By: Steve Balestrieri
With the Patriots season in the books for 2013, this is the time to give a final look at how the team played by position and how the team may look to improve in 2014. This was one of the more enjoyable teams to watch during the Bill Belichick era as with so many new, young faces it indeed was an over-achieving bunch.
The Patriots weren’t even picked to win their division by many of the experts this summer but were able to win 12 games, secure a bye and advance to the AFC Championship game for the third season in a row.
The Patriots offense went through some massive changes in 2013, with key components gone or missing. Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead were not on the field at the beginning of the season. Shane Vereen was lost on opening weekend, setting the stage for a completely different looking crew on the field.
And yet when the dust settled, the team was #3 in the most important stat for offenses…scoring so kudos go to Brady, Belichick and Josh McDaniels for getting it done.
So here are my final grades by position for the offense, we’ll post up the defense tomorrow and feel free to chime in with your own thoughts.
Tom Brady played every snap for the New England offense this season, the first time that has happened in his career. While many continue to point as his decline in skills and use 2013 as a springboard for their arguments stating that his numbers were far below his normal average, consider this:
Once Rob Gronkowski returned from numerous surgeries and he shook the rust off for the two games, the next five games with a healthy Gronk in the lineup Brady’s numbers were 147 for 216 (68%) for 1861 yards, 12 touchdowns and 3 Interceptions, good for a QB rating of 107.4 and the team averaged 34 points during that stretch.
Ryan Mallett provided back-up duties and never saw the field in 2013, and his name continues to be bandied about as trade fodder although I consider that possibility remote.
Outlook: The team may still draft an eventual replacement for Brady who will turn 37 in 2014 but for the foreseeable future, he remains entrenched as the starter.
The New England running backs had their ups and downs, especially with ball security but overall had a very solid season with the Pats ending up with the #9 rushing attack in the NFL. Stevan Ridley and LaGarrette Blount provided a nice 1-2 punch and each finished with nearly identical numbers (773, and 772 yards respectively).
Stevan Ridley had ball security issues but is still a big part of the Patriots running game.
(USA TODAY Images)
Shane Vereen suffered a broken wrist in the opener and returned later in the season having some very good momTents out of the backfield. James Develin played very consistently as the Pats brought back a fullback into the offense. Brandon Bolden is a depth player at this point.
Outlook: I think the team will look to re-sign Blount who is a free agent to a team friendly deal and stand pat for 2014. A healthy Vereen will go a long way into providing more balance to an already good group.
There was a massive amount of turnover in the Patriots wide receiving core in 2013, Brandon Lloyd was cut, Wes Welker left via free agency and the team brought in three rookies, as well as free agent Danny Amendola. Not surprisingly they struggled to get on the same page as Brady early in the season, then all struggled with injuries down the stretch.
Julian Edelman was the one constant in 2013 having a breakout year with over 100 catches and 1000 yards. He was outstanding, doing the dirty work inside and over the middle. Amendola severely hurt his groin in the opener and played hurt all season. His numbers were a bit disappointing considering the price tag the team paid in.
Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce all had their struggles and big moments and performed like ….rookies. With improved health in 2014, they should improve their production and consistency. Veteran Austin Collie contributed at a couple of points in 2013.
Julian Edleman had a breakout season in 2013.
(USA TODAY Images)
Outlook: The team needs to re-sign Edelman and add a veteran presence (rumors persist about Emmanuel Sanders) to further compliment this group. They also have T.J. Moe and Mark Harrison waiting to compete next season as well. Staying healthy is a big part of what this position needs most in 2014.
As an added note, many fans and writers are clamoring for “more weapons” for Brady ala 2007 and I keep hearing Larry Fitzgerald’s name thrown about. Fitz is slated to earn $12 million in 2014 and has already stated he is not taking a pay cut. One look at the Patriots salary cap situation with the dead money tied to the Hernandez contract makes that possibility very remote.
While another established veteran receiver is needed, the team really needs a second year of development from this season’s rookie class and for them to stay healthy. Harrison is an intriguing prospect who can bring size (6’3, 230) and physicality to the table much like an Anquan Boldin does for SF, another name being tossed about that the team can’t afford this season.
For a team going into 2013 that was supposed to lean heavily upon its two young tight ends, the Patriots were dealt a pair of unexpected blows. Rob Gronkowski needed back surgery in June and then Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder.
Once Gronkowski returned for seven games before being lost again to IR for a knee injury, the offense took off. Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan did a solid job of blocking which is their strength, but not much in the passing game.
Outlook: The Patriots need to add some pieces to the position considering Gronkowski may not be ready for the start of the 2014 season thru free agency or the draft and possibly both. Hoomanawanui should return as well. But for a team that relies upon its tight ends as targets in the passing game, look for them to target someone in the flex role that Hernandez filled.
The team lost positional coach George Godsey to the Texans on Weds. Godsey had been with the team since 2011 and will be re-united with Bill O’Brien, with whom he’s been very close to. So this move doesn’t rate as much of a surprise.
This unit will be without Coach Dante Scarnecchia for the first time in 30 years as the Pats long-time coach announced his retirement on January 22. But with all of the starters returning and some added depth pieces in place, this unit uncharacteristically struggled much of the time in 2013.
Injuries didn’t help matters as RT Sebastian Vollmer was lost for the season with a knee injury and LT Nate Solder missed time with concussions. Marcus Cannon stepped in played well at RT, although LG Logan Mankins didn’t have his normal stellar season.
Tom Brady was put under pressure much more than was normal for this group and although the run blocking was very good for much of the year, this is a unit that may see some changes.
Outlook: The team is still set at tackle, Vollmer should return healthy and Solder is a very solid Pro-Bowl type protector for Brady’s blind side. Cannon and swing tackle Will Svitek (if re-signed) provide plenty of depth. The interior needs some injection of youth. Dan Connolly may find himself fighting for a job and the team needs to either re-sign C Ryan Wendell or find a replacement and it may be time to start grooming Mankins’ replacement in the near future.
Logan Mankins had a down 2013.
(USA TODAY Images)
Look for the Patriots to draft some help this season, one other possibility is that the team may opt to move Cannon inside to guard, which may have happened in 2013 but injuries to Vollmer and Solder put that on hold.
As much flak as McDaniels gets about his play-calling and slow adjustments at times, one can’t argue with the fact that with an entirely new set of offensive weapons, the Patriots offense had to switch up on the fly more than once this season and finishing as the #3 scoring offense is an outstanding achievement.
It wasn’t an easy road; the many rookies struggled at times, suffered injuries and hit the inevitable rookie wall late in the season, but McDaniels kept everyone involved. The offense really hit its stride just after the mid-way point before losing Gronkowski to injury against Cleveland.
McDaniels put together a very good running game late in the season and it carried the team to the AFC Championship game. Rumors persist about his leaving for the Cleveland head coaching position but I think he’ll return in 2014.
Offensive MVP: Brady
Honorable Mention: Edelman