New England Patriots 2015 Year in Review: Fading Down the Stretch
Expectations are always high for the New England Patriots, and coming off of a Super Bowl win in 2014, they entered the 2015 season on a short list of Super Bowl favorites once again.
The off-season saw New England lose some key pieces from that Super Bowl run. They lost one of the best corners in the league in Darrelle Revis, a longtime staple of their defensive line in Vince Wilfork, and two of their top running backs in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
They made a decided effort to add depth and talent in the trenches, using five of their first six draft picks on offensive and defensive linemen, while also adding defensive end Jabaal Sheard in free agency.
Hanging over the Patriots through the off-season was the investigation into the air pressure of some footballs from the 2014 AFC Championship Game, and Tom Brady was initially suspended for four games before an arduous appeal process eventually made it to federal court, where the suspension was overturned -- Brady didn't miss any games.
The Patriots had a great start to the season, winning 10 straight games, but faltered late in the regular season, losing four of their last six regular season games. They once again won the AFC East and ranked fifth in the league in our nERD power rankings, but went on to lose in the AFC Championship Game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
What Went Right
Unsurprisingly, Tom Brady's outstanding play headlines the Patriots' successes this year, as it does most years.
Here at numberFire, we have a Net Expected Points (NEP) metric which measures how many points a player contributes compared to expectation level (you can read more about NEP in our glossary). Brady ranked second in the league with a 165.92 Passing NEP on the season, and was incredibly efficient, ranking fourth among the 37 passers with at least 200 drop backs, posting a 0.25 Passing NEP per drop back rate.
Brady lead the league with 36 touchdowns while limiting his interceptions to 7, the second-lowest mark of his career. He's 38 years old and, like every other player, will eventually succumb to age, but he didn’t show any signs of it this season.
Similarly unsurprising was that Rob Gronkowski continued to make a case for himself as the best tight end in NFL history. Gronkowski led all tight ends this season with a 105.13 Reception NEP, while his 0.88 Reception NEP per target ranked second among the 28 tight ends to see 50-plus targets. He also remained one of the best red zone weapons in the league, and he turned 37 percent of his red zone targets into touchdowns.
The other big bright spot on the Patriots offense that stood out was the emergence of Dion Lewis. There was plenty of talk in the off-season about who would fill the "Shane Vereen role", with very little time in that conversation spent on Lewis. He went on to not only replace Shane Vereen, but to take over as one of the best every-down backs the Patriots have had in recent memory.
He excelled as a receiving threat out of the backfield, recording 36 receptions for 388 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns in 7 games, while his 0.51 Reception NEP per target was better than all but two of the 19 other backs to see 50-plus targets this year. He wasn't only by far the most efficient rusher in that group of receiving backs, but he was one of the most efficient backs in the league overall. His 0.15 Rushing NEP per carry ranked third among the 80 backs with at least 45 carries on the year. Our NEP database goes back to the 2000 season, and in that time, only two Patriots backs with at least 45 carries in a season have posted a better Rushing NEP per carry, while only three 50-plus target backs posted more efficient Reception NEP numbers.
The Patriots' defense didn't play up to the same level as their offense, ranking 12th in the league in schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP per play, but there were some major bright spots on that side of the ball as well.
The pass rush, an area that New England has been struggling with for years, is finally coming together into a strong unit. Chandler Jones recorded a career-high 12.5 sacks, Rob Ninkovich continued his steady production with 6.5 sacks, and newly-acquired Jabaal Sheard put up 8.0 of his own.
In the defensive backfield, there was no replacing Darrelle Revis this year, but both Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler -- stepping into starting roles for the first times in their careers -- put together solid seasons, leading the Patriots to a top-half finish, ranking 15th in schedule-adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. They weren't a dominant unit, but for young players seeing their first starting jobs, they showed a lot of promise.
What Went Wrong
When a team has a much sustained success as the Patriots do, any season that ends without a trip to the Super Bowl will have its fair share of disappointments.
Every team is hit by injuries every season, but the Patriots dealt with some key ones this year. Their top wide receiver, Julian Edelman, missed the last seven games of the regular season with a broken foot, Rob Gronkowski missed a game with a knee injury, top linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower each missed four games, Collins due to illness and Hightower with a knee injury, and Dion Lewis saw his season end with a knee injury in Week 9.
The lack of playoff success can't be pinned too heavily on the injuries, though. While Lewis, who was admittedly an incredibly valuable weapon in the offense, missed the playoffs, the rest of the injured players I mentioned did play in both New England playoff games this season.
The offensive line was an issue all year for New England, and was ultimately what cost them a shot at the Super Bowl. According to the MMQB, the Patriots used 37 different offensive line combinations throughout the season. They had mixed success through the regular season, but for a unit that coaches typically strive to build through continuity, that constant re-shuffling makes things very difficult.
The Broncos exploited this and absolutely dominated the Patriots' line during the AFC Championship, hitting Tom Brady 23 times and completely throwing the offense off their game.
While there were no glaring weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball, and there were the bright spots that I already mentioned, the unit as a whole regressed in 2015.
They finished 2014 ranking sixth with a schedule-adjusted 0.01 Defensive NEP per play (lower is better for Defensive NEP), and that ranking fell to 12th with a 0.04 Defensive NEP per play in 2015.
While it's inevitable that one day the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era will end in New England, the Patriots are likely to remain front-runners in the Super Bowl race every season until it does.
Watching Peyton Manning struggle this season was a sobering reminder that age catches up with every player -- no matter how transcendent -- eventually. Brady has still been playing at an elite level, though, and as far as the 2016 season, there's no reason to believe he won't be able to maintain a level of play that can once again carry the Patriots' offense.
New England has very few unrestricted free agents this off-season, and among them, only LeGarrette Blount played a starting role this year. The vast majority of the Patriots core players in all three phases of the game should be back for next season, giving them a chance to build on their 2015 success.
The Patriots find themselves without a first-round pick this year thanks to the ball inflation fiasco, though they rarely make a splash in the early parts of the draft anyway, and still have six picks to work with in the remaining six rounds.
According to oddsmakers at the 5Dimes sportsbook, the Patriots are currently the betting favorites to not only win the AFC next year (at +375 odds), but at +775 are favorites to win the Super Bowl as well.