Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The New England Patriots check in at No. 4.
After a rocky midseason stretch, with a near-loss to the Cowboys followed by back-to-back losses to the Steelers and the Giants following a week off, it appeared that a deep postseason run wasn’t in the cards for the Patriots last season. But New England bounced back on its rival’s home turf, thumping the Jets in prime-time on Nov. 13, and didn’t lose again until the Super Bowl. Only one of the teams they faced over the final eight weeks of the regular season made the playoffs, but the soft schedule allowed coach Bill Belichick to tinker with his lineups, get inexperienced players needed snaps, and for the team to weather some injuries.
With time to step back, Belichick took a hard look at his squad and has brought in over a dozen free agents, reminiscent of his early days in New England when he gave older or oft-injured players “prove it” deals. After last season, when a flawed team came so close to winning it all, it’s hard to argue that the new guys won’t get that chance.
Tom Brady threw for over 5,000 yards. Rob Gronkowski set new standards for tight ends. And the Patriots averaged over 30 points per game. So keep things status quo? Hardly.
New England is stockpiling wide receivers. The Pats signed Brandon Lloyd, who knows the team’s system from his time with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in both Denver and St. Louis, and also brought back Brady favorite Jabar Gaffney and Donté Stallworth. Wes Welker and Deion Branch will continue to be a big part of the attack.
After relying too heavily on Welker and, when he was still with the Pats, Randy Moss, in recent years, it seems Brady will be getting back to the early days of his career, when he said that his favorite receiver was the open one.
Once overlooked, Welker is now the prototype slot receiver in the NFL and remains one of Brady’s favorites, on and off the field. He caught 122 passes last season and has averaged 111 catches over the past five years. If Lloyd can live with having big stats one week and a quiet game the next, he will thrive in New England. Brady will be by far the best quarterback he has played with in his career.
Gaffney, who played with the Patriots from 2006-08, had career highs in both receptions (68) and yards (947) last year in Washington. Branch started 15 games last season and caught 51 passes for 702 yards and five scores. Chad Ochocinco was a huge disappointment in 2011. He caught only 15 passes and scored one touchdown in 15 games — and still seemed unsure of where to line up during the Super Bowl.
There’s no telling how Gronkowski will be affected after losing a large chunk of the offseason to recovery from ankle surgery. But he didn’t have a true offseason last year — due to the lockout — and still managed to catch 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Gronkowski already has some saying he could be the best ever at the tight end position. He is nearly impossible to cover down the field, and he is also an adept blocker.
In Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, a hybrid who has lined up everywhere for New England from out wide to in the slot to the backfield, the Pats feature the best tight end tandem in the league. Hernandez caught 79 passes for 910 yards in his second season in the league.
The running game will likely again be by committee, with Stevan Ridley the favorite to be the primary ball-carrier. Ridley finished his rookie season on a down note, with fumbles in back-to-back games, but he showed explosion when he got his chances. Fellow second-year back Shane Vereen will be looking to redeem himself after a rookie season lost to injury.
The offensive line will look different — for the first time in over a decade Matt Light won’t be manning left tackle. In his place will be second-year pro Nate Solder, who was drafted in 2011 to eventually succeed Light.
The top priority in the offseason for Belichick was to address the team’s defense, a group that ranked 31st in the NFL last season. Specifically, he improved the pass rush at the end position — signing free agent Trevor Scott, and drafting Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette.
Fixing the front seven is what’s needed. The secondary drew much of the criticism, a given when a team allows over 4,700 passing yards as the Pats did in ’11. But an average-at-best group of corners and safeties are going to look bad when asked to cover too long because the pass rush can’t create pressure. It’s unavoidable.
The linebacking corps also got a boost with the addition of Dont’a Hightower in the first round. Hightower, who played for Nick Saban at Alabama, is a smart, versatile player whose presence may allow Jerod Mayo to use his athleticism more. Brandon Spikes, when he’s been on the field, has been a thumper in the run game, but his biggest problem has been staying on the field (suspension 2010, injury 2011).
That oft-maligned secondary will see some changes. Cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who started his first game as a rookie but missed the final 14 to injury, will be back and team with Kyle Arrington. Devin McCourty is likely looking at a permanent switch to safety. Sterling Moore, the hero of the AFC Championship Game, returns, though he’ll be pressed by rookie Alfonzo Dennard. New England also picked up savvy veteran slot corner Will Allen.
Stephen Gostkowski remains reliable in the kicking game. The sixth-year pro converted 28-of-33 field goal attempts last and made 10-of-13 from beyond 40 yards. Punter Zoltan Mesko built on a solid rookie season last year, averaging 46.5 yards per kick. Julian Edelman is a consistently solid punt returner and might be a top candidate to fill the kickoff return job as well.
Final Analysis: 1st in the AFC East
With Belichick and Brady in control of the Patriots, the playoffs have become routine; they went 13–3 last year and nearly won the Super Bowl despite a defense that gave up 21.4 points per game. It was perhaps Belichick’s best coaching work to date.
In 2012, they have a schedule that on paper is the easiest in the NFL, a strong offense that has been bolstered in free agency, and a defense that has undergone an extreme makeover.
This year, the playoffs are almost a given. It’s what happens in January and February that will define this club. In 2007, Belichick signed and acquired big names, and the Patriots came within a few minutes of an undefeated season. This year, he’s signed big names and drafted potential stars. This team is the class of the AFC. Anything short of a trip to the Super Bowl will be a disappointment.
Related: 2012 New England Patriots Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Tom Brady had 27 completions in the Super Bowl XLVI loss to the Giants to set the NFL record for most completions in postseason history with 499, moving past Brett Favre (481). Brady added 276 passing yards to push his postseason total to 5,285 yards, fourth best in NFL history.
Krafting A Winner
The Patriots’ 23–20 win over Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game was their 28th playoff game since Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994. New England’s 19 playoff victories over that span are the most in the NFL (Pittsburgh has 17). The Pats also lead the league in total victories (212), Super Bowl titles (three), conference championships (six), and division championships (11) since Kraft purchased the team.
Keeping Up With The Joneses
To say that first-round draft pick Chandler Jones comes from an athletic family is an understatement. Oldest brother Arthur is a top defensive line reserve for the Ravens, and middle brother Jon “Bones” Jones is the UFC light middleweight champion.
Pass? Not this time
Head coach Bill Belichick has made trading down and collecting draft picks into a cottage industry. But not this year. New England had two first-round picks thanks to a trade with New Orleans during the 2011 draft, and Belichick moved up from both to snag Jones and Dont’a Hightower. The last time he traded up in the first round was in 2003, when the Pats moved up one spot to get Ty Warren.
Defensive back Nate Ebner is a former national-level rugby standout who didn’t play a down of high school football, walked on at Ohio State and was a special teams demon. Still, Ebner had few designs on being drafted until opening eyes at OSU’s Pro Day. Now he’s a sixth-round NFL pick and heading to training camp with New England.
140 Characters or Fewer
Chad Ochocinco may not have given the Pats much on the field, but off it he convinced Wes Welker to join Twitter. Within days, Welker had racked up tens of thousands of followers, and among other things, the Pats’ franchise player has used the medium to wryly express his desire for a long-term contract. When the Patriots tweeted him happy birthday wishes in May, he responded, “Guess what would be the perfect Birthday gift? :)”
Service With A Smile
Despite wearing a gray hoodie and not the standard blue polo shirt, defensive back Sterling Moore was mistaken for a Best Buy employee twice in one visit to a Massachusetts store last year. The irony was that as a teenager in Pittsburg, Calif., Moore actually did work at Best Buy.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13:New Orleans Saints
No. 12:Dallas Cowboys
No. 11:Denver Broncos
No. 10:Detroit Lions
No. 9:Chicago Bears
No. 8:Atlanta Falcons
No. 7:Baltimore Ravens
No. 6:Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5:New York Giants
No. 4: New England Patriots
No. 3: Wed., August 29
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Related: 2012 New England Patriots Schedule Analysis