So I was looking at the roster from opening week and it's surprising to see how much the roster has evolved/developed over the course of the season. Some of the moves have been for the better, while others have been the overall detriment of the squad. Here are some fun facts:
Only 6 Patriots have started every game: QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Wes Welker, LG Logan Mankins, NT Vince Wilfork, and DE/OLB Rob Ninkovich- and Mankins has started at 2 positions.
RG Brian Waters nearly counted, but was only called upon to be the starter once Dan Connolly was forced to take C Dan Koppen's spot on the offensive line.
T Nate Solder, S Sterling Moore (yes, he was an undrafted rookie), and CB Ras-I Dowling are the only rookies with multiple starts.
S Pat Chung has started in 7/7 games; LB Brandon Spikes in 6/7; T Sebastian Vollmer in 5/6.
The Patriots have started 4 players at center (Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Nick McDonald)
The following players have started at safety: James Ihedigbo (11 games), Pat Chung (7), Josh Barrett (4), Sergio Brown (3), Sterling Moore (3), Matthew Slater (2); Nate Jones has also played safety during the game. Ideal combination? In my view: Chung + Moore
Most consistent defensive line pairing: After Mike Wright was injured, DT Kyle Love and NT Vince Wilfork have started 12 games together (with Wilfork starting all 15 games this season). Only 3 non-starts for Love? Week 1 (Mike Wright), Week 2 and Week 3 (Patriots played a lot of 3-3-5 against the Chargers and Bills)- Love had the most snaps for any non-starting DL in Weeks 2 and 3. Get Love a contract extension.
The Patriots have a few prominent starters over the age of 30: DE Shaun Ellis (34), RG Brian Waters (34), QB Tom Brady (34), LT Matt Light (33), DE Andre Carter (32), WR Deion Branch (32), NT Vince Wilfork (30), WR Wes Welker (30). Ignoring Ellis and possibly Branch, those have been the most consistently dominant players on the roster, outside of Rob Gronkowski.
So there's a lot to look at when checking the roster. For the sake of this exercise, I will only include a player twice if they re-earned their position, and not if they returned to their role from an injury hiatus. I may have missed a few (Niko Koutivides?), but here are the position evaluations [feel free to add whoever I missed in the comments]:
QB: Tom Brady
WR: Wes Welker
TE: Rob Gronkowski
NT: Vince Wilfork
DE/OLB: Rob Ninkovich
Those positions have been the most stable and, it's no surprise, that those players have been some of the best on the roster.
LT: Matt Light - Logan Mankins
LG: Logan Mankins - Donald Thomas
RG: Dan Connolly - Brian Waters
WR: Deion Branch - Chad Ochocinco
DT: Mike Wright - Kyle Love
DE: Shaun Ellis - Brandon Deaderick
LCB: Devin McCourty - Antwaun Molden
RCB: Ras-I Dowling - Kyle Arrington
SS: Pat Chung - James Ihedigbo
Again, these have been some of the more consistent positions. Since there has been only one change, it's been the result of an injury in every case apart from Shaun Ellis' replacement. Typically, the initial starter got their job back (or will get their job back) once they returned from their injury. Only season ending injuries- Connolly (via Koppen), Wright, and Dowling- resulting in a full replacement.
Flex: Aaron Hernandez - Chad Ochocinco - Thomas Welch
RT: Nate Solder - Sebastian Vollmer - Marcus CannonDE: Andre Carter - Mark Anderson - Shaun Ellis
WLB: Jerod Mayo - Gary Guyton - Tracy White
These stories a little more complicated. Hernandez missed a few games early in the season and Ochocinco had to step up (Week 3 vs Bills) to compensate for offensive snaps. The next week was against Oakland and their porous run defense so the coaches opted to add another tackle as a "heavy tight end." So a combination of need, injury, and performance pushed around the flex position- but that's just the nature of that spot.
At right tackle, Vollmer was expected to start the season before his back acted up. As a result, rookie Nate Solder was pushed into action from Week 1. Once Vollmer was healthy enough, his role increased until he re-injured himself. That forced Solder back into action where he was a stalwart until Week 16; Solder was forced to left tackle and fellow rookie Cannon played the majority of the game. These moves were purely the result of injuries.
Andre Carter was lost with an injury and Anderson answered the call and played a tremendous game. However, the Patriots decided to shift into a different defensive look with Carter out of the line-up and Ellis saw his playing time increase.
The weakside linebacker position has evolved as the Patriots have rotated between the 3-4 and the 4-3 defenses. Mayo started the season with Guyton in the middle, but a week 2 injury to Brandon Spikes forced Mayo to the middle. Guyton took over as the WLB, but he played at such a low level he had to be replaced. Special teamer White took over until the return of Dane Fletcher allowed Mayo to revert back to WLB.
RB: BenJarvus Green-Ellis - Danny Woodhead - Kevin Faulk - Stevan Ridley
C: Dan Koppen - Dan Connolly - Ryan Wendell - Nick McDonald
MLB: Gary Guyton - Brandon Spikes - Jerod Mayo - Dane Fletcher
The running back position might not be considered a change, but it's an interesting look at who is taking the snaps. BJGE and Woodhead rotated during the first half of the season, until Faulk returned from his injury and took 67% of the snaps in the Steelers game. BJGE's snaps have been around 25% or below the past four weeks as Stevan Ridley takes a larger role (45% against the Colts, 43% against the Dolphins).
Center has rotated due to injuries, although there were rumors that head coach Bill Belichick was unhappy with Wendell's performance during his start. Koppen was lost early in the season, following by a Connolly injury, a Wendell "injury(?)", and then practice squad player Nick McDonald. Connolly has recently returned to the starting line-up as his injury has healed.
Middle linebacker was one of the strongest positions entering the season, but has been weak as of late. Guyton started the season until Spikes was healthy enough to play. After Spikes went down with an injury, the Patriots put Mayo at middle because Guyton was unable to stop the run. Once Fletcher returned from his thumb injury, Mayo was put back to the weakside and Fletcher has looked good.
These positions have changed to compensate to injury, but it's also a result of varying levels of play. The running back and the linebacker spot see a different player based upon the opponent, but also because of how well the player is performing. The center position has been a revolving door because of injuries.
NCB: Leigh Bodden - Antwaun Molden - Phillip Adams - Julian Edelman - Nate Jones
Oh, the defensive backfield. Bodden was lost to an injury. Molden primarily played on the outside as Arrington was pushed into the slot, but Adams outplaying him and earned playing time- until Adams was cut. Athlete Edelman played a few snaps as a stop gap until Jones showed up. Jones has played well and has also dropped back into the safety position when called upon.
FS: Josh Barrett - Sergio Brown - James Ihedigbo - Sterling Moore - Matthew Slater - Sergio Brown
The free safety position has been the worst position on the team. Barrett was lost to an injury; Brown was horrendous; Ihedigbo had to be moved due to Chung's injury; Moore was cut; Slater was just awful; Brown was reinstated, but is still an enigma, but he's coming off a quality start.
So are there are trends from this exercise? I don't think it's a coincidence that the weakest positions on the team (safety, nickelback, center) have been subjected to more changes than other positions. I think that we can take two quality pieces from looking at this roster:
1. It's imperative that the Patriots must address the free safety and nickelback position in next year's draft or free agency. While it might be boring to see the Patriots address the same positions year after year, but those were the only positions were starters were put on the bench due to a low level of performance.
2. Bill Belichick and the Patriots front office have done a terrific job building the team's depth. While the team could definitely use a few more elite, young, players from the draft, Belichick understands that injuries happen to every position and it's more important for long term success to have a solid foundation behind the star players, than to invest in only stars.
Of course, Belichick deserves at least a slap on the wrist for the state of the Patriots safety position because he was the primary reason for all of the turnover. Still, that remains the only position where he is at fault for lack of quality depth. It wasn't Belichick's fault that Dowling and Bodden were lost for the season. It's unfortunate that Koppen was hurt, but that's not on Belichick. The team has overcome defensive injuries to Carter, Chung, Spikes, Mayo, Fletcher, Wright, Pryor, and more.
This Patriots team has proven to be extremely resilient. Injuries and adversity have not been able to hold down this team. Is the team perfect? Far from it. This team might even need a few more pieces to be considered elite. However, with everything that this team has gone through this season- all of the players, all of the struggles, all of the injuries- I just have a feeling that this team won't lie down. If they go down, they'll go down swinging.
Hopefully, with whatever combination of starters the coaches manage to cobble together, the Patriots manage to keep swinging until the Super Bowl.