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The Patriot way

Will New England stay atop the AFC East? Greg Gabriel

Print This June 17, 2014, 07:00 AM EST

The New England Patriots have controlled the AFC East for years. Based on the 2013 season and what their rival clubs have done in the off season and draft, I don’t see any reason why the Pats should not win the AFC east again this season.

Part of the reason is continuity. They have run the same offensive and defensive system for years. Bill Belichick and his staff do an excellent job finding players who fit their system, and they get the most out of those players. It’s a very simple formula that many clubs would love to execute, but they don’t have the patience to implement it successfully. The Patriots may not have the best personnel in the AFC, but as long as Bill Belichick is in charge, they will compete for not only the AFC East title but the AFC title as well.

Quarterback

Tom Brady is one of the four true “franchise” quarterbacks in the NFL. The others are Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. With Brady at the helm, the Pats will always have a chance.

This is Brady’s 15th year in the NFL and 14th as a starter. I don’t need to list his accomplishments. He is one of the all-time greats at the position. But what happens if Brady gets hurt? The top reserve quarterback on the depth chart is fourth-year player Ryan Mallett. In his three previous seasons in the league, Mallett has attempted a total of four passes. I wasn’t a fan of Mallett’s when he was leaving Arkansas and I’m still not. If Brady gets hurt, Mallett cannot keep the Patriots winning. 

That said, the player who may end up being the top backup this year and Brady’s eventual replacement is second round draft choice Jimmy Garoppolo from Eastern Illinois. While Garoppolo is raw, he has very good athleticism, a strong arm, and an extremely quick release. He was a winner in college, and I feel he has what it takes to be a winner in the NFL.

Running Backs

The Patriots haven’t had a true “bell cow” running back in years. They subscribe to the running back-by-committee philosophy and find players to complement each others' strengths. In 2013, the committee was Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount. As well as Blount played, he was not brought back this season. The group this year will be Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden.

While none are a top player by themselves, as a group, they are very effective because of the way they complement each other.

Receivers and Tight Ends

It was only a couple years ago that the Patriots had one of the top groups of receivers and tight ends in the NFL. That is no longer the case. At tight end, Rob Gronkowski has immense talent but can’t stay healthy. The other veteran is journeyman Michael Hoomanawanui. D.J. Williams is strictly a flexed or move tight end. The rest of the group is unproven rookies.

Last year, Tom Brady had probably the most inexperienced wide receiver group he has ever worked with. Danny Amendola was the veteran of the group, and he missed time due to injury. If healthy he can be an excellent slot receiver.

Aaron Dobson flashed as a rookie but also missed time because of injuries. Dobson has size and is very talented. Another rookie last year who flashed was Kenbrell Thompkins. He has talent, but can be unreliable. The Pats brought in Brandon LaFell, who was with Carolina last year, and he should step in as a starter.

The rest of the depth is Julian Edelman, rookie Jeremy Gallon, and first-year man Mark Harrison. Harrison missed 2013 with a foot injury. This group still isn’t what it used to be, but is in better shape than what we saw a year ago.

Offensive Line

The offensive line as a whole is a very steady group that has solid, but not great, players. Their strength is that they work so well together.

The tackles are Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, two tall (6’8”), but athletic guys who can both run and pass block. The backup is Marcus Cannon. Logan Mankins has been a steady player at guard for years, as has Dan Connolly. Both Mankins and Connolly are getting up in years.

The center job belongs to Ryan Wendell. While Wendell is smart and knows how to use his hands, he is also undersized and can get over powered. The Pats drafted to solid linemen in Bryan Stork and Jon Halapio. It would not surpise me if Stork challenges Wendell for the starter’s job.

Defensive Line

The first player who comes to mind when you talk about the Patriots defensive line is Vince Wilfork. He is a perennial All-Pro and the obvious leader of the group. Next to Wilfork at tackle is Tommy Kelly. Kelly is now 33 years old and can’t be relied on to play every down.

That is where top draft choice Dominique Easley comes in. Easley is explosively quick and powerful and can be a very good inside pass rusher. The problem with Easley is that he has already had two ACL surgeries and has to prove he can stay healthy.

A player to watch as a very good rotational player is Armond Armstead. Armstead looked like he was going to be a top pick while at USC but came down with a heart problem. USC would not allow him to play but after tests and rehab, he spent a year in the Canadian League. He was signed by the Patriots a year ago but missed the 2013 season with an infection and had surgery. He is supposedly healthy and ready to go now. He has the talent to be valuable rotational player.

Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are the starting ends for the Patriots. Between them, they got 19.5 sacks in 2013, with Jones getting 11.5. The Pats recently signed former Saint Will Smith to be a backup. If Smith is fully recovered from an injury that forced him to miss 2013, he will be a quality player for the Patriots. Also in reserve is Michael Buchanan, who flashed as a rookie last year.

Linebacker

In Jerod Mayo, the Patriots have one of the best Mike linebackers in the league. Mayo missed over half of the 2013 season with a pectoral injury. While not 100% now, he will be by the time training camp opens. Jamie Collins is the Will linebacker and played well as a rookie last year. With a year of experience, he will be that much better in 2014. The Sam linebacker is Dont’a Hightower. Hightower is in his third year and beginning to become a consistent player. While he is excellent versus the run, he can struggle in pass coverage. The Pats would like to use him more as a pass rusher in 2014.

Secondary

Obviously the big signing was Darrelle Revis. Revis gives the Patriots one of the best cover corners in the game. The other corner is Alfonzo Dennardm who also is a talented cover guy. Dennard may be facing a league suspension because of some legal issues. 

The third corner is Kyle Arrington. He had 62 total tackles and 13 passes defensed in 2013. Logan Ryan, the second year man from Rutgers, rounds out the top four corners. He played very well as a rookie with 35 total tackles and 10 passes defensed in 2013.

Also in the mix is former Seattle Seahawk Brandon Browner. Browner can take part in training camp but has to serve a four-game suspension once the season starts. How he fits in after the suspension remains to be seen.

At free safety, Devin McCourty gives the Patriots a player with corner cover skills and range. Second year man Duron Harmon is at strong safety. He is coming off a strong rookie year playing as a backup.
Tavon Wilson backs up at free safety, while the Pats brought back Patrick Chung for 2014 after he struggled in Philadelphia last year.

While, on paper, this isn’t the strongest Patriots team we have seen in the Belichick era, it is a darn good one. There is a lot of youth on this squad that should turn into solid NFL players. In another Division, the Patriots may be challenged, but the AFC East is weak, and the Pats should have no problem hanging on to the title.

Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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