Predicting the 2012 New England Patriots Week 1 Starting Lineup

Aaron DodgeAnalyst IMarch 30, 2012

Predicting the 2012 New England Patriots Week 1 Starting Lineup

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    The New England Patriots 2010 draft class produced six players that the team instantly leaned on as starters. In staunch contrast, the 2011 class saw only one rookie start more than two games. 

    The upcoming 2012 draft is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated in recent memory, as the Patriots sit with four picks in the first 64 selections.

    Bill Belichick traded in his coaching hoodie for his general managers hat ever since suffering defeat in February's Super Bowl. New England has had discussions, visits, and workouts with dozens of athletes this offseason and they've come to agreement with nearly a dozen.

    The strength of those signings makes it possible to accurately discuss what the opening day roster will look like. Here are your projected starters on both sides of the football. 

Quarterback

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    I don't want to lock in too early, but I'm pretty comfortable Tom Brady, a veteran of 12 NFL seasons, will be the starter come Week 1. 

    The Patriots re-signed backup Brian Hoyer this offseason after assigning him a second-round tender. He signed the offer sheet and now is due $1.9 million in 2012 which is a tad bit high for the clipboard-holding role considering the depth at the position. 

    Ryan Mallett spent his rookie season red-shirting and learning the ropes of the Patriots complicated offense. The 23-year-old also spent the year conditioning his monster 6'7'' frame. Mallett weighed in at 253 when selected. Now he's "between 235 and 240" and has a "little more muscle and a lot less fat" as a result of time spent in New England's strength and conditioning program (reported by CSNNE).

    I think it's possible the Patriots dangle Hoyer for a third-rounder after failing to fetch a second for him. He's worth holding onto, but maybe not at that price.  

    New England also signed Mike Hartline to a futures/reserve contract in January. Brother of the Dolphins' receiver Brian Hartline, the 23-year-old undrafted free agent is purely a camp arm. 

Running Back

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    Oh two slides in and the first shocker.

    Yes, I speak highly of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, and yes I believe the Patriots think highly of the two. I also know New England always rolls with a veteran in the backfield rotation.

    BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan, Corey Dillion, Antwain Smith, the list goes on and on.

    If a veteran is brought in they will be given the opportunity to compete for snaps. With an edge in experience it would be no surprise if a guy like Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant, Tim Hightower, or Ronnie Brown vultured some snaps away from the youngsters.

    The Patriots haven't made their offseason plans at running back known and this had led to mass speculation. Some have connected the dots between Matt Forte and New England, but I don't see it as a fit. I'll just be rehashing the argument I used against a Mike Wallace trade, so I'll save my breath: it doesn't make financial sense.

    What does make sense is handing out a sensible contract to a vet like the ones previously mentioned. It would take some pressure off of Vereen and Ridley and act as an insurance policy if they don't pan out exactly as hoped for. 

    Plus, it's simply how this team does business. Having a veteran at the position is just about as close to a team principle as you can get. 

Wide Receiver

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    For purposes of respecting the Patriots dominant two-tight end set, there are technically two starting spots up for grabs for natural wide receivers in the base offense. 

    Even that isn't technically true, because not everyone can do what Wes Welker does in the slot. In the same respect, not everyone can do what projected starter Brandon Lloyd can do as an outside, downfield threat. 

    I think we can begin to piece together what the depth charts will look like from there though. Considering the team would also want a "starting" third receiver, a designated fourth and then backups for significant starters, it's conceivable that they could carry six, maybe seven receivers total. 

    Lock Welker and Lloyd in.

    Mathew Slater can be counted as a special teams player for purposes of this argument.

    I think Julian Edelman knows enough of the Patriots playbook to make an argument for his inclusion as an all around-lock, but it's just hard to gauge his long-term prospects and overall ceiling. 

    Britt Davis was signed to the practice squad in January so he doesn't have to count against the depth restrictions here either. 

    So that leaves about four spots for the remaining six players under contract. 

    Donte Stallworth, Chad Ochocinco, Deion Branch, Anthony Gonzalez, and Tiquan Underwood. 

    Consider too that Belichick has hinted the team may still target a wideout in the upcoming draft. That prospect would almost certainly get a guaranteed roster spot.

    If I had to pick three I'd take Ochocinco, Branch, and Gonzalez. If Gonzo doesn't end up healthy and Stallworth has some juice I wouldn't be surprised to see him stick on either. 

Tight End

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    The Gronk Shower, Gronkocho Uno, The Boston Tea Party.

    Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez can be called a number of things, co-starters included. The two will again join forces in 2012 which will be their third season in the offense. Both players are looking to prove they can stay healthy after dealing with separate lower leg issues in 2011.

    Gronkowski's presence in the end zone has been magnificent to watch over the last two years. He proved in 2011 that he can handle the spotlight in the passing game as well, acting as a chain mover at times and racking up receptions and yardage.

    His hands never seemed to be a problem, so Gronk is probably being pretty honest when he says he'll be working on his route running this offseason. That's likely one of the only things the team can honestly ask of him at this point.

    Hernandez could improve his yards per reception which came down from 12.5 in his rookie season to 11.5 in 2011. He's got 92 yards on eight career carries and I wonder if they'd ever consider developing him into a gadget type runner. I say why the heck not. 

    The Patriots made one addition at the position this offseason, signing 28 year old Daniel Fells to a three year contract. He's predominantly a blocker, but has 88 career receptions in 55 games, so it's not as if he's incompetent in the pass catching role. 

    It seems the position is pretty sturdy going forward.

Offensive Line

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    I'll be honest, the line makes me nervous. It's a bit difficult to project at the moment because a number of questions still remain. 

    Will Matt Light return or retire? How long will Logan Mankins be out with a partially torn ACL? Is Sebastian Vollmer actually healthy? Has Brian Waters made his decision yet? Will the team invest an early round pick at center?

    The most I can say for sure is that Dan Connolly is likely to start at center. From all indications thus far, it appears Waters is interested in returning, if he does I see him joining Robert Gallery as the starting guards. It'd be interesting to see which side the two of them start off playing.  

    At tackle you'll have Nate Solder to the left and a healthy Vollmer to the right.

    Marcus Cannon is capable of filling in for either, or he could be utilized extensively out of the swing tackle role. He's also probably just as good at guard so I'm sure he'll see the field in 2012. 

    Another depth signing wouldn't surprise me in the least. Donald Thomas, Nick MacDonald, Ryan Wendell and Matt Kopa are all under contract as current depth.  

    This is another position that I believe the franchise is considering when it comes to the upcoming draft. 

Defensive Line

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    A little lesson here first in Patriots 101:

    New England doesn't run a 4-3 defense, and it doesn't run a 3-4 either, it's a hybrid. 

    ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss tracked the defensive front snap count for the first fifteen games of the season and so graciously compiled those stats. New England employed its base 4-3 front only 36.3% of the time. The defense was in it's sub package almost two-thirds of the time.

    It's the sub package, which contains five or more defensive backs, that gets the most use. Consider the direction of the league and the down field passing attacks and it's no surprise.

    Either way, the defensive line will be employed in both formations, these are just the nitty-gritty specifics and who doesn't love those?

    The Patriots looked to shore up their interior presence this offseason with the signing of Jonathan Fanene. Paired with Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, and Myron Pryor the team has decent depth at tackle/nose tackle. 

    It seems Belichick isn't yet satisfied, however. New England has been in talks with multiple free agents tackles, Amobi Okoye being the most recent. 

     

    In addition to the Bengals and Bears, Amobi Okoye has received interest from the Bucs, Pats, and Broncos, according to sources. #freeagency

    — Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) March 27, 2012

     

    An addition in the middle seems likely.

    At end it's a bit more up in the air. The team has Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick and Trevor Scott under contract and Andre Carter as an option. The rest of the depth is questionable at best. I should mention Fanene also has experience at end and could be employed all over the line. 

    This is a position easy to point to as one the Patriots should address during the draft. 

Linebacker

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    The defensive line will be backed by incumbent starters Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich in most packages. Mayo was on the field for 83.1% of the snaps in 2011 while Ninkovich came in at 82.3%, courtesy of ESPNBoston.com.

    New England used Mark Anderson in the sub rusher role quite a bit early on and his shoes will need to be filled by someone. It's possible the aforementioned Trevor Scott can step up, but it's more likely an addition is made. 

    The Patriots have Brandon Spikes in the fold at middle linebacker as well and he'll be looking to stay healthy in 2012 after only playing 40.1% of the snaps last season. Dane Fletcher looked good when healthy and could also contribute next year. 

    Logic would suggest the team would invest one of it's early round selections in a talent that can help them at this position. A three-down player would be phenomenal, but I, like many others could settle for a two-down situational rusher.

    Mark Anderson wasn't special; no one wanted his services last offseason. He followed instructions and allowed the Patriots coaching staff to utilize his strengths and it payed off big.

    If they can get a talented rookie in here they'd have him locked up for three or four seasons at a reasonable rate and in his prime years. It seems they have the rest of the pieces around to finally do it, what's there to lose?  

Cornerback

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    First things first, I want to pick a logic fight with anyone who thinks Devin McCourty had a bad year in 2011. 

    Lets think about this for a second. If McCourty doesn't go the the Pro Bowl as a 23-year-old rookie with only seven interceptions in all, he's not being grilled this season. I mean the kid was an All-Pro selection and besides Ndamukong Suh, he was the only other rookie to receive votes for the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.

    Clearly he got your little hearts infatuated with perfection, because as a sophomore McCourty still had a decent year. He's been in the league for two years, give him some developmental room to make some mistakes once in a while.  

    He still came up with 13 passes defended and two interceptions. McCourty now has 169 tackles, 30 passes defended, nine interceptions and two forced fumbles through just 30 NFL games.

    He sure didn't look great when targeted and there are some ugly stats in that regard, but I ask you to chop it up to growing pains. He's got too much talent to worry about him just yet. 

    Anyway, McCourty will be joined by Kyle Arrington, the NFL's interception leader in 2011. A healthy Ras-I Dowling added to the mix dramatically changes the look of the cornerback group. It's unclear if a healthy Dowling exists, however. 

    Will Allen was brought in to add veteran stability and the team will also look to bring along Sterling Moore. A draft selection is possible, but not guaranteed at corner this season. 

Safety

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    The Patriots employed an interesting experiment in 2011 called Life Without Patrick Chung. 

    Credit to the ESPN statistics department on this one.

    The young safety missed 553 total defensive snaps last season. During that stretch, opposing defenses averaged 9.8 yards per attempt, 10 attempts per touchdown and 18.8 rushes per touchdown. It was a completely different story with Chung on the field and healthy. 

    He played a total of 661 defensive snaps. During that stretch, opposing defenses only averaged 7.7 yards per attempt, 25.5 attempts per touchdowns and 36.4 rushes per touchdown. 

    New England's secondary was a joke without Chung involved in it last season. 

    The team added Steve Gregory, a versatile veteran to the mix this offseason. Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett and Malcolm Williams are also in fold. Expect more attention paid to this position in the draft.

    The Patriots swung and missed on LaRon Landry and may look to find it's next starter from the collegiate ranks.  

Special Teams

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    Kicker Stephen Gostowski and punter Zoltan Mesko will both be back handling kicking duties in 2012.

    The duo has developed into quite the effective one-two punch. The team invested fourth and fifth round picks into the two and the early investment has worked wonders for creating stability at the positions. 

    They are joined by Danny Aiken who you've probably never heard of. Aiken, a rookie, played nearly flawlessly in 2011 as the long snapper. Not once did a ball sail over the head of either kicker. 

    Lonnie Paxton may have finally been properly replaced.  

Shameless Self Promotion

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    Interested in reading more by this Featured Columnist? Check out more of Aaron Dodge's work

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    Brady Wanted to Return in 2008 Following ACL Surgery

    Pats Implementing Fullback, Improved Run Game in 2012

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