The NFL offseason is always full of surprises that cast doubt and intrigue on teams for the year to come, but the defending Super Bowl champions are often absent from those conversations, given the benefit of the doubt for their most recent successful run while others take aim at their throne.
However, due to the events of the 2015 offseason, that is not the case for the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots. Entering training camp, which began on Thursday for them, the Pats have plenty of questions to answer, highlighted by uncertainty at quarterback.
Coming off a magical and somewhat fortunate run to a Super Bowl XLIX victory — which produced the fourth championship in franchise history — the Pats didn’t have much time to bask in the afterglow. In March, New England was rocked by a large exodus from the championship team, particularly on defense. Then in May, the Patriots learned that quarterback Tom Brady will be suspended for the first four games of the season.
The franchise quarterback’s impending absence hangs over the Pats in several ways and has an effect on many of the questions facing the champs heading into their title defense season. Here are the five biggest questions they’ll have to answer entering the 2015 campaign:
CAN THEY WIN A COUPLE WITHOUT BRADY?
Like any team with a star quarterback, the hopes of winning football games for the New England Patriots hinge heavily on the play of their signal caller, in this case Tom Brady. So any length of time without Brady represents a significant blow to New England’s chances to win.
As it stands right now the Patriots will be without the quarterback for the first four games of 2015, after the NFL sat him down for a quarter of the season due to his role in deflategate. Brady appealed that suspension, but last Tuesday it was upheld by the league. Brady and his team of lawyers still may take legal action that could see him get on the field before Week 6. But for now, New England will have to conduct themselves as though they will be without their star signal caller through Week 5.
That puts the Patriots in a precarious position for the first month of the season and leaves us to wonder what their first four games look like without the reigning Super Bowl MVP?
Barring something unforeseen over the next month, New England will be starting Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback for those first four games of the season. Garoppolo has never started a game in his NFL career, but does have limited experience from last preseason and some late game regular season snaps. However he’ll be taking a tremendous step up to the starting role.
One thing the Patriots could do during those first four weeks to take some pressure off Garoppolo is run the ball more. It’s a strategy that worked with great success for New England at times last year, on their drive to the Super Bowl. But as a unit, the Patriots running game was somewhat underutilized last season. Brady’s absence could allow them to establish something offensively that would be extremely beneficial to the team down the stretch.
However they plan to attack their opponents, the schedule for those four games is manageable. New England kicks off with a tough Thursday nighter against Pittsburgh but Garoppolo will then have more time to prepare for a Week 2 battle with the Bills. In Week 3 the Jaguars come to Foxboro and then the Patriots get their bye, after which they head to Dallas to take on the Cowboys, giving Garoppolo an extra week to prepare for another tough test.
The performance of the New England defense will be as key as anything to the outcomes from the first month of the season. The Pats face two prolific offenses in Pittsburgh and Dallas and another in Buffalo that has vastly improved with some new personnel and new coaches. A Brady-less New England team will have trouble winning a shootout, but if their defense can keep them in games, they’ll have a shot to emerge victorious in those contests.
If Jimmy and the Pats can get through those four games without Brady at 2-2, the same record they carried through their first four games last year, they’ll be in fine shape to make a playoff run once Brady returns.
IS GAROPPOLO READY FOR PRIME TIME?
The Patriots do have a pretty solid Plan B in place with Jimmy Garoppolo. Although he likely won’t come close to matching the level of play New England has come to expect out of Brady, particularly in the first four starts of his career, he should give them a decent chance to have success.
Unlike other teams similarly positioned with star signal callers, New England has long been trying to prepare for a post-Brady life. The franchise has consistently drafted quarterbacks, developed them and then traded them as Brady remained steady through his 30s. The latest in that line of potential successors is Garoppolo, a 2014 second round pick. Garoppolo was highly touted out of Eastern Illinois University and became the fifth quarterback taken in the 2014 NFL Draft when the Patriots selected him with the 62nd overall pick.
But is Garoppolo ready to take command of a contender and put them in position to succeed?
In four years at Eastern Illinois University, Garoppolo put up gaudy numbers, breaking several records held by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo in the process. But while Romo carved a path from Eastern Illinois to the NFL, he did so rather surprisingly as an undrafted free agent and it took him more than two full years of development to be ready to contribute at the NFL level.
However, every quarterback is different and there is some reason to believe the young signal caller might be ready for this. Though just a rookie last season, Garoppolo did get some valuable experience behind Brady. Only one player, Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel, attempted more passes last preseason than the 79 thrown by Garoppolo and he completed those passes at a 58.2 percent clip. He also finished second only to fellow rookie Zach Mettenberger of the Tennessee Titans in preseason passing yards. So he got plenty of reps.
Garoppolo also has all the tools to be successful. He’s similar in size to Brady, has a strong arm and solid throwing motion. Though he didn’t get to show it last year, he’s much more mobile than Brady and could be a threat to take off and run if a pass play breaks down. He needs to become a better decision maker and improve his accuracy, but those are two areas where there is room for improvement in most young quarterbacks.
The Pats saw enough from him last preseason to make him Brady’s primary backup during the regular season and he saw action in six games, including extensive opportunities late in a blowout loss to the Chiefs in Week 4 and a Week 17 game against the Bills that was of little meaning to the Patriots. That experience could prove vital to his potential for success this season. He’ll have to expand on it during training camp and preseason to play at the level the Patriots will need him to. It’s also likely that New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will incorporate some things into the playbook to make him feel more comfortable, and perhaps getting him moving around more, things that wouldn’t suit Brady.
New England also added quarterback Matt Flynn to the fold this offseason as an insurance policy. Flynn, a seven-year veteran, is a worthy backup candidate and has made seven career starts. But barring an injunction that gets Brady on the field, it would be a shock if anyone other than Garoppolo is starting the first four games of the season for the Patriots.
WHO COMPRISES THIS YEAR’S RUNNING BACK COMMITTEE?
Beginning the season with an inexperienced starter like Garoppolo under center may force the Patriots to renew and stick to their commitment to the running game through the early stages of the season.
But the personnel toting the rock in New England is once again undergoing some turnover. Gone are two of the team’s top three leading rushers last season, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, replaced by more late round draft picks and cheap free agent pickups.
So how will the carries be split in New England this time around?
The depth chart heading into the 2015 season is led by LeGarrette Blount — who emerged as the team’s workhorse back late in the season and through the playoffs, after he was released by the Steelers and re-signed with the Patriots. But Blount will miss the first game of the season, against his former team, due to a suspension of his own for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. That leaves a mess of backs as candidates to receive Week 1 carries.
Tops among them is Jonas Gray, who burst onto the scene in Week 11 last year with a 37-carry, 201-yard performance against the Colts, then flamed out just as quickly. Gray actually finished the season as New England’s leading rusher thanks to that Week 11 effort. That’s despite the fact that he ended the season in coach Bill Belichick’s doghouse because he missed meetings the week after his big game against the Colts. Following the incident, Gray received touches in just five of the final nine games, including only one playoff appearance, and he totaled just 24 carries after that Week 11 outburst.
If Gray can earn Belichick’s trust back — and his presence on the roster this season seems to indicate that he has — he could be in line for a big role, particularly in the season opener. However, it remains to be seen how much action he’ll see when Blount returns, as the two players have similar skillsets and running styles that don’t necessarily play well together as part of a committee.
The Patriots would ideally utilize several running styles in their committee to change the pace and keep each defense off balance. Behind Gray on the depth chart there are a few players who can do just that in Travaris Cadet, James White and Dion Lewis. Cadet will likely fill the role vacated by Vereen’s departure. The former Saints running back didn’t get many rushing opportunities during his three seasons in New Orleans, but he was a target in the passing game, especially last year when he hauled in 38 passes and totaled nearly 300 yards receiving.
White could also help the Pats as a pass catcher out of the backfield, though he is a more complete back than the aforementioned Cadet. White was drafted by the Pats in the fourth round in 2014 and drew a lot of attention during camp last year, but only ended up playing in three games with nine total carries. However he’s in line to take a big step up this season and could fill the role vacated by Ridley’s departure. The Pats could also look to Lewis, the former University of Pittsburgh star, to fill one of the two roles previously filled by Vereen or Ridley. But it will be an uphill climb for Lewis as a newcomer who didn’t play a snap in the league last season.
New England also still has Brandon Bolden, who started two games for them last season and suited up for all 19 games. However Bolden got just 31 carries all year and his role seems to be as more of a special teamer than part of the running back rotation. The wild card here is Tyler Gaffney, a 2014 sixth round pick of the Panthers. Carolina released Gaffney after he suffered an injury in training camp and the Pats picked him up and stashed him on IR. He’s a long shot, but that’s never stopped a guy from coming out of nowhere and featuring prominently in the New England running game. Gaffney could be that guy this year.
For now at least, it appears that Blount will lead the way for the Pats once his suspension is complete, with several others getting opportunities to slide into different roles and make an impact throughout the season. But it’s anybody’s guess who will be lead runners for the Patriots at the end of the season, and that’s pretty much exactly how Bill Belichick likes it.
HOW DO THEY SOLVE THEIR CORNERBACK CONUNDRUM?
One of the major reasons the Patriots were able to climb back to the top of the NFL last season was the lockdown play of their secondary. But the defensive backfield in New England is also going to look a lot different this year after the departure of a pair of cornerbacks who were key to the team’s title run.
Both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner left the Patriots this offseason, Revis to sign with the team that drafted him, the division rival New York Jets, and Browner to sign a lucrative contract with the New Orleans Saints. The Pats then released cornerback Kyle Arrington, a six-year veteran who had started 56 games for them, including four last season.
The departures of those three players forced New England to retool the backend of their defense in short order and the results of their restructuring at the position will go a long way toward determining how successful the Pats can be on the defensive end in 2015.
New England’s secondary held down opposing passing attacks all season long in 2014 they rated third in the league in pass coverage, behind only Cleveland and Denver, according to Pro Football Focus. That contributed largely to their defense ranking sixth in the NFL overall according to PFF’s final rankings.
The Pats defensive backfield was even more stingy in the postseason, limiting opponents to just 217.3 yards per game, with six touchdowns allowed, five interceptions and quarterbacks completing at a 52.5 percent clip, the lowest among all 12 postseason teams. This was the case despite New England facing quarterbacks Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson on their road to a championship.
So how will the Patriots replicate that outstanding play on the backend of their defense with Revis and Browner gone?
The good news for New England is that they kept arguably the most important piece of their defensive backfield, not Revis, but free safety Devin McCourty.
McCourty has proven to be one of the best in the game at the position in short order, the type of safety that makes everyone in the secondary better because of the ground he covers and the risks his ability to do so allows his teammates to take. He graded out as the eighth ranked safety in the league last season according to Pro Football Focus and keeping him in the fold was a move New England had to make. The Patriots also have Patrick Chung returning after a tremendous bounceback season in 2014 to play alongside McCourty at strong safety.
Now it’s a matter of filling those holes at cornerback. The big name here is that of Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler. The undrafted rookie gained instant notoriety when he intercepted Russell Wilson in the end zone with the game on the line in Super Bowl XLIX to clinch a championship for the Patriots. Butler has continued to impress Pats coaches after his Super Bowl star turn and is expected to contribute heavily to the team’s secondary this season. However, as it currently stands, he is on the second team of New England’s depth chart at the cornerback position.
Ahead of him is another guy the Patriots are expecting to take a significant leap forward this year, Logan Ryan, a 2013 third round pick. Ryan has seen his role waver in two seasons with the Patriots. As a rookie he started seven games, hauled in five interceptions and logged 10 pass defensed. However he was pushed down the depth chart last season by the signings of Revis and Browner. He played in all 16 games, but started just six and finished with two interceptions and seven passes defensed. Despite the limited action, Ryan received a 5.1 pass coverage rating from PFF, ranking him in the Top 30 in the league, well ahead of Browner. Now Ryan steps into his most significant role yet, as one of the team expected starters at corner.
At the other cornerback position, the Patriots are giving an opportunity to former Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher. The Pats have a history of making something out of guys that don’t flourish in Philly, most recently Chung, so it’s of little surprise they took a chance here. Fletcher is not far removed from being an impact player over the first four years of his career with the St. Louis Rams, but endured a tough two-year stint in Philadelphia, capped by an embarrassing late season game against the Dallas Cowboys, when he was burned three times in man coverage for touchdowns by Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant. Still despite perception to the contrary, Fletcher actually graded out positively for the year at cornerback according to PFF, thanks in large part to his play against the run. With his ability against the run and Ryan’s ability against the pass, New England should have some balance in their secondary.
They also have quite a bit of depth entering camp. In addition to Butler, who only started one game for New England last year and who there is still much to learn about, the Pats have several other intriguing options. They like what they’ve seen so far from 2015 seventh round pick Darryl Roberts out of Marshall, as well as undrafted free agent Justin Green, who finished last season on New England’s practice squad. The veteran options include Robert McClain, who started six games and had two interceptions for the Falcons last year and eight year vet Tarrell Brown, who has started 56 games between stints in San Francisco and Oakland the last four years.
But the Pats are hoping it doesn’t come to turning to one of the middle-of-the-road veterans. They’re looking for Ryan and Butler to step up and Fletcher to bounce back to make fans quickly forget about last year’s dynamic championship duo.
HOW DO YOU FILL A 325-POUND HOLE UP FRONT?
The losses of Revis and Browner were huge ones, but New England’s biggest loss in terms of size was up front, where long-time defensive tackle Vince Wilfork will no longer fill the interior of the Patriots defensive line.
Wilfork’s name had been bandied about as a potential trade or cut candidate for several years, but the 11-year veteran came back every year as an anchor of the New England defense. After injuries cost him most of the 2013 campaign, Wilfork bounced back in 2014 to play in all 16 regular season games and all three playoff games, helping the Pats win a Super Bowl for the first time since his rookie year.
That ended up being the perfect way for Wilfork and the Patriots to bookend the defensive tackle’s tenure in New England. A month after the Pats hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, they decided to let Wilfork walk, declining his option and making him a free agent. He went on to sign with the Houston Texans, leaving a gaping hole in the Patriots defensive line.
So how do the Patriots go about filling that gap that Wilfork has occupied for so long?
One of the first to get a crack at it will be 2014 first round pick Dominique Easley, a talented interior lineman out of the University of Florida. Easley has all the ability to step in and be the dominant defensive presence the Patriots need, but he’ll have to prove he can stay on the field first. Easley has been plagued by knee injuries throughout his young career. He suffered ACL tears in both knees while at Florida, which caused his draft stock to plummet and allowed New England to scoop him up at the end of the first round. He did manage to make it back for the Pats in time for the regular season, but another knee injury in December brought an early end to his rookie campaign.
That injury wasn’t supposed to set Easley back coming into this season, but the Pats made the surprising move to place him on PUP at the start of camp. They noted then that the move was precautionary and he has since been removed from the list, but the situation bears watching.
If Easley struggles to get up to speed, it could open the door for 2015 first rounder Malcolm Brown. The University of Texas product was originally projected as a mid first round pick, but dropped to the end of the round where the Patriots were again waiting with open arms to beef up their defensive front after Wilfork’s departure. The versatile Brown played inside and outside on the defensive line at Texas and was highly touted entering the draft after leading the Longhorns in sacks and tackles. His drop in the draft was curious, but when he was selected his move to New England was noted as a draft day steal by the Patriots.
At 6-2, 320 lbs, Brown fits the size profile for filling Wilfork’s shoes better than the 285-pound Easley. But he’ll have to take quickly to the NFL game to get his chance to take over immediately.
At the outset of training camp, the Pats will first turn to a veteran, Alan Branch, who the team signed for depth purposes last offseason with Wilfork coming off an injury-plagued 2013 campaign. Because Wilfork remained healthy throughout the season in 2014, Branch played in just eight games for the Pats last year, including two starts, His impact was so limited that it’s hard to tell what he’d bring to the Patriots in that role.
It’s also likely that New England would rather one of their young first round picks to take hold of the role and allow Branch to shift back to the depth role he’s most useful in. Replacing a player as big in both size and impact as Wilfork is a big task, and it’s likely the 2015 Patriots will have to turn to multiple players to do it, as Wilfork was a force against the pass and the run. How the Patriots go about filling that hole left by the 11-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowler will have a significant impact on the performance of their defense throughout the season.
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