Look past the dynasty and the legacy. When you step back and look at the New England Patriots, what do you see? When you look at this current team, how do you feel? When you think about next season, do you see 11-5 or 15-1? Do you see heartbreak or confetti?
Personally, I see confetti. But here's the problem: I saw confetti last year, too. Despite all the holes in the secondary and the gaps in pass rushing, this team made me a believer. I'll die believing in this team. But what I want most is another banner in the Tom Brady era.
Three is not enough.
Simply put, the 2012 Patriots must be better than the 2011 Patriots. Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower have already made this a better team, so they're off to a good start. Let's see how the rest of the roster shakes out.
Here are early projections for the Patriots' final 53-man roster.
1. Tom Brady
2. Brian Hoyer
3. Ryan Mallett
The fact that Brian Hoyer hasn't had an opportunity to rise or fall on the professional stage isn't his fault. Tom Brady has remained healthy and active, thereby eliminating the need for Hoyer to step in and flex his muscles. That's great news for Brady and Patriot Nation, but the unintended consequence is that we still don't know what Hoyer is truly capable of.
Ironically, the lack of professional experience from our backups is what keeps them in New England. This is especially true of Hoyer. Had Hoyer gone the Matt Flynn route by showing flashes of brilliance, he probably wouldn't be on the Patriots right now. Instead, he'd be starting on a different team. So, in a strange way, his ambiguous skill level is why he's still here.
Do I have faith in the two backups? Yes, because Bill Belichick wouldn't keep them on the roster if he didn't see something special in them. Matt Cassell's incredible showing in 2008 is proof of Belichick's commitment to having a formidable backup plan. Like Flynn, Cassell was quickly snatched up as a starter for a different team. The second these backups show some talent, they're gone with the wind.
So where does that leave them? Well, it leaves the Patriots with the greatest starting quarterback to ever play the game and two backups who may or may not be any good. Let's just remain blissfully ignorant about the backups and just hope that Brady remains healthy.
4. Stephen Gostkowski
5. Zoltan Mesko
6. Danny Aiken
No complaints here. I like these guys, especially Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko. They fit really nicely on this team, and I suspect they'll be in New England for a long time.
Gostkowski has yet to have his Adam Vinatieri moment. Ordinarily, this would concern me, but I've seen enough out of this guy to know that his accuracy is just as deadly as his focus. I've seen every game he's ever played, I've watched every interview he's ever given, and I'm really impressed. He's a good man to have on this squad.
When his moment comes, I trust he'll come through.
7. Danny Woodhead
8. Stevan Ridley
9. Shane Vereen
10. Joseph Addai or TBD free agent
It's too soon to know exactly how good Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will be, but we've seen enough to know that there's real potential there. I have a feeling both of them will take the next step in their development next season and show flashes of brilliance.
Danny Woodhead is generally considered a slot receiver, but I expect him to pick up the slack now that BenJarvus Green-Ellis is gone. With an iron torso and horse legs, Woodhead is a strong and confident running back. I expect him to take fewer reps as a receiver and slide into his role as the Patriots' go-to running back.
It would be wise for the Patriots to comb the free agency pool for a fourth running back, even the undrafted kids. This fourth running back doesn't need to be an athletic freak of nature like Arian Foster, but he needs to be dependable when the passing game breaks down (see: Super Bowl XLII, Super Bowl XLVI).
This running back unit is one guy away from being terrific.
11. Wes Welker
12. Jabar Gaffney
13. Matthew Slater
14. Julian Edelman
15. Donte' Stallworth
16. Jeremy Ebert
17. Brandon Lloyd
As you can see, Chad Ochocinco isn't on this list. That's not a personal slight against him. In fact, I like the guy a lot. But I was troubled by his catch during the Super Bowl, which was followed by a joyful freak-out from Tom Brady. He exclaimed, "That's why we got you!" If your quarterback is that excited to see you make a catch, well, that's a bad sign.
Nevertheless, nothing would make me happier than if Ochocinco breaks out next season. I can't put my faith in him quite yet, but I'm definitely hoping he defies the odds and comes through.
Biggest wildcard at the receiver position: Julian Edelman. This kid's one of my favorite players on the team, but he's really struggled to find a consistent way to help the team from week-to-week. It seems like Belichick keeps grooming him to be the second coming of Troy Brown, but it hasn't worked out yet. Hopefully 2012 will be Edelman's season.
Biggest problem with this receiving unit: Nobody on this list reminds me of Victor Cruz. That's a problem. Well, maybe that's too much to ask for. At least give me a guy like Hakeem Nicks. Is Nicks too much to ask for? As of now, Brandon Lloyd looks to be our guy.
If Lloyd has a great season, then the Patriots have a great chance of returning to the Super Bowl.
18. Rob Gronkowski
19. Aaron Hernandez
20. Daniel Fells
Do we need three tight ends next season? Yes.
The odds of both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez getting through the season without missing a few games is questionable at best. This is especially true of Gronkowski, who's not only coming off a bad ankle injury, but will be running his crazy routes and taking monster hits every Sunday. It would be nice to have a competent body to fill in for him or Hernandez in the event that Pats find themselves temporarily shorthanded.
Daniel Fells is in the lead for that third spot. Fells is a good player, but don't count out undrafted free agent Brad Herman. At 6'4" and 252 pounds, Herman's coming off his best season out of Iowa. He's a smart kid, confident, athletic and has a 36-inch vertical.
As of now, I have to give the edge to Fells, but I'm keeping an eye on Herman.
21. Matt Kopa
22. Nate Solder
23. Marcus Cannon
24. Sebastian Vollmer
25. Markus Zusevics
I'm a huge fan of Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer. The team is set with these guys.
Undrafted free agent Markus Zusevics is an intriguing addition to the team. His draft stock plummeted after a nasty pectoral injury, but the kid's got potential. If he can be healthy by the start of the season, this two-year starter from Iowa could be a very valuable find.
This unit is one of the better ones the Patriots have assembled. Solder is the future. If this crew can stay healthy, they're in excellent shape.
26. Brian Waters
27. Dan Koppen
28. Dan Connolly
29. Robert Gallery
30. Logan Mankins
From a talent standpoint, I like every guy on this list—especially Brian Waters. If most of these guys can stay healthy, then I'm happy.
But here's the thing. I don't trust these guys to stay healthy. I'm especially concerned about Logan Mankins' health and Brian Waters' age. I'm starting to feel like this talented core is running on fumes.
All in all, I think this unit can pull through in 2012. But come 2013, this group needs to look a little younger.
31. Kyle Love
32. Brandon Deaderick
33. Jonathan Fanene
34. Vince Wilfork
35. Gerard Warren
I really like the addition of Jonathan Fanene. In fact, between the frenzied free agency and the draft, Fanene was one of New England's better pickups. I expect him to have an immediate impact.
Vince Wilfork is coming off arguably his best season, so I don't expect him to slow down in 2012. Based on his work ethic and where his head's at, I feel confident that he'll keep rolling as this team moves forward.
Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick are becoming very important members of the New England Patriots. I'd like to see both of them have a great season and keep up the momentum. I'm slightly concerned about Gerard Warren's age (33), but he's a serious football player with serious skills, so I'm inclined to see the silver lining here.
36. Chandler Jones
37. Jake Bequette
38. Trevor Scott (if Andre Carter retires)
At 6'5" and 266 pounds, Jones is a spacing nightmare for opponents. He reminds me a lot of Zdeno Chara, in the sense that his mere presence changes the dynamic of what the other team can and cannot do. He's a disruptor. He forces the enemy to do things they don't want to do. And really, that's the entire concept of defense.
Jones can attack the quarterback like lightning, but he can also drop in coverage. He's a confident player with incredible versatility. From a personality standpoint, he's extremely intelligent and charming. He's the complete package. Maybe I'm getting a little sentimental from the emotional video of him and his family on the night he was drafted, but I really love this kid.
Great to have Jake Bequette, a two-time captain and solid pass rusher from Arkansas. At 6'5" and 270 pounds, Bequette is a unique find. He's tough, but he isn't a troublemaker. I don't think he'll clash with a strict coaching system. With an impressive showing at the combine (4.07 in the 20-yard shuttle), Bequette is an athletic defensive end who can stand up or put his hand in the dirt.
I'd love to see Andre Carter come back, but his body may not be able to take the abuse of another football season. In the event that he retires, Trevor Scott could nicely fill the void, but Scott would lack the wisdom and guidance which Carter effortlessly oozed. Losing Carter would be a bitter pill to swallow.
39. Dont'a Hightower
40. Rob Ninkovich
I'm giving an A+ to the Dont'a Hightower selection. Mind you, that doesn't mean I'm giving Bill Belichick an A+ for the entire draft. Overall, he did not score that high. Nevertheless, he hit it out of the park in the first round.
Hightower is one of the most versatile players on New England's roster. He'll most likely be used as an inside linebacker, but he's also an edge player. He's a defensive captain, a confident leader with a high football I.Q. and great instinct. He is, single-handedly, a reason to be ridiculously excited about the 2012 Patriots.
41. Dane Fletcher
42. Tracy White
43. Jerod Mayo
44. Brandon Spikes
No complaints here, this is a solid unit.
Jerod Mayo, Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes have become integral members of the Patriots and I've come to really appreciate them for all the details they contribute from week to week. Mayo is, without a doubt, one of the most essential players on this team. He's the backbone of this ball club.
All around, a solid crew of guys.
45. Nate Ebner
46. Patrick Chung
47. Steve Gregory
48. Tavon Wilson
What's missing from this safety unit is expectation. When I look at these four guys, the only guy I expect to have a great season is Patrick Chung. For the other three, there is no expectation.
Let's take Tavon Wilson. Solid football player out of Illinois, plays safety and cornerback, has experience with multiple formations and can play man-to-man. That's fine, except that there are quite a few safeties out there who can do that, and it doesn't mean they can succeed in the NFL. That's the problem here. I can't wholeheartedly expect a lot until this kid gives me a reason to believe.
To the credit of Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft, they have a knack for digging up misfits and making them sparkle. Sterling Moore was a stranger to me until he stripped the ball out of Lee Evans' hands and gave me one of the most profound football moments I've ever witnessed. I live my life by the "In Bill We Trust" motto. But even still, this lifestyle can get frustrating.
Nate Ebner intrigues me, mostly because he's a terrific rugby player. I dig his look, his athleticism, his attitude and his grittiness. But even still, he's going to be playing safety for the New England Patriots. The leap from rugby to ballhawking on Tom Brady's team is both fascinating and confusing.
All in all, I suppose you could say I'm undecided about this unit. Safeties are pretty damn important to me and I was hoping to be really excited about this crew. As of now, I'm in safety limbo. It's up to these guys to pull me out of it.
49. Kyle Arrington
50. Sterling Moore
51. Devin McCourty
52. Ras-I Dowling
53. Alfonzo Dennard
Will Sterling Moore continue to evolve on a steady basis? Will Ras-I Dowling bounce back from the injury that stole the 2011 season from him? And if so, what should we expect from him? Is Alfonzo Dennard overrated? Underrated? Rated just right? Can he be effective in the NFL? Will Devin McCourty show us the awesome skills which he displayed during his rookie year? If not, will he continue his recent trend of maddening inconsistency?
I shouldn't have this many questions about the cornerbacks. Luckily, Sterling Moore and Kyle Arrington have proven themselves to be capable of anchoring this crew and (hopefully) being a steady model of effectiveness. But even still, this an eccentric mix of fellas.
New England easily could've snatched George Iloka and Justin Bethel, both of whom were available in the late rounds of the draft. Why didn't they? A few too many overly-intellectual chess moves by Bill Belichick caused some very special football players to slip through his fingers.
Let's get down to the million dollar question: Does this backfield feel unbreakable to you? It could prove to be amazing, but as of now, does it feel amazing? What does your gut tell you?
I'll choose to see the glass as half full, but I can't entirely hide a slight feeling of queasiness. If you share that sentiment, just keep repeating to yourself, "Bend not break, bend not break, bend not break."