The New England Patriots have one of the deepest rosters in the NFL. While some positions – most notably running back and the offensive line – on paper seem to lack the quality of some of the others, the overall squad has a lot of talent across the board.
Not only are the Patriots talented, they are simultaneously an experienced team as well - despite the current average being only 25.7 years. That is because the majority of starters and key contributors are older than this average. And that is also why the younger players appear to only play a marginal role when it comes to ensuring New England’s success.
Consequently, a recent ESPN In$ider story recently ranked the Patriots last – 32nd of the NFL’s 32 teams – when it comes to talent aged 25 or younger.
The part about New England, which was ranked 29th last year, starts by pointing out one major recent draft miss and what as of right now appears to be a hit: “After whiffing on 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley, who the Patriots released this offseason, it looks like Bill Belichick found a long-term starter at defensive tackle in 2015 first-rounder Malcom Brown.” A fair assessment of the team’s last two first-round selections. Easley was never able to show his immense potential, while Brown quietly became New England’s best defensive tackle over the course of his 2015 rookie campaign.
We have now reached the point where the piece becomes a little superficial. Some of it has to do with the fact that the assessment needs to be rather short not lose the readers’ attention, sure. But the rest of the Patriots’ evaluation, for example, focuses on only four players: guards Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson, cornerback Cyrus Jones and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
The second paragraph begins with an evaluation of the two young guards: “[A]fter Brown, we're looking at two guards, Shaq Mason and Tre' Jackson, both of whom struggled last year and opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list.” While it is true that the duo was up and down last season, this assessment fails to tell the whole story and sells especially Mason under his true value.
Both struggled with inconsistency in 2015: their performances were, as noted above, up and down, while the team’s offensive line was no coherent unit throughout the year – pieces were shuffled on an almost weekly basis. Jackson struggled with injuries last season and had little impact, that is true.
However, Mason, steadily improved over the course of his rookie season and was arguably New England’s best interior offensive lineman by the time the team entered the playoffs. The 22-year old, despite starting training camp on the PUP list, has earned more reps with what looks like the first-team line over the last couple of practices and is in the midst of competing for a starting role at right guard.
If the early training camp practices are an indicator, the starting role opposite him might also be held by a player under 25: rookie guard Joe Thuney. The third-round selection has looked really good thus far and it seems the starting role is his to lose. ESPN’s story does not mention Thuney or any other player of the Patriots’ 2015 draft and undrafted classes, except the team’s first selection, cornerback Cyrus Jones.
“New England's 2016 draft might not yield much instant impact, either,” says the piece, despite Thuney possibly playing substantial snaps this season and fellow draftees Jones, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell expected to become important rotational players. However, the evaluation does only focus on Jones and his potential role in Foxboro: “Alabama's Cyrus Jones could be a nickel corner, but Belichick has been hit-or-miss with developing second-round defensive backs.”
Jones currently is the fourth cornerback on the Patriots’ roster behind Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman, who himself is under 25 years old (all three have grown just fine despite the notion that Belichick is up and down when it comes to “developing second-round defensive backs”). While his defensive contributions might be marginal, Jones will be the next man up at cornerback while also being the favorite to earn at least one if not both starting kick return roles.
Special teams, in general, are not mentioned – according to ESPN’s methodology, the story puts more value on certain positions (i.e. quarterbacks are rated high, special teamers low) – but the Patriots have at least two core special teamers on the roster under the age of 25: gunner Brandon King and long snapper Joe Cardona. They do not exactly play “sexy” positions but are important pieces in the kicking game. Other young guys like Geneo Grissom or Jordan Richards also project to play a healthy number of special teams snaps.
Finally, the story’s last paragraph focuses on the most important position on the field: quarterback. “We gave a small amount of credit to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who is now locked in as the starter for the first four games with Tom Brady suspended. His audition for the role of Brady's successor-in-waiting starts in earnest against the Cardinals in Week 1.”
Giving credit for having Garoppolo before he takes the field as the starter probably speaks less about his actual abilities but the fact that the Patriots make sure to have sufficient depth at the position – unlike, for example, the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. While the chances of him ever succeeding Brady are actually relatively low given his contract status and likely starting aspirations, Garoppolo so far has looked solid in limited practice and playing time.
Ranking the Patriots last of the NFL’s teams in terms of talent younger than 25 years, seems like reasonable thing to do if ESPN’s methodology is applied. Apart from what is already mentioned above, the self-proclaimed “world-wide leader in sports” also focuses on the 2015 season – how many games and snaps are played by under 25-year olds –, the “value” of 2016 draft additions, especially in the first two rounds (without failing to mention potential undrafted contributors), and a team’s track record of developing young players.
However, a closer look underneath the surface shows that the under-25-year olds are simply a complement to the other players on the roster; an infusion of youth that is mostly given time to develop behind talented, more experienced and older options. They might not be as flashy as the other teams’ players that have not yet celebrated their 25th birthday but they do not need to be.
If New England has shown one thing over the past 15 seasons then it is its ability to stay successful despite roster turnover and ever-changing faces both over but particularly under the age of 25. And success is all Bill Belichick – and the fans – should and will care about.