EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 23, 2013

Final Grades Pats' secondary put the 'D' in defens

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

---- — New England appears stuck in this abyss of being good enough to dominate the soft underbelly of the NFL but highly incapable when real, rugged football teams smack the Patriots in the face.

With that in mind, let’s take a peek at this roster and deliver final grades on what has to be considered – like the entire last eight years – a highly successful yet unfulfilling 2012 season.

Bill Belichick,

President/GM

The guy still cashes dividends of the Tom Brady selection back in 2000, so in one respect his job is easy. Look at the key moves. Brandon Lloyd was a solid addition. Can we find any others? Steve Gregory fit right in with the most mediocre of secondary units at safety. Aqib Talib, for a fourth-round pick, is perceived as the steal of the season. Was he? Yes, his presence stabilized a secondary that was reeling badly. We all saw them disintegrate without him Sunday. But was his impact perceived or real? New England was 6-2 in his eight games, falling to the only two real teams the Pats faced in that span, Baltimore and San Francisco. In two wins over the fraudulent Texans, he “held” Andre Johnson to 8 catches for 95 yards in each. Talib is now a free agent. Take the move for what it was.

Bill Belichick, Coach

Think about the fact that the San Francisco 49ers are heading to the Super Bowl despite going 0-1-1 vs. the Rams. Then realize that Bill Belichick has averaged 11.6 wins per season since getting here. The guy does not allow his football team to let down or take one week off. The Pats won 12 regular season games this year. Three of the four losses were by a total of five points. The other one was a one-score game in which the Pats spotted the NFC champion Niners a 31-3 lead and rallied to tie it at 31-31, before ultimately falling 41-34. As a motivator, strategist and field general, Belichick remains the best in the game … BY A MILE! But, you only get the A+ when you win a Super Bowl.

OFFENSE (A-)

LINE

Dan Connolly (A-) … Grades out as the most consistent, solid offensive lineman in the group. Texans put him to the test twice with J.J. Watt and he held his own. Love his grit. Missed Week 2 vs. Arizona and it showed.

Logan Mankins (B+) … Rarely missed a snap at left guard. Certainly maintained his status among the game’s finest by earning his fourth Pro Bowl selection in eight seasons.

Nick McDonald (C-) … After a rocky preseason, he filled in adequately, playing in all but five games in a sub role. Remains in a fight to keep his job next year.

Nate Solder (C+) … It comes with the left-tackle territory that the bulk of the big QB hits are hung on your head. Solder had some shaky moments in his first full year, to be expected. Like his feet, not sure about his upper-body strength. Too many swings-and-misses for me, at least a lot more than we were used to seeing with Matt Light there.

Donald Thomas (C) … An adequate inside backup, but not much more.

Sebastian Vollmer (B) … Started all but one game at right tackle, which is the most positive thing you could say about his season. His health scares me down the road. But as long as he’s in the game, he’s a solid pro.

Ryan Wendell (B) … Stepped inside and honestly didn’t miss a beat. Got better as the season went along. Has a little nasty streak, which is good. Only 26 years old.

Others of note: Marcus Cannon went from potential starter to healthy scratch, a step in the wrong direction. Markus Zusevics came in as insurance late but didn’t have an impact. Kyle Hix and Jamey Richard spent the year on IR.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Kamar Aiken (D) … Simply no impact out of the Dec. 29 practice squad signee.

Deion Branch (C-) … “I absolutely plan on coming back,” said Branch after Sunday’s game. Really? He’s done physically. This position needs an upgrade badly.

Julian Edelman (D) … Growing very weary of the Pats’ king of the stupid mistake. Had 21 catches for 235 yards and three TDs in the nine games played. Has missed ¼ of the games during his four-year career.

Aaron Hernandez (B-) … His transition to full-time slot continued nicely. Caught 51 balls for 483 yards in 10 regular season games. The injury issue is a problem. Added 15 catches for 168 yards in playoffs. Battled some drops, but in all, he’s a productive option.

Brandon Lloyd (B) … Delivered what conservatives might have expected from him in a 74-catch, 911-yard, 4-TD season. Wasn’t the big-play threat many wanted him to be. At times, he and Tom Brady quibbled like a couple kids in a sandlot game, but in all, Lloyd was a professional receiver, something this offense needed badly.

Matt Slater (D) … No catches, few offensive snaps. And was it a Pro Bowl season in special teams? He had 12 solos, 8 assists and no forced fumbles or recoveries. You tell me.

Wes Welker (A) … Let’s put it this way: The man caught 118 passes for 1,354 yards in the regular season then dominated the playoffs with 16 more catches for 248 yards. And, at the ripe age of 31, he’s your lead punt returner. The guy absorbed more punishment than any human should be allowed, and he kept coming back. Yes, he dropped a couple of balls. Folks, if you let him walk, you are incredibly ignorant.

TIGHT ENDS

Daniel Fells (F) … Four catches for 85 yards. No threat, no how, despite playing regularly when Gronk went down.

Rob Gronkowski (B+) … Look, he’s one of the game’s best and the numbers prove it with 55 catches for 790 yards and 11 TDs in 11 games played. His blocking is the best in the game at the position as well. But he missed five games plus essentially two playoff games. Durability comes into the equation here. Twice, he’s missed substantial time (10 games total) in three years.

Michael Hoomanawanui (F) … Played in 14 games with six starts and caught 5 balls for 109 yards.

RUNNING BACKS

Brandon Bolden (C-) … Was on his way to being a solid rotation back when struck with a four-game suspension for a positive drug test.

That relegated him most exclusively to special teams, where he was by no means an impact-maker.

Stevan Ridley (B+) … The team rushing numbers (523-2,184) outdid the 2004, Corey Dillon-dominated numbers (524-2,134), and this guy was the leader, so he deserves huge props.

Ran for 1,263 of those yards. Only knock is four regular-season fumbles and one in the playoffs. I’m also worried of the carnage caused by the head-on collision with Bernard Pollard that sent the ball to the turf.

Shane Vereen (B-) … Dependable No. 2 back. The only thing lacking was consistency.

Danny Woodhead (B+) … At times, this little guy was driven like a war horse. That wasn’t helpful.

But few around the league are better in third-down back role than he is.

Scored 7 TDs with 747 yards from scrimmage, with an average of 6.4 yards per touch.

QUARTERBACKS

Tom Brady (A-) … In my eyes, he’s the NFL’s regular season MVP with 34 TD passes and 8 interceptions on the year. But another bumpy playoff road, making him 7-7 in his last 14 postseason games, takes a full half-grade off the A+.

Ryan Mallett (Inc.) … Thankfully, the sample size is too minuscule to make a judgment.

DEFENSE (C-)

Line

Jake Bequette (C-) … First-year guy played a sub role in three games, sitting the rest. They like his versatility, but the burst in the pass rush was lacking when he got the chance.

Jermaine Cunningham (D) … Four years and still waiting for impact, any impact. Finished with 16 solo tackles and 2.5 sacks. For a guy who wasn’t supposed to make it out of training camp I guess that’s OK in the Pats’ eyes.

Brandon Deaderick (C -) … Started the final five games and both playoffs, when the Pats defense “got better.” Finished with single digits in solo tackles (8). No pass rush. Not exactly stout. Makes you long for a Ty Warren in there.

Justin Francis (C) … Rookie, who subbed into the line a dozen times. Did have three sacks, among his nine tackles. Wasn’t expecting much from the Rutgers product, and he delivered.

Chandler Jones (B) … At the midpoint, he was in the talk for NFL Rookie Defensive Player of the Year. The last of his six sacks came on Oct. 28 vs. the Rams. Had six solo tackles total in the seven games he played after that. Was this a rookie hitting the wall, Jones sucking it up and playing while he was injured or the league catching on to a one-dimensional player? Pats fans – and Bill Belichick – had better pray that it was option 1 or 2.

Kyle Love (B) … Big Vince told us how big a loss he was after the Ravens game. Of course, this is a guy who lost his starting spot in Week 12 and never got it back. He’s tough, rugged and dependable, a nice complement inside to Wilfork. I just think the Pats were looking for more explosion when they went to Deaderick over him.

Trevor Scott (C-) … Played in 16 of the 18 games, starting a pair. Had three sacks that netted a total of seven total yards. Has a lot of Mike Wright in him, meaning that he’s not going to be the next Richard Seymour, but he’ll hang around and contribute.

Rob Ninkovich (B+) … Had eight regular season sacks and chipped in two more in the playoffs as the team’s top pass-rushing threat. Forced five fumbles, recovering four of them. Picked off a pass vs. Houston. The guy is undersized, but he’s got a motor and the desire to succeed. Your best (only?) playmaker on defense right now.

Vince Wilfork (A-) … Had as dominant a season on the defensive line as Brady did at quarterback. Had as disappointing a closer with Baltimore as Brady did, too. A premier run-stuffer and heady-pass rusher, he had 41 solos with three sacks and 6 passes defended. Forced a pair of fumbles and pounced on four of them. Love this guy and what he brings.

Linebackers

Dont’a Hightower (C+) … His rookie flash and fizzle made Jones’ look like a career. Hightower flew around the field and hit everything in sight … in September. Showed some pass rushing prowess early, finishing with four sacks, but by season’s end, he had a hard time staying on the field. Let’s put it this way. Belichick allowed Brandon Spikes to cover Dennis Pitta vs. the Ravens with Hightower on the bench. That might say something to you.

Niko Koutouvides (D) … Another year in the books on special teams. Only three solo tackles.

Jerod Mayo (B-) … He is the defense, which is at best a B- but more likely a C+. We give him the benefit of the doubt for his career win percentage. Played in a lot more open spaced and led this team in tackling with 115 solos and three sacks. He’s smart and savvy but not exactly athletic or overly physical. Added a pick and four forced fumbles, but he’s never going to be considered a game-changer. He’s a vacuum cleaner, working five yards off the line of scrimmage.

Mike Rivera (C) … Hits people on special teams, you have to like that.

Brandon Spikes (C) … Drilled people early in the year. Led team with five forced fumbles. Just wasn’t the same guy over the second half. Totaled 85 tackles and a sack. And nobody is more lost in coverage, which he was asked to do much too often and failed more often than not.

Tracy White (D) … He’s here for his kicking game prowess, and he finished with four total tackles on special teams.

Secondary

Kyle Arrington (D) …The poster child of this defense. Can’t cover. Talks too much.

Patrick Chung (D) … Looks like another waste of a No. 2 pick in the mold of Darius Butler or Brandon Meriweather, who was actually a No. 1. Free agent, can’t see him coming back.

Marquice Cole (D) … Last seen chasing Anquan Boldin in a futile state of distress. Again, can’t be part of the future.

Alfonzo Dennard (C-) …The rookie did enough to deserve a second look.

He’s too small, but some features that equate him to a very, very poor man’s Ty Law. Loose at the hips. Has the innate ability to latch on, often without getting caught.

Nate Ebner (C) … Rookie with 12 special teams tackles. Will not play in the secondary, just doesn’t have the physical skills, but could be a key kicking-game contributor.

Steve Gregory (C-) … Gets credit for durability and not much else. Was supposed to provide coverage and stability of a veteran. Just too often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Derrick Martin (D) … Dressed for only five games but did have a sack.

Devin McCourty (C-) … He, Ebner and Dennard might be the only members in this bunch back next year. If anyone else is — besides the free agent Talib — then the personnel folks have done a great job on the upgrade.

He’s told to play about 25 yards off the line of scrimmage, and is often late to the point of attack, but nobody gets behind him.

Aqib Talib (C+) … Durability matters. He was good and stabilized things to some extent. But if you can’t stay on the field, it rarely matters. He was needed against the Ravens and limped off early.

Malcolm Williams (Inc.) … Only dressed twice.

Special Teams

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski (B-) … Six field goal misses that came at bad times.

Punter Zoltan Mesko (B+) …Consistent, averaging 43.1 yards per punt, nailing 28 inside the 20.

Long snapper Danny Aiken (B+) … No issues whatsoever.