Thursday, March 17, 2016

Free Agency Vs. The Draft - Possibilities For The Patriots On The Offensive Line

The New England Patriots offensive line is built to run the ball.

Unfortunately, given the difficulties the offense had last season with injuries and suspect play calling, not many in the media or in the fan base are willing to concede this fact, nor are they willing give the big uglies a free pass for what was viewed as very erratic pass protection.

And why should they? After all, quarterback Tom Brady found himself on his back more than an escort during Mardi Gras, as speed rushers pummeled him from the edges and bull rushers pounded him up the gut.

But here's the thing, and there's really no getting around it: the offense became so one dimensional in the second half of the season with a myriad of injuries among the "skill" positions that most times, the opposing defenses simply loaded the box, overwhelming the line and daring Brady to beat them over the top with single coverage on his pass catchers.
Mason blocking for Dion Lewis

Sheer numbers dictates that the line would have issues - given that it was normally the starting five trying to hold back a wave of seven or eight rushers on every play - and injuries among the line itself made that task all the more daunting, as left tackle Nate Solder missed the majority of the season with a torn biceps muscle...

...and injuries to every single starter at one point or another contributed to the fact that the Patriots used an unimaginable 37 different line combinations trying to find one that could protect the franchise signal caller. Altogether, the Patriots used five left tackles, five left guards, two centers, seven right guards and five right tackles.

Their thirteen different starting lineups in 16 games was an NFL high for the season and the most the Patriots have ever incurred since statistics for that kind of thing were begun, so it is generally accepted and understood among those who pay attention to such things that New England's offensive line was in flux all season long.

Curiously, the Patriots play calling countered all of the skill position injuries and flux along the line by asking the linemen to pass protect on two out of every three plays instead of seeking balance to counter the aggression of the pass rush.

Yes, it is understood that the hip injury to lead back LeGarrette Blount left the team without a true, experienced power back for the last three games of the season, but with Brandon Bolden, Joey Iosefa and James White on the roster - not to mention late-season pick up Steven Jackson - there should have been enough in the backfield to at least try to maintain so semblance of balance.

But in the post-season, the Patriots almost completely abandoned their running game, handing the ball to their backs just seven times against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional round, and 14 times in the AFC Championship game.

That is not enough.

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The New England Patriots have been to the AFC Championship game for five consecutive seasons, resulting in two trips to the Super Bowl and one World Championship which, for statistical purposes places them on the Mendoza line, at .200 success rate.

Now, fans of many teams would take that any day of the week and twice on Sundays, but the Patriots have built a culture that thrives on winning - to the point that anything less than hoisting the Lombardi Trophy is grounds for a CIA-style grilling and the abject calling out of assorted scapegoats.

There were no such issues at the beginning of the Patriots' dynastic magic, as they went three for three in conference title games and in Super Bowls, winning three world championships in four seasons. Those teams were not flashy and the only thing remotely stylish about them were the glitter of the three trophies.

Those teams valued substance over style, balance over brazenness and fundamentals over flamboyance - in short, they were all old school tough,something that has been lost on the Patriots' offense since former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis left after the 2004 championship season.

For example, back in the 2003 AFC Championship game, the Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts by countering their high-style, big play offense by punching them in the mouth, leading the media and fans everywhere to label the Colts "soft"and that they ran a "finesse" scheme - and those things were not said in a positive manner.

Contrarily, the Patriots offense was smashmouth, physical. They ranked 17th in the NFL in total offense and featured a nice balance between pass (52%) and run (48%), with big bruising back Antowain Smith and tough as nails change-of-pace back Kevin Faulk accounting for nearly 1400 yards between them, while averaging a meager 3.4 yards per carry...

...but Weis, being old school, kept feeding them the rock. What's the old saying, "Three yards and a cloud of dust"? Weis kept the offense balanced because he knew that the running game, no matter the success rate, offset the aggressiveness of any defense and kept the element of surprise viable throughout any given game.

And the greatest beneficiary of balance? Right, the big uglies.

Matt Light was the only big name on an otherwise anonymous unit that started names like Hochstein, Koppen, Andruzzi and Ashworth. Quarterback Tom Brady was merely average, with only 3600 yards passing, throwing for 23 touchdowns and getting picked off 12 times - yes, Brady was merely average because he didn't need to be the Brady that we've seen carry the offense for the past decade.

Brady was only marginally better in 2004, throwing for 3700 yards, 28 td's and 14 picks. This time, however, Andruzzi and Ashworth were replaced on the right side by the even more obscure Steven Neal and Brandon Gorin - and the percentages between run and pass actually switched places from the previous season and newly signed Corey Dillon stomped through opposing defenses for 1600 yards at a clip of 4.7 yards per carry.

In these seasons, the Patriots won back-to-back championships by being more physical than the other guys, something that has been lost through time and attrition.

Since, New England has been to seven conference championship games, but winning just three and taking home one lonely Lombardi Trophy, being pushed around in the process as the Patriots offense became that finesse squad that the teams' fans used to insult the Colts for being. Sure, the Patriots were an elite offense, finishing each season since 2005 in the top ten and tops in the league three times, but what difference does any of that make if there isn't a trophy accompanying them?

Since Dillon retired, the Patriots have gone through backs that were just good enough, as the power running game ceased to be anything more than a curious afterthought in an offense that featured elite pass catchers such as Moss, Welker, Brown, Hernandez, Edelman and Gronkowski.

In fairness, Belichick has tried to improve the personnel in the backfield by drafting power back Stevan Ridley and passing back Shane Vereen in 2011 to bring some relevance back to the ground game, and even brought in 250 pound LeGarrette Blount to lead the team in carries the past couple of seasons, but it's time to bump that notion up to an even higher level...

...and Belichick has by investing heavily in the offensive line in the past two drafts, bringing in the best two drive blockers in each draft, three of whom are with the team in a starting capacity as center Bryan Stork is flanked by his former Florida State teammate Tre Jackson at right guard and athletic Shaq Mason at left guard forming the nucleus of a ferocious wall blocking interior, joining behemoth book end tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer.

Solder is a former college tight end who is a better pass blocker than run blocker - which is to be expected for the man in charge of protecting Brady's back side - but the rest of those fellas are purely nasty drive blockers who were forced into pass pro-heavy game plans, ignoring the ghosts of championships past that saw Weis, Smith and Dillon maintain balance on offense, regardless of rate of success for the run.

That is what the Patriots' version of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy begs for and maybe, just maybe, this is the season where we will see the Patriots' turn back the clock and allow their drive-blocking linemen to do what they do best, which is jack the opposing run defense right in the teeth.

Especially with the addition of former Cardinals' guard Jonathan Cooper and Bears' tight end Martellus Bennett to the roster on successive days earlier this week, which signals an end to the finesse football that the Patriots have been playing since their dynasty days and ushers in a smashmouth style of ball that serves the talent along the line of scrimmage very well.

In that respect, there isn't much that needs tweaking among the starting five, but with Vollmer and Solder coming up on the expiration of their contracts, the thought with the offensive line looks to the future - to projects coming out of college on the second and third days who will be ready to assume larger roles next year rather than now.

Depth is what the line needs, though the current depth encountered the same long odds of holding back the tidal wave of pass rushers as the starters last season, and are not nearly as bad as they looked at times - but that doesn't mean there aren't better prospects coming out of college in 2016.

Offensive linemen are generally considered the safest selections in the early stages of any draft, but there are exceptions, though they are few and far between - and the Patriots happen to have a living, breathing example of how things can go sideways with a top draft pick, as they acquired guard Jonathan Cooper along with a second round draft pick from the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for defensive end Chandler Jones on Tuesday.

Cooper is an enigma, selected seventh overall in the 2013 draft by the Cardinals - and after a myriad of injuries derailed his debut, he has been just a guy, being benched a couple of times last season. It remains to be seen if a change of scenery can inspire Cooper, as in college he was an elite drive blocker with some pass protection issues, but this was a really inexpensive way to find out if Cooper can contribute as a swing guard.

At least it's inexpensive until the first week in May, when Belichick has to decide whether or not to pick up an insane $11 million team option for 2017. That's not going to happen, given Cooper's long-standing "bust" status, though a restructure could ensure that he at least gets a chance to compete in camp.

At worst, Cooper is an upgrade over incumbent swing guard Josh Kline, and at best will unseat Tre' Jackson at right guard, but the real issue with the line - the one-dimensional offense itself - has already been addressed resoundingly by the Patriots' free agency blitz,

The Patriots followed up the Cooper deal on Wednesday by trading a fourth round draft choice to Chicago in exchange for tight end Martellus Bennett, a move that not only upgrades the weapons stock in the passing game, but also positively impacts the offensive line.

Bennett is an accomplished run blocker, as is All-World tight end team mate Rob Gronkowski. giving the Patriots the option to go exclusively with two-tight end sets as part of five wide formations (02 Personnel where the Patriots are concerned), one back (12 Personnel) or 2 back (22 Personnel) sets, regardless of down and distance...

...without sacrificing a "skill" position on a swing tackle, which Belichick has employed for the past few seasons as a sixth offensive lineman to hopefully find the solution to their run blocking woes, and the results have been mixed. But with Bennett aboard to team with Gronkowski, the opposition will have to tough time determining what kind of play is coming at them when the Patriots don't have to substitute to open up another chapter of the playbook.

All of a sudden, the offensive line isn't five matadors any longer in pass protection - not to mention that running lanes will be more readily available to whomever they choose to be their Bell-cow. The line is suddenly doing what they were built to do.

So, is there is still a need for the Patriots along the line? Backing up the starting five are the aforementioned Cooper, who can play both guard positions, Kline, who is undersized but scrappy, and perhaps the line's best kept secrets, swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle and center David Andrews. Waddle is a pure left tackle who has the talent to eventually take over on Brady's blind side if Solder departs after this season. Vollmer is in his contract season as well, so there probably is a need to at least look at the tackle in the draft.

But even the need there is overblown, as Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming has done spot duty on both sides, with varying degrees of success.

Andrews is interesting. He has virtually no position versatility and will live or die on the pivot, but he did such an excellent job filling in for Stork, who started the season on the IR with a return designation, that there are some that feel that Stork would be better used as a guard or even as a tackle, as he played both in college in addition to center.

Last season, Belichick even started Stork as an emergency right tackle, and he held his own despite the relative inexperience.

What all of this adds up to is that Belichick will probably draft a developmental tackle in the mid or late rounds and bring a few more linemen in as rookie free agents, but with the log jam on the interior, the incumbent depth at tackle and a switch in philosophy on the offense to a heavy-base set to promote the all-important balance, there is no need to spend early draft capital when there is such an abundance of both heft and skill.

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