Tag Archives: 2015 Patriots Season

Patriots Training Camp Primer – Linebackers

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

Top End Talent, But Depth Needed in 2016

The Patriots head into training camp next week and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up are the Linebackers.

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

So the next position to break down are the linebackers. The Patriots have two of the best LBs in the business with Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. But they each missed time in 2015 and the depth behind them was a problem. The run defense really suffered when Hightower was injured in the Denver game in November.

Jamie-Collins,-Chandler

Both are free agents at the end of this season, something the Patriots should try to rectify this summer. Jonathan Freeny played some meaningful snaps on defense but struggled with his consistency.

The team signed former Bears LB Shea McClellin this spring and the former first round pick gives them some versatility. He can play DE, OLB, and ILB. During the spring, McClellin was seen mostly at DE but I’d expect him to revert to linebacker once the pads come on.

So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin
Collins and Hightower are a fantastic duo at linebacker. One of the reasons I don’t care for those Top 10 Lists or in this case the NFL’s Top 100 is how can Collins be left off of that?

The freakishly athletic 6’3, 250-pound linebacker led the team in tackles with 89, had 5.5 sacks and forced five fumbles despite playing in only 12 games. He missed four games due to an illness. He’s also outstanding in coverage and can make plays all over the field. Pro Football Focus (PFF), had Collins rated as the AFC’s top linebacker in 2015.

While Collins and for that matter Hightower didn’t make the Top 100 player list, should they hit free agency they’ll get paid like one.

Hightower is the perfect complement to Collins. Big at 6’3, 265-pounds, he is a fantastic run stuffer in the box with his size and instinctive play. Smart, he calls the plays for the defense and ensures everyone is lined correctly pre-snap. He logged 61 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 12 games last season. Hightower is the glue that holds the front seven together and provides the solid run protection while Collins is the athletic playmaker.

McClellin came over from the Bears during free agency and the biggest question about his signing is, where will he fit?  New England was interested in him during the draft process in 2012 but the Bears selected him in the first round with the 19th overall pick.

Chicago initially had him as a sub-package edge rusher, a full-time defensive end, then two years ago they moved to linebacker where he lined up outside and then in the Mike position. While the Patriots worked him as a defensive end during the spring, look for him to revert to his best fit and that would be as a linebacker. McClellin will initially back up Collins and Hightower and go on the field when they play their base defense.

On the Bubble: Jonathan Freeny, Rufus Johnson, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Ramon Humber
Freeny came over from the Dolphins a year ago with the reputation as a solid special team performer. He did that but was pressed into service much more on defense after both Collins and Hightower were lost for periods of time during the year.

He logged the third most snaps at linebacker for the Patriots behind Collins and Hightower and notched 50 tackles, one sack, two QB pressures, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. But although he was serviceable against the run, Freeny struggled in coverage, allowing 19 of 21 passes to be completed. That must improve.

Johnson made the team out of training camp in 2015 only to end up on IR with an illness in October. The 6’5, the 280-pound backer is athletic and turned heads as a pass rusher in camp. His size and versatility (he can also play DE), may give him a leg up on Freeny if it comes down to a numbers crunch.

With defenses around the NFL getting smaller and more athletic, a player’s versatility can sometimes mean a world of difference between a roster spot and that dreaded call from the “Turk”. That’s where Kamu Grugier-Hill comes in. He is built like a safety, can run like a slot corner and plays linebacker.

The 6’2, 215-pound hybrid S/LB was drafted in the 6th round of this year’s draft with the 208th overall pick. He’s certainly athletic; he ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash with a 1.52 10-yard split. Coupled with a 6 .89-second time in the 3-Cone Drill, a 38.5-inch vertical leap, and a 10-foot, 9-inch broad jump, he’s intriguing, to say the least. He was getting a lot of 1-on-1 work with Special Teams Coach Joe Judge this spring and he should fit well in a gunner role as well as a punt blocker. But he could also see some time as hybrid “money” LB/S role that Pat Chung plays as well.

Grugier-Hill,-King-STs

Humber was the first player signed by the Patriots during free agency on March 9. He’s a standout special teams’ performer but with a limited ceiling on defense. He did have 13 starts at middle linebacker in the past three years as an injury replacement.

Originally signed in 2009 by the Colts as a UDFA out of North Dakota State, Humber moved over to the Saints in 2010 and played there until being released this spring. He may find himself pushed hard by Grugier-Hill.
Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Kevin Snyder, Elandon Roberts, C.J. Johnson
Snyder was signed to the Patriots practice squad in December after being released by the Lions who signed him as a rookie free agent in May. He was active for but didn’t play in the AFC Championship Game in Denver.

The 6’2, 240-pound Snyder is a Rutgers product and also has good athleticism, running a 4.54 time in the 40, with a 35-inch vertical leap at his school’s Pro Day.

Roberts was another 6th round draft pick by the Patriots and like Grugier-Hill is undersized at 6’0, 235 pounds. But he’s very productive and plays a down-hill style, run thumping Mike linebacker that belies his lack of size. He shows a tremendous explosion in the running game and when blitzing but struggles in pass coverage.

C.J. Johnson is a 6’2, 235-pound rookie linebacker from Mississippi. He’s had injury concerns while in college and was moved from defensive end to middle linebacker in his senior season. His work ethic and attitude were lauded by the coaches and he was elected to be a team captain. However, he’ll face a steep uphill climb to make the roster.

Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line and the defensive line.  And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.

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

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts 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 Training Camp Primer – Offensive Line

Steve Balestrieri
July 18, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

Return of Scarnecchia and Health Two Biggest Issues

The Patriots head into training camp in just a few weeks and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up is the Offensive Line.

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

So next on deck are the big bodies on the Offensive Line. The team is banking heavily on the return of positional coach Dante Scarnecchia who was retired for two years. He’s a tough taskmaster who demands the most from his charges. The health of this group is a big question mark; injuries ravaged them and the protection of QB Tom Brady steadily got worse as the season progressed.

So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?


Dante Scarnecchia returns to be the Pats OL coach after he retired two years ago. (USA TODAY Images)

Roster Locks: Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, Jonathan Cooper
Health is the key here, Solder was lost in Dallas Week 5 for the season with a torn bicep. Vollmer battled injuries throughout the campaign and has knee and back issues. But if both are healthy they’ll be your starting tackles. One would have thought that the tackle position would have been addressed in either free agency and the draft but it was not. We’ll see how that turns out later this year.

The Pats didn’t draft Thuney to sit on the pine, and with Mason, Jackson and Kline MIA this spring, he took the starting reps at left guard whenever Brady or Garoppolo was on the field. He even took a few at center. Mason finally appeared in the last spring workout and had 10 starts as a rookie. Coming from the running game of Georgia Tech, he’s an excellent drive blocker but as one would expect, had issues with his pass blocking.  Andrews, who started all the games early last season and played fairly well is undersized but tough. In a surprise move, he was getting the starting reps over Bryan Stork this spring…something to keep an eye on.

Cooper was a top draft pick for the Cardinals before injuries derailed his career there. With the aforementioned players out this spring, he got the starter’s reps at right guard. The Pats are hoping that Scarnecchia can rekindle his professional career.


Nate Solder returns after going on IR after Week 5 in 2015. (USA TODAY Images)

Near Roster Locks: Bryan Stork, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle
Stork, who played so well as a rookie at center, missed the first six weeks of the season on IR-Designated to Return and struggled as he had health issues of his own last year. Stork even played at right tackle against the Giants as Cameron Fleming and Marcus Cannon struggled. It will be interesting to watch the competition between Stork and Andrews this summer. With Thuney providing added insurance, the pivot position should be in good shape.

Cannon, is the ultimate head scratcher for this team, but Bill Belichick and Scarnecchia love this kid.  He was ineffective last season when pressed into starting duty and was just abused in the AFC Championship Game in Denver. As the saying goes, we’ll see how it plays out on the field.

Waddle has the opportunity to seize the swing tackle position. He too was hurt against the Cowboys and his shoulder injury sidelined him. But the Patriots gave him a two-year contract this offseason and he also has the capability to be an extra blocking tight end in short yardage.

On the Bubble: Tre’ Jackson, Josh Kline, Cameron Fleming, Ted Karras
Jackson was a rookie draft pick (4th Rd, 111th overall), a year ago and had nine starts while appearing in 13 games. Prior to coming out in the 2015 NFL Draft, he had knee issues and he missed time with those during the season as well as missing both playoff games. If he’s healthy he’ll compete for the right guard spot, where he saw all of his action a year ago. But he missed all of the spring, so his status will bear watching once training camp begins.

Kline is a guy who the Patriots traditionally love, an undersized but tough player. He too missed all of the spring. With the additions of Thuney and Cooper along the interior of the line, he may find himself on the outside looking in.

Fleming flopped as a swing tackle a year ago, like Cannon was ineffective when pressed into service. But the last offseason, the Patriots fiddled with the idea of moving him to guard. He was training to do just that, cutting down on his weight a bit and improving his quickness. We saw the video of his workouts last spring and it seemed he was destined to move inside.

But the team drafted Mason and Jackson last spring and Fleming went back outside. The results were not good. Perhaps with a full offseason with Scarnecchia, Fleming can get his game back together. The swing tackle position will again go thru Cannon, Waddle and Fleming.

Karras is a tough kid that has a lot of upper body strength, completing 32 reps on the bench press at his Pro Day this spring. The 6th round draft pick has an NFL pedigree and is a good pass protector but isn’t very athletic and may find himself a practice squad candidate unless he can shine in limited opportunities.

Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Chris Barker, Keavon Milton
Both of these players have been let go in the past and face long odds of making the roster out of training camp.

Barker was originally claimed off of waivers from the Miami Dolphins in the 2013 season and appeared in four games. During the 2014 season, he split time between the practice squad and the active roster and appeared in two games. Last season he was signed to the active roster for the Week 10 game against the Giants before being released and signed back to the practice squad.

Milton was a UDFA in 2013 and was signed by the New Orleans Saints. He was among the final cuts of the Saints and was signed by the Browns and appeared in eight games with no starts that season. He then was released by the Browns at the end of training camp in 2014 and signed to Seattle’s practice squad. Released in September 2015 he was signed by the Patriots to their practice squad in November. The 6’4, 320-pound Milton was a blocking tight end at Louisiana-Monroe who made the transition to tackle

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 Fourth And Two Spotlight: Chris Price From WEEI

Russ Goldman
June 17, 2016 at 11:49 am ET

This was an interview that was all about Chris Price from WEEI. In this episode Chris talks about his early days as a reporter, and later on he discussed in detail his time covering the Patriots.

Brady, Patriots Agree to a 2-Year Extension, What it Means…

Steve Balestrieri
February 29, 2016 at 10:59 am ET

Tom Brady isn’t going anywhere folks and just signed a deal that should ensure that he will indeed retire a Patriot. According to Adam Schefter and Dianna Russini from ESPN, Brady and the Patriots signed a two-year extension that will have him in a Pats uniform thru the 2019 season.

Brady was on the hook for the 2016 and 2017 seasons for $9 and $10 million-dollars respectively. His total cap hit for 2016 was to be a team high $15 million-dollars, a bargain in the NFL considering the dearth of quality QB play. This extension will undoubtedly lower his cap hit significantly this season.

That’s important because according to our own @Patscap (Miguel), the Patriots only have $13.6 million in cap space. Expect this and other moves to start coming quickly. The Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe reported over the weekend that the Patriots had approached Brady about an extension.

Brady who turns 39 in August will now have the chance to play until he’s 42. This will also no doubt help signing some quality depth free agents once the frenzy begins in mid-March. The Patriots will also try to open up some cap space by signing some of their core defensive players to long-term deals lowering their cap hits in 2016. Those include Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones.

As soon as the news hit, rumors of the Patriots working a deal to trade backup QB Jimmy Garappolo were all over social media. As Ian Logue wrote this morning, with the NFL’s ridiculously playing out this Deflategate nonsense in court this month, it wouldn’t make sense to trade their backup …just in case Brady was still forced to serve a 4-game suspension.

However, there is nothing to state that the team can’t field offers and listen to what other teams are willing to offer. Without a first round pick in this season’s NFL Draft, Garappolo could bring a high second round draft pick and help another team use their own first round pick on another position of need.

One thing is for certain….the off-season is never boring around 1 Patriot Place.

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 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 – 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:

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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