Our “Friday Fades” feature is back, and this week’s edition takes a look at five topics relating to the New England Patriots, including a look at the Patriots pass rushing and the play of rookie Jamie Collins, who was the team’s first pick in last year’s draft. I also touch on Tom Brady‘s WPA total last season, which backs up the notion that the 2013 season was an incredibly successful one for the elite signa-caller. So let’s get started with this week’s fades, which are back after a long hiatus.
1. Jace or ASJ?
The New England Patriots three biggest needs this offseason seem to be at defensive tackle, tight end, or wide receiver, and I think the Patriots are going to address those positions in a “best available” manner with the 29th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Since UNC’s hyper-athletic tight end Eric Ebron likely won’t be on the board at pick 29, the Patriots decision at TE would probably come down to Texas Tech standout Jace Amaro vs. the underrated Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who is easily the most well-rounded tight end prospect in the draft.
Ebron would be the dream scenario for the Patriots, since he’s such an explosive and athletic pass-catcher, and he would bring an Aaron Hernandez-dimension as a playmaking No. 2 TE to Rob Gronkowski, who is by far the best tight end in the game due to his elite blocking and elite receiving. While Amaro isn’t the finished product as a blocker, he brings that Gronk-like upside due to his size and pass-catching ability. He was extremely impressive at TTU, and he was especially deadly on crossing routes. That said, he still has plenty of work to do, as he doesn’t dominate enough as a blocker and mostly faced defensive backs as opposed to offensive linemen as a blocker. He has strength and a good initial punch, but he also allows defenders to disengage too easily.
I’m more impressed with Seferian-Jenkins as a TE prospect, because he’s a much better blocker than Amaro. ASJ is already the finished product as a blocker, and he can make an immediate impact as a two-way TE. He admittedly isn’t as good of a receiver as Amaro, but he’s still solid in that regard and is quite underrated as a pass-catcher. It isn’t fair to downplay his athleticism and ability to stretch the seam, but it is fair to wonder if the Patriots would rather have someone who leans far more towards receiving at TE than a balanced approach, since Gronk is already a TE who fits in-line and in the slot. But the Patriots also TEs who can block and catch passes with equal proficiency, because: 1) It’s better that way and 2) It offers more versatile looks against defenses.
ASJ vs. Amaro is a lengthy debate, and it’s one that will have to be solved through careful tape study, especially when it comes to their respective abilities to catch passes in traffic and get open.
2. Tom Brady had the third-highest WPA
Win Probability Added (WPA) is an advanced statistic that can be found on Advanced NFL Stats, and it measures each play to figure out how many “wins” a player added to their respective team. Much has been made of Brady’s 2013 season, with some calling it a “masterpiece” and others downplaying it as an “overrated” year. I think it’s unfair to totally criticize the players around him, but it’s clear that injuries- mainly Gronk’s ACL tear- created an unfavorable pass-catching core for Brady, who had worse targets than the other high-level QBs this year. I mean, just look at the guys Peyton Manning and Drew Brees had at their respective disposals.
Brady struggled to start the season, but he quickly gained his stride, especially when Gronkowski returned from his arm injury. He finished the season with the third-highest WPA total in the NFL, and it wasn’t surprising to see him finish behind Manning and Philip Rivers, who were the two best QBs in the NFL last season. While the gap between Manning and Rivers from 1-2 and Rivers and Brady at 2-3 were both sizeable, it’s still impressive that Brady finished third, especially since WPA doesn’t operate independently of surrounding talent. That said, it can be coherently argued that Rivers had worse talent around him than Brady.
It’s clear looking at all of the other analytics (EPA, success rate, the box score stats, too) that Brady was indeed incredibly clutch last season, and this is apparent when looking at the eye test and the sheer number of game-winning and near-game-winning drives Brady cobbled together last season. He fought through more adversity than any other QB this past season, and the WPA total backs up the notion that Brady can do a whole lot with “less”.
3. This is how the great ones build
We could talk all day about how great teams try to build their team, so I’ll try to take a route that is as simple as possible when explaining the Patriots offseason tasks. There’s little doubt that they are a great team, as they made the AFC Championship Game three times in a row. More importantly, they had so much depth that they were able to overcome significant injuries to the likes of Sebastian Vollmer, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, and Rob Gronkowski. Those are just four big injuries of the many that befell the Patriots, but their ability to move forward from those injuries is just a testament to the kind of depth that Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio, and the Patriots organization have built in Foxboro.
The mark of great teams is depth, and that jumps off the page when looking at the rosters of the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, and Seattle Seahawks. Because of their well-balanced rosters, these four teams have very little true “needs” and should instead be focused on adding as many playmakers possible and shoring up any positions that are “iffy”.
Right now, the Patriots three “iffy” positions are DT, WR, and TE. They could afford to add another playmaker at either WR or TE and DT, even if none of those positions are “true needs”. The Patriots are in a prime position to take the best guy available, and that seems like a scary thought for other teams. You can add guard to the list of positions that could possibly be addressed, because the under-performing Dan Connolly looks like a big-time cap casualty.