Sunday, May 2, 2010

Patriots Looking Good in Red

Frustrations in a key area look to end in 2010....

Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald, brings up an interesting point about the Pats' off-season focus. While the Patriots failed to pick up a big name pass rusher (which many experts had as their most glaring need) the reigning division champs do figure to improve in a key area - the red zone. 

With the buzz of the draft, the Patriots' positional needs overshadowed some of their specific on-field woes from last season. It's easy to forget now but New England struggled to come away with 6 points inside the 20. There were many reasons for this. One being a lack of a solid running back. However, whether you like it or not, the Patriots are a pass-first team.

Brady is their greatest offensive weapon and, arguably, his arm gives them a better chance to score down there - especially when Maroney is fumbling at the goal line. However, Brady had some key turnovers in that area himself, mostly coming from forced throws to Randy Moss. This raises a concern. If Brady is having to consistently force the ball to a play-maker, it shows he doesn't have many options. Not to void Brady of blame for throwing interceptions, but the lack of an offensive arsenal was apparent last season - and no more obvious than in the red zone area. Close to the goal line, there isn't a more efficient position to throw to than a tight end.

Many were shocked when New England released Chris Baker after losing Ben Watson to free agency. This left the position to be filled only by free-agent pick up and aging veteran, Alge Crumpler, who is most notable as a blocker. It's obvious New England was dissatisfied with the production at tight end and they looked to fill the need in the draft. The Patriots' two draft picks of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez figure to help them improve both at the position and within the 20. Fourth round pick, Aaron Hernandez, was one of the most prolific tight ends in college football last season: winning the Mackey award and hauling in 68 footballs for 850 yards. Daniel Jeremiah, respected ex-NFL scout and writer of Move the Sticks, has Hernandez picked as the steal of the 2010 draft. Rob Gronkowski missed last season with a back injury but was one of the University of Arizona's key weapons within the red zone. In 2008 he caught 47 passes, 10 of which were for touchdowns. Guregian brings up some great points about the second round selection,
"[In 2008]...Arizona had the sixth-ranked red-zone offense in the country, due in part to Gronkowski’s contributions. This past season, without him in the lineup, the Wildcats dropped to 97th.  
Patriots coach Bill Belichick acknowledged Gronkowski’s abilities in the red zone in discussing his skill set Friday night. 'He was a pretty effective guy for them. At times they put him out on the weak side of the formation, down inside the 20, or on the goal line,'".
The Patriots' own tight ends failed to put up notable numbers last season, catching only 7 touchdowns between the two of them. A lack of a valid option at the position greatly contributed to New England's red zone struggles. Tight end production leads to red zone results. For example, the 49er's Vernon Davis was one of the most prolific tight ends in the league last season, catching an NFL record-tying 13 touchdowns. 8 of those scores came in the red zone. Not only did he catch more touchdowns than both of the Patriots' tight ends but, he caught more within the 20 than Baker and Watson's combined season total.

While Davis is a terrific and unique talent, he serves as an example of the results a prolific tight end can bring in the red zone. Production at this spot will be key to the Patriots' success. Last season, many games could've been won for New England if they had been able to come away with 6 points instead of 3 (or none, due to failed fourth down conversions). On paper, Gronkowski and Hernandez give Brady some threatening options - especially in that part of the field. Hopefully, that translates to reality in September.

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