Bill Belichick has a good way to stay busy over the next few weeks.
“We’ll do the same thing we do every year. We’ll look at everything that we did, try to analyze that,” he said Monday, the day after the Patriots’ season came to a screeching halt. “We look at various points in the year and look back on training camp, the draft, OTAs, each and every game, end of the season.
“We do all that. And we critique ourselves. We critique all the things. We do it all.”
The 2015 season ended abruptly and in “bittersweet” fashion, as Belichick said. A 10-0 start and a feeling that the Patriots were headed for Super Bowl 50 were derailed by a widespread injury bug and curious coaching decisions. The Patriots finished the season 2-4, gave away the No. 1 AFC seed, then were overwhelmed by the Broncos in the AFC Championship game.
Before turning the page to the 2016 season, let’s help Belichick with his homework assignment, with an in-depth review of each position, coaching decisions and performance, and roster management for 2015.
Click the buttons below to navigate to each position.
Poor Jimmy Garoppolo. Last year’s second-round pick played just 13 out of 1,260 offensive snaps this year, completing 1 of 4 passes for 6 yards. He gets very few if any starter reps in practice, and didn’t get any meaningful playing time in his second NFL season.
Tom Brady played 98.9 percent of the snaps, and looked like a man on a mission — to prove that Deflategate was a bunch of hot air, that his training methods are superior, and that 38 is just a number. His 624 pass attempts in the regular season were the third-most in his 14 years as a starter, and his 402 completions were a career high. He led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes and was third with 4,770 yards.
Brady was an early favorite for MVP, but his numbers trailed off in the second half after Julian Edelman and several other offensive players were lost to injury. But Brady’s final numbers are still outstanding, with just seven interceptions (second-fewest of his career), a 64.4 completion percentage, and a 102.2 passer rating. Brady also took 38 sacks, the third-most of his career and nearly double last year’s 21.
When his weapons were healthy, Brady and the offense were unstoppable. When Edelman was hurt (in addition to Dion Lewis, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, and several linemen), he struggled. Of Brady’s seven 300-yard games, six came with Edelman in the lineup.
The Patriots also scored 30 points in six of Edelman’s nine regular-season games, and just once in seven games without him. Brady played well at home in the playoffs, and struggled at Denver, where he usually does. He also took the pounding of his life there and still led an impressive comeback at the end of the game that fell just short.
Brady still needs to work on the deep ball, but his 58 passes of 20-plus yards and 12 passes of 40-plus yards were the third-most in his career. He had three rushing touchdowns and 14 first downs, showing impressive elusiveness for a 38-year-old quarterback not known for his speed. Brady even caught a 36-yard pass, and led all offensive players with two tackles.
Brady is at the point in his career where you can’t predict how long he will be able to stay on top. But he didn’t show any signs of slowing down.
The Patriots hit a home run with a surprise new player at the beginning of the season, yet the position became an afterthought in the playoffs because of injuries and ineffectiveness. The Patriots called 26 runs and 105 passes in their two playoff games.
The early competition to be Shane Vereen’s replacement appeared to be between Brandon Bolden and Travaris Cadet, but quietly it was Dion Lewis, out of the NFL for most of the 2014 season, who impressed the coaches with his combination of quickness, power, hands, route-running, and blocking.
Lewis won the job in camp and became the primary running back, playing 298 snaps in seven games and gaining 622 combined yards (7.3 yards per touch) with four touchdowns and two fumbles. Lewis’s one-handed catch and juke-out-four-defenders touchdown against the Cowboys was the highlight of the year. His torn ACL in Week 9 was a devastating loss for the offense.
James White was an admirable fill-in, playing in 16 games (including playoffs) and leading all running backs with 389 snaps (30.9 percent). White was similar to Vereen — not an effective runner between the tackles, but a good pass-catcher out of the backfield or on the perimeter.
White had just 56 rushing yards on 22 carries in the regular season, but contributed 40 catches, 410 yards, and 6 total touchdowns. But he didn’t run with the same power and burst that Lewis did.
LeGarrette Blount led the team with 703 rushing yards (4.3-yard average) and had 7 total touchdowns. He had 129 yards against Washington and four other games over 70 yards, but struggled in important games against the Jets and the Broncos.
Blount went on injured reserve with three weeks left in the regular season, and while the Patriots could have used him in the postseason, I’m not sure he would’ve had much success against the Broncos defense.
Brandon Bolden was mostly a special teams contributor, but had 207 rushing yards, 180 receiving yards, and 2 touchdowns in late-season duty. Stephen Jackson contributed 74 yards on 31 carries (2.4-yard average) in four games. Joey Iosefa rushed 15 for 51 times in one game, then was sent back to the practice squad. Cadet was released after three games once Lewis established himself. Fullback James Develin broke his leg in the preseason, an underrated loss.
Julian Edelman was on pace for a career year before breaking his foot in the ninth game. He caught 61 passes on 88 targets for 692 yards and 7 touchdowns, a 16-game pace of 108 catches, 1,230 yards, and 12 touchdowns.
Edelman unofficially had eight drops, tied for seventh-most among all players in just nine games. But 47 of his 61 catches went for first downs, and the Patriots went from converting 50 percent of third downs with him in the lineup to 30 percent without him.
Danny Amendola built off his strong performance in last year’s playoffs with a solid yet unspectacular season. Amendola had 65 catches for 648 yards and 3 touchdowns in 14 regular-season games. The Patriots expected more production out of Amendola when they signed him three years ago, but he was dependable (only two drops) and admirably played through injury. Whether he returns in 2016 is another story.
Brandon LaFell had a career year across the board in 2014, but then missed the entire offseason, training camp, and the first five weeks of the 2015 season with a foot injury, and never got on track. LaFell caught 37 passes on 74 targets for 515 yards and no touchdowns in 11 regular-season games, and simply couldn’t reproduce any of Edelman’s production.
LaFell’s role diminished greatly in the playoffs. He caught just three passes for 6 yards in the two games, and was not targeted at all against Denver.
Keshawn Martin was a nice midseason pickup, acquired from the Texans for a sixth-round pick. In nine regular-season games, he contributed 24 catches for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns, showing good speed and an ability to pick up the offense quickly. But he is a No. 4 receiver at best.
Aaron Dobson was disappointing in his third NFL season, catching 13 passes for 141 yards and no touchdowns in eight games before hitting IR in Week 12. He just hasn’t been able to translate his skills to the NFL level, and will be on the hot seat next training camp.
Chris Harper showed promise in training camp as an undrafted rookie, but caught just one pass in six games.
Rob Gronkowski was named first-team All-Pro with 72 catches, 1,176 yards, and 11 touchdowns. He had seven touchdowns and four 100-yard games in the first half of the season, but his production tailed off in the second half (one 100-yard game, four touchdowns) because of Edelman’s injury and his own ailments.
Gronkowski clearly wasn’t 100 percent at the end of the season, dealing with back, knee, and general football injuries, yet he powered through for two memorable playoff performances: 83 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs, and 144 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos, willing his team into the end zone at the end of the Denver game.
Simply put, Gronk is a beast.
He also tied for the lead league with five offensive pass interference penalties. The Patriots led the league with 11.
The rest of the position was underwhelming. Scott Chandler was a bust after signing a two-year, $5.3 million contract in the offseason. He was expected to be an intriguing red zone target and No. 2 tight end, but caught just 23 passes (on 42 targets) for 259 yards and 4 touchdowns, showing a troubling inability to fight for jump balls for someone who stands 6 feet 7 inches.
Chandler played just 30.4 percent of snaps on the season, and played just 33 snaps over the final six games, though he had a knee injury.
Mike Williams, a converted tackle who was acquired in a preseason trade from Detroit, played nearly 80 more snaps (37.5 percent) than Chandler but was used almost strictly as a blocker, catching 3 passes for 26 yards.
Former blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui didn’t make a catch in three games and was traded to New Orleans for Akiem Hicks in Week 4. Rookie Asante Cleveland had one catch for 1 yard in four games.
Against Denver, Brady took the most hits of any quarterback in any NFL game since 2006. The next day, the Patriots told offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo that his contract would not be renewed. So that’s a pretty good indicator of how the season went for the offensive line.
An offensive line that had tremendous durability and consistency in the 2014 Super Bowl season had the opposite in 2015. By the playoffs, the line had only two holdovers from last year’s playoff run, and only one player in his usual position: center Bryan Stork.
The biggest loss was left tackle Nate Solder, who tore a biceps in Week 4 and was lost for the year. Dan Connolly retired before the season, Ryan Wendell played just 13 snaps before going on IR, and Sebastian Vollmer finished the season not only playing out of position at left tackle, but doing so on a sprained ankle.
The Patriots used 13 starting combinations in 18 games. Not one offensive lineman played even 80 percent of the snaps.
Without Solder, Wendell, or Connolly, the line didn’t have enough veteran leadership and sometimes seemed to lack toughness. Vollmer filled the role admirably, and he impressively didn’t commit a holding penalty all season, but his performance was inconsistent, as he is clearly better-suited for right tackle.
The Patriots signed Marcus Cannon to a two-year extension before the season, but he was incapable of filling in at left tackle, and was barely passable at right tackle. Cameron Fleming was even worse in his six games of spot duty. Even with Solder coming back next year, the Patriots need to invest in a tackle in the draft.
Josh Kline played the most snaps of any offensive lineman (1,007, 79.9 percent), earning a starting spot in his third season. He was dominated twice by Denver’s Derek Wolfe this year, but otherwise Kline proved capable, best suited to play right guard or utility backup.
The Patriots had a pair of fourth-round rookies, and Shaq Mason clearly outplayed Tre’ Jackson, who ended the season with a knee injury. Mason was more durable (14 games to 11), played more snaps (879 to 608), was the team’s best run blocker and most athletic lineman, and showed the most improvement throughout the season.
Undrafted rookie David Andrews didn’t miss a snap for the first nine games and played surprisingly well, but took a seat behind Stork for the second half of the season.
The Patriots had the flexibility and the versatile players to switch between a 4-3 and a 3-4 front from game to game and even series to series. Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, and Jabaal Sheard split time at defensive end and outside linebacker. Sheard and Jones often rushed the quarterback from the interior out of the nickel package. Akiem Hicks and Malcom Brown played inside and outside. The result was a defense that finished second in the league in sacks (49) and ninth against the run.
Jones led the team with a career-high 12½ sacks, but had just two in his final six regular-season games, was mostly quiet in the playoffs, and had the bizarre incident during the postseason bye week.
Ninkovich was a much steadier performer, despite having half the sacks (6½). And after Jones and Ninkovich played more than 90 percent of the snaps the last two years, a third defensive end was a welcome addition. Ninkovich finished playing 81.9 percent of the snaps, Jones 75 percent, and Sheard 53 percent. Sheard had an excellent season with eight sacks and four forced fumbles in 13 games.
Brown, the Patriots’ first-round pick, also had an excellent year, seeming to improve dramatically as the year progressed. He played the most snaps of any defensive tackle (599, 47.8 percent), played in all 18 games, and finished with three sacks and four run stuffs.
Alan Branch had big games against the Bills and Broncos, and was at times a dominant run stuffer, though not consistent. Dominique Easley had a much better season than his two sacks suggest, showing good speed and power up the middle. That he ended the season on IR was more roster management than an indication of a serious injury.
Hicks was a nice midseason acquisition, and contributed three sacks and a touchdown in 376 snaps (30 percent). Sealver Siliga struggled and fell down the depth chart (22.6 percent of snaps). Rookie third-round pick Geneo Grissom contributed one sack in 131 snaps and mostly played special teams in 15 games. Fourth-round pick Trey Flowers played one game (four snaps) and essentially was red-shirted.
The Patriots have two of the best young linebackers in the NFL in Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, and with both entering the final year of their contracts, the Patriots likely will open their wallet soon to give each an extension.
Collins missed four games in the middle of the year with a mysterious illness, but still led the team with 89 tackles and added 5 forced fumbles, an interception, 6 passes defended and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Collins has settled in at the weak-side linebacker position and has rare athleticism, even for the NFL — fast enough to cover running backs despite his height (6-3), strong enough to plow through offensive linemen at 250 pounds, and fast enough to spy mobile quarterbacks.
His coverage skills aren’t perfect — think of Owen Daniels’s two touchdowns in the AFC Championship game, and Marshawn Lynch’s big catch at the end of last year’s Super Bowl — but there’s no question Collins is a rare talent.
Hightower didn’t quite fill up the stat sheet, as he dealt with a knee injury throughout the second half, but still had 61 tackles, 3½ sacks, 2 passes defended, and a fumble recovery in 12 games. When healthy, he is one of the best strong-side linebackers in the NFL, with great instincts and physicality in the run game, and he’s a ferocious pass rusher up the middle.
Fourth-year pro Jonathan Freeny was the first backup linebacker, earning seven starts in the regular season as a fill-in and displaying decent speed and a nose for the ball, with two fumble recoveries during the season and one in the playoffs. He’s a good depth and special teams player who could have a spot on next year’s team.
Jerod Mayo was relegated to No. 4 on the depth chart, playing in just 32.1 percent of snaps and rarely playing in nickel and dime packages. Mayo had one sack and was at times an effective pass rusher, but just doesn’t have the speed to chase down or cover running backs, and his days with the Patriots may be coming to an end.
Darius Fleming, Dekoda Watson, and Rufus Johnson played a handful of snaps. Jon Bostic, acquired in a midseason trade with the Bears, was a total bust, playing four snaps over his final seven games.
Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan were given newfound trust and responsibility, and both answered the call with durable and dependable performances. Butler led the defense with 1,239 of 1,252 snaps (99 percent), and Ryan earned a starting job for good in Week 6, missed just one snap in the final 14 games, and was second on the defense with 90.7 percent of snaps.
Butler replaced Darrelle Revis as the No. 1 cornerback, finishing with 2 interceptions, 67 tackles and a team-high 15 passes defended. He was often left alone against the opponent’s No. 2 receiver, and although Eric Decker and Emmanuel Sanders got the better of him, Butler was feisty, competitive, and showed some of the best makeup speed in the NFL.
Butler needs to work on his ball skills; he missed at least a half-dozen interceptions because of mistimed jumps. He also tied for the NFL lead with five pass interference penalties (Ryan had two).
Ryan made a big leap in his third season, leading the team with four interceptions and doing a great job against bigger receivers such as Brandon Marshall, Sammy Watkins, and Demaryius Thomas (twice). His performance fell off in the last few regular-season games, but he picked it up in the playoffs, was a pleasant surprise overall, and should be counted on to have a similarly big role next year.
The Patriots were thin behind Butler and Ryan. Veteran Tarell Brown was supposed to be the No. 2 corner, but he went on IR after Week 5 with a recurring foot injury. Undrafted rookie Justin Coleman was claimed off the Seahawks practice squad and played 409 snaps as the nickel corner, going in and out of the lineup because of a broken hand. Coleman played fairly well for a rookie and should return next year.
Veteran Bradley Fletcher was dumped after two bad games. Journeymen Rashaan Melvin and Leonard Johnson pitched in for a few games but were mostly just warm bodies.
The Patriots were much deeper at safety than cornerback, and their nickel package often entailed three safeties and only two cornerbacks.
Devin McCourty came back on a monster $28.5 million guaranteed contract, and had another solid if unspectacular season, finishing with 1 interception, 1 sack, 5 passes defended, and played 86.7 percent of snaps in 16 total games.
His role changed, with the Patriots using him more as a slot cornerback and robber in the short middle of the field than as a true deep center fielder. That role was often manned by Duron Harmon, who played 675 snaps (53.9 percent) and isn’t quite as versatile as McCourty. Harmon had 3 interceptions and 5 passes defended, but didn’t always take the best angles in the run game (C.J. Anderson’s 47-yard touchdown in overtime, for one).
Patrick Chung may get the award for Most Improved Patriot. He had a fantastic season. Chung played 1,044 snaps (83.4 percent) while appearing in 17 of 18 games, and was a ferocious tackler in the run game and surprisingly good in one-on-one pass coverage. Chung often played as an extra run defender down in the box, and finished second on the team with 82 tackles while chipping in 9 passes defended and a forced fumble.
Rookie Jordan Richards played 19.6 percent of snaps and was mostly a special teams contributor in 14 games. Tavon Wilson played just 83 snaps in nine games and likely won’t be re-signed. Nate Ebner played 48 snaps but was excellent on special teams. Rookie Brandon King didn’t play a defensive snap but was a standout on special teams.
The Patriots finished No. 11 in the special teams rankings compiled by Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin, whose work for years has been generally accepted as the best evaluation of special teams. Most teams would be happy with that, but not the Patriots, who put a lot of emphasis on special teams and finished No. 3 and No. 1 in Gosselin’s rankings the previous two years.
Individually, the three specialists performed well. Stephen Gostkowski led the NFL in scoring for the fourth straight year and fifth overall, nailing 33 of 36 field goal attempts, including a 54-yarder at the buzzer to beat the Giants. Punter Ryan Allen finished 14th in punting average and 17th in net punting, and rookie long snapper Joe Cardona was perfect on every snap. Gostkowski also recovered a surprise onside kick against Washington.
And the Patriots’ core special teamers are among the best in the league. Matthew Slater earned his fifth Pro Bowl selection and led the team with 17 special teams tackles, and King shined on all four punt and kickoff units and was second on the team with 12 special teams tackles. Ebner had 11 special teams tackles.
But the Patriots had some uncharacteristic gaffes. The Philadelphia game was a disaster — a punt-block touchdown and an 83-yard punt-return touchdown, plus a baffling onside drop-kick by Ebner that was easily recovered by the Eagles. Martin, Harper, and Amendola also combined to fumble on punt returns in four consecutive games down the stretch.
Amendola had an 82-yard punt return against the Giants that should have been a touchdown, and Martin had a 75-yard kickoff return against Tennessee, but otherwise the Patriots’ return teams were quiet.
The Patriots started 10-0, so no issues there. And they were ravaged by injuries, forcing Bill Belichick to weigh the team’s health for the playoffs against the immediate need of winning each week.
But the 2-4 record down the stretch can’t be attributed only to injuries. Belichick probably will go down as the greatest coach in NFL history, but he showed he is occasionally human.
The second-guessing began in Denver in Week 12, when he (A) allowed an undrafted rookie (Harper) to return a punt in the fourth quarter of a road game in a loud stadium with snow falling, and (B) didn’t tell Harper to make the fair catch no matter what.
With Edelman and Amendola out, Belichick easily could have put a trusted veteran out there in that situation — McCourty, Chung, or Slater. Instead, Harper muffed the punt, the Patriots ended up losing the game, and their downward spiral began.
A little too much focus and blame is placed on the ridiculous onside drop-kick in the Eagles game. It cost the Patriots 20 yards of field position. But perhaps it was a sign of Belichick getting a little too cocky for his own good, and of a Patriots team that was not totally focused. The Patriots should never trail, 35-14, to the Eagles at home.
I don’t blame Belichick for the decision to kick off against the Jets in overtime, either. The reasoning was sound; he just didn’t count on his defense collapsing at the absolute worst time.
But the game plan against Miami in Week 17 should keep Belichick awake at night. Running the ball 20 times and throwing it five times in the first half is not playing all-out for the win — it’s playing to shorten the game and protect your quarterback.
And after the conservative play in the first half, I question whether the team should have subjected Brady to so many vicious hits in the second half. I know the Patriots were playing with less than a full deck because of injuries, but they should have tried harder to win the game in the first half. The loss cost them home-field advantage and probably a spot in the Super Bowl.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also deserves a little heat for not coming up with any adjustments in the AFC Championship game. He put Brady in an empty backfield all game, leaving him a sitting duck and refusing to use extra blockers or run the ball against a soft defense.
The Patriots had one of the more head-scratching offseasons following their Super Bowl win, but just about every move turned up roses. Belichick let go of his top three cornerbacks — Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington — and never skipped a beat with Butler, Ryan, and a committee of cornerbacks. Coleman was a nice find.
Belichick let team leader Vince Wilfork walk out the door, and got arguably better production out of Branch and Brown. Belichick found Lewis off the scrap heap and turned him into a star. Sheard, signed for two years and $11 million, had eight sacks and was arguably the Patriots’ best defender in the front seven. Hicks, Martin, and Williams, all acquired for low-round picks, were solid contributors.
But there were a few whiffs. Chandler wasn’t an effective red zone target, Bostic was a total bust, and the Patriots put far too much reliance on three rookie offensive linemen. The Patriots made no attempt to re-sign Connolly after the Super Bowl, but really missed his veteran leadership and nasty play. And I don’t know what the Patriots see in Cannon that warrants a three-year, $9 million contract.
The injuries made Belichick’s job tricky. Losing Develin in the preseason took an important element out of the offense. Replacing Lewis and Edelman was impossible. I was impressed that Gronkowski missed only one game with his knee injury, and that he and Amendola toughed it out in the final few games. But if Belichick wasn’t going to go all-out in the final game against Miami, he should have rested his stars.