Fantasy Football 2014 draft prep: New England Patriots

pats

2014 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
DE Will Smith, OLB James Anderson, CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner.
Early Draft Picks:
WR Brandon LaFell, DT Dominique Easley, QB Jimmy Garoppolo, C Bryan Stork, RB James White, OT Cameron Fleming, G Jon Halapio.
Offseason Losses:
RB LeGarrette Blount, NT Isaac Sopoaga, ILB Brandon Spikes, ILB Dane Fletcher, CB Aqib Talib, S Steve Gregory, S Adrian Wilson.

2014 New England Patriots Offense:
A recent article that was published on another Web site sparked some controversy on social media. It focused on Tom Brady, and the premise was that Brady is no longer a top-five quarterback. Based on how he performed in 2013, it’s difficult to argue with that opinion.

Brady threw for 4,343 yards, 25 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions in 2013. However, he maintained a poor YPA of 6.9 and a near-career-low completion percentage of 60.5. Granted, he had issues with his receiving corps and tight ends, but Brady just turned 36. He hasn’t been nearly as clutch as he was earlier in his career, and it’s fair to blame his off-the-field lifestyle for distracting him. Could he rebound with a strong 2014 campaign and lead New England to its fourth Super Bowl? Absolutely. But Brady will need his supporting cast to perform better than it did this past season.

For that to happen, Rob Gronkowski needs to stay healthy. Unfortunately for the Patriots, that’s a long shot. Gronkowski has incurred numerous injuries throughout his brief career, so that could lead him to getting banged up even more. He tore his ACL and MCL in the middle of this past season, and while he seems to be on track to play in Week 1, he probably won’t be 100 percent. It would be nice if New England had a second tight end like Aaron Hernandez, or someone close to that caliber, but there is no such player on the roster.

Meanwhile, Brady’s receiving corps proved to be a huge disappointment in 2013. The Patriots let Wes Welker walk, but they were fine with that because they expected former Ram Danny Amendola to come in and be a solid replacement, or perhaps even an upgrade. Amendola didn’t come to close to living up to expectations, hauling in just 54 receptions. In-house option Julian Edelman was actually the one who slid into Welker’s spot; he registered 105 receptions for 1,056 yards and six scores in 2013, shattering his career-highs of 37, 359 and three. He’ll continue to be a top option for Brady, as will second-year Aaron Dobson, who flashed prior to suffering an injury in the middle of the season. Dobson posted a 5-130-2 line against the Steelers, but was knocked out with a stress fracture in his foot soon after that. He and Brady were working out together prior to OTAs, so perhaps that’ll lead to improved production.

A major reason why Brady had relatively poor numbers is because the offensive line couldn’t protect him. Brady took 40 sacks, the most he’s endured since his first year as a starter. The interior was the worst part of the front, as center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly were atrocious. The usually reliable left guard Logan Mankins also had a down year, but the Patriots were expected to find upgrades for one of Wendell or Connolly this offseason. That, however, never happened. New England spent mid-round choices on center Bryan Stork and Jon Halapio to perhaps eventually start at center and guard, respectively, but it’s unlikely that either will be able to play right away.

Brady is at least protected well from edge rushers. Save for a couple of poor outings, Nate Solder was solid at left tackle in 2013. He’ll probably get better, given that he’s entering just his fourth year. Meanwhile, having Sebastian Vollmer back at right tackle will help. Vollmer was on track to have a terrific campaign until he broke his leg in late October.

While the Patriots didn’t add anyone on offense, they did manage to lose a key player. The running game was mediocre at best until LeGarrette Blount stepped in and provided a huge upgrade over the fumble-prone Stevan Ridley. However, the Patriots lowballed Blount, prompting him to abandon his starting gig and take more money to be a backup in Pittsburgh. This was a stupid decision on his part, but the result is that New England will once again have to pray that Ridley doesn’t lose the football in a key moment. Meanwhile, Shane Vereen will continue to serve as a potent, pass-catching weapon leaking out of the backfield.

2014 New England Patriots Defense:
While the Patriots barely touched their offense, they acquired three key players on defense who will have a big impact. Their stop unit permitted 21.4 points per game this past season, so that number figures to be even lower in 2014.

The big name New England landed was Darrelle Revis. The Buccaneers cut Revis in March, and the Patriots quickly pounced on him, signing him to a 1-year deal worth $12 million. Revis, whose birthday is actually today (July 14), is still at the top of his game. He struggled a bit in 2013 because Tampa foolishly was using him in the incorrect system, but the team rectified that, allowing Revis to perform on a much higher level during the second half of the season. There’s no reason to think Revis will regress at any point during the next few years, so he’ll be able to completely erase one side of the field.

Opposing offenses will have to throw to the other side, where Brandon Browner will lurk following his four-game suspension. Browner, the second key acquisition, is a talented, big corner (6-4, 221) capable of shutting down No. 2 receivers. In the meantime, Logan Ryan, a third-round selection from 2013, will start there, while the skilled Kyle Arrington occupies the slot. Ryan performed well as a rookie, so he should only get better. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he kept the No. 2 corner job.

What the Patriots could have used was an upgrade at strong safety, which is currently occupied by 2013 third-rounder Duron Harmon, who was a pretty mediocre part-time player this past season. Devin McCourty, a stud defensive back, will start next to Harmon, and he’ll make it even more difficult for the opposition to throw on New England.

A ferocious pass rush would make the Patriots’ secondary even more formidable, and that’s where the third big acquisition comes in. That would be Dominique Easley, whom New England selected in the first round. Easley may have been a top-10 pick had he not suffered a knee injury during this past collegiate season. He may not be 100 percent this upcoming year, but when he is, he should be able to emerge as a disruptive, interior pass rusher. Tommy Kelly will probably start ahead of Easley, but the Patriots will be hoping that the Florida product progresses quickly. Either Kelly or Easley will play next to Vince Wilfork, who may struggle coming off a torn Achilles.

New England has some solid pass rushers on the exterior. Chandler Jones, chosen in the first round back in 2012, led the team with 11.5 sacks in 2013, which was way up from the five he accumulated as a rookie. The only way his figure doesn’t rise again is if the opposition pays way more attention to him, which will only open things up for Rob Ninkovich, who has a combined 16 sacks in the past two seasons.

As for the linebacking corps, the group was solid in 2013, but will almost certainly be better this season because Jamie Collins will be taking on a full-time role. Chosen in the second round last April, Collins didn’t play very much until late in the season, when he exploded. He was absolutely dominant in the playoff victory over the Colts. That’s likely a sign of things to come. Collins will start with 2012 first-rounder Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo, who tore his chest in mid-October and missed the final 10 games as a consequence. Having him back on the field will be huge.

2014 New England Patriots Schedule and Intangibles:
Since 2003, the Patriots are 85-15 at home. They were a perfect 9-0 as hosts last year, which includes a playoff victory over the Colts.

Stephen Gostkowski is one of the better kickers in the NFL. He went 38-of-41 last year, hitting 5-of-6 from 50-plus.

Zoltan Mesko ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of net punting average and boots placed inside the 20.

No touchdowns were scored for or against the Patriots on special teams, but they at least outgained their opponents by three yards on both punts and kickoffs.

New England has a very easy schedule, given that it has to play the Bills, Jets and Dolphins twice each. It also has matchups against the Raiders, Chiefs, Vikings and Lions. There are a couple of tough outings on the calendar, but the Patriots have to feel good about their slate.

2014 New England Patriots Analysis: The Patriots were just one win away from the Super Bowl last year. They didn’t really lose anyone, save for LeGarrette Blount and Aqib Talib, and the latter was upgraded. They also added a couple more defensive pieces. New England will be one of the favorites to win the whole thing this year, but what it comes down to is whether or not Tom Brady will choke in the playoffs once again.

Projection: 13-3 (1st in AFC East)

 

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