Monday, August 31, 2015

New England Patriots' Projected 53 - The Everybody Hates Dobson Edition

Everybody hates Aaron Dobson.

The third-year pass catcher played his first snaps in nearly 10 months on Friday night and actually looked like a guy who hasn't played a lot of football lately. Imagine that.

Even though he has some culpability to claim for the two interceptions thrown by Brady against the Panthers, it's important to remember that when it comes to pitch and catch, it takes two to tango.

Brady threw the ball behind him on the first interception, though the twisting Dobson got both hands on the ball - the kind of play that Dobson routinely made in college - but double-clutched the ball, allowing Panthers' corner Peanut Tillman to gain shared possession of it. Once they hit the ground in tandem, however, Tillman had wrestled the ball away from him and the officials awarded possession to Carolina...

...while on the second interception he appeared to round off his crossing route instead of planting and exploding back towards the ball. But the way that safety Kurt Coleman broke on the ball suggests that it wouldn't have made much difference at all, as he undercut the route by several yards.

The two plays epitomized how the naturally talented speedster manages to frustrate all kinds of folks, from the coaching staff to the media to the fanbase, the latter of which have taken to social media stumping for his release - and many media outlets are prophesying that Dobson may have been playing for a roster spot last Friday.

But there are a couple of things that are not being added to the equation when it comes to the third year wideout. First, is his lengthy injury history - starting with hamstring issues that limited him in his rookie training camp, the bandage trail saw him suffer a stress fracture in his left foot during the epic come-from-behind overtime win over Denver in week 12, requiring surgery to permanently implant a screw to hold the bones together...

...which limited his participation in his sophomore training camp and, after some internal disciplinary issues were resolved, Dobson played a couple of games before the hamstring issue arose again, ending his 2014 season.

In two seasons, Dobson has played in exactly half of the games, and has been relatively productive when on the field.

While Dobson should be part of the solution instead of contributing to the problems that have caused the first-team offense to stall, it is also true that throwing an experienced receiver into the pattern with a bunch of no-name bubble biters is akin to throwing fresh meat to a pack of wolves - the same analogy that can be used to excuse the seemingly sub par performances along the offensive line.

The offense as a whole has been running in all three preseason games without top pass catchers Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Brandon Lafell, which causes increased focus by the opposing defense on any other position player on the offense, particularly one with any professional experience

But because Dobson has been maligned by the media since being drafted out of Marshall with unfair comparisons by some in the media to Randy Moss, given his speed, size and knack for the spectacular catch, most fans consider him a bust and want him to be cut - but here's the thing: even if the Patriots were inclined to cave into public scrutiny and hate on Dobson, are there better options on the team?

The answer to that is, of course, no - at least not while LaFell is on the PUP and Reggie Wayne is still trying to grasp the playbook. Because, believe it or not, Belichick learns from his past mistakes and is rarely an error repeater - so for him to put himself in position to have to endure another 2013 in terms of inexperience and injury in the pass catching corps would rub against everything Belichick stands for.

Danny Amendola has been through it due to his injury woes, and experienced the same volume of hate that Dobson is enduring right now. Kyle Arrington went through it for years and a certain quarterback named Tom Brady took multiple shots to his position as a second-year backup who was forced to take over for an immensely popular incumbent due to injury, and struggled in his first half dozen starts.

Take that for what it's worth.

Our projected 53 man roster:

Quarterbacks (2)

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo

There is a certain comfort level that fans are feeling with Garoppolo these days.

Sure, he is young and he hasn't gotten it all figured out yet, but he knows what a pair of bonehead plays he made on his first series in the win over the Panthers, two near picks that should have been six points each.

When asked what happened on the plays, he said simply, "Good fortune, I guess. Those are throws you can't make and you just have to learn from them." There really isn't much need for narrative here, other than stating the obvious. Both quarterbacks have been without most of their first-team supporting cast all preseason, and it has been Garoppolo that has had the misfortune of playing the majority of the snaps.

He took a beating against the Packers, but really started to come on in the past two games, and now has achieved somewhat of a vote of confidence with the New England media and fan base in anticipation of the outcome of Brady's motion to vacate his four game suspension - which is complicated in and of itself.

Look for Garoppolo to start the final preseason game then give way to Ryan Lindley, the rumored third quarterback, as the team needs to get him some snaps before the season starts. Of course, this is all subject to what happens with Brady's court case. The Judge in the case knows the time table that Brady is subject to, and may issue a ruling as early as Tuesday morning. Either way, it gives the Patriots a much clearer idea of how to proceed going forward.

Running backs (5)

LeGarrette Blount
Jonas Gray
James White
Dion Lewis
Brandon Bolden

A broken tibia is no small feat. It is the second most dense bone in the human body, but James Develin's right foot got caught in the atrocious turf at Bank of America Stadium as he was twisted to the ground after a short gain, and when his cleats were able to release from the sod, it did so with enough torque that when his shin impacted the leg of another player, his tibia snapped like a twig.

Is there a replacement on the roster? Is it absolutely essential to employ a fullback?

It will be interesting to see what Belichick does with the position, and he has some options, depending on the actual prognosis. the original word was that Develin will be out for close to two months, but a couple of orthopaedic specialists have chimed in and are suggesting something more around four to six months - the reason being is that he had surgery in Charlotte rather than risk further injury in transport back to Boston, indicating that the break isn't as clean as originally reported.

Do you put him on the short-term IR and risk pressing him back into service in such a volatile position that requires max leverage and lower-body strength, or do you consider him lost for the season and give him time to fully heal? They may not have any choice but to go with the latter.

As far as replacements, recently released Eric Kettani could be brought back, but he was a longshot to make the roster to begin with. It could also be that New England keeps four tight ends, with Michael Hoomanawanui used in a similar role to Develin.

Other than Develin's injury, the only news that could possibly impact this position is the dearth of running backs likely to be released from other teams - such as Fred Jackson from Buffalo, as Belichick has long been an admirer.

Wide Receivers (6)

Julian Edelman
Danny Amendola
Aaron Dobson
Reggie Wayne
Chris Harper
Matt Slater

Brandon LaFell (PUP)

With LaFell likely staying on the PUP list until mid-season, it makes zero sense to cut Dobson and it makes all the sense in the world to retain Wayne, so long as it doesn't turn into an embarrassing Ochocinco-like spectacle where he can't pick up the playbook.

Not saying that is case, but there is risk involved in bringing in a guy mid-camp with a laundry list of medical concerns and being unfamiliar with concept-driven schemes - which is why Harper makes sense as well. The kid has obviously picked up the scheme and is running routes with authority. That's a good thing to have on the roster in the absence of LaFell and the inexperience of Wayne in the system.

Another option would be waiting for cuts to occur with other teams - particularly with Oakland, as they are rumored to have ex-Patriot Kenbrell Thompkins on their thin bubble.

Josh Boyce and Jonathan Krause have already been cut with injury designations, meaning they can revert back to the IR if the team sees fit. Zach D'Orazio is likely to be released and could end up back on the practice squad.

Publisher's note: Thompkins has been released by the Raiders and is currently on waivers.

Tight Ends (4)

Rob Gronkowski
Scott Chandler
Michael Hoomanawanui
Michael Williams

"We traded for him, so we wanted him."

That is what Belichick said when questioned about the roster status of Williams, for whom the Patriots traded a seventh round draft pick to Detroit in exchange for the massive tight end...

...or is he an offensive tackle? In New England's system, it really doesn't matter what he is, because his place is going to be as, essentially, an eligible sixth offensive lineman in the mold of Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming, but with hands.

The opposition is already on pins and needles when it comes to trying to defend against Gronkowski and Chandler, so what are they going to think when they have a 6' 6", 310 pound Willimas bearing down on them? Are they going to want to stand in his way? At Alabama, Williams was used mostly as a blocking tight end, and in Detroit he was used in that manner exclusively - but the versatility is intriguing.

So what happens with Hooman? Besides being a solid blocker - and perhaps because of it - he is the leading candidate to take on some of Develin's responsibilities as an Hback. He played as such both in college at Illinois and with the Rams before coming to Foxborough.

Offensive Linemen (9)

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

What we've seen of the offensive line in the preseason is not what we are going to see when the season actually starts. The lack of offensive firepower at the pass catching positions have rendered the line akin to a seawall trying to hold back a tsunami - but when the season starts and the firepower is actually participating, balance should return and the line won't look so overwhelmed...

...because what all three of New England's preseason opponents have been doing is stacking to box to prevent the Patriots from getting any semblance of a running game going and basically daring Brady and Garoppolo to beat them throwing the ball which, to give the line their due, both have been able to do the last two games.

That said, do the Patriots stick  with youth and work them into crafty veterans, or does the line revert back to mostly what they had last season, sans Dan Connolly?

If it is the former, the list should look like what is listed above, but if it is the latter, Ryan Wendell or Josh Kline will appear in the stead of Groy. It's tough to predict what is going to happen here, as the performance of the line has been just as affected by the lack of weapons as has the rest of the offense, perhaps more so than any other unit on the squad.

Wendell is a smallish, but old school scrapper who plays bigger than he is, while Kilne has proven to be decent in a depth role and part-time starter - and both have experience at center, as do Groy and Andrews, who both are larger than the other two and both have experience as long snappers. Andrews has done enough to warrant a roster spot, and if he hits the waiver wire the Patriots may never see him again.

Offense total: 26

Defensive Linemen (9)

Sealver Siliga
Alan Branch
Dominique Easley
Malcom Brown
Chandler Jones
Jabaal Sheard
Rob Ninkovich
Trey Flowers
Geneo Grissom

The Patriots have their own version of the New York Giants' antiquated NASCAR package, as we saw them have encouraging success against the Panthers first-team offense with it. As we know, the NASCAR package is utilizing four defensive ends as down linemen on pure passing downs in order to get your best pass rushers on the field together.

Easley, Jones, and Flowers are all position versatile and have the ability to play on the inside of a four man set, while Sheard and Ninkovich are the best the Patriots have at the ends - both are tenured professionals in knowing when to break off the rush to set the edge in the running game.

It certainly won't be an every down package, but as we saw  against Carolina, they do have it - and it was effective against the Panthers' starters, who are no slouches.

That said, the entire front seven was effective - dominant at times - on Friday, the only hiccup was in allowing the Carolina backs and tight ends free release off the line and into their patterns early, but Belichick shored that up swiftly.

Linebackers (5)

Jamie Collins
Dont'a Hightower
Jerod Mayo
James Morris
Jonathan Freeny

This group is solid, but looks a little light on depth, but that is not taking into account that for the Patriots to get all of the best athletes on the field in certain situations, Rob Ninkovich climbs to the second level, and rookies Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom can as well.

Ninkovich becomes sort of a chess piece on the defense with the arrival of man-beast Jabaal Sheard, as Ninkovich can be utilized in a rotation on either level and is a fantastic edge setter.

Morris and Freeny are no-brainers as the depth due as they consistently performed head and shoulders above their contemporaries - and while you'd like to have maybe one more guy in the system to account for an injury on the weak side (Mayo has had season-ending injuries the past two seasons), the depth at safety evens that out a bit...

...strong safeties Pat Chung, Jordan Richards and Tavon Wilson all safety/linebacker hybrids that can handle running backs - and that equates to weak side depth in the grand scheme. Until the entire package is put together, the question as to if the Patriots have a reliable cover 'backer to defend those incessant wheel routes that have been killers for this unit in the past will remain unanswered until the entire package is seen in action.

Corners (5)

Malcolm Butler
Bradley Fletcher
Tarell Brown
Robert McClain
Logan Ryan

There is certainly reason for optimism here, as Butler, Brown and Fletcher have proven to be a reliable trio in preseason - but also reason for concern as McClain and Ryan have not made the most of the plentiful reps during the preseason.

In truth, Ryan's stats (4 of 11 for 95 yards and a touchdown, 3 pbu's) aren't that bad, except for when you also consider that he was whistled for two holding penalties and that the yardage that he gave up was 24 yards per catch. McClain was abysmal in comparison (6 of 9 for 81 yards, 1 TD, 1 pbu) and had a pass interference and an illegal contact penalty.

But this all goes back to the premise that both are essentially slot corners, and most of the bad juju they have experienced has come when working on the outside. Be that as it may, one of them may be gone on final cuts in favor of either Dax Swanson or of filling the roster spot elsewhere.

Swanson showed up in Carolina and did more in one half of action than he had in any previous appearances, breaking up three passes. Of course, that was against quarterback Joe Webb and the second and third string Panthers' offense, but the technique was solid and probably would have been pbu's against most quarterbacks.

Surely, he has at least earned a trip to the practice squad.

Safeties (5)

Devin McCourty
Duron Harmon
Jordan Richards
Pat Chung
Nate Ebner

Top to bottom one of the best safety corps in the league.

One has to take into account the amount of mixing and matching and experimenting Belichick has been doing with his blue liners during the preseason, and also the performances that they all turned in against the Panthers. The difference between the Saints game and the Panthers game was like the difference between day and night in terms of efficiency, most because Belichick went with a more standardized look vs. Carolina as opposed to experimenting against New Orleans.

Richards is the real deal as a hybrid safety/linebacker combo and has done nothing but impress with his ability to always be where the action is - which is just about right when considering that the Patriots will be inclined to go with a three safety look against teams who employ a lot of two tight end looks and teams that use their backs frequently in the passing game...

...which is important, because the Patriots have had such a difficult time covering running backs in particular, and in Richards the team has the size-speed ratio in a player to match up well with them.

A name to look for as a possible surprise addition to the roster is Auburn safety Brandon King, who has been a "core four" special teams player throughout camp and in every preseason game. At 6' 2", 220 pounds and with sub 4.4 speed, he's a guy that flies under the radar but has better size and speed than either Ebner or Wilson. If not on the roster, look for him to be a priority to be picked up and placed on the practice squad - if he clears waivers.

Defensive total: 24

Special Teams (3)

Stephen Gostkowski (PK)

Joe Cardona (LS)
Ryan Allen (P)

There is probably not a better kicking combo in the league than Gostkowski and Allen. Both are legitimate weapons.

"Ghost" extends the Patriots Red Zone to the 35 yard line and beyond, while Allen can switch field position battle in Patriots' favor with one kick.

1 comment:

  1. I would really love to see what this combo could do this year. I like our prospects for #5.