2016 NFL Offseason: New England Patriots

New England Patriots (Last Year: 12-4)

2016 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
RB Donald Brown, WR Chris Hogan, WR Nate Washington, TE Martellus Bennett, G Jonathan Cooper, DE Chris Long, NT Terrance Knighton, DE/LB Shea McClellin.
Early Draft Picks:
CB Cyrus Jones, G/OT Joe Thuney, QB Jacoby Brissett, DT Vincent Valentine, WR Malcolm Mitchell. Patriots Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
WR Brandon LaFell, TE Scott Chandler, DT Dominique Easley, DE/DT Akiem Hicks, NT Sealver Siliga, DE/OLB Chandler Jones, CB Leonard Johnson.

2016 New England Patriots Offense:
After a year and a half of senseless drama, Tom Brady has finally been suspended for Deflategate. He’ll miss the matchups against the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans and Bills, so Jimmy Garoppolo will have a tough time in three of those contests (vs. Dolphins should be relatively easy). A 2-2 result should be feasible though, given that New England once went 11-5 with Matt Cassel as the quarterback, and Garoppolo has more talent than Cassel could ever dream of.

What’s even better for the Patriots is that Brady is set up to have another terrific season. In fact, his age – 39 in August – is the only reason why he would regress. The front office added some talent around him this offseason to make sure that he would have a great chance of winning a fifth Super Bowl, something that no quarterback has ever done before.

Brady will be throwing to two new primary players. One is a receiver in Chris Hogan, who pretty much fits what Bill Belichick often looks for at the position. Hogan caught only 36 passes for 450 yards in 2016, but has flashed some potential. Remember that Wes Welker also posted meager numbers prior to his arrival in New England. The second new weapon is tight end Martellus Bennett. The Patriots really wanted to utilize a two-tight end attack with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but those plans went awry for obvious reasons. Scott Chandler was signed last offseason as a replacement for Hernandez, but that didn’t pan out because Chandler is a marginal talent. Bennett is much better, as he caught 90 passes in 2014 before dealing with an injury-plagued 2015 campaign. Bennett, just 29, should have several strong seasons remaining in the tank, and reports indicate that he and Brady have already developed a strong connection.

As for the rest of Brady’s arsenal, it remains the same with Gronkowski and Julian Edelman returning as the primary options. Gronkowski, despite his crazy partying, is still the best tight end in the NFL. Edelman, meanwhile, will be reliable again if he can stay on the field. Edelman is dealing with a foot injury, and there’s a chance he may not be ready for the start of the season, though there have been some optimistic reports recently. If Edelman can’t go, Danny Amendola will have to try to replicate his stats, which could prove to be difficult because he’s dealing with leg maladies as well. That’s why signing Hogan was so crucial.

Brady has one more dynamic offensive play-maker who hasn’t been discussed yet, and that would be Dion Lewis. The nimble running back sustained a torn ACL in Week 9, which was a huge blow for the team because he was such a big part of the offense. Lewis caught 36 passes in just seven games, and will continue to serve as the Kevin Faulk-type pass-catching back as long as he’s healthy. He’ll also get some carries, but most of the running will be done by LeGarrette Blount, who was also lost for the year because of an injury. He was a free agent this offseason, but managed to re-sign with the team.

Something New England was expected to do this spring was bolster the offensive line, which was a big reason why the Patriots lost the AFC Championship. The team couldn’t block Denver’s ferocious front, yet the front office didn’t do much about it this offseason. Guard Jonathan Cooper was acquired along with a second-round pick from Arizona for Chandler Jones, but Cooper has been a colossal bust as a former top-10 pick, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll ever crack the starting lineup. A third-round choice was used on Joe Thuney, and he’ll probably have a better chance to unseat one of the incumbents. The returning guards are a pair of 2015 fourth-rounders, Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson. Mason was OK last season, while Jackson struggled, but it’s far too early to determine how they’ll play as they mature. Meanwhile, center Bryan Stork played in only eight games with a concussion.

Rounding out the offensive line, the Patriots have two solid starting tackles, but nothing behind them. The Patriots discovered that quickly when both sustained injuries last year. Nate Solder played in just four games because of a torn bicep, while Sebastian Vollmer missed a couple of contests with a knee sprain. Depth was desperately needed behind these two players, but New England failed to acquire any this offseason.

2016 New England Patriots Defense:
The Patriots have obviously made countless brilliant transactions throughout their dynasty, but they’ve also been guilty of some dubious decisions as well. The Logan Mankins trade is a perfect example. New England inexplicably dealt Mankins for a pedestrian tight end, and even though the organization won the Super Bowl that year, it ended up costing them the next season when Mankins could’ve made the difference in the aforementioned AFC Championship loss. Trading Chandler Jones this spring feels like the same exact sort of move.

New England is really going to miss Jones. He was an excellent pass-rusher, and with him gone, the Patriots only have two players who can put consistent heat on the quarterback: Jabaal Sheard and Jaime Collins. Sheard will be a primary starter at defensive end now instead of a rotational player, and he’ll be stationed across from either Rob Ninkovich or the newly acquired Chris Long. The former Ram had a lot of success in St. Louis, but has regressed recently. He’s 31 and the injuries have added up, but perhaps he can put together one more solid campaign if he can stay healthy for a change. That would be quite welcome, given that Ninkovich performed poorly in 2015, perhaps because of age as well (he turned 32 in February).

As for Collins, he’ll continue to serve at strongside linebacker, starting across from weakside linebacker Dont’a Hightower. The two are a prolific pair and happen to be coming off great seasons, though the latter missed some action. When Hightower was out, it was quite apparent how thin the Patriots were at linebacker, and things got even worse when Jerod Mayo retired. Not that Mayo was any good, but he was the best of all the horrible options. Shea McClellin was signed to counter that, but McClellin could be even worse than Mayo; he has been horrific for the Bears ever since being drafted in the first round.

A far superior acquisition was Terrance Knighton, who was signed over from the Redskins. Knighton wasn’t all that great last year, but has played very well in the past. He’ll be a nice rotational player to go with 2015 first-rounder Malcom Brown, who didn’t show well as a rookie. The middling Alan Branch and third-round rookie Vincent Valentine will also be in the mix. This is definitely not a strong area for the Patriots, especially in the wake of Akiem Hicks departing for the Bears and Dominique Easley shockingly being released for some apparent locker room issues. Easley and Hicks were the two best defensive tackles the Patriots had on the roster, so jettisoning the former after the Hicks already left was a strange decision.

With less of a pass rush overall, the secondary could have a tougher time as a consequence. The cornerbacks played well last year, including corners Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, but things will be more challenging without Jones and Easley. Cyrus Jones was selected in the second round to help with the depth issue that the Patriots had at the position.

Meanwhile, New England’s top defensive back was once again safety Devin McCourty, one of the best players at his position in the NFL. He and Patrick Chung formed a great tandem last year. Philadelphia fans may chuckle, especially after seeing Chung fail for the Eagles a couple of seasons ago, but for whatever reason, Chung is a completely different player in Bill Belichick’s system.

2016 New England Patriots Schedule and Intangibles:
Since 2003, the Patriots are 102-17 at home. They’ve been a near-perfect 26-2 as hosts the past three years, with one loss coming against the Bills when all of the backups were on the field. The second defeat was inexplicably at the hands of Chip Kelly’s Eagles.

Stephen Gostkowski is one of the better kickers in the NFL. He went 33-of-36 last year, including 4-of-5 from beyond 50. However, he missed a crucial extra point in the AFC Championship that helped decide the result.

New punter Ryan Allen had a decent 2014 campaign, ranking 12th in net yardage. He dropped to 16th in 2015, but was solid in terms of placing kicks inside the 20.

Thanks to Keshawn Martin and Danny Amendola, the Patriots outgained the opposition on both punt and kickoff returns. However, they failed to score on special teams, surrendering a touchdown themselves.

The Patriots have some tough opponents on the slate, including the Cardinals, Steelers, Broncos, Texans and Seahawks, with the first three matchups being on the road. However, they are favored in all but two contests per the early Vegas lines: at Arizona and at Pittsburgh.

2016 New England Patriots Rookies:
Go here for the Patriots Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.

2016 New England Patriots Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2016 New England Patriots Analysis: The Patriots may not have Tom Brady for the first four games of the season, but that won’t stop them from making yet another deep run into the playoffs. They’re certainly one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl, especially since they play in such a weak conference.

Projection: 12-4 (TBA in AFC East)

NFL Draft Team Grade: D Grade

Goals Entering the 2016 NFL Draft: The Patriots don’t have a first-round pick, so it’ll be difficult for them to address their top needs. For instance, obtaining a tackle is crucial, but unless someone like Jason Spriggs falls, there probably won’t be anyone who fits their prospect profile at the position. The same goes for defensive tackle. Elsewhere, New England could use a defensive end, wide receiver and interior offensive lineman.

2016 NFL Draft Accomplishments: We reported last year that Bill Belichick effectively quit during the second day of the draft because all of his second-, third- and fourth-round prospects were snatched off the board. Thus, he took Jordan Richards in Round 2 when other teams wouldn’t have even considered him until the fifth or sixth frame.

The same appears to have happened this year, which isn’t a surprise, considering that it was a weak class. Cyrus Jones and Joe Thuney weren’t great picks to start off, but they weren’t bad. However, Jacoby Brissett was an absolute head-scratcher. Why take another quarterback when Tom Brady is in the twilight of his career and needs as much as possible around him in order to win now? With that said, Brissett was an amazing pick when compared to Vincent Valentine five spots later. Perhaps Belichick just wanted a Final Fantasy VII character, and Cait Sith wasn’t available. I don’t know. That’s only explanation I have for taking another late-round prospect during the second day.

The Patriots made some better choices on Saturday, but by then, the damage was already done. It appears as though New England put together the worst draft class this year.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

60. Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama: C Grade
We’ve reported that Bill Belichick has given up on drafts he dislikes, #yoloing his picks and taking seventh-rounders way earlier than they should be chosen. This isn’t a crazy reach like Jordan Richards, but the Patriots took Jones about a round earlier than he should’ve gone. New England has two corners with expiring contracts after this season, so Jones makes sense from that perspective, but there were better players available at the position.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

78. Joe Thuney, G/OT, N.C. State B- Grade
The guy who announced the Patriots’ pick was so angry about Tom Brady that he called Joe Thuney a linebacker. Thuney is an offensive lineman for sure, and he is the sort of blocker that Bill Belichick looks for. Thuney is versatile, as he can play both guard and tackle. I imagine he might compete for a spot this year, but he’ll probably be starting in 2017 and beyond. I had him in the fourth round, but this is not a blatant reach.

91. Jacoby Brissett, QB, N.C. State D Grade
Ugh. Why? The Patriots needed a third quarterback in the wake of Tom Brady’s suspension, but with Brady entering the twilight of his career, New England needed to obtain as much help for him as possible. This is the second day-two choice spent on a quarterback in the past few years, which is a big mistake. I don’t hate Brissett as a prospect – he probably should’ve gone in the fourth round – but I just hate New England for effectively wasting a pick.

96. Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska HEART-SHAPED KIELBASA MILLEN Grade
I was urged to give this a Millen grade, so here it is. And I don’t feel bad about it because Bill Belichick apparently has given up. Much like a drunken fantasy football drafter who takes kickers and names that stand out in the double-digit rounds, Belichick has now resorted to picking random players like he did last year. Vincent Valentine – sounds like a fake name to me – is a sixth-round prospect, so picking him here seems a bit silly. Also, I have to say that when I hear his name, I’m reminded of Vicky Valencourt from the Water Boy. That’s not a good thing as far as draft grades are concerned.

112. Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia B+ Grade
This pick makes more sense than some of the selections the Patriots made during the second day. Malcolm Mitchell easily could’ve been chosen a round earlier than this. He was a highly productive receiver at Georgia with very good athleticism. The problem is that there are some knee concerns. If those aren’t an issue going forward, Mitchell should be a good player for the Patriots.

208. Kamu Grugier-Hill, LB, Eastern Illinois C+ Grade
Kamu Grugier-Hill was one of the more-athletic linebacker prospects in this class. However, he’s just a project at this point and wasn’t expected to be drafted. He could’ve been obtained as a UDFA.

214. Elandon Roberts, LB, Houston B Grade
Elandon Roberts is a solid athlete who played extremely well at Houston. It seems like he’s a Bill Belichick-type player who can provide depth at linebacker – which was sorely needed – and excel on special teams.

221. Ted Karras, G/C, Illinois C+ Grade
This is only the second offensive lineman for the Patriots thus far – an area that was expected to be addressed early and often in the 2016 NFL Draft (at least based on the comments I had received.) However, Ted Karras was seen as just a borderline draftable prospect. He can be a backup at both guard and center.

225. Devin Lucien, WR, Arizona State B Grade
Bill Belichick has spent a lot of time drafting players off many radars in this draft thus far. Devin Lucien is not a name known to many, but he played well for Arizona State this past season, thanks to his quality route-running. Lucien, who has tested as an average athlete, definitely has a chance of contributing at some point.

Season Summary:
The Patriots appeared to be the most dominant team to begin the year, which was remarkable considering that their preceding offseason was marred by controversy. However, they lost key personnel seemingly every week, ultimately culminating to an AFC Championship loss at Denver.

Offseason Moves:
  • Patriots cut DT Dominique Easley
  • Patriots re-sign RB LeGarrette Blount
  • Patriots sign DT Markus Kuhn
  • Patriots sign NT Terrance Knighton
  • Patriots sign TE Clay Harbor
  • Patriots sign CB E.J. Biggers
  • Patriots sign WR Nate Washington
  • Patriots sign DE/OLB Shea McClellin
  • Patriots acquire TE Martellus Bennett, 6th-round pick from Bears for 4th-round pick
  • Patriots sign RB Donald Brown
  • Patriots sign DE Chris Long
  • Cardinals acquire DE Chandler Jones from Patriots for G Jonathan Cooper, 2nd-round pick
  • Patriots re-sign S Nate Ebner
  • Patriots sign WR Chris Hogan
  • Patriots sign OLB Ramon Humber
  • Patriots re-sign OT LaAdrian Waddle
  • Patriots re-sign FB James Develin
  • Patriots cut WR Brandon LaFell
  • Patriots cut TE Scott Chandler
  • Patriots cut CB Leonard Johnson
  • Patriots announce retirement of ILB Jerod Mayo

    Team Needs:
    1. Defensive Tackle: Akiem Hicks is an impending free agent, while Dominique Easley hasn’t been able to stay healthy. A defensive tackle could be added with a mid-round selection unless Hicks is re-signed. Dominique Easley’s release makes this much more dire. Signed Terrance Knighton and Markus Kuhn

    2. Guard: Upgrading Tom Brady’s pass protection is paramount, and the Patriots can do that by finding a stud guard to upgrade 2015 fourth-rounder Shaq Mason, who should just be a backup. Traded for Jonathan Cooper

    3. Running Back: Bill Belichick would be crazy to trust LeGarrette Blount going forward. Dion Lewis was a great pass-catching weapon, but the Patriots will be searching for a primary runner. Perhaps they’ll obtain one in the early rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. Re-signed LeGarrette Blount; signed Donald Brown

    4. Center: The other offensive line position that needs to be addressed. Bryan Stork is a pedestrian starter and can stand to be upgraded. At the very least, the Patriots should find some competition for him.

    5. Defensive End: The Patriots will need a new pass-rusher after trading Chandler Jones away to Arizona. Signed Chris Long

    6. Wide Receiver: The Patriots don’t have anything at receiver outside of Julian Edelman. Aaron Dobson, Keshawn Martin and Brandon LaFell aren’t answers. Belichick could opt to use an early pick on a wideout. Signed Chris Hogan and Nate Washington

    7. Tight End: Scott Chandler is no longer with the team, so the Patriots need to find a second tight end to go along with Rob Gronkowski. Traded for Martellus Bennett

    8. Offensive Tackle Depth: A better swing tackle is needed behind Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer.

    9. Linebacker Depth: The Patriots’ defense took a dive whenever Jamie Collins or Dont’a Hightower was out of the lineup. Better reserves are needed here. Signed Shea McClellin

    10. Cornerback Depth: New England had a couple of decent starters to take over when Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner left, but depth became an issue. The Patriots don’t have much behind Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. Signed E.J. Biggers

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2016 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Terrance Knighton, NT, Redskins. Age: 30.
      Signed with Patriots (1 year)

      Terrance Knighton signed a 1-year “prove it” deal last offseason, but he didn’t exactly prove anything. He stuffed the run somewhat well, but that was it. Knighton was on the field for about a third of the snaps to close out the season.

    2. Chris Long, DE, Rams. Age: 31.
      Signed with Patriots (1 year)

      Chris Long used to be a great defensive end, but he has fallen off recently. He played in just six games in 2014, and then a knee injury rendered him ineffective this past season. Perhaps he’ll be able to rebound, but at 31 (in March), his best days are long gone.

    3. Chris Hogan (RFA), WR, Bills. Age: 27. — Signed with Patriots (3 years, $12 million)
    4. Shea McClellin, DE/OLB, Bears. Age: 27. — Signed with Patriots (3 years)
    5. Markus Kuhn, DT, Giants. Age: 30. — Signed with Patriots
    6. Nate Washington, WR, Texans. Age: 33. — Signed with Patriots
    7. E.J. Biggers, CB, Eagles. Age: 29. — Signed with Patriots
    8. Donald Brown, RB, Chargers. Age: 29. — Signed with Patriots
    9. Clay Harbor, TE, Jaguars. Age: 29. — Signed with Patriots
    10. Ramon Humber, OLB, Saints. Age: 29. — Signed with Patriots

    New England Patriots Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Dominique Easley, DT, Patriots. Age: 24.
      Signed with Rams

      Wow, what just happened? It’s not every day that you see a talented, 24-year-old with no known off-the-field issues get released in the NFL. Granted, Easley hasn’t been able to stay healthy, but to give up on him after just two seasons is inexplicable. The only logical conclusion is that there are some major off-the-field problems concerning Easley that haven’t been reported yet. Thus, I’m going to conservatively mock him as a two-star free agent.

    2. Akiem Hicks, DE/DT, Patriots. Age: 26.
      Signed with Bears (2 years)

      The Patriots obtained Akiem Hicks from the Saints for Michael Hoomanawanui. I’d say New England won that swap. Hicks was a solid rotational player who wasn’t a liability in any regard.

    3. LeGarrette Blount, RB, Patriots. Age: 29.
      Re-signed with Patriots (1 year, $1 million)

      LeGarrette Blount has shown that he can have an occasional great game, but in terms of weekly preparation and consistency, it’s just not there. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Patriots opted to move on.

    4. Brandon LaFell, WR, Patriots. Age: 29.
      Signed with Bengals

      Brandon LaFell was a quality option for Tom Brady during the Patriots’ Super Bowl run in 2014, catching 74 passes for 953 yards and seven touchdowns. These numbers were inflated because of Brady, however, and LaFell could never get into a groove this past season because of a foot injury that forced him to miss five games. LaFell isn’t terrible, but he shouldn’t be a starter any longer.

    5. Scott Chandler, TE, Patriots. Age: 31.
      Scott Chandler was insurance for Rob Gronkowski, but he wasn’t needed very much. He caught four passes for 61 yards and a touchdown in the only game Gronkowski missed. Chandler turns 31 in July, but he’s still a quality blocker and functional receiver.

    6. Sealver Siliga (RFA), NT, Patriots. Age: 26. — Signed with Seahawks
    7. Brandon Gibson, WR, Patriots. Age: 29.
    8. Tarell Brown, CB, Patriots. Age: 31.
    9. Jerod Mayo, ILB, Patriots. Age: 30.
    10. Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, NT, Patriots. Age: 28.
    11. James Develin (RFA), FB, Patriots. Age: 28. — Re-signed with Patriots
    12. Nate Ebner, S, Patriots. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Patriots (2 years)
    13. Ryan Wendell, C, Patriots. Age: 30.
    14. Tavon Wilson, CB, Patriots. Age: 26. — Signed with Lions (2 years, $2.2 million)
    15. LaAdrian Waddle (RFA), OT, Patriots. Age: 25. — Re-signed with Patriots
    16. Steven Jackson, RB, Patriots. Age: 33.
    17. Brian Tyms (RFA), WR, Patriots. Age: 27.
    18. Darius Fleming, OLB, Patriots. Age: 27.
    19. Dekoda Watson, OLB, Patriots. Age: 28.
    20. Leonard Johnson, CB, Patriots. Age: 26.

    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
    Top 90 | QB | RB | FB | WR | TE | OT | G | C | DE | DT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | FA Grades | FA Rumors

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