NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
With the New England Patriots in the midst of what has been a decidedly underwhelming 2013 campaign preceded by a series of offseason losses and marred by poor offensive execution and a litany of defensive injuries, it’s time to take a look at some of the team’s biggest weaknesses and what options New England’s front office may have once the offseason begins.
The marked decline of center Ryan Wendell, who submitted an impressive 2012 season but has been exposed repeatedly in 2013 has been among the most disconcerting aspects of New England’s offensive performance this season. Wendell is set to become a free agent following the season, so upgrading at the position by bringing in a more sound pass protector, ideally with the type of size to anchor against the AFC East’s oversized defensive linemen, seems like a logical move, and one which Bill Belichick and New England’s war room have reportedly considered on a number of recent occasions, including in the first round of recent drafts (Eric Wood, Maurkice and Mike Pouncey.)
Unfortunately, the options available to the Patriots this offseason in both free agency and the NFL Draft relative to recent years are comparatively underwhelming, preventing the team from using their initial pick on a center. While the door should be left open for a potential second-or-third-day pick such as Arkansas standout Travis Swanson, who will enter the draft as a four-year starter and team captain with impressive size, this is a position which the Patriots may desire an improvement at more than they can realistically obtain one.
The team’s current starter at right guard, Dan Connolly, continues to regress and thus far has allowed two sacks and fourteen pressures, according to ProFootballFocus; it is becoming increasingly apparent that Connolly is being significantly overcompensated, so it should come as no surprise if he is released during the offseason. Prior to the season, it appeared as though former fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon was a candidate to succeed Connolly at the position, but he has seen the field for 148 snaps so far in 2013 and remains unconvincing.
Should the coaching staff decide that it’s time to move on, this is a position which could very well be targeted with an early pick in April’s draft, especially given the collection of offensive guards who could receive first-round consideration, a list which includes the likes of Baylor’s Cyril Richardson, Mississippi State’s Gabe Jackson, and Stanford’s David Yankey, all players with the size and bulk to hold up against the oversized defensive tackles which have given the Patriots problems in recent years. It’s also possible that the team will target an offensive tackle for a potential conversion to guard, as they did back in 2005 by drafting Fresno State left tackle Logan Mankins; Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin may fit the bill.
Free-agent signing Tommy Kelly has outperformed most expectations this season, but he sutained a knee injury not long after Vince Wilfork tore his right Achilles, with the absences of both players highlighting New England’s complete lack of depth at the position, which is currently being manned by starters Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, a pair of rookies who have thus far struggled to meet Bill Belichick’s high standards for run defense. Kelly turns 33 in December, with Wilfork turning 32 a month before him, meaning the Patriots shouldn’t get complacent merely because their top two options will return next season; instead, it’s time to consider the long-term future at the position by drafting players who could realistically develop into effective starters.
Recent free agent signing Armond Armstead was viewed as a second-or-third-round talent based on his time in the Canadian Football League, but has spent the entire season on the Non-Football Injury list, obscuring his future prospects. It’s entirely possible that the team views him as one of their future starters, but at the least, a long-term replacement at nose tackle with the ability to two-gap would be ideal; in this year’s draft, possible fits include Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman and Penn State’s DaQuan Jones. Keep in mind that Wilfork himself was drafted one year before he became the team’s primary starter.
New England’s long-term future at strong safety is far from determined, as the team has used two high draft picks in recent years on the position, selecting Illinois’ Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft and opting for Rutgers’ Duron Harmon in the third round this past April. Both players were presumably seen as potential successors to incumbent Steve Gregory, who has revealed himself to be a consistently average starter with no major deficiencies but no major strengths, either. Adrian Wilson was also signed this past offseason, but struggled in preseason and eventually landed on injured reserve, the trajectory of his tenure with the organization resembling John Lynch’s much more than Rodney Harrison’s.
It’s possible that a player such as Harmon could eventually step into the starting lineup, but this is also a position which is difficult to conclusively categorize as having been sufficiently addressed. However, the draft’s shallow safety class may force the Patriots to wait another year for a shot at a top prospect, as Alabama’s Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix is the only safety expected to be drafted in the first round. Later in the draft, Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner may be able to provide the Patriots with a versatile defensive option who doubles as an effective return man, something the team has lacked for years. New England’s front office may also prefer giving the starting role to a veteran if they feel confident in Harmon’s long-term viability but do not want to give him the starting role so soon.
New England’s passing offense thrived in recent years thanks in large part to the team’s pair of tight end options, inline “Y” tight end Rob Gronkowski and flex “F” tight end Aaron Hernandez. With Hernandez now facing a charge of murder in the death of Odin Lloyd, the Patriots have an opening for an “F” tight end in their lineup which no player thus far has been able to fill. Over 396 offensive snaps, Michael Hoomanawanui has been the team’s most visible tight end, but he lacks the athleticism to truly challenge defenses in the passing game. Undrafted free agent Zach Sudfeld didn’t work out, so this is an area where New England could add an additional player for a role which is effectively devoid of any realistic solutions.
However, the team’s approach also appears to have shifted to one which emphasizes more three-receiver sets, allowing the team to run formations featuring some combination of Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins, so it’s possible that the importance of this position has diminished as a result of the personnel overhaul which occurred last offseason. This year’s draft class is populated with more inline options, so the Patriots’ 2013 offensive philosophy may carry over into 2014 as well. There appears to be no chance that North Carolina junior Eric Ebron will last until New England’s pick, and Colt Lyerla, another superficially appealing option, recently left the team and was arrested for cocaine possession.