The Patriots under Bill Belichick have never been afraid to challenge football convention, whether it was going for it on fourth and 2 in Indianapolis, or basing their offense around the tight end position, or drafting rookie safety Jordan Richards in the second round — about four rounds higher than draftniks projected.
The Patriots are cruising along at 5-0 this season, with the greatness of Tom Brady and the genius of Belichick on full display. But they also have been getting it done while defying convention in two major areas: offensive line and cornerback.
Most teams try to build cohesion along the offensive line, but the Patriots are destroying it. They have constantly rotated linemen in and out of the game and to different positions, getting valuable playing time and experience for seven players when only five spots at a time are available.
The two most important positions on a defense are usually the pass stoppers — the rushers and the cornerbacks. But a year after spending big on Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, the Patriots have invested shockingly little into their cornerback position. Sunday’s game will offer a startling contrast: The Jets have invested the most money into cornerbacks in the entire NFL ($31 million in salary cap space) while the Patriots have invested the least ($2.1 million to the four players currently on the 53-man roster).
The offensive line project has been fascinating to observe. Preseason injuries to two of last year’s starters, center Bryan Stork and guard Ryan Wendell, left the Patriots young and inexperienced in the interior, with three rookies and former practice squad project Josh Kline. They also had three tackles they liked in Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, and Marcus Cannon.
Last year, the Patriots settled on the same unit over the final 11 games: Solder, Vollmer, Stork, Wendell, and Dan Connolly, entrenched in their positions. But this year, instead of trying to settle on a five-man unit, the Patriots’ answer has been to play everybody. Through five games, each of the seven linemen has played at least 40 percent of the offensive snaps.
Cannon (43 percent) has subbed in at left and right tackle all season. Vollmer (81 percent) had played strictly right tackle, but played almost the entire Colts game at left tackle after Solder (80 percent before his season-ending injury) and Cannon got hurt.
Kline (85 percent), Shaq Mason (71 percent), and Tre Jackson (46 percent) have shared time at both guard spots.
|C David Andrews||356||100.0%|
|G Josh Kline||302||84.8%|
|OT Sebastian Vollmer||289||81.2%|
|G Shaq Mason||252||70.8%|
|OT Nate Solder||230||64.6%|
|G Tre Jackson||164||46.1%|
|OT Marcus Cannon||154||43.3%|
|OT Cameron Fleming||58||16.3%|
Interestingly, the only player on either side of the ball who has played every snap this year is center David Andrews, an undrafted rookie who has performed admirably in place of Stork and Wendell.
Not only are the linemen getting cross-trained at multiple positions, but playing in different combinations helps them adjust when someone leaves the lineup with an injury. The Patriots practice that way, with players constantly subbed in and out, and it carries over to the game.
“You’ve got to be ready for anything,” Kline said. “All our communication is the same no matter who’s in there. Not all times it’s going to be seamless, but that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s just ‘next man up’ mentality, and everyone’s expected to do the same job and do the job well.”
Wendell is impressed that the three rookies have been able to adapt so well.
“It says a lot about their work ethic, their intelligence and their flexibility to be able to do that,” he said.
The cornerback experiment, meanwhile, is much riskier. It’s one thing to not pick up Revis on a $20 million option or outbid the Jets on a $39 million guaranteed contract, but the Patriots are extremely young and inexpensive at cornerback this season, mostly by their choosing.
Third-year man Logan Ryan is the most experienced cornerback, and the most expensive, making a minimum $585,000 salary with a salary cap hit of $745,813. According to the handy records kept at OverTheCap.com, Ryan’s cap number places him 31st on the Patriots’ current roster and 102d among the 239 NFL cornerbacks.
Malcolm Butler has a $510,000 cash and salary cap hit, 161st among cornerbacks. Undrafted rookie Justin Coleman is making $435,000 cash and cap, ranked 187th. And third-year cornerback Rashaan Melvin, claimed off waivers from the Ravens, has a $412,941 cash and cap hit.
That’s a little over $1.94 million cash and $2.1 million cap hit on four cornerbacks, by far the lowest totals in the league. That’s also just 10 years of NFL experience combined for the four players.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are paying a lot of money to cornerbacks to NOT play for them this year — a total of $9.86 million in salary cap money for Revis ($5 million), Kyle Arrington ($3.25 million), Bradley Fletcher ($1.26 million), and Robert McClain ($350,000). The latter two veterans were signed in the offseason to replace Revis, Arrington, and Browner, but the Patriots didn’t hesitate to cut McClain in training camp and Fletcher after Week 3 when they weren’t producing.
The only veteran the Patriots wanted to keep was Tarell Brown, who played in three games. But they were gambling by signing a player coming off a foot injury, and Brown and his $2 million salary are now on injured reserve.
So far, the inexperience hasn’t hurt the Patriots. Their defense is 10th in points allowed, and the pass defense is right in the middle at No. 16.
Butler is proving to be a solid but not-quite-consistent No. 1 corner, while Ryan and Coleman have played well the last few weeks. It also helps to have a Pro Bowl-caliber safety in Devin McCourty patrolling center field, plus solid contributions from veteran safeties Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon.
The Patriots should certainly explore the trade market for a veteran cornerback before the Nov. 3 deadline. But McCourty said the youth at cornerback actually hasn’t been too much of an adjustment from last year, when the secondary was all veterans.
“Last year we had a bunch of new guys in our system, so it was kind of similar as far as trying to talk about the defense and how we do here,” McCourty said.
“I guess the biggest difference is the amount of football those guys have played, but I thought those guys have worked hard all year, locked into what we’re trying to do.”