Chris Hogan

Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

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 numbers but could see two key veterans depart via free agency: Receiver. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED:


Danny Amendola was a machine in the postseason. Chris Hogan was dynamite in the Super Bowl after a midseason shoulder injury that limited him to nine regular-season games. Brandin Cooks was very good throughout the majority of the regular season, putting up numbers that made him one of the league's most productive deep threats - and that's without the penalty yardage he drew. It wasn't a dominant season from this unit, but the group lost its most consistent performer when Julian Edelman tore his ACL in the preseason. Malcolm Mitchell's year-long knee injury also sapped this group of some depth. Despite some regular-season hiccups - it was a forgettable final month of the before the Wild-Card Round bye -- what Chad O'Shea's group did in the playoffs showed just how valuable it was for Tom Brady to have a handful of trustworthy receivers at his disposal. They checked in with a "B" in our final grades for 2017.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell, Cody Hollister, Riley McCarron

WHO ISN'T?
Danny Amendola, Bernard Reedy, Matthew Slater

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Brady should have his top three options back for 2018 so the need here can't be considered more than a 5 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay Memorial "How Concerned Are You?!?" Meter. That said, the group needs some trustworthy depth. Especially if Amendola, 32, who has been willing to take less to remain in New England, decides he'd like to max out his value elsewhere. He's right there with Edelman, who turns 32 in May, as the most clutch postseason receiver Brady's had since Troy Brown. Dorsett and Britt are physically-gifted options who could benefit from a full offseason in the offense, but are they strong enough candidates to serve as the No. 4? And what about Mitchell? What does his future hold after missing his entire sophomore season? Moreover, and this wouldn't impact the offense so much as it would the kicking game and the level of leadership in the locker room, but Slater's loss would be monumental. If both Slater and Amendola return, the need here can't be considered close to dire. But a young option in the draft - either a burner who could provide insurance if Cooks opts for free agency next offseason, or someone who profiles as a true slot - would be a wise investment. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There's a potpourri of pass-catching talent available on the market this offseason. The biggest names available are receivers the Patriots know well from their time in the AFC East: Jarvis Landry and Sammy Watkins. One's a slot. The other's a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, who struggled to put up numbers in a highly-productive Rams offense in 2017. Then there's Jacksonville's physical outside-the-numbers option Allen Robinson (coming off an ACL tear) and Arizona speedster John Brown. Other field-stretchers who could be had include Seattle's Paul Richardson, Atlanta's Taylor Gabriel and Arizona's Jaron Brown. Buffalo's Jordan Matthews (25 years old) is a bigger slot, sort of a younger version of Eric Decker (31), who also happens to be a free agent this offseason. Keep an eye on Denver's Emmanuel Sanders, who could become available as a cap casualty. The Patriots tried to bring him aboard as a restricted free agent years ago and it would make sense if they were still interested. He caught six passes for 137 yards in a Week 10 loss to New England last season. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


After Alabama's Calvin Ridley, there seems to be some confusion as to which draft-eligible receivers deserve to take their place at the top of the class. Clemson's Deon Cain (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) has the size and speed to be a starter at the next level, but he was plagued by lapses in concentration that led to drops and false-start penalties. Courtland Sutton of SMU has an NFL-ready frame (6-4, 218), but probably doesn't have the athleticism to threaten defenses deep down the field as a pro. For teams interested in slot options, Texas A&M's Christian Kirk and Maryland's DJ Moore look like two of the best available. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


There may be little to address here if Amendola is back in the fold. If the Patriots are looking for young depth, though, there are plenty of options. Miami's Braxton Berrios could probably be had on Day 3, and he's already drawing comparisons to Amendola for his work in the slot, his toughness, and his ability to contribute as a returner. The Patriots could also dip into the Texas Tech pool after missing on both Amendola and Wes Welker in the draft in years past by taking Keke Coutee. He's slight (5-11, 180) but can play inside and out, has speed to burn, and could return kicks. If Belichick and Nick Caserio want to go with a bigger slot who will be a good character guy, Penn State's four-year starter Daesean Hamilton (6-1, 205) would make sense in the middle rounds. 

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Patriots win the turnover battle on the coaching staff, too

Patriots win the turnover battle on the coaching staff, too

FOXBORO -  Josh McDaniels stood on the Patriots practice fields before the start of their first spring workout and spoke about starting from scratch. 

"Every year is a different team," he said. "This is a different team obviously than last year's. But this is 17 years for me, and never once have we had the same group come back and really be the same to start with the next year. We gotta work hard now, create a foundation, learn about these guys that we have that we don't really have a lot of experience with, and start to build that trust all over again."

MORE PATRIOTS:

But as McDaniels embarked on that process, he had an advantage over most offensive coordinators around the league. It was the same advantage from which Matt Patricia benefited as he began working with the Patriots defense: continuity.

McDaniels and Patricia began the season as two of seven coordinators in the NFL who had held their positions since 2012. It's a jarring statistic when one considers that almost 90 percent (55 of 62, the Texans and 49ers don't have offensive coordinators on staff) of all coordinator jobs have turned over at least once in the past five years. 

The understanding that both Patricia and McDaniels have been around the Patriots much longer than five seasons -- that was when Patricia was officially given the coordinator's title, and it was when McDaniels returned for his second go-round at the job -- only bolsters the point that the continuity the Patriots boast at the top of their coaching tree is unmatched. 

Belichick, McDaniels and Patricia's run as a trio, though, could be wrapping up. Both McDaniels and Patricia are frequently mentioned as two of the top head-coaching candidates in football, and there could be about a dozen jobs open after the season.

If one or both decide to leave, they could be replaced by Belichick with in-house candidates to maintain a level of consistency. Receivers coach Chad O'Shea and linebackers coach Brian Flores have seen play-caller reps in the preseason and would be among the options. But if Patricia and McDaniels walked out the door, a measure of familiarity would leave with them.

"We have a lot of consistency on our entire staff," Belichick said back in July. "I thought that was very helpful this year in a relatively short offseason. Those guys were able to – when I say 'those guys,' the entire staff – were able to get into things pretty quickly. There wasn’t really a [period of] catching new staff members up or bringing them up to speed or going over things.

"Pretty much everybody’s been through everything that we’re doing, both in the offseason and the regular season, our game preparation and so forth. Not that we don’t have a lot of work to do. I’m not saying that. But at least we have a level of experience of all doing it together. So, yeah. It’s good."

That consistency on the staff helped the Patriots make one of their biggest acquisitions of the last few years when they coaxed Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement. If the coaches rooms had been lined with new faces in 2015, he might not have been so willing to return.  

"[We] know what to expect of one another," the 69-year-old offensive line coach said. "They know what to expect of us. I think all of that stuff makes it so much easier. I don't know if I would've ever come back if Josh wouldn't have been [here]. Because Josh was here, that was one of the huge reasons . . . And all the guys on defense. You know all those guys. It's really, it's a good bunch of guys to be around in every respect. You come into the office every day. Egos are checked at the door. Just seems like it's a healthy environment."

It's an unusually healthy one compared to the rest of the league, like an NFL medical marvel that science can't solve - around forever and still going strong. 

Walking through the bowels of Gillette Stadium over the summer, Patricia was asked how he could explain the rare longevity that he and McDaniels have enjoyed as coordinators. 

"What I will say is I do feel very blessed," Patricia said. "Especially working with Josh, Nick Caserio, and Bill, and really my staff, of having that continuity. I think we know we have something special with that and we enjoy it. 

"When you get in those situations, you tend to savor them, and you tend to really appreciate them. It's great. Josh and I have been together a long time, from being together on the same side of the ball to now being able to coordinate our sides. Having that relationship and that background, I mean, I'm very, very lucky."

For the players that McDaniels and Patricia coach, the feeling is mutual. Those who have played elsewhere before coming to the Patriots seem to be particularly thankful to land in a place where the path to success is clear and has been manicured by the same sets of hands for years. 

"'I've been in situations where we've had new OCs, new coaches come in, new quarterbacks, and it's not easy getting guys where they need to be," Danny Amendola said. "The biggest thing is having the ability to show film with consistency of the offensive coordinator from past years, and what he wants, and what needs to happen to be successful. That's just what Coach McDaniels offers for us. It's good because there's no gray area. It's pretty black and white: 'This is what you need to do to be successful.' He can put on tape of guys doing it successfully in previous years. The consistency is there, and I know Coach McDaniels loves to be here and everybody loves to play for him.

"I remember when I first met him, he came to St. Louis and we were coming off the lockout. We didn't have any time in OTAs together. We were literally thrown into camp, we had two weeks before our first preseason game, and it was tough. It was tough, man. He was showing us Patriots clips. He was showing Broncos. We didn't know where we stacked up in the room. There were a lot of different variables. 

"That consistency we have now is huge for our offense. Every coach, you can turn to. Chad's been here for about 10 years. [Running backs coach Ivan Fears] has been here for no telling how long...The consistency and the template to just playing good football is here. It might be a lot to grasp at first for a new guy. But once you kind of grasp it, it gets a lot easier. It's there for you."

Despite the Patriots running challenging systems both offensively and defensively, the acclimation process for new additions is made easier by the multiple layers of coaching that dots the locker room. With consistent teaching points from year to year, established players end up becoming valuable sounding boards for their newer teammates.

"When you have stability like that, it's huge because guys know what to expect," David Harris said. "They're familiar with the playbook. Being a new guy coming in, a lot of times I can just ask another player, 'How do I play this?' Or, 'What do I do?' instead of having one-on-one meetings with the position coach or the defensive coordinator. That's a huge benefit, the continuity of the coaches here. They've been successful a long time, and it's working."

Harris knows how the other half lives. In 10 years with the Jets, he played under three head coaches (Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles) and four defensive coordinators (Bob Sutton, Mike Pettine, Dennis Thurman and Kacy Rodgers). 

Chris Hogan saw even more regular turnover in his four years in Buffalo. First, he played under coach Chan Gailey and offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins. Then it was Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett. Then Rex Ryan took over and Greg Roman ran the offense. 

Dwayne Allen's run in Indianapolis was similarly turbulent. He played for only one head coach in his five years with the team, Chuck Pagano, but the offense changed hands three times. Bruce Arians, Pep Hamilton and Rob Chudzinski all had cracks at it.

For Allen, New England's single-minded approach offensively was refreshing to step into. When he had questions, there was Rob Gronkowski (seven years in the offense) and James Develin (five) to lean on in meetings. On the field, if Nate Solder (six years in the offense) or Marcus Cannon (six) sensed something was off, they could set Allen straight.

"No matter's who's around me," Allen said in camp, "with the ones and the twos, I'm able to turn to my left and my right and ask a question, and they're able to point me in the right direction."

Hogan remembered feeling the same way going into last season. If he wanted them, there were sources of on-the-field advice everywhere. It was a dynamic that couldn't exist if everyone was under a new boss for the third time in four seasons.

"There's guys that have been doing it," Hogan said in camp. "They got guys that can teach people the offense. It doesn't have to always be Josh. It can be Julian [Edelman], Tom [Brady], Danny, [Matthew] Slater, Gronk. They've got guys that have been in this offense for a while.

"You have to have veteran leadership. It doesn't have to always be Josh. I think that's why people can come in here and be successful, because there are so many guys that can teach the offense, coach it. There's not a lot of turnover here. Players, yeah. But the coaches have been here. They know what they're doing. They know what they want."

As long as Belichick remains the head coach and Brady remains the quarterback, the schematic changes will in all likelihood be minimal even if the coordinators move on. But if the voices change, and if the methods change, it would stand to reason that a degree of uncertainty would follow.

McDaniels is a close friend of Brady's, someone who can pull out a game plan from years ago for Brady to execute after a quick sideline powwow, someone Brady immediately acknowledged after throwing one of the most important touchdowns of his career. Patricia is a coach who has been able to connect with his players on multiple levels, tweaking them to give their best, hugging them when they need it, and all the while maintaining his reputation as the rocket scientist with the beautiful football mind.

Those qualities aren't easily replaced, and if the Patriots are forced to change coordinators this offseason it could take some time to reboot. Change can be hard. And change at the top is something the Patriots have managed to avoid during the latest iteration of their dynasty.

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Pats-Bills inactives: Hogan, White, Van Noy all out

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Pats-Bills inactives: Hogan, White, Van Noy all out

FOXBORO -- Nate Solder was a late addition to the Patriots injury report, listed as questionable with an illness on Saturday night, but he'll be in uniform against the Bills on Christmas Eve. 

With Solder expected to man the left edge, look for the Patriots to go with LaAdrian Waddle on the right side and Cameron Fleming to serve as the swing tackle. The Patriots regulars on the interior offensive line, which helped open up room for backs to run for nearly 200 yards the last time these two teams met, are healthy and ready to go. 

Chris Hogan will miss his second consecutive week with a shoulder injury after playing a starter's workload in Miami two weeks ago. That could mean more action for Kenny Britt, who will be in uniform for the second time after signing with the Patriots less than two weeks ago. 

The Patriots will also be forced to go without sub back James White and multi-purpose back Rex Burkhead, meaning the rotation of runners will be short against Buffalo's run defense. Mike Gillislee -- a healthy scratch since the bye week -- will be in uniform and ready to go. He could be a factor on first down and by the goal line. How the Patriots use Dion Lewis will be fascinating. He's been their best runner this season, but the team may want to manage him somewhat if possible to ensure that he's ready for postseason play. Will he serve as a sub back? Will he remain heavily used on first down? We'll see. 

Without Kyle Van Noy for the third consecutive week., New England's front seven will have its hands full. They were soft on the edges in Orchard Park in Week 13 and will need help from Trey Flowers (who did not play in the first meeting between these clubs), Deatrich Wise and Eric Lee against LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor. 

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
DL Alan Branch
RB Rex Burkhead
OL Cole Croston
WR Chris Hogan
LB Trevor Reilly
LB Kyle Van Noy
RB James White

BUFFALO BILLS
CB Breon Borders
TE EJ Gaines
WR Andre Holmes
OT Conor McDermott
OF John Miller
WR Brandon Reilly
TE Logan Thomas