While there is still time for teams to add players or tweak their rosters prior to the start of training camp, the majority of offseason transactions have taken place. With that being the case, ESPN Insider's Matt Williamson dives in with a grade for each team's offseason, breaking down their players lost and added (via free agency, trades and the draft).
For the Patriots, Williamson assigns the team a C, which he describes as a grade for a team that, at best, replaced the talent that it lost. He writes:
The biggest turnover here is at WR, as Welker, who has been a rock of consistent production, is now in Denver. Amendola is younger and appears to be a suitable replacement, but true slot receivers take a beating and Amendola hasn't been able to stay on the field. Also gone is Lloyd, who never really fit in here, with Jones, Jenkins,Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce bidding for his playing time. Dobson has the most upside, but it wouldn't surprise me if Jones saw more time early on. Someone from that group needs to step up to make the Patriots' offense complete.
Marcus Cannon should fill in very well for Thomas, who played well in New England, and Greene and Svitek give the Pats depth and the ability to use Svitek as a sixth offensive lineman in certain personnel packages. This is still an elite offensive line.
New England also had a lot of movement on the defensive side of the ball. Collins is a favorite of mine who should improve the edge pass rush immediately, while Buchanan also is a very talented edge rusher who could surprise. Kelly should also provide a more consistent interior push, which wasn't really Deaderick's or Love's specialty. Wilson should fill the Rodney Harrison enforcer role and I also can envision him playing plenty of nickel linebacker, as New England's heavier second-level defenders outside of Jerod Mayo don't offer a lot in coverage. In addition, the Patriots added a couple of early-to-mid-round defensive backs into the equation, a strategy that hasn't been very fruitful in the past.
Handing out offseason grades before training camp has even begun is a difficult exercise (much like draft grades that are handed out before rookies even take a snap). One of the Patriots' prominent offseason acquisitions last year was Jonathan Fanene, but a knee injury ended up forcing the team to release him before the start of the regular season. In addition, players either exceed or fall short of expectations that are cast upon their arrival, but that takes at least a season to recognize.
For the Patriots, this has been a transition offseason of sorts on offense, with dominant storylines including the new-look receiving corps and the surgeries for Rob Gronkowski. LosingWes Welker was a tough blow for the offense given all that he meant during his six seasons as a Patriot, and the team is hopeful that newcomers can fill the void left by his departure. Other notable departures include running back Danny Woodhead, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, defensive tackles Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love, and guard Donald Thomas.
The team also secured its most important player for three more seasons when it signed Tom Brady to a contract extension through the 2017 season.
To read Williamson's full piece that covers each AFC team (Insider content), click HERE.
Matt Williamson has reviewed every player addition and every roster deletion in a large-scale run thorough of the AFC, grading all offseasons.
Here’s a rundown of some of what he had to say about the AFC South.
Tennessee Titans -- B
Williamson on Delanie Walker, Justin Hunter, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, George Wilsonand Bernard Pollard: “New additions Walker and Justin Hunter have suspect hands, but both can really run for their respective positions and should give Jake Locker a plethora of downfield weapons to go along with very good protection. Can Locker take a step forward with this improved supporting cast and live up to his potential? That is the biggest question surrounding this organization.
“On the other side of the ball, Blidi Wreh-Wilson gives the Titans needed cornerback depth and Wilson and Pollard (although he struggles in coverage) should give Tennessee much more of a presence from the safety position. A little more could have been done on the defensive line, but the Titans were busy this offseason and really didn't lose very much.”
To which I say: The defensive line could be OK as is, considering linebacker Akeem Ayers will contribute to the pass rush.
Indianapolis Colts -- B-minus
Williamson on Gosder Cherilus, Donald Thomas, Hugh Thornton, Bjoern Werner,Erik Walden and Ricky Jean-Francois: “The additions of Cherilus and Thomas should give Indianapolis four quality starting offensive linemen, with a possible hole still remaining at the guard spot opposite Thomas (Hugh Thornton could potentially fill that guard spot in his rookie season). Such an improvement up front should do wonders for Andrew Luck, who was hit far too often in his outstanding rookie season.
“I don't see Bjoern Werner or Walden making Colts fans forget about Freeney, but they are good scheme fits for this Ravens-like defensive system with Werner having much more pass-rushing ability than Walden. This scheme needs versatile defensive linemen, which Jean-Francois provides.”
To which I say: Who’s on the offensive line and how they come together will be a big storyline through the preseason.
Houston Texans -- C
Williamson on departed Glover Quin, Ed Reed, D.J. Swearinger, J.J. Watt, Sam Montgomery, Trevardo Williams, Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins
“While I think Quin is currently a superior player to Reed, this is a franchise that needs the leadership that Reed will provide. Reed, a future Hall of Famer who is coming fresh off a Super Bowl victory, is an ideal leader and will be an excellent role model for the talented D.J. Swearinger. But health is a concern with Reed right now. Up front, Houston needs more pass rush than it got in 2012 outside of J.J. Watt. The drafting of Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams could help.
“On offense, Houston desperately needed a complement to Andre Johnson. DeAndre Hopkins might not be the biggest or fastest prospect, but he is NFL-ready and is exactly what Houston needs right now at the position. However, this will remain a run-first offense.”
To which I say: The Texans have usually given big opportunity and gotten big contributions from their top draft pick. Hopkins will have the same story.
Jacksonville Jaguars -- C
Williamson on Terrance Knighton, Roy Miller, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Paul Posluszny, Jeremy Mincey, Jason Babin and Andre Branch:
“The defense got much more attention as the Jaguars more or less rebuilt their secondary from scratch, following Seattle's blueprint of sizable cornerbacks and physical safeties. There are sure to be growing pains on this back end, though. In the middle of their defense, Knighton is gone, but Miller and two former Patriots -- Deaderick and Love -- are all space-eating types that should control the middle well against the run and allow Paul Posluszny to better get to the ball carrier with more freedom, but none offers much in the pass-rushing department.
“Jacksonville's pass rush was one of the worst in the NFL in 2012 and the Jaguars did very little to address that problem. However, on paper, the threesome of Jeremy Mincey, Jason Babin and Andre Branch isn't a bad group. Those three could be much more productive in this new defensive system than they were one year ago and Mincey could be primed to make a difference as an interior rusher on throwing downs.”
To which I say: I am less confident than Williamson about how Mincey fits in and what he might do in this defense.
In June 2012, the New England Patriots signed Rob Gronkowski to a six-year, $53 million extension. The move made sense at the time for the former AFC champs, because Gronkowski was coming off a record-setting year with 90 receptions, 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Therefore, the Patriots didn't hesitate to sign him to the richest contract for a tight end in NFL history.
But just one year later, it's time to question whether the Patriots eventually will have buyer's remorse. There no denying his Hall of Fame talent, but Gronkowski also comes with durability issues.
How long will he last with the Patriots? Can Gronkowski be the same effective player in New England for five more seasons?
Gronkowski's injury history is no surprise. It started when he missed his senior year in college after major back surgery. As a result, the Patriots were able to get a first-round talent in the second round. But Gronkowski is going in for another back surgery in June, and it will mark his sixth surgery since February 2012. He has had four surgeries alone on his broken forearm since November.
Gronkowski has become a human pin cushion before his 25th birthday and has earned the dreaded label of injury-prone player. According to ESPN NFL analyst Matt Williamson, Gronkowski's growing list of injures "has to be a concern now."
"You hope that it's manageable," Williamson said. "The Patriots' doctors must have approved [Gronkowski's health]. There's no way you give him a six-year extension if they didn't think they were on top of the situation. But where we are sitting right now, it looks bad, doesn't it?"
Gronkowski's back surgery is described as minor by agent Drew Rosenhaus. However, former offensive lineman and NFL analyst Mark Schlereth provided chilling commentary from his experience with back surgery on ESPN's "NFL Live" this week.
Schlereth is an expert on going under the knife. He had 29 surgeries in his 12-year career, and he says recovering from a bad back is the worst of the group.
“Robert Watkins, the doctor who will perform [Gronkowski’s] surgery, is also the doctor who performed my back surgery. One thing you have to understand about back surgery, that area is so fine back there and scar tissue is a real issue and can irritate those nerve roots,” Schlereth said. “You sneeze and it’s over. Your back will just lock up on you. It’s one of those things that’s a really hard injury to have. And I’ve always said this: I’ve had 20 knee surgeries during the course of my career, and I would take another 20 knee surgeries to get the one back surgery back if I could get rid of it, because it bothers me every single day of my life.”
Gronkowski will miss a portion of training camp recovering from back and arm surgeries, and any setback could push his recovery into the regular season. He was in and out of the lineup all last season. He missed five regular-season games and the AFC Championship Game, which New England lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens 28-13.
Can the Patriots win a Super Bowl this season without a healthy Gronkowski? Statistics show New England's chances are slim without its most effective pass-catcher.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's Total Quarterback Rating is 77.3 since 2011 with Gronkowski on the field and 63.5 without Gronkowski. In addition, Brady averaged 10.5 yards per attempt over that same span throwing to Gronkowski, along with 31 touchdowns and four interceptions. Brady averages just 7.8 yards per attempt with 22 interceptions throwing to other receivers and tight ends. Gronkowski’s impact in New England is simply unmatched.
The Patriots need Gronkowski more than ever this season. They let go of 2012 starting receiversWes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who accounted for 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. New England completely remade the receiving corps with less-proven veterans Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, Lavelle Hawkins and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce.
"It would be a huge blow, no doubt about it," Williamson said if Gronkowski misses time this season. "Even if Amendola makes up for Welker, which I have some doubts about, you got to think they will be weaker at receiver. I love the offensive line, and I think the running game is strong. [Tight end Aaron] Hernandez also is a good player. But Gronk is a difference-maker."
Contractually, the Patriots have a major decision to make with Gronkowski in 2015. New England has a $10 million option bonus that must be picked up by the final day of the 2015 league year. If the Patriots decide not to do that, the contract would be voided.
Gronkowski could be the best tight end of this generation if he ever finds a way to avoid injuries. But at this point it could be a challenge for Gronkowski, 24, to remain healthy and productive in the NFL at age 30.
"He could be the best tight end ever," Williamson said of Gronkowski's potential. "What he’s done in a short amount of time is unprecedented. He’s the best red zone threat in the league. He’s by far the best tight end in the league. He’s an elite blocker. He can run every route and is extremely physical after the catch. He can go up and get the ball in traffic.
"He has no flaws, except for durability."