There is no good team that functions without a contingency plan. Players don't develop, injuries happen, and Father Time always wins by final decision. The New England Patriots witnessed how a great back-up plan and looking ahead can save the season from collapse. Whether it was moving past a season ending injury to Jerod Mayo, or compensating for Aaron Dobson's inability to see the field, the Patriots always had a plan.
A key example is the relationship between Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden from the 2013 season. Vereen exploded with a 159 yard performance in Week 1 against the Bills, but also suffered a broken wrist, forcing him out for the next ten weeks. In that time, Bolden was subbed into Vereen's role on the offense, effectively receiving all of his snaps, until the latter was able to return.
Once Vereen was back, Bolden returned to a depth role and a special teams capacity. But he was ready to plug and play when his number was called.
There are a fair number of players that share general, if not identical, roles in the offense. This past season, we saw that the Patriots liked playing a tight end, a running back, and then a mix of three other players on the field at any given time. I've summarized them as follows:
Y: The inline tight end - TE Rob Gronkowski
Z: The movable chess piece - WR Julian Edelman, (Danny Amendola)
X: The standard outside receiver - WR Brandon LaFell, Brian Tyms, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson
H: The extra blocker - TE Michael Hoomanawanui, FB James Develin, OT Cameron Fleming, OT Marcus Cannon
S: The slot receiver - WR Danny Amendola, TE Tim Wright
F: The finesse running backs - RB Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, James White
P: The power running backs - RB Jonas Gray, Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount
Keep in mind that these letters are of my own choosing to make it easier for distinction (ex: F is traditionally for those tight ends who flex from the backfield into the slot, not for my made-up grouping of running backs).
Using snap counts from Pro Football Focus, we can come up with the following rough snapshare for the weapons on offense:
75%: Y, Z, S, H
What this means is that there will always be a player considered a receiver on the outside, there will always be a running back on the field, and then the other three spots on the offense are shared pretty equally amongst the other four positional groupings.
There is some noise due to the Patriots sitting most of their starters in Week 17, which forced players out of positional groupings- Amendola assumed Edelman's role, while Lafell and Tyms both played most of the game, leading to the X role accumulating over 100% of the snaps. The Patriots also had a lot of late leads, which led to the further benching of some starters.
Additionally, Gronkowski was eased into his starting role early on the year, with the players in the H group picking up some of the slack. A healthy Gronk was playing nearly 100% of the time.
Adding in adjustments for te end of the season injuries to Edelman and the insertion of Amendola into the offense increases Z position to 80% of the snaps, while the slot decreases to roughly 60% of the snaps.
The reason Edelman and the slot receivers won't see every snap is because the coaching staff favors H blockers who can come in and eat snaps on rushing downs, for roughly 60% of the snaps. There will always be an element of game-planning involved, and the H position will be far more heavily involved in a rushing attack against the Colts than in a passing-heavy game plan against the Jets or Lions. Coach Bill Belichick favors LaFell and Gronkowski for their size and their blocking abilities.
The remaining snaps are split up amongst the running backs, one of whom will always be on the field. This is game plan specific, with the P backs playing weak defensive lines, and F backs playing strong defensive fronts. F backs will also play on passing downs, which is why their snaps are greater than the P backs.
Over the course of the season, it's clear how the Patriots are balancing their offense.
If we look towards 2015, healthy versions of Gronkowski (100%), LaFell (100%), and Edelman (80%) should all see their share of snaps. Amendola should receive his 60% of the snaps in the slot, except for where Tim Wright eats in against attacking defenses and in the red zone.
Blount should see 40% of the snaps next season (Jonas Gray being inactive for the Super Bowl says volumes), while there's an open battle amongst Brandon Bolden, James White, Dion Lewis, Travaris Cadet, and Tyler Gaffney for the remaining 60% of the snaps at running back.
This leaves a remaining 60% of the snaps to share amongst Develin, Hoomanawanui, the newly acquired Scott Chandler, and whenever the the coaching staff uses a sixth offensive lineman. Based upon the $2 million signing bonus, it would seem as if Chandler is expected to take over for a large share of Hoomanawanui's snaps. For comparison, Hoomanawanui signed for a $360,000 signing bonus prior to 2014 and also received a $300,000 roster bonus this past March.
But as we say these are the snap goals for each positional group, keep in mind that depth is of the utmost importance. Through this exercise, it's clear how much one group relies on the other for support, whether due to game planning or injury.