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New England Patriots 2014 Season Preview
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Analytics are generally helpful when trying to break down professional sports but every once in a while you will come across a player who isn't defined by the statistics that some have turned into a religion.
Tom Brady is that player in the NFL.
Citing a drop in "production" during the 2013 season, one prominent website, which is based solely on analytics, claimed the 37-year-old Brady was no longer among the NFL's top five quarterbacks.
Whether that was a look-at-me piece to generate traffic or a real opinion based on black-and-white data is inconsequential. The reaction to it around the league was virtually unanimous, it was met with laughter.
When the Patriots arrived in Buffalo last year for the season opener Aaron Hernandez was in jail, Wes Welker had relocated to Denver, Danny Woodhead picked San Diego as his new home, Brandon Lloyd was picking up an unemployment check, and all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski was still sidelined after multiple surgeries on his forearm and back.
When you did the math on that, here was the stark realization -- the recipients of 338 of New England's 402 total receptions from 2012 weren't available to Brady when he took the field against the Bills.
Admittedly Brady's raw numbers of 4,343 yards, 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2013 was a dip as he threw to the then-unproven Julian Edelman and the oft-injured Danny Amendola, along with rookies like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins.
For most signal callers facing similar hurdles that dip would have been a collapse. When it was all said and done for Brady and Co. the 2013 Pats were 12-4 and AFC East champs before losing in the conference championship game, the exact same result with all those proven commodities in 2012.
Brady wins and he makes others better, traits that can't necessarily be measured by advanced statistics.
Watching "Tom Terrific" during 1-on-1 drills is like peering over the shoulder of a brilliant surgeon. Nearly every pass attempt is delivered with pinpoint accuracy and his touch with the football is almost unfair, forcing the frustrated defenders to work blue and let the expletives fly as they lunge at passes just out of their reach.
"When we do things as well, when we don't make unforced errors, when we control what the New England Patriots can control, we can be a pretty good team," Brady said. "We just can't do things really that are unforced errors, things that the other team doesn't have to do anything to stop us, but we stop ourselves."
New England hit the Powerball 14 years ago and it continues to pay off all these years later.
That said the window is certainly closing in Foxboro because the one bout everyone loses is the fight against "Father Time."
There is still some time to take advantage of perhaps the best quarterback/coaching tandem in NFL history and New England plans to take advantage of it.
"Everyone has been working hard. I think the competition has been at a high level," Brady said. "There are a lot of guys that are competing for spots. It always brings out the best in all of us when you see that and when guys dig deep. It's been a lot of fun to see."
2013 RECORD: 12-4
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2013, lost to Denver in AFC Championship Game
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Bill Belichick (163-61 in 14 seasons with Patriots, 199-105 in 19 seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Josh McDaniels (sixth season with Patriots)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Matt Patricia (third season with Patriots)
KEY ADDITIONS: CB Darrelle Revis (from Buccaneers), CB Brandon Browner (from Seahawks), WR Brandon LaFell (from Panthers), DT Dominique Easley (first round, Florida), QB Jimmy Garoppolo (second round, Eastern Illinois)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB LeGarrette Blount (to Steelers), LB Brandon Spikes (to Bills), Aqib Talib (to Broncos), S Steve Gregory (retired), S Adrian Wilson (to Bears)
QB: Brady's resume has few holes. The three-time Super bowl champ has 148 regular-season wins as a starting QB, tied with Hall of Famer John Elway for third on the all-time win list, while his 59 career 300-yard games is fifth best in league lore. Meanwhile, Brady reached 4,000 passing yards (4,343) in 2013 for the sixth time in his career, joining Dan Marino (6), Brett Favre (6), Drew Brees (8) and Peyton Manning (13) as the only players to have at least five seasons with 4,000-or-more.
Brady still has plenty of life left in his right arm but he turned 37 in early August and current backup Ryan Mallett will likely be moving on after the 2014 season so the Patriots invested in the heir to Brady's throne in Eastern Illinois rookie Jimmy Garoppolo.
"This kid's got a quick release, good arm and is very athletic," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said of Garoppolo, a second-round pick. "Tom Brady, at his age, and Ryan Mallett's uncertain status forces this pick. This is an insurance policy for an unknown future."
RB: While the Patriots didn't add much to their offense in the offseason, they did lose LeGarrette Blount in free agency. Blount stepped in during 2013 for the fumble-prone Stevan Ridley and gave the running game quite a boost.
Of course Ridley possesses the better all-around game when he holds onto the football and he along with Shane Vereen, a great pass receiver out of the backfield, and Brandon Bolden figure to mix and match depending on who has the hot hand.
Ridley's act could be wearing thin with Bill Belichick, however, and rumors emanating from Foxboro say the veteran could be on the bubble perhaps due to the play of former Notre Same star Jonas Gray, a big back who could bring some of the Blount nastiness to the running game.
"Hard working kid. Worked hard in the offseason, worked hard in the spring and he's worked hard in training camp," Belichick said when discussing Gray. " He's been out there every day making progress and improving. We'll see how it goes. He's done everything we've asked him to do."
WR: Outside of a breakout year for Julian Edelman this group was disappointing in 2013.
Edelman is no home-run hitter but he finished with 105 receptions in 2013 to join Wes Welker (2007-09, 11-12) and Troy Brown (2001) as the only Patriots players to reach 100 receptions in a season.
An exceptional route runner, Edelman averaged 6.4 receptions per game in 2013 and finished with 1,056 receiving yards, significant upgrades from his previous career highs of 37 catches for 359 yards. Too often, however, Brady had to lock onto Edelman because his other receivers were getting no separation.
Danny Amendola is a solid receiver when healthy but he just hasn't been able to stay on the field consistently. He has a lot of Edelman's traits but also brings a little more big-play ability to the table and his numbers (54 receptions) could spike if his body holds up.
Rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins flashed at times a year ago but were far too inconsistent. Dobson, a former second-round draft pick, certainly looks the part but it's been a slow start for him this year thanks to the broken foot he suffered in Week 12 of last season.
The one added piece to the puzzle is former Panther Brandon LaFell and it could be a significant one. LaFell is a tall, athletic receiver who could develop into a big target for Brady, especially on inside routes.
"He's been good," Belichick said of LaFell. "He's been very diligent in trying to learn his assignments, learn the plays. He's a tough kid. Obviously he's a big target. Again, he's gotten better at the routes that we've run. He's got a good skill set; a little different than some of our other guys, but good and he's tough."
TE: When you take the QBs out of the equation and talk about the best players in all of football, you usually start with three names -- Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, Titans terror J.J. Watt and Gronkowski, a matchup nightmare with the size and strength to torture any defense.
Problem is Gronkowski hasn't been healthy for two years and his latest malady, a torn ACL and MCL in the middle of last season was a serious one. Asking the old Gronk to show up is probably too much to ask for but leaning on a reasonable facsimile for 16 games could take the Pats to another level.
Backup Michael Hoomanawanui is a big, physical target but offers no outstanding traits, while the recently signed Steve Maneri could help as an inline blocker.
OL: The Patriots' offensive line is an experienced bunch led by left guard Logan Mankins and a pair of solid tackles in Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder.
The group, however, is coming off a bit of a down year, allowing 40 sacks, the most Brady has endured since his first year as a starter.
The interior was the weak link in 2013 and center Ryan Wendell along with right guard Dan Connolly must bounce back from poor efforts while Mankins ha to prove his 2013 was an anomaly and not indicative of descent as a player.
New England used mid-round draft choices on Florida State center Bryan Stork, Stanford tackle Cameron Fleming and Florida guard Jon Halapio as insurance.
DL: The Patriots have plenty of talent on the defensive line but all eyes will be on veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork. The four-time Pro Bowl selection is one of the NFL's best pure run stuffers but is attempting to come back form a torn Achilles', an injury that is especially tough on men the size of the 340- pound University of Miami product.
Wilfork's presumed running mate on the interior, Tommy Kelly, another veteran coming off a serious injury (ACL) wasn't able to make it back and was set to be released on the cut to 75.
Chris Jones, who performed admirably, last year after the injuries will take over for Kelly and hold down the fort until rookie Dominique Easley is ready.
The Patriots gambled and selected the Florida defensive tackle with the 29th overall pick. Easley is a top-10 talent with a history of significant knee problems playing a position which demands he carries a lot of weight on his 6- foot-2 frame. Easley tore both of his ACLs during his time in Gainesville, Fla., most recently damaging the ACL and meniscus in his right knee last September, cutting short was shaping up as a monster season for the Staten Island native.
Easley has always shown the kind of quick, active hands that are a staple of three-technique stars in the NFL and despite being "undersized" at 288 pounds has always been able to hold his own against the run thanks to impressive core and lower-body strength.
"He was a top 30 pick until he tore his ACL in September," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "He's quick and explosive. A lot of people felt like he was going to drop because of the ACL. This is a typical Bill Belichick pick. The rest of the league discounted his talent, but he'll be in training camp. The Patriots needed defensive linemen and this kid is gifted."
Third-year Syracuse product Chandler Jones and the underrated Rob Ninkovich are the ends.
Jones, a former first-round pick, is an emerging star who led the team with 11 1/2 sacks in 2013. Ninkovich, meanwhile, has showed that he is a playmaker with 11 fumble recoveries over the last four seasons (2010-13), the most of any player in the NFL over that time. He also is the first Patriots player with back-to-back seasons with at least eight sacks since Willie McGinest in 1995 and 1996.
LB: The Patriots lost veteran Brandon Spikes to division rival Buffalo but that was a calculated gamble on the assumption second-year man Jamie Collins is ready for full-time duty on the outside.
The lengthy Collins was dominant in the playoffs against the Colts and has the length and athleticism to be a star. His ascension on the strong side, along with the return star mike linebacker Jerod Mayo, who tore his pec in mid- October of last season, means the Pats will field one of the best LB crews in the league.
The third member of the group is former first-round pick Dont'a Hightower, a physical run stuffer with the strength to shed at the point of attack on the weak side.
Depth figures to come from former Chris White, who filled in for Mayo last season.
DB: With an eye on Denver the Pats really upgraded the defensive backfield, bringing in cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. The Buccaneers cut Revis in March, and the Patriots quickly pounced, signing him to a 1-year deal worth $12 million.
Revis took a step back in Tampa's zone-heavy schemes in 2013 but he is still one of the few true lockdown corners in football and a player who will enable the inventive Belichick to take a few more chances on defense. In fact, Revis projects as the kind of player who can match up with a receiver like Demaryius Thomas, enabling the other defensive backs to concentrate on stopping lesser options.
Once back from a four-game suspension, Browner, the biggest corner in the game at 6-foot-4, should be capable of shutting down most No. 2 receivers. Logan Ryan, a third-round selection in 2013, should start while Browner is sidelined and offer solid depth when the former Seahawk gets back.
Skilled slot option Kyle Arrington should be the nickel corner.
Free safety Devin McCourty is a Pro Bowl-level performer who is active in run support and offers cornerback-like coverage skills. His running mate figures to be fellow Rutgers product Duron Harmon, the clear weak link of the group. Veteran Patrick Chung is back after a year in Philly and could push Harmon because he understands what Belichick wants.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Stephen Gostkowski set the franchise record for most points in a season with 158 total points in 2013. Gostkowski gets the ball up quickly and has enough leg strength to cut through the bad weather in the Northeast.
Punter Ryan Allen is a two-step left-footed punter with a funky delivery that naturally fades away from the returner.
Edelman is sure-handed as the punt returner while Josh Boyce offers home-run speed on kickoffs.
COACH: Belichick is almost always ahead of the curve in the NFL. An innovator who trusts his veteran players, Belichick is the only head coach in football who will completely change the fundamentals of his game plans from week to week.
"The Hoodie" has had 13 straight winning seasons, needs one more regular- season win to become just the sixth NFL head coach with at least 200 career wins and one more playoff triumph to tie the all-time mark of 20.
History says his lieutenants -- currently offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive chief Matt Patricia -- fare better with him pulling the strings than on their own.
THE SKINNY: : The Patriots were one win away from the Super Bowl last year and didn't lose much but it remains to be seen if they closed the gap significantly on Denver.
The one thing missing in New England these days is the big threat on the outside which Randy Moss used to provide. That has lessened the margin of error for the Pats on a week-by-week basis.
Another AFC East crown seems assured and another conference championship game is in play, meaning home field could be everything for the Pats.
08/25 12:10:01 ET