Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Patriots Mock Draft 1.0: Defense The Priority, But Offense Could Use Infusion Of Youth

The New England Patriots' defensive difficulties in the Super Bowl were simply a microcosm of the difficulties they experienced all season long.

The biggest culprits were their inability to cover running backs curling into the flat and setting the edge in the running game - and while health coupled with free agency acquisitions would likely solve the latter, it's going to take spending some major draft capital in the 2018 selection process in late April to solve the former.
BYU's Warner is a hybrid OLB/SS, perfect for the Big Nickel

The Patriots run a three-plus-one Big Nickel defensive alignment, meaning three down linemen plus one edge rushing outside linebacker up front, two run plugging linebackers and a strong safety on the second level, plus a normal complement of defensive backs in the secondary. The alignment requires three safeties: the strong safety reduces down into the box and acts as a weak side linebacker, who deals with running backs or tight ends in the pattern...

...while the free safety also reduces down into the double slot to help out with coverages. But the key is having a combination safety that can play the back end, solo. Called the "centerfielder", he should have sideline-to-sideline speed, take excellent angles and have great ball skills.

The Patriots have perhaps the best Big Nickel trio in the game because of strong safety Patrick Chung, free safety Devin McCourty and centerfielder Duron Harmon, but this season presents a unique set of challenges to the group as Chung and McCourty have topped the thirty-year barrier and Harmon decided to try and smuggle pot into a country that one would normally try to smuggle bud out of.

So Harmon will likely start the season on suspension, which means that either New England does something perverted like line up in a standard 4-3 or try out one of their many developmental safeties that they have stashed on the practice squad - so don't expect Belichick to pull a safety out of this draft, as he will just get by until Harmon returns.

Despite popular opinion to the contrary, the cornerback positions are well accounted for with Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones, but the secondary, like the rest of the defense, fell victim to the lack of experienced depth in the linebacking corps - they weren't as horrible in the Super Bowl as the media would have one believe, but with Rowe entering his contract year and McCourty on the wrong side of thirty, if an elite talent falls to the Patriots in the second round, they would do well to add youth to their depth chart.

The defensive line has received an injection of talent, trading with Cleveland to bring in huge nose tackle Danny Shelton and plucking edge-setting defensive end Adrian Clayborn off the scrap pile in free agency - combined with the fact that red-shirt freshman Derek Rivers should be fully healed from his bout with a bum knee, both of the edges should be well accounted for, and no draft capital should be required.

On the other side of the ball, the offense lost two major playmakers in wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Dion Lewis. Lewis is a singular talent who will be impossible to replace, though the Patriots have signed former Cincinnati Bengal Jeremy Hill and re-signed the versatile Rex Burkhead to join passing back James White to give them in three players what Lewis did himself...

...while the clutch Amendola's defection to the Dolphins should be mitigated somewhat by the return of Julian Edelman to health, though replacing his punt return ability has yet to be undertaken, aside from Belichick trading to Oakland for receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, whose main purpose in life is to return kicks and run gadget plays out of the backfield.

The line is nearly set, so long as former All Pro Marcus Cannon returns to form from an injury-marred 2017. The team re-signed tackle LaAdrian Waddle to assume the left tackle spot vacated by Nate Solder's defection, and the hope is that redshirt freshman Tony Garcia has fully recovered from a bout of blood clots in his lungs and is ready to develop behind Waddle.

But the elephant in the room to be addressed is finding a nearly ready for Prime Time quarterback to develop behind future Hall of Famer Tom Brady -and while the draft is loaded down with quality signal callers,Belichick is likely looking for someone who fits the mold of Brady as well as anyone could, but Brady will be nearly an impossible act to follow, so the pick has to be someone with broad shoulders and tons of confidence.

How does all of this translate in my little world? Check it out below:

Round 1 (31st overall) 

Leighton Vander Esch, ILB, Boise State (6' 4", 255)

A do-it all interior linebacker, Vander Esch is as athletically gifted as any interior linebacker playing today, but with the length and instincts to become an every down force. In the running game, his core strength belies his size and length and in the passing game is a condor in the middle zone, forcing quarterbacks eyes to the perimeter.

His presence in the middle would allow for Belichick to vary his schemes from game-to-game and even play-to-play, and would also allow for Hightower to play more weak side in traditional sets and would take a lot of heat off of Van Noy, and allow him to concentrate on being the strong side force he was in college.

If Vander Esch is plucked off the board before the Patriots select, there is always Alabama's Rashaan Evans or they can dip into the late second round for Indiana's Tegray Scales - but make no mistake, Vander Esch is the complete package.

Round 2 (11th/43rd overall) 

Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado (6' 0", 190)

A developmental corner that possesses a first round grade on many experts' draft boards due to enormous potential as a bump-and-run, lockdown corner. Excellent size and elite speed matched with an Albatross-like wingspan. There are holes in his game and could use a year behind Stephon Gilmore to learn the nuances of the pro game, but the sky is the limit.

Round 2 (31st/63rd overall) 

Luke Falk, QB, Washington State (6' 4", 225)

A Brady disciple, Falk is the prototypical Patriots' pocket passer with the size to see over the big uglies up front and excellent lateral mobility and pocket awareness to slide out of danger.

Like the recently departed Jimmy Garoppolo, Falk's eyes are tied to his feet, which is evident in film study as he goes through his entire progression, moving his feet and keeping his arm cocked and ready to fire. Though some question his arm strength, his skill set allows him to throw against man coverage outside the numbers with plenty of zip.

He does have a bit Jacoby Brissett in him as well, as he tends to throw off his back foot to try to avoid the sack - sometimes into tight coverage, but overall he is a solid prospect, and the fact that he tries to emulate Brady in his game doesn't hurt.

Round 3 (31st/95th overall) 

Fred Warner, LB/SS, Brigham Young (6' 3", 235)

Warner is a tweener - a coverage linebacker in college but perhaps a big-time strong safety in the pros, and in New England's Big Nickel alignment. In Foxborough, there isn't any difference between the two. Drafting Warner would pay dividends in two ways. First, he is a big, fast sideline-to-sideline entity who is fast enough to stick with backs in the pattern and big enough to avoid being punked by tight ends...

...while at the same time developing under the tutelage of Patrick Chung, who is aging and comes out of the game with injury more than he used to, but still has some pop to his game.

Round 4 (36th/136 overall) 

Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon (5' 11", 235)

Bigger back that a team can just strap on a feedbag and send him out to do his thing. Played in Oregon's zone-heavy running attack and has intriguing feel for cutback lanes - load to bring down when he gets up a head of steam. Freeman was used sparingly in the passing game until his senior season, when he showed some promise as a screen man, but must improve in pass pro to become a true three-down back.

Round 6 (36th/210 overall) 

Braden Smith, G, Auburn (6' 6", 305)

Built like a Mack Truck and knows how to use his frame. If selected, could push Joe Thuney for playing time coming out of camp. Nasty mauler in the running game who has spot duty potential at either tackle position, and potential as a sixth offensive lineman to knock would-be tacklers off their pegs on perimeter runs. A one-man street fight in pass pro, which makes up for some of his lack of reactive athleticism.

Round 7 (1st/219 overall)

Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami (5' 9", 186)

A Danny Amendola clone with requisite toughness and punt return ability makes him well worth the draft capital, and could surprise with a roster spot, usurping a veteran.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Revisiting Super Bowl LII: What Really Went Wrong For New England

If defense truly wins championships. what did we all watch in Super Bowl 52?

The Philadelphia Eagles surrendered 613 total yards and 33 points to the defending world champion New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, allowing Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady to throw for a playoff record 505 yards and generate a passer rating of 115.4, not to mention allowing three Patriots to amass over 100 receiving yards each - yet they still won the game.

How is that possible?

Sobering as it is, in the really real world the Philadelphia Eagles are the new world champions, but it didn't have to be that way. Nearly two months later and countless hours in horrific and maddening film study have revealed that while the two defenses between the Eagles and the New England Patriots gave up a record amount of total yardage, that isn't why the Eagles won and the Patriots lost.

So while it is trendy and convenient to look at the defenses and ascertain, without much opposition, that New England's sieve-like defensive performance was the greatest factor in the outcome of the game, in reality the blame for the Super Bowl loss falls squarely on the coaching staff - the reason being that the Eagles' defense was even worse.

Yes, that's right. The Eagles' defense was just as porous, just as susceptible and just as putrid - even more so, in fact - but the Patriots didn't do what they had to do to turn that into an advantage for them.

Oh sure, they racked up an all-time playoff record in yardage and scored the most points ever by a losing team in the Super Bowl, but the offense could also have done a couple of little things - situational football-wise - to help out their own defense, who were getting gashed by a Philadelphia offense that did take advantage of certain situations.

The greatest benefit that the Eagles' offense took advantage of was the fact that New England's defense couldn't set the edge nor cover running backs on station in the flats to save their lives - and it's not as if it takes a football genius to include that little nugget in an offensive game plan, but to rely on it almost exclusively to set up the rest of a game plan took a lot of guts...

...which is what we had come to know of Philadelphia head ball coach Doug Pederson, so it shouldn't have come as any surprise. Pederson was aggressive throughout the game on offense, and his play calling tactic suggested that he had no other choice.

He knew that his defense couldn't stop New England's offense, so it was imperative for him to accomplish two things: He needed to extend drives by any means necessary to keep the ball away from Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense and doing so by exploiting that one weakness on the Patriots' defense.

And "by any means necessary" to extend drives meant going for it on fourth downs at two crucial points of the game - once just before the half and once deep into the fourth quarter after New England had taken it's only lead of the game. As it turned out, those risks worked like a charm, but had either one come up empty, the Philadelphia Eagles would not be world champions today.

That is something that the casual fan does not understand. Pederson pulled out all of the stops on both sides of the ball, yet there was New England with an opportunity to snatch the game from underneath the Eagles late in the game. That is the mystique part of the Patriots' game, and apparently something that Pederson and his staff game planned for.

And in that light, did the Eagles elect to pull an old Bill Belichick gambit to deny the Patriots part of their mystique?

The Patriots under Belichick practice two tenets that give them the advantage over any team they play. First, they almost always defer to the second half if they win the coin toss and, secondly, they adjust their game plan on the fly to make evaporate any momentum their foes may experience - giving them the opportunity to put into practical application their mastery of situational football.

Belichick is notorious for deferring to the second half when he wins the coin toss before the game to give himself an opportunity to "double down" from one half to the next. What this means is that he works to put himself in a situation where his offense has enough time to put points on the board before the half, then piggy back on top of that with a score coming out of the room at halftime, giving him two opportunities to score while keeping the other team's offense on the sidelines.

So to properly take advantage of the Belichick gambit, The Patriots had to score right before the half while leaving little to no time left on the game clock, then come out of the tunnel and score again to start the second half - and a team must check all three boxes to get maximum benefit, and while the Patriots did score before the half and then again coming out in the second half, they left too much time on the clock for the Eagles...

...who scored a touchdown of their own just seconds before the half to destroy the gambit, a turning point in the game that ended up costing the Patriots a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

With 5:01 left in the first half and following a Duron Harmon interception, the Patriots' offense embarked on what was supposed to be the final drive of the first half - one that, if successful, would cut the Eagles' lead to two points going into halftime - Brady fed the football to Dion Lewis in between throwing four straight incompletions, eating up two minutes before connecting with Chris Hogan on a 43 yard gain to get the ball to the Philadelphia twenty-six...

...then after running off another 40 seconds handed the ball to James White, who could have walked into the end zone through the enormous hole created by the offensive line as three different defenders bounced off of him like so many dodge balls, scoring with just over two minutes remaining in the half.

Curiously, White doesn't make his bones breaking tackles, he makes them with an insane drag-step that, in the open field, makes would-be tacklers look like soccer players taking a dive - which brings up the question, did the Eagles allow White to score from 26 yards out in order to get the ball back with enough time to counter Belichick's gambit?

There is plenty of evidence to support such a theory, and even some precedence in the Patriots' Super Bowl past to consider.

In Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants, Belichick called for the same tactic with just over a minute left in the game and leading by two points - replays clearly showing that the Patriots' defense allowed Giants' running back Ahmad Bradshaw to score a touchdown from six yards out to prevent New York's offense from running the clock down to nothing before kicking the winning field goal...

...which would have happened since the Patriots had just one time out left and would have had to drive the length of the field with about twenty seconds left.

The Eagles defense doing so wasn't quite as obvious as they actually made contact with White, while the Patriots' defense in the earlier Super Bowl made no effort at all to get to Bradshaw, but the hole opened by the Patriots' offensive line to spring White against the third-ranked rush defense in the league does raise some eyebrows.

The ploy, purposeful or not, paranoid delusion or not, robbed Belichick of his opportunity to double down on the Eagles and take the lead early in the third quarter and effectively kept the momentum with Philadelphia and was, as it turned out, the turning point in the contest - especially considering that the Eagles were forced into that second fourth down conversion attempt late in the game.

Truth being, had either one of those fourth down conversion attempts failed, the New England Patriots would be two-time defending champions today.

On that first attempt with a little over two minutes on the clock for the Eagles, they marched right down the field. lining up in a wildcat formation on fourth-and-goal from the one, with quarterback Nick Foles lined up as an off-the-line tight end - illegally, as it turns out - who acted as if he was blocking, but suddenly released into the end zone for a one yard scoring strike from his tight end.

So instead of playing down just three, the Patriots were down by ten and needed a touchdown catch by tight end Rob Gronkowski to get the lead back down to three, the two teams trading blows until New England actually took a brief lead mid way through the fourth quarter on another Gronkowski grab.

So down by one, the Eagles got the ball with nine-and-a-half minutes left in the game and proceeded to put together one of the more epic clock-draining drives in Super Bowl history, going 75 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown - not only taking back the lead on the scoreboard, but also milking seven minutes off the game clock...

...the now-desperate Eagles aided greatly by the second fourth-down conversion attempt from their own 45, barely converting when safety Duron Harmon couldn't bring tight end Zach Ertz down on a short slant.

After Ertz converted that fourth down, Philadelphia went to their four-minute offense, methodically moving the ball down the field and eventually Eagles' quarterback Nick Foles found Ertz for an 11 yard scoring strike late in the fourth quarter to regain a lead they had just lost, eating a full seven minutes off the clock in doing so - but still leaving Brady over two minutes and three time outs to work with...

...and there probably wasn't a football mind on the planet that didn't think he would somehow rally his team down the field for the winning numbers.

But on second and two from his own 33 yard line, Brady encountered blitzing linebacker Brandon Graham, who was credited with a sack though all he really did was take a swipe at the football over right guard Shaq Mason and knocked it loose, the ball rolling right into the line of sight of rookie defensive end Derek Barnett, who easily recovered the ball.

The Eagles held the ball for only a little more than a minute, but forced New England to burn their last time out and extended their lead to eight points on a Jake Elliott field goal - making the task of generating a comeback significantly more difficult - more difficult because they were forced to go ninety-one yards in 58 seconds with no time outs.

The final irony is that the Eagles defense that was statistically worse than New England's, ended up making the game-saving play, but it was the aggressiveness of Eagles' coach Doug Pederson that made the ultimate difference.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Gronkowski's Ambivalence Towards 2018 Season Related To Belichick-Guerrero Tensions

So what's it going to be dude?

The "will he or won't he" speculation regarding Tight End Rob Gronkowski's rumored retirement took several twists past few weeks, when in-the-know NFL reporter Ian Rappaport tweeted that the monstrous man-child would play in 2018, and then Gronkowski's agent said not so fast - but in truth, there was no way that Gronkowski was going to retire no matter how ambiguous his own cryptic tweets made the situation seem.

Actually, Gronkowski's possible retirement, were there any real foundation to it, waxes nostalgic in one sense, as it compares to Barry Sanders' sudden retirement from football in 1998.

After the 1998 season, Sanders announced via correspondence to his hometown newspaper that he was retiring after ten seasons with the Detroit Lions, leaving behind millions in salary and a big mess for the powers-that-be in the National Football League, who were forced to bring in an arbitrator to rule on a Lions' demand of the repayment of part of his signing bonus.

Sanders offered to pay back the $5.5 million of the bonus which he had already received after signing a six-year contract a couple of years earlier, the lone stipulation being that Detroit grant him a release from his contract - and when the Lions refused, the league brought in the arbitrator and Detroit got back it's signing bonus, spread out over three years and Sanders remained retired.

It's impossible to know just how much Sanders had left in his tank, but it was obvious from his request to be released from his contract that he felt he had more to offer football, and was, in fact, a mere 1500 yards short of the all-time record for rushing yards in a career - which he could have surpassed with an average season (for him) on the ground.

But Sanders had often been heard saying that he was more concerned about his life after football than in setting records, and having been fortunate to have not suffered major injury in his career, he left the game as healthy as any 10-year veteran could.

The same can not be said about Gronkowski.

Having missed his entire junior season at the University of Arizona due to back surgery, and skipped his senior season to make himself available for the NFL draft, where all 32 teams initially passed on him in the first round because of the medical red flags and despite his obvious upside, and when he was still available on the 10th pick of the 2010 draft...

...and with the Baltimore Ravens poised to take him at number 11, Patriots' general manager Bill Belichick leapfrogged the Ravens, trading a sixth rounder to Oakland to move up and select Gronkowski. But after two superlative seasons that saw him win Rookie of the Week honors twice in 2010 and become an All Pro in 2011, his medical past came back to haunt him...and the Patriots.

In the 2011 AFC Championship game versus the Ravens, Gronkowski suffered a high ankle sprain and strained ligaments which hindered him in Super Bowl XLVI and required surgery in the offseason to repair - then late in 2012 he suffered a broken forearm against the Indianapolis Colts, but tried to come back for the playoffs, where he suffered a break on the not-fully-healed forearm.

After four surgeries and one infection on the forearm and a minor cleaning out procedure on his back, Gronkowski was able to return midway through the 2013 season, only to suffer a torn ACL and MCL, plus a concussion on a vicious hit from Cleveland Browns' safety T.J. Ward - but was bale to return in 2014 and play well enough to earn All Pro status for the third time and to win the Comeback Player of the Year award.

He played relatively injury-free football in 2015 and for most of 2015, before suffering a pulmonary contusion against the Seattle Seahawks which caused him to miss one game, only to suffer a herniated disc in his back the following week against the New York Jets, which ended his season - but in 2017 he came back from the procedure at full strength to earn his fifth nomination to the All Pro team, but suffered another concussion in the AFC Championship game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Many assumed that it was his injury history taking a toll on him that prompted his talk of retirement, but lately the talk has been centered around Belichick's supposed feud with Tom Brady's personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, whom Gronkowski sought out last offseason and whom he credits for sustained flexibility and overall wellness.

So significant were the results of his training regimen with Guerrero, that other Patriots players started looking into what is known universally as the "TB12 Method" - and chatter is that Gronkowski felt disrespected because the team wanted him to train a certain way, and his body wasn't responding the way it had training under Guerrero.

The result, of course, was that Belichick suddenly had enough of Guerrero being a fly in his ointment, reportedly since 2015 when several of his training staff reported to Belichick that Guerrero's alternative methods were clashing with the regimen set forth by the often-times feisty head ball coach - and two years later when his prize tight end bulldog started making waves about not being allowed to train the way he wanted to, Belichick banned Guerrero from the locker room and the sidelines during games.

Of course, as far as any of us are concerned, that is all speculation, but it does feed into the air that surrounds Gronkowski's attitude, and the assertion of a Providence Journal columnist that the Patriots attempted to stop an article about the dietary changes he struggled to make to fall closer in line to the diet that Brady swears by.

Obviously, there are egos to be massaged here. Belichick runs his team the way he runs his team, and experiences some measure of aggravation when people try to test him on that count - so Brady has to be a constant strain on him, particularly since he told his staffers in 2015 that his hands were tied because of Brady's special status on the team.

For that, he can probably thank owner Bob Kraft, who considers Brady family.

While it's not good to give one player special status and expect the other members of the team to follow the prescribed regimen, whatever Brady is doing is working for him, and since the theory behind Guerrero's  is "Prehab, not rehab", meaning to train in order to avoid injury, of course the oft-injured Gronkowski is going to hop on board.

There's no easy solution to this. Brady has his status, and that seems to be the bitch-kitty here. As long as Brady plays, the issue with Guerrero will exist.

Perhaps that is why there was such a stink at the trade deadline when Belichick traded heir-apparent Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers for second round draft capital instead of keeping him and having the fate of the entire organization resting a little easier - and as an ironic sidebar, there have been reports that Brady is planning on taking his retirement year-to-year...

...meaning that if Brady retires after the 2018 season, the quarterback position is not well-accounted for, and the trading of Garoppolo would then seem like an epic gaffe - and if the team had known this all along, Garoppolo would have been franchised, even at the expense of the salary cap, for the greater, long-term good.

He would also still have Gronkowski to contend with and would likely have to trade him or let him walk into free agency or into retirement at the end of the 2019 season to make the rift between Belichick and Guerrero go away.

But if Gronkowski is serious about hanging up his cleats, his circumstance is similar to the aforementioned Sanders in that he is the unquestioned best player at his position in the prime of his career, still under contract, and within reach of several NFL records for a tight end - and like Sanders, is already considered among the best to ever play the game and is most likely in line for a gold jacket.

But Gronkowski hasn't asked for his release and wouldn't receive it, anyway, because whether being released or retired, there would be some pretty severe financial considerations to attend to.

The first being that Gronkowski is slated to be the highest paid tight end in the league this season, with or without any incremental bonus structures like we saw with him last season, which would render moot any chatter about wanting to be the highest paid player at the position - not that we've heard any of that kind of talk from the Gronkowski camp...

...nor have we heard, well, anything from Gronkowski except for assorted cryptic hashtags on social media - though beat writers around New England are opining that Gronkowski's issues were more along the internal workings of the ball club line than anything health related, with one writer going so far as to say that there needed to be a clearing of the air among the power structure at One Patriot Place, while another opining that the Patriots should deal off Gronk to the highest bidder.

Indeed, clear the air - but that has already occurred and Belichick knows just where he stands in all of this and whatever happens with Gronkowski is going to be by Belichick's hand, not Kraft's and certainly not Gronkowski's, because there is a $4 million dead money hit to the salary cap whether he trades him or Gronkowski retires.

It could get ugly, and that would be a shame.

It doesn't have to, though. If Belichick could see that Gronkowski is committed to do for his body in order to be a healthier, better player, and if Gronkowski could stop antagonizing him with his childishly clandestine tweets, and if Bob Kraft could just stay in his office and leave the team to Belichick, it won't get ugly.

But given the egos involved, that's probably not going to happen. Good thing there's enough talent on the Patriots' roster to overcome the battle of the psyche's...

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Roster Reset: Patriots Well On Way To Improving Defense, Stabilizing Offense In Free Agency

The Patriot Way is alive and well.

Despite the rumors of internal turmoil, Bill Belichick the general manager is busy loading up the roster in free agency for Bill Belichick the head ball coach, all the while Bill Belichick the introvert is keeping mum about the aforementioned and unsubstantiated strife, channeling his inner 2014 Bill Belichick and moving past it all in preparation for the 2018 draft.

In other words, it's business as usual at 1 Patriots Place.
Jason McCourty (l) now has a chance to win a title with his twin brother

The shadow of ESPN's Seth Wickersham looms large for many in the media and many more in the fan base, media members using Wickersham's assertion that there is perhaps unrepairable tension between Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and franchise owner Bob Kraft over Kraft's reported interference with Belichick's personnel authority, suggesting that it isn't as absolute as one might think...

...conjuring images of Bill Parcells muttering about shopping for groceries, then throwing a fit and taking a different flight than the rest of the Patriots after Super Bowl 31, eventually landing in New York to coach the Jets.

But Belichick hasn't flinched. He's not outspoken like Parcells and he certainly isn't as charismatic as the Tuna, but like any coach on a professional level, he does have an ego and with such probably displays some aggression when someone invades his territory, like the Wickersham article suggests - claiming that Kraft trumped Belichick when it came to backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's future with the team.

As it turns out, Garoppolo was traded and the reports claim that Belichick was incensed at being overridden by Kraft, who by all accounts forced the trade with San Francisco for relative peanuts on the grand scale.

But, none of this is confirmed. Wickersham used what is known in the business as "Reporter's Privilege" to justify his statements, claiming that his sources were from the inner circle of the Patriots' hierarchy, but wished to remain anonymous - which means, of course, that Wickersham could have said that Jimmy Hoffa was named Director of Pro Scouting, per source, and we'd have no way to confirm or deny it.

Same with the evil stories surfacing about tight end Rob Gronkowski and Brady claiming that playing football for the Dark Master isn't fun any longer, per source, and the Boston media has taken to egging on the fan base as they surmise that the four players that the Patriots have lost in free agency - wide receiver Danny Amendola, running back Dion Lewis, left tackle Nate Solder and cornerback Malcolm Butler - left because of the culture of the locker room.


This was all about money - except for maybe Butler, even though his strange trip through 2017 began with being pissed off about money and ended crying on the sidelines because he was benched in the Super Bowl - but those are two things that he's not going to have to worry about in Tennessee, as he signed on with the Titans for $66 million, who still won't be participating in a Super Bowl anytime soon.

The Titans also paid Lewis many dollars, who deserves every penny but knew he wasn't going to get it from the cap-strapped Patriots - same with Amendola, whom Miami made an offer he couldn't refuse (and the Patriots couldn't match), and with Solder, who reaped the largest contact for a tackle in for the upcoming NFL season on what is deemed as a massive overpayment.

But instead of worrying about what the hated beat writers had to say, Belichick concentrated on squeezing every penny he could out of his cap in free agency, bringing in his usual assortment of role players on mid-level, cap-friendly deals that have recouped some of the production that has walked out the door, but ignored perhaps the biggest needs on the depth chart...

...leaving hybrid coverage linebackers and Brady's new heir-apparent for next month's draft, with this years edition of the selection process deep in both.

The depth chart as it currently stands:


Tom Brady
Brian Hoyer

This is an area of great concern.

Brady proved last season that he still has magic, and as a result, the Patriots were pretty much forced to trade away heir-apparent Jimmy Garoppolo for second round draft capital in this year's draft, capital that may eventually be used to select another heir-apparent, just as Belichick did back in 2014 - and the question isn't whether they should use that pick on Tom Brady's successor, rather, the question is whether should have had to send Garoppolo packing at all.

For the better part of four seasons, Patriots' fans saw Garoppolo as the Prince waiting in the wings for the King to step aside, many referring to the handsome Eastern Illinois product as "Prince Ali" for his likeness to the features of the animated protagonist in the Disney film Aladdin. But with the trade deadline approaching and Garoppolo in a contract year and poised to bolt Foxborough for a starting gig elsewhere, the Patriots unloaded him to San Francisco for extraordinarily light compensation...

...forcing the Patriots to scramble in it's search to find another needle in the haystack- and there was surely nothing on the free agent market that came close to what they have in Brady, even in his 40's, nor in what they had in Garoppolo - so the next anointed one is going to have to be a college quarterback, requiring a leap of faith that didn't necessarily have to be.

In my research, there is one kid who fits the profile as a Brady successor and, just like with Garoppolo, he languished in the shadows of more highly-touted college signal callers through the start of the new league year, but is now starting to pop up on the radar of many experts.

Washington State's Luke Falk models his game after Brady, to the point that he watches film of The Greatest constantly, emulating his footwork and release all while standing tall in the pocket and making every read in the face of some ferocious Pac-12 pass rushers...

Running Backs:

James White
Rex Burkhead - re-signed
Jeremy Hill - acquired via free agency from Cincinnati
Mike Gillislee
Brandon Bolden
James Develin

When Jeremy Hill was acquired in free agency, the Patriots suddenly possessed the kind of bigger back that they've had in every championship season.

Look back at the five trophies residing in Foxborough, and you will see the names of Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon and LeGarrette Blount etched in them, where if you look back at the teams that lost Super Bowls in the Belichick era, you will find the names Laurence Maroney,  BenJarvis Green-Ellis and Dion Lewis as lead backs.

Lewis was a different runner, however, and earned his bones powering through the middle of the line, then juking the socks off of defensive backs on the second level, even though he is one of the smallest players in the NFL - so his dynamism cannot necessarily be replaced. New England will have to opt for the three-headed monster of Hill, Burkhead and White - certainly more conventional than what they had with Lewis, but with the potential to be even more productive.

All three are relatively young, but Hill is looking at a contract year, so it is time for New England to spend some draft capital to bring in a back who can develop behind him...just in case.

Wide Receivers:

Brandin Cooks
Julian Edelman
Chris Hogan
Malcolm Mitchell
Phillip Dorsett
Kenny Britt - re-signed
Cordarrelle Patterson - acquired via trade with Oakland
Matthew Slater
Cody Hollister
Riley McCarron

Many are admonishing Belichick for allowing Danny Amendola to bolt for Miami, but it couldn't be helped - not when Miami offered the soon-to-be 32-year-old receiver $8.5 million in guarantees - and while Amendola was an integral part of two championship teams, it's not like the Patriots don't have depth at the position.

In fact, they may be as deep at receiver as any team in the NFL.

That said, top target Edelman is coming off of major injury at age 31, burner Cooks is in his contract year, as is combination receiver Hogan, meaning that Mitchell should become a point of focus for Brady during the coming season. Patterson is the latest Raider receiver to become a Patriot and most smart people believe that he is was brought in to take over kick and, possibly, punt returns - but don't sleep on his ability to stretch the field...

...nor his running back-like moves once in the open field. As one person has put it, Patterson is a running back in a receiver's body, and has the ability to line up in the backfield and tote the rock.

Seeing that most of the pass catchers on this chart are either on the wrong side of thirty, approaching such, or are entering their first contract year, I can see them spending draft capital on a pass catcher in the upcoming draft.

Tight Ends:

Rob Gronkowski
Dwayne Allen
Jacob Hollister
Will Tye

Will he, or won't he? Rob Gronkowski has hinted at retirement ever since the Super Bowl loss, and has demonstrated his resolve with a series of childish and cryptic posts on social media platforms that may mean something, or nothing at all. Regardless, the best tight end in the NFL is under contract for the next two seasons and would be giving up what amounts to being the highest paid tight end in all of football if he retires.

The reports of football not being fun in PatriotLand seem to be tied to these reports, and will persist until Gronkowski clarifies, but for now we're going to assume that the monstrous man-child will be on the roster in 2018.

Allen's cap hit is $5 million and is probably destined for the waiver wire, while Will Tye could be more effective that Allen and may have an inside track to a roster spot - but in reality, the success of this group is tied to Gronkowski.

Offensive Linemen:

Tony Garcia
Joe Thuney
David Andrews
Shaquille Mason
Marcus Cannon
Cole Croston
Matt Tobin - acquired via free agency from Seattle
James Ferentz
Andrew Jelks
Ted Karras
Jason King

As for the line in concert, Pro Football Focus ranked them the third most effective line in the NFL last season - fair at protecting the quarterback, but tops in yards before contact in the running game, meaning that they pushed their mirrors almost into the second level before they had a chance to make contact with the running back - but there are questions.

The biggest of which is the left tackle position left barren by the defection of Nate Solder to the Giants. Of course, who could blame Solder given the ridiculously large amount of money they threw at him. The thought is that Belichick would go fishing for a mid-level veteran to give heir-apparent Garcia more time to recover from a scary bout of blood clots in his lungs...

...those mid-level veterans may include LaAdrian Waddle and/or Cam Fleming whose contracts with the Patriots just expired, plus the Dark Master signed ex-Eagle and ex-Seahawk Matt Tobin as liability insurance.

Good thing then that the medical staff has cleared Garcia to play, meaning that left tackle is no longer a priority in the draft, and that Tobin may not make final cuts.

Defensive Linemen:

Malcom Brown
Danny Shelton - acquired via trade with Cleveland
Trey Flowers
Deatrich Wise, Jr.
Lawrence Guy
Adrian Clayborn - acquired via free agency from Atlanta
Vincent Valentine
Adam Butler
Derek Rivers
Eric Lee
Geneo Grissom

The defensive line is an impossible mixture of young veterans, a couple of whom learned under fire as rookies last season and showed the pressure wasn't too much for them.

Wise, Butler and Lee, all 23 years old, looked like veterans at the end of the season, which is a credit to the coaching staff as injuries not only the line, but also to the linebacking corps laid a lot of responsibility at their feet, and they had to learn the scheme on the fly - particularly Lee, whom Belichick poached off of Buffalo's practice squad and didn't have the benefit of going through training camp with the Patriots.

Pro Football Focus has named the Patriots' defensive line as one of the most improved units in the league after the first week of free agency, primarily due to the deal that Belichick dialed up to bring Shelton to Foxborough, stating, "He pairs with fellow 2105 first-rounder Malcom Brown to form one of the best run stopping duos in the league."

Clayborn is coming off a career year with 55 total pressures, and the hope is that he will take some of the pressure off of Flowers, who is poised to explode as an elite edge defender. With Clayborn and Flowers manning the edges, it leaves the aforementioned Wise and Lee to carve out situational roles, as well as last season's top draft selection Rivers, who has yet to play an NFL down.

Lost in this mix is Lawrence Guy, who quietly had a superb year as a disruptive penetrator, finishing just behind Timmy Jernigan in run-stop percentage for tops in the league, even better that Shelton's grade with the Browns.

It would be a major surprise to see Belichick use any top draft capital on the defensive line in the draft.


Dont'a Hightower
Kyle Van Noy
Elandon Roberts
Nicholas Grigsby
Trevor Reilly
Harvey Langi

There is a strong InterMountain West connection on the linebacking corps, with Van Noy and Langi on the roster via schools in Utah, but only Van Noy was able to make any sort of an impact last season as injury and bad luck plagued the other Langi, as it took a toll on captain Hightower as well.

As noted, this unit and the limiting injuries they incurred was the bitch-kitty for the defense. With a healthy Hightower and Langi, the Patriots can field a very good linebacking crew, yet they still lack a force on the wings to set the edge, and they have absolutely no one that can cover backs coming out into the flat in the pass pattern.

That needs to be rectified if they want the defense to get any better, because problems on the second level have a way of impacting the entire unit.

The Super Bowl was a microcosm of what ailed the Patriots all last season, as the Philadelphia Eagles running backs accounted for over half of Nick Foles passing yardage, as New England's lack of coverage options for the flats allowed Foles to get rid of the football quickly, yet keep the clock running for ridiculously long scoring drives - and over two-thirds of the Eagles' rushing yardage came from outside the tackle box.

If the Patriots would have had anyone to cover backs in the flat and/or set the edge in the running game, they would be defending champions today. Don't be surprised to see at least two linebackers taken in the draft, particularly and edge-setting entity but most of all a hybrid OLB/SS cover 'backer such as BYU's Fred Warner who could potentially be groomed to take over for Patrick Chung as the Big Nickel box safety...


Stephon Gilmore
Jason McCourty - acquired via trade with Cleveland
Eric Rowe
Jonathan Jones
Cyrus Jones
Ryan Lewis
Jomal Wiltz

Many blame this unit for the Patriots' woes in the Super Bowl, yet the secondary as a whole didn't play anywhere near as badly as the media and fans are making it out to be.

Gilmore and Rowe played well after some initial struggles, but with Malcolm Butler benched, the Patriots went with reserve corners and safeties to try and contain the Philadelphia Eagles' high wire act, and the result was predictable.

Butler is now gone, for good or ill, and Belichick brought in the twin brother of safety Devin McCourty to bring some size and consistency to the cornerback corps that typically will field just two corners in their base Big Nickel to handle outside the numbers and have brought in demure speedster Jonathan Jones into the fray in the Giant dime.

McCourty has the size (6' 1", 195lbs) and speed to burn (4.34) to hang with just about any teams' number two receiver and can even play safety in a pinch. But the McCourty twins are on the wrong side of thirty, so look for Belichick to target a developmental corner on the second or third day of the draft - but don't be surprised if he reaches for one in the first round.


Duron Harmon
Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung - Signed extension
David Jones
Demarius Travis
Brandon King - re-signed
Nate Ebner - re-signed
Jordan Richards

The best trio of safeties are staying together for another couple of seasons, which means that the base Big Nickel alignment is alive and well in Foxborough.

After that, however, all bets are off. Both McCourty and Chung are over thirty, so time is getting short to come up with a replacement for both. In Chung's case, the aforementioned Fred Warner would be a good selection to develop on the job, but it must be remembered that New England have two very versatile youngsters on the practice squad in Jones and Travis.

Travis is a prototypical box safety who is also an outstanding special teams player, while Jones is a tall, speedy specimen who could conceivably take over the free safety spot with some coaching. That said, the key to the Big Nickel defense is Harmon, who has excellent size, track sprinter's speed and fluid hips that make him one of the best sideline-to-sideline centerfielders in the game...

Of course, many of the Patriots' players have part-time occupations on special teams, joining kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Ryan Allen and long snapper Joe Cardona to form one of the best specialist units in the NFL - with names like Slater, King, and Bolden serving as core-four special teamers.

New England isn't that far from fielding a team that may actually be better overall than the teams that has been to seven consecutive AFC Championships, and a solid draft should put them over the top.