Jun 122013
 

Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan9. New York Jets
Head Coach: Rex Ryan
2012 Record: 6-10
2012 Offense: 281 points scored, 28th in points, 30th in yards (30th passing, 12th rushing)
2012 Defense: 375 points allowed, 20th in points, 8th in yards (2nd passing, 26th rushing)

Key Additions
RB Mike Goodson, RB Chris Ivory, G Willie Colon, DL Antonio Garay, LB Antwan Barnes, S Dawan Landry, G Stephen Peterman, WR Ben Obomanu, CB Dee Milliner, DT Sheldon Richardson, QB Geno Smith, G Brian Winters

Key Losses
CB Darrelle Revis, S Yeremiah Bell, DL Mike DeVito, WR Braylon Edwards, RB Shonn Greene, TE Dustin Keller, S LaRon Landry, LB Bart Scott, DT Sione Pouha, G Brandon Moore, G Matt Slauson, WR Chaz Schilens, LB Bryan Thomas, QB Tim Tebow, S Eric Smith

Why 2013 will be better
Define better? If by better we mean that the Jets will no longer have a circus sideshow in Tim Tebow, then yes it will be better. Otherwise, I’m not so sure. But since this is the part of the article where we look for bright spots, let’s start with running back Chris Ivory, who appears ready to replace the steady but enigmatic Greene. There are question marks after Ivory, with Goodson appearing to be a personal train wreck. Still, Ivory looks like the real deal and will be getting the bulk of the snaps this season. Given a weak passing game, the Jets should once again rank in the top twelve rushing attacks. The offensive line is beginning to come together, with Nick Mangold, D’Brickasah Ferguson, Austin Howard, Willie Colon, and Brian Winters eyeing starting roles, and the group should be able to open holes for Ivory, but it is in pass protection where this group must improve, as the Jets ranked 30th in pass protection last season, yielding 47 sacks, along with one very memorable butt fumble. However, the Jets are very thin on the line after the five starters, so health will be a key to success. On defense, the team looks to improve on its sub-par performance in 2012 with Rex Ryan taking a more direct role in defensive meetings and play calling, and looks to be a better group. Muhammad Wilkerson is a dominant presence at end, and looks to be flanked by Sheldon Richardson, who also looks like a beast. The only downside is that Quinton Coples will see an increased role at outside linebacker, which does not appear to cater to his strengths. Kendrick Ellis, Garay, and Damon Harrison round out this solid unit.

Why 2013 will be worse
The quarterback controversy that consumed 2012 has a new face in 2013 in rookie quarterback Geno Smith. It remains to be seen who will win the competition, as Sanchez has the early lead but Smith has the bigger potential upside. That said, I am unconvinced that Smith’s game will translate to the NFL. The Jets gambled on a quarterback in a weak quarterback draft, and I suspect will lose this bet in the long run, just as they are losing their gamble on Sanchez. In an offense happy league, the Jets enter the fray with one arm tied behind their collective backs. The wide receiving corps is weak and wounded, with Stephen Hill dealing with a knee injury, and Holmes’ status is unknown for the start of the season. Jeremy Kerley is finally healthy, and could see his numbers increase in 2013. Jeff Cumberland takes over at tight end in place of Keller, but will have a difficult time filling Keller’s shoes when Keller was healthy. Hayden Smith may also see time, but this is not a group that will cause panic in opposing defenses. The linebacker unit will be interesting to watch with Coples moving outside, with David Harris and Demario Davis inside and Pace playing the opposite side. Pace was brought back after being cut, and struggles to apply pressure to the quarterback, resulting in the Jets bringing in Barnes, a pass rush specialist. Harris was one of the worst starting inside linebackers in the league last season, who despite good tackling numbers is a significant liability in pass coverage and who also had a poor year against the run. While the Jets’ defense will likely still be in the top half of the league this season, the linebacker group doesn’t appear to be as solid as it has been in years past. Losing Revis in the secondary doesn’t help matters, especially since Milliner is struggling to even get onto the field. Milliner is a natural talent but was a risky pick for the Jets, who need Antonio Cromartie to step up in a big way this season. Cro may not be able to remember his kids’ names, but he is a solid corner talent, and the drop-off should not be significant. Kyle Wilson started opposite Cro last season and may not be able to hold off Milliner for a starting nod once Milliner is healthy. At safety, the Jets replaced one Landry with another, but overall the safety group has slipped from last year’s one year rentals, both of whom performed admirably.

Outlook
Only the most blindly loyal Jets’ fans will think this team has a chance of competing in 2013. New GM John Idzik tore the team apart to deal with Mike Tannenbaum’s salary cap debacle, but the Jets didn’t go as far as the Raiders did in simply blowing things up in order to start again. That’s why David Harris and Mark Sanchez still have jobs despite spotty performances (to be generous) and big salary cap hits. The Jets’ defensive front will be able to improve its performance against the run, but pass rushing issues have not been resolved, and a weakened secondary means their performance against the pass can be expected to slip. On offense, the quarterback drama promises to undo 2013 before it begins, and a lack of quality receivers who can’t stay healthy won’t help matters. Chris Ivory may be carrying a heavy load this season, but thankfully for the Jets he appears to be up to the task. In the final analysis the Jets got rid of Tim Tebow, but the circus remains firmly planted in town. I subscribe to the view that this is Year One of Idzik’s rebuilding plan, and that Year Two will be sans Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez, among others. The Jets will battle the Bills for third place in the AFC East, and can be expected to win anywhere from three to six wins in 2013.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, I missed the addition of Kellen Winslow, Jr. I must admit to not being real high on him as a solution at tight end. He is a beast of an athlete, but his attitude has gotten him run out of more than one town. The Jets are not a team I would send a reclamation project to, but he might none the less be helpful. Winslow has not signed yet, but he and Mike Sims-Walker have been trying out for the team.

Jun 122013
 

Doug Marrone8. Buffalo Bills
Head Coach: Doug Marrone
2012 Record: 6-10
2012 Offense: 344 points scored, 21st in points, 19th in yards (25th passing, 6th rushing)
2012 Defense: 435 points allowed, 26th in points, 22nd in yards (10th passing, 31st rushing)

 

Key Additions
Head Coach Doug Marrone, QB Kevin Kolb, DL Alan Branch, LB Jerry Hughes, LB Manny Lawson, QB EJ Manuel, WR Robert Woods, LB Kiko Alonso, WR Marquise Goodwin

Key Losses
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB Tavaris Jackson, G Andy Levitre, DB Terrence McGee, DB George Wilson, LB Kelvin Sheppard, DE Shawne Merriman, DE Kyle Moore, LB Nick Barnett, WR Donald Jones, DE Chris Kelsay, WR David Nelson

Why 2013 will be better
To be blunt, it won’t be. Buffalo is entering (yet another) rebuilding year, with the Bills slugging it out with the Jets for the basement of the AFC East. Kolb showed some potential last season in Arizona before getting hurt, but his track record to date is that of an up and down quarterback with nearly as many interceptions (25) as touchdowns (28). EJ Manuel is a project with big potential upside, but he won’t be ready to save a season if Kolb falters or gets hurt again. The strength of the offense is in the running game, where the Bills feature Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, two of the more talented backs in the league. The defensive line is a solid unit with Mario Williams, Mark Anderson, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Alan Branch, and Alex Carrington. The Bills have the potential to shut down opposing running games and apply consistent pressure, but both Anderson and Dareus must step up their games on a consistent basis. Jairus Byrd is a solid safety playing on a franchise tag,and Aaron Williams has converted from corner to safety. The Bills also added two safeties in the draft, giving them plenty of depth in this group.

Why 2013 will be worse
Beyond mediocrity at quarterback, the receiving unit is thin, to put it mildly. After Stevie Johnson (a thousand yard receiver for the past three seasons), the burden immediately falls onto rookies Woods and Goodwin, with only TJ Graham and Brad Smith having any real experience. TE Scott Chandler promises to be a big target for Kolb, but will also likely draw a lot of defensive attention this season if he can successfully return from an ACL injury. The Bills failed to replace guard Andy Levitre in the off-season, and really failed to address the entire offensive line in the draft. Beyond center and right guard the line is in flux, which doesn’t bode well for protecting Kolb for sixteen games, particularly with a quarterback who is known to hold onto the ball too long. On defense, the linebacking corps is an underwhelming group anchored by Hughes and Lawson, and rookie Alonso figures heavily into their plans. The Bills ranked 31st in run defense last season, and they will face challenges anytime a back breaks through the defensive line this season. In the secondary, after second year player Stephon Gilmore, the Bills are decidedly undermanned at corner, with Leodis McKelvin the best among ho-hum options.

Outlook
I was fooled in 2012 into thinking the Bills had solved their defensive woes and would be a playoff contender. Instead, the defense fell apart and the offense was erratic, leading to another lost season in Western New York. I won’t be fooled this season into thinking that the new linebackers will be a huge improvement, or into believing that Kolb is a significant upgrade over Fitzpatrick. More likely the Bills are in the start of a two to three season overhaul, assuming their management has the patience to stick to the plan. And assuming, of course, that there is a plan. This is a Buffalo team that will score 40 points one week and seven the next, with a defense that will consistently give up 21 or more. Three to six wins appears to be this team’s range in 2013.

Jun 102013
 

STON0470.JPGI really can’t say I am surprised.

In the past twenty minutes, Boston radio stations and ESPN have all alerted me to the fact that the Patriots plan to sign Tim Tebow tomorrow in time for mandatory minicamp.

On hearing this news, I can only reach the conclusion that it has finally dawned on Tebow that his NFL career can only continue if he is willing to play a position other than quarterback. Tebow would join the Patriots behind Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, and Mike Kafka, and has no hope of landing a backup quarterback role. Bringing in Tebow makes sense for the Patriots, who could use a player in a fullback/tight end role, particularly at the rate at which the Patriots are going through tight ends. It also makes sense given that Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was the guy who drafted Tebow in the first round to bring him to Denver. If Tebow is being brought in to play quarterback, then he is a very interesting pick to serve as a temporary camp arm.

There is much more to come on this, but for now the Tebow circus has moved up the road from New Jersey to Foxboro. Yet somehow I don’t anticipate the same amount of drama as we have seen with Timmy in the past.

Correction: It got past me that Kafka has been released by the team. Suddenly the possibility of being a camp arm is a possibility, though we can expect the Pats to sign another quarterback once they get to training camp.

UPDATE: It turns out the passed released Kafka earlier on Monday. Word is that Tebow has been brought in as the third quarterback, meaning that someone in Foxboro thinks all of the remedial work that Tebow has been doing is making a difference. I’ll choose to remain a skeptic, and think this move is little more than a good-natured poke at the Jets. Tebow reportedly signed a two year deal with no guaranteed money.

Apr 292013
 

Tim TebowIf only someone could have predicted that it would all turn out this way. Oh wait…

The Jets cut Tim Tebow, their sixth string quarterback, early this morning, thus proving that while many fans believe that Tebow can walk on water, he can’t tread it on an NFL roster.

Tebow was getting ready for an early morning workout at the Jets’ facility this morning when GM John Idzik and Head Coach Rex Ryan told him the news. The Jets had held on to Tebow all the way through the draft with the irrational hope that someone would be willing to part with even a seventh round pick for the former University of Florida star, but it was not to be. In a statement released by Ryan, he said, “We have a great deal of respect for Tim Tebow. Unfortunately, things did not work out the way we all had hoped.  Tim is an extremely hard worker, evident by the shape he came back in this offseason.  We wish him the best moving forward.”

Teams are all now lining up to say that they are not interested in Tebow. New England is widely believed to be one possible landing spot, if Patriots’ Head Coach Bill Belichick can convince Tebow to abandon his desire to play quarterback, as the Patriots would be able to put Tebow’s ferocity to use as a hybrid tight end/running back. Belichick scouted Tebow hard prior to the 2010 draft, even taking him out to dinner in Boston, plus Belichick shares a close relationship with Urban Meyer, Tebow’s former coach in Gainesville. Throw in Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels as the guy who drafted Tebow in Denver, and it certainly looks like a possibility. Chicago has also been mentioned as a possible landing spot, though the Bears say they are not interested. However, if Tebow hangs on to the belief that he is a starting quarterback, he will likely have to look north to the CFL in the hopes of establishing himself as a serious quarterback.

Apr 272013
 

Jamie CollinsOnce again, the New England Patriots traded out of the first round in order to secure more picks and then proceeded to baffle the “experts” with their selections, drawing twice from the secondary at Rutgers. The Patriots targeted defense and wide receivers, which was widely expected prior to the raft. Let’s take an early look at the Patriots’ 2013 draft selections.

Second Round

Pick 20 (52nd overall) – Jamie Collins, OLB, Southern Mississippi

The Patriots passed up my fave pass rusher in SMU’s Margus Hunt, who was taken with the next pick by Cincinnati. So what do the Patriots get in Collins? According to Mike Mayock, Collins is “one of the most explosive edge rushers in this draft. He’ll line up, stick his hands in the dirt and get his hands in the quarterback.” If that is true it would certainly be music to Bill Belichick’s ears, as the Pats could use a pass rusher opposite Chandler Jones to apply consistent pressure to the quarterback. However, if the Patriots plan to use Collins as a linebacker, they will need to coach him up on keeping track of his place in coverage. Collins has a lean fame that he is still growing into, and has quick feet, having converted to linebacker from the safety position. Collins smells like a boom or bust candidate for the Pats.

Pick 27 (59th overall) – Aaron Dobson, WR, Marshall

Donson is quite possibly the best sleeper receiver of the draft, and is the best wide receiver prospect to come out of Marshall since Randy Moss; not that Dobson has Moss’ talent. Dobson looks more like a cross between Brandon Lloyd and Sidney Rice, and has the potential to fill the Patriots’ glaring need at X receiver.  “He’s big, he’s fast, he’s got good hands, he’s a strong player,” Belichick said of Dobson. “Smart, very smart. He has some position flexibility and versatility. Catches the ball very well.” Like Lloyd, Dobson is not a burner, but will make acrobatic catches. He seems like a better bet than the other second round receivers taken during the Belichick era, but time will tell.

Third Round

Pick 21 (83rd overall) – Logan Ryan, CB, Rutgers

Ryan is an aggressive and physical corner with good size. He is not a burner and still needs to work on his technique. Ryan has a habit of not turning his head to find the ball, a flaw that Patriots’ fans are too familiar with. Still, Belichick sees a lot of raw talent in Ryan. “He’s been very productive. He’s one of the most productive corners in the draft,” Belichick said. “He’s been in a very good system. He’s been well-coached, knows his techniques well, he’s an instinctive player. He’s tough, a good tackler.”

Pick 29 (91st overall) – Duron Harmon, S Rutgers

Word is that Belichick and other coaches went to Rutgers looking at Logan Ryan, and then fell in love with Duron Harmon. According to Mike Mayock, “Bill Belichick knows that school like few coaches do. I had him on my board late as a late-priority free agent. I got on him late when I saw some cut-ups. I moved him up my board because I went, ‘Wow.'” Harmon is this year’s annual surprise pick by Belichick, and was not invited to the NFL Combine. Harmon is considered a high character guy, and becomes the third player from Rutgers in the Patriots’ secondary, joining Ryan and safety Devin McCourty. For the moment, he appears to add depth at the strong safety spot.

Fourth Round

Pick 5 (102nd overall) – Josh Boyce, WR, TCU

Boyce will immediately add depth at the slot receiver position, behind Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. His quickness and strength are reminiscent of both Edelman and Devery Henderson. Boyce has good hands but is not able to bring in balls when extending himself. He cuts well and is good at creating separation. Boyce seems to be a solid fourth round value pick.

Seventh Round

Pick 20 (226th overall) – Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois

Buchanan had a huge junior year for the Illini, then ended up in a fight and had his jaw wired shut, causing him to lose twenty pounds and causing him to have a disappointing senior year. Buchanan is a solid pass rusher who needs to gain weight and improve his technique, but could be a real find in the seventh round.

Pick 29 (235th overall) – Steve Beauharnais, LB, Rutgers

That’s right… the Pats grabbed another defender from Rutgers. Beauharnais is a solid, strong player who can stuff the run. He can cover on short passing plays but will struggle to cover right ends in man coverage, and he lacks the speed to be an edge rusher.

Beyond these players, the Patriots sent a seventh round pick and running back Jeff Demps to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for running back LeGarrette Blount, who failed to produce under Greg Schiano in Tampa. Blount had a solid rookie campaign but has struggled mightily over the past two seasons. If he can regain his form he would be an excellent complement to the Patriots’ backs, but the Patriots are deep at this spot and Blount is not a lock too make the team.

Apr 272013
 

Half MeasuresThe big talk of the second day of the 2013 NFL Draft is the Jets’ baffling selection of quarterback Geno Smith with the 39th pick. That’s right; a team riddled with needs and saddled with four non-starting quarterbacks bypassed all of their need areas to make a terrible quarterback situation even worse.

It was striking to me that immediately after Smith’s name was called, Jets’ fans in attendance at the draft were shown with their hands on their heads in stunned disbelief, while a Patriots’ fan was seen standing and applauding.

The decision to take Smith leads one to question who is calling the shots in New York. Is it owner Woody Johnson? Rookie general manager John Idzik? Or is it lame duck head coach Rex Ryan? It’s likely that fans will never know until all three write tell-all books blaming one another, but what is certain is that the debacle in New York promises to bring continued failure to Jets’ fans for the foreseeable future.

Jets’ fans stubbornly hold on to the fact that, not all that long ago, Head Coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez led the Jets to two straight AFC Championships. That has fueled the irrational hope in the fan base that the best days were still ahead… that the Jets would regain the glory they had last known with Broadway Joe. Guess again, Jets’ fans.

The cold truth is that those two AFC Championship Games were a fluke, and that the team got there on their defense and in spite of Sanchez, not because of him. As the Jets’ defense began to break down, the pressure built on Sanchez to do more than simply not lose a game, and Sanchez clearly has not been up to the challenge. The bottom fell out last season as Sanchez couldn’t get out of his own way, and the butt-fumble served as the crystallization of not just Sanchez’ 2012 season, but of his entire tenure with the New York Jets.

The half measures began when Woody Johnson ditched Mike Tannenbaum, who created the salary cap hell that the team faced after last season, but held on to Ryan, despite the fact that Ryan had badly mismanaged the Jets for two consecutive seasons. The wiser move would have been to get rid of Ryan as well, and let Idzik work with Johnson to identify a head coach who could help them realize their plan… assuming they had one. Instead, they kept Ryan as a buffer; to have a fall guy when the 2013 season tanks at least as badly as 2012. Enter Idzik, who took on a position that many GM candidates did not want, and Idzik seemed to start out well. He slashed payroll to bring the Jets under the cap and relieve themselves of some over-priced players. He brought in David Garrard as competition for Sanchez, and although Garrard’s best days are behind him, he could at least serve as an interim plan until 2014, when a better crop of quarterback talent is set to hit the draft. The Jets then suffered through a mini-circus with Darrelle Revis, and try as they might to drum up interest in the mercurial corner, only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were interested, netting the additional first round pick this season and a conditional (third round) pick next season. It also seemed odd to me that the Jets stubbornly held on to Tim Tebow, seemingly under the delusion that any NFL team was going to offer anything more than a kicking tee for the personal punt protector. Through all of this the Jets were insisting that Sanchez was their quarterback but that a competition would determine who would play in 2013, when the better move would have been to mirror the approach of the Oakland Raiders; simply cut Sanchez and take the financial hit while planning for a brighter future.

Geno SmithBut that would have been too easy for the Jets. Instead they have stubbornly held on to both Sanchez and Tebow, and then last night threw more gasoline on the fire with the selection of Smith. Is it possible that Smith could be a successful NFL starter? Sure. But is it likely? I’m not thinking so. First, Smith is not NFL-ready. Yes, he has a high percentage rate and few interceptions, but he regressed in his play at West Virginia, and the Mountaineers ran a safe offense that sought to hide Smith’s weaknesses. He locks on to his first read, his ball sails, and he worked almost exclusively from the shotgun. Remember also that the comparable talent level for Smith in West Virginia was better than what he is going to have in New York. This is a kid who needs time to develop with the right mentor, but the current landscape he appears more likely to be starting when the Jets face the Buccaneers on September 8th.

And where is the mentoring of Smith to come from? Marty Mornhinweg?  The Jets’ offensive coordinator came to New York from the Eagles, where they have suffered through a similar drama with Michael Vick and a chorus of backup quarterbacks. Quarterbacks coach David Lee didn’t fare well with Ryan Fitzpatrick, so maybe Smith will have to look towards the other quarterbacks on the roster for some assistance. Sanchez? Probably not a good idea to have arguably the worst starter in the league mentor a guy to take his job, right? Well then, how about Tim Tebow? Yeah, never mind. David Garrrard? He hasn’t played in two years and his best season is seven years into his rear-view mirror. That leaves Greg McElroy and Matt Simms. Once again, the Jets are guilty of taking a player who needs significant development, and they delude themselves into believing that they can maximize his potential. Yet if the best indicator of future performance is past performance, there is zero objective evidence to suggest that the Jets will be successful. On a team loaded with holes, the Jets now have six quarterbacks on their roster, and none of them is a capable NFL starter.

Idzik did make one good move yesterday in trading the Jets’ fourth round pick to the New Orleans Saints to obtain running back Chris Ivory. The Jets’ know that the lack of a running game exposes the teams’ lack of a quarterback, and Ivory is a hard-nosed runner who has done well in limited opportunities with the Saints, rushing for 217 yards and two touchdowns last season. But the Jets still have no receiving corps to speak of, and their offensive line is in need of additional improvement. Throwing another quarterback into the mix is a waste of second round talent that would have been better applied somewhere else on the roster.

While I didn’t particularly like the Milliner pick (a high first round pick on a corner with bad shoulders), the Jets were practical on Day One, grabbing a corner and a defensive tackle. With their second Day Two selection they took a versatile guard, so they are  starting to address their larger needs. But adding Smith to the roster is an unnecessary distraction to trying to do business the right way. It adds to the circus atmosphere that the Jets have created, and squanders a second round draft pick.

Last season I (accurately) predicted that the Jets would collapse, and that both Tannnenbaum and Ryan would be fired (I got that half right). So here is another prediction for Jets’ fans to consider; three years from now, after the Oakland Raiders have completed the task of rebuilding their franchise, they will be on top of the AFC West and will return to being an annual contender. Meanwhile in New York, Ryan will be long gone, Idzik will be out the door, and the Jets will still be at the bottom of the AFC East and in search of their franchise quarterback. And Joe Willie will still want to kiss Suzie.

Apr 262013
 

Margus HuntI am terrible at predicting who Bill Belichick will take in the NFL Draft, but then again who really is good at it? The only thing I could accurately predict last night when it came to the Master of Draft Value was that the Patriots would again trade out of the first round.

So for those of us who are Patriots’ fans, here is a small list of potential players for the second and third rounds. Round Two starts with Jacksonville at the 33rd pick (assuming they don’t trade it to the Jets) and the Patriots are on the clock at Picks 52, 59, 83 and 91. If we could get two of the following players, this Patriots’ fan would be absolutely thrilled.

DE Margus Hunt, SMU – A beast edge rusher who could complement Chandler Jones and move Ninkovich back to the linebacking corps.

DE Tank Carradine, Florida State – Strong defensive end, but not overly versatile.

LB Khaseem Greene, Rutgers – Belichick loves those Scarlet Knights, and Greene is a versatile linebacker who used to play safety. He fits the coverage need for the Pats.

WR Robert Woods, USC – Great route runner who is able to play in traffic; was one of the nation’s top college receivers last season.

WR Terrance Williams, Baylor – Solid outside threat who struggles over the middle of the field, but would fill the void left by Brandon Lloyd.

WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee – Taller than teammate Cordarrelle Patterson with great jumping ability; solid deep threat but needs to bulk up on his 6’4″ frame.

CB Jamar Taylor, Boise State – Fast and strong corner who needs to improve his technique; this is an area where Patriots’ coaching has struggled in recent years.

CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Connecticut – Good cover corner; two year captain of college team.

CB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU – A risky but intriguing and talented pick who could be a steal a la Alfonzo Dennard.

S Don Jones, Arkansas State – Very fast player with good tackling skills.

Mar 152013
 

John AbrahamThe New England Patriots’ improving defense may be getting an influx of veteran leadership, as the Patriots are bringing in safety Adrian Wilson (Arizona) and defensive ends Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis) and John Abraham (Atlanta).

The Patriots and Freeney know each other well. Freeney was the leader of the Colts’ defense that battled the Patriots throughout the past decade. He did not fit neatly into defensive coordinator Bruce Arians’ new defensive scheme in Indy, and is now looking for a new home. The eleven year veteran has seen his production diminish in recent seasons, but his leadership could be a boon to the Patriots’ young pass rushing talents. Similarly, Patriots’ fans are well aware of Abraham, as he spent his first six seasons with the Jets before spending seven years in Atlanta. Abraham had ten sacks for the Falcons last season and is still seen as a disruptive presence on the defensive line.  He would seem to be the better grab for the Patriots if they can land him. Abraham has 122 career sacks, while Freeney has collected 107.5.

Safety Adrian Wilson has spent his entire twelve year career with the Cardinals, and while lacking the physical nature of Bernard Pollard, he would be a stabilizing force in the secondary, where he could potentially play alongside Devin McCourty. That requires the Patriots to stabilize their cornerback situation, which is in flux right now given the free agent status of Aqib Talib and the forthcoming criminal sentencing of Alfonzo Dennard. Wilson has 27 interceptions and two touchdowns in his NFL career.

It looks like the Patriots have good plans for the money recouped through the restructuring of Tom Brady’s contract.  We will keep following this to see if the Patriots reel in any of the three.

Mar 142013
 

The sky is fallingYesterday’s signing of Wes Welker by the Denver Broncos has prompted quite an outcry of hysteria from Patriots’ fans, and from the Boston media in particular. I know I will find myself in the minority view on this one, but I am shedding no tears over Welker’s departure.

I hold no malice towards Welker, and think he has been a sensational player while in New England, racking up Hall of Fame caliber numbers while revolutionalizing the slot receiver position. An unproven talent coming out of the dysfunctional Miami Dolphins franchise, Welker caught 672 passes in six seasons with the Patriots for 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns. In the post-season Welker has been equally deadly, catching 69 balls in nine game for 686 yards and four touchdowns. Throw in Welker’s reliability as a punt returner, and it is clear that the Patriots have had the luxury of having one of the best all-purpose players in the NFL for the last six years. Critics will note that Welker led the league in dropped passes this season and has had some big post-season misses, and this is a fair criticism, but not one that suggests that the Patriots would be better off without Welker on the roster.

So what has changed?

Wes WelkerThere were a number of factors that led to Welker’s departure from Foxboro. From a strictly business perspective, the Patriots were not thrilled with spending over $9 million on a franchise deal last season after the Patriots offered Welker a two year deal worth a reported $16 million. Welker wanted a three year, $22 million deal, but the Patriots seemed concerned with a player on the wrong side of 30 in an offense that was designed to become less reliant on his talents. Welker chose not to take $8 million a year when it was offered, setting the stage for the showdown this off-season.  In the end Welker lost leverage and money, averaging just over $7 million a year for three years when he would have gotten $16 million from the Pats in two years and still had an opportunity for an extension. By contrast, the Patriots landed Danny Amendola for five years at $6.2 million per year, less than what Welker was initially offered, but more than he was offered ($5 million a year for two years) after the Patriots (from their perspective) overpaid in 2012. Like it or not, the Patriots are cold calculators of positions and talent, and felt that Amendola, a more proven but less durable receiver than Welker, was worth the risk.

One can also not know whether or not Welker had worn out his welcome with Bill Belichick. Welker famously got into trouble for his foot comments in the 2010 post-season, and was benched for the first drive of the Patriots’ divisional game against the Jets, a drive that resulted in a Brady interception on a play where Brady normally would have been looking for Welker. The drive helped set the tone for an embarrassing playoff loss. And while many fans were angry with Belichick for the benching, the head coach had been explicit in instructing his players to avoid the topic of Rex Ryan’s personal woes at all costs. Then we had the contract dispute last season, followed by Welker being miffed over the expansion of Aaron Hernandez’ and Julian Edelmans’ roles in the slot early in the season. At the end of the season Welker quipped how good it was to “stick it” to Belichick with his productivity, and I have no doubt that those words still linger in Bill Belichick’s memory.

Danny AmendolaEnter Danny Amendola. The Boston media is in hyperbolic full throttle about how Amendola will never “replace” Welker, and isn’t fit to hold his jock. While I can’t form an opinion on the latter part of that, the former is obvious. Of course Amendola will never replace Welker. No one could. But we need to consider what it means to “replace” Welker in the NFL’s best offense.

In his best season in New England (2009), Welker caught 123 passes in only 14 games. Last season, Welker was destined to see fewer balls thrown his way until injuries to Aaron Hernandez, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski deprived Tom Brady of key targets. He ended the season with 118 receptions. So, just for giggles, let’s assume that the Patriots are looking to replace 120 catches in Welker’s absence. So where is that coming from?

In 2010, when Amendola was healthy for every game, he caught 85 paases (for 689 yards and three touchdowns). Amendola has struggled to stay healthy, appearing in just twelve games over the past two seasons. But in those games has has caught 68 passes. When he is on the field, Amendola is money, and easily worth the financial investment made by the Patriots to secure a younger (27) and taller, slightly quicker talent. Yes, he hasn’t proven to be as durable as Welker, but injuries are a fact of life in the NFL. And Amendola is more proven as a receiver than Welker was when the Patriots acquired him for a second round pick, which at the time was viewed as a wild gamble on the part of Belichick.

Let’s assume that Amendola catches 80 passes in 2013; we can argue higher based on being in the Patriots’ (and Josh McDaniels’) “system” or we can argue lower based on injuries. But 80 catches seems to be a good place to start. That leaves us 40 more to find. Our eyes next fall on Aaron Hernandez, who caught 51 passes in 10 games last season after struggling with an ankle sprain. Assume Hernandez, who is a hybrid tight end and slot receiver, plays 15 games this season. On last year’s pace, that puts Hernandez at 75 catches, netting 24 more from last season and leaving us looking for another 16. Rob Gronkowski caught 55 balls in 11 games, so let’s assume he plays in 14. Gronk should be expected to catch 70 passes next season, and we are suddenly only one reception off of what we had with Welker. The jury is out on Brandon Lloyd, who had a solid season with 77 catches, but was deemed to be a “problem” in the locker room. Still, with Josh McDaniels as the coordinator, I rather suspect the Patriots will pay the $3 million roster bonus to keep Lloyd and his acrobatic catches in town. The only question left is who plays opposite of Lloyd, and the Patriots are likely to look at a number of players, including Donald Jones (scheduled for a visit), David Nelson, and possibly bringing back Julian Edelman. Throw in the fact that the Patriots have a very talented backfield duo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, and the idea that this offense is any less dangerous without Welker is a big stretch. Vereen’s play-making talent is extraordinary, and may well let the Patriots walk away from Danny Woodhead in the off-season. Leon Washington is being considered to replace Edelman and Welker on special teams, as well as to be a third running back.

All of these numbers are speculation, of course. But the fact remains that the league’s best offense in 2012, as good as it was, did not live up to its potential, particularly in big games.  Meanwhile, this wise expenditure of resources leaves the Patriots with enough cap room to bring in a small draft class (five picks) and still improve on the defensive side of the ball. The Patriots’ defense is again on the rise, and there is every reason to believe that the Patriots will again contend for another AFC Championship and Super Bowl bid.

Finally, there is the whole angle about the “sacrifice” made by Tom Brady to clear up cap room to retain Welker. With all due respect to Tom Brady (and a LOT is due), Brady freed up cap money to improve the team, not just take care of his friend. And improving the team means continuing to improve the defense, maintaining a potent offense, and getting younger as a team. And just for the record, Brady did not “sacrifice” money; it just got paid out to him up front. Not dissing on Brady, mind you, but instead suggesting that the anonymous source “close” to Brady who is spouting off against the Patriots  really needs to get a grip. I’m sure Tom will when training camp rolls around.

Wilfork jerseyFew Patriots players (Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, and hopefully Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork) make it to the end of the road as Patriots. Just ask Adam Vinatieri, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Mike Vrabel, Asante Samuel and many others. The Patriots’ business model says they would rather get rid of players a year too early than a year too late, and that model has served the Patriots well, as they continue to dominate the AFC East and are perennial championship contenders. We cheer for the laundry, folks, and any attachment to the players comes at our own risk as fans.

I greatly value the contributions made by Wes Welker and thank him for his service to the Patriots’ organization, the team that I love. I also wish him well in Denver, though I will hope he drops a key Peyton Manning pass in the closing minutes of the AFC Championship to seal a Patriots’ win. :-) Still, it is time to move his jersey to the back of the closet until he retires, when I can once again wear it with pride. And if Wes Welker does make it to the Hall of Fame (and he should), I fully expect him to be enshrined as a New England Patriot.

And now I finally have my justification to buy a Vince Wilfork jersey. I wonder if my loving wife will fall for that.

Jan 202013
 

Flacco and HarbaughThere were two ways to look at the AFC Championship Game at halftime. With the Patriots up 13-7 and exhibiting control on the defensive side of the ball, either the Patriots were on their way to a hard fought win, or else the Ravens had the Patriots exactly where they wanted them.

The latter point proved to be true.

Joe Flacco took over the game in the second half as the Ravens went to the air, scoring three times while the Patriots’ offense imploded, and the Ravens cruised to a 28-13 victory at Gillette Stadium.

The Ravens tried to run the ball in the first half, as the Patriots took away the Ravens passing attack with aggressive coverage, and Baltimore managed only two field goals in the first two quarters. But the Ravens were handed a gift late in the first half when Tom Brady inexplicably mismanaged the game clock in the final :15, forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal and a 13-7 lead, rather than taking one or two shots at the end zone. The Ravens’ offense came out attacking in the second half as Flacco took the proverbial gloves off and aired it out on his way to 240 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions on a 21/36 night.

Rather than a back and forth battle, the Patriots’ offense seemed to melt in the second half, as everything that could go wrong for the Patriots did. The Patriots lost the ball three times in the second half: once on a vicious head shot from Bernard Pollard on Stevan Ridley which forced a fumble, once when a Brady pass was deflected into the arms of Dannell Ellerbe, and once when Cary Williams undercut a Brady pass intended for Brandon Lloyd in the end zone. The Patriots were also plagued by two Wes Welker drops, one which was on a key third down play, and a poor decision by Brady to not run for a first down in the fourth quarter when he appeared to have ample room to run and extend the drive.

BoldinAnquan Boldin caught five passes, all in the second half, for 60 yards and two touchdowns, while Torrey Smith added four catches for 69 yards. The Patriots’ secondary did a good job of taking away Baltimore’s deep passing game, but tonight Flacco proved adept at taking what the Patriots would give him, as Baltimore methodically executed drives of 87 yards and 63 yards in the second half, as well as executing a quick four play, 47 yard drive to give Baltimore a two score lead with just over eleven minutes to play. The Patriots held Ray Rice to just 48 yards on 19 carries, while Bernard Pierce picked up 52 yards on nine carries. In total the Ravens rushed for 121 yards. Flacco took advantage of a Patriots’ secondary that had to play the entire second half without Aqib Talib, who left the game with a hamstring injury after breaking up a pass play.

Stevan Ridley led the Patriots with 70 rushing yards before he left the game in the second half with what appeared to be a concussion. Wes Welker led Patriots’ receivers with eight catches for 117 yards and a score. Aaron Hernandez added nine grabs for 83 yards and Brandon Lloyd had seven catches for 70 yards. But despite what appeared to be productive numbers, the Patriots’ offense simply never got in rhythm against the Ravens, with third down incompletions a recurring ending to numerous drives. Brady did not look sharp. and by the fourth quarter even the body language of the Patriots’ players was reflecting the score.

BradyRay Lewis led the Ravens with 14 tackles. Although the Ravens failed to record a sack, they were able to hit Brady frequently, and several passes were tipped or batted at the line. Conversely, the Patriots were able to get two sacks of Flacco (both by Rob Ninkovich), but were never able to apply consistent pressure to the Ravens’ quarterback. On one occasion when it looked like the Patriots would get to Flacco, he found Ray Rice in the middle and Rice promptly turned the play into a big 15 yard gain to extend the drive that would eventually give the Ravens a 14-13 lead.

Some Ravens were more gracious than others in the victory. While T Sizzle (Terrell Suggs) couldn’t wait to talk trash and play up the alleged disrespect card, center Matt Birk and safety Ed Reed were nothing but kind. “It’s unbelievable,” said Birk. “When is the last time anyone shut out the Patriots in the second half in Foxborough? It’s unbelievable.” Ed Reed added, “We went up against a great team today. A great organization. They’ve been champions. I was standing out in the hallway looking at Super Bowl pictures and the parades. It was a hard-fought game, and I’m grateful to be on this side of it.”

In the end analysis, the Ravens simply wanted this game more than the Patriots did, and it showed up in their execution throughout the second half.