Sunday, June 18, 2017

New England Patriots Projected 53-Man Roster: The Dog Days Edition

A changing of the guard is underway in Foxborough.

Actually, the forward-thinking head ball coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, has been slowly reworking his depth chart for the past couple of seasons, but this offseason and next could very well be the most crucial in deciding whether the team continues to remain contenders for the foreseeable future, or if they sink back into the pack.

Staples on the championship teams are aging or have otherwise run their course, and Belichick has proven time and again that he is not timid when cutting players loose when they no longer serve his purpose - this is not to say that the Dark Master is heartless, as his respect for players that have performed under his leadership is also well documented...
Wise, Rivers, Garcia and McDermott all figure to make the team as rookies

...and with the number of new players under contract via the most impactful free agency period in Belichick's reign - particularly on offense - the writing could be on the wall for some incumbent talents.

The Patriots came into this offseason with seventeen players scheduled to hit the open market, but the list of players that they let walk or released outright tells a story of attrition.

It came as no surprise that Belichick released anchor tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who most likely told tale of wanting to retire while he could still walk, nor was it a head-scratcher to unload young but injury prone guard Tre Jackson, which thinned out the offensive line ranks and made the unit a priority in the draft, especially considering that left tackle Nate Solder is an impending free agent after this season.

Consequently, Belichick brought in two college tackles through the draft.  One, Troy's Antonio Garcia, is projected as a Solder replacement as the Patriots are unlikely to be able to absorb the huge contract he will almost certainly command, while UCLA's Conor McDermott projects as a swing tackle who could also double up as a left guard in an emergency.

The defensive line became a priority as well when the team let defensive ends Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long and Barkevious Mingo ply their trade elsewhere, then replaced them with former Carolina Panther Kony Ealy and ex-Baltimore Raven Lawrence Guy in free agency, then using two of their four draft picks on Youngstown State's Derek Rivers (who actually projects as a strong-side linebacker instead of a defensive end) and Arkansas' Deatrich Wise.

Belichick did re-sign defensive tackle Alan Branch, who along with Guy and Wise give the Patriots the versatility to morph between three and four-man fronts, as all three, plus defensive ends Trey Flowers and Ealy, are capable of handling three and five-technique gap responsibilities.

Along with Branch, the Patriots retained the services of both linebacker Dont'a Hightower and centerfielder Duron Harmon as core mainstays, and also retained the rights to exclusive right free agent and core four special teamer Brandon King and elite cornerback Malcolm Butler, who just recently signed his restricted free agent tender...

...teaming him with former Buffalo Bills top corner Stephon Gilmore to give New England one of the best defensive backfield in the league.

The receiving corps and backfield will have a different look as well, as Belichick let power back LeGarrett Blount go to Philadelphia and washed his hands of short-term rental Michael Floyd, the troubled wide receiver headed to Minnesota.  Neither loss should have as much of a negative impact on the offense as will losing tight end Martellus Bennett to the Packers, as free agent pick up Dwayne Allen from the Colts appears to be a step down in class...

...while picking up running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead give the Patriots redundant talents in which to open up the playbook more than they could with Blount on board, and then trading for vertical slot threat Brandin Cooks opens up the offense even more.

All told, the Patriots did an excellent job of cutting fat from the roster and replacing it with lean youth - and don't be surprised if Belichick cuts a few more veterans to round out his 2017 roster, with an eye to the future...

Quarterbacks:  A bit of a quandary here.  The team is so loaded with talent and depth at just about every position that some may ponder whether the Patriots will keep three quarterbacks - it's a decent argument, but one that is steeped in karma and dependent on things going just right for the Patriots leading up to the regular season.

Belichick is apparently all-in on Jimmy Garoppolo remaining in Foxborough, and it's going to take some record-setting cash for Prince Ali to continue holding a clipboard for another couple of seasons - but the status of second-year signal caller Jacoby Brissett isn't as clear.  Brissett struggled in OTA's and in minicamp when he had some extended reps as Garoppolo dealt with a minor leg issue...

...and Belichick has some really tough decisions to make at just about every point on the depth chart - so having an extra roster spot would make things easier in that respect.  But for the time being, let's assume that he carries three quarterbacks - at least up to the trade deadline, where some quarterback desperate team could make him an offer that would be tough to refuse.

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo
Jacoby Brissett

Running Backs: On paper, this unit is a compendium of what a bell-cow running back should be, but split up between four guys.

Redundant talents in that they can all carry the ball between the tackles and also are adept at playing catch, each still has attributes that make them unique.  White has gained the most trust with Brady in the pattern, and has effectively renamed what was previously known as the "Vereen Role" as the primary passing back while Dion Lewis specializes as a tough change-of-pace back...

...while newcomers Gillislee and Burkhead give the Patriots versatility on early downs, Gillislee a controlled power back who should project to a short-yardage specialist in addition to being the closest thing to a bell-cow that New England has had in a decade, and Burkhead is the helter-skelter back whose combination of loose hips, elusiveness and power could make Lewis a surprise cut or a candidate for the PUP or IR if his injury history continues down it's dark path.

James White
Mike Gillislee
Dion Lewis
Rex Burkhead
James Develin

Receivers: In the space of two offseasons, the Patriots have gone from primarily a dink and dunk passing game to one that properly spreads the field.

With the addition of Cooks this offseason added to last offseason's grab bag of Chris Hogan in free agency and Malcolm Mitchell in the draft, the Patriots went from an aging, over-achieving, try-hard cast to a young, legitimately frightening corps of pass catchers that can play it any way Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can dream up.

Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are both into their thirties and have both had contracts reworked in some manner this offseason, and both have proven their mettle in the biggest of moments under the brightest of lights and should be locks.  Mitchell is an emerging talent on the cusp of stardom while Hogan is the ultimate possession receiver who average over nineteen yards per reception last season.

Cooks sends this unit over the top with his blistering deep speed that resonates from anywhere on the field, though he is most effective working out of the slot, catching shot throws and turning on the afterburners to separate from defenders.

Julian Edelman
Brandin Cooks
Chris Hogan
Malcolm Mitchell
Danny Amendola
Matthew Slater

Tight Ends: The Patriots may have missed with former Indianapolis Colt Dwayne Allen, as he has developed a case of the dropsies.  Coming out of college at Clemson, Allen was known particularly for his hands and his ability to shield off defenders to show the quarterback his numbers - and while the latter will be on display only after the pads go on in training camp, the former has to have the Patriots a little concerned.

Or perhaps even disappointed, as the whole purpose of having Allen on the roster is the peace of mind that Martellus Bennett gave the Patriots last season, knowing that if All World tight end Rob Gronkowski went down, they still had a legitimate starting-quality tight end to fall back on - Gronowski did go down and Bennett did step up in a big way,

That said, it's too early to call Allen a flop, but the good news on the salary cap front is that his contract is guaranteed only for this season, so if he doesn't turn out to be the angel on Gronkowski's shoulder, it won't cost the team long-term...

Rob Gronkowski
Dwayne Allen
James O'Shaughnessy

Offensive Tackles: This is most likely Nate Solder's swan song, as the Patriots are unlikely to be able to afford his asking price when he hits to open market after this season, which is likely why Belichick snagged Troy's Antonio Garcia in the third round of the 2017 draft - and if Garcia performs in the pros anything like he did in college, Solder will be gone for sure.

A street fighter who plays through the whistle - meaning he relishes putting opposing players on their butts - Garcia is also a technician who understands leverage and should make a fine replacement for Solder and an excellent bookend to go along with Marcus Cannon, who made several All Pro lists last season and finally has been able to emerge from the shadow of Vollmer to claim the spot solely for himself.

Cameron Fleming is excellent as a sixth offensive lineman in short-yardage situations, but isn't suited for pass protection, which makes him one-dimensional in a role - that being swing tackle - that calls for doing everything well.  In this instance, McDermott could factor in to Fleming's demise as he is certainly and all-around better athlete.  This is one battle that bears watching.

Nate Solder
Marcus Cannon
Cam Fleming
Antonio Garcia
Conor McDermott

Interior Offensive Line: The trio of left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are looking to become a stone wall to both protect Brady and to open holes for the four-headed monster at running back, but can only do so if Thuney makes an expected second-year jump in performance.

Thuney was the main culprit when Brady was hit in the pocket, but he fared well as a run blocker. Both Andrews and Mason made huge improvements in 2016 over their rookie seasons, but depth is a huge concern as only Ted Karras currently projects as a backup to all three spots - such is the nature of the interior line that someone like McDermott could figure in as an emergency replacement at one of the guard spots.

The interior is well taken care so long as health doesn't become a concern.

Joe Thuney
Shaq Mason
David Andrews
Ted Karras

Defensive Line: With the team making somewhat of a transition to more of a three-man front to accommodate the size, strength and talent of their defensive linemen, it made sense to extend Branch and to bring in Ealy, Wise and Guy to give Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia a truly enormous rotation.

Flowers is an emerging star and even at "just" 265 pounds does his best work as a five-technique (inside shoulder of the offensive tackle).  He is the smallest of the linemen, with Ealy and Wise (both at 275) the only other linemen under the 300 pound threshold.  Guy (310) and Branch (350) can both work the three and five-tech spots while Malcolm Brown and Vincent Valentine (both 320) are pure nose tackles.

Belichick has a policy of rotating his big uglies to keep them fresh for crunch time, and he looks to have succeeded in finding incredible depth, not just for a three-man front in the Big Nickle, but also in four-man fronts where linebackers Derek Rivers and Rob Ninkovich can contribute with their hands in the dirt...

Malcolm Brown
Alan Branch
Trey Flowers
Vincent Valentine
Kony Ealy
Lawrence Guy
Deatrich Wise

Linebackers: Could we have seen the last of Rob Ninkovich in New England?  A fan favorite and one of key members of the unit for the past eight seasons, "Nink" has seen his snap count steadily decrease and put up his worst stat line since 2009, his first year with the Patriots.  Belichick could have to make a tough cut to make room for the younger, more dynamic players on the roster, and with the Blue-collar Ninkovich at 33 years old and counting -  not to mention that he looked a step slow in the playoffs and Super Bowl - he may be wearing down.

It's a numbers game. Derek Rivers was a defensive end in college but projects as a strong side linebacker in the pros, as does undrafted free agent Harvey Langi.  Both Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts can handle the interior positions and Shea McClellin looked natural at the weakside spot - of course, Hightower is the key to this unit, as he is capable at any position on the second level and makes the defensive calls.

Look for Van Noy to have increased responsibility in that capacity as well, as he integrated as well as anyone could to the complex Patriots' defensive scheme upon arrival from Detroit last season.

Dont'a Hightower
Kyle Van Noy
Shea McClellin
Derek Rivers
Elandon Roberts
Harvey Langi

Cornerbacks: Oh, what an awesome problem to have!  The Patriots sport three starting-quality corners on the 2017 roster, with second-year speedster Jonathan Jones making all kinds of waves in mincamp, taking most of the slot reps.

That is not to say that he will absolutely man the slot, as Butler is more than capable in the phone booth, where Cyrus Jones could also see some action.  Gilmore and 2016 pickup Eric Rowe are taller corners and could get the call on the outside against the bigger receivers that New England is likely to see this year, though Butler will see time on the outside against the likes of Antonio Brown and Jarvis Landry.

The diversity of the cornerback corps gives Patricia many options in the Patriots' week-to-week game planning, and if either of the Joneses contribute, Gillette Stadium could easily turn into a no-fly zone...

Stephon Gilmore
Malcolm Butler
Eric Rowe
Jonathan Jones
Cyrus Jones

Safeties: There is not a better combination of safeties in the league than Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, and all three are signed to multi-year contracts - while Nate Ebner and Brandon King more than earn their bones on special teams.  The problem is that in order for the Patriots to run their preferred Big Nickel alignment (one high safety and two in the box), they need McCourty, Chung and Harmon healthy and on the field.

Injuries haven't been a huge problem, but if one of them hits the shelf, it disrupts the entire defensive philosophy, so the search is on for players who can fill in at any of those positions.  While not drafting any blue liners, Belichick did pick up Big Nickel-type defensive backs in Richmond's David Jones and Minnesota's Damarius Travis, with Travis being the versatile box safety that could potentially spell Chung.

This means that third-year player Jordan Richards is the odd man out no matter which undrafted player remains, with Jones making his way to the practice squad...

Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Nate Ebner
Brandon King
Damarius Travis

Specialists: The only question here is if Stephen Gostkowski is going to rebound from his less-than-stellar 2016, when he missed several extra points, seeming to push everything to the right, which if put in terms of physics, means that he isn't striking the ball as consistently as he should be.

Some attribute that to Belichick's preference of easing up on kickoffs to force the opposition to return kicks rather that take a touchback out to the 25 yard line, perhaps throwing off his natural leg swing on field goals and extra points - but he is excellent at pinning the other guys deep on his kickoffs, so the trade off is congruent.

Allen is a field position weapon that has gotten the offense out of plenty of holes in his career, and is clutch when he absolutely needs to be, while Cardona's worth is in never hearing his name, which means he is spot on in his long snaps.

Joe Cardona
Ryan Allen
Stephen Gostkowski

1 comment:

  1. let's hope realtity trumps paper. go patriots