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Roster Roundouts: A New England Patriots Season Preview

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Roster Roundouts didn’t forget the New England Patriots.  I just saved them for last.

Does that make them the best?  Not necessarily, although QDS is quite a fan.  No team scored higher than a 16, and two teams reached that mark in the metric: the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots.  But what’s more surprising is that it prefers the defense to the offense.

QDS doesn’t know that Tom Brady is better than, say, Eli Manning, it views both of them through the same “quality QB” lens.  If that’s any reason to believe that the Chargers, Colts, and Patriots will make the AFC their own personal playground this year, then I fully support that notion.

What’s remarkable to the Patriots compared to the other elite teams is that their roster is ridiculously loaded at every position.  There’s a certain set of qualifications a team has to meet at a position to have “quality depth”, and the Pats meet it a very respectable 5 different positions, one of the key factors is a player’s track record.  Well, the Patriots have a bunch of highly touted young players such as Brandon Merriweather, Patrick Chung, and Pierre Woods whom they will rely on, and none of them qualified due to limited playing time.  With a good year in player development, the Patriots could be better than in 2007.

The defense wasn’t very good last year, you might have heard.  Down the stretch in 2007, it didn’t help the cause either.  The Patriots completely overhauled their cornerback position, bringing in two very good starters: Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden.  Nothing like players with a proven past for a good coaching staff.  They’ll be supported by two second year players, Jonathon Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley, and a rookie, Darius Butler.

They’ll be backed up by a young, proven safety in James Sanders, and Merriweather, who will be on a short leash.  The Patriots have been carefully phasing out their veterans on defense over the last two years or so: Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel this year, Tedy Bruschi next, and who knows about Richard Seymour, now in his 8th season (and a contract year).  At corner, they went with the stopgap choice in Springs, and he’s about as good as it gets while still qualifying as a stop gap.  Bodden is nominally a stop-gap, in the fact that his contract is only one year, but he’s a very young 27, and is going to get paid next year elsewhere.

The point is, the Patriots have no depth issues on defense.  The only way a problem arises is if a player like Springs, or Bruschi drops off a cliff and becomes a complete liability, in which case the team can replace him with a plan B option, but then is playing multiple players ahead of predicted roles.  It’s a completely loaded roster from the offensive line to the defense, to the tight ends and running backs.

flickr.com/Andrew Choy

flickr.com/Andrew Choy

The place where the Patriots might actually struggle in 2009 is in the passing game, believe it or not.  This is not to predict that the Pats should expect to pound the rock 35 times per game to make up for a passing deficiency.  This is very much still an air it out team with Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker leading the charge.  But of those players, only Welker is theoretically still in the middle of his prime.  Brady is on the back-end of his, certainly something that his knee injury might have sped up, and Moss could begin the decline phase of his career within the next two seasons.

Brady’s knee is going to generate a lot of attention, probably more than it deserves, but it’s a serious issue.  For one thing, there’s hardly any margin for error when you’re always in the media spotlight, and while Brady has been effective, if not completely comfortable in the preseason, the Patriots offensive line has not helped his cause, and it’s possible that it might have an adverse effect on his performance.

The flip side of that coin is that Tom Brady continues to be, in my opinion, a remarkably overrated player.  He’s on anyone’s list of the best five quarterbacks in the game, and is probably one of the two best QBs of this decade, but you can’t call his 2007 season anything but a complete statistical outlier at this point.  Brady has never, ever come close to that kind of his production in his career before that.  The assumption that Brady should get credit for another season just like that in 2008 drives me a little crazy.  Granted, I feel bad for the guy for losing his opportunity to return to and win the super bowl, but Brady has to show to us that his record setting season where he averaged 3.5 TD’s per game wasn’t just catching lightning in a bottle for 10 weeks, and then Brady-ing it to the finish.  This is not a given on that gimpy knee by any stretch of the imagination.

The Patriots also have depth issues on the outside.  Undrafted WR Juilan Edelman has flashed the skill to back up Wes Welker in the slot, but the team is going with Joey Galloway as a starting receiver.  Galloway is 76 years old and last played well for Tampa in 2007.  This is not anybody’s idea of a solution to the loss of…Jabar Gaffney, mind you, but the depth behind him at WR is more frightening.

The Patriots traded a second day draft pick for Greg Lewis, in one of the more baffling, but yet, knowing-that-he-has-a-hand-picked-offensive-niche-already moves of the year.  3rd round pick Brandon Tate is on the roster, but he tore his ACL last year returning a punt for North Carolina against Notre Dame.  Basically, Randy Moss’ role on this team is completely irreplacable, and if the Patriots lose him, they go from a likely 13-win team to maybe a 9-10 win team.  That’s the difference between being a super bowl contender and a nominal division winner who is likely to get crushed in the playoffs by a better team.

Brady’s success depends heavily on Moss’ health, but at least he has a running game to lean on that he hasn’t had in years.  The Patriots will probably keep four TEs as opposed to three TEs and a fullback, and then they’ll have four running backs.  Three of which will be Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and Fred Taylor.  That leaves 2006 first rounder Laurence Maroney on the bubble, but he could earn his keep by returning kicks for the Pats.  The Patriots offensive line is primarily concerned with keeping Brady clean, but these guy will enjoy opening up some large holes this year.

Overall, you would expect the Patriots to completely run through their schedule.  5 wins against the AFC East this year is hardly unreasonable.  They also get to play the Broncos, the Falcons, and the Bucs, and none of those teams figure to be able to run with them.  So we’re looking at a team that could get 8 wins handed to them by a simple gap in talent, and then against the quality opponents of the AFC South, and the Baltimore Ravens in inter-divisional play, they figure to be favored between 14 and all 16 games they play.  The Patriots always do well in big games, and unlike last season, there will be no games (such as the Chargers or the Colts) where they are major underdogs.  That means that, potential injury luck aside, the Patriots are again a major threat to win the super bowl, and are basically already playoff bound.

Pats Headquarters: Foxborough, MA

The Patriots never seem to have a lot of camp battles, but always seem to find the most intriguing players via superior scouting.

-QB Brian Hoyer out of Michigan State is just trying to make the team.  The Patriots backups are completely unproven in this league, which didn’t hurt all that much last year, but Hoyer knows that getting onto the field in the NFL is a two step process.  Making a roster is the supremely important first step, but even as a third quarterback for the Patriots, you’re not guaranteed anything except one year in that role.

-WRs Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate, and Matt Slater all bring very different skill sets (all of which involve some PR/KR value) to a Pats team that is really looking to fill out it’s roster at a position where it is not deep at all.  Tate is a PUP candidate, and might be awarded Greg Lewis’ roster spot upon activation.  So if it comes down to Edelman and Slater, you have Slater’s kick return skills, best on the team, vs. Edelman’s value in the slot, a valuable buffer against a Welker injury.

-G Rich Ohrnberger is a rookie out of Penn State who had an impressive college career, but is on the bubble as a pro prospect.  If he could show value as a backup Center, it would exponentially increase his chances of making the roster.

-DT Darryl Richard from Georgia Tech is a mammoth nose tackle who is behind about three guys on the depth chart, including 2nd round pick Ron Brace.  For him, the key thing he needs to show in the final preseason games is the versatility to succeed in this league at defensive end.  If not, then he’s a practice squad candidate.

-Safeties Brandon McGowan and Ray Ventrone are former roster fillers on super bowl teams (McGowan was a rookie on the 2006 Bears, Ventrone on the 2007 Patriots) who are deadlocked with each other for the right to play on this super bowl contender.  McGowan seemingly has more to offer: he can start in a NFL secondary, but Ventrone is a very good special teamer.  McGowan’s special teams skills, or lack thereof, will likely decide this battle.  The Patriots love to be loaded at all positions, and having McGowan as a 4th safety is key.

Surprise Cuts?

  • WR Greg Lewis
  • TE Ben Watson
  • OT Wesley Britt
  • DT Mike Wright
  • LB Tully Banta-Cain
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