Last year, they just weren’t fast enough. Unfortunately for the Patriots, that was one of the bottom lines. Receivers struggled to get open against good coverage, and linebackers and corners were left watching as backs and receivers on the opposition blew past them on their way to a first down or even the end zone.
Over the years, many of Bill Belichick’s preferences and the entire New England front office, whether it’s draft picks, trades, or free agency, have been about intellect. Cerebral players show an excellent football IQ and will understand New England’s playbook were chosen over fast, athletic players with raw physical traits that were favorable.
Is The NFL Truly Getting Faster?
The game tape is all the evidence necessary to show how much faster the NFL is getting. However, the raw metrics support the same. Overall the 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine has gotten 0.11s quicker in the last ten years, which may not seem like a tremendously significant change. Still, in a battle of inches, which most plays become in the NFL, it’s critical, and this trend has been a consistent change in the faster direction.
Of the ten fastest 40-yard dash times recorded in the combine, six happened in the last ten years, and three between 2020 and now. Combining these changes with the increasingly pass-centric nature of the league (the percentage of passing plays has increased steadily in the last 30-40 years), the need for speed is seemingly taking over the league.
What Happened Last Season?
Time and time again last season, the Patriots not only saw speedsters like CeeDee Lamb, Jonathan Taylor, and Stefon Diggs pass their defense. Even less proven struggling players like Duke Johnson and Devin Singletary were all opponents needed to do was get to the outside to be good to go. For example, in the playoff game against Buffalo, the speedy Micah Hyde intercepted a near-perfect touch pass because Nelson Agholor couldn’t complete his route in time.
No matter how excellent the play design, in the end, the defender needs to be able to get to the player with the ball. Running backs need to use their openings to outrun the front seven, and the receivers need to be able to create separation during their routes and ideally run for more after the catch.
The failure to do that was a big reason for the lack of punts forced and the number of fizzled possessions down the s retch. In addition, neither side of the ball boasted a player of such terrifying speed that teams needed to give extra attention to them.
The shutdown ability of corners like Xavien Howard and the sheer speed of receivers like Tyreek Hill can change a team. They are not only extremely fast in their playmaking but also serve as excellent decoys to allow others on his team to gain openings. Another trait that both those players share is that this year they will be playing for the Dolphins, a divisional rival of the Patriots.
This isn’t to say that cerebral and tough football has gone down the drain. Football is still a game won in the trenches, and there is a good play call behind almost every great play. Players like our own Devin McCourty, who, while aging, has a very acute sense of the field and a helpful ability to execute the defensive vision of the team, are still very important. On the offensive side, Kendrick Bourne has a natural sense for route running and systematic play execution.
However, every team needs a mix. And last season exposed the deficiency of speed considerably. Nevertheless, the building blocks for a great team are already somewhat there in New England, and last year’s playoff berth showed it. Indeed, the offseason presented an opportunity to improve on this front.
How Has New England Gotten Faster This Year?
At first glance, one might think that the answer to this question is that they haven’t. Indeed the Patriots didn’t make a big-money acquisition to acquire a franchise-altering player like Deebo Samuel or Xavien Howard. Instead, they lost their best corner and one of their faster defenders, JC J Jackson.
However, what New England did this offseason was a novel, financially reasonable approach to getting faster. Rather than getting a one-speed demon, they chose to get, bit-by-bit, faster across the board.
Offensively, they made their RB rotation even deeper and faster and added pass-catching ability. Returning James White and acquisition Ty Montgomery add critical dual-threat ability, and draft picks Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris supplement the already successful Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson.
They added the fastest receiver in the draft in Tyquan Thornton, whose blazing 4.28 s 40-yard dash time highlights his potential to provide a much-needed vertical threat, and acquired one of the shiftiest and most elusive receivers in the NFL with Davante Parker. Combine this with the inevitable year one to year two evolution of players like Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Kendrick Bourne, and the guy getting the ball to them, Mac Jones, and the skill positions overall take a giant leap forward this year.
Defensively, they released competent but older linebacker Kyle Van Noy. This year, they are getting back from injury an extremely fast and talented LB Cameron McGrone, who has yet to play an NFL snap. Cameron had an excellent pro day 40-yard dash time of 4.37 s and showed excellent mobility around the field in his time at college.
In the secondary, third-round draft pick CB Marcus Jones showed exceptional speed in college and has the additional abilities to return kicks and play as a slot receiver. His role in New England could be any combination of these three. Another under-the-radar acquisition, safety Jabrill Peppers, is still a very young player with vertical and horizontal speed with an excellent awareness of the ball.
The Bottom Line
Many teams in the past couple of years have chosen to get faster by getting much faster at one or two positions, which is certainly the approach that gets the most attention. However, without making any large splashes, the Patriots have taken a different approach of getting a bit faster in every personnel group.
Given their cap limits, this was the best approach to take, and it’s possible that this approach, over time, will be proven to be just as effective, adding even more intrigue to the 2022 season.
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