With a defense that ranked near the bottom in the NFL, the Patriots needed every bit of their offense just to sneak into the playoffs last season. OK, OK. Let's put it this way. Thanks to an offense that was one of the deadliest in the league, New England went 13-3 and was an Eli Manning drive away from winning Super Bowl XLVI. As per usual under coach Bill Belichick, New England will have to replace a few key elements to the attack, but the Patriots can take some solace in this: They have one of the best quarterbacks in history, they have the most prolific receiver of the last five years, and they have the two best tight ends around.
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But even with Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez returning, there are a couple questions that need to be answered in order for New England to return to the top of the league standings. Like, can Stevan Ridley become the team's top running back? Will guard Logan Mankins return to top-notch form after a less-than-stellar season? Can Gronkowski stay healthy? What kind of impact will an influx of new receivers have? Even with those queries unanswered for now, there's not much doubt that Belichick will find a way to solve those problems. And with old offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels back for a second stint, there's a good chance that the offense only will improve. Which is a legitimately frightening thought.
As wonderful as the offense was to watch in 2011, the defense was conversely just as brutal. The Patriots finished 31st overall by allowing 411.1 yards per game, and the secondary players New England was counting on toward the end of the season were embarrassing (was cutting Leigh Bodden early in the season a smart move, considering New England had to play Antwaun Molden, Sterling Moore, Nate Jones and receiver Julian Edelman as defensive backs? Probably not. To be fair, though, Moore's pass defense against Baltimore's Lee Evans in the AFC title game was the reason the Patriots went to the Super Bowl in the first place).
That's probably why six of the team's seven picks in the 2012 draft were defensive players, including first-round picks defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Jones should step into the starting lineup immediately, while Hightower will give good depth to a solid linebacker corps that already features Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork remains a force in the middle of the defensive line, and his versatility and space-eating ways are still a boon for New England. Naturally, the secondary will have to play better, and there is talent there -- Kyle Arrington is solid; Devin McCourty, despite a confidence-losing season in 2011, had a strong rookie year; and Ras-I Dowling could battle Arrington for a starting spot. Certainly, there is potential for New England to be better defensively than last season. Of course, it'd be tough for the Patriots to do much worse.
Roster Additions: WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Donte Stallworth, WR Jabar Gaffney, G Robert Gallery, G Jamey Richard, TE Daniel Fells, TE Jake Ballard, TE Bo Scaife, FB Spencer Larsen, RB Joseph Addai, DE Jonathan Fanene, DE Trevor Scott, LB Bobby Carpenter, CB Will Allen, S Steve Gregory
Staff: Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien (left to become Penn State head coach); Josh McDaniels replaces him. Matt Patricia was named defensive coordinator; the position had been vacant since Dean Pees left for Baltimore after the 2009 season.
Looking at the additions made by the Patriots, you could make a pretty decent squad by free agents alone -- if you turned back the clock about five years. Gallery, Addai, Allen and Stallworth are on the downsides of their careers, though they've all had nice moments in the league. If any of them start or make a huge impact on the squad, it will be a surprise. At the same time, the Patriots, after what was considered a strong draft class, have put together nice depth with veterans that could challenge for playing time.
You also have to enjoy the move to name Patricia as the defensive coordinator. Belichick ran the unit in 2010, when the team finished 25th overall in defense, and though the DC position didn't exist last season, Patricia took more of a leadership role on the unit and actually called the defensive plays. After eight years with the organization, Patricia gets the chance to head up the unit -- in name and in reality.
It will be interesting to see the impact McDaniels makes as he returns to the position he held from 2006-08 (he also was instrumental as the quarterbacks coach from 2004-08). Since leaving the comfort of New England, McDaniels failed spectacularly as the Broncos head coach, and last year in St. Louis, his offense didn't mesh with quarterback Sam Bradford, who took a nosedive in productivity. Fortunately, Brady makes most coaches look good, so it's likely McDaniels will regain much of his reputation during his second run with the team.
X-Factor: Vince Wilfork
If you read Chris Brown's fascinating book, Smart Football, you'll understand what kind of impact a guy who averages 1.6 sacks per season can have. The strongest example occurred in last year's AFC title game when Brown describes how Wilfork used his strength and leverage to make Ravens center Matt Birk incapable of stopping him after the ball was snapped. "What New England coach Bill Belichick has is a jumble of defenders with varying skill sets who are all anchored by one immovable object: Wilfork," Brown writes. "And good coaching is about making the most of what you have."
That's why Belichick puts Wilfork in the middle of a defense that can run a 4-3 on one side of the line of scrimmage and a 3-4 on the other. Wilfork's responsibility is to dominate the center and the two gaps on either side, and with Wilfork eating up so much space and rendering one offensive lineman completely useless, that allows the defense to be competitive with whatever offense the opponents are running. For playing in the trenches, Wilfork has been remarkably resilient, playing all 16 regular-season games in six of his eight seasons (he's missed six games total), and as long as he's healthy and dominant, the Patriots don't have to worry about the middle of the line.
Can Gronkowski return as strong?
We mean this figuratively and literally. You'll recall that the tight end's impact in the Super Bowl was hampered badly by an ankle injury suffered at the hands of Ravens safety Bernard Pollard in the AFC title game. Gronkowski, after offseason surgery, says his ankle feels great, but considering he missed his entire final season at Arizona because of a bad back, you have to wonder about his injury history. Gronkowski has been rewarded for his ridiculous 2011 season (90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 touchdowns) with a healthy contract extension, and if he can approach those numbers once again in 2012, that obviously would be well-received by the team. But the Patriots also have been active in signing tight ends in the offseason (Bo Scaife, Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells), and you have to wonder if the team is hedging its bets against a completely healthy season from Gronkowski.
Ridley me this
With BenJarvus Green-Ellis heading to the Bengals, 2011 third-round pick Stevan Ridley could be the one to receive the majority of New England's carries. Though he gained 441 yards last season with a 5.1 average, he was absent for most of the playoff run. Primarily, that's because Ridley had a propensity for fumbles. If Ridley doesn't fix that problem, the Patriots have plenty of other running back options, including Shane Vereen (who reportedly took more snaps during the team's mini-camp), free agent signee Joseph Addai and Danny Woodhead. Considering Green-Ellis didn't fumble during his New England career, Ridley had better make sure he models his play after his former teammate.
What happens with Welker?
Obviously, Welker, who's already signed his $9.5 million franchise tag, will play in New England in 2012. And though he's averaged 111 catches the past five seasons, there seems to be a good reason the Patriots haven't rewarded him with a long-term contract. For one, he's 31 years old. For two, he's still not necessarily respected as one of the league's best receivers because he's seen as a slot guy. Even with the addition of Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney, Welker likely still will be Brady's No. 1 target. But the offseason contract talk seems to have hurt the relationship on both sides. Would the Patriots be willing to let Welker walk after the season, even if he has a comparable season to his last five? Would he be willing to leave the perfect offensive setup for him? The soap opera certainly isn't over.
"The Patriots are still the kings of the East. They still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the two most important guys in the organization. The formula has been that their [defensive] front four is very strong. The [Richard] Seymour's and the [Ty] Warren's and Mike Vrable's. They at least had big-time guys on the front line. Now, they bring in Jonathan Fanene, and he's a good player. But he's not a dominant player. He's serviceable and so is [cornerback] Will Allen. They didn't put any money last year into their secondary. If you look at the Patriots model, they take all their money and put it in the offensive line to protect Brady. The thing about the Patriots is that their offense is their strength. But if they got that defense going, they'd be unstoppable."
Xs and Os
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
The Patriots' offense actually improved in the offseason from a group that was ranked No. 2 in the NFL last year. The addition of WR Brandon Lloyd to go along with Gronkowski, Hernandez, Welker and any running back they select is a matchup nightmare.
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2012 Preview Schedule
Bills @ Patriots: 11/11 (1 p.m. ET)
Patriots @ Bills: 9/30 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Dolphins @ Patriots: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Patriots @ Dolphins: 12/2 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Jets @ Patriots: 10/21 (4:15 p.m. ET)
Patriots @ Jets: 11/22 (8:20 p.m. ET)
At any time on the field, the Patriots can go no huddle and the defense can never be right about what personnel group they have on the field. Put the base defense out there and they go shotgun spread and they win the passing game matchups. Put the nickel on the field, and they shift to two tight ends and a run game. There are even times when they put two tight ends and three wide receivers on the field, forcing a dime defense, and they put Hernandez at running back. The linebackers can't cover Gronkowski and Hernandez, so they carry the tight ends to the safeties.
Welker needs to be bracket-covered by two defenders or he'll continue to catch over 100 passes a season, and now Lloyd will work the deep sideline against single coverage. Ochocinco couldn't figure out the offense, but Lloyd will have it down. Brady once again will throw the ball 40 times a game on average and still manage to rush for over 100 yards a game.
The Patriots' defense needed an injection of talent and they headed right to the draft, taking the first six players on the defensive side of the ball.
Coach Belichick has always loved 'Joker' players that made it tough on a QB to figure out who was rushing, or dropping in coverage. When the Patriots were great on defense, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, and Mike Vrabel were the jokers. Now the Patriots will develop Chandler Jones in the Willie McGinest role, Dont'a Hightower in the Tedy Bruschi role and Jake Bequette in the Mike Vrabel role. You really can't call this defense a 3-4 or a 4-3; it's a pure Belichick creation.
Last year this group only gave up 51 points in three playoff games (17 per game) so they weren't that far off, but they should be even better this year.
By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
Known for trading down in the first round, the Patriots reversed course and aggressively moved up twice in the first stanza to land Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
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The selection of two defenders in the first round served as an appropriate preview of what was to come. Six of the Patriots' seven selections in the 2012 draft went to defenders.
The 6-5, 266-pound Jones was one of the hottest names in scouting circles as the draft approached. While not explosive off the snap, Jones' long-arms, strong use of hands and ability to make plays against both the pass and run made him a highly regarded prospect by 4-3 and 3-4 teams.
Hightower is a better athlete than incumbent Brandon Spikes, and is an accomplished pass rusher in his own right. Like Jones, Hightower is athletic, instinctive and physical enough to play multiple positions in multiple schemes.
However, the Day 3 gamble they took on Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is the most compelling move. Once a first-round prospect, Dennard suffered through a disappointing 2011 season, was ejected from his bowl game and followed it up with poor showings at the Senior Bowl and combine and an arrest for his alleged role in a bar fight. But if he gets through the legal issue and focuses on the field, the talent is there to be a steal.
A rundown of the Patriots' picks:
1st Round - No. 21 overall - Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse
1st Round - No. 25 overall - Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama
2nd Round - No. 48 overall - Tavon Wilson, S, Illinois
3rd Round - No. 90 overall - Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas
6th Round - No. 197 overall - Nate Ebner, S, Ohio State
7th Round - No. 224 overall - Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
7th Round - No. 235 overall - Jeremy Ebert, WR, Northwestern