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Patriots snap counts reveal how team plans to rotate talent on offense and defense

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Here’s what we’ve learned about the Patriots snap counts through two games.

NFL: New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints USA TODAY NETWORK

Two games aren’t enough to make any sweeping declarations about playing time for New England Patriots players, but we can start to highlight some points of interest- and if these stay true for next Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans, then our interpretations will hold more weight.

The Patriots snap counts aren’t perfect representations of a player’s utilization because of injuries or game script- but here’s what we think we know so far.

Offense

Tom Brady and the offensive line of Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Marcus Cannon have played every offensive snap this year.

The skill players have been used in a rotation. Chris Hogan is likely to play 90% of the snaps every game if he remains healthy, while Brandin Cooks is right behind him at roughly 85% of the snaps. Phillip Dorsett saw his playing time increase from 22% to 42% with Danny Amendola out of the picture, but it seems like the third receiver will play 40-60% of the snaps depending on the opponent, with more time against teams with weaker cornerback depth than safety depth.

Rob Gronkowski looks to be a 100% snap type of player when healthy, with Dwayne Allen a 20-40% option. Jacob Hollister played 21% of the snaps against the Saints, but that’s linked to Rob Gronkowski’s injury and the lack of other receiving options.

The biggest (only?) surprise on offense comes at the running back position. How many snaps do you think Rex Burkhead has played? Burkhead’s carried the ball 5 times and been targeted an extra 7 times for a total of 12 touch attempts for 67 yards and a touchdown.

He’s played a mere 18 snaps, meaning the Patriots give him the ball on 66% of his snaps. That’s a ridiculous usage rate. The kicker is that Dion Lewis has played 20 snaps; would you have ever thought Lewis has played more than Burkhead?

James White (47%) and Mike Gillislee (34%) are playing roughly a combined 80% of the snaps based upon the game script. When the Patriots are throwing the ball, White will play a lot and when the Patriots are running the ball, Gillislee will play. It’s pretty simple, but hard to predict. Burkhead and Lewis will get a drive or two per game as change-up options.

Defense

The Patriots defensive tackles are currently in flux. Alan Branch saw his snaps fall from 62% to 9% from week 1 to 2, while Malcom Brown’s fell more modestly from 71% to 52%. A lot of Brown’s snaps went to Lawrence Guy, who earned more playing time; Guy’s snaps bumped from 38% to 46%.

The big winner was undrafted rookie Adam Butler who played both defensive tackle and edge defender against the Saints. His playing time spiked from 29% in the opener to an incredible 69% against the Saints.

You’ll note that Branch (62%) and Guy (38%), and then Brown (71%) and Butler (29%) combined for 100% of snaps in week 1. That rotation was not present against the Saints as the Patriots held a lead and weren’t afraid of the Saints rushing attack.

Trey Flowers have been nearly a 100% player on the edge, an indication of his importance to the defense and a throwback to how the Patriots deployed Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich for a few years before building up the rotation. Cassius Marsh had his playing time increase from 34% to 48% and Deatrich Wise bumped up from 25% to 43%.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Wise saw a further increase against the Texans and for Flowers to possibly get some rest so he’s not asked to play every single snap this year. With Butler helping out on the edge, too, there’s no need for Flowers to be an iron man.

Kyle Van Noy has cemented himself as a starter with a nice contract extension and playing 100% of the defensive snaps this year. Dont’a Hightower might not actually be a 100% snap player until the playoffs, even when healthy. Elandon Roberts only played 55% of the snaps against the Saints, with other snaps going to Harvey Langi (9%) and Jordan Richards (25%). Marsh could also be considered a Hightower replacement, though, so the return of Hightower will have a wide-spread impact on snap distribution.

As for veteran David Harris (3 snaps all season), his chance will eventually come, according to head coach Bill Belichick.

“We’ll see how it goes going forward,” Belichick said on Tuesday. “Each game is different. Each game has different matchups and different requirements in the game. David’s a very experienced player. I think he brings a lot of positives to our team. We’ll see when those opportunities come, but I’m sure that they’ll be there.”

In the secondary, Stephon Gilmore joins Van Noy as the only defensive players to play 100% of the snaps so far. Devin McCourty is a step behind, but should also be counted on as a 100% player. Duron Harmon played 91% and 80% of the snaps, while Patrick Chung played 66% and 97%, an indication of how prevalent and important the Patriots 3-safety packages have become.

Malcolm Butler saw his snaps fall from 100% to 75%, a notable decline. The coaches say this was a match-up decision since they wanted Gilmore on Saints WR Michael Thomas and the bigger Eric Rowe on the 6’6 Brandon Coleman; that’s a pretty reasonable decision, but it indicates that Gilmore is more trusted as the top cornerback and that the Patriots fear Butler’s limitations against bigger receivers.

The Patriots also played Jonathan Jones (42%) after Rowe’s injury and the team asked him to cover the speedy Ted Ginn Jr. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots rotate Rowe (big 6’3+ receivers), Jones (speedy receivers), and Butler (everyone else) based upon the opposing #2 receiver.

Special Teams

Jordan Richards (82%), Cassius Marsh (79%), Marquis Flowers (72%), Jonathan Jones (65%), Brandon King (63%), Johnson Bademosi (62%), and Brandon Bolden (59%) form the core special teams unit. The Patriots have played without All Pro special teamers Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner, too, so the special teams unit should be even more exciting moving forward.