Looking back, the 2013-14 season could have been better for the Patriots. With a play here and a play there, they would be in New Jersey right now talking about how to dismantle the Seattle Seahawks defense.
But that kind of thinking wouldn’t have allowed the Patriots to conduct some healthy introspection and address some of the core issues with this team, namely depth.
Effort, toughness, and a never-say-die attitude helped propel New England to a 12-4 record, a playoff win, and a matchup with the top offensive unit in NFL history. But it wasn’t enough to get Tom Brady and Bill Belichick into their sixth Super Bowl.
Injuries, injuries, and injuries continued to befuddle the Patriots. But they were also doomed in large part by a lack of chemistry. Now, facing the prospect of a dwindling window for Brady (and Belichick, for that matter), the Patriots can’t ignore the team’s depth if they want that elusive fourth title anytime soon.
That’s why it’s important to look back at where the Patriots ranked from position to position across the board. It’s a crucial piece of context as the Patriots move into the offseason, assess their wares, and make decisions on free agents as well as possible prospects in the draft and around the league.
Here’s my assessment of where the Patriots stand, position by position, on offense. I’ll post on the defense tomorrow.
Offensive line: C+
So much of the attention here is on either injured players, i.e. Sebastian Vollmer, or on Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. The Patriots are certainly in a good place with both players, as Vollmer continues to work to return to return from a broken leg. And along with starters Nate Solder, Ryan Wendell, and Dan Connolly, the Patriots have a solid group. But they are not an elite unit, as once believed. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Patriots ranked 17th overall in the regular season in pass blocking and run blocking. Wendell led all centers with sacks allowed (6). Mankins was second among guards (9). Solder’s 10 sacks allowed were tied for the sixth-most among tackles. Connolly, who gave up only three sacks on the season, allowed more hurries (27) than anyone else on the team. But when it came down to running the ball, the Patriots were their most successful, finishing with 2,065 yards, ninth overall. That’s why backups Marcus Cannon, who played extensively after Vollmer went down in Week 8, and Will Svitek were such eyesores for the team. They both struggled significantly in run blocking. That has to be rectified, especially with the propensity for at least one offensive linemen to go down each year. Another backup tackle would be helpful.
Tight ends: C-
No other position group was more impacted by injuries than this one because of Rob Gronkowski. The All-Pro tight end missed the first six games of the season while recovering from forearm and back surgery, then played seven games and missed the final two after injuring his ACL and MCL. The Patriots tried to put Zach Sudfeld -- seen as a potential replacement early in the season -- on their practice squad, but he was picked up by the New York Jets. Matthew Mulligan helped out as a blocking tight end, but he had trouble in the running game, as did Michael Hoomanawanui. Both were much more more solid as pass protectors. In the end, Hoomanawanui and Mulligan were the Patriots’ top tight ends, with midseason pickup D.J. Williams an afterthought. Hoomanawanui and Mulligan combined for 14 receptions for 152 yards and two touchdowns. That’s not nearly enough production for a team that has featured its tight ends prominently since Gronkowski’s rookie season. With a healthy Gronk, the Patriots should be looking to upgrade or better utilize their talents. Hoomanawanui is a free agent.
Wide receivers: C-
Julian Edelman led the way (105 receptions, 1,056 yards, 6 TDs) but was the only consistent threat. This group was also saddled with injuries, taking time away from Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins. What we saw in their presence wasn’t much better than their absence. Amendola finished with 54 receptions for 633 yards and 2 touchdowns. Dobson and Thompkins combined for 69 receptions for 985 yards and 8 TDs. Others like Josh Boyce (9 receptions, 121 yards) and Austin Collie (6 receptions, 63 yards) barely made a blip, with their contributions so far from what could be considered a regular occurrence. But worse, the combined effect of multiple underperforming receivers, injuries, and chemistry issues was a down year for the passing game. Brady finished with only 25 touchdown passes, his lowest total since 2006 (24), despite throwing the ball 628 times, the second-most passes he has attempted in his career. There’s certainly potential with Dobson, even Boyce, but there is more concern that Thompkins and even Amendola can carry their weight. Edelman is a free agent, making Amendola’s role on the team much easier to decide despite four years left on his contract. But Thompkins, as an undrafted rookie, still has more to prove. He should expect competition in the spring. The Patriots
Running backs: B+
Between LeGarrette Blount (772 yards rushing, 5.0 ypc) and Stevan Ridley (772 yards rushing, 4.3 ypc), the running game was in good hands. Along with Brandon Bolden (271 yards) and Shane Vereen (209), the Patriots finished with 2,065 yards on the ground, ninth overall in the NFL. This was one of the strongest groups for the Patriots overall, especially with Blount and Ridley at the helm. They’re both prolific at breaking tackles, tallying 49 broken tackles between them. If it were different circumstances, and the Patriots force-fed one back over the other, we’re sure he would be a 1,300-yard rusher. Without a doubt. But Blount, who will be a free agent after the season, should be a priority to bring back because he’s more secure with the football and has the ability to break more tackles at 250 pounds. With only 153 carries this season, he can be one of the elite runners in the NFL. Ridley is under contract until 2015 and, despite his fumbling woes, can still work his way back into the good graces of Belichick. Something will have to give here because both won’t be affordable in a year’s time.
Brady played at least three seasons for the Patriots in 2013. There was a period in which he was absurdly upset with his receivers (think New York Jets Week 2), profoundly exquisite (Pittsburgh Steelers), and a passenger to Blount’s late-season mastery. His usual excellence wasn’t automatic. There were games, halves even, in which Patriots followers were completely puzzled by his human-like nature. But he always reserved his best for the fourth quarter, leading the team on five game-winning drives. With 4,343 yards passing, a 60.5 completion percentage, 25 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, he ranked 14th overall in the NFL based on his passer rating (87.3). What we didn’t see from Brady was any sort of decline because of his age, 36, or because of any suspected injuries. He's under contract until 2018. His backup, Ryan Mallett, spent another season without a snap. If Brady were to go down, only Belichick knows how Mallett would respond.
Look for a post tomorrow on the defense.