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MMQB: Patriots “holding back” play calling for “higher-stakes parts of the season”

The Patriots are intentionally playing with one hand behind their back.

MMQB’s Albert Breer believes the Patriots have adopted a new strategy for managing injuries and building the roster in a way that only a team with an entrenched head coach with unlimited leeway could.

“The Patriots believe that every season there’s a better-than-good chance they’ll win their division and play more than 16 games,” Breer writes. “That confidence has created an inherent advantage that they’ve quietly worked to take advantage. And here’s how: Knowing that the season won’t crumble if they have a bad week in September or October has given them flexibility to experiment early.

“One example was taking the unorthodox step of rotating offensive linemen (to help develop depth at a spot where it’s difficult, thanks to the 2011 CBA rules) the past two seasons. They did scrap that one. In five of their seven games this year, they’ve remained completely stagnant at the five line spots, with the exceptions relating to injury management.”

In 2014 and 2015, the Patriots rotated their offensive linemen for various reasons. In 2014, the Patriots just didn’t have good enough talent for a 5-man roster until Ryan Wendell and Bryan Stork joined the lineup. In 2015, the Patriots wanted to ease rookies Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason into the NFL.

This year, the Patriots have settled on LT Nate Solder, LG Joe Thuney, OC David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, and RT Marcus Cannon and it would appear like the team will ride these five for the foreseeable future. Thuney isn’t receiving the same rotational rookie treatment, and the tackles aren’t sitting for a drive or two per game just to get the back-up some live experience.

“As that disappeared, a new strategy has emerged,” Breer continues. “As I understand it, the experience of going into the AFC title game beat to a pulp with injuries last January has prompted New England to handle its players a little differently this season. In essence, there are games where they’ve accepted not going with a full roster.

“They were cautious with the oft-injured Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, who were both beat up last January, as well as Don’t’a Hightower, and the suspension of Tom Brady gave him what could be termed an organic four-game break at 39 years old. So far, it hasn’t hurt the team’s bottom line much—they’re 6-1—and the benefits, at least on paper, are still a ways off from being realized.”

This approach shouldn’t be new to longtime readers of the Pulpit as we’ve discussed the team’s injury management strategy over the past few years, since TE Rob Gronkowski lost a season of his young career in 2013.

It’s very possible that the team is doing more of this strategy this season- and this applies to players like LT Nate Solder, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Julian Edelman, TE Martellus Bennett, RB Dion Lewis, RT Marcus Cannon, ED Jabaal Sheard, LB Dont’a Hightower, and LB Jamie Collins- but this certainly isn’t a new concept for the Patriots.

But what Breer introduces in his next clip is certainly an interesting take.

“It’s also fair to see where this idea could extend into on-field strategy, too, with the team tinkering or holding back what it calls offensively or defensively, with an eye on the higher-stakes parts of the season,” Breer notes. “Before the opener, Bill Belichick told the New England media, ‘I don’t think you really know your team until the middle of October.’ In years past, we’ve heard him reference Thanksgiving as a time when you can figure out who the real contenders are.

“All of this, plus the reduction in offseason work, explains why the Patriots have really started to use the time they get early in the year in a way few other teams can, to develop their roster. And this year, since they like the depth they have and carry the experience of falling just shy last year, they’ve pushed it to another level.”

There are two takeaways here.

  1. Are the Patriots limiting their playbook early on in the season? It’s possible, with last week’s hair-pulling ordeal against the Steelers exhibit A. The Patriots played excruciatingly vanilla defense and the offense seemed to avoid the tight ends until the second half. Is this because the Steelers are expected to be back in the playoffs? Or because head coach Bill Belichick sees no reason to open his playbook during a game the team should be able to win while playing the basics?
  2. Are the Patriots using the first half of the season to integrate the young players? This is also possible, with DT Vincent Valentine, LB Elandon Roberts, and DT Woodrow Hamilton seeing some time in the middle of the defense, and WR Malcolm Mitchell seeing time as a blocker on offense. Remember that the “young players” include second like RG Shaq Mason, CB Eric Rowe, and ED Trey Flowers. I think Belichick is finding what these young players can do and allowing them to play to their strengths so they can receive NFL snaps.

I don’t know if this strategy is any different from years past, or if there is any more “intention”. Valentine is playing by virtue of being the #3 defensive tackle in the depth chart. Roberts is playing due to injury. Mitchell is used as a blocker between the 20s and is subbed off for veteran WR Danny Amendola on third down and in the red zone.

But I do think that Belichick wants to give his players chances in the first half of the season to see what they’re made of, and whatever rotations might exist will stop during the second half of the season as the Patriots crank it up to 11. If that’s what Breer is implying, then I’m totally on board.

What I’m not on board with is the list of possible trade candidate that Breer has collected from various NFL executives and personnel people.

Atop the list?

“Patriots LBs Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower.”

No. No. Nononononono. I’ll restate that this is from league sources and not Breer himself. But. No.

The rest of the players listed come from teams that have no shot of making the playoffs, a salad of Browns, Jets, 49ers, and Panthers players. But two of the top five linebackers in the NFL?!

“Before anyone in New England freaks out, this is NOT to say either is on the block,“ Breer adds. “It is to say that another team should ask, since there’s only one franchise tag for the two pending free agents, rookie Elandon Roberts has impressed, and the Patriots like to get in front of those sorts of problems. It’d likely cost more than the third-round pick either player would fetch in the compensatory formula.”

This piggybacks off of Breer’s earlier reports that the Patriots have spent the first half of the season seeing what the rookies and young players are made of. Roberts proved that he can hold his own against NFL talent and while he hasn’t made Collins or Hightower expendable, he has shown the team can survive without them.

I’m actually surprised that the Patriots haven’t signed any of their priority free agents to long term contracts at this point in time, so discussing the future of Collins and Hightower is reasonable.

I think the Patriots want Hightower around, per his captaincy and his placement in the leadership locker once held by Willie McGinest and Jerod Mayo. If the Patriots can only franchise one player, though, I think it would have to be Collins because Hightower comes with less acclaim and likely a lesser contract on the open market.

So what would be the asking price for either player? I think it’s fair to say that Belichick would listen to any trade if the offer was large enough.

Breer thinks it would have to be greater than the 3rd round compensatory pick the Patriots would receive if Hightower or Collins left in free agency. The Patriots received a late 2nd round pick for ED Chandler Jones with a year left on his contract and the potential for the franchise tag. Jones has been an All Pro candidate for the Cardinals this year.

It’s clear that the Patriots wanted the linebackers over Jones, so I would argue that a 2nd round pick would be the absolute floor for these players- and I would argue that Belichick should hang up if the offer is anything less than the value of a 1st round pick.

Hightower and Collins are so important to the Patriots defense and with the entire AFC relying so heavily on rushing attacks (Raiders might be the only exception), linebacker play might be the entire difference in the AFC.