Tag Archives: 2015 NFL Season

Patriots Free Agency Outlook, Tackles

Steve Balestrieri
February 23, 2016 at 8:28 am ET

The Patriots are set to enter the free agency phase of the 2016 off-season and we’ll explore some of the biggest needs of the team moving forward. And some of the names of their own free agents as well as some of their potential targets.

Next up on the free agency positional list: Tackles

Team Need: High

Returning players: Nate Solder (IR), Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Kaevon Milton, Kevin Hughes (IR),

Free Agents: Cameron Fleming (ERFA), LaAdrian Waddle

The Patriots getting overwhelmed at the point of attack in Denver still has Pats fans scratching their heads. It shouldn’t; the Broncos dominated a much better offensive line in Carolina’s during the Super Bowl and got a well-deserved win.

The changes with the Pats began quickly. OL Coach Dave DeGuglielmo was not re-signed and rumors were that the team was ready to move on from him weeks before the AFC Championship Game over the poor play of the unit.

Former LT Matt Light laid a lot of the blame on their poor play by the line not having prepared enough in the silent snap count and mixing it up more to keep Denver guessing. That would rest squarely on DeGuglielmo’s shoulders if true.

Long-time coach Dante Scarnecchia has returned and that has to be a great sign for the offensive line as a whole. Coach Scar always seemed to be able to get the best out of his players and he’s either coached or had a hand in drafting nearly every member of the unit.

After Nate Solder went down with a torn biceps the tackle position suffered. Sebastian Vollmer also missed time as well. Marcus Cannon started for a time and was a lightning rod for criticism and he was especially ineffective down the stretch. Cameron Fleming fared little better. The team brought in LaAdrian Waddle but he too was hurt down the stretch.

So what else will happen in 2016? Solder will return and that is a big plus. He’s signed through 2017 and will be fine at left tackle. Vollmer is returning as the starting right tackle and is on the hook for $2 million. Cannon has a contract that will pay him $3.4 million in 2016. That is far too much for a player of his caliber.

Vollmer is a big guy with back and knee issues, if they can, the Patriots should find a younger, more athletic right tackle and then re-do Vollmer’s contract and move him to swing tackle. That falls in line with the Patriots way of thinking, which is to replace a player perhaps a year too soon rather than a year too late.  The move would also prolong Sea Bass’ career a bit as well. Cannon’s cap hit can be eliminated and Waddle, who is an intriguing player could be brought back as well.

If they decide that is the way to go…there are some outstanding tackles available in free agency as well as the draft that can be good fits for the Patriots. First up is a tackle who was rated the #1 right tackle by Pro Football Focus (PFF).

Patriots Free Agency Outlook, Cornerbacks

Steve Balestrieri
February 22, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The Patriots are set to enter the free agency phase of the 2016 off-season and we’ll explore some of the biggest needs of the team moving forward. And some of the names of their own free agents as well as some of their potential targets.

Next up on the free agency positional list: Cornerbacks

Team Need: Medium

Returning players: Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Darryl Roberts (IR), Rashaan Melvin

Free Agents: Tarell Brown (IR), Justin Coleman (ERFA)

The Patriots entered 2015 with questions about their secondary especially the corner position having lost all three starters (Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington) from the Super Bowl winning team in the off-season. Gloom and doom was the order of the day. Most thought the Patriots would be forced to win 38-35 shootouts and the secondary would revert to the earlier 2010’s when the secondary was the Achilles Heel. The position went from one of strength to one considered a weakness.

It didn’t turn out that way, Malcolm Butler parlayed his Super Bowl heroics into a very solid first season of starting, going from a player on a tryout basis, to their starting left corner. No one on the Patriots defense played more snaps than Butler in 2015. He’ll be the starting left corner again in 2016 and will be in-line for a big payday soon.

Logan Ryan rebounded well after a poor second season in 2014. He moved into the starting RCB slot and started 14 games. He was the #11 rated CB according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) in 2015. He too is in-line for a raise and like Butler will become a free agent in 2017.

Coleman is a restricted rights free agent and should return and played well as the slot corner. Roberts was a 7th Round Draft pick last year, and turned heads in training camp and started the first preseason game against Green Bay before injuring his wrist in that game and ending up on IR. A very physically gifted CB, Roberts will be a player to watch on Day 1 of training camp this year.

Brown flashed his potential in the first three games (2 starts), but never recovered from his foot injury in 2014 and ended up on IR.

What the Patriots would really like is an upgrade at the RCB position and move Ryan into the slot. Bill Belichick loves his veterans on the defense and would like to bring in a veteran presence and allow the others to compete and sort out the rest.

Roberts and Coleman will no doubt be bolstered by some names both during and after the NFL draft as they look to build depth. But there are some intriguing free agent options out there. Here are a few that could be nice fits for the Patriots defense.

Patriots Free Agency Outlook, Tight Ends

Steve Balestrieri
February 20, 2016 at 10:15 am ET

The Patriots are set to enter the free agency phase of the 2016 off-season and we’ll explore some of the biggest needs of the team moving forward. And some of the names of their own free agents as well as some of their potential targets.

Next up on the free agency positional list: Tight Ends

Team Need: Medium

Returning players: Rob Gronkowski, Michael Williams, Scott Chandler, A.J. Derby (IR)

Free Agents: none

The Patriots entered 2015 with a pair of big tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler and the hope that the “Twin Towers” would be able to improve on an already potent offense. QB Tom Brady worked with the two tirelessly over the spring and summer, as they worked on getting both involved, especially in the red zone.

Gronkowski was entering 2015 healthy for the first time in a few years and it was thought the addition of Chandler would be a difficult one to stop. Things didn’t work out that way. Gronkowski had a fantastic season and caught 72 passes for 1176 yards, good for a stellar 16.3-yards per catch average and 11 touchdowns. He battled injuries late in the year but was Brady’s go-to guy for much of the season.

Chandler had a disappointing 2015, his first with the team. He caught only 23 passes for 259 yards and four touchdowns. After he had his best two statistical games against the Broncos and Eagles with Gronk out, he didn’t catch a single down the stretch and was relegated to the 3rd TE spot behind blocker Michael Williams.

Now the team has to decide whether to bring back Chandler who also battled injuries last season for a second go around and cover his cap hit of $3 million-dollars or cut him for a savings of $2.05 million. The value for that production says no but like Brandon LaFell, they’ll have to ask themselves if his lack of production was tied to not being completely healthy or was is just a poor fit?

After Gronkowski, the receiving options currently on the roster are limited to very little if they cut loose Chandler. Williams is a blocking tight end and Derby, a converted quarterback was never completely healthy and is pretty much an unknown quantity at this point.

If they delve into free agency here are a couple of names that could be of interest…

Patriots Free Agency Outlook, Linebackers

Steve Balestrieri
February 18, 2016 at 7:45 am ET

The Patriots are set to enter the free agency phase of the 2016 off-season and we’ll explore some of the biggest needs of the team moving forward. And some of the names of their own free agents as well as some of their potential targets.

Next up on the free agency positional list: Linebackers

Team Need: Medium

Returning players: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jonathan Freeny, Jon Bostic, Darius Fleming, Kevin Snyder

Free Agents: Dane Fletcher (IR), Dekoda Watson (UFA), Rufus Johnson (ERFA,IR)

The Patriots lost an iconic figure with the retirement of Jerod Mayo this week, and while it wasn’t entirely unsuspected it leaves the Patriots with a depth issue behind starters Hightower and Collins. Those two are arguably the best pair of linebackers in the league and the team’s immediate concern is locking them up long-term.

When each missed time last season, the team relied upon both Mayo and Freeny who was primarily known for his special teams play. With Mayo now retired, who will they look at to play some important snaps and keep Hightower and Collins fresh.

Bostic would seem a likely choice, he was a starter in Chicago before coming over last season but played primarily on STs. With a year in the system could his role increase? Surely, but at this point, I wouldn’t expect the team to be banking on his rise.

Fleming, Snyder along with Fletcher, Watson and Johnson if they return are strictly depth type players. Which leaves the Patriots in a position to fill an important slot before training camp begins in July. They could address this in the draft or via free agency.

Here are a few free agents that could be on their radar, beginning with a guy that they’ve targeted in the past.

Patriots Free Agency Outlook – Wide Receivers

Steve Balestrieri
February 16, 2016 at 6:26 am ET

The Patriots are set to enter the free agency phase of the 2016 off-season and we’ll explore some of the biggest needs of the team moving forward. And some of the names of their own free agents as well as some of their potential targets.

First up on the free agency positional list: Wide Receivers

Team Need: High

Returning players: Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, Keshawn Martin, Chris Harper, Josh Boyce (IR), Aaron Dobson (IR)

Free Agents: Brian Tyms (RFA/IR), Brandon Gibson (UFA)

The Patriots are entering another year with uncertainty pertaining to their wide receiving core. There is Julian Edelman and question marks. Keshawn Martin signed an extension and will definitely be back in 2016, but what about everyone else?

Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell are both slotted to return but Amendola will no doubt have to re-do his deal which is slotted to count $6.8 million against the salary cap. LaFell was never healthy and had a really bad year after a big 2014 season. He could find himself cut early this spring or if the team feels his poor season was due solely to his not being healthy, he could be back and be allowed to win back his job. LaFell is due to count $3.6 million against the cap in 2016.

Chris Harper flashed in training camp and preseason. Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson could each find themselves out after injuries derailed their third season for the Pats.  Brandon Gibson and Brian Tyms both seemed destined for the roster in 2015 before injuries cut short their seasons in camp.

The team needs some youth, size and speed on the outside. Not necessarily a deep threat, that everyone clamors for, since that isn’t their offense. But someone who can stretch the field horizontally as well as vertically and has the size to go up and grab those contested throws.

Up Next…some of the free agent wide receivers that can help the team:

Patriots Free Agency Outlook – Running Backs

Steve Balestrieri
February 15, 2016 at 10:37 am ET

The Patriots are set to enter the free agency phase of the 2016 off-season and we’ll explore some of the biggest needs of the team moving forward. And some of the names of their own free agents as well as some of their potential targets.

First up on the free agency positional list: Running Back

Team Need: High

Given the injuries to the offensive line and then losing both starters (Dion Lewis, LaGarrette Blount) to IR during the season doomed the Pats running game in 2015. Truth be told, they ran the ball very poorly overall for most of the season and it was a major reason for their failure in the AFC Championship Game. Play-action passing, a big staple of their offense was rendered moot, when they ran only 14 times, and were ineffective on all of them.

Returning players: Brandon Bolden, James White, Dion Lewis (IR), Tyler Gaffney (IR), Joey Iosefa

Free Agents: LaGarrette Blount, James Develin, Steven Jackson

The team really needs a big, physical running back that can grind out the yardage between the tackles, take the heat off of Tom Brady and the passing game and have the ability to put games away late.

Being in the Patriots offense, the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield as well as pass protection are things that are always important as well.

Here is a snapshot of the free agents that are available for New England when free agency begins on March 9:

New England Patriots News 2-14 and AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
February 14, 2016 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, and a very Happy Valentine’s Day to our friends and readers. Here are Sunday’s Patriots news notes and what’s happening around the division.

Brady Takes the High Road and Gets Booed: Well the NFL had a nice little ceremony prior to Super Bowl L honoring the prior MVPs from the previous 49 before this one got underway between Denver and Carolina.

Much was made of whether or not Tom Brady would show up for the festivities considering the slander job that the league and Roger Goodell threw on his doorstep in the Deflategate saga. “Take the high road” was the mantra heard all week when the media was discussing Brady. “Show respect for the game” was another.

Brady did go and taking the high road got him not a loud ovation of cheers like the other MVPs but a loud chorus of boos as he was introduced unlike any other of the 43 players introduced.

Pats owner Bob Kraft did an interview with WCVB’s Maria Stephanos this week and had this to say, “All the social media chatter, and I think there were a lot of Denver fans and Raider fans in the audience since it was so close. I don’t know. I think they see us as a big rival.

“He is such a classy, wonderful guy. He went there representing our team, our coaches, our fans.”

Hometown Son: Kraft did add later, “I happened to see Archie [Manning] there. He has two sons now who have won two Super Bowls, but with all due respect, we’ve got one son who has won four.”

Brady took the high road also before the game telling Westwood One Radio’s Jim Gray, ““It’s really a celebration of the great teams that I have been a part of and for me I am really proud to represent all those teams that won these great championships. They are hard to win. Any number of guys could have won this award, any number of years that we’ve won it. I stand up here representing all those other guys too,” he said.

NFL Combine Bans Players Convicted of Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence: In an attempt to clean up their image, the NFL will no longer allow players with convictions for domestic violence, sexual assault or weapons offenses to attend the annual scouting combine in Indianapolis.

The league came to this decision about a month ago and let teams be aware of this change. The NFL’s executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent wrote that invited prospects would be barred from “any league-related event” if a background check turns up a felony or misdemeanor conviction. Players that refuse to submit to a background check are also to be uninvited. This ban will include the NFL Draft as well.

Players who are barred from the combine will have no restrictions from attending other private team workouts, pro days and regional combines according to the league, and of course they’ll still be eligible to be drafted.

In related news, the Patriots wasted little time in jettisoning running back Montee Ball after he was arrested in a dispute with his girlfriend in a disturbance at a Madison, WI hotel last week. Ball was charged after reportedly striking his girlfriend in the face. He spent time on the Patriots practice squad in 2015 and signed a future’s contract with NE on Feb. 1.

Teaser for a Guy with the “Right Stuff”: Unlike the players that could be listed in the above paragraphs, check back with us soon for an interview with small school linebacker Larry Butler III.  Butler was the 2nd ranked linebacker coming out of JUCO and although had a commitment at Tennessee, opted for Div. 2 due to a technicality.

We sat down with this impressive young man and spoke to him, his head coach and defensive coordinator. He’s a small school stud that could find himself a home being a MLB/ILB in the NFL if given a shot.

Patriots WRs Need an influx of Youth, Speed: The Patriots are once again facing a lot of questions around their wide receiving core. The only players that are a definite for the 2016 roster is Julian Edelman and Keshawn Martin. Edelman was on pace for career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns before breaking his foot. Edelman turns 30 in May and isn’t alone as the team needs to be upgraded with a dose of youth and speed.

Danny Amendola had career highs in catches (65) but he too had injury woes of his own (knee) during the second half of the season. Amendola who will turn 31 in November has a $6.8 million-dollar cap hit this season and will probably have to restructure to remain a Patriot.

Brandon LaFell will turn 30 in November and had a forgettable season where he began on PUP and never caught on as his season was filled with drops, misrun routes and where 12 months after a 1000-yard season found himself replaced as the 4th option and had zero touchdowns in 2015. He may find himself cut if the team feels his $3.7 million-dollar cap hit can be replaced via free agency and/or the draft.

Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce were injured again in 2015 and have done little to justify confidence that they can ever be viable to this offense. Brian Tyms and Brandon Gibson were on their way to securing roster spots last season before injuries derailed them in preseason. DeAndre Carter signed a future’s deal, Chris Harper flashed in training camp and Martin showed to be a valued kick returner and has some upside as a wide receiver.

There is room for a lot of turnover here and the team desperately needs a wide receiver with size and speed. That is not to mean a “deep threat” that every season the fans clamor for. That isn’t the Patriots offense; but they do need a guy who with players like Edelman and Rob Gronkowski who open up large tracts of terrain for them underneath, can catch the ball and use his speed to make yards after catch (YAC).

Mexico City game a tipping point? The NFL’s latest foray into the league’s “International Series in 2016 will include three games in London and one in Mexico City.

On October 2, the Jacksonville Jaguars will host the Indianapolis Colts at Wembley Stadium. On October 23, the Los Angeles Rams will host the New York Giants at Twickenham Stadium, and finally, on October 30, the Cincinnati Bengals will host the Washington Redskins at Wembley Stadium. All three of those games will take place in London.

On February 5, 2016, the league also announced that the Oakland Raiders will host the Houston Texans on Monday November 21, 2016 at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. This will be the first time Monday Night Football has been held outside the US.

Having traveled extensively I can speak first hand for the passion that the people of both cities have for the sport. I lived in Mexico City a couple of different times and the NFL there is hugely popular.

But without trying to insult our overseas friends, how much is too much. The four games already going outside the US will be four home games, that NFL fans of those teams lose out on. I have no problem with growing the game in overseas’ markets but the last thing you want is to alienate your own fan bases while doing so.

Perhaps have some preseason games and training camp practices in each location would be an alternative. Those aren’t traditionally sold out anyway and wouldn’t be a drain on the USA’s fans.

That way then the fans in outside the US markets could see the players up close and get to interact with them much more for about a week rather than just a Sunday game.

East Bound and Down, AFC East Notes:
Bills McCoy involved in club assault with off-duty cops:
Philadelphia police have confirmed that Bills RB LeSean McCoy was definitely involved in a scuffle in a nightclub where two policemen were injured, one seriously.

McCoy is one of four individuals under investigation for allegedly assaulting two off-duty police officers early Sunday at the Recess Lounge, reportedly over a bottle of champagne.

Police reports stated that “pushing and shoving” over the bottle led to one of the off-duty officers being knocked down, and while he was on the ground, he was “punched, kicked and stomped about his body and head multiple times by all four suspects.”

The officer knocked to the ground, Roland Butler, went to a hospital, where he was treated and released for a cuts, a broken nose, broken ribs and a sprained thumb. The officer who broke up the fight was more seriously injured and was admitted to the hospital, where he received eight stitches over his left eye and a possible skull fracture, police said.

No charges have been filed as of yet, but some are expected as early as Wednesday.

Kerley on the outs in NJ could mean a release: Jets wide receiver Jeremy Kerley may quickly find himself out of a job, and if I’m the Patriots, I am paying close attention.

Kerley was phased out of the Jets offense in 2015 as the team moved Eric Decker into the slot with the addition of Brandon Marshall. That left Kerley out of mix and into the cold. This could that mean his time with the Jets is over, and the management cutting him loose. Kerley has always been an intriguing if underwhelming receiver.

His best season came in 2012 with 56 receptions for 827 yards and two touchdowns. He only had 16 receptions in 2016, but is a solid and dependable punt returner. He returned 48 punts in 2015 for 411 yards with a long of 58.

If the Jets do decide to cut ties with him, he could be an intriguing option working with Tom Brady especially out of the slot.

Dolphins Cut Coples, Brice McCain: Miami wasted no time in getting the new regime situated before cutting two of their players this week. The team axed former Jets first round pick Quinton Coples and CB Brice McCain.

McCain played in the slot for Miami and had a generally forgettable season. His cutting saves the team $2.5 million in salary cap space. Coples had a bloated cap hit of $7.8 million and was trying to catch on as an edge rusher with the Fins.

There should be a few teams interested in Coples, seeing if he can jump start his career but it will be far less than his current cap hit. The 6’6, 290-pound Coples had a career high 6.5 sacks for the Jets in 2014 but had zero and only eight tackles in 15 games for the Dolphins and Jets this season.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Free Agent Profile – Nate Ebner

Steve Balestrieri
February 13, 2016 at 9:34 am ET

The Patriots have a couple of decisions to make in regard to free agents this off-season, but they are mainly to do with their role players and not with the starters like last year or the upcoming 2017 season.

The Patriots are deepest at the safety position with Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Tavon Wilson, S/LB Brandon King and Nate Ebner on the roster during the 2015.

But Ebner like Wilson and King makes his living (and very well) as being a core special teams player. Since being drafted in the 6th round of the 2012 NFL Draft, no one has played more STs snaps than Ebner.  He plays few snaps on defense but it one of the team’s more valued players there besides Matthew Slater. The Patriots have long coveted those type of players dating back to Larry Izzo, Chris and Tracy White under Bill Belichick.

The 6’0, 200-pound Ohio State product is as tough as they come, being a former member of the US National Rugby Team. While a Buckeye, his prowess on kickoffs is stuff of legend as he was compared to “a heat seeking missile.”  He and fellow former Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne are making the NFL much more visible for the game’s closely related cousin.

“Maybe it’s the physical nature of what both sports bring that allows some transition there, but I think it all comes down to a personal mindset,” Ebner said to Patriots.com back in preseason. “Whoever it is, I just think it’s a personal mindset. The role you take, how you play the game. I think it depends on the person, man.”

Still young, Ebner will be 27 when the season starts in September. Although his 40-time (4.53) isn’t fantastic, his athletic change of direction in the all-important three-cone (6.59 seconds), strength (23 reps) and explosion (39-inch vertical leap, 10’8″ broad jump) are in rarified air for a safety.

Why Ebner Will Return: Ebner is one of the Patriots’ toughest hombres on the field. Anyone who’s played at a high level of rugby has that block checked. His special teams value is right up there with Slater and Belichick, coming from a STs background, has always placed a high premium on their play.

A new contract for him shouldn’t break the bank, the team could probably re-sign him for around the $1million-dollar mark. Given that he’s a core special teamer who can fill in as a sub-linebacker or safety in short yardage or goal line, it is a bargain.

Bill Belichick certainly has a lot to say on whether they bring him back, he’s what he had to say about Ebner prior to Super Bowl XLIX, “His development has really been outstanding. I would probably put him in the, not the all-time top, but maybe in the top-five percent all time of players that I’ve coached, from where they were in college to how they grew in the NFL,” Belichick said.

“He has adapted in a relatively short amount of time to the knowledge of our defense, to the understanding of opponents’ offenses, to instinctiveness and reading and recognition at a position that he plays right in the middle of the field, which is among the most difficult – inside linebacker and safety – where the number of things that can happen is the greatest.

Why Ebner Won’t Return: The Patriots would probably try to match anything up to a certain degree if they were to get into a bidding war for Ebner’s services. Where he has a very limited value on defense, the biggest threat to his not returning would be if a Special Teams needy team wants him to anchor down their unit, in the manner of Slater and wants to pay him for that.

Bottom Line:  This one is a no-brainer; there is virtually no way other than the above scenario that the Patriots wouldn’t want to bring Ebner back. He, Slater and King are the cornerstones of a very solid unit that is already set in the kicking department with Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen and long-snapper Joe Cardona.

Ebner along with Akiem Hicks has been tagged all along as the Patriots two most prized free agents to bring back this season.

Chances are around 90 percent that the Patriots bring him back in 2016.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Is the NFL’s Pendulum Swinging Back to the Running Game?

Steve Balestrieri
February 12, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The NFL is a passing league and it is driven by the quarterbacks. With the plethora of talented passers and athletic receivers in the league, it has led to an explosion of passing yards, touchdowns and offenses that love to spread out defenses and find mismatches.

That has led to smaller, faster and more athletic defenses that have to try to keep up with these offenses. Denver’s defense is a prime example, a very athletic, blistering fast unit that uses speed to overwhelm their opponents.

But the NFL is always evolving and the league is trending back to being more run based but at a bare minimum, it is going to be much more balanced in terms of offense. A quick look at the final eight teams that rounded out the NFL’s season from the Divisional Round thru the Super Bowl shows that for the most part,  teams that ran the ball well were the ones standing in the end.

All four of the teams from the NFC were in the top 12 of rushing. Carolina was the #2 rushing team in the NFL averaging 142.6 yards per game. Seattle was the #3 rushing team, even without Marshawn Lynch down the stretch averaging 141.8. Arizona came in 8th with 119.8 yards per game and Green Bay rounded out the NFC at #12 with 115.6 yards per game.

Over in the AFC, Kansas City was the #6 rushing team in the NFL averaging 127.8 yards per game. Pittsburgh came in 16th with 107.8 yards per game. But they lost LeVeon Bell after only six games in 2015 with him serving the first two games of the season on a suspension and then him going down with a season ending injury, tearing an MCL in Week 8.

Denver was right behind Pittsburgh in 17th place in the league averaging 107.4 yards per game. But that number needs to be looked at closer. After Peyton Manning was sat down, and Brock Osweiler took over, Gary Kubiak finally installed the running game as he envisioned it with the QB under center. The results were startling. In the last seven games of the season, Denver averaged 134.9 yards per game, which would have put them right around 5th/6th place over the course of a season.

Only the New England Patriots were the anomaly in the final eight, rushing for a paltry 87.8 yards per game, 30th in the NFL. Their success had more to do with the ability of Tom Brady than anything else and why they made it the conference championship.

It also isn’t surprising that the league’s top five scoring teams (Car, AZ, NE, Sea, Pitts) are also on this list, again only the Patriots are the wildcard with the vast onus being on the passing game. Kansas City finished with the 9th top scoring team in the league.

Does this mean that the NFL is going back to the 4 yards and a cloud of dust days? Hardly, as long as QBs like Brady, Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger et al. are under center teams are going to throw the ball and do so very well.

But to combat the fast nickel and dime defenses that teams are playing more and more with five and six defensive backs on the field, teams are going back to more of balanced run based approach. It keeps the downs and distances manageable and when facing third and short, teams that run effectively have the option of mixing things up and keeping the chains moving.

The NFL is a copycat league, with the success of both Denver and Carolina having very good running attacks and fast, athletic defenses, look for the other teams in the league trying to duplicate their success. The age of the mobile, big-armed QBs are here and now the defenses will have to adjust accordingly again.

Bill Belichick likes to stay a step ahead of the trends in the game, when the Patriots play their nickel and dime defenses, they frequently do so with extra safeties instead of cornerbacks. Part of the reason is in the AFC East, they play the Bills and Jets, two teams that run the ball extremely well.

Safeties who take the place of linebackers in the big nickel defense have to be able to stuff the run and still be able to cover tight ends and running backs and the occasional slot receiver. Big safeties who can stuff the run and cover will become increasingly sought after as teams play more in their sub-packages than in their base defenses.

What does this mean for New England? Well one last look at the coach’s film from the AFC Championship Game shows that at a bare minimum, they’re going to need a complimentary running game if they want to get back to the big game.

They can’t rely on Tom Brady chucking the ball 80 percent of the time. Being one-dimensional against a very good defense like Denver’s hurt them twice in 2015. Brady took a beating in both games. With him turning 39 this season, they can’t afford to have him going down because the defense is just pinning their ears back.

So while the Patriots haven’t valued the running back position in recent years, perhaps this is a good time, to reverse that trend a bit and spend the money and/or draft picks to get themselves a higher tier running back. They’ve proven they can throw it with the best of teams, but with a viable running game, not only will it make the passing game even more effective, it will limit the abuse your 39-year old QB has to take.

There are some intriguing names out there both in free agency and the draft, several that can be had in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds. The league is trending towards having better rushing attacks again. The Pats are already well equipped to stop those. Now they need to get to work on getting one of their own.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Free Agent Profile Sealver Siliga

Steve Balestrieri
February 11, 2016 at 6:43 am ET

The Patriots have a couple of decisions to make in regard to free agents this offseason, but they are mainly to do with their role players and not with the starters like last year or the upcoming 2017 season.

The Patriots are deep at the defensive tackle position; starters last season were rookie Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, the latter who played very well but is entering into the last season on his contract. The rotation consisted of Dominique Easley, Sealver Siliga, Akiem Hicks and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen. The team also has Chris Jones returning as well as Joe Vellano. Easley was the team’s top draft choice in 2014 but has never played a full season due to injuries.

Siliga was signed to the Patriots practice squad back in October 2013 and if re-signed will start his fourth season with the team. With the departure of Vince Wilfork last spring, it was penciled in that he’d take over the starting tackle position while the rookie Brown found his feet in the pro game.

But after starting the first few games, Siliga had a poor outing against the Colts in Week 5, losing containment on several plays. The next week, he lost the starting job to Brown and played only 10 defensive snaps against the Jets, although chipping in with three tackles.

The big 6’2, 325-pound run stuffer is one of two free agents (Hicks), the Patriots have in their interior. He’ll turn 26 in April and still has plenty of tread left on his tires. Now the question is, after losing his starting job and a lot of snaps to the duo of Brown and Branch, will the Patriots bring Siliga back for the 2016 season?

Why Siliga Will Return: Siliga is one of those big bodied guys who are invaluable as run stuffers. One of the indelible moments of training camp was his crunching hit of Tyler Gaffney on August 1, shooting across the gap and leveling the runner as he was trying to get to the second level. That’s his type of play and frankly the type that the Patriots need more of.

With the injury history of both Easley and Jones and Branch’s uncertain future given his age (31) and his contract status, it would certainly bode well for the Patriots to at least bring him back to compete for a slot in training camp. He certainly shouldn’t break the bank and with Hicks possibly commanding a lot of money in free agency, their depth would certainly take a hit if they were to lose both.

At a minimum, if Hicks returns and Easley is healthy, Siliga would provide the big-bodied run stuffing rotation against the run heavy teams that the Patriots will face in 2016.

Why Siliga Won’t Return: The Patriots may see the diminishing returns of Siliga this season as a sign of things to come. If they re-sign Hicks then their rotation with he, Branch, Brown and Easley would be close to being set and Siliga would be relegated to a #5 role.

The big man has also battled some injury concerns as well and that will also have to be taken into consideration.

Bottom Line:  It makes too much sense for the Patriots not to offer Siliga a team-friendly deal and bring him back to compete for playing time during the spring and summer workouts. Training camp snaps will become important as they have potentially a lot of depth to work with.

There shouldn’t be a ton of pursuers coming after Siliga so a bidding war isn’t in the cards. Much of their decision may come down to how their negotiations go with Hicks and monitoring the health of Easley and Jones in the spring. Easley didn’t need surgery on his injured quad so that was a positive sign for the 2nd year player.

Siliga has been a nice part of the team’s rotation up front and given the extent of the injuries the team has suffered the past few years, the chances are 60/40 or better that they’ll bring him back in 2016.

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