New England Patriots: 2015 Outlook

 
 
 
 
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New England Patriots

By Shawn Childs, Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Patriots have been the most successful franchise in the league over the past 14 years. They have won four Super Bowls while compiling a 170-54 record with 12 playoff appearances. New England has finished among the top four teams in points scored in each of the last five years. Their offense is starting to show some decline as it fell to 11th in the league in yards in 2014. Their success in the playoffs in 2014 was helped by an improved defense (13th in yards allowed and eighth in points allowed). They outscored their opponents by 155 points, marking the ninth consecutive year in which they have scored at least 100 points more than their opponents. Bill Belichick has won 72.9 percent of his games in the regular season with the Patriots (175-65) and has had an almost identical winning percentage in the playoffs (21-8). Bill has the sixth most wins in NFL history.

Free Agency

The big question mark on defense is the loss of Darrelle Revis, who signed with the New York Jets. Revis finished fourth in the league in cornerback rankings. He allowed 41 completions in 79 attempts for 557 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and 11 deflected passes.

Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork signed with the Houston Texans. Vince was the Pats' top defensive lineman against the run at the age of 32. Cornerback Brandon Browner moved on to the New Orleans Saints running back Stevan Ridley, who tore his ACL and MCL in October, was signed by the Jets.

New England's biggest addition was linebacker Jabaal Sheard. He is coming off his best season in the league against the run. The Patriots also signed linebacker Brandon Spikes, who spent the first four seasons of his career with the Pats before suiting up for the Buffalo Bills last year.

The Patriots brought in a pair of veteran CBs: Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain. Fletcher was torched for 1,072 yards and nine TDs in 2014, but allowed a completion rate of only 53 percent and deflected 18 passes. Bradley was a slightly above-average cornerback in 2013. McClain played much better in pass coverage in 2012, when he didn't allow a touchdown in 71 pass attempts. His skill set has declined over the past two years. In 2014, McClain allowed 47 completions on 70 pass attempts for 552 yards, two TDs and two interceptions.

New England added quick pass-catching running back Travaris Cadet after Shane Vereen signed with the New York Giants. Scott Chandler and Fred Davis were brought in to provide tight end depth. WR Brandon Gibson will compete for the 4th WR job.

Draft

With the 32nd pick in the first round, the Patriots added defensive tackle Malcom Brown. He will fill the void created by the loss of Wilfork. Brown is solid in run support but will have limited value as pass rusher until he adds more strength. The 320-pounder has a quick first step and plus vision, even when engaged with a blocker.

In the second round, the Patriots selected safety Jordan Richards, who is valuable against the run, but his coverage skills need some work. At the combine, Jordan flashed quickness in the three-cone drill and the 60-yard shuttle. Most draft experts consider the pick a bit of a reach.

New England continued to overhaul its defensive line in the third and the fourth round with the selections of defensive ends Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers. Grissom is a very good athlete who tends to let the game come to him. The Patriots will use him at linebacker and defensive end. Geneo needs to add some strength, and he possesses only league-average quickness. Flowers has much more upside as a pass rusher with some value against the run. Trey's first step, however, won't give him an edge at the next level.

With the Patriots' other two picks in the fourth round, they focused on the offensive line by adding guard Tre' Jackson and center Shaq Mason. Mason is a powerful run blocker with enough of an edge to have success in pass protection. His skill set points to him possibly developing into an option at right guard. Jackson is another lineman with lots of power. He lacks speed, and his size (6-foot-4, 330 pounds) limits his foot quickness. He's very talented but needs to work on his technique.

New England had five picks over the last three rounds of the draft. Three of those picks addressed its defense -- linebacker Matthew Wells, cornerback Darryl Roberts and linebacker Xzavier Dickson. Wells has 4.4 speed while being an undersized linebacker (222 pounds). His quickness should help him in coverage and he'll have value on special teams. Roberts has elite speed (4.38 40-yard dash), but he needs to add bulk and improve his coverage techniques. Dickson was a three-year starter at Alabama. He will be a hybrid LB/DE with his best attribute being his ability to attack the QB. Xzavier will struggle in pass coverage and has only limited value in run support.

Fifth-rounder Joe Cardona will battle for the long snapper's job if he can break free from his five-year naval commitment. Sixth-rounder A.J. Derby became a tight end just last year, but he has plus speed and strength. A.J. could develop into a deep-seam option in the Patriots' passing game.


New England Patriots DT Malcom Brown


Offensive Line

When you look at the stats, the Patriots' offensive line isn't elite. New England gained only 3.9 yards per rush and ranked 19th in yards on the ground (1,727). The Pats also recorded just 13 rushing TDs, their fewest since 2003. From 2004 to 2013, the Patriots scored 189 rushing touchdowns. They allowed only 26 sacks, fourth-fewest in the league.

The Patriots have struggled to make plays down the field in consecutive seasons, completing just eight passes of 40 yards or more. Last year, their passing game averaged only 7.0 yards per attempt. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was their best pass blocker. Left tackle Nate Solder is the team's best offensive lineman, but he is coming off a down year. His strength is in run blocking. Over the past two years, he's allowed 19 sacks. Center Bryan Stork started 13 games as a rookie in 2014 and received below-average grades in run and pass blocking. On the positive side, he allowed only one sack while being the field for 906 plays. New England looks to be weak at both guard positions unless Jackson and Mason step up right away. This line is short on talent, which is a huge concern considering the strength of the defensive lines in the AFC East.

Schedule: Offense

The above chart shows the Patriots' 2015 offensive strength of schedule in terms of rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA) and passing touchdowns (TDS).

This information is based on 2014 stats, which we will work with as our starting point for 2015. We'll look at all the changes on offense for each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades each team has made on the defensive side. We'll update this table when we finish researching all 32 teams.

2014 Average: The league average of each stat from all 32 teams in 2014.

2014 Results: The results for each specific team in the NFL.

2015 Adjustment: The difference between a team's result and the league average in a certain statistic. This number will show if a team is above or below the league average in each stat and will serve as the basis for the strength of schedule.

Depending on the growth of the Miami Dolphins' run defense, the Patriots could have nine tough matchups versus the run. When you add in their weak offensive line and their underwhelming talent at running back, This looks like a year to avoid the Patriots' backfield in fantasy. And with Revis' return to the Jets, the entire AFC East looks like a huge challenge for the Patriots' passing game.

In his career 207 starts, Brady has a 160-47 record. He has the third-most wins in league history, trailing only Peyton Manning (179) and Brett Favre (186). His .773 winning percentage is the NFL's all-time best. A big part of Tom's 2014 success should be credited to improved pass protection. He was sacked just 21 times last year as opposed to 40 times in 2013. This led to a bounce back in his completion rate (64.1) after he approached his career low in 2013 (60.5 percent). He threw more than 30 TDs for the fifth time in his last seven full seasons. His passing yards total has regressed in each of the past three years. Brady's biggest asset is his ability to minimize mistakes. Last year, he threw fewer than 10 interceptions for the fourth time in his last seven complete seasons. He finished the season as fantasy's No. 9 QB.

When you look at his receiving options, Brady has an obviously huge edge at tight end with Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman is one of the top possession receivers in the league. WR Brandon LaFell is coming off the best season of his five-year career and showed some value in the end zone. A healthy Aaron Dobson would be a nice bonus for New England. Plus, Danny Amendola played his best ball in the playoffs. On the surface, Tom has below-average receiving options out of the backfield, but the Patriots have a long history of winning with less than elite talent at the skill positions. The AFC East is getting a lot tougher on the defensive line, which will force the Patriots to throw the ball more than 600 times in 2015. Although he may be suspended for the season's first four games as punishment for his role in Deflategate, pending an appeal, Tom has a reasonable schedule late in the year when fantasy championships are on the line. The suspension, which may be reduced, could turn Brady into a value draft pick who can buoy your team down the stretch.


New England Patriots QB Tom Brady


In very limited action during his first year in the NFL, Garoppolo completed 70.4 percent of his 27 passes with one touchdown. Jimmy has decent size (6 feet 3, 226 pounds) and a quick release. Most of his plays were from the shotgun in college, and he rarely saw pressure. Garoppolo sells the play-action fake and the pump fake very well. His arm is solid, but he throws too many passes without a tight spin. Jimmy isn't a threat in the running game (4.97 40-yard dash at the 2014 combine), but he can make the occasional play on the ground, as evidenced by his eight career rushing scores at Eastern Illinois. Garoppolo, a four-year starter in college, finished his career with 13,156 passing yards, 118 TDs and 51 interceptions. Garoppolo's ability to read defenses will be challenged in the much faster NFL. He is a player with upside, and the Patriots may have no choice but to see what he can do for them for the first month of the 2015 campaign.

After recording only 65 carries, 266 yards and two touchdowns through 11 games with the Steelers, Blount walked out on the team in November. This led to him being scooped back up by the Patriots for whom he played in 2013. In five games with New England last year, he took 60 carries for a total of 281 yards and three TDs. He delivered the knockout blow to the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs for the second straight year. He rushed for 148 yards on 30 carries with three scores in the AFC Championship game. In 2013, he totaled 24 rushes for 166 yards and four TDs against the Colts in the divisional round. Only once in his NFL career has LeGarrette had the opportunity to carry the ball more than 200 times (2010). He's averaged 4.6 yards per rush in his career and 4.9 in his 21 career games with the Patriots. However, trying to find fantasy gold at the RB position in New England each week will drive fantasy owners insane. Bill Belichick plays the matchups more than any other coach in the league, and each game's score heavily influences which backs he uses. Blount is the favorite to be the Patriots' power RB in 2015. Although he has been suspended for the season's first game due to a violation of the league's substance abuse policy, fantasy owners can expect about 15 touches per game from Blount. He has a chance to tally double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career, but he'll be a very tough play from week to week. He will probably finish outside the top 24 running backs in fantasy once all is said and done this year.


New England Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount


White was never good enough to be "The Man" in Wisconsin's backfield, but he was able to see plenty of action over four seasons. He finished his college career with 4,015 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns on 643 carries. He had his best season in 2013 as he rushed for 1,444 yards on 221 carries and 13 TDs. He also caught 39 passes for 300 yards and a couple more scores. White has average speed for an NFL running back but good short-area quickness. He has surprising strength (23 reps in bench press at the 2014 combine), which gives him some value as a pass protector. In his 2014 rookie year, James gained only 61 total yards on 14 touches in three games. Last summer, some fantasy experts thought he might emerge as a top option in the Patriots' backfield. However, his best path to playing time will be on third downs this year.


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Cadet has exceptional pass-catching skills. Last year in New Orleans, Travaris caught 73.8 percent of his 61 targets for 345 yards and two TDs. His overall resume isn't impressive and he has limited value as a rusher, but Cadet is going to be New England's best third-down back. He has a good shot at notching 50 receptions.

Gray's 2014 season was all about one game: Week 11 versus the Colts. He absolutely dominated them, registering 201 yards and four touchdowns on 37 carries. He then fell out of the spotlight as quickly as he entered it after showing up late to a practice prior to New England's next game. His value was further crushed by the signing of Blount, a fellow power back, and Gray battled an ankle injury late in the year. He makes sense as Blount's backup, but he needs to beat out more talented players to secure a roster spot.

Edelman will never match the career of Wes Welker, but he's done an excellent job impersonating him over the past two years. Since the start of 2013, Julian has 197 catches on 285 targets, 2,028 yards and 10 TDs in 30 games. Edelman was Brady's top option in the 2014 playoffs as he caught eight or more passes in each game for 281 receiving yards and the eventual Super Bowl-winning touchdown. A concussion led to him missing the last two games of the regular season and some people believe be suffered another concussion against the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Over his last nine games in 2014, Julian had 73 catches, 786 yards and four TDs on 102 targets. The growth of Brandon LaFell and the presence of Rob Gronkowski helped Edelman find more open spaces to make plays late in the season. Julian was a top-15 WR in PPR leagues in each of the past two years. If he stays healthy for 16 games and scores a few more touchdowns, he could finish in the top 10.

LaFell's first season in New England started with no catches on six targets in Week 1 and then no targets in Week 2. His breakthrough moment came during a Week 4 blowout by the Kansas City Chiefs when he hooked up with Brady for a 44-yard score. He finished that game with six catches for 119 yards and that TD. From Week 4 on, Brandon caught 70 of 105 targets for 907 yards and seven touchdowns. He caught just 13 passes for 119 yards in three playoff games, but he did find the end zone twice. With a year in the Patriots' system under his belt, LaFell should continue to improve as long as he can hold off Aaron Dobson. Last year, he was fantasy No. 22 WR. He set career highs across the board and displayed better hands than in previous seasons. Yet I don't trust that he'll offer a repeat in 2015. Other options on this team should be more involved in the passing game this season. I consider LaFell to be only a midrange WR3 on draft day.

Amendola has been a bust in his two season with the Patriots. Last year, he caught only 27 passes on 42 targets for 200 yards and one TD. However, he was an ace in the hole for New England during the playoffs. He crushed the Baltimore Ravens when he caught five of his six targets for 81 yards and two TDs. In addition, he returned five punts for 125 yards. After having no value again against the Colts in the next round as Blount hogged the ball with an impressive display of running, Danny had a solid Super Bowl; he caught five passes for 48 yards and a score. Part of his late-season success was due to more playing time in Weeks 16 and 17 while Edelman was sidelined by a concussion. Amendola is a solid pass catcher with value on third downs. The Patriots' shortage of pass-catching options out of the backfield may lead to Amendola seeing a bump in playing time this season. Danny works best as a handcuff to Edelman. In the end, his playoff success was well worth his contract.

The 2014 season was a tough one for Dobson. He underwent surgery in March to fix a stress fracture in his left foot. His recovery was slow over the summer, which led to limited playing time in the preseason. When he returned to the field, he wasn't the same player, and his season ended in late November thanks to a hamstring injury. He had just three catches for the year. In his 2013 rookie season, Aaron caught 37 of his 72 targets (51.4 percent) for 519 yards and four TDs. The success of LaFell and Dobson's own questionable hands should lead to him seeing limited playing time this season. Aaron has upside and should continue to improve, but the bar at his position is higher than it was in 2013.

The Patriots were finally able to have a healthy Gronkowski in the Super Bowl, which was a big reason why they won. Rob caught six of 10 targets for 68 yards and a TD against Seattle. During the playoffs, he recorded 16 catches for 204 yards and scored in each of New England's three postseason games. Over the first month of the regular season, Gronkowski averaged only 35 snaps per game as he was still working his way back from a December ACL tear. He gained 147 yards through the first four games and caught just 50 percent of his 26 targets. Over his next 11 games, Rob caught 69 passes for 1,017 yards and nine touchdowns. His catch rate increased to 65.7 percent. If he's healthy for a full season, he projects to have about 100 catches, 1,479 yards and 13 TDs. Rob is a solid 20-points-per-game fantasy player who has scored 54 touchdowns in 54 career starts. Gronk is the best tight end in the league and it's not close. He'll enter the 2015 season with clean bill of health.

Gostkowski has been the best kicker in the NFL over the past two seasons thanks to 78 attempts and a 93.6 percent accuracy rate. He's led the league in field goals made in back-to-back years and has made eight of his last nine attempts from 50 yards or longer. He is 13-for-17 from that range In his career. However, the Patriots rarely give him long field goal tries; he has one season in his career with more than three such attempts. His recent success has led to him being ranked third in all-time FG accuracy (86.80) behind Justin Tucker (89.81) and Dan Bailey (89.76). With the Pats' running game at risk and the AFC East getting better on defense, Gostkowski should have yet another season with plenty of field goal attempts. He's a top-notch fantasy kicker.

DEFENSE / SPECIAL TEAMS

Based on last year's numbers, the Patriots' 2015 defense will have at least five matchups against tough rushing attacks: the New York Jets twice, the Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. The Buffalo Bills' ground game will be much improved with LeSean McCoy now in house as well.

New England will take on at least three top passing offenses: The Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts. The Eagles might be a fourth.

The Patriots finished ninth in the league in rushing yards allowed in 2014, giving up 1,669 yards, 4.0 yards per rush and only six rushing scores. Their ability to prevent rushing TDs was a big part of the reason why the Seahawks decided to throw the ball on that Super Bowl-determining play. New England allowed only two 20-yard runs all season long, the fewest in the league.

They lost their best run defender in Vince Wilfork, but first-round draft pick Malcom Brown has more than enough talent to fill that void. Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower were the Patriots' best defenders in 2014 and graded highly in run defense. Hightower had surgery in February to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. He may miss a good portion of training camp.

Defensive end Chandler Jones struggled through a hip injury, which led to a drop in his sack production (six in 2014; 11.5 in 2013). New England played the last half of the season without middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, who tore the patellar tendon in his right knee in October.

New England's pass defense was only league average in passing yards allowed (3,837) even with Revis on the roster. They had 40 sacks (13th) and 16 interceptions (12th).

This defense has four plus players: Collins, Jones, Hightower and safety Devin McCourty. I expect Brown to be an asset up front. This defense's success will hinge on the new additions brought in through the draft and free agency. In a way, the Patriots underachieved last year with Revis on the roster. I have a feeling they will play better up front and continue to get solid linebacker play. Their cornerbacks are the big mystery.