Building Competitive Depth - Will the 2011 Draft be the Final Piece in the Puzzle?

Key rookie additions in recent years such as Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington have given the Patriots some great depth and internal competition for places.

The investment in quality depth and internal competition are, in this writer's opinion, more important than ever.

The NFL has become a quarterback driven and quarterback friendly league.  Teams can rarely take a week or two off against weaker opponents with poor quarterbacks.  Divisions are becoming far more competitive because weaker teams are arming themselves with very good quarterbacks coming into the league off the back of superb quarterback coaching at the collegiate level.   The bust rate, particularly for first round quarterbacks appears to be trending down in recent years.  Of the six 1st round quarterbacks taken in the past three years, they have a combined 15 playoff appearances (8 victories)!  Of these six quarterbacks, all but Mark Sanchez joined a losing organisation and non have come anywhere close to a bust.  In fact, the five who joined losing organisations seem to have turned their respective teams around.  Whatever the reason for this quarterback success, be it better evaluation by scouts or a more thorough education of quarterbacks at the collegiate level, the league is very competitive at the moment and will be for much of the next decade.  You could make a case that there are perhaps only seven teams in the league with a poor starter at the moment at quarterback (Tennessee, Washington, Minnesota, Arizona, San Francisco, Carolina and Cleveland).  In my opinion, the remaining 78% of the league either gets very good production at the quarterback position or at least has a solid starter.  The league has arguably never been more competitive and as such, teams can rarely rely on weak divisions anymore to coast through to the playoffs.  Rather, it is becoming more of a season long battle which takes a physical and mental pound of flesh from players.  Building depth and internal competition has never been more important.

 The physical punishment in particular presents the second factor as to why depth is so important in the NFL.  Consider that in 2009, ‘08, ‘07 & '06 the number of NFL players that were placed on IR were 297, 305, 313 and 297 respectively, producing an average of 303 players per year, or an average of 9 players per team.  This doesn't even take into account the amount of players on PUP lists or suffering injuries which cause them to miss significant time without actually ending up on IR.  One only has to look at the 2010 Colts to understand the effect that cumulative injuries can have upon a team, without sufficient depth to maintain the desired level of play.  With the league looking to increase the regular season to 18 games, the number of injuries in the league will go up, meaning the need for quality depth will be especially important, as key players from every team are very likely to go down with serious injuries.  Furthermore, with two added games, quality depth will be needed to avoid simply burning out before the playoffs begin.

For any team to have sustained success in the NFL, particularly one which plays complex offensive and defensive football such as the Patriots, it is paramount to accumulate very good depth, incorporating a mentality of ‘there are no backups' and each player must understand the nuances and complexities of the system and his role.  Attempting to acquire this depth has somewhat held the Patriots back in recent years, particularly on defense, since broad draft classes have resulted in partial vanilla schemes while younger players immerse themselves in the system.  But, are we about to witness the turn of the tide and this squad take the next step?

Most Patriot fans realise that the team has been in transition in recent years, but what the league should be afraid of is just how much quality depth and competition the Patriots have accumulated in recent years.  It is universally accepted that the overall quality of collegiate entries in the 2007 & 2008 drafts were particularly poor.  As such, the Patriots chose to parlay a number of these picks into veteran players.  However, even from these poor drafts, the Patriots can console themselves with two key defensive starters in Brandon Meriweather (2007) and defensive captain Jerod Mayo (2008).

However, following these two poor draft classes, Bill Belichick made a commitment to get younger, particularly on defense, and more importantly, made a commitment to rebuild the depth of the squad and create significant competition for roles on the team.   Consider that in the drafts of '09, '10 and '11 (provided the Patriots don't trade out of the top rounds) the Patriots will have made 12 first or second round selections in the past three years.  Of those players, only three were 1st round picks (two of which are late 1st round picks) meaning the Patriots have retained great financial flexibility if and when a salary cap is re-introduced.  These twelve prime selections have and will continue to give the Patriots a tremendous base going forward.

Furthermore, in the drafts of 2009 and 2010, the Patriots have found starting calibre and depth talent outside of the top 2 rounds and have used this talent to gain significant contributions.

Draft Class

No. of Picks

No. of Players on Roster

2009

12

8

2010

12

9

Of these 17 Players on the roster, I would break it down like this (open to interpretation):

Starter Now and Future

 

Sub Package Starter/Very Good Backup Option

Good Depth Player

Unknown

Patrick Chung

Ron Brace

Darius Butler

Rich Ohrnberger

Sebastian Vollmer

Aaron Hernandez

Brandon Tate

Taylor Price

Julian Edelman (Punts)

 

Myron Pryor

Kade Weston

Devin McCourty

 

Brandon Deaderick

 

Rob Gronkowski

 

Julian Edelman (Rec)

 

Jermaine Cunningham

 

 

 

Brandon Spikes

 

 

 

Zoltan Mesko

 

 

 

The thing that jumps out here is the amount of young starters who we can see starting now and for many years for the Patriots, given their displays already at such a young age.  Furthermore, the depth or sub package players could easily jump up this table with more experience.  Darius Butler and Brandon Tate for example, could progress up this list with more polish added to their game.  Finally, the glimpse we saw of Taylor Price in the Miami game has some fans very enthusiastic that he can move up this list significantly in 2011.

This breakdown also doesn't take into account the depth players the Patriots have acquired as rookie free agents, such as Kyle Love, Kyle Arrington, Dane Fletcher and Brian Hoyer, who could all easily make next year's roster purely through merit rather than necessity.

Expanding this analysis to the whole roster, we can see what kind of depth and quality competition for places has been created, and also where any roster spots need to be filled in by either a starter or depth player (basing the numbers on the number of players at each position in 2010 shown in brackets in the table).  Players in the backup role are deemed good enough going forward to be good depth players (NOTE: Not all Patriot players signed to the roster are on these lists, nor are any free agents):

Offense

Position

Starter/s

Backup/s

Fighting for a spot

Potential Open Roster Spots

Quarterback (2)

Tom Brady

Brian Hoyer

0

Running Back (5)

Danny Woodhead

4

Wide Receiver (6)

Wes Welker

Deion Branch

Brandon Tate

Julian Edelman

Taylor Price

Matthew Slater

1

Tight End (3)

Rob Gronkowski

Alge Crumpler

Aaron Hernandez

0

Tackle (3)

Sebastian Vollmer

Nick Kaczur

Mark LeVoir

1

Guard (4)

Logan Mankins

Dan Connelly

Ryan Wendell

Quinn Ojinaaka

Rich Ohrnberger

1

Center (2)

Dan Koppen

Dan Connelly

Ryan Wendell

0

Analysis of the offensive depth going into 2011 suggests the team requires a starting RB, whether that is retaining BJGE's contractual rights as a starter or using him as part of a committee.  Whichever way you look at it, the position requires further depth.  At WR, the team has accumulated good depth, but would potentially like to add a starter capable of the big play.  However, that may come from someone like Taylor Price, so we will know more about this position perhaps next year.  Nonetheless, the depth is very good.  Even on the offensive line, the depth is set, with two solid backup guards, centres and tackle - the team IMO currently lacks a starting calibre RG and LT.  Of course, Dan Connelly could further improve his game and elevate to true starter.  But the Patriots need to address a starter for the LT or RT position.

Defense

Position

Starter/s

Backup/s

Fighting for a spot

Potential Open Roster Spots

Defensive Line (7)

Vince Wilfork

Ty Warren

Ron Brace

Mike Wright

Brandon Deaderick

Kyle Love

Myron Pryor

Landon Cohen

Kade Weston

1

Outside LB (4)

Jermaine Cunningham

Rob Ninkovic

Eric Moore

Tully Banta Cain

1

Inside LB (5)

Jerod Mayo

Brandon Spikes

Gary Guyton

Dane Fletcher

1

Cornerback (4)

Devin McCourtey

Leigh Bodden

Kyle Arrington

Darius Butler

Jonathan Wilhite

Tony Carter

1

Safety (5)

Patrick Chung

Brandon Meriweather

James Sanders

Sergio Brown

0

The Patriots have armed themselves with tremendous depth on defense.  The chances are they will look to draft a starting DL with a 2011 Draft Pick, but as backups, two in my opinion are set and two remaining spots will be fought for between 5 solid players.  At outside linebacker, again, the Patriots should be looking to acquire a starter, but have a solid backup in Rob Ninkovic and Eric Moore and Tully Banta Cain could fight for the remaining backup spot.  Inside Linebacker, cornerback and safety appear set (the Patriots could bring back free agents Jarrad Page and Tracey White).  However, if the Patriots decide to go with 5 corners in 2011, they may look to the draft to acquire a starting calibre slot corner.

Nevertheless, it can be seen from these tabulations that what the Patriots have done so successfully in the last two or three years is create outstanding competition for places on the roster.  Just look at the list of players who are simply fighting for a roster spot.  This list will grow even bigger once the Patriots make their draft selections in April, but already, this list has some very solid players on it.  Perhaps more impressive is the list of backup players.  Looking down that list for both the offense and defense, you could put together a respectable NFL team!  Competition breeds success and having solid depth is a key for long term success in the NFL, and let's not beat around the bush...long term dynastic success is the goal of this organisation.

How do you win a Super Bowl?  An outstanding draft class always helps and is certainly a good place to start.  You can always attempt to acquire an all star list of coaches and front office personnel, to make those crucial decisions that lead to a Lombardi.  Of course you could follow the blueprint the Jets laid down in 2010, and acquire a number of superstar players, past and present, on one year deals in a race for glory...and it has to be said; it almost worked!  One thing I think we can all agree on is that this is not a question which concerns Bill Belichick.  To Belichick, a title for one year is not enough...this is a man who wants to win now, tomorrow, ten years from now and everyday in between.  He demands consistent success from both himself and his team.  Bill Belichick has a much grander design for this team...regaining dynastic success.  And the scary thing for opponents, the NFL and general naysayers is that, whether people realise or not, Belichick might not be too far away from accomplishing this feat.

First of all, let us not underestimate the gravity of the task.  Whilst ‘dynasty' may be another of those sporting terms which is thrown around all too easily, the notion in its truest form when applied to the NFL is incredibly difficult to achieve - in fact no team has achieved this distinction more than once.  These Patriots are trying to reclaim the ‘dynasty' title less than a decade before it was originally bestowed.

To win on a long term scale in the modern NFL requires something more than the standard for winning a single Super Bowl.  To have dynastic success in the modern NFL, it requires a team in every sense of the word, a single vision of dominance with a self sustaining motivation for success pulsating throughout the entire organisation.  Whilst these intangible qualities are vital ingredients for long term success, they are baseless without a team invested in developing high quality depth, with every player being able to contribute and make plays when called upon.

So far, these Patriots seem well on their way to having a complete team.  This 2011 draft class could just be crowning jewel in a three year master class.

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