Tim O’Sullivan: It’s far from all doom and gloom for the Patriots
It’s hard not to focus on the transition the Patriots will face this season, since most of it has been accompanied by flashing headlines and breaking news stories – Aaron Hernandez in jail, Alfonzo Dennard arrested, surgery after surgery for Rob Gronkowski, the loss of Wes Welker and the dismantling of the receiving corps, the arrival of Tim Tebow.
Those stories clearly demand attention as the team opens camp today, and they will get plenty of it. But the attention will be too much, and it will cast an exaggerated shadow over the on-field stability that does exist in Foxborough.
The obvious sources of continuity are Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and certainly it starts with those two, but that’s not where it ends. All five starters return on the offensive line, which should be one of the best in the NFL, and 1,000-yard back Stevan Ridley returns to run behind them. On the other side of the ball, the entire defense is back with the exception of replaceable tackles Kyle Love and Brandon Deadrick, and, potentially, Dennard. And there are no losses on the sideline, where the entire coaching staff returns intact.
It’s understandable for Patriots fans to fret about all the offensive changes. Welker was a fan favorite, Gronkowski is impossible to ignore, and Hernandez is a blazing car wreck you can’t take your eyes off. Plus, fans are always drawn to the players who have the ball in their hands.
But, please, don’t forget the line. The old saying about the game being won in the trenches has become cliché because it’s true, and the guys in New England’s offensive trenches are as good as it gets. Left guard Logan Mankins has been to four consecutive Pro Bowls and brings a necessary degree of nasty to the entire line. Under-the-radar Ryan Wendell was graded as one of the best centers in the league last year by multiple sources. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer have already proven to be top-tier players and, if they can stay healthy, should keep getting better. Right guard Dan Connolly is a reliable fifth wheel, and if he falters, the young, talented and enormous Marcus Cannon (6-foot-5, 360 pounds) is ready to take his place.
The starting five of Solder, Mankins, Wendell, Connolly and Vollemer started 11 games together in 2012. That kind of consistency is critical for offensive line success, just ask o-line leader Dante Scarnecchia, who is about to begin his 32nd year coaching in the NFL, and his 30th for the Patriots. How’s that for continuity?
That line paved the way for 2,184 total rushing yards last year (seventh in the league), including 1,263 from Ridley (also seventh in the league), and run blocking wasn’t even their strong suit. The Patriots had the fourth most pass attempts in the NFL in 2012, but they gave up the fifth fewest sacks. If the line can once again provide that kind of protection for Brady, and the run game continues to be a threat, it won’t matter who the receivers are, they’ll have plenty of time to get open.
It seems likely Brady, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will figure out new ways for the offense to produce, although it also seems likely the Patriots won’t lead the league in scoring like they did last year. If that’s the case, the defense will need to improve for New England to maintain its level of success, and it sure looks like the pieces are in place for that kind of improvement.
Before looking at the players who might make big leaps this year, let’s focus on the defensive continuity. It starts front and center with Vince Wilfork, who has been good enough for long enough (nine seasons, five Pro Bowls) that he’s entered into “possible Hall of Fame” territory. Because he demands so much attention, Wilfork makes all the linemen and linebackers around him better. He’s a one-man foundation.
Jerod Mayo has been a stabilizing force since he arrived in New England in 2008. He’s led the team in tackles for the last five seasons, he’s played inside and outside linebacker, and he’s a famously diligent worker off the field. Rob Ninkovich hasn’t made the same impact as Wilfork or Mayo, but he’s been a consistent and versatile producer during his three seasons as a Patriot, totaling 194 tackles, 18.5 sacks, 10 fumble recoveries and four interceptions while playing as both a defensive end and linebacker.
Defensive backs Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, and linebacker Brandon Spikes, have all had their ups and downs on and off the field, but all three know the system and bring their own level of continuity to the defense. And while Aqib Talib may be know for his erratic behavior off the field, there’s no question the veteran cornerback stabilized New England’s pass defense as soon as he arrived last season.
If all those players can deliver the same goods they have in the past, they’ll provide a framework for 2012’s two first-round picks – Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower – to make second-year leaps that could potentially carry the defense to another level. The 6-3, 270-pound Hightower has the size, speed and smarts to become a three-down force at linebacker. The real difference maker, however, could be Jones.
Most pass rushers struggle as rookies, but the ultra-athletic Jones had 45 tackles and 6.0 sacks last year. Those numbers may not be staggering, but they’re comparable to the rookie seasons posted by Jason Pierre-Paul (30 tackles, 4.5 sacks in 2010) and J.J. Watt (56 tackles, 5.5 sacks in 2011). And those two went on to have monster second seasons – 86 tackles and 16.5 sacks for Pierre-Paul, and 81 tackles and 20.5 sacks for Watt.
Sure, it takes a heavy touch of optimism to imagine Jones making a similar leap, but it’s not completely ludicrous thinking. And if he can make that change, the Patriots will get more flashing headlines and breaking news stories, but this time for the right reasons.
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)