Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner changed the look of the Patriots secondary. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner changed the look of the Patriots secondary. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’€™ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand. We’€™ve looked at special teams, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, quarterback, offensive line and safety. Now, it’€™s the cornerback position:

Depth chart (regular-season stats via coaches film review): Darrelle Revis (49 tackles, 2 INTs, 14 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble recovery), Brandon Browner (26 tackles, 1 INT, 6 passes defensed), Kyle Arrington (33 tackles, 1 sack, 4 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles), Malcolm Butler (14 tackles, 4 passes defensed), Alfonzo Dennard (15 tackles, 1 INT, 1 pass defensed), 1 fumble recovery), Logan Ryan (36 tackles, 2 INTs, 6 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble).

Overview: In much the same fashion the Patriots underwent an Extreme Makeover at wide receiver at the end of the 2006 season, they did the same thing at cornerback this past offseason. While the overhaul at wide receiver prior to 2007 wasn’€™t enough to get them over the top, it was just enough this time around, as the New England secondary was a difference-maker throughout the season and into the playoffs.

While Browner was sidelined for the first four games because of a suspension for a 2013 violation of the NFL’€™s substance abuse policy, the impact was immediate, as second level corners like Dennard were immediately pushed down the depth chart in favor of top-shelf talent like Revis and Browner, and teams that had feasted on the New England corners in previous years were shut down across the board. While there was a mixture of man and zone over the course of the season, Revis was able to lock down most of the No. 1 receivers he ended up going head-to-head with, while Browner was a versatile and feisty presence who worked equally well against bigger targets, which included receivers and tight ends.

For the most part, the rest of the corners were able to fill in nicely around Revis and Browner: Arrington was a quality presence in the slot for most of the season, while Butler provided nice depth, eventually emerging on the biggest stage against the Seahawks in the title game. (More on that shortly.) Ryan occasionally struggled in coverage, and teams started to understand that if you had a deep passing game and wanted to test the Patriots, you stayed as far away as possible from Revis and Browner. Meanwhile, Dennard was an afterthought, struggling with injury for most of the year before going on season-ending injured reserve in December.

Going forward, the whole offseason starts with Revis: he is technically under contract for 2015, but his cap hit is so enormous it’€™s debatable as to whether or not the Patriots can think about bringing him back at that total. Presuming he finds a way to stick around –€” from this viewpoint, he’€™ll be around for at least one more season –€” that would allow the rest of the corners to slot neatly into place for another season. Browner, Butler, Ryan and Arrington are all under contract for 2015, while Dennard now likely faces an uphill battle for playing time against a Super Bowl hero in Butler. He could end up being cut somewhere down the line if the roster numbers don’€™t add up or if the Patriots try and add to their depth at the position either in free agency or the draft.

Best moment: Prior to Super Bowl XLIX, there were a ton of memorable performances by the New England cornerbacks, including the work that Revis did against a several of high-profile receivers, including A.J. Green and Sammy Watkins. (There was also the high-energy jolt of Browner, who played with an edge and made plenty of receivers think twice when it came to going over the middle.) But you’€™d be foolish not to pinpoint the performance of Butler at the end of the Super Bowl, jumping the route and picking off the Russell Wilson pass for Ricardo Lockette. It was a great play on several levels, but maybe the most impressive things about Butler’€™s execution was the fact that he was beaten on the play the week before in practice by the scout team duo of Jimmy Garoppolo and Josh Boyce. When the play happened in the Super Bowl, he was able to recognize what happened and make the biggest play of his career.

Worst moment: Not many here, but the Green Bay game was probably the nadir of the season for the cornerbacks, as Aaron Rodgers was able to make some really good reads and go after some exposed areas of the secondary, connecting on pass plays to his third and fourth options and testing the depth of the Patriots cornerbacks. Rodgers performed as well against the New England from start to finish in that Nov. 30 game as any opposing quarterback all season, going 24-for-38 for 368 yards, a pair of touchdowns and no picks. It was only one of three games all season where the Patriots did not force a single turnover. (Peyton Manning threw for 429 yards in a November loss to New England, but the majority of that came when the Broncos were already out of the game.)

By the numbers: 72.6 –€” According to Pro Football Focus, the quarterback rating for the signal-callers who were throwing at Revis when he was in man coverage this season. It’€™s the second-lowest total for any cornerback who played a minimum of 600 snaps in coverage this year, and the best total for any No. 1 cornerback in the league.

Money quote: “He’€™s one of the most competitive guys I’€™ve been around at that position. He HATES when you catch a ball on him. So, he’€™s had a big challenge covering a lot of the premiere players we faced this year. Every week he gets a tough assignment and he always seems to do a great job. I’€™m glad he’€™s on our team now. Playing against him twice a year for a long time, I gained a lot of appreciation for what he’€™s able to do. He’€™s got a big challenge this week. He’€™s got a lot of fast receivers that really you have to cover everywhere on the field with these guys.” –€” Tom Brady on Revis’€™ competitive streak

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Patriots safety Devin McCourty stayed mostly quiet on the topic of free agency over the course of the 2014 season, but now that the year is complete –€” and the end of his rookie contract is in sight –” the Rutgers product

Patriots safety Devin McCourty stayed mostly quiet on the topic of free agency over the course of the 2014 season, but now that the year is complete –€” and the end of his rookie contract is in sight –” the Rutgers product talked with our friend Dan Duggan of NJ.com about what might await him.

“I’m excited for the process to see how it will all work out,” Devin said in a phone interview with NJ Advance Media. “I haven’t really thought about it that much even though the season is over and that’s kind of the top thing on the list. I think just coming down off the Super Bowl run and winning that, maybe next week or the week after it will really start to set in as it really gets closer to the whole free agency, franchise tag and all of that.”

There’€™s the distinct possibility the Patriots will hit McCourty with the franchise tag. That window begins Monday and runs for two weeks, until March 2.

McCourty’€™s brother Jason –€” a defensive back with the Titans –€” says he’€™ll try and put a serious recruiting pitch on for his brother to join him in Tennessee if Devin does hit free agency. But he doesn’€™t sound optimistic that Devin will get to that point.

“I’ll see what I can do. It’s going to be hard to get him out of New England,” Jason said. “You know how the business side of it goes. We’ll see. If he becomes a free agent, I’ll be doing everything in my power to try to get him to Tennessee.

“As March closes in he’ll get a chance to see what New England wants to do, and I know he wants to be back there,” Jason added. “He feels like that’s home. I think that’s where he’ll want to play his entire career.”

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price
Julian Edelman, seen here at the Grammys, has enjoyed his time in the spotlight since the end of the Super Bowl. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Julian Edelman, seen here at the Grammys, has enjoyed his time in the spotlight since the end of the Super Bowl. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

1. If the first two weeks following the Super Bowl win over the Seahawks are any indication, the Patriot who stands to get the biggest uptick in recognition — and potential financial bounce as an endorser — is wide receiver Julian Edelman. Keeping in mind that guys like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski were high-profile even before the 2014 season, Edelman has been America’s Guest since the end of the Super Bowl. Following a trip to Disneyland with cornerback Malcolm Butler, the former seventh-round pick has appeared on several network talk shows, including “Live with Kelly and Michael” and “Late Night with Seth Myers,” as well as making a trip to Disney and as a guest appearance as a presenter at the Grammys with cornerback Malcolm Butler and sat down for a quick Q and A with the New York Times (where he wouldn’t get into any talk about a Super Bowl concussion.) Edelman has always been keenly aware of his image and brand — he has promoted his JE11 gear in the same fashion as the quarterback has marketed the TB12 brand — and has also had a knack for starring in some offbeat videos, including a Google Glass promotion and the “Burger Tyme” and “Smoothie Tyme” videos, which vaguely recall a Zack Galifinakis style of humor. While the quarterback will always be the go-to guy on the roster as the No. 1 choice for endorsement possibilities, look for Edelman to raise his profile and cash in in his own right this offseason after a terrific playoff run.

2. While it’s always a little dicey to try and figure out scenarios for 2015 with the 2014 season just barely in the books, there are a few things we can point to when it comes to how next season is going to shape up. There’s a lot of time between now and the start of the season and the team-building process for 2015 is barely underway, but based on the 2014 win-loss records and list of opponents that’s already been named (the dates and times figure to be posted in April), we can tell you that the 2015 Patriots figure to have the 11th easiest schedule in the league in 2015. Their opponents posted a 122-134-1 record (.477) in 2014, but it is worth noting that there are few middle-of-the-road teams on the slate: New England will play 10 games against teams that finished .500 or better, including two contests against divisional foes Buffalo and Miami. At the same time, the Patriots will also face the Jets, Titans and Jags, all of whom failed to win more than five games in 2014. By way of comparison, the Falcons (whose 2015 opponents had a winning percent of .409 in 2014) have the easiest slate next year, while the Texans and Colts (.417) are tied for second and the Bucs are third (.425). On the other end of the spectrum, the Steelers (.579), Bengals (.563), Niners (.561) and Seahawks (.559) have the toughest schedules in 2015, at least at this point.

3. As the offseason really kicks into gear, there are various reports of Patriots players getting surgery and otherwise cleaning up medical issues that needed to be addressed since the end of the season. Earlier this month, the Boston Herald was the first to report the news that linebacker Dont’a Hightower played in the Super Bowl with a torn labrum — an injury he had since November — and is expected to undergo offseason surgery. And on Thursday, defensive lineman Sealver Siliga posted an Instagram picture of himself, apparently following surgery. Siliga didn’t specific what sort of injury he had worked on, but the defensive lineman was on injured reserve/designated for return for a sizable portion of the year because of a foot injury, returning in December and playing a key role up front for the New England defense. Expect more similar injury stories (and resulting surgeries) to leak out over the next few months.

4. A few stats on quarterbacks, age and their postseason chances: The last 12 years, only four over-30 quarterbacks won Super Bowls: 37-year-old Brady (Super Bowl XLIX), 31-year-old Eli Manning (Super Bowl XLVI), 31-year-old Drew Brees (Super Bowl XLIV) and 30-year-old Peyton Manning (Super Bowl XLI). In that same vein, because it’s never too early to start speculating about 2015, the 37-year-old Brady became the second-oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl when he led the Patriots past the Seahawks. Brady became one of five quarterbacks age 35 or older to win a title, joining a group that includes John Elway, Roger Staubach, Jim Plunkett and Johnny Unitas. If Brady wins the Super Bowl again next season, he will be the second oldest quarterback to do it, 36 days younger than 38-year-old Elway when he won his second following the 1998 season. (Elway retired the following spring.)

5. Going back and revisiting our coverage from the week, and we were remiss that we didn’t pass along this note from a piece via TheMMQB.com on Joe Namath and his thoughts on Brady. In stark contrast to many former players who have taken their shots at the Patriots quarterback, Namath was effusive in the praise of the quarterback, saying that when it comes to quarterbacking, “one’s ever been better than Tom Brady…I go back to watching the guys earlier in some of the darker days, in the ’50s. One of my first heroes was Otto Graham. Come on, 10 straight title games in Cleveland. He was just spectacular. Bobby Layne was a unique quarterback, really terrific. Getting into the modern era, Peyton Manning has had his wonderful performances. Don’t tell me anybody is better than Aaron Rodgers, either. Better than, better than, better than. The best, the best, the best. To each his own. I have a hard time calling anybody in any sport ‘the best’ because of the changes in the game, certainly, and because of the greats that were ahead of them. But I will say, no one has ever played the game better than Tom Brady. You start looking at numbers, and sometimes statistics tell a story, and sometimes they don’t tell the whole story. It’s such a team game. But Tom has answered the bell. He has answered every challenge. He’s great. He’s great. No one has ever done it better.”

6. With the franchise and transition tag for the NFL opening on Monday and running for two weeks (until March 2), it’s worth revisiting how the Patriots have used the tag in the past and what happened as a result:

2002: Adam Vinatieri, contract extension
2003: Tebucky Jones, traded
2005: Adam Vinatieri, played it out and later departed as a free agent
2007: Asante Samuel, played it out and later departed as a free agent
2009: Matt Cassel, traded
2010: Vince Wilfork, contract extension
2011: Logan Mankins, contract extension
2012: Wes Welker, played it out and later departed as a free agent

7. The draft is still two-plus months away, but the pre-draft chatter hasn’t already begun. And while there were several excellent draft-related questions for the Patriots in this week’s Friday chat (the consensus seems to be the Patriots will go after an interior offensive lineman at No. 32), the biggest debate nationally now focuses on the quarterback position, namely: Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock — who will hold a much-anticipated conference call with the media this week in advance of the combine — has already stated that he ranks Winston ahead of Mariota, at least at this point. (Even after seeing this photo of Winston working out, a photo that was taken roughly a month ago and certainly causes some to wonder about his overall commitment level at the draft approaches.) Mayock loves Winston’s approach, telling NFL Network earlier this week that despite the off-field questions, Winston “has the physical skill set to play and succeed in the NFL at the highest level.” And while Mayock loves Mariota’s attitude and demeanor, he still questions how successful he’ll be able to be coming from Oregon’s spread offense into the NFL, where he’ll be asked to be more a pocket passer. Regardless of who goes No. 1, it appears the Bucs are clearing the decks in hopes of landing a quarterback, given the fact that they cut loose Josh McCown this past week. One thing that is certain — the two appear to be the only legitimate quarterbacking prospects worthy of starting as rookies, as many people believe (including Mayock) this is one of the weaker quarterbacking classes in recent memory. (With that in mind, maybe it wasn’t so crazy that the Patriots used a second-round pick on Jimmy Garoppolo last spring. But that’s a story for another day.)

8. With the combine set to open later this week, it’s easy to place too much emphasis not only on how players perform at the combine, but if they’re even invited at all. A handful of the most important players at the Super Bowl two weeks back weren’t invited to perform at Indy, a group that includes Butler and Edelman, as well as corner Kyle Arrington and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. In year’s past, players like Wes Welker and Troy Brown were notable combine snubs. In the end, while you should enjoy watching the combine — as much as anyone can enjoy watching football players engage in athletic events without shoulder pads on — you should keep in mind that it’s not the end all and be all when it comes to assessing a prospect.

9. The idea of the ties between the Patriots and Rutgers could get any deeper are laughable — at one point, there were so many former Scarlet Knights on the roster that Gillette Stadium should stop playing Bon Jovi and instead cue up the Rutgers theme song after a touchdown. But things could certainly go to another level; this week, it was revealed that Ben McDaniels, the brother of Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, was named the new Rutgers OC. The 34-year-old Ben, who is four years younger than Josh, joined the Rutgers staff last year as the wide receivers coach, but took over the offensive coordinator duties last week after former OC Ralph Friedgen stepped down. Our friend Dan Duggan spoke with Josh shortly after the announcement was made, and he sounded a lot like a proud big brother. “I’m really proud of him,” Josh said in a phone interview. “He’s been a few different places, obviously, in the last six or seven years and he’s learned a lot of different football from different people. He’s certainly carving out his own path. It says a lot about what he’s been able to do in whatever role he’s been given that they would feel good enough about him this quickly that they would give him this responsibility. I’m sure he’s earned it.”

10. Traditionally, one of the first stops on the offseason for both Brady and/or coach Bill Belichick has been an appearance at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. (They were in the same foursome a year ago, paired with professional golfers Ricky Barnes and James Driscoll.) However, it was announced last week that both Belichick and Brady won’t be a part of the event this year. It’s worth mentioning that while many of his teammates have made the media rounds this offseason — including Gronkowski, Brandon Browner, LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen and Rob Ninkovich — the quarterback has laid low, happy to put out a few Facebook posts since the conclusion of the Duckboat Parade that celebrated the Super Bowl win.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price
Devin McCourty has emerged as one of the best safeties in the league. (Getty Images)

Devin McCourty has emerged as one of the best safeties in the league. (Getty Images)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand. We’ve looked at special teams, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, quarterback and offensive line. Now, we start on the defensive side of the ball with the safety position:

Depth chart (stats via coaches film review): Devin McCourty (72 tackles, 2 INTs, 6 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble), Patrick Chung (89 tackles, 1 INT, 7 passes defensed), Tavon Wilson (20 tackles, 2 passes defensed), Duron Harmon (12 tackles, 1 INT, 1 pass defensed), Nate Ebner. (4 tackles).

Overview: While no one preaches team defense like the Patriots, any conversation about the safety position in New England begins and ends with McCourty. The Rutgers product was the consummate quarterback for the Patriots defense in 2014, serving as a leader for what became one of the best secondaries in the league over the course of the season. He wasn’t the best pure defensive back on the roster — that honor goes to Darrelle Revis — but his smarts, versatility and leadership made him one of the foundational elements of the Patriots’ defense in 2014.

“You really can’t quantify what he brings to the team,” said coach Brian Flores said of McCourty midway through the season. “His leadership, his communication. He gets a lot of guys lined up. Guys have questions, they ask him. He’s like a coach on the field, quite honestly. He’s a very important cog in our defense. It would be different without him.”

Thanks in large part to the lockdown abilities of cornerbacks like Revis and Brandon Browner, McCourty spent much of the season working as a single high safety who was charged as the last line of defense for New England. Most of the year, he was twinned with either the youngster Harmon or Chung, the latter of whom had something of a career renaissance in his return to Foxboro after spending a season in exile with the Eagles. Both did a passable job working as an in-the-box safety — particularly Chung in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks, as well as the regular-season win over the Broncos. Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots address the strong safety spot in the offseason via the draft or free agency in hopes of building some depth at the position. (Wilson and Ebner are listed as defensive backs on the roster, and while Wilson did step in and play some this year because of injury, they are more special teamers than anything else.)

Going forward, there are some questions about this positional grouping: Can the Patriots re-sign McCourty? If they can’t, is there a name out there they have in mind as a potential replacement, either in the draft or as a free agent? Would New England go after a strong safety in the offseason? Regardless of how things end up, this was a group that performed very well in 2014, and McCourty was a sizable reason why.

Best moment: This is kind of broad-brushing it, but the work of the safeties — and the Get The (Bleep) Back mantra they espoused over the course of the season — over the first eight games was extremely impressive. New England did not give up a pass play of 40 or more yards over the course of the first half of the regular season. The first pass play of 40-plus yards against the Patriots’ pass defense came in Week 9 against the Broncos. In all, New England allowed eight pass plays of 40 or more yards, tied for 13th best in the league.

Worst moment: One of the only major breakdowns in the New England secondary all season long took place in a Nov. 30 loss to the Packers in Green Bay. Just before the end of the first half, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers found Jordy Nelson on a 45-yard pass play over the middle that started as a short play and Nelson turned into a touchdown when he raced through the Patriots defensive backs with less than a minute to go in the second quarter. It was a game-changing play that swung the momentum in Green Bay’s favor, and was one of the few breakdowns the New England secondary had all year long.

By the numbers: 1,196 – According to Pro Football Focus, the number of defensive snaps that McCourty played in 2014, including the postseason. McCourty was the only member of the Patriots to play more than 1,000 snaps in 2014 not to be flagged for a penalty.

Money quote: “He’s outstanding. He’s been outstanding before I got here, and he’s continuing to be outstanding. I feel like he’s the best free safety in the league. He has so much range out there. He’s so fast. I think the biggest thing I respect him for and appreciate him is how he studies the game and how he knows the game so well. He’s a student of the game and he works so hard at it.” –Revis talking about McCourty and his impact on the defense

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price
Charles Clay (42) has been a big-play maker against the Patriots in recent years. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Charles Clay (42) has been a big-play maker against the Patriots in recent years. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

When free agency begins in early March, there are a handful of players across the league who could appeal to New England. With the understanding that the status of these players could change because of the franchise or transition tag, here are a few possibilities for the Patriots to consider. We have to stress that all of these guys aren’€™t necessarily considered the elite of the free agent class — instead, they’€™re players we think would be a good fit in New England. We already featured C.J. Spiller,  Hakeem Nicks, Torrey Smith and Pernell McPhee. Here is a look at tight end Charles Clay:

Charles Clay
Position: Tight end/Fullback
Age: 26 (Feb. 13, 1989)
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 250 pounds

The skinny: In the words of Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, Clay “has size and can run.” The versatile Clay is also one of the best receiving “H-backs” in the game, proving to be a very reliable catching tight end and an effective blocking fullback when he is kept in to for extra pass protection. Clay, who has transitioned to more of a traditional tight end role, is regarded so highly around the NFL that he earned a spot at No. 89 among the NFL’s best players on a recent NFL.com poll. Two years ago he had a career year with 69 receptions for 759 yards and six touchdowns. That was when Clay’€™s value was at his highest. However, Clay battled through knee and hamstring injuries last season. In addition, under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, Clay’s numbers dropped as he wasn’€™t featured as much in the play-calling. If the Dolphins go with the cheaper in-house option of backup Dion Sims, Clay could hit the open market.

By the numbers: Clay’s best season came in 2013 when he had career highs in receptions (69), yards (759) and touchdowns (6). This past season, he had one game where he showed that kind of explosiveness and production, grabbing six catches for 114 yards in a Week 16 37-35 win over the Vikings.

Why it would work: If the Patriots feel they could make a significant upgrade over James Develin and/or Michael Hoomanawanui. Hooman is signed through 2015 and is due to make $800,000 with a $1.58 million cap hit for next season. Clay is coming off a down year where he fought through a season-long knee injury. It should help lower his price on the open market if the Dolphins let him get there. Clay is one of the more versatile tight ends in the league with the ability to line up in the backfield.

Why it might not work: Concern about Clay’s health and Tom Brady‘s comfort level with James Develin, who is more of a fullback. Brady has often raved about how reliable and productive Develin has been for him in essentially the same role Clay would serve. And Clay, even with knee and hamstring issues, figures to cost much more than Develin on the free market. Develin is a restricted free agent this spring and only earned $570,000 this season. Of course, that could all be moot as the Dolphins have privately expressed interest in bring back the tight end who has caught 14 touchdown passes in his first four NFL seasons out of Tulsa. Clay and defensive tackle Jared Odrick are Miami’s top two free agents.

Quote: “Just being here and knowing the guys, knowing the coaches, the city, this is definitely somewhere I want to spend the rest of my career. I was saying that the second I got drafted. Yeah, I definitely want to [re-sign].” — Charles Clay in late December about his interest in re-signing with the Dolphins before free agency.

Our take: It would seem the Patriots and Bill Belichick would love to have a physically dominating player like Clay, who has 17 catches for 156 yards in six career games against New England. Belichick has always respected Clay’s playmaking ability. Against the Dolphins in the second meeting of 2013, Belichick decided the one player he needed to contain was Clay. The Patriots bracketed and sometimes double-covered Clay in that second meeting, he had one catch for six yards in a 24-20 Patriots win. But too many concerns about his knees and hamstrings combined with the fact that Tom Brady is comfortable with James Develin already make this a long shot at best.

Blog Author: 
Mike Petraglia

Join Chris Price of WEEI.com to break down all things Patriots and the NFL, Friday at noon. Price will answer all your questions about the offseason, as well as the landscape of the league as some key dates draw closer.

Live Blog Chris Price Live Patriots Chat

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Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork and Dan Connolly were all smiles at several points this season. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork and Dan Connolly were all smiles by the end of the season. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand. We’ve looked at special teams, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends and quarterback. Now, it’s the offensive line:

Depth chart: Tackle Nate Solder, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, guard/center Dan Connolly, guard/center Ryan Wendell, center Bryan Stork, guard/tackle Marcus Cannon, guard/tackle Jordan Devey, guard Josh Kline, tackle Cameron Fleming,

Overview: It was a wildly up-and-down season for New England’s offensive line. After losing two mainstays — longtime position coach Dante Scarnecchia retired in the offseason and veteran guard Logan Mankins was default just before the start of the season — the group had to make some serious adjustments over the course of the year. But once he got fully healthy, the addition of rookie center Bryan Stork created some stabilization, and allowed veteran guards Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell to rotate back to areas of strength. And while Nate Solder struggled at times throughout the season, his fellow tackle on the other side — Sebastian Vollmer — continued to hold up well. (Vollmer was named to as a second-team All-Pro by Pro Football Focus.)

Few things are tougher than trying to quantify successful offensive line play — in many cases, you don’t necessarily need the five best pure linemen. Instead, it’s the five who work the best as a unit. As a result, it took some time to sort through what combinations worked and some didn’t. In addition, there was some getting used to the idea of not working with Scarnecchia and Mankins, two constants that had come to define the Patriots offensive line.

With the new group, there were struggles — big ones. The idea of an occasionally shaky left tackle and a rookie center hardly inspired confidence in the fan base. But the group grew and adjusted and evolved over the 2014 season, and while it was far from perfect most of the time (and Brady’s concerted efforts to get the ball out as fast as possible), it all worked. The bottom line is that while it’s always a little dicey to measure pass protection via sacks, Brady was sacked just 21 times in 2014 — almost half of the total he took in 2013 (40) and the lowest since 2009, when he was sacked 16 times overall. And while the running game wasn’t overwhelming (New England averaged 107.9 rushing yards per game, 18th in the league, while becoming the first team to win a Super Bowl without a back finish the season with 100 or more carries), the line cleared a path for the Patriots to top 100 yards on the ground on seven different occasions, including the postseason.

As is the case up and down the roster, the Patriots have to address some personnel/free agent questions. That includes the status of Connolly, who will hit the market this offseason. With that in mind, it wouldn’€™t be a surprise to see New England chase after an offensive lineman at the end of the first round, likely a guard who could step in next to Stork and continue to bolster Brady’€™s protection. Bill Belichick tied a personal mark last spring when he drafted three offensive linemen. (He selected three offensive linemen in one draft on one other occasion.) Expect him to equal that this year.

Best moment: The New England offensive line was fairly stout through one of the tougher stretches of the season — through the deadly six-game stretch against (mostly) division leaders that was supposed to sink the Patriots, Brady was sacked three times in all, and had enough time to complete 68 percent of his passes and fire 17 touchdowns and just five picks. In addition, New England averaged 116 yards per game on the ground through that six-game contest. Not bad for a team in desperate need of Richie Incognito.

Worst moment: The first four games. Brady was sacked nine times in all in the first quarter of the season, as the offense couldn’t gain any sort of traction through that stretch in large part because the offensive line was so wildly ineffective. In the first quarter of the season, Brady ended up with a 59 percent completion rate, and averaged just under 200 passing yards and one touchdown per game. As a team, the offense averaged just 20 points per game on the way to a ragged 202 start.

By the numbers (courtesy Ryan Hannable): Here’€™s a look at the final regular-season numbers for the New England offensive line with the starters and with any other combination:

– Solder, Connolly, Stork, Wendell, Vollmer (7-1 record) — Weeks 5, 8-14: Brady: 214-320 (66.9 percent), 2,433 yards, 21 TDs, 6 INTs, 103.6 QB rating, 4 sacks

– Any combination besides above (5-3 record) — Weeks 1-4, 6, 7, 15, 16: Brady: 160-263 (60.8 percent), 1,675 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs, 89.8 QB rating, 17 sacks

Money quote: “I understand how the media operates. I understand you all have a job to do. I was doing the same thing, if you will, in a little different way. But I understand that. Does it affect me, less or more because I did that? I don’t know if I could say that. … All I care about is that my men come out of a game like they did after last game and say, ‘Coach, I feel good. I’m healthy. We did it right. We had success.'” — offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo in early November after he and the rest of the offensive line struggled with a rough start, but managed to right the ship, getting healthy at the right time

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler appeared in-studio Thursday on NFL Network’s “Total Access” and “NFL AM.” Here are a few quotes from his appearances:

On if he thought he knocked the ball away on the catch by Jermaine Kearse:

Malcolm Butler became a national superstar with his game-saving pick at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Malcolm Butler became a national superstar with his game-saving pick at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler appeared in-studio Thursday on NFL Network’s “Total Access” and “NFL AM.” Here are a few quotes from his appearances:

On if he thought he knocked the ball away on the catch by Jermaine Kearse:

“Yeah I did [think I knocked it away]. I got up pretty fast thinking that I made a play, probably to get up and show a little swag or something like that. But that wasn’t the case. The ball was in the guy’s hand. Situational football is what the New England organization is all about and I had the instincts to get up and try to knock the ball away and get him out of bounds and save a touchdown — an easy touchdown.”

On his thoughts after Marshawn Lynch carried the ball to the 1-yard line:

“I gave my best effort. You can’t be mad at yourself with your best effort. Yeah [I thought the game was over]. Most definitely, just like everybody else.”

On his interception:

“I just said ‘If I’m wrong, I’m wrong; they’re on the 1-yard line, they’re going to run it anyway. But if they pass it, I’m going to be on it.'”

For video of Butler’s appearances, click here and here. For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price