Here is my evaluation of the 22 starters on the current New England Patriots depth chart as the final rounds of the draft come to a close this afternoon:
Tier 1: Elite NFL Starters
1. TE Rob Gronkowski
Gronk is without question the best all-around tight end in the game with an elite combination of route-running acumen, powerful run-blocking ability and excellent hands.
2. QB Tom Brady
Brady keeps getting better with age as his impressive knowledge of opposing defenses increases with each season. He may not be the best quarterback in the league at this point in his career, but he is certainly in the discussion year in and year out.
3. WR Wes Welker
Welker is the best slot receiver in the business. Unfortunately, Welker is well aware of this, and the Patriots have yet to work out a long-term contract extension with the shifty wideout. Welker has not yet signed his franchise tender.
Tier 2: Pro-Bowl caliber NFL starter
4. OG Logan Mankins
Mankins had a down year last season, but given his track record as one of the best interior lineman in the game, I am betting on a big bounce-back season next year.
5. OG Brian Waters
Waters had perhaps the best season of his career last year despite being closer to the end of it than the beginning. This could be his swan song, but the Patriots were lucky to find him at the end of training camp last year.
6. OT Sebastian Vollmer
Like Mankins, Vollmer had a down year last season as he battled injuries all season. When healthy, he is one of the best right tackles in the game.
7. TE Aaron Hernandez
Hernandez doesn't block nearly as well as Gronkowski, and a lot of his production is the product of the Patriots excellent offensive scheme creating huge mismatches for him. However, once he gets the ball in his hands, his field vision and quickness make him an excellent weapon.
Tier 3: Above Average NFL starter
8. DL Vince Wilfork
Wilfork played a career-high number of snaps last season for the Patriots. He is the key to the Patriots run defense because he absorbs so many blockers at the line of scrimmage. He is not known as a great interior pass rusher, though he did have a huge game in the AFC Championship.
9. WR Brandon Lloyd
It will be interesting to see how well Lloyd acclimates into the Patriots system.
He has worked with new OC Josh McDaniels before, which should give him an advantage over past veteran failures like Chad Ochocinco and Joey Galloway. Lloyd has become an excellent receiver with tremendous hands and body control with the ability to take the top off of the defense.
10. LB Brandon Spikes
Spikes ran a very slow 40-yard dash time, but his instincts on the field and his down-hill thumping ability make up for the lack of speed. He's battled injuries in his first two seasons, but if he can stay healthy next year, he could make another big leap in year three.
11. LB Jerod Mayo
Bill Jr., as his teammates call him, is a smart player that has become the leader of the defense.
Like Spikes, he has battled some injuries, and he has not become the elite linebacker that I thought he would become when he was drafted out of Tennessee. However, he has become a pretty solid player for the Patriots.
12. DB Devin McCourty
McCourty has one Pro Bowl campaign and one horrendous season to his name, and now he is likely switching from corner to safety. Given his instincts, speed, range and tackling ability, I am going to give him a mulligan on last season and bet on a solid bounce-back season next year.
13. DB Patrick Chung
Chung is an aggressive hitter with good range who has a chance to become a solid safety if he can stay healthy. In addition to staying healthy, I think he can make significant improvements in coverage. Like McCourty, this is shaping up to be a make or break year for him.
14. DB/LB Rob Ninkovich
I really like Ninko as a pass-rusher and as an edge player at the point of attack against the run. He is a liability in coverage, but with the selection of Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots may use him less in that role next season and more as a pass-rushing end.
Tier 4: Average NFL starter
15. OT Nate Solder
This is a ranking based on his performance last season, not on his actual talent level. With Matt Light retiring this off-season after protecting Brady's blind side for the last decade, Solder will be perhaps the biggest factor in the Patriots' continued offensive dominance next season. If he fulfills his potential and lives up to his first round pedigree, he could make a big leap this year.
16. C Dan Connolly
Connolly played a lot at guard two years ago when Logan Mankins held out and then for Stephen Neal when he suffered a season-ending injury. Last year he filled in adequately for the injured Dan Koppen at center. Koppen has re-signed with the Patriots, but the job is now Connolly's to lose.
17. CB Kyle Arrington
Arrington improved his ball skills last offseason which led to more interceptions, but he is an average cover man at best in my view.
18. DL Jonathan Fanene
Fanene is a free agent addition along the defensive line from the Bengals who will likely start at defensive end next year. He is not a great pass rusher, but he should be an upgrade over Shaun Ellis.
19. DL Brandon Deadrick
Deadrick started the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list, then played a big role at defensive end during the second half of the season. With the additions of Fanene and draft picks Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette, Deadrick will likely play inside more next year.
Tier 5: The Jury is Out
20. LB Dont'a Hightower
This is not an indictment of Hightower, a rookie who will probably start for the Patriots from day one, likely at strong-side linebacker.
21. RB Stevan Ridley
Ridley has a chance to develop into the best running back the Patriots have had during the Brady-Belichick era. He is a big, explosive running back that had all five of the Patriots' runs of 20 or more yards last season.
Unfortunately, Ridley had some trouble holding onto the football, which is a cardinal sin in New England.
22. CB Ras-I Dowling
Like Solder, Dowling is going to be counted on at a cornerstone position next season.
Unlike Solder, Dowling has virtually no track record because he spent most of last season on injured reserve. The Patriots much maligned secondary needs something positive to happen, and a productive year from Dowling would be a great place to start.
As long as the Patriots have Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as the head coach, they will be an elite team.
Belichick is the best coach in the league, but his personnel moves as general manager have left the Patriots lacking elite talent on the defensive side of the ball. Despite that, the Patriots went 13-3 last season and nearly won the Super Bowl.
Through the draft and free agency, Belichick has drastically improved the Patriots' depth on the defensive side of the ball. If the Patriots even go from being terrible to mediocre on defense, a fourth Super Bowl is within reach.
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