The 2012 Patriots off-season featured a lot of depth-building and some key additions that could bring new dimensions to an already excellent offense. There were also changes on defense that underlined a different philosophy of player acquisition and the team made some underplayed changes to the coaching staff.
After five months of work to improve the team, here is the first of two parts of my off-season overview -- focusing today on the offense.
Free Agent Departures
The Patriots only lost one key piece and one complimentary player on offense... so far. Training camp is likely to bring more changes. But for now, here are the players who left the team since last year.
By far the biggest loss of the off-season is left tackle Matt Light
, who retired after 11 years, 3 Pro Bowls, and an All-Pro 2007 season. Light received mixed reviews from fans, but he started 87-percent of the games since entering the league, including 90 of 96 possible starts in the last 6 years. And despite fan ambivalence, left tackle play dropped of significantly when Light was sidelined.
Steady running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis
got his free agent payday with Cincinnati. Green-Ellis will never be mistaken for a Pro-Bowler, but he rushed for 24 touchdowns the last 2 seasons (third in the NFL), averaged 4.0 yards a carry for his career, and still has never fumbled in the NFL. His steady play will be missed but the Patriots passing game carries the team, so there was no way they would pay him as much as Cincinnati.
The Patriots cut media Chad Ochocino
, but in the end it makes no difference. Ochocinco never learned the offense and was either a non-factor or a net-negative for the team last season.
For a team that finished 2011 second in the NFL in yards-per-pass and third in quarterback rating, the Patriots free-agent signings belied some insecurity about their passing game. They signed three receivers to diversify the passing attack. They also added a running back and a guard to provide depth and flexibility.
They brought in receiver Brandon Lloyd
(late of St. Louis) who flourished under former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels
system, with a stat line that impresses even now: 77 catches for 1,448 yards (18.8 ypc), 32 plays of 20+ yards, and an amazing 72 first downs (93.5-percent). Lloyd might not break as many big ones this year, but if he can help keep the chains moving and provide a secondary target in the red zone, the signing will pay off in spades.
Receiver Jabar Gaffney
returns to the Patriots after a standout season in Washington. He notched 68 catches for 947 yards and 50 first downs... and that was with Rex Grossman and John Beck slinging the ball. His rapport with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gives him a chance to unseat Deion Branch and provide a more effective outlet receiver.
also came over from Washington, but no guarantee he will even make the team. He was a complimentary player for the Patriots in 2007; however, that was a long time ago, and he hasn't impressed lately.
Longtime Colts running back Joseph Addai
was added for depth and experience, along with the possibility of replacing Kevin Faulk as the third-down back. Addai's performance was down in 2011, suffering along with the entire Colts offense. He is one of the Patriots "value" signings with big upside and very little risk; however, they need a more productive and better blocking back on third down than incumbent Danny Woodhead.
Seattle guard Robert Gallery
was brought in to shore up an offensive line that suffered too many injuries last year. Only guard Brian Waters started all 16 games on the offensive line in 2011, and the mixing and matching caused real problems with quarterback protection. Head coach Bill Belichick has always been impressed with Gallery, and the hope is that he will help stabilize the line.
Even with the added talent, two of last year's best players need to continue their excellent performances, and two positions are in need of players to step up their games.
Receiver Wes Welker
alternatively complained and then accepted and then complained and then accepted being franchised. On the flip side, tight end Rob Gronkowski
received the richest contract ever for a tight end, even though he had a few years left on his rookie deal. However, both players need to put the contracts behind them and concentrate on continuing their incredible production.
Welker still makes the offense go, averaging 7.6 catches, 98 yards, and almost 5 first downs a game. No one this side of Tom Brady is as important to the offense. And after an otherworldly 2011, Gronkowski can't get comfortable with his new riches. Opponents will target him from the opening snap of the season, and no one knows how well he will recover from the high ankle sprain that limited him in the Super Bowl.
Second-year running backs Stevan Ridley
and Shane Vereen
must avoid the sophomore slump and step in for Green-Ellis. Ridley learned the offense and blocking schemes well enough to earn playing time last year, but he'll have to correct his late-season fumblitis to stay on the field in 2012. Vereen's injury-plagued 2011 cost him important development time. However, if he stays healthy, the Patriots are very high on his skills.
The last X-factor is a two-man race to replace left tackle Matt Light. Two years ago, Sebastian Vollmer
looked like the heir apparent, but his play has slipped since then and he was relegated to part-time in 2011. And as a rookie, last year's first-round draft pick Nate Solder
saw more playing time at tight end than tackle. One of these two has to step in and protect Brady's blind side, or the offense will be down at least a notch or two.
Last but certainly not least are two key changes on the offensive coaching staff.
Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien
left for Penn State and McDaniels returned from a three-year hiatus to replace him. Expect this change to work out well. O'Brien was good but not as creative as McDaniels. McDaniels worked three years outside the organization and his fresh perspectives are desperately needed on a New England staff that remains far too insular.
The second coaching change will likely result in a downgrade. Tight ends coach Brian Ferentz
arrived with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the three of them made mincemeat of NFL defenses for two seasons. But Ferentz is gone to the college ranks. It's possible the two young tight ends are talented enough that coaching doesn't matter. But it's more likely that new tight ends coach George Godsey
(second year in the NFL) won't get the same production out of the pair. Godsey's best hope is that McDaniels comes up with novel new ways to get Gronkowski and Hernandez room to work with.
Incertainty at left tackle and running back, along with less production from the tight ends, outweighs the improved receiving corps and the return of McDaniels. Center Dan Koppen will also be back from injury to solidify the offensive line. But without a doubt Ridley and Vereen will have rough patches, and it is difficult to imagine Gronkowski catching lightning in a bottle for a second straight year.
Some up, some down, but overall a neutral off-season for the offense. Not bad given their 2011 stats. But they should have worked just a bit harder to improve.