Patriots

Patriots still trying to figure out what they have on offense

Patriots still trying to figure out what they have on offense

On their very first defensive play from scrimmage Monday night in Minnesota, the Saints tried to play with 10 men.

Now you could argue they’ve been short on that side of the ball for years. But actually trying to play a man down is a new strategy, one not crafted in the film room.

MORE PATRIOTS

“It wasn’t a good tape,” coach Sean Payton told the team’s website about the Saints' defensive performance in their season-opening 29-19 loss to the Vikings. “I thought defensively, we struggled in coverage at times. For the early portion of the game, the penalties hurt in the first series. There was 30 yards [in penalties] in the first series that led to their game-tying field goal, and then, as the game wore on, I thought the explosive plays hurt us. There were some MEs [mental errors], some poor decisions. Overall, not good enough.”

A season ago, the Patriots would have been licking their chops, knowing they had the personnel to exploit a young and wildly inconsistent defense. They still do, even without Julian Edelman. But right now, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is walking a fine line, immersing himself in New Orleans' players and schemes while also trying to figure out exactly what he has in his own huddle.

By the end of the Pats' 42-27 loss to the Chiefs in their own season opener, McDaniels was rolling out a slot receiver acquired the weekend prior (Philip Dorsett), an outside receiver dealt for just prior to the NFL Draft (Brandin Cooks) and a pair of running backs who were free-agent acquisitions (Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead). Unusual for the defending Super Bowl champions.

“We've got a lot of good players and, whether they've been here for multiple years or a few months or, in some cases, a couple weeks, that's our responsibility,” said McDaniels. “We're supposed to get used to them, learn what they can and can't do well, and then make sure that we put them out there and put them in position to do something productive for the team in their position. There's really no time to stop and think about that, and it doesn't really matter anyway because every team is dealing with the same set of circumstances at some point, at some position, somewhere along their roster, on their team during the course of the season.”

McDaniels publicly pooh-poohing the issue makes sense. It’s rare for the Pats coaching staff to make excuses. But this is unusual so early in the season. What on paper looked to be an embarrassment of riches at the receiver position is now a test of the staff’s creativity and of the player’s intelligence and versatility. Wait, we don’t have a slot receiver? Can Player X do it? How about Y? Can we take an outside guy and turn him into an inside guy? Is the inside guy better suited to play as a boundary receiver? These are the questions you want to have a good grasp on coming out of training camp. Based on injuries -- and what some players believe was a wasted week of camp with the joint practices and preseason game against their Week 3 opponent, the Houston Texans -- McDaniels doesn’t have the same grasp we’re accustom to.
 
“[If] you have a certain grouping that maybe you don't have as much depth in, you've got to make sure you're smart with how you use it and you can't put all your eggs in one basket,” said McDaniels. “You never can in this league because you don't have an unlimited number of players in each game. You always have to have multiple personnel groupings. You always have to have contingency plans ready to go, which you hope that you build in during the week of practice so you're not making stuff up in the middle of the first quarter. Again, that's a very, very, very common occurrence in the National Football League for each team each week. So, what we're dealing with now, we're going to be dealing with in November, and so is every other team.”

Yet if that’s the approach McDaniels took this year, why was it that Dorsett, with his limited grasp of the playbook, was the first option to replace Danny Amendola after the latter suffered a concussion? Wouldn’t players with more knowledge of the system have been a better option? Or different personnel groupings that gave Tom Brady the players he worked with considerably more often this spring and summer? The Pats have always been able to adjust on the fly. They didn’t do that nearly as well in the second half of their loss to the Chiefs. And now, with a few extra days to prepare, McDaniels and the offense must study up on a Saints team they don’t know as well as they would like.

“They've got a lot of new players, whether that's through the draft or free agency, in each level of their defense,’ noted McDaniels. “Certainly, they're aggressive. Coach [Dennis] Allen calls an aggressive style of defense. You know they're definitely going to pressure you with a lot of different people, different variations, blitzes. They mix the coverages up pretty good. They've got good team speed, they get to the ball, they play hard and they're going to, obviously, be excited for their home opener. This is always a tough place to play. So, it's going to be a big challenge for us to get familiar with the people that we're going to be matched up against across the board and really get used to their scheme and have a great week of practice and try to go down there and put forth our best effort.”

Or face a long flight home.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Gronk question now makes tight end a position of need

Gronk question now makes tight end a position of need

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today. we're looking at a position where the Patriots have arguably the best player that’s ever manned it in his presumed prime. But tight end is suddenly a tenuous spot for New England.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


This became – contrary to the Patriots hopes – a one-man position. Rob Gronkowski had 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games. The rest of the tight ends – Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister and Martellus Bennett – combined for 20 catches and six of those came from Bennett who played just two games before heading to injured reserve. Gronk was – and is – the best tight end in the game and one of its most dominating offensive weapons. After losing Julian Edelman in the preseason, the Patriots offense became tremendously Gronk-reliant. They got away with it. But they clearly wanted more from Dwayne Allen than what they got or they wouldn’t have gone after Bennett when he became available.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Martellus Bennett, Will Tye, Jacob Hollister

WHO IS NOT?
All tight ends on the roster are under contract.

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Publicity grab or legitimate consideration? What exactly to make of Gronk’s reported dalliance with the WWE and his idle desire to be an action movie star (also reported)? Both have the earmarks of brand-building genius. It’s a page torn from the business plans of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather, Sugar Ray Leonard or Conor McGregor – ruminating on retirement and expressing interest in other public pursuits exponentially ratchets up public interest in both the main gig and the potential side gig. Gronk himself might not be that savvy and calculating to mildly hold the Patriots fortunes hostage but Gronk Inc. certainly is. Then again, maybe he legitimately is weighing it. The “will he or won’t he” conversation will sustain buzz and has to in some way impact the Patriots’ offseason plans. The presumption has to be that Gronk returns but this is anything but a layup. Which means the need is a Level-8

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There is a nice crop of tight ends hitting the market. Virtually all of them come with the same nagging health issues that Gronk has (had). Jimmy Graham is the biggest name in the group. His tepid blocking skills may make him unattractive to the Patriots, but never let it be said the Pats don’t like to take a flier on a once-electric player who’s on the backside. At 31, Graham’s coming off a 10-touchdown season, though his yards per catch went down to 9.1. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see New England pursue. The Eagles' second tight end, Trey Burton, is 26 and stuck behind Zach Ertz. An undrafted rookie, the kid who threw the touchdown pass to Nick Foles in the Super Bowl is targeted sparingly in Philly but is a smooth player. He also plays special teams (boing!). Austin Sefarian-Jenkins finally got his stuff together with the Jets in 2017 and he’s only 25. He’s no dummy, he’s only acted like one in the past and it seems like he’s got a handle on it now. He’d need face-to-face vetting but he’s got upside. Then there’s Tyler Eifert. Still just 27, Eifert’s played in 10 games the past two seasons and had season-ending back surgery in the fall (it was performed by the same doctor who treated Gronk). He’s played 39 games in five seasons. Terrific talent. Always broken.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


I like this Dallas Goedert kid from South Dakota State. Also, Dalton Schultz from Stanford gets checkmarks as a blocker and competent receiver. Neither of them are first-round prospects at this point. Hayden Hurst from South Carolina and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews are regarded as the top prospects. Hurst is a very good pass-catcher with a huge catch radius. He’s a 24-year-old former Pittsburgh Pirates draftee. Andrews is smooth as a receiver but not seen as a potent blocker. Same with Mike Gesicki from Penn State who’s the best athlete along with Hurst but doesn’t impress with his blocking.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Assuming Gronk is returning, the Patriots can go at it a number of ways. There’s not a “can’t miss” prospect out there, so drafting Hurst or Gesicki in the first couple of rounds means they’ll have to live with the shortcomings or hope they can improve them. Given other needs, they may not want to spend on “maybes” near the top of the draft. Too many drafts have been like that, especially with second-rounders. It seems unlikely they’ll be really interested in counting on either Allen or Bennett to provide anything in 2018. If they take a run at the Eagles’ Burton and pay him a crapload, Gronk will lose his mind. Screw it. They should take Hurst. We will change our minds several times between now and April but that’s where we are now.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Julian Edelman posts video of resistance-band training

patriots_julian_edelman_082517.jpg
File Photo

Julian Edelman posts video of resistance-band training

Julian Edelman is grinding.

The New England Patriots receiver, who is recovering from an ACL repair surgery that ended his 2017 season, shared a quick video from his workout on Tuesday. Edelman is shown running with a resistance band and a trainer in-tow.

Edelman has posted a few tidbits on social media to show encouraging signs during his recovery since he got surgery in October after suffering an ACL tear in a preseason game. He was spotted around the locker room a few times during the final weeks of the 2017 season.

"Rehab is a [expletive]. It sucks," Edelman said in November on Barstool Sports' "Pardon My Take podcast." "You go in and you’re feeling decent and then you warm up, you beat it up and then you get stiff again. I mean it’s just a process and you go in six days a week and you’re going into work it, work on everything — your flexion, your extension."