The New England Patriots have experienced one of the best turnarounds in the NFL, but no one is really highlighting the change. The Patriots have gone from dead last to 5th in the NFL in an extremely important statistic and it will have a major impact on the rest of the Patriots season.
The Patriots have used just 60 players on the active roster this year, the 5th lowest total in the NFL this year, and the Patriots’ lowest total during their six-game conference title game streak. In 2015, the Patriots used 73 players, which ranked 32nd in the entire league and is a count usually reserved from the bottom feeders in the NFL.
2011: 71 (t-29th)
2012: 67 (t-27th)
2013: 64 (t-22nd)
2014: 66 (t-19th)
2015: 73 (32nd)
2016: 60 (t-5th)
A really interesting study by Daniel Jacobs that looked at the relationship between the volume of players used by a team and its winning percentage in a given year showed that teams that used fewer players will usually have a higher winning percentage.
Jacobs’ results comes with the caveat that the Patriots are an anomaly. They use more starters than any other franchise in the NFL- more than the constantly churning Browns and Jaguars- and win more than any other franchise.
This year, the Patriots have both the consistency and the winning rate that contenders usually feature. The 60 players that have played for the Patriots this year are either still on the active roster, or have a reasonable explanation for their departure.
LB Jamie Collins and TE A.J. Derby were traded in the middle of the season. LB Jonathan Freeny and TE Rob Gronkowski are on the injured reserve. DT Woodrow Hamilton and DT Anthony Johnson were depth defensive tackles that were sent to the practice squad (Johnson was subsequently signed by the New York Jets).
The Patriots released TE Clay Harbor once Gronkowski looked ready to return from a hamstring injury early in the season- and his release meant the Patriots would receive a 5th round compensatory draft pick for losing DT Akiem Hicks in the offseason.
And that’s it. Two trades with a linebacker and tight end. Two injuries with a linebacker and tight end. Two practice squad defensive tackles serving as roster depth. One tight end released effectively in exchange for a 5th round pick.
To add to the impressive results, Jacobs found that the Patriots actually had the 2nd highest rate of different players to start a game, with 69% of the roster earning a start at some point during they year. Head coach Bill Belichick hasn’t had to churn the back-end of the roster, but he’s rotated the players on the depth chart until he found the most successful combination.
Belichick the general manager and Belichick the coach have done an excellent job working tandem this season, and the Patriots have used their consistency on the roster to play as one of the most balanced teams in the league. They also will not have an advantage against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which used a league-best 58 different players this year.
But the Patriots have generated positive results under worse circumstances over the previous five conference title games. New England will hope that their health and consistency pays off.