interesting alignment.

Utilizing and getting the most out of these seven is a proposition that has some intrigue, as they have the personnel to switch between four and three man fronts.

With Siliga manning the nose and Brown the under tackle, bookended by Easley and Sheard on the ends, the early downs are covered, leaving Jones and Ninkovich to play more specialized roles which will extend their self-life, particularly Nink who is on the wrong side of 30 but has also been, arguably, the team's defensive MVP for the past couple of seasons.

What make's Ninkovich's life easier is the presence of Sheard, who is an absolute instinctual animal with the burst and strike capability of a cobra - without question one of the best free agent signings in the NFL this season.

Linebackers (7)

Jamie Collins
Dont'a Hightower
Jerod Mayo
James Morris
Eric Martin
Trey Flowers
Geneo Grissom

We haven't seen much of Mayo or Hightower, except for them instructing and mentoring the young linebackers on the sideline - but when combined with Collins, the trio comprises perhaps the best starting 4-3 linebackers in the league. Unfortunately, in recent seasons the depth behind them has been frustrating.

Morris seems to be a fresh and violent addition to the corps and Martin is a sideline to sideline backer who can get there from anywhere on the second level. Martin has been injured and hasn't played in a game thus far in preseason. A coverage 'backer is what has been missing for a while, and even the physical freak Collins can't keep up with shift running backs, but Martin can - though he can't do so from the hot tub.

His time to show his stuff on the field is running out and while Jonathan Freeny is not as good in coverage as Martin, if Martin isn't on the field in the third preseason game, he may well lose out on the roster spot to Freeny.

Corners (5)

Malcolm Butler
Bradley Fletcher
Tarell Brown
Robert McClain
Logan Ryan

Overreaction here?

Logan Ryan can not cover outside of the numbers. He gives up way too much space and doesn't react quickly enough nor does he have the closing burst to make up for the ground he gives - we saw it in the Super Bowl and we've seen it in two preseason games. His roster spot is tenuous at best.

What does that say about the cornerback depth that the only player remaining from last season's championship team is second-year load Malcolm Butler? It's disappointing for sure, given the mentoring the now-departed depth behind Revis and Browner received from the two veterans, and that the Patriots are essentially starting over with recycled players.

That said, Fletcher has show improvement from one game to the next and was a bright spot in an other wise abysmal performance from the secondary on Saturday night. Brown has not seen much action at all, but is the penciled in starter opposite Butler based on past performance alone while McClain is a decent slot option.

The wildcard for Ryan is the health of the rookie Roberts, who sustained a wrist injury in the first preseason game. Roberts has the skill and attitude to be a very good cover corner but is very raw as well - but until he comes back to the field, the job is Ryan's to lose - I think everyone would like to see him in the slot or double slot, however.

Safeties (5)

Devin McCourty
Duron Harmon
Jordan Richards
Pat Chung
Tavon Wilson

Last Saturday's performances notwithstanding, this is an excellent safety corps.

Against the Saints, Belichick tried out his safeties in a number of different situations, and the results were hardly encouraging - but if you're going to experiment with your players by putting them in uncomfortable positions, there s no better time than the second preseason game.

"At some point we may be using different people in different spots" Belichick explained during a conference call on Sunday, "and we'll have to come back to the base that we're building now and the depth that we're trying to build now, with players playing multiple positions and trying to create depth at all positions on the team, not just the secondary."

The same is true along the offensive line, defensive line and at linebacker for the defending champions, it's just that it's more noticeable in the secondary given the immense amount of media coverage given to the corps because of attrition. The safeties are still the strength of the secondary, and when the lights come on for real, they will prove that.

The matter of conjecture with the safeties is that with the drafting of Richards, there is room for only one special teamer, and with Wilson coming on strong both on defense and on kick coverage, he wins out over

Defensive total: 24

Special Teams (3)

Stephen Gostkowski (PK)

Joe Cardona (LS)
Ryan Allen (P)

Absolutely no question here.

Gostkowski has missed a couple of attempts but, hey, it's preseason for him too. Ryan's massive leg is a vital field possession weapon.

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