The Patriots are a Paper Tiger, from veteran leadership to young talent, from franchise QB to top HC, they are easily a notch above everyone in the AFC other than the Broncos, and one could argue, a rebounding Ravens team coming off their Super Bowl slump season.
The problem is, of course, how things look in early June, can be very different than how they look in early January. Even the most casual Patriots fan knows this reality all too well, after last season’s debacle of injuries and losses of literally a dozen of their top players.
DT –Wilfork, Kelly, Easley, Siliga, Armstead, Jones
What turned out to be one of the areas of greatest weakness last season could be the strongest position depth and talent wise in 2014. Clearly the duo of Wilfork and Kelly was a force to reckoned with early last season, potentially they could return to form this season, but it’s the addition of last year’s emergency replacements (Siliga and Jones) and this year’s new additions (Armstead and Easley) that really could put this unit over the top.
There is a lot of talk that the Patriots would go into the season with only 4 or 5 DTs, but I think that is short sighted for a couple of reasons:
First, this is where the real depth and wealth of talent lies for the front seven… LBer is thin, DE is thin, why keep an extra fringe player at one of those positions when you have proven young talents like Siliga and Jones?
Second, this is where the most health concern, as well as age concern, lies. Wilfork and Kelly could both be in their last season… Easley, Armstead, Wilfork, and Kelly all have some degree of injury concern, and the potential for at least one of them to start the season on PUP is good.
The Patriots can march into the season and play to their strengths, a lot of 4-3, leaning on players like Armstead and Jones to lend extra depth and rush/push ability to the DE position.
DE – Jones, Ninkovich, Moore, Smith/Buchanan
Moore I believe will show enough raw talent, Buchanan needs to show he has improved his rush and Smith needs to show he has recovered from his ACL injury and still has the ability to rush, the one that is most capable of getting pressure on the QB makes the cut.
LB – Mayo, Collins, Hightower, Beauharnais
It is possible that Hull, Davis, or White make the cut, but there is no real depth behind the top four, and even then, there is considerable projection in putting Beauharnais with the other three. Between their depth at DT, and their lack of depth at LB, they have every reason in the world to make the 4-3 their base, and sub-packages calling for extra Secondary players to be the runner up, they don’t have the personnel to be running a 3-4.
CB – Revis, Browner, Arrington, Ryan, Dennard
Doesn’t get any better than this for the Patriots, Ryan and Dennard are already proven commodities, Arrington is more than capable of handling the slot/depth… Revis and Browner trump any duo that BB has had to work with since 2000.
S – McCourty, Harmon, Ebner, Wilson, Chung
Chung makes the cut and hangs around until Browner gets back from his suspension, maybe even longer depending on injuries. McCourty locks down one position, Harmon and Ryan likely will take turns filling in at the other, with Wilson and Ebner being primarily Special Teams standouts.
QB – Tommy B and Jimmy G
Nothing needs to be written here, Mallett could still be around, but I think it’d just be a waste of a roster spot.
RB – Ridley, Vereen, Houston, White
Not exactly the most proven and dependable of units, but Houston and White make it solid enough, the two rookies will contribute to production at the position, they will make an impact, but it will be the veterans that get the bulk of the work.
WR - Edelman, Amendola, Thompkins, LaFell, Dobson, Boyce
This was a position last season that was expected to have some turmoil and go through its growing pains, and in that, it did not disappoint. Amendola looked great for all of one game, and then a groin injury sidelined him for part of the season and made him a limited contributor for the rest. Dobson flashed signs of true #1 outside threat potential, before he too was sidelined by injuries, Thompkins was a surprise undrafted gem that also battled injuries… they added to this group LaFell, a 6’2 210 pound physical receiver who burned them badly last season as a Panther, having limited production in his career to date, teaming up with Brady could change that (as it has for so many others).
Significant growth in the production of the three year two players, combined with the addition of LaFell, should make this a much better group for Brady to work with overall.
TE – Gronk, Hooman, Williams
Still tough to swallow, what was once the team’s greatest strength and brightest spot, just a couple seasons ago, is now their weakest link. The TE position will be under-utilized all season long, even when Gronk eventually returns, perhaps that is a good thing, the less they make Gronk the focus of their production the more likely he will see the post-season healthy.
LT – Solder, Fleming
LG - Mankins, Halapio
C – Stork, Wendell
RG – Connolly, Kline
RT – Vollmer, Cannon
Depth, keeping the previous starters despite some suspect performances overall last season, giving the three rookies a season to grow into their new roles, and having decent second options if they can’t.
STs - Gostkowski, Allen, Slater, Aiken/Ott
That’s 52… with one to spare. The TE and LB positions will be a concern all season long, if the starters are healthy in the post season the sky is the limit, barring some string of injuries elsewhere… but there couldn’t be a bigger fall-off between starter and back-up, remove Gronk from the offense or Mayo from the Defense and you change the strength and ability of the entire unit.
The Defense is different in that the strength and depth is on the line, and in the back end of the Secondary… a total reversal of the 2003-2004 timeframe when the strength was in the middle at the LB and SS positions. It will be interesting to see how this D performs, and where it ends up in the rankings.
The Offense will also be different, moving another step away from O’Brien’s focus of attacking the middle, emphasizing no huddle, quick release, quick tempo… to a more spread out, attack the outside, longer to develop the play Offense… this will require the O-line to be better at pass protection, to give Brady the extra time required.
Technically their second and third round investments into Vereen and Ridley, should out-perform the undrafted efforts of BJGE and Woodhead in 2011. Technically their investments into Revis, Browner and Ryan should blow away the performances of the collection of cast-offs they put out there at CB in 2011.
One would hope that surrounding Wilfork with the likes of Kelly, Easley and Armstead would turn that line into one of the most terrifying fronts opposing QBs have to face in 2014, rather than the suspect line we have seen for so many years in the past… one that was all but useless whenever Wilfork was not out there.
Overall, this is a significantly more talented team than the one that marched to the 2011 Super Bowl and came within a missed first down of winning the Championship… on paper.
But it will come down to who is left standing, come the post season, that really decides just how good this 2014 team will be, and how it will be remembered.