Projecting Patriots' Starting Lineup Before the 2014 NFL Draft
Projecting the New England Patriots' starting lineup prior to the 2014 NFL draft might seem like a fool's errand—the rookies will certainly change things—but it is an important exercise in determining strengths and weaknesses on the roster.
Finding the holes on the New England roster aren't tough to find, but balancing those needs with the talent available in the 2014 NFL draft isn't easy. Ideally, draft picks on Day 1 and Day 2 should challenge for a starting position. With a talented and deep roster, though, the Patriots could draft with some future wants and needs in mind.
Here is my projection for each position's starter, along with a possible upgrade that could be found early on in the 2014 NFL draft.
Quarterback: Tom Brady
The only question surrounding the quarterback position is who will be taking the second-team repetitions behind incumbent starter Tom Brady.
Despite a down year statistically—just 25 touchdowns—Brady showed that he still has what it takes to play at a high level, leading the New England Patriots to the AFC Championship Game.
The position of backup quarterback is far more intriguing. Ryan Mallett—if he is still on the roster after the 2014 NFL draft—is the only option right now. Expect that to change by the start of training camp.
Possible Upgrade: None
Running Back: Stevan Ridley
Third-down Running Back: Shane Vereen
Despite Stevan Ridley’s fumbling problems—eight in the last two years—there is no denying that he is the best every-down back on the roster. He decisively finds the hole on the edge as well as between the tackles and consistently gets more yards than he should.
Shane Vereen locked down the third-down back job in Danny Woodhead’s absence last year. He proved to be nearly impossible to cover—split wide or from the backfield—and was only held back by his inability to bring in some catches on wheel routes.
With Vereen and Ridley both scheduled to be free agents in 2015, the New England Patriots could draft one or both of their replacements this May.
Possible Upgrade: Carlos Hyde (RB, Ohio State)
"X" Receiver: Aaron Dobson
"Z" Receiver: Julian Edelman
Slot Receiver: Danny Amendola
A monster truck or drag-racer probably wouldn’t perform well on the famed German race course the Nurburgring, which requires a precision automobile to navigate its twists and turns. The New England Patriots run the "Nurburgring" of NFL offenses for wide receivers, trusting them to navigate the sudden changes brought on by changing defenses—both before and after the snap.
The three projected starters—Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola—all have shown the acumen to process information at game speed and adjust on the fly. Kenbrell Thompkins (X/Z), Josh Boyce (Z/Slot) and Brandon LaFell (X/Z/Slot) will all compete for starting jobs as well.
While there may be bigger, faster and more athletic receivers in the 2014 NFL draft, some may be disqualified during the interview process.
Possible Upgrade: Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M)
"Y" Tight End: Rob Gronkowski
"Move" Tight End: James Develin
No position has more question marks coming into the 2014 season than that of tight end, once the hallmark of security—a healthy Rob Gronkowski and un-incarcerated Aaron Hernandez—in New England.
If healthy, Gronkowski is easily the starter and the best tight end in football. His ability to create mismatches at any level of the field and dominate in the running game is unparalleled.
That said, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams can’t be the only tight ends behind Gronkowski, whose health is no sure thing for Week 1 of the 2014 NFL season.
While Dustin Keller may bring some stability to the position if he is signed, with NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport (via Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com) reporting a scheduled visit, the New England Patriots will likely spend one or more picks in the 2014 NFL draft to shore up the tight end depth chart.
Possible Upgrade: Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina)
Left Tackle: Nate Solder
Left Guard: Logan Mankins
Center: Dan Connolly
Right Guard: Marcus Cannon
Right Tackle: Sebastian Vollmer
The lone change from 2013's starting five would be the inclusion of Marcus Cannon—who filled in well for the injured Sebastian Vollmer—over Ryan Wendell. Dan Connolly would move over to Wendell's center position, with Cannon slotting in at guard.
That grouping would get the five best linemen on the field at the same time. Don't count Wendell out, though. He had a subpar 2013—especially with his pass protection—but his 2012 was good enough to warrant him being given a second chance.
As it stands, adding an interior lineman early on in the 2014 NFL draft seems very likely for the New England Patriots.
Possible Upgrade: Zack Martin (OL, Notre Dame)
Defensive Tackle: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly
Defensive End: Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones
The insertion of Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly back into the lineup—they each suffered season-ending injuries in 2013—should help assuage some anxiety about the run defense going into the 2014 season. Relegating Chris Jones to a pass-rush only role will be helpful, and Sealver Siliga can rotate in for depth inside.
On the outside, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones provided the lion's share of pressure in 2013. They'll likely do the same in 2014, but adding some quality depth behind them is needed.
Adding another interior presence inside—provided that Armond Armstead hasn't miraculously recovered—should be a priority in the 2014 NFL draft.
Possible Upgrade: Dominique Easley (DL, Florida)
"Will" linebacker: Jerod Mayo
"Mike" linebacker: Dont'a Hightower
"Sam" linebacker: Jamie Collins
Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher's departure made the starting trio an easy choice, but how Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo are deployed is going to be interesting.
Letting Mayo flow with the play at Will is an easy choice, but deciding where to play Collins is a tough choice.
Lining him up at the Sam position seems like the ideal location, allowing him easy access to blitzing off the edge while allowing him to cover tight ends. Hightower's deficiencies in coverage can be masked somewhat at the Mike position, but you can still expect him to come off the field in 4-2-5 deployments.
A rookie won't likely break the starting lineup in 2014, but adding another competent coverage linebacker is a distinct mid-round possibility.
Possible Upgrade: Christian Kirksey (LB, Iowa)
Cornerback: Darrelle Revis, Logan Ryan
Nickel Cornerback: Alfonzo Dennard
Strong Safety: Duron Harmon
Free Safety: Devin McCourty
While the tight end position has a lot of questions, the defensive back group has a lot of answers. The additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner—a likely starter after his four-week suspension—have given new life to a defense already trending in the right direction.
The sudden influx of talent and depth at the cornerback allows Alfonzo Dennard to play nickel and could portend a position change for Logan Ryan should Duron Harmon not be up to the task at safety after a decent rookie season.
Harmon's strong safety position is the lone spot where a big upgrade could be made. Adding an enforcer—think Kam Chancellor or T.J. Ward—would give the New England Patriots something they haven't had since Rodney Harrison was patrolling the secondary.
Possible Upgrade: Calvin Pryor (SS, Louisville)
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Punter/Holder: Ryan Allen
Long-Snapper: Danny Aiken
The trio of specialists had excellent years in 2013, despite one poor snap from Danny Aiken. Ryan Allen didn't miss a beat after replacing Zoltan Mesko, while Stephen Gostkowski was a phenomenal 38-of-41 on field-goal attempts.
While there might be some competition brought in for Gostkowski—his contract makes him a potential salary cap problem—don't expect any changes on special teams in 2014.
Possible Upgrade: Marcus Heit (LS, Kansas State)