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Roster Roundouts ’10: A New England Patriots Season Preview

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New England Patriots (projected finish: 10-6)

Team synopsis: One of the few teams in the league that would consider it a failure to lose consecutive games at any point during the season, the Patriots have spent the last two drafts absolutely loaded with picks.  Barring a complete failure on the development end, the Patriots should remain an elite organization over the next 5 to 6 years as Tom Brady’s career winds down.  Even though the Patriots could go nearly an entire starting offense and defense with stars or players with star potential, (they’re short a running back, a few lineman, and a pass rusher) they inevitably will run into problems that all young teams run into: relying on developmental types means that you’re also relying on the types who will not develop.  Because of this, the Pats are going to lose consecutive games again this year, and won’t be an elite team, at least in the first half of the year.

But if you’re looking for a lower seed to make a splash in the playoffs…

Best Players

  • QB Tom Brady (drafted — Michigan/2000 6th round pick
  • WR Randy Moss (trade — Oakland/2007 4th round pick)
  • WR Wes Welker (trade — Miami/2007 2nd round pick)
  • C Dan Koppen (drafted — Boston College/2003 5th round pick)
  • RT Sebastian Vollmer (drafted — UMass/2009 2nd round pick)
  • NT Vince Wilfork (drafted — Miami/2004 1st round pick)
  • DE Damione Lewis (signed — Carolina/2010 free agent)
  • LB Jerod Mayo (drafted — Tennessee/2008 1st round pick)
  • CB Leigh Bodden (signed — Detroit/2009 free agent)
  • SS Brandon Merriweather (drafted — Miami/2007 1st round pick)

Best Prospects

  • WR Brandon Tate (drafted — North Carolina/2009 3rd round pick)
  • WR Taylor Price (drafted — Ohio/2010 3rd round pick)
  • TE Rob Gronkowski (drafted — Arizona/2010 2nd round pick)
  • TE Aaron Hernandez (drafted — Florida/2010 4th round pick)
  • LB Jermaine Cunningham (drafted — Florida/2010 2nd round pick)
  • LB Brandon Spikes (drafted — Florida/2010 2nd round pick)
  • CB Darius Butler (drafted — Connecticut/2009 1st round pick)
  • CB Devin McCourty (drafted — Rutgers/2010 1st round pick)
  • FS Patrick Chung (drafted — Oregon/2009 2nd round pick)

With all the hype surrounding the Jets this year, it seems absurd to think that a team that the team that stockpiles draft picks at the top of the draft every year, the team that has Bill Belichick as it’s head coach, and Tom Brady as it’s quarterback, and perhaps is better at every position than the New York team could actually be projected to finish behind them.  But I think that the preseason pundits have spoken, and that they expect the Jets to be a better team than the Patriots for 16 games.  Like I said, it’s just absurd, and very much devoid of reasoning.

One of the reasons I would suggest the Jets might struggle in the regular season this year, is because they still play in a division that is historically unwinnable.  The Patriots win this thing every year.  The only year since 2003 that they didn’t win it, they had 11 wins and tied for it.  And while yes, the Patriots are down, and that might make it a week to week struggle for them to get to double digit wins again (spoiler: they will), that should be plenty enough to win the AFC East again.

The gap between Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez is greater than the gap between any two quarterbacks in the same division this year (at least, before deferring to the yet-to-be-named Bills starter), which is a good talking point to start on.  The Jets might  have the better offensive line (its close), but Brady throws to the best receiving tandem in the NFL, and the stable of backs for New England is stronger than the stable for New York.  There’s no comparison between the Patriots offense and any offense in the AFC East — the Pats simply have more, everywhere.

The Pats defense is again expected to limit how good they can be.  They’re strong in the middle with Vince Wilfork, but that’s been true the last two years and it hasn’t helped much.  Daminone Lewis, a former first round pick of the Rams, is a big-time pickup.  The Panthers took a flyer on a guy who never had more than 5 sacks in a season as a Ram, and got a quality starter and a dominant guy off the bench.  The Patriots put Ty Warren on IR, meaning that Lewis will be a starter in the Pats 3-4 front.  Gerrard Warren has been signed, and will likely split time with Darryl Richard, Myron Pryor, and Mike Wright for time on the backside.  For as much talent as they still have, this unit is in great flux.

Jerod Mayo, who is coming off an injury plagued season, is the star of the defensive unit.  Gary Guyton played next to him last year, but he is likely to lose that job soon to either the rangy, athletic Tyrone McKenzie or the powerful, instinctive Brandon Spikes.  Tully Banta-Cain had a strong 2009 season as a pass rusher, but he’s a system guy filling a huge hole.  Jermaine Cunningham and Derrick Burgess are in a desperation battle with Marques Murrell for the other OLB spot.  Cunningham could start as a rookie.

Leigh Bodden is the team’s best corner and Brandon Merriweather is the best safety, and after that, the secondary is all-young.  The oldest corner (aside from Bodden), Jonathon Wilhite, is 26.  There are a pair of veteran safeties competing for the free safety role, both are 26: Brandon McGowan, and James Sanders.  Starter-in-waiting Pat Chung turns 23 this week.  Outside of Bodden, no member of the secondary exceeds 26 years old.

Those outside linebackers are the weak spot on the team for a second year in a row.  New England ranked in the bottom half in adjusted sack rate last season, and they are a team who likes to bring their pressure from all angles.  That should help ASR, and it probably did, as the Pats have not much behind Banta-Cain to get to the passer.

Brady will go as his skill positions go, which is why the Wes Welker knee rehabilitation is a storyline that runs front and center at Pats camp.  Brady used Randy Moss to the fullest of his abilities back in 2007, but Welker has been the motor of the entire Pats offense and there is no offense without him.  For all he’s good at, Julian Edelman is just a guy who stands in for Welker when he’s out, the Pats passing offense is in trouble without him.  To their credit, the Pats took Aaron Hernandez out of Florida, a player who is good enough to be the Wes Welker of the next generation Patriots passing game, probably out of an H-back role.  Rob Gronkowski is more of a traditional tight end, but only by Patriots standards, as he’s a pretty versatile player in his own right.

A big storyline will be that the Patriots will try desperately to find a Randy Moss replacement.  The leaders for the role are Brandon Tate, a second year man out of North Carolina, and Taylor Price, a third round pick this year.  Both have a way to get into the starting lineup: FA pickup Torry Holt hit IR as this article was being written (he likely wouldn’t have made the cut anyway), leaving Sam Aiken as the incumbent starter in the 3 WR offense of the Pats.  Aiken isn’t talented enough to block Price or Tate, so if they are ready, they will play.

The final issue would be to sort out the running backs.  Laurence Maroney is the starter in a contract year.  Kevin Faulk will remain a situational back and the pass catching specialist.  Sammy Morris gives the Pats flexibility to hold no fullbacks (he can line up there in goal line formations), and break camp with up to five RBs, including: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Fred Taylor.  Taylor might still be the best of the group, at least in limited time.  Morris has excellent per play numbers, since joining the Patriots.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

The Pats have done a great job rebuilding the QB position after trading Matt Cassel.  Both Brian Hoyer and Zac Robinson are better prospects than the Chiefs starter.  The only question here is whether the Patriots will keep three QBs.

I’m thinking there’s no space on the roster for WR Matthew Slater, even with Torry Holt out of the mix.  I don’t think the Pats are ready to make a final decision between Tate and Price, and he’s not going to beat out Edelman.  That means theres one spot for Slater and Sam Aiken, and Aiken both plays and contributes on offense.

The Pats have Eric Ghiaciuc in with them as a potential backup Center, but he’s likely to lose that battle to rookie Ted Larsen.  Utility lineman Dan Connolly, Rich Ohrnberger, and rookie seventh round pick Thomas Welch will battle for just one or two spots.  There might be an extra one this year if Logan Mankins doesn’t report for the season.  Starting guard might end up being the most entertaining camp battle for the Pats this year, as Ghiaciuc could be in the mix for that.

Rookie Zoltan Mesko from Michigan is the only punter on the roster.

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