We’re not going to Chicken Little this.
This isn’t First Take, Undisputed or other hot take talk shows that pull in viewers with drastic overreactions. So fear not, reader, this isn’t a Max Kellerman, Rob Parker, or Skip Bayless column.
This is The Draft Network, where we strive to make rational and reasoned takes with supporting evidence.
So, is the sky falling in New England? Well as I type this, it’s pouring rain over most of the region. But as far as the New England Patriots go? Most likely, no.
But let's make my viewpoints even more clear: as far as I'm concerned Bill Belichick is the greatest football coach I’ve ever witnessed, and Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback I’ve ever witnessed. Honestly, what are the odds they win FIVE Super Bowls together without both of those being true? If you want to split hair and say both are Top 5 all-time, then that's you personal preference. Point is: these two are undoubtedly legends in their field.
However, there is a small chink in the armor that is the 2018-19 New England Patriots, and it comes down to the lack of depth throughout the roster due to questionable decisions.
Let’s start with this past Sunday, when New England traveled to Nashville and got dominated by the previously 4-4 Tennessee Titans. It started up front, as Tennessee sacked Brady three times and hit him three more. Standing in the face of constant pressure, it was obvious that Brady was uncomfortable in the pocket. The Tennessee defensive line, specifically Wesley Woodyard, tormented the Patriots offensive line.
On top of that, New England’s receivers struggled to consistently separate from the Titans defensive backs, including two former Patriots in Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler.
Defensively, the Patriots struggled to contain quarterback Marcus Mariota, as he used subtle pocket movements to extend plays and put together scoring drives.
A lot went wrong and New England got run out of the building, but it’s important to identify the source of the issues to find out how correctable they are.
The miscues on the offensive line are likely explained by the personnel. Starting right guard Shaq Mason missed the game. Starting left tackle Trent Brown attempted to play through an illness but was in and out throughout the day. Starting right tackle Marcus Cannon couldn’t play the whole game as he’s still recovering from an injury. This sent interior offensive line backup Ted Karras and swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle into starting roles, and they were massive disappointments.
Injuries shouldn’t derail an entire protection scheme, and New England cannot allow their potential postseason success to be dictated by one injury up front. The reason New England finds themselves in the position with next to no depth on the offensive line is a lack of contingency plan through training camp.
In the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, New England selected heralded Georgia Bulldog Isaiah Wynn. Playing left tackle in college, Wynn projected as either a tack or guard in the NFL. His presence gave them starting-caliber depth throughout most of the offensive line. However, he was lost for the season with an injury. The Patriots failed to respond with a legitimate roster move to sure up the offensive line depth once Wynn’s injury occurred, essentially setting themselves up for the debacle on Sunday.
With Rob Gronkowski sidelined due to injury, New England relied heavily upon it’s wide receivers corps in the pass game on Sunday. This meant a heavy dosage of Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, and Chris Hogan. Gordon was phenomenal, but the extra reps on Edelman were clearly slowing him down by the second half, and he would leave the game late with a minor injury. Coming off a missed season and suspension, New England needs to care for Edelman’s usage more. A problem preventing that is the lack of production out of Chris Hogan.
Through 10 games, Hogan only has 23 receptions. It’s becoming tough to even justify his presence on the field, as he’s now gone consecutive games without a reception. Where did the Patriots go wrong with the wide receiver depth? Not taking advantage of the Golden Tate trade market.
Tate was dealt from Detroit to Philadelphia for a third-round pick in 2019. Just a third round pick for a player with four consecutive 90+ reception seasons? New England should have matched that asking price and then some, as it would’ve given them another dynamic piece in the offense and shored up the depth at the position. An 11 personnel lineup of James White, Rob Gronkowski, Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman, and Golden Tate could’ve had the makings of a unit that could set records with Tom Brady.
The Patriots defensive line and pass rush has struggled all season, as they currently sit 30th in the NFL is sacks. The most disappointing aspect of the lack of pass rush is that they spent no draft picks on an EDGE in the 2018 NFL Draft. Just a few months removed of accumulating no sacks in the Super Bowl, there wasn’t a premium put on the position by the personnel department. That is truly inexcusable.
The main offseason move was the sign veteran Adrian Clayborn, who has been serviceable to this point. However, with New England unable to consistently collapse the pocket on Sunday, Marcus Mariota had his way with the defense.
The most upsetting part? Seeing Harold Landry get multiple pressures and hit on Tom Brady. Yes, the same Harold Landry that New England passed on twice in the 2018 NFL Draft. Including with the selection of running back Sony Michel, despite already rostering former Super Bowl MVP James White at the same position. Michel has been promising, but the positional value of a much needed pass rusher far outweighs a timeshare running back in the Patriots offense.
The sky isn’t falling in New England, but changes are likely necessary if they are to get back to the Super Bowl. Getting healthy along the offensive line will be the first step, but somehow developing some depth in case of an injury may be more of a need. Finding a source of pass rush, whether that be from a change in defensive scheme or change in personnel (can I interest you in 2017 NFL Draft pick Derek Rivers?). Lastly, expanding the personnel at wide receiver to a more broadened depth chart that includes more usage from niche players such as Phillip Dorsett and Corrdarelle Patterson in order to save the legs of Edelman and Gronkowski for the playoff push.
I still expect New England to be in the AFC Championship game, but the poor performance we saw on Sunday undoubtedly stems from poor decision-making on roster building.