Losing Logan Mankins (70) would be a blow for the Patriots from an attitude perspective. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Part two of a three-part series detailing the attitude necessary for the Patriots franchise to return to its championship-winning ways. In Part 1, we defined this attitude, and discussed defensive players already on the roster. In Part 2, we will discuss the offensive players on the roster, and examine what is missing on both sides of the ball. In Part 3, we will take a look at which draft prospects could possibly fill those gaps.
New England has replaced many of their departed veterans, but there are a few more pieces necessary for the rebuilding to be complete. Fortunately the Patriots are well armed for this year’s draft, and should be able to find the players they require.
There is not as much improvement needed from the Patriots offense compared to the defense, but making sure that the same attitude is present on both sides of the ball is important. Just as defenders need to band together to make stops on third down or in the red zone, offenses need to have the confidence, willpower, and single-mindedness to know that on this play, there is no way they are going to be stopped. There have been situations over the past few years where a game came down to one critical snap, and New England’s offense was not able to gain the necessary yards to secure victory. These failures must be put in the past. An offense cannot doubt itself.
This is why revamping the offensive line is a top priority. In short-yardage situations where your opponent knows what you are going to do, having offensive linemen willing to get their hands dirty and sacrifice their bodies for the team is imperative. Logan Mankins brings the same kind of attitude to the offense as Vince Wilfork does to the defense, and re-signing him is a must. After watching the way he re-invigorated the offensive line when he joined the team mid-season, I have come to agree that he deserves his payday. Mankins is still in his prime, and can show the young linemen New England will undoubtedly draft in the next couple years how to punish defenders and impose your will while still protecting the team’s prized asset, Tom Brady. It is crucial that whichever linemen are drafted are not only strong, athletic and hard-working, but also possess a fiery attitude that allows them to go toe to toe with top defenders and not back down. Having to face Wilfork and company on the practice field should help them be prepared.
The Patriots offense has some tough players, and they are not always the ones you would expect, for example Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead. Despite their size, they are surprisingly resilient, and can pop right back up after what initially appear to be devastating hits. This can't-keep-me-down attitude is precisely what the team needs, and the more Patriots who adopt this perspective the better.
I am of the opinion that despite the fantastic production of the offense, New England needs to bolster their receiving corps. Deion Branch (5’9", 195) is a great player, but not a deep threat, and better suited as a number two receiver. Branch is a very important part of the squad, but will be turning 32 this summer, and cannot be relied on for more than another season or two. I would like to see the team bring in a big target who can play with a physical edge and overpower and out jump defenders.
I like Brandon Tate (6’1", 195), who was essentially a rookie in 2010, and think he can develop into a deep threat once he learns to improve his catching, but Tate is not especially physical. Taylor Price (6’0", 205) could possibly emerge as a number one receiver, but he is not very big, and there is no way to tell at this point how good he really is. Acquiring a large, talented receiver may be a bit of a luxury, but it would help re-establish the physical edge to an offense populated with undersized, quick players who are excellent running after the catch. It should be mentioned that Rob Gronkowski, and to a lesser degree Aaron Hernandez are physical players and help round out the receiving corps, but both are tight ends and do not play on the outside.
An explosive OLB to rush the passer is the highest priority, and a versatile defensive end who can bully his way to the quarterback is a close second. With Wilfork and Ty Warren occupying multiple blockers, those players would frequently have only one man to beat. Imagine adding another talented defensive lineman who also commands double-teams – opponents would be forced to keep extra players in the backfield, making the job of the secondary easier. Imagine having a speed-rushing terror coming off the edge as well. It would be a pick-your-poison situation that would put offensive coordinators in a bind. Do you block the speed guys and hope the quarterback can get the pass off before the interior defenders collapse the pocket? Do you focus on the inside players and hope a tight end or running back can block an outside rusher? Who do you risk single-blocking? This is the conundrum New England’s defense is designed to create, but the players needed to successfully implement the strategy have not yet been acquired. All that could change with the right draft picks or free agent signings.
The nickel cornerback role is another storyline to watch. Kyle Arrington made a major step up from special-teams player to starting corner last year, and performed better than expected. With Bodden and McCourty on the outside, Arrington could try his hand as the nickel corner. He can tackle, and has blitzed on occasion (from the OLB position no less), so it stands to reason that he could succeed in that role. Jonathan Wilhite is also in consideration. He manned the position before going down with an injury last season, and played reasonably well. However he needs to continue to improve to claim the spot for the long term. Darius Butler could possibly surprise by elevating his game, but he has yet to prove himself after two years. He has been given chances, but has not always made the most of them.
I think Arrington, Wilhite and Butler should each be given a shot, but New England needs to plan for the worst and assume they may not work out, or that a cornerback will be injured at some point in the season. Having three quality cornerbacks, and a decent fourth in reserve would go a long way toward stopping high-octane offenses the Patriots may meet in the playoffs such as Indianapolis, San Diego, New Orleans and Green Bay. I am comfortable with Arrington as the fourth corner, and as a fill-in on the outside if injury strikes, but not as a slot corner yet. If the coaches believe Butler and Wilhite have reached their ceiling, a new CB should be brought in. An x-factor in the equation is safety Brandon McGowan, whose contract is up. He missed all of 2010 with a chest injury, but the previous season did a good job covering tight ends in sub-packages. If re-signed, he could be in the mix for the role as well.
Bill Belichick does a terrific job of preparing his players mentally. His influence is what gives the Patriots their stoicism and reputation for letting their play speak for itself. Tom Brady serves as a deputy of sorts in this regard, but also is able to pump some passion into the offense when necessary with his extreme competitiveness. If the offense is sagging, Tom is not afraid to lace into them and demand improvement. I am not sure the defense has the same equivalent, although Wilfork may be the closest to it. Coaches are not on the field during the game, so it is up to players to rally and inspire themselves between snaps. Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel both knew how to inject some urgency into their teammates. That defensive tone-setter needs to emerge for this crop of Patriot defenders to reach their true potential.
When selecting players in this draft, New England should pay close attention to how the prospect approaches the game. Do they have a mean streak? Do they devote extra time to studying film? Are they comfortable laying down a marker and sending a message by delivering a crushing tackle or block? Are they smart enough to deliver that hit within the elaborate contact rules of the NFL? How does this player handle defeat – does it motivate him to improve? Does it fuel a desire for revenge?
Sometimes the easiest way to change the attitude of a team is to infuse it with fresh perspective and personality. Last year’s crop of rookies, lead by Devin McCourty, brought a ready-and-willing, all-for-one approach. I would like to see the 2011 crop have that same sense of responsibility, but also a willingness to be nasty. Learning the proper way to conduct yourself on the team is essential, but that does not mean you have to become a robot. A temper can be a good thing if focused correctly, and players who can help rile up the team would be a big boost. Most Patriots seem to have mastered how to play the game in a cerebral way, but that cannot be at the expense of passion. Emotions drive us to go beyond our comfort zone, and they can be a powerful tool in sports. New England has the calm focus in spades, but could use another dose of brimstone.
Stay tuned for Part 3, where we discuss draft prospects that could bring some attitude to the team.