Youth Movement To Play Big Role For 2014 Patriots

The Patriots released safety Steven Gregory to unleash Duron Harmon on the NFL – said no one ever. Gregory was likely a monetary release because his performance on the field was not worth $2.85 million more than Harmon’s — so they got rid of Gregory and saved themselves that lump sum.

Linebacker Brandon Spikes is also on his way out, it appears. His inability to abide by the Patriot way landed the uninjured linebacker on the injured reserve for the playoffs. This paved the way for back-up Jamie Collins — but not just in the AFC Division Playoff game. His work against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts reinforced what many think is the inevitable departure of Spikes. If the Patriots did not want him in the playoffs, it is hard to imagine them wanting him next season.

Like it or not, Collins and Harmon are projected to start for New England next year.

These moves do not say that New England is implementing a youth movement – because they are not. Their core players are still Vince Wilork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty, but injuries to two of these core players thrusted youngsters into important leadership roles last year, which has helped encouraged growth. So, in theory, Collins and Harnon got extra reps and are on an accelerated timeline.

Do you sense the hesitance?

Collins had a great game against the Colts, but was not blowing up the stat sheet during the rest of the season. The “touted” pass rusher totaled only two sacks in the regular season and playoffs combined. He proved effective in pass coverage — which is somewhat expected since he played safety in college — and had a pass deflection in five of his last six games. He even had a 10-tackle game in the Week 12 overtime victory against the Broncos. He is not a tackling machine like Spikes is, but he is a nice counter to the new era of versatile tight ends. When most teams fret over whether they will put their safety or linebacker on a tight end, such as the Green Bay Packers‘ Jermichael Finley, the Patriots have an easy game plan. It would not be as simple as sticking Collins on a dynamic tight end, because Aqib Talib (if he re-signs) can defend tight ends as well, and Head Coach Bill Belichick loves options.

But the facts show that Jamie Collins‘ game against the Colts was a fluke…

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Some Players Carry More Baggage Into The Draft Than Others

Colt Lyerla and Michael Sam are two volatile draft picks that drew a considerable amount of attention at the combine, yet it’s odd mentioning them in the same sentence.

Lyerla, former Oregon tight end posted an impressive 40-yard dash and broad jump and begins to make up for leaving Oregon after being busted for possession of cocaine. Plenty of drama there – drama caused by Lyerla’s decision.

Newsflash: Michael Sam is gay. You already know that a million times over because the media hasn’t let an exhale go by without noting his bad breath. Plenty of drama there – drama caused only by Sam’s decisions to publicly come out. NFL GMs would have inevitably found out, Sam just decided to rip the Band-Aid off. It was unpreventable drama. Sam made a responsible decision to publicly state his sexuality for many reasons, one likely being that there would be no confusion in team interviews.

The events that have made Lyerla’s draft stock volatile are completely within his control. Sam’s drama is beyond his control – he did nothing wrong. Admittedly, drug addiction is a disease, and one could argue that it is out of Lyerla’s control. But to that I’d say, it’s a disease that Lyerla initiated and aggravated, which makes it entirely different than Sam’s announcing his homosexuality.

So fair or not, these two players are both volatile. Right or wrong, there’s no saying who GMs will select first. Their draft positions are absolute wild cards. Like Aaron Hernandez was, Lyerla is likely high on some team’s boards and absent from others.

Both players should be available when the Patriots pick in the third and perhaps fourth round. The team needs to add a tight end and defensive lineman. As the Patriots review these two players, it’s clear who they would take first: Michael Sam.

With Hernandezgate worsening, the Patriots don’t want someone who would immediately become Aaron 2.0. Now, a tight end with a drug history is the anti-Patriot. And even owner Robert Kraft said he admired Sam’s bravery. If they handled Tebow, they can handle Sam.

The Patriots have a habit of taking players with drama, both preventable and unpreventable…

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Patriots Create Their Own Draft Odds

The Patriots change their odds in the NFL crap shoot by drafting doubles. They had trouble drafting skill players, particularly in the higher rounds (e.g. Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Ben Watson, Laurence Maroney, and Taylor Price), so they started doubling up. The 2010 class featured Rob Gronkowski (42nd) and Aaron Hernandez (113th). The 2011 class included Shane Vareen (56th) and Stevan Ridley (73rd). Last year, they nabbed Aaron Dobson (59th) and Josh Boyce (102nd) – and even scored Kenbrell Thompkins in free agency.

Nominally, it’s draft redundancy. Two tight ends. Two running backs. Two wide receivers. A closer look indicates otherwise. Hernandez was an entirely different player than Gronkowski. Vareen is more of a third-down back, whereas Ridley takes first and second downs. Dobson is a big, stretch-the-field receiver; Boyce opens things up in the middle of the field. They have insurance in case one prospect doesn’t work out, and if they both succeed, they bring different elements to the offense. It’s redundant when it needs to be and complementary in a perfect world.

ROOKIE YEAR SECOND YEAR
2011: HERNANDEZ AND GRONKOWSKI 100 touches, 1,156 yards 16 TD 175 touches, 2,284 yards, 36 TD
2012: VAREEN AND RIDLEY 105 touches, 503 yards, 2 TD 366 touches, 1,714 yards, 7 TD
2013: DOBSON AND BOYCE 46 touches, 538 yards, 4 TD ????
2013: DOBSON AND THOMPKINS 69 touches, 984 yards, 8 TD ????

The New England TE party changed the way offenses run in the NFL, but that was short-lived with the Hernandez arrest and Gronkowski’s injuries. Many deem tight end a need for the Patriots this off season, so even their redundant draft strategy has failed them – though these have been unusual circumstances. Until last season however, the tight ends were handling the bulk of the offensive load.

The disappearance of tight end production made way for the Patriots’ running back draft picks – and LeGarrette Blount, who made great use of Ridley’s fumbling woes this season. However, the Patriots should stick with Ridley and work with him on fumbling like the Giants did with Tiki Barber. It’s correctable. The Ridley-Vareen tandem is like a good Tetris game. When one is injured or benched, the other steps up and fills the hole. Their different running styles make for one complete prototypical NFL stable, so when they do end up on the starting roster on the same day, the Patriots backfield becomes unwieldy for opposing defenses.

Which leaves us with the receiver class…

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