Friday, June 30, 2017

Bolder Predictions: A Baker's Dozen Of Patriots' Prognostications

Making bold predictions is not my thing.

Though when asked by a co-worker about the Patriots' chances at making the playoffs in 2001, I said that they would win 11 games and win the Super Bowl.  Of course, I was just trying to get the guy away from me, but I tend to do my best work when faced with a little adversity.

I haven't been right on too many things since - going 0-15 in predicting head ball coach Bill Belichick's top draft choice each season until I pulled off the Derek Rivers prediction a couple of months back - so anything I predict shouldn't be taken too seriously - or should it?
Gronkowski and MVP candidate?

Despite my flaws in predicting draft picks, my success rate increases exponentially when it comes to what the roster will look like once camp breaks, and that's what this is all about.

Some of the following predictions are bold, some are weak, some are lame and some are moronic, but I believe my logic is sound, and as Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame was fond of saying, logic is but the beginning of wisdom.  Does that mean these conclusions make me wise?  Hardly, but let's wait until the season concludes before we tackle that question...

1. Rob Ninkovich and Jordan Richards will be released

It's a numbers game for Ninkovich, and just a miscue on Richards.  Anyone who was actually paying attention when the Falcons scored 21 points on the Patriots' defense in Super Bowl 51 would have had to notice that Ninkovich was in coverage on the scoring player in two of those instances, and was badly overmatched. Coincidence that the Falcons were so much faster on offense than the Patriots were on defense?  Perhaps, but the greybeard warrior was badly beaten on both scores and has worn down to where he could now be a liability...

...while Richards was simply a bad reach for a team that was seeking an eventual successor to Patrick Chung at strong safety - which brings us to our next prediction:

2. Belichick will keep at least one undrafted safety

New England values safeties more than most teams, as they wouldn't be able to run their three-safety, Big Nickel alignment without at least three starting quality blue liners.  Despite the amendment to Chung's contract in which he can earn an additional $900k in incentives, the team is almost in desperation mode to find his eventual replacement, and there is at least one undrafted player who would be a perfect developmental fit.

Former Minnesota Gopher Damarius Travis is a pure box safety with the size (6' 2", 215) to contribute in run defense and the cover skills to handle tight ends underneath while Richmond's David Jones is a virtual Duron Harmon clone with the sideline-to-sideline lateral movement and impressive ball skills to develop into a quality ball hawk.  Look for Travis to make the roster with Jones stashed away on the practice squad.

3. Patriots' defense will morph into a 3-4 base front

Of course, the nickel is the Patriots' primary alignment as they are in either a standard or Big Nickel look on three-quarters of their defensive snaps, but if one were to label them in a conventional base, the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 alignment is what they have the personnel to run. Belichick was busy this offseason collecting defensive linemen whose skill set translates to five-technique defensive ends, and combined with the sheer number of versatile linebackers on the roster, it all translates to three-man fronts.

New England drafted Arkansas defensive end Deatrich Wise and brought in five-tech ends Lawrence Guy from Baltimore and Kony Ealy from Carolina to team with incumbents Alan Branch, Woodrow Hamilton and rising star Trey Flowers - and have a solid base at nose tackle with a rotation of Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine.  The linebackers will be supplemented in their rotation with box safeties and they drafted Youngstown State's Derek Rivers to be worked into a strong-side linebacker spot formerly held by Jamie Collins.

4. Patriots offensive line will become a top five unit

If there is a concern on the roster, it is the lack of depth on the interior of the Patriots' offensive line - but given health, the starters are young fire-pissers who should solidify the line for a good length of time, as Shaq Mason is a dominating run blocker who pairs with All Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon to present a formidable strong side presence, David Andrews has evolved into one of the better centers in the league and Joe Thuney should make the requisite second-year jump after an up-and-down year at left guard.

The only real question mark is at left tackle, where Nate Solder has had some injury concerns in the past, and will probably preclude him from signing a long-term contract with the team going forward - which is why Belichick drafted Troy's Antonio Garcia and UCLA's Conor McDermott, and which brings us to...

5. Garcia will assume swing tackle role, Fleming and Waddle will be cut

Garcia is the long-term solution at left tackle but will see most of his action this season as a swing tackle, which means that Cam Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle will be out of a job come September, particularly if McDermott turns out to be more than what his draft profile suggests.

Both were quality blind side protectors in college and have basketball backgrounds - but Garcia is the nasty, play-through-the-whistle type with a fluid kick slide that line coaches dream about, and he should be ready to take over for Solder in 2018 while contributing as a sixth offensive lineman this season.  McDermott is a force as a pulling wham blocker in the running game but doesn't (yet) have the transitional skill nor muscular base to hold up in the trenches as a pro, but has a vicious cut block that will serve him well as a swing tackle both this season and next.

6. Belichick will trade, release or otherwise move Jacoby Brissett

Is one little roster spot that important to the Patriots?  Given the volume of talent on both sides of the ball, one roster spot could mean the difference between being able to develop a player on the roster, or losing him to another team.

Last season was the first time in five years that New England had carried three quarterbacks on the roster, and were fine in doing so as they were able to keep most of their developmental prospects, but this season, with so much talent going at least two-deep on the depth chart at just about every position - including quarterback - the Patriots have put themselves in a position where they are going to have to decide whether it is more important to carry three quarterbacks, or to use the roster spot on a prospect elsewhere.

It may come down to Brissett making the 53-man roster and being dealt sometime before the trade deadline.

7. Running backs will produce over 3000 total yards

The last time the New England Patriots had four running backs capable of producing eye-popping numbers individually was in 1978, the season that the Patriots set a rushing record of 3,165 yards that stands to this day - with Sam Cunningham leading that record-setting backfield that included Andy Johnson, Horace Ivory and Don Calhoun, and had substantial help from quarterback Steve Grogan.

This is not to say that the players that populate the Patriots' backfield nearly four decades later are going to challenge that '78 squad for a record, but they are more than capable of contributing more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage to what may well be a combined record-setting New England offense.

Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead should be the leaders in the ground game while James White and Dion Lewis will be the primary passing backs - but all of them are capable of lending a hand in both facets of the offensive production.  Judging just from past production, the Patriots should be able to top 2,000 yards on the ground and also clear 1,000 yards through the air, but that all depends on balanced play calling...

8. Offense will be balanced between run and pass, perhaps even be run-heavy

Last season, the Patriots' offense enjoyed balance in their play calling, and the result was a career season for running back LeGarrette Blount and passing back James White, not to mention an offense that could not be stopped when the game was on the line.

It is especially important to feature balance in the offense as quarterback Tom Brady enters his golden years and probably shouldn't take the kind of pounding that being pass-heavy would subject him to. Besides, the Patriots' offensive philosophy - known universally as the Erhardt-Perkins scheme - requires that they "pass to score, then run to win", which in lay terms means that they will use the passing game to gain a lead and then run the ball to kill the clock.

But it's more than that.  The Patriots proved during the Super Bowl that the best way to wear down a defense is to keep them on the field for a protracted amount of time, moving the chains at a snail's pace, which means the short passing game and power running game - and New England foes are bound to see plenty of both.

9. Cooks will work primarily out of the slot

New receiver Brandin Cooks has an extra gear that most pass catchers do not possess.  Sure, he has straight-line speed to leave a vapor trail, but the diminutive Cooks says that his best destiny is coming out of the slot where he can engage that second gear to leave nickel backs eating dust.

"This is an offense that guys do a bunch of different things and I'm looking forward to doing some things that I didn't necessarily have to do in New Orleans" Cooks said in his initial press conference with the Boston media, then qualified his statement by adding, "as far as playing from the slot, I definitely feel that I can do that at a high level."

Ok, so Cooks playing out of the slot isn't necessarily a bold prediction, but it is a departure from what he encountered in New Orleans, where he was the top outside threat in their high flying circus, though coming out of Oregon State he was projected to be an elite slot guy due to his fearlessness in the tall trees and his ability to separate after the catch - and with New England well stocked with outside-the-numbers, downfield pass catchers in Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan, expect to see Cooks blazing trails from the slot.

10. Gronkowski will be named NFL MVP

Yes, I know that there's some scrub named Brady who will be vying for the same award, but with Gronkowski entering 2017 fully healthy and ready for camp, we are about to witness something magical from the four-time All Pro tight end.

Gronk has played in all 16 games in a season just twice in seven seasons, and that was in his rookie and sophomore seasons, the latter in which he obliterated the league's single-season records for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (18) and was named to his first All Pro team.  His 14.7 yards per reception has increased incrementally since then, cresting at an absurd 21.6 last season before going down with back issues.

He was able to do those things because he is as gifted and as natural a tight end as the game has ever seen, and also had the benefit of a certain pair of wide receivers by the names Moss and Welker to take a lot of heat off of him - but at that point in his career, he was primarily a crosser in the second level, but now has evolved into an extraordinary seam threat...

...and with names such as Edelman, Hogan, Mitchell and Cooks - not to mention a dynamic running game - to occupy defenders, teams may have to resort to (gulp!) leaving Gronkowski to single coverage at times.  And if you base his production anywhere close to what he averaged last season before his injury, we could be looking at a 2,000 yard season for Gronkowski.

Far-fetched?  Maybe, but wouldn't it be cool?

11. Garoppolo will receive major extension

Jimmy Garoppolo and Malcolm Butler are both scheduled for unrestricted free agency next March, and are also expected to be two of the top prizes to be had in said free agency.  The Patriots would do well to ensure neither player makes it that far.

Including the amount of cap space the team will be able to roll over into 2018 combined with the expected annual increase in the cap ceiling and space created by expiring contracts, the Patriots will enter the new league year with upwards of $60 million to play around with - plenty of capital to invest in the future of the quarterback position, as securing Jimmy Clipboard's status must be top priority.

Given that Brady wants to play another couple of seasons, the extension would have to be heavy on immediate money in the way of a franchise record-setting signing bonus, with reasonable annual salaries to offset the bonus and spread across multiple seasons - with, of course, some incentive language that provides for incremental increases in salary for him in the event he ends up with major playing time due to a Brady injury.

Butler may be a tougher signing in that he stands to absolutely break the bank next offseason and Belichick may find it too much to have a quarter of his salary cap tied up in cornerbacks, and it is unclear whether the snafu with New Orleans this offseason would affect Butler's decision-making skills if it came to being offered a deal featuring a hometown discount.  Still, there is plenty of cap space to do both deals plus retain core role players.

12. Butler becomes chess piece in secondary

The primary reason that Belichick splurged on former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore in free agency is that he needed greater size than what he currently had, given the trend of receivers getting bigger, plus he had no clue whether he would still have Butler on the roster come September.

So now the Patriots have what would have to be considered a very good problem to have - what with Gilmore and emerging number-two corner Eric Rowe standing 6' 1", they now have two long press corners that should be able to match up with a foe's larger receivers, Butler can essentially become a chess piece to be positioned to take advantage of any mismatches.

In Belichick's game plan defense, many of his players are movable, and Butler has demonstrated his mettle and toughness time and again against players big and small, and is versatile enough to play press, off man and zone, no matter if he is outside or in the slot - a place that he could end up seeing a lot of, and a scenario that presents Butler with an opportunity to prove to 31 other general managers that he is indeed one of the league's elite.

That would backfire on Belichick, because if Butler has another solid year, someone is going to make him a very rich man.

13. Rivers assumes and excels in the "Collins" role

Derek Rivers played defensive end at Youngstown State and became one of the best pass rushers in Division II - but at 6' 4" and only 250 pounds, Rivers is not the prototypical size for an NFL defensive end.  And while we may see him with his hand in the dirt on occasion, it is more likely that Belichick envisions a role for him not unlike what he envisioned for Jamie Collins coming out of college.

Collins' draft projection is similar in many ways to Rivers' and both were considered as 3-4 rush linebackers.  Like Collins, Rivers will likely be brought along slowly, then unleashed towards the end of the season.  He excels at stringing out plays to the edge and has a non-stop motor - and maybe it's not fair to him to hoist that kind of reputation to reach for, but he's similar athlete.


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