This is the second of a two-part series examining the New England Patriots’ post-draft needs heading into the 2017 NFL season (part one examining the defensive needs can be found here). The Patriots have been uncharacteristically active in free agency and through trades this offseason despite coming off a season where they won Super Bowl 51.
The Patriots made a handful of moves on offense this offseason trading with the Saints for explosive wide receiver Brandin Cooks, trading for the former Colts tight end Dwayne Allen, signing unrestricted free agent running back Rex Burkhead away from Cincinnati and stealing restricted free agent running back Mike Gillislee from Buffalo for a fifth-round draft pick.
With the 2017 NFL Draft adding offensive line depth, the Patriots have stocked their roster with impressive depth on both sides of the ball. With their large undrafted free agent class of young and hungry players the Patriots will have a number of position battles this summer throughout the offense.
With the offseason workouts and organized team activities already started and rookie minicamps in the rearview mirror, the Patriots will be busy before the mandatory minicamp starts during the first week in June. Before the players are all together on the field in front of the media and on the practice fields, it is the perfect to review the upcoming positional battles.
Part two of two finishes with a look at the offense:
Newly Added/Retained: Brandin Cooks (Trade), Devin Street (UFA), Austin Carr (UDFA), Cody Hollister (UDFA)
Departed: Michael Floyd
The New England Patriots surprised most NFL Analysts by trading for the explosive Brandin Cooks from New Orleans in exchange for the last pick of first round in this year’s draft and a swap of mid-round draft picks. In essence, this trade will come down to be remembered as the Patriots trading the rights of tackle Ryan Ramczyk for Cooks.
After the lack of a top-flite wide receiver able to shake double-coverage was exposed against Seattle in week ten (no touchdowns passes and only two receptions by wide receivers other than Julian Edelman), Denver in week 14 (50% completion rate and only 188 yards passing), against the Texans in the Divisional round of the 2016 NFL Playoffs (less than 50% completion rate and two interceptions) and again against the Falcons’ fast defense in the first half of the Super Bowl. Against some of the better defenses with strong cornerback play and speed, the Patriots were unable to consistently move the ball through the air on offense in 2016.
With the only three potential impact wide receivers flying off the draft board on the first ten picks of the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Patriots’ front office made an intelligent decision to trade for Cooks to be the true number one wide receiver the New England offense has been missing since Randy Moss punched his ticket out of town. With no free agent wide receiver able to step-in and make an instant impact like the 23-year old Cooks, the Patriots went out and stole a legitimate number one wide receiver from a Saints team desperate to add draft picks.
The numbers for Cooks jump off the page: in 2015 he had 84 receptions for 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns; Last season he added another 78 catches for 1,173 yards and eight touchdowns (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted). Cooks’ ability to stretch the field was on display last year as his yards per reception jumped from 13.5 yards to 15.0 yards.
The Patriots will also bring back their top four wide receivers from 2016 as Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell each are made better with the addition of Cooks. Cooks should take coverage away from Edelman and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski with his ability to get open in medium-to-deep routes. With safeties having to drop deeper there will be more space in the middle of the field making Edelman and Gronkowski’s job easier.
Edelman showed no sign of a Wes Welker-like decline as he played all 16 games and had 98 catches for 1,106 yards. Edelman is clearly still a favorite of quarterback Tom Brady and is able to get open against almost any defender. Newcomers Hogan (17.9 yards per catch) and Mitchell (32 receptions for 401 yards as a rookie) gave New England a pair of outside receivers that allowed the offense to stretch the field horizontally throughout the 2016 season.
Amendola came up big in the playoffs again and returns and becomes injury insurance to Edelman and primarily a returner on special teams (if he makes the roster--which is not a sure thing). Hogan and Mitchell may be battling each other for the outside wide receiver spot opposite of Cooks. However, both should also be able to get more single-coverage looks on the outside and increase their chances for a big play.
The addition of Cooks and reworking of Amendola’s contract squeezed-out Michael Floyd who looked poised to come back and contribute after a late season tryout last year. Floyd was scooped up off of waivers from the Cardinals following his arrest for extreme DUI. He had some big plays for the Patriots with a gutty catch and run for a touchdown and a huge block to spring Edelman against Miami.
Trying to break into this group is a veteran and a couple of undrafted free agents. Devin Street was in New England in the past for a short period and is likely just a camp body. Undrafted free agent Austin Carr was linked to the Patriots during the draft process and the lightning-quick slot receiver has a chance to carve out a role in 2018. Undrafted free agent Cody Hollister is a camp body who was likely signed to entice his twin brother Jacob Hollister to sign.
In summary, a very good wide receiver group just got a huge bump in talent. A top-ten receiver in Brandin Cooks added to the mix makes Julian Edelman arguably the best number two receiver in the NFL. Just four years removed from a terrible receiving unit in 2013, Brady has one of the deepest and most talented group of pass catchers of his career.
Newly Added/Retained: Dwayne Allen (Trade), Matt Lengel (ERFA), Jacob Hollister (UDFA)
Departed: Michael Williams, Rob Housler, Martellus Bennett
At tight end, the only thing that matters in New England is the health of All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski. There is not tight end with the hands, route-running, size, strength, quickness, simpatico relationship with his quarterback between the white lines and speed of Gronkowski. Only his ability to stay healthy through 16 games has slowed down “Gronk”.
Gronkowski was on pace for 50 receptions 1,080 yards before his back injury shut down his season. The evolution of Gronkowski last season was his big play ability. Always a threat coming off the line of scrimmage and in the middle of the field, Gronkowski
Last season the Patriots scooped up some “Gronk Insurance” by trading for Martellus Bennett. Bennett was a free agent and clearly not staying another season in the shadow of Gronkowski. Bennett re-established his free agency value in New England by catching 55 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns while playing injured much of the season.
WIth Bennett landing in Green Bay, the Patriots struck quickly trading a late round draft pick for for Colts tight end Dwayne Allen. Allen is a top-flite blocker who has soft hands and is a threat in the red zone. With Rob Gronkowski seemingly on track to return at full health, the Patriots should be solid with those two two tight ends at the top of the depth chart.
New England has already started working down the number of tight ends on the roster heading into training camp. Matt Lengel is back and is a big project who could stick with an eye for 2018. New England has already released veteran Rob Housler. Housler was signed to a futures contract but did not make it to training camp. Michael Williams, a solid blocker in 2015, was on injured reserve last year and was cut this summer.
Tight end @Jacob Hollister is an intriguing prospect who signed as an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming. A surprise to go undrafted, Hollister is a move tight end in the vein of Aaron Hernandez who gives the offense a different type of tight end to deploy. Only 239 pounds, the six-foot-four Hollister showed the ability to stretch the middle of the field and flashed soft hands.
As always, the only important question at this position is whether Gronkowski is healthy (he is) and if there is a solid backup (there is). Allen is a shade below Bennett in talent but a huge upgrade over overmatched blockers of the past like Michael Hoomanawanui. Remember, the Patriots won a Super Bowl without their top weapon and now have a true number one wide receiver added to the offense along with a healthy Gronkowski.
Newly Added/Retained: Rex Burkhead (UFA), Brandon Bolden (UFA), Glenn Gronkowski (Future Contract), Mike Gillislee (RFA), LeShun Daniels Jr. (UDFA)
Departed: LeGarrette Blount, Tyler Gaffney
Need Level: Medium-High
New England’s running back situation was completely reworked as LeGarrette Blount was shown the door and the Patriots scooped up two backs who were the most effective rushers in the league: Football Outsiders ranked Mike Gillislee the tops in the NFL in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average--basically a ranking of value per play) for running backs with 100 rushes or more and Rex Burkheadas number one in DVOA for running backs with less than 100 rushes.
New England let running back LeGarrette Blount go in free agency but not before they placed a rare free agent tender on him. This potentially nets a compensatory pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and may have deterred rival Baltimore from signing him and potentially losing a compensatory pick of their own.
Blount and his 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns are seemingly tough to replace but his 3.9 yards per rushing attempt was just pedestrian. It was clear New England was ready to move on from Blount in the Super Bowl as his costly fumble and ineffective rushing against the speedy Falcons’ defense (11 rushes for 31 yards) almost cost the Patriots the game.
His ineffectiveness against strong rush defenses was on display during the season as he struggled against Buffalo (31 carries for 97 yards over two games), Seattle (21 rushes for 69 yards), the Jets (31 rushes for 117 yards over two games), and Denver (17 rushes for 31 yards in week 15). Blount was a hammer, but not a true number one running back.
The Patriots also extended Super Bowl hero James White by locking up their top receiving back with a multi-year extension at a reasonable contract rate. White blossomed in the second half of the 2015 season when Dion Lewis was injured and carried that momentum into the 2016 season. White finished second on the team to Edelman in receptions with 60 receptions. He is a valuable runner and receiver who is basically a wide receiver lined-up in the backfield.
As if there are not enough weapons in the backfield, the Patriots are bringing the electric Dion Lewis back. Lewis missed the first half of the 2016 season and should be at full health at last in 2017.
The two backs New England added in free agency should be the top two rushers. Rex Burkhead had been buried in Cincinnati but gave a glimpse of his potential as his role grew down the stretch. Burkhead is just five-foot-ten but at 215 pounds is solid and can pound between the tackles if necessary. He has great hands and his pass-catching abilities on first and second down make him a great fit in New England.
The Patriots also added a restricted free agent from within the division going back to rob Buffalo’s roster for a second straight year and swiping Mike Gillislee for a late round draft pick. Gillislee opened Belichick’s eyes rushing for 30 yards and a 13 yard reception in week four and then rushing 12 times for 85 yards against the Patriots in week eight. He averaged 5.7 yards for the season and looks like a potential upgrade at running back.
The Patriots released promising depth back Tyler Gaffney this spring and picked up LeShun Daniels Jr. from Iowa to play in week four of the preseason. Daniels is a camp body and unlikely to make the roster with average speed and average production in college. Fullback James Develin added toughness in 2016 and is back. Glenn Gronkowski--a potential H-back with great bloodlines--is his only competition at the position.
The Patriots targeted the running back position as a spot to upgrade and have done so by adding the underrated Gillislee and Burkhead. Retaining White is a great move in finding a fair contract for a young role player before he gets to free agency. Blount--for all his gaudy touchdown stats--was average at best. In 2017 the running game should be a huge asset to the offense.
Newly Added/Retained: None
At quarterback the Patriots should have Tom Brady for all sixteen games. At the age of 40, Brady has continued to improve since a lackluster 2013 season and first four games of 2014. Only Warren Moon and Brett Favre have continued to perform in recent NFL history after turning 40 years old.
Of course, neither of them had the season Brady did coming off his ridiculous four game “deflategate” suspension. He capped an MVP caliber season with the greatest Super Bowl performance by a quarterback in NFL history. Brady has showed no sign of slowing down with age and continues to perform at a high level.
The Patriots retained back-up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo rather than trading him for draft picks. He enters the final year of his rookie deal with a game-and-a-half of great tape from his two starts to open the 2016 season. Garoppolo is capable of stepping in and running the New England offense without any change to the game plan (as he showed last season). Third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett is worth retaining as a project for the future and his play in the preseason will be closely watched for signs of growth.
What is scariest is that Brady is going into 2017 with his best group of complementary offensive weapons since 2007. New England added wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen and running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. A healthy Rob Gronkowski, receiving running backs James White and Dion Lewis, and returning wide receivers Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola give Brady a deep and explosive offense in 2017.
Newly Added/Retained: Antonio Garcia (3rd round pick), Conor McDermott (6th round pick), Cameron Fleming (RFA), Chris Barker (Future Contract), Jamil Douglas (Future Contract), Chase Farris (Future Contract), Cole Croston (UDFA), Max Rich (UDFA) and Jason King (UDFA)
Departed: Tre’ Jackson; Sebastian Vollmer
Need Level: Medium-Low
The Patriots lost two offensive linemen who were unable to suit-up in 2016 as Sebastian Vollmer was released and retired and 2015 fourth-round draft pick Tre’ Jackson was let go. Jackson had started nine games as a rookie and was expected to be back and competing at training camp this summer so his release was a bit of a surprise. Vollmer had lost his job to Marcus Cannon as Cannon was extended after a great 2016.
The Patriots kept back-up tackle Cameron Fleming (a restricted free agent) to compete with veteran LaAdrian Waddle for the active swing tackle role each week. New England also added two draft picks at tackle with Antonio Garcia--a 3rd round draft pick--and Conor McDermott--a 6th round pick--give the Patriots a pair of athletic tackle projects who need to add mass and hone their fundamentals under offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
McDermott may have to pass through waivers and stick to the practice squad or be stashed on injured reserve with the “Foxboro Flu” with the depth throughout the roster. Fleming was active more than Waddle due to his ability to come in as a sixth offensive lineman (tight end eligible) and use his devastating run blocking skills to make space in short yardage situation. Waddle is a likely cut unless he beats out Fleming.
With right tackle Marcus Cannon already extended the Patriots will likely have left tackle Nate Solder play out his contract and then decide on what their ceiling will be when attempting to re-sign him. Solder is massive and solid at left tackle, but his lack of agility and suspect footwork at times makes him vulnerable against speed rushers. Garcia is in line to develop as the heir apparent at left tackle in 2018 or 2019.
Undrafted free agent tackles Cole Croston and Max Rich were also added to the roster. Croster could be tried at guard but is likely a camp body, but Rich is a physical specimen who mauled weak competition at Harvard. At six-foot-seven and 310 pounds, Rich is raw but has great athleticism. He is a potential practice squad keeper.
The interior offensive line remains a work in progress for the third straight season. The Patriots have last season’s third round draft pick Joe Thuney at left guard while 2015 fourth round draft pick Shaquille Mason has a stranglehold on the right guard spot. David Andrews recently signed an extension and returns for his third season at center. All three are solid if not spectacular.
Improved pass protection from the interior offensive line is a must from this unit going forward. Thuney should take a big step forward with another year of experience and Andrews is slightly undersized but tough as nails and fights to the whistle on each and every play. Mason is the best run-blocker of the bunch but needs to continue to hone his pass blocking and stand up to bull rushers inside.
Behind that young core in the middle New England has last season’s sixth round draft pick Ted Karras and a host of potential practice squad players. Croston, undrafted free agent Jason King, Chase Farris, Chris Barker, and Jamil Douglas are expected to compete for one or two practice squad spots in the preseason. Karras was solid as a backup inside and can play center in a pinch as well and has the inside track as the depth interior offensive lineman.
The drafting of two offensive tackles was with an eye on 2018 or 2019. The Patriots’ only weak link has been the offensive line and they are apparently banking on continued improvement from the holdovers. This puts a heavy burden on coach Dante Scarnecchia to extract every ounce of production from the current crew while developing young players for the future. However, as one of the best in the business, it is the challenge that pulled him out of retirement.