NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
New England’s season may have ended early, but their offense this season ranked among the league’s best. Read on for a review of each positional group from 2012, and be sure to check back tomorrow for the defensive review!
Tom Brady may not have executed at his typical level of efficiency this season, but he remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league by a wide margin; his 2012 campaign can only be considered underwhelming by his own lofty standards. Brady was not as accurate as he has been over the past three seasons, and he averaged less yards per attempt than in any full season since 2006. Obviously, Brady’s incredible 5,491 yards, 38 touchdowns, and ten interceptions (including playoffs) are elite by any standard.
However, there were a few concerning aspects to this season for the 35 year-old passer. Brady eviscerated the blitz this year, completing 64.9% of his passes, with 8.4 yards per attempt, 22 touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 128.9 rating against five or more rushers. However, he seemed to struggle against teams that dropped most of their defenders into coverage, completing just 61.2% of his passes on the season for 7.2 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns, and ten interceptions, earning a significantly lower 85.1 quarterback rating.
Brady seemed to have more trouble on intermediate and deep sideline passes outside of the numbers as well, completing only 36.4% of those passes, with seven touchdowns and four interceptions to those areas. For much of the season, he appeared to have trouble getting on the same page with incoming receiver Brandon Lloyd.
Running Back: A-
Stevan Ridley was able to successfully replace BenJarvus Green-Ellis as New England’s feature back in 2012, leading a diverse Patriots rushing attack which also included Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden in significant (if not ever-present) roles. Of the four, Ridley was by far the most successful, finishing the season (incl. playoffs) with 1,415 yards and thirteen touchdowns over 323 attempts, rushing effectively up the middle and on stretch plays in particular. Ridley’s five fumbles may be somewhat of cause for concern, but regardless it is difficult to imagine him losing the starting role anytime soon.
Besides Ridley, Woodhead (80 carries) was the most successful Patriots running back, gaining 312 yards and four touchdowns on 80 carries. At the beginning of the season, Woodhead was misused by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels; the Patriots called far too many draw plays and short-yardage/goal line carries for Woodhead. However, by the end of the season, he was functioning more as a pass protector and outlet receiver, a role in which he was successful, catching 41/51 passes for 458 yards and three touchdowns.
If Woodhead departs in free agency this offseason, Shane Vereen appears well-positioned to assume his role in the offense. He caught three passes for touchdowns and rushed for four more over the season, gaining 308 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. It may not have been the breakout season many were expecting, but Vereen rebounded from a nearly silent first half of the season to become a more visible option further down the road.
Undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden can be considered Vereen’s antithesis; rather than finish the season strong, Bolden was surprisingly effective as a rotational back early in the season (particularly in week four, where he rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown at Buffalo) but was a non-factor after returning from a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Regardless, any production from an undrafted free agent is always welcome, and Bolden’s 4.9 yards per attempt were the highest on the team.
Wide Receiver: B+
Wes Welker caught a staggering 134 passes on the season, catching 70.2% of the balls thrown his way for 1,602 yards, almost exactly half of which came after the catch; his seven touchdowns were also impressive. Even as he likely enters the last productive years of his career, Welker is still one of the most explosive short-area receivers in the league and enjoys sterling chemistry with Tom Brady. However, Welker may be playing elsewhere in 2013 due to a combination of salary demands and another drop-heavy season: he mishandled nineteen passes on the year, the most in the league, including four over New England’s two playoff games.
Free agent signing Brandon Lloyd added another productive wideout to the team opposite Welker, catching 86 passes for 1,013 yards and five touchdowns, but he also disappeared for large stretches this season (his 1/7, six-yard, two-drop game against the New York Jets in week seven as the most notable example.) Lloyd was significantly less efficient than Welker, catching just 57.3% of attempts with eight drops, with most of his production coming on shorter routes. Lloyd’s 9/34 receiving on deep passes for 257 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions on deep routes were somewhat concerning.
New England’s only other impressive receiver this season was Julian Edelman, who caught 21/32 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns before suffering a season-ending broken foot in early December. Edelman was a dynamic punt returner and scored a total of five touchdowns, including a fumble return and a punt return. Veteran Deion Branch may be at the end of his career after posting 8.9 yards per reception over 18 catches in 2012, and other low-risk investments such as Donte’ Stallworth and Greg Salas were also unsuccessful.
Tight End: B+
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez failed to match their 2011 production in 2012, but Gronkowski caught touchdown passes at roughly the same rate as he did in 2011, averaging almost the same yards-per-catch and percent of targets caught as last year while dominating as an inline blocking option. If Gronkowski’s 78 targets this season were extrapolated to his 143 from 2012, he would have finished with 1,448 yards and 20 touchdowns, which closely mirrors his 1,585 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2011. Gronkowski’s 2012 figures of 70.5% of targets caught and 14.4 yards per catch are also similar to his 2011 numbers: 74.8% catch rate and 14.8 yards per reception.
Aaron Hernandez met a similar fate, suffering a high-ankle sprain, only to return too soon and miss more games, a total of six on the season. Perhaps because of his injuries, Hernandez did not appear quite as dynamic as he had in 2011, with his YPC dropping from 11.5 to 9.5 from 2011 to 2012. He also dropped ten passes on the season, up from eight a year ago; the former figure includes four drops in a close loss to San Francisco. Of course, there is some room for optimism: after a fairly slow start to the season, Hernandez was impressive later, particularly in the playoffs, where he caught 15 passes over two games.
With Gronkowski and Hernandez missing time, reserves Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells filled in admirably, particularly as blocking options. Both players could be back next season. The Patriots attempted to find replacement options for Hernandez’s receiving ability, but were unable to obtain it by signing either Visanthe Shiancoe or Kellen Winslow, both of whom failed to make it through the season with New England.
Offensive Tackle: B+
Left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer both played well this season, with the two combining to take over 2,600 snaps in 2012, providing New England with consistent bookends at tackle. Solder looks like a franchise left tackle: he allowed just four sacks this season, and the Patriots rushed for eleven touchdowns on 525 rushing yards either behind Solder or on rushing plays to the left end of their offensive line. Solder’s length and athleticism should make him a priority in New England’s long-term plans.
Vollmer was effective at right tackle as well, leading the way for 483 rushing yards and three touchdowns on runs behind either the right tackle or to the right end. Through the first eleven weeks of the season, he had allowed just one sack on the season. Unfortunately, his play declined after that: he allowed six sacks over the final seven games of the season. An impending free agent, Vollmer may have nonetheless priced himself out of New England’s budget; Marcus Cannon could be next in line, but it is difficult to evaluate him after playing in just 182 snaps this season.
Offensive Guard: B+
A year after New England averaged just 3.7 yards per carry on 204 rushing yards running behind their left guard position in 2011, that figure had improved to 4.6 yards per carry on 314 yards in 2012, signaling a return to Logan Mankins’ usual production at the position, an encouraging sign after his disappointing 2011. Mankins also allowed just two sacks in 2012, down from five a season ago.
In addition to Mankins, New England received adequate production from their right guard, Dan Connolly, who slid outside to guard after playing center in 2011 in order to replace right guard Brian Waters, who ended up sitting out 2012 over an inability to resolve increased contract demands. Connolly was able to fill in respectably, although he was arguably upstaged by impending free agent Donald Thomas, who played 616 snaps on the season between the left guard and right guard positions and should be a priority to re-sign.
Ryan Wendell played 1,399 snaps this season for New England, establishing himself as a legitimate long-term starter at center after displacing Dan Connolly, popularly expected to be New England’s starter entering the season before shifting to right guard. Wendell allowed five sacks this season in pass protection, but helped the Patriots rush for 775 yards and five touchdowns on runs to the mid-left or mid-right on 164 carries, easily New England’s highest yards-per-carry figures.
As an added note, New England parted ways with long-time starter Dan Koppen during roster cuts; Koppen eventually developed into a serviceable starter with the Denver Broncos.