Let’s start by getting all the usual words of praise out of the way. The Patriots are a very good team, they are likely to win the AFC East this year, and they re-signed a some of their own, important free agents. But none of that excuses the poor 2013 off-season, which ranked a solid “D,” even before two of their starters were arrested.
From a football standpoint, the team got worse at three receiving positions, lost depth on the offensive and defensive lines, and missed a once-a-generation chance to get solid players at bargain-basement prices because of salary-cap dumping around the league.
Here are five reasons the 2013 Patriots get an off-season “D” -- even before the arrests of tight end Aaron Hernandez and corner Alfonzo Dennard.
1. No coverage at corner
When corner Aqib Talib left the AFC Championship Game with an injury, you could literally see Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco get under center and look for Talib’s replacement, Marquice Cole. Flacco went right at Cole play after play, and the Patriots had no answer in a half where they were outscored 21-0. So it wasn’t good enough to re-sign Talib and slot-corner Kyle Arrington, or to keep their fingers crossed that Dennard wouldn’t do any jail time (which he hasn’t, so far).
The Patriots didn’t need to get the most talented cornerback available, even though there were plenty of name players out there. They just needed to add a good corner, who could give their starters a rest and play well if called on in an emergency. Or at least outplay Cole. But they failed to make any significant improvement at corner.
Instead, the Patriots enter 2013 the way they ended 2012 -- one injury away from a massive drop-off at corner. And if that happens in the playoffs again, you can be sure opposing quarterbacks will know exactly where to attack. (And if Dennard’s parole is voided, the hole will be there to start the season.)
2. Danny Amendola over Wes Welker
Amendola might be the next Wes Welker, a slot receiver who thrives on the precision passing attack of quarterback Tom Brady. But he could also be the next Chad Ochocinco or Joey Galloway, a veteran who can’t learn the offense and never earns Brady’s trust enough to contribute.
The Patriots could have had Welker for the same money as Amendola. In fact, at $6 million/year, they probably could have had both players. But they chose the uncertain young player over the proven veteran. And that has come back to bite them in the past.
Also note: even if Amendola eventually becomes Welker II, he won’t be nearly as productive in 2013 as his predecessor was. In six seasons in New England, Wes Welker averaged the following season: 112 catches, 1243 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 65 first downs. Good luck duplicating that.
3. Thin Offensive Line
Starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer missed time on-and-off in 2012 and had both back and knee surgeries in the last two years. Starting left guard Logan Mankins missed six games last season, suffering through hip, calf, and ankle injuries. And the team enters training camp with journeyman Nick McDonald backing up two positions (Mankins at left guard and the center position) and Marcus Cannon backing up two others (Vollmer at right tackle and the right guard position).
The Patriots did add former Atlanta Falcons tackle Will Svitek to back up at left tackle. But with an ever-thinning number of talented players, could this be the year coach Dante Scarnecchia’s magic touch runs out?
New England should have scooped up another team’s salary-dump -- much like they could have at corner. But failing to secure another solid veteran leaves them playing Russian Roulette with the health of their quarterback, and that puts their entire season at risk. And that is not a risk worth taking.
4. Defensive Line Losses
No one will ever confuse released defensive linemen Kyle Love, Ron Brace, or Myron Pryor with Reggie White. But all three were contributors who filled the same role -- working next to superstar Vince Wilfork to clog the middle and push the pocket. And in combination, they did a solid job against opposing running backs and helped keep Wilfork rested.
The team has plenty of potential to pressure the quarterback from the outside: veterans Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo, and second year rising stars Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. But without a push up the middle, those outside guys will be grasping at air as offenses attack up the middle instead.
New England didn’t need to keep all three inside linemen. But it would have helped a lot if they’d kept at least one, just to make sure opposing offenses wouldn’t have an easy place to attack.
5. Drafting Reinforcements
Given the poor performance in other aspects of the off-season, the draft probably ranks as a runaway success. Despite what the pundits said pre-draft, the Patriots got what they needed with their first pick: a linebacker who can cover the pass in the short- and medium-zones. Jamie Collins from Southern Miss should start the year as a third-down ‘backer in passing situations, and he has the pass-rushing explosion to spell Hightower.
Aside from that, the Patriots got wide receivers: size and potential in Aaron Dobson, and “value” with injured Josh Boyce. All they need now is for both to reverse the trend of poor drafting at that position. But most draft watchers agree the Patriots at least got talent there.
They also took a corner and a safety from Rutgers (Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon). If one of those two pans out, and free agent signee safety Adrian Wilson is the next Rodney Harrison, maybe the secondary will hold together for the year. Perhaps a lot to leave to chance, but they drafted for need and time will tell if they made the right choices.
Risk at corner, uncertainty at the receiver positions, lack of depth on the offensive and defensive lines, and more potential than help in the draft. It all adds up to a rock-solid “D” for the Patriots this off-season.
Factor in the arrests and it looks a lot worse; but the team does not control that aspect. The bad grade is for doing a poor job with the things they did control; the things they usually do well.