Know Your Foe Preview: Scouting the New England Patriots’ Offseason

Michael Nania with an overview of the New England Patriots offseason and projections for their 2018 season…

Coming this regular season, I will be hosting a weekly podcast centered around the dissection of the New York Jets’ opponent each week; featuring guests from the opposing perspective, in-depth looks into opposing teams’ strengths and weaknesses on film, compelling statistical nuggets, matchups to watch out for, and plenty more! To preview the show, each week leading up to the season I’ll recap the offseason of one of the Jets’ opponents; this week, we look at the rival New England Patriots.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS:

Franchise Outlook – 

Perhaps more than ever, the football world wonders with legitimate reason if the Patriots dynasty is showing its first cracks. After coming just short of a second straight Super Bowl win, the Pats have experienced rumblings of internal dysfunction and have lost quite a few impact contributors from a 2017 roster that already seemed incomplete, especially defensively.

The end has to come eventually. As the old cliche says, Father Time is undefeated. However, until the Patriots actually show those signs of decline on the field over a long stretch, it is foolish to bet against them. New England has not had a losing record since 2000 and has not won less than twelve games since 2009. They have advanced to the AFC Championship Game every year since falling to the Jets in the 2010-11 playoffs, and have not missed the playoffs with Tom Brady at the helm since 2002.

This thing is surely much closer to the finish line than the starting line. However, we won’t know when that finish comes until it actually does. The Patriots are Super Bowl favorites yet again; and that is very difficult to quibble with.

2017 Strengths and Weaknesses –

Positives:

Offensive:

  • 1st in total yards and yards per drive (394.2 per game, 36.1 per drive).
  • 2nd in points per game (28.6) and 1st in points per drive (2.61)
  • 2nd in total passing yards (276.1 per game) & 5th in net passing yards per attempt (7.1)
  • 10th in total rushing yards (118.0 per game) & 12th in rushing yards per attempt (4.2)
  • 2nd fewest turnovers (12)
  • 10th in third down conversion rate (40.6%)
  • 5th in red zone touchdown rate (60.0%)
  • 4th in field goal percentage (92.5%)

Defensive:

  • 5th in fewest points per game allowed (18.5) & 6th in points per drive allowed (1.60)
  • 1st in worst opponent average starting position (24.8 yard line)
  • 4th in red zone touchdown rate allowed (43.8%)
  • 4th in punt return average allowed (4.2)
  • 5th in kick return average allowed (18.9)

Negatives:

Offensive:

  • 18th in punt return average (8.2) – This is really nitpicking. It is the only offensive category (if you want to consider it one) I could find where the Pats ranked below average.

Defensive:

  • 30th in total passing yards allowed (251.3 per game), 20th in net passing yards per attempt allowed (6.4)
  • 31st in rushing yards per attempt allowed (4.7).
  • 30th in plays per drive allowed (6.1)
  • 31st in yards per drive allowed (34.0)
  • 25th in takeaways (18)
  • 29th in total yards allowed (366 per game)
  • 21st in third down defense (39.4% conversion rate allowed)

Draft – 

R1, #23 Isaiah Wynn, OT, Georgia – A versatile and productive offensive lineman at Georgia. Played left tackle in college with exceptional grading and protection rates, but was projected by many as a guard due to his undersized frame. However, Patriots’ need at tackle could lead him to stick there.

R1, #31: Sony Michel, RB, Georgia – A highly skilled, smart, versatile, and quick running back if not a Saquon Barkley-esque workout warrior. I was surprised to see him go round one, but less so after seeing Rashaad Penny go to Seattle earlier in the round. Michel is a perfect fit for what the Patriots do. He should slide into a similar role that Dion Lewis had and will likely excel.

R2, #56: Duke Dawson, CB, Florida – Smart, tough, physical slot corner with good speed to boot. Considered a strong value with the chance to contribute right away.

R5, #143: JaWhaun Bentley, LB, Purdue –  The Pats started the day with two second rounders and a third rounder, but did a ton of wheeling and dealing to net one extra 2018 pick, a 2019 second rounder from Chicago, and 49ers right tackle Trent Brown.

Bentley is a classic thumping middle linebacker hailed by PFF as the nation’s highest graded run defender, but projects poorly in coverage.

R6, #178: Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State – Like Bentley, a strong thumping middle linebacker.

R6, #210: Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami (FL) – A 2017 third-team All-ACC pick with 55 catches for 679 yards and 9 touchdowns in addition to a 15.9 punt return average. At 5’9, 184, this guy looks every bit like a classic Pats receiver. Let the Edelman, Welker, and Amendola comparisons fly.

R7, #219: Danny Etling, QB, LSU – The Pats are weak at the quarterback position, and get a much-needed upgrade in Etling. He should have a phenomenal chance at overtaking Brady.

Kidding aside, he is almost a Josh Allen-lite. “NFL arm,” “looks the part” are the positives you’ll see, but just doesn’t have adequate mechanics, feel, or production.

R7, #243: Keion Crossen, CB, Western Carolina – Unheralded, very small slot corner. Special teams potential.

R7, #250: Ryan Izzo, TE, Florida State – Profile seems impressive for a seventh round pick. Very good size coupled with strong blocking reputation in spite of limited receiving production.

Biggest instant threat to the Jets? – I like some of the moves the Pats made at the top of the draft. I think Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel will both play regularly from the start. Dawson has a chance to as well.

If I were to pick one player to be an instant threat to the Jets, it has to be Sony Michel. The Patriots have caused destruction with players like Michel for years, specifically against a Jets team that still consistently struggles with covering running backs. Avery Williamson, a solid cover LB in spite of his differing reputation, could help with that (great piece on TOJ here from Joe Blewett highlighting Williamson). However, Williamson figures to take Demario Davis’ old Mike spot, and primary cover duties at linebacker still seem to belong to Darron Lee. Can he take a big step forward? If not, I fear Michel will do big things against the Jets.

Free Agency/Trades:

Major trades:

  • Traded WR Brandin Cooks and a 4th round pick (#136) to the Los Angeles Rams for their 1st round (#23) and 6th round (#198) picks
  • Traded 2019 3rd round pick to Cleveland for 5th round pick (#159) and DT Danny Shelton.
  • Traded 5th round pick (#159) to Oakland for WR/KR Cordarrelle Patterson and a 6th round pick (#210)
  • Traded 6th round pick (#205) to Cleveland for 7th round pick (#219) and CB Jason McCourty.

Notable losses:

  • WR Danny Amendola, signed with Miami, 2 years, $12 million: Amendola, now 32, was a key piece of the Patriots offense. He only averaged 34.5 yards and 0.17 touchdowns per game as a Patriot in the regular season (2,383 yards and 12 touchdowns total), but in the playoffs he boosted that to 54.5 yards and 0.46 touchdowns (709 yards and 6 touchdowns).
  • CB Malcolm Butler, signed with Tennessee, 5 years, $61 million: Butler took advantage of the spotlight gained by his 2014 Super Bowl-winning pick and rode that wave to becoming the biggest-name defender on the team. He might have never been a shutdown man-cover corner, but he was very strong in their scheme. We’ll find out if he was just another pawn in Bill Belichick’s chess match, or if the Pats defense will suffer even more after losing its best corner.
  • RB Dion Lewis, signed with Tennessee, 4 years, $20 million: Lewis has battled injuries throughout his career and over half of his career carries came in 2017, but when he has been on the field he has shown tantalizing ability, however small the sample size may be. He owns a robust career YPC average of 4.8, never dipping below 4.4 in a season. He also has 88 career receptions with 5 receiving touchdowns; in 2015, he averaged 55.4 receiving yards per game. In 2017, finally getting a featured role, he compiled 1,110 scrimmage yards (69 per game) with 9 total touchdowns and a 5.0 YPC average. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots look to replicate this production.
  • LT Nate Solder, signed with New York Giants, 4 years, $62 million: Key loss for the New England offensive line, as the Pats’ six-year starter at left tackle bolted to the Meadowlands. Solder had a down year in 2017 but was still solid and has been consistently good throughout his career. Backup LaAdrian Waddle, who grades out very poorly at PFF, is currently slotted to take Solder’s place, but we’ll see if that holds.
  • Bill Belichick has drawn a lot of Emperor Palpatine comparisons over the years. His apprentice, Josh McDaniels, channeled his inner Darth Vader when he followed in his master’s steps by pulling out of his commitment to become the Colts’ head coach.  Matt Patricia, however, turned in his red baseball cap and Patriots pencil to become the Lions head coach. The Pats reportedly will not be hiring a DC, turning play calling over to linebackers coach Brian Flores. Flores is a Brooklyn native who has been with the Pats organization since 2004.
  • TE Martellus Bennett and OLB James Harrison retired.

Notable additions:

  • DE Adrian Clayborn, signed from Atlanta, 2 years, $12 million: Clayborn posted 6 of his career high 9.5 sacks in one game last year, but that shouldn’t cloud the fact that he had a strong pass rushing season. He compiled 54 total pressures for a pass-rushing productivity that ranked 4th among free agent edge defenders, via PFF.
  • RB Jeremy Hill, signed from Cincinnati, 1 year, $1.5 million: Hill will compete in a crowded RB room. He has strong power conversion numbers over his career, but is coming off of a poor 2017 that saw his playing time cut drastically, and has not come close to matching the efficiency of his 2014 rookie year.
  • WR Jordan Matthews, signed from Buffalo, 1 year, $1 million: Matthews comes in on a flier. The Pats are thin at receiver, so the talented former second-round pick could easily win a starting role. He is coming off of a Buffalo campaign where he played only 10 games and in those games averaged only 28 yards per game with one touchdown, grading 114th out of 117 receivers at PFF.

Most damaging loss? – Brandin Cooks. The Pats nonchalantly dumped their best playmaker for about the same price they paid to get him. Cooks is a really, really good all-around receiver who compliments his deep speed with a great array of complimentary tools (a great ceiling comp for Robby Anderson). Cooks is averaging 68.0 receiving yards per game over his career with a 9.19 yards per target average – one of only five players to do that since 2014 (with Gronkowski, Jones, Hilton, Brown). The Pats’ current wide receiver core features Chris Hogan, Jordan Matthews, and a 31-year old Edelman coming off of a missed season. Cooks, still only 24, could have given this group far more stability.

Solder could also be costly. Left tackle is often considered one of the four “premium” positions, so we’ll see if the loss of a mainstay has a negative domino effect.

Lewis’ efficiency is hard to replicate, but the Pats have an impressive stable at RB with Michel, James White, and Mike Gillislee.

I don’t think Butler will be a very costly loss. I was never a huge fan of his game and the Patriots excel at playing a bend-but-don’t-break defense, as you clearly see in the statistical section above. I think letting him go was a strong cost-efficiency move from New England. PFF has him tagged for 6 TDs allowed in 2017 and 21 over his career.

Most threatening free agency/trade addition to the Jets? – I can’t pick one in particular, but I think Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn could both be problems for the Jets offense. I think the Jets’ tackles, in particular Brandon Shell and his reserve Brent Qvale, really struggled against 4-3 defensive ends in the pass game. The Jets really need to see progression from Shell to combat the edge pass rush.

Shelton is a stout run-stopping tackle. His former teammate, Isaiah Crowell, figures to be the Jets’ feature back. As a primarily between-the-tackles runner, we could see quite a few meetings between the two when these teams collide. New Jets center Spencer Long shouldn’t have as much trouble in the run game as Wesley Johnson did, but Long certainly has had a better track record as a pass protector than run blocker. We’ll see if Long has made strides with his run blocking to move towards becoming a more complete center.

Also watch out for Cordarrelle Patterson. The Jets’ kick return defense ranked 8th last year, but Patterson is the most prolific returner in the game today – and maybe ever. He has returned 153 career kicks for 5 touchdowns (most among active players and 8th all-time) and an average of 30.2 yards (2nd all-time behind Hall of Famer Gale Sayers). He has had three seasons averaging at least 30 yards per return on 25+ returns, the only player with that many such seasons in league history. The Patriots consistently field one of the league’s most positively impactful special teams units. Patterson could be dangerous over there.

Jets Connections – 

  • Former Jet David Harris retired after seeing limited playing time in 2017 with New England.

Synopsis –

 I will not be so unwise as to predict against the Patriots winning the AFC East and claiming a first-round bye. However, the difference between the Patriots’ losses and additions this offseason seem stark. They lost their starting LT and RB, as well as their #1 and #2 WRs and #1 CB.

Despite all of that, most of their losses have been on the offensive side of the ball, where Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have perpetually proven they can concoct an elite offense with a bunch of trees if that is what they need to make due with. The Pats’ defense is seldom elite individually (they’ve ranked top ten in fewest yards allowed only twice in the past nine seasons), but they consistently rank significantly better in scoring defense due to their red zone dominance and the humongous buffer their offense always provides (they’ve ranked outside the top ten in scoring defense only once since 2006).

The cracks are starting to show. Friction is brewing on the inside. A lot of talent has fled Massachusetts throughout the offseason. The end is getting devastatingly and enticingly close. Brady and Belichick are still in navy blue and red, though. The Pats are going to keep reigning until one of them flashes clear signs that their run is over; but that day is in clearer view than ever.

Stay tuned throughout the offseason for weekly in-depth breakdowns on the Jets’ 2018 opponents, and make sure to listen in to the Know Your Foe podcast every week during the 2018 season, launching later this year! Follow me on Twitter @Michael_Nania for updates and everything Jets!

Author: Michael Nania

You can follow me on Twitter @Michael_Nania. I'll be hosting the weekly Jets opponent preview podcast, Know Your Foe, starting with the 2018 regular season. I've been writing for Turn On The Jets since January 2018, and you can also check out more of my work on the Jets over at Gang Green Nation.