As a long-time Patriots fan raised in Vermont and living in New York City, I am thrilled and honored to join the talented writing team at Pats Pulpit on SB Nation.
I have been impressed with the Patriots moves this offseason, and thought they had a terrific draft. Significant steps were taken to ensure New England is competitive this year and into the future. Simply addressing an issue does not mean you have necessarily fixed it, and it would be unrealistic to expect a single offseason to cure what ails a team. Nonetheless, going into the 2010 season it appears the Patriots have made a lot of progress toward fixing their problems.
Problem 1: Overmatched Secondary
When Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs were our starting cornerbacks the Patriots were in the habit of playing off receivers to guard against the deep pass, therefore allowing the underneath throw - part of the "bend but don't break" mentality. As NFL receivers get bigger and stronger, this strategy becomes less effective as a missed tackle can turn into a huge gain. Last year Leigh Bodden showed the ability to play more physically and stick with top receivers. He was guilty of missing some tackles, but was a huge improvement over Hobbs, and made a number of key interceptions. Shawn Springs also added some size and physicality, but his spot on the depth chart fluctuated. Darius Butler seems to have the quickness and ball-skills necessary to become a starting corner, but was picked on by quarterbacks last season due to inexperience, and could improve his toughness and tackling.
First round pick Devin McCourty is exactly the type of cornerback the Patriots need. While only average size for the position, Devin is good at press coverage, mixing it up with bigger receivers and often re-routing them at the line. He has top-end speed and agility, and has shown good durability, starting 39 games in a row to finish his Rutgers career. He is also a great tackler, limiting receivers to a 7.77 yard average per completion, and amassing an impressive 80 tackles his senior year. Devin is a hard worker with a positive attitude, and was a team captain. He is a demon on special teams, both making tackles and blocking kicks. McCourty also performs well when it matters most, totaling 94 third-down stops and 35 fourth-down stops in college.
To me this sounds like a quality player with a team-first attitude that brings toughness and versatility. He will contribute in a variety of roles as a rookie while he learns the defense. He has all the tools, and I doubt it will be long before he is the Patriots starting cornerback. To beat teams like the Colts and Saints, New England needs at least 4 cornerbacks they can trust. Drafting McCourty and resigning Bodden makes the Patriots much deeper, and adds some needed physicality to the group.
Problem 2: Outside Linebacker Position
The outside linebacker position was a major weakness for the Patriots last season as they struggled to consistently set the edge against the run. Tully Banta-Cain was the only player able to regularly pressure the quarterback, and even he struggled in some games. New England made sure he wouldn't get away by signing him to a generous three-year deal during the offseason. They also drafted Jermaine Cunningham, a defensive end at Florida in the second round. Cunningham mostly flew under the radar in the lead-up to the draft, but he appears to be well suited for a conversion to outside linebacker in the Patriots system.
Cunningham has good size for the position at 6' 3", 266 lb, and has very long arms. His straight-line speed does not stand out, but he explodes off the line with a quick first-step. He attacks relentlessly and has good pass-rushing moves, as well as the agility to tackle ball carriers in the backfield. He is a solid tackler and good at recognizing plays. He is known for his toughness and dedication, and was a team leader. What stands out to me is how far ahead of the curve he is when it comes to learning to play OLB for New England. Cunningham has experience playing standing-up at the outside linebacker position, and knows how to drop back into short zone coverage. He can set the edge against the run, although he will need to improve his upper-body strength to take on NFL blockers.
Usually when a college DE converts to OLB, setting the edge against the run and dropping into coverage are their biggest weaknesses. Jermaine already has a leg-up in this regard, as well as the speed and technique to be an effective pass-rusher off the edge. With the proper coaching and hard work he should be able to develop into the three-down OLB the Patriots need.
OLB is still a weakness for New England at the moment, as it is unlikely Jermaine will start immediately. Yet with Banta-Cain back on board and Cunningham waiting in the wings, the future is a little brighter than at the end of the 2009 season.
Problem 3: Stoutness Versus the Run
A great strength of the Patriots used to be in the middle of the defense, with Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison forming a solid backbone. Last year that was not the case. Given his lack of experience and relatively slight build, Gary Guyton did a fantastic job filling in for Jarod Mayo to start the season. Guyton is an incredibly fast linebacker and perfectly suited as a nickel-package defender in the Patriots system. Mayo excels as a weak-side ILB where he is free to roam and not forced to engage larger blockers as often. Second round draft choice Brandon Spikes offers the perfect compliment to Mayo. He has terrific recognition skills and is a powerful, intimidating run-stuffer. He is not the fastest or most agile, but he is very instinctive and as tough as they come. He will play behind the recently-resigned Wilfork, and with Mayo restored to his preferred position, should help make the center of the defense strong again.
Spikes took the #55 jersey, worn by former Patriot stand-outs Junior Seau and Willie McGuinest. He is a vocal leader and passionate competitor, and will hope to follow in their footsteps.
One part of this problem that was not completely addressed is the right defensive end position. The loss of Richard Seymour made the position noticeably weaker against the run. Veterans Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis were signed and will provide some experience, but both have to adjust to the scheme which could take time. Pass-rushing specialists Derrick Burgess and Jarvis Green are no longer with the team, but both Lewis and Warren are upgrades against the run. Combined with Mike Wright, Ron Brace and Myron Pryor they make for a versatile rotation of very large men, and should have opponents thinking twice about pounding it through the middle.
Problem 4: Pass Rush
The pass rush was an area where the Patriots really struggled last year, and where they are likely to have difficulties again. Cunningham is the only upgrade, although Gerard Warren can also provide some pressure. Resigning Banta-Cain was important, but only prevents the problem from getting worse. Belichick has taken a fair amount of criticism for not drafting a pass-rushing defensive end, but it is important to keep in mind there were very few 3-4 ends available this year, and even fewer that excelled at rushing the passer. Simply drafting a player to fill the position is not a good strategy unless you have confidence they will be able to perform the role correctly. Top-rated defensive linemen have very high bust rates, and reaching to fill a need could result in a wasted pick.
While the Patriots have not solved this problem, they have addressed other issues such as run defense and pass coverage. This may result in fewer third-and-short situations and allow rushers more time to get to the quarterback. Another factor is a healthy Shawn Crable who the team was very high on when he was drafted two years ago. Even so, without an athletic pass-rushing defensive end or a more blitz-heavy approach, the Patriots will struggle to get the quarterback again this year.
Problem 5: Lack of Receiving Targets:
There were times last season where Wes Welker served as the sole offensive weapon. Randy Moss drew a lot of double coverage and made some key plays but it became quickly apparent that the Patriots needed a third and fourth option. Julian Edleman was a nice surprise, and should fill in ably for Welker as he recovers from knee surgery. During the offseason the Patriots made sure they would have more targets for Tom Brady. Monster tight end Rob Gronkowski was selected in the second round, as well as the speedy, sure-handed Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round who can line up at the end of the line, in the slot, and as an H-back. "Gronk" is a big target, only 20 years old, and can block, catch and run. Along with Hernandez he provides versatility, making it harder for opponents to diagnose the play.
Wide receiver Taylor Price was drafted in the third round, and though he played against somewhat weaker competition in college, he has size and speed, and can make tough grabs. Torry Holt and David Patten were also signed, and will add veteran presence to the receiving corps. Brandon Tate returns from the injury that kept him out virtually all of his rookie year, and was a dynamic, elusive receiver coming out of college. These are a lot of options. Gronkowski will immediately give the Patriots a huge target over the middle, while Holt, Price and Tate will share time opposite Moss and in the slot. It is unclear how much each has to offer, but the position is now a deep one, and will be even stronger once Welker returns.
New England is in the process of re-establishing their identity. They have purged those they saw as a bad influence, and brought in a number of young players who were hard-working team leaders. They resigned core veterans and also added a lot of size. Not all their problems have been solved and the pass rush remains a serious concern, yet the future looks bright. The influx of talent in the last two drafts will be supplemented by another four picks in the first two rounds next year. If Belichick is able to get these players to buy into the system and re-establish the hard-nosed competitiveness the Patriots are known for, we could be looking at another dominant decade in New England.