NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The rookies report on July 20. The veterans arrive on July 23. And at 9:15 a.m. on July 24, the two sides of the New England Patriots spectrum will meet on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium for training camp.
NEPatriotsDraft.com will be there to provide coverage of the first week as it unfolds. Yet until then, as the final days of the Patriots’ 2014 summer unfold, there are some things left to cover in this July 18 mailbag.
New England announced the retirement of 23-year-old defensive lineman Armond Armstead on Wednesday. The former USC and Canadian Football League standout signed with the team in January of 2013 after a 2012 All-Star campaign which consisted of 43 tackles and six sacks for the Toronto Argonauts.
Sadly, health complications prevented Armstead from seeing the field last season, as he was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list in late August. Those complications lingered into this offseason, and they ultimately prevented Armstead from continuing his promising football career.
The 6’5”, 305-pounder was thought to provide versatility to the Patriots as a 4-3 defensive tackle and a 3-4 defensive end. In the end, though, we’ll never know what he could have become on the NFL stage.
Armstead’s retirement trimmed New England’s roster to 89 players. Then on Thursday, it was trimmed down to 87 as the team announced the release of undrafted rookie wideouts Jeremy Johnson and Reese Wiggins. On Friday morning, however, the number climbed back up to 89. It was then that receiver Derrick Johnson re-signed, as the Boston Herald‘s Jeff Howe first reported, and rookie camp tryout Tyler McDonald joined him, per his agency.
Although it remains to be seen how the final open spot will be filled – New England signed five players in the week leading up to training camp last year – the case can be made that added depth would benefit the defensive end and tight end positions.
Which leads us to question regarding a pair of experienced free agent edge-rushers.
Is Jason Babin or Andre Carter a possible pick up?
After voiding the final two years of his contract only re-sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars in March, it was a bit strange to see Jason Babin released by the organization in June. The Jaguars had enough confidence Chris Clemons and Andre Branch to let the 34-year-old Babin try to catch on elsewhere, but he hasn’t yet. And while Babin is closer to the finish line than he is the start, he still recorded 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2013.
As far as the Patriots are considered, Babin could be a fit as a situational left end on passing downs, spelling for Rob Ninkovich. But conversely, he could be a financial commitment; the 6’3”, 267-pounder’s recent three-year contract was worth $7.275 million and included a $500,000 roster bonus, per OverTheCap.com. Although that price range isn’t exactly a deal-breaker, it doesn’t seem like the kind of money the Patriots typically to spend at this juncture in the offseason. The team has just over $6 million in cap space.
For Andre Carter – who re-joined the team in 2013 after a one-year stint with the Oakland Raiders – there probably wouldn’t be a financial contingency. The 6’4”, 260-pounder filtered in at both defensive end spots for the Patriots last season.
He also aligned as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 3-4 defensive end and a third-down defensive tackle on occasion.
But after taking over No. 3 duties from rookie Michael Buchanan, the production was far from 2011 form; Carter collected four tackles and two sacks over nine regular-season games.
At 35 years old, Carter may be on speed dial. But when it comes to generating pressure on third down, the Patriots seem to be looking elsewhere to fill out the rotation. Although Buchanan proved inconsistent in that role after the Patriots selected him the seventh round one year ago, his length and speed flashed in moments, even though his gap integrity did not.
In addition, rookie sixth-round pick Zach Moore and former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith have reason to be in the conversation if the Patriots elect to carry five ends. 2012 third-round choice Jake Bequette will need to get more reps in order to get into the conversation.
With those moving parts already in the fold, it doesn’t appear that a Babin signing or Carter return is imminent.
And the prominence of the two-tight end set seems to have fallen along similar lines.
What do you think the offense’s identity is going to be this year? 2 TE attack obviously gone. What now?
Beyond utility tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, the Patriots turned to blocking tight end Matthew Mulligan and fullback James Develin to fill out “21” personnel after Rob Gronkowski tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee against the Cleveland Browns last December.
It wasn’t ideal from a receiving standpoint, as defenses often focused their attention elsewhere. But at the time it was a way to diversify the offense when wide receivers were battling injuries and the by-committee running game was needing a push.
Mulligan is now Chicago Bear, and Gronkowski is over seven months removed from his season-ending injury. As far as immediate candidates to round out the position this training camp, there is Develin, whose role has evolved into both a flex tight end and blocking back, and Hoomanawanui, who caught 12 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown in 2013.
Two of those receptions were the only ones registered by a Patriots tight end over the final three weeks of the regular season.
Joker tight end D.J. Williams played 15 snaps last year, and undrafted rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson are also vying for snaps on the back end of the depth chart this year. However, it’s clear that the depth chart at wide receiver delves far deeper.
Because of that, three-receiver sets figure to be prominent moving forward.
Assuming Aaron Dobson re-acclimates from the stress fracture that cut his rookie season short, the former second-round pick is in line to serve as the split end “X” receiver. At the flanker across from him, New England is likely to feature feature a combination of 100-catch, 1,000-yard receiver Julian Edelman, a strong route-runner in second-year pro Kenbrell Thompkins, ex-Carolina Panther Brandon LaFell and sudden 2013 fourth-rounder Josh Boyce.
Edelman, the 6’3” LaFell and Danny Amendola are also capable candidates in the slot. The three ran a combined 917 routes from that location last season, according to Pro Football Focus, catching 118 passes in the process.
That is interchangeability. And while it may reduce the quantity of reps for some, it may increase the quality.
Perhaps that logic can be applied to second-year defensive tackle Chris Jones.
Compare and contrast Chris Jones to Mike Wright. I think Jones will be more effective playing less.
After brief stops with the Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jones found himself claimed off waivers by the Patriots on Sept. 11. He then found himself with big shoes to fill after Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down in consecutive weeks.
The 6’1”, 309-pound Bowling Green product was up to the task. He looked the part of a three-technique penetrator for his quick first step and ability to cut downhill in a hurry.
He netted five sacks through his first five NFL contests as a result, becoming the first Patriots defensive tackle to hit that mark since Mike Wright in 2010. Despite that strength, Jones revealed his share of weaknesses when defending the run.
As the season wore on, the sixth-round pick’s effectiveness rushing the passer began to wear down as well. He did not wrap up the quarterback again until Week 17, but finished third on the team with six sacks nonetheless.
Now Jones is unlikely to see upwards of 800 snaps again in 2014. But if he is able to coexist with skill sets of Wilfork, Kelly, Sealver Siliga, first-round pick Dominique Easley and even Joe Vellano in the preseason, he could certainly make the 53-man roster and carve a purpose in the sub-package defensive front.
Jones can play inside on a four-man line, and he can also play at the five-technique on a three-man line much like Wright used to. And while he lacks the length of the 6’4”, 295-pound retired Patriot, he too could have a productive career in Foxborough if dispersed in a similar manner.
At the very least, New England has reinforcements up front. And the same can be said on the offensive side of the ball.
If Cannon is the swing tackle or even the starting RG wouldn’t that mean drafting Fleming or Halapio was pointless?
After a season in which offensive tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder missed time with injuries, New England’s offensive line was forced to adapt from the outside in.
There were games where left guard Logan Mankins moved to left tackle while undrafted rookie Josh Kline stepped into his place at left guard.
There were also two games where then-Patriots backup Will Svitek had to start at right tackle.
And there were six regular-season games where 2011 fifth-rounder Marcus Cannon had to start at right tackle as well.
His year concluded with well over 500 snaps logged between three different positions.
The Patriots have been known to look towards the future with an eye already staring down the present. Selecting Stanford tackle Cameron Fleming and Florida State center Bryan Stork in the fourth round, before taking Florida guard Jon Halapio the sixth round, coincide with that strategy. All three draft choices were well-received heading into May, and when they were available for the Patriots, it was a chance to attack the board and the needs list.
Sometimes it’s better to take care of needs before they become just that. Despite re-signing, incumbent center Ryan Wendell’s 2013 performance was a regression from 2012, and both right guard Dan Connolly and Cannon are entering the final years of their contacts. Regardless of what transpires with those three, the future of the offensive line appears to be in good standing.
And with that, we’re onto our final question.
Rate Pats’ chances of going 19-0 (on a scale of 19-19)
It took some pondering to compose an answer to this one. For now, we’ll go with five on a scale of 19.
The Patriots have gone 181-69 in the Bill Belichick era, which averages out to roughly 13 wins per season when accounting for playoff games. That is a winning percentage of 72 percent. And when you look at the other 28 percent, well, five out of 19 is pretty close to 28 percent.
It makes sense if you don’t think about it.