Breaking Down New England Patriots' Likely Opening Game Starting Lineup
With training camp reaching its conclusion, it is no longer premature to try and project depth charts. While competitions are still fluid at multiple spots, particularly along both lines, we can at least pinpoint definitive front-runners based on the first two preseason games.
The New England Patriots came into the offseason with fewer holes than most teams, so most of these projections should not strike one as particularly surprising. Therefore, rather than examining each position as an isolated entity, it is more helpful if we dissect how each projected starter figures to work in conjunction with the other 10 offensive or defensive players.
As a side note, since the Patriots are so multiple in their weekly game-planning, it can be hard to classify certain positions as "starting" caliber. For the sake of clarity, we will look at the offense through "11" personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) and the defense through a 4-2-5 nickel scope.
With all those guidelines out of the way, let's take a look at the players most likely to play starter-like snaps on September 7 against the Miami Dolphins.
Starter: Tom Brady
What, you were expecting Rohan Davey here? Despite a pick-six on his opening drive of the preseason, Brady was mostly efficient and in sync with his receivers on Friday night. There is no reason to believe the Patriots cannot bank on Brady as their most reliable commodity yet again.
It will be interesting to see how the Pats help Brady by creating a more flexible passing offense. As explained by SmartFootball.com, having both vertical and horizontal stretches in the passing game is vital to survival, but the Pats had lost the capability to construct the former stretch by the end of 2013.
Rob Gronkowski's healthy return would provide a vertical stretch in the middle seam area, but a truly deadly offense exploits the area outside the numbers as well. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brady was a below-average quarterback when attacking the perimeter last year, especially on the right side of the field.
That's where a young receiver like Kenbrell Thompkins or Aaron Dobson could help extend Brady's effectiveness. A year of continuity should aid timing-based outside routes like fades and comebacks; in fact, we've already seen an encouraging example of this.
The preseason has also indicated that the Pats might return to a more screen-oriented game as a means of exploiting aggressive pass rushes. New England was a screen-heavy team when Brady was still breaking into the league in the early 2000s. Considering the open-field ability of their current receiving corps, returning to those roots could help Brady bounce back from a statistically down 2013 season.
Starter: Shane Vereen
In this instance, I'm defining "starter" as the running back most likely to receive the lion's share of the snaps. The Patriots are a diverse team capable of attacking through multiple formations, but they are at their deadliest in the up-tempo spread, where Vereen excels.
Health is the biggest question for the fourth-year back, who has missed 11 games in the past two seasons. But there are signs that Vereen is developing into one of the game's premier passing backs. Last year, he averaged 2.14 yards per route run (a PFF efficiency metric), which ranked second among running backs behind only Darren Sproles.
Vereen is most clearly impactful on screens and inside draws, where his slippery agility and excellent vision lead to big chunks of yardage. However, his ability to split out wide in spread formations is equally important. Because defenses have to respect Vereen, the wide splits create big seams in the middle of the field, the exact area where receivers like Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola thrive.
In reality, Vereen will not even play half the snaps, as New England's egalitarian backfield committee changes the snap distribution on a weekly basis. That's a problem for fantasy owners, but it allows specialists like Vereen to make a tremendous impact over limited snaps.
Split End (X receiver): Kenbrell Thompkins
Flanker (Z receiver): Julian Edelman
Slot Receiver: Danny Amendola
For reference, here's a helpful guide on what the above receiver labels mean. The only point of contention would be switching Edelman and Amendola; however, the former played just 49.5 percent of his snaps from the slot, whereas the latter lined up inside 77.4 percent of the time. Moreover, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss reported that Amendola was only part of three-receiver packages against the Eagles, suggesting that he is indeed the primary slot option.
Either way, it's essentially semantics between Edelman and Amendola. Both will line up off the line of scrimmage, where they can go in motion and take a free release. When the Pats spread the field, look for plenty of crossing routes out of bunch and "snug" formations with those two.
The most intriguing name here is Thompkins, whose early camp momentum has earned him a clear leg up over Aaron Dobson. The touchdown I linked on the last slide is direct evidence of his improved chemistry with Brady, suggesting that all the praise he has received this offseason is not simply posturing.
Overall, this is not necessarily the most diverse group of receivers. They are all excellent route-runners who should allow the Pats to control the middle of the field. But someone like Dobson or Brandon LaFell is probably a better red-zone option, and Thompkins will need to sustain his strong start if the Pats are to have any perimeter passing game at all this season.
Starter: Rob Gronkowski
Some cloudy skies have hovered over the Gronk Watch in recent days. NFL.com's Albert Breer reported that the decision for Gronkowski's Week 1 availability would come "down to the wire," while the MMQB's Greg Bedard suggested that the tight end was still running with a limp in his observations on Patriots camp.
But there have been no setbacks, which is the most important fact. If the reports remain ambivalent when the season starts, that could create some problems, much like last year's week-to-week uncertainty that led to suggestions of internal division, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Nobody really needs a refresher on Gronk's importance to the Patriots offense, but just for reference, New England was the second-highest scoring team in the league when he played, per Pro-Football-Reference.
If Gronk is healthy, then Michael Hoomanawanui and James Develin will be nice assets. Both are above-average blockers who essentially serve as extra offensive linemen when the Pats roll out their 12/Ace or 22/Tank personnel. Of course, with Gronk on the field, those run-heavy formations remain deadly passing attacks, infusing the New England offense with a level of unpredictability that rivals any in the league.
But without Gronk, the Pats rival the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders for the ignominious title of worst tight end corps in the league. Last year, the non-Gronkowski New England tight ends compiled a wretched 0.56 yards per pass route run. The worst rate among qualified individual tight ends was the 1.17 mark accrued by Brandon Myers.
That should frighten the Foxboro faithful, for Gronkowski is likely the second-most indispensable player on the roster. Circumstances will change during the season, but at the moment, his fragile health is both the greatest hope and most significant deterrent to New England's Super Bowl aspirations.
Tackles: Nate Solder (L), Sebastian Vollmer (R)
Guards: Logan Mankins (L), Josh Kline (R)
Center: Dan Connolly
Three of these five positions are written in stone, as Solder, Vollmer and Mankins are three of the Patriots' most important offensive bedrocks. Solder in particular has faced some struggles this preseason, but after a stellar showing against the Eagles in which he compiled a plus-1.2 pass-blocking grade (per Pro-Football-Focus.com), there is little reason to fret about the fourth-year tackle.
The center position also appears to have a clear front-runner. Connolly has taken all the first-team snaps against both Washington and Philly, suggesting that he is well ahead of last year's starter Ryan Wendell. Bryan Stork's absence from practice over the past couple weeks has likely eliminated whatever opportunity he had at starting, but if he returns and plays sufficiently, he might push Wendell off the roster entirely.
Right guard is difficult to read at this point. Jordan Devey started against the Eagles, but as his minus-4.0 run-blocking grade illustrates, he consistently lost at the point of attack and generally appeared overwhelmed on the first team. Many fans would like to see Marcus Cannon, but the early camp reports of him practicing at guard have dissipated, as he appears entrenched as the team's third tackle.
Since Wendell does not play guard, that leaves Kline. The second-year player performed fairly well in emergency relief against Miami and Baltimore last season, and possesses the grit and lower-body strength to help in the running game.
There's an unusual amount of uncertainty in this unit, especially considering the youth of the backups. If the reserves continue to flounder as they have thus far in the preseason, the Pats might want to look to the waiver wire for a veteran interior backup.
Defensive Ends: Chandler Jones (RE), Rob Ninkovich (LE)
Defensive Tackles: Vince Wilfork (NT), Tommy Kelly (3-technique)
No real surprises here. Jones and Ninkovich have been working at outside linebacker as the Pats have largely exhibited a 3-4 base defense this preseason. The nickel package I have ascribed here would have them returning to their more natural roles as 7- and 6-techs. In reality, though, both will likely play a multitude of positions, including the 5-tech (3-4 defensive end) and perhaps even the 3-tech as interior rushers.
Wilfork will be back at his customary nose tackle spot regardless of what formation the Pats play, though he might occasionally shift out to 5-tech if the Patriots are serious about becoming a base 3-4 team. The 32-year-old has shown no ill effects in his return from Achilles surgery, demonstrating his typically steady two-gapping presence as the fulcrum of the line.
The Pats will eventually want to see first-rounder Dominique Easley at the 3-tech, but given how much time he has missed this summer, look for Kelly to hold onto the role he had last year. Like Wilfork, Kelly looks excellent in his return from a debilitating injury (ACL), as he recovered a fumble against Philly and sabotaged multiple runs with explosive interior push.
In practice, we will not actually see this specific four-man combination very often. The Patriots' multiplicity defies categorization until we actually see what they lean on in live games. The four-man nickel package is not even a guarantee, as they exhibited some 3-3-5 alignments against the Eagles. But what's clear is that these four veterans are important bedrocks who will hold important roles regardless of formation or gap principle.
Starters: Jerod Mayo (MIKE), Jamie Collins (JACK)
Like defensive line, this is another unit where labels are essentially meaningless. But if the entire group stays healthy, Mayo and Collins are likely to lead the position (and perhaps the defense) in snaps due to their three-down skill sets.
Collins' potential as a Jack linebacker is especially intriguing. Though the position's responsibility varies from system to system, the typical Jack backer will blitz fairly frequently, though underneath zone coverage is important as well. Collins certainly has the athleticism to excel in that two-way role. If allowed to rein free in space, Collins would be in the ideal scenario to fulfill the breakout expectations surrounding him.
The name missing here is Dont'a Hightower, whose role is a bit unclear at the moment. Hightower deserves a regular role, albeit one with less man coverage responsibilities (he had more troubles covering Philly's Brent Celek on Friday). But he has also been more active as a blitzer, as his initial pressure catalyzed Rob Ninkovich's second-quarter sack of Nick Foles last week.
Hightower often played on the line at Alabama, and while he has never done that in Foxboro, it's something that likely remains in his arsenal. His sub-package value is naturally limited because of coverage deficiencies, but in base packages, he will play the Mike role.
The depth here remains shaky, as the latter half of the depth chart is littered with special-teamers and inexperience. The Patriots have a talented starting trio with nice complementary skill sets, but even a single injury could derail this unit.
Cornerbacks: Darrelle Revis, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington (Slot)
Safeties: Devin McCourty (FS), Duron Harmon (SS)
Revis and McCourty are the clear leaders of this unit, as well as two of the most important players on the entire team. Both have exemplary skill sets that no one else on the roster can duplicate; as long as both are healthy, this unit will be an asset.
But a secondary harboring Seahawkian aspirations needs multiple players to elevate their performances in 2014. Though largely forgotten this offseason, Dennard looks like the leader for the outside cornerback spot outside Revis due to the recent struggles of Logan Ryan. Dennard has yet to make his preseason debut after missing most of the offseason program recovering from shoulder surgery, but he is a bankable commodity whose fearless man-to-man physicality fits in with New England's new defensive philosophy.
Harmon did not run with the first-team safeties against Philadelphia, deferring to Arrington and Ryan in the first half. But his second-half interception catalyzed an impressive performance, leading to a plus-1.8 overall grade on the night. There will invariably be issues as the second-year safety assimilates into a larger role, but Harmon's headiness should make him a passable starter in 2014, albeit one the Pats might want to upgrade in the future.
Arrington is the controversial choice here, as he has unofficially become the whipping boy for Patriots fans. His lack of top-end speed and shaky ball location skills have led to some big plays for the opposition, particularly when he lines up against big outside receivers.
But contrary to popular belief, he is not an irredeemable sinkhole. Among slot corners last year, he was in the top one-third in terms of yards and receptions conceded per play, ranking 11th and 12th in those categories, respectively. With the strength of the outside corners this year, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Pats help Arrington with bracket coverage from the safeties.
Ryan is the wild card, as his natural talent suggests he would upgrade either the slot or strong safety position. But he has struggled in the preseason, with a minus-3.6 overall grade that ranks 153rd out of 162 qualified cornerbacks. It's not time to panic yet, but considering the recent disturbing history of second-year Pats defensive backs slumping after promising rookie seasons (McCourty, Darius Butler, Tavon Wilson), it's fair to harbor some uncertainties about Ryan.
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Punter: Ryan Allen
Long Snapper: Danny Aiken
Special Teamer: Matthew Slater
Returners: Josh Boyce (KR), Julian Edelman (PR)
Not much room for debate here. Aiken was the lone specialist with competition, but that disappeared after the Patriots cut ties with undrafted rookie Tyler Ott, as first reported by Reiss. Ott was partially at fault for the blocked punt against the Eagles, so it's not surprising to see him go.
Kick returner is the one position that might be up for grabs. Boyce and undrafted rookie running back Roy Finch have settled in as the primary options. The Pats have only returned three kicks this preseason, and both are averaging 25 yards per return.
The former fourth-rounder Boyce has disappointed in his second season, falling to sixth on the receiver depth chart. Special teams is essentially his only avenue onto the roster, as he appears unlikely to make a dent on offense.
Finch, meanwhile, has impressed since his bizarre negated fumble against Washington. Though diminutive, his explosion is evident, as he reaches cutback lanes few other players on the roster could even dream of attempting. That does not make him a lock, but the long shot has played his way into consideration. Boyce may still have a slight lead, but the two are headed in opposite directions.
Though special teams struggled against the Eagles (blocked punt, missed field goal), this has always been a strength under Bill Belichick. Football Outsiders pegged the Pats special teams unit as the second-best in the league, delivering 6.7 percent value over average. With essentially the same personnel in place for 2014, expect more underlying positive contributions from this unit.