It was Herman Edwards who once said “a goal without a plan is a wish.”
There is reason to believe a goal is in mind for the New England Patriots after one week of moves. With Darrelle Revis a New York Jet, Brandon Browner a New Orleans Saint, Shane Vereen a New York Giant, and Vince Wilfork a Houston Texan, there’s also reason to believe there is a plan.
But exactly what that plan entails hasn’t been shared by head coach Bill Belichick. And when it is, it won’t be with words.
Time will tell how the organization will address the key positional needs on the roster. It could be told in the coming weeks, in a trade, in the draft, or in the season opener next September. But right now, however it may ultimately be addressed, New England is heading into the second week of the free-agent process with newfound vacancies.
Here is a look at three which stand prominently, with the impending future of free-agent guard Dan Connolly and the interior line duly noted alongside them.
- Average Age: 25
- Former Patriots Draft Picks: 2
- 2014 Participation: 36 Games, 14 Starts, 1,398 Snaps
- 2014 Stats: 111 Tackles, 1 Sack, 3 Forced Fumbles, 10 Breakups, 3 Interceptions
- Departing: Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner
- Joining: Chimdi Chekwa
- Returning: Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard, Malcolm Butler, Daxton Swanson, Justin Green
Without Revis and Browner manning the outskirts, the Patriots’ secondary is in its early March 2013 form. There is Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard, and there is also the likes of Malcolm Butler, Daxton Swanson, Justin Green and former Oakland Raider Chimdi Chekwa.
None of whom are in the mold of a four-time first-team All-Pro like Revis, nor are any of whom in the mold of a 6-foot-4, 221-pound press-man corner like Browner. That is expected. Those two are irreplaceable when it comes to what the defensive backfield was during its Super Bowl journey in 2014. And neither will be replaced when it comes to free agency or the draft.
But when one left, the Patriots looked on as the other left as well, marking a seismic shift in the dimensions of the position. New England will not be able to supplant those losses at cornerback with more cornerbacks, but by investing those available resources elsewhere.
That was illustrated shortly after free agency opened as former Cleveland Browns edge-rusher Jabaal Sheard agreed to terms. And while it probably won’t be illustrated loudly over the duration of free agency, that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be at all.
It may not signify an entirely new scheme adjustment after the Patriots played primarily Cover-1 man this past season. But whatever the 2015 defense does play, it will be to its strengths. It will be to what it is rather than what it was.
- Average Age: 24
- Former Patriots Draft Picks: 1
- 2014 Participation: 19 Games, 2 Starts, 168 Snaps
- 2014 Stats: 37 Carries, 127 Rushing Yards, 7 Catches, 31 Receiving Yards
- Departing: Shane Vereen
- Joining: Dion Lewis, Travaris Cadet
- Returning: James White, Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney
Vereen’s utilization added a different layer to New England’s offensive gameplan, and that was last showcased against the Seattle Seahawks as the former second-rounder caught 11 passes – the most for a running back in Super Bowl history. But after four regular seasons, 1,023 receiving yards on 159 catches, 907 rushing yards on 217 carries, and a total of 12 touchdowns, that mismatch now finds himself elsewhere.
No. 34 was a variable for the way he stretched defensive personnel, whether it be on a draw play up the middle, a screen off the tackle, or a motion off the abutting wideout. He forced defensive lines into hurry-up, he forced linebackers into coverage, and he forced defensive backs to account for him while others accounted for catches.
Vereen will do the same for the Giants in East Rutherford, yet that doesn’t mean the Patriots can’t do the same in Foxborough. Not long ago, Vereen was a different kind of variable in New England’s offense – an unproven one. The California product did not catch a pass as a rookie in 2011. And through 2012, he had caught eight. But in time, his opportunities and usage expanded. He became the team’s lead third-down back in 2013, after his predecessor, Danny Woodhead, signed with the San Diego Chargers.
Perhaps a similar story will once be written by James White, a fourth-round pick in 2014, who was inactive for all but three games this past season. Also 5-foot-10 and 205-pounds, White’s sample size was small behind Vereen as a rookie. He spelled in for only glimpses, but motioned out wide, turned out of the backfield, caught five passes, and saw snaps in the two-minute offense.
Yet it’s expected White will have company as he vies for a spot on third down. That company could be special-teamer Brandon Bolden, who has previously worked in relief of an injured Vereen. It could be former Carolina Panthers sixth-rounder Tyler Gaffney or reserve-futures signing Dion Lewis. It could be veteran free agent Travaris Cadet, who has since signed after catching 38 passes for the Saints last season. But it also could be someone not yet drafted.
- Average Age: 26
- Former Patriots Draft Picks: 1
- 2014 Participation: 46 Games, 22 Starts, 1,267 Snaps
- 2014 Stats: 86 Tackles, 7.5 Sacks, 0 Forced Fumbles, 2 Breakups, 1 Interception
- Departing: Vince Wilfork
- Joining: Antonio Johnson
- Returning: Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch, Chris Jones, Dominique Easley, Joe Vellano
The era of No. 75 officially ended on March 16 in Houston, two weeks after the second-longest tenured Patriot announced his option would not be picked up by the organization. And now, New England’s defensive tackle position stands five Pro Bowls lighter and without a captain.
Wilfork’s departure comes just days after both Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch re-signed to bolster the lane-clogging side of the depth chart, where they are joined by former 6-foot-3, 328-pound Tennessee Titan Antonio Johnson, who signed a futures deal on New Year’s Eve. It does, however, appear imminent that those three will be joined by another in some form or fashion.
But while the Patriots were quiet on the nose-related front through the first wave of free agency, the likes of Nick Fairley and Terrance Knighton found new homes. In retrospect, maybe that’s because it wasn’t the plan Belichick and the personnel department had on file to begin with. Maybe the plan was long-term, beyond the free-agent market. Maybe the plan was always to go through the draft.
New England’s interior defensive line averages out to 26 years old, and it could soon become younger. And even though a first-round choice was invested in Florida one-technique rusher Dominique Easley last May, that investment could soon be met by another of a different sort.
The value of a two-gapping run-stuffer may not be what it once was, as the position itself is trending towards the streamlined version. But if the return of both Siliga and Branch indicates one thing, it’s that it’s still important to have defensive tackles built to be a little of both. The Patriots’ three- and four-man lines have started in the middle, and last season, the unit was often at its strongest when over 975 pounds resided there.