The Patriots have changed their look and it seems to be for the better.
They all played over 25% of snaps in Week 1 of last season.
Seems like a long time ago, when we were all excited about the potential implications of Chad
Ochocinco Johnson spreading the field as the number three receiver or maybe, just maybe, he could become the #2. We were hoping the Patriots had won the lottery when they stole the struggling Haynesworth from the Redskins. Maybe that was just me. But as we all know, the status of a team during opening week is far from how the team will be looking as the playoffs approach. Even more clear is the difference of the roster as the season turns over from one to the next.
Last season, the Patriots opened up with a record shattering game against the Miami Dolphins. 18 players were featured on offense, with 15 seeing at least 20% of the offensive snaps (the three situational players were Julian Edelman [6 snaps], Matt Slater , and Dane Fletcher [1 goal line toss]). 19 played on defense and only Mike Wright, with 19.5% of snaps, didn't break the 20% barrier. If Wright is included, 34 players participated in meaningful snaps.
Here are some week 1 facts:
Chad Ochocinco saw 18 snaps as the #3 receiver.
Gary Guyton played 44 snaps. Remember that?
So how have these players and positions turned over as we head into the next season? Let's take a look.
On offense, the Patriots will have only four players definitely starting week one in their 2011 starting position: Tom Brady at quarterback, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end, and Wes Welker at wide receiver. One could argue that Deion Branch is returning at wide receiver, but it's unclear his role in 2012 as he looks to fall from the #2 in 2011 to possibly the #3 or #4 behind Brandon Lloyd and maybe Jabar Gaffney.
Four players. Everywhere else is seeing turnover.
Matt Light gives way to Nate Solder at left tackle. Logan Mankins is a giant question mark at left guard for week 1, due to his health. Will Dan Koppen or Dan Connolly take the reigns at center? Is Brian Waters going to return at right guard? And will Sebastian Vollmer be able to take back his right tackle spot, or will Marcus Cannon earn his playing time?
No definite continuity on the offensive line. For a unit that has been the chief cause for not just the offense's success and failures, but for the entire team's, this uncertainty makes the offensive line the most important unit to examine this off-season. Of course, under the tutelage of Dante Scarneccia, the offensive line will be one of the top in the league- it's just a matter of when they will reach that point in the upcoming season.
Moving to the skill positions, we mentioned Branch's changed role on offense. There's also a great improvement in the receiving corps. Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, and a T+1 Deion Branch offer a great improvement of a T+0 Branch, Chad Johnson, and Julian Edelman/Matt Slater. Maybe Donte' Stallworth will have a chance to make the roster. There's a lot to look forward to as the Patriots have tried to address the Patriots 2011 inability to spread the ball to differing levels of the field.
At tight end, Dan Gronkowski's 21 snaps will be passed on to either Daniel Fells (if healthy), or maybe Visanthe Shiancoe- or maybe an additional lineman as a blocker. Heck, maybe Jake Ballard will have recovered by mid-season and will be ready to get back on the field. No matter who takes the field, the Patriots will have improved over their 2011 week 1 tight end position. Either they'll have a better blocker on the field (adopting the extra lineman strategy), or a better receiver (literally any tight end on the current roster).
Looking to the running back spot, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is no longer with the team and, while Woodhead was the lead back in the Super Bowl, the Patriots have to hope that Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen can step up their level of performance and play to their talent level. Maybe Brandon Bolden can surprise and make the roster, or (more likely in my opinion) Spencer Larsen or Tony Fiammetta can help in the short distance situations. No matter who steps up, the loss of BJGE means the landscape in the Patriots backfield has changed and someone will have to step up and take over the reigns.
On defense, the Patriots have, surprisingly, just as much week one continuity as the offense. With Safety Pat Chung, Cornerback Devin McCourty, Linebacker Jerod Mayo, and Nose Tackle Vince Wilfork expected to be back at their starting roles, the defensive will have four players coming back to their old roles.
The safety position next to Chung was a revolving door due to injuries and lack of talented depth (and Chung missed time due to injury as well), but the Patriots have tried to improve the top end depth this off-season. Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson have been added to be safeties #2 and #3, while cornerback Will Allen has seen plenty of time at safety this off-season. Even James Ihedigbo, a player who saw far too much time at safety at the end of last season due to injuries, will have to fight to make the depth chart at safety. The fact that Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett both saw 45+% of snaps in last Week 1 has to lead Patriots fans to feel slightly more confident at safety this season.
Looking to cornerback, Ras-I Dowling opened up as the starter in Week 1, much to the chagrin of slot corner Leigh Bodden. Of course, Dowling looks to battle Kyle Arrington for the starting role on the outside, but I wouldn't pencil in Dowling as the starter just yet. Still, both Dowling and Bodden saw 85+% of snaps last opener, while Kyle Arrington played 25%. It's clear that Arrington will see more time at corner, but whether or not it will be outside, and then shifted inside in sub defenses, or if he will come off the bench is still to be seen.
Lest we forget the important of cornerback depth, the Patriots seemed well off last season, with McCourty, Dowling, Bodden, Arrington, and Antwaun Molden filling out the depth chart. This season is arguably worse off as McCourty, Dowling, and Arrington return with Sterling Moore and Alfonzo Dennard fighting for roster spots. Last season had high hopes for a unit that was quickly derailed due to injuries to Dowling and Bodden, and the general ineffectiveness of McCourty (although I pin a lot of that on the safety play). Hopefully, the corners will be able to pick up their level of play and put last season behind them. They'll definitely have to.
At linebacker, the Patriots opened the season with Gary Guyton receiving considerable play time (57% of snaps) as Brandon Spikes was unable to play. Rob Ninkovich (55%) and Dane Fletcher (45%) saw time at linebacker as well. Guyton is no longer with the team and Ninkovich's role has definitely changed this season as he looks to play more defensive end. Fletcher is still a wild card, although his time on the field has definitely decreased. Behind Jerod Mayo, the Patriots have an open competition for linebacker spots. Next to Fletcher and Spikes, the Patriots have former first round picks Bobby Carpenter (who has wow'd during the off-season) and Dont'a Hightower, as well as special teamers Tracy White, Jeff Tarpinian, and Niko Koutouvides.
The Patriots will have plenty of flexibility at linebacker as Hightower and Ninkovich are both extremely versatile players. It's clear that the 2012 talent level at linebacker easily surpasses 2011, although it remains to be seen if they can play as a cohesive unit. Essentially, the Patriots exchanged Guyton for Hightower and Carpenter, which is a move that every team should make if given the chance.
Vince Wilfork played 73% of the snaps last opening week and is joined by Myron Pryor (38%) and Kyle Love (32%) as the only linemen back. The unit loses Shaun Ellis (53%), Andre Carter (45%), Mark Anderson (44%), and Mike Wright (19%). While Ellis will surely not be missed, and Wright will be missed for reasons beyond his ability on the field, the Patriots have to be concerned with replacing the efforts of Carter and Anderson at defensive end.
In response, the Patriots spent draft picks on Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette, signed free agent Trevor Scott, and have adopted a defensive front that bring Ninkovich to the line and is more friendly to players like Jermaine Cunningham. Those players will have to combine to match the herculean efforts of Carter (hard to imagine) and the final nail-in-the-coffin plays that Anderson provided week after week. Will they be able to do so? Unlikely as such a young unit- but the Patriots cannot be blamed for not trying to bring in talent to mend the position and give it room to grow.
On the interior, the Patriots revolved the tackle spot next to Wilfork with Haynesworth, Pryor, and Love. They also used Ellis at end on heavy fronts. Pryor, Love, and Brandon Deaderick return- Love and Deaderick with a season of productive experience under their belt- along with a reinvigorated Ron Brace, to join with ever-steady Gerard Warren and new signee Jonathan Fanene. This unit probably won't have the same expectations as they did last season, due to high hopes for Haynesworth, but they look to be a solid unit that definitely hasn't declined in ability.
When comparing the expectations from last season to this season, it's clear that reality will rarely match expectations. The hopes for wide receiver, cornerback, and defensive line fell flat last season, while tight end exceeded our wildest imaginations.
This season, we have to feel like the wide receiver, safety, and linebacker positions have improved in talent, while tight end and defensive line have improved in depth. Question marks surround the offensive line and running backs, while the cornerbacks have make the necessary additions to move forward as a unit.
So what can we expect? Well, "expect" is a strong word. What can we glean from this updated roster? To me, it looks as if the Patriots are reasserting their strategy from last season- a strong aerial attack with a sufficient complementary defense. They addressed their passing weaknesses from last season (receiver depth, attacking the outside of the field) and have seemed to tried to add pieces to defend that same strategy should they face it.
The defensive side has been infused with a great amount of talent which should lead to improvements upon the not-hard-to-improve-upon bottom tier of the league. They've brought in players at key positions that should have a positive influence over the rest of the unit.
This team is very different from the team that took the field Week 1 of last season. That team evolved over the course of the season and made it to the Super Bowl. In my opinion, this team looks better than they did entering last season. I believe the whole team is another season more experienced and have made the necessary changes to fix the flaws that were exposed as last season wore onward.
So while Matt Light is no longer around, I still have high expectations for this team. For every Light that has moved on, the Patriots have added a Lloyd and a Hightower. Without a doubt this team has changed from opening week from last season. It seems clear to me that they have changed for the much, much better.