Here's a secret: not every team in the NFL has elite play makers at every position. In fact, depending on your definition of elite, some teams might have none at all. I like the definition where only guys that will end up being in the Hall of Fame discussions count. For instance, there are 122 or so quarterbacks active right now. The ones that have done enough to make the Hall are Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Other names, like Drew Brees and Aaron Rogers, are up there among the top QBs, but might not have built up enough of a resume to get in today. When Manning and Brady retire, they'll be the new shoe ins. Under that definition, only 1.8% of the quarterbacks are elite.
You can go will All-Pro (chosen among the best in the NFL) and Pro-Bowls (mostly popularity contests), best 5 at each position, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Unless you include the best starter every team has (which can include guys that couldn't make the roster elsewhere), some teams are short of elite players. On our offense, we have exactly 2 elite skill players by my count: Brady and Gronk. To date, the offense only goes as far as Brady can throw it. We're going to need a good season from him, but it's the guys surrounding him that have disappeared when needed. For now, I'm only going to focus on the skill players that we'll need to step up this year.
1. Tight End #1: Rob Gronkowski
Let's start this off with one of our few elite players. The real difference maker. When Rob Gronkowski is on the field he is the best tight end in football. He makes an impact per game that is better than any tight end that has ever played. Gronk's presence on the field can single-handedly change the Patriots offense. He is a powerful blocker, and can open holes as large as any offensive lineman. He is a skilled pass catcher. He's a huge threat down the seam and in the red zone. He is a powerful runner after the catch dragging multiple defenders down the field.
The only issue so far has been injuries, and it is becoming a huge issue. He has been limited or MIA from the post season for the last three years. Gronk will need to stay healthy,
which will be difficult with linebackers hanging on him as safeties aim for his knees. He may have to decide that sometimes the extra yard just isn't worth it. I can live with one less yard after the catch, if it means Gronk is alive and well in the playoffs. When he is on the field though, he is phenomenal:
We need him to stay healthy this year. Yeah, the Patriots didn't bring in a free agent like Gronk. They didn't draft a rookie like Gronk. Simply, there is no one else quite like Gronk. Our backup is Michael Hoomanawanui who has done a few nice things, but won't give defensive coordinators nightmares like the Gronk. He's NFL average; just a guy:
2. Wide Receiver #1: Aaron Dobson
As SmashmouthD pointed out in my last column, Aaron Dobson brings something that no one else does to our offense. He has the potential to be our only true number one receiver. He has the height, the speed, and the athletic ability to add a new dimension to the offense. He needs more experience, he needs more confidence, and he needs to stay healthy. He can help on the outside, deep, and in the end zone. His skill set translates to virtually every down and distance. He is the only receiver we have with the natural ability to beat double coverage (in this case with the help of play action):
When we first drafted him, we took one look at this video, and had dreams of the play maker we were getting:
If Dobson fulfills his potential, he'll be the second guy besides Gronk that defense coordinators look at when facing the Patriots. Behind him we have LaFell and Thompkins who lack the either the speed or the height to make the same contributions. Not that Brady can't make that work:
3. Third Down Back: Shane Vereen
Shane gets the third spot because of his positional flexibility. He can line up in the backfield and he can line up wide. He's an offensive chess piece, of the sort we had with Kevin Faulk, but Faulk never had this kind of speed:
The worrisome thing is that Vereen has indicated that his hand still isn't 100%, and with his hand in a cast, he had quite a few drops. The good news is we have a backup in James White who seems to have the hands though not the speed of Vereen:
4. Slot Receiver: Julian Edelman
Yes, I'm well aware that Edelman can work outside the slot. Good for him. What the Patriots offense needs though, is a safety valve slot receiver. When you look at outlet receivers teams use, you might think of tight ends or running backs who are often used in that capacity. However both of the positions can be busy blocking depending on what the defense shows. In the Patriots offense, the slot receiver is the number one safety valve in that he is always available. With great targets comes great responsibility - to move the chains:
The reason this isn't higher on the list is the quality of the "back up". I put that in quotes because I could easily see Danny Amendola spending more time in the slot as Edelman spends more time outside. They both have similar versatility, and they both have histories of injuries:
5. Running Back #1: Stevan Ridley
I know I'm splitting the running back position in two, but so do the Patriots. The running game has helped at times, but also has been inconsistent at times. The weakness on the interior right side of the line, the lack of Gronk, and the occasional fumble have all popped up and lead to a running game that can fizzle instead of sizzle. Ridley has lead the team in fumbles of late and to date has spent more time on the bench from fumblitis than any other injury. He is sturdy and also a quick cut decisive runner:
If Ridley can hang onto the ball, he could bring a little consistency to the Patriots running game. Backed up by Brandon Bolden (who had one nice highlight reel TD run that I can't find), and possibly a bigger back in James Develin, they might be able to help control the ball and the tempo of the game:
As the temperatures drop, and the team pushes into the playoffs, the need for a solid running game becomes more important. A great deal will depend on the line, but that's an article for another day.
So there you have it, the five skill positions and corresponding players that we need to help Brady this year. Some need to make a sophomore jump. Some need to get / stay healthy. Some just need to catch or hang onto the ball better. If these five are all healthy in January though, the Patriots should be able to put up as many points as any team out there. Especially with Brady at the helm.
Those are my five. Who are yours?