Sorry you didn’t get Aqib Talib or Richard Sherman. It was a pity to see Jimmy Graham, Nigel Bradham, Preston Brown and others re-sign with their former teams or sign elsewhere. And I know it was tough to watch Nate Solder, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler all fly Fort Foxborough for greener — as in straight cash, homey — pastures.
Yes, so far the Patriots’ offseason has been one big bust … if you’re into big names and nostalgia.
But from where I sit and how I look at things, I like what the Patriots have done so far this offseason. In fact, if you take left tackle out of the equation — because that’s a humongous hole at this point and has to be filled — I think the Patriots are a better football team on paper than they when they finished the season.
Why? Let’s go through it.
Improved first- and third-down defense
What were the biggest issues that plagued the Patriots at varying points last season? Their defense lacked a certain toughness, and the punch to get off the field on third downs.
Enter Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn.
Both issues actually have their roots on first down, where the Patriots were pathetic last season — likely because Alan Branch was a no-show. Just take a look at the numbers:
|Opp rushes for negative yards||28||31st|
|Opp % rushing 4+ yds on 1st down||48.1||28th|
|Opp 1st down yards||6.29||32nd|
|Opp % rushing 4+ yds all downs||48.7||31st|
|Rushing defense 1st down||4.95||32nd|
If you’re poor on first down and/or stopping the run, you’re going to have a tough time getting off the field on third down — even if you have an elite secondary and pass rush. The fewer yards the opponent needs to pick up a first down, the more your odds decrease of getting off the field.
While Lawrence Guy played well, he was supposed to be a rotation/matchup player. Branch was supposed to be the brute, tough-to-block presence next to Malcom Brown. But that never happened (in addition to Vincent Valentine never getting healthy). The Patriots signed Ricky Jean-Francois off the street and he played well at times, but the personnel was still a far cry from where the Patriots were supposed to be. They paid the price up front, and there was a trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense.
Shelton is one of the best interior run defenders in the league. If he’s healthy and his weight is in check, the Patriots are automatically better by his presence on first down — and therefore, third down.
Clayborn should make them better in this area too, if things go well. From Cassius Marsh to Deatrich Wise (only a pass rusher as a rookie) and Eric Lee, the Patriots’ edge opposite Trey Flowers was weak and a problem area all season. The Falcons didn’t use Clayborn to defend the run all that often because they had better options on the roster, but the Patriots don’t. His 6-foot-3, 280-pound frame certainly lends itself to being effective (due to Erb’s palsy, Clayborn’s has issues with his right arm, so he almost has to play on the right — the Patriots will later determine whether he’s good enough vs. the run). If Clayborn is the right end and Flowers flips to the left, that makes the Patriots much better on the side where NFL offenses run more.
Between Clayborn (11th) and Flowers (14th), the Patriots now have two of the better 4-3 pass rushers — they ranked in the top 15 in PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity (pressures divided by pass-rush snaps) at their position. Expect Clayborn and possibly Flowers (Adam Butler was effective there as a rookie) to kick inside in sub-packages, leaving Wise and some package of Derek Rivers and Dont’a Hightower (remember him?) as the outside rushers. That’s a much more effective group than the Patriots had at the end of the season.
Secondary should at least hold serve, which is OK
If the Patriots are better on first down with Shelton and generate more of a pass rush with the addition of Clayborn and a healthy Hightower, the Patriots should automatically be improved in the secondary. And that’s even before you get into Stephon Gilmore being in the system for another season and building off his strong finish.
Yes, Butler was a gamer and his contributions to the Patriots’ success in recent years should be respected. But the truth of the matter is that once Butler turned down the Patriots’ extension and they gave the money to Gilmore, everyone knew Butler would be gone and New England wouldn’t add another big salary at cornerback. Frankly, this past year, he often played outside of the scheme and tried to make plays and often failed. I’m sure the Titans feel that with the security of a contract and away from the Gilmore drama, Butler will get back to playing within himself.
I would have been fine with just Eric Rowe (wasn’t completely healthy last season and was better than most think — even in the Super Bowl) and Jonathan Jones (ready to go for offseason workouts after the ankle injury), but the addition of Jason McCourty is icing on the cake.
Depending on what you think about ProFootballFocus.com’s grading (I don’t use it as a hard guideline in the subjective secondary as I do line play), McCourty ranked 17th overall among cornerbacks — better than Gilmore (31) and Butler (48). Now, I don’t think McCourty is necessarily that good, but he’s a solid veteran who will play within the scheme and will push Rowe, especially, and Jones. And that should make the unit better. The topper? McCourty was cost-effective, which the Patriots needed after bankrolling Gilmore.
So that’s two of the three levels of the Patriots getting better, and the other one is getting Hightower back. Even so, New England has more work to do there. You don’t need to be active early in free agency to get better at off-the-ball linebacker. There should be plenty of value free agents available, and the Patriots need to hit on one in the draft. If they do that, they’re improved on defense.
The Patriots’ offense will be the Patriots’ offense
I get it. Lewis brought a pop and playmaking ability to the Patriots’ backfield that hasn’t been seen, perhaps, since Kevin Faulk‘s heyday. And he certainly helped to overcome some of the injury issues at the skill positions nearly all by himself. But at the end of the day, Lewis was still a running back and New England has almost always figured out a way to get production out of the position thanks to coach Ivan Fears and line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
And in case you forgot, in the three biggest and most contested contests down the stretch (Pittsburgh, the AFC championship game and Super Bowl), Lewis had 67, 34 and 39 yards rushing, respectively. The Patriots went 2-1, and the offense was not a problem in the lone loss of the three in the Super Bowl.
Like linebacker, this is another position that can be filled by the draft, as has been the case in the past. Plus, the Patriots were in the bottom third of the league in short yardage situations, and that wasn’t Lewis’ forte (and Jeremy Hill should help there).
There’s no question Amendola will be missed due to his abilities in clutch situations. That could very well be a problem at some point, especially if there are injuries. But the reality is Amendola was supposed to be the fourth or fifth option behind Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan. Amendola could fill that role if he was taking pay cuts, but the Patriots’ couldn’t afford him if he didn’t. Amendola opted for the payday, which he earned as he career is winding down, so he had to depart.
The Patriots still have the same group coming back, plus Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt and Cordarelle Patterson. And the Patriots needed to get younger at slot, so Riley McCarron (and Cody Hollister) needs the reps. It won’t be a surprise if he is a contributor.
As far as Patterson goes, anything he contributes to the offense (if he picks it up) is a bonus, because he was brought here (if he proves worthy of his $3.25-million cap hit) to make the Patriots’ kick return unit one of the best in the league. I may not think it’s all that important given the changes to special teams rules, but obviously, Bill Belichick does and he’s a tad more accomplished. So we’ll give the move the benefit of the doubt for now.
Conclusion: Patriots are better, pending left tackle solution
Assuming health, the Patriots will be better on first down defensively thanks to Shelton, which will improve third downs. Clayborn and his pass-rush ability as a bookend to Flowers and/or an interior presence in passing situations should also improve the overall defense, along with the addition of McCourty at cornerback.
Offensively, the Patriots will find another running back — perhaps one that will actually be featured in the biggest games — and they won’t have Amendola to fall back on. But the Patriots, if healthy, are always one of the best offenses in the league thanks to the presence of Tom Brady. Plus, Patterson brings a punch to kick returns.
There’s certainly more work to be done at left tackle and linebacker. And we need to see the finished product at those spots. But the Patriots have done well to improve their few weak areas to this point. Ultimately, the names they’ve acquired to this point might not be familiar or flashy, but their offseason has been fruitful to this point.