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7 Reasons New England Patriots Will Improve (Record-Wise) from Last Season

Oliver ThomasContributor IMay 7, 2012

7 Reasons New England Patriots Will Improve (Record-Wise) from Last Season

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    The New England Patriots had their ups and downs during the 2011 season. Yet, it's hard to complain about a 13-3 regular-season record and a Super Bowl appearance. Based on the aggressive moves New England has made this offseason, the Patriots are reloaded for another Super Bowl run.

    But with the good comes the bad.

    Left tackle Matt Light is retiring, pass-rusher Mark Anderson has signed with the Buffalo Bills, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis took his law firm to the Cincinnati Bengals, receiver Wes Welker is in a contract standoff, and defensive end Andre Carter's future is unclear.

    Nevertheless, New England is primed for another successful season. Here are seven reasons why the Pats will take their play to the next level in 2012.

The Wide Receiver Position Is Stocked

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    Last season, the Patriots' production at wide receiver was minimal. Granted, tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski hauled in a total of 169 balls. However, beyond Wes Welker and Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco ranked third at the position with 15 catches for 276 yards.

    Next season, however, New England appears to be loaded at wide out. Welker, Branch, Ochocinco, Julian Edelman and Matt Slater have joined forces with notables Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth. 

    According to Yahoo!'s Doug Farrar, Brandon Lloyd will be back in his element: reunited with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. 

    "New England struck out with Chad Ochocinco last season, but the Lloyd factor could be far more impactful, and his history with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is the key," Farrar said. "McDaniels was Denver's head coach in 2010, when Lloyd led the NFL in 'air yards' with 16.47 per catch."

    If the past is any indication of the future, then Lloyd's presence will be felt in 2012. He could be just what the Patriots offense needs, a route-runner who can spread the field.

    Looking further down the depth chart, the under-the-radar signings of Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney could put the Pats over the top.

    During his only season with the Patriots in 2007, Stallworth hauled in 46 catches for 697 yards and three touchdowns. Since then, he's caught just 41 balls for three different teams. So it looks as though Tom Brady could continue to make receivers like Stallworth look better than they really are.

    From 2006 to 2008, Gaffney was also a member of the Patriots. He proved to be a dependable possession receiver in New England, snagging 85 catches for 1,059 yards and eight touchdowns in 43 regular-season games.

    As of now, making the 53-man roster will be a slugfest at wide out, but there's no harm in a little competition.

    The wide receiving corps may not be young, but it sure is capable. Without a doubt, New England is set up to outdo itself at the wide receiver spot in 2012.

Reimplementing the Fullback Postion Will Make for a More Balanced Attack

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    Last season, the Patriots went without a fullback until December, when Lousaka Polite was signed. The running game relied heavily on single-back sets, putting a lot of pressure on the ball-carriers.

    Early indications point to a change in scheme for 2012. Three fullbacks are currently on the roster: Spencer Larsen, Tony Fiammetta and Eric Kettani.

    Odds are, only one of these blocking backs will make the roster, but that's enough to help balance out the offensive attack. New England could utilize the ground game better with a fullback on the 53-man roster and take some pressure off Tom Brady's arm.

    The ground game is what keeps the chains moving, especially in short-yardage situations. If the Patriots opt to keep a fullback on the team, then that spells good news for halfbacks Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Joseph Addai and perhaps Brandon Bolden.

    Without the power of the bruising BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a fullback will open some holes for the rushers to break through.

Jonathan Fanene and Trevor Scott Will Solidify the Defensive Line

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    Early in free agency, the Patriots added help to their defensive line by signing former Cincinnati Bengal Jonathan Fanene and Oakland Raider Trevor Scott. Neither guy agreed to a blockbuster deal, but they both should make a difference up front.

    Jonathan Fanene provides some size at 6'4", 292 pounds and can play on the inside or outside of the D-line. In 2011, he was primarily used as a pass-rusher, recording 6.5 sacks. A versatile specimen, Fanene will fit right into the Patriots' multiple defensive schemes.

    Speaking of versatile, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss reports that Trevor Scott was a tight end at the University of Buffalo before head coach Turner Gill converted him to a defensive end. In four NFL seasons, Scott has registered 13.5  sacks. However, in Foxboro, the 6'5, 255-pound Scott has a more humble mindset than most.

    "My role is, I'm just going to get on the field any way I can," Scott said.

    They're not big names, and they may not have a starting job secured. However, Jonathan Fanene and Trevor Scott will find a way to disrupt opposing offenses. 

First-Round Draft Picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower Are Playmakers

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    The Patriots went all out on defense in April's NFL draft. As a result, head coach Bill Belichick now has Syracuse's Chandler Jones and Alabama's Dont'a Hightower at his disposal.

    Defensive end Jones battled injuries during his junior season at Syracuse, totaling just 4.5 sacks. Yet, the 6'5", 266-pound pass-rusher is gifted with talent and plays hard for all four quarters. He's got youthful exuberance on his side and could start come day one.

    "The Patriots have a big hole at right defensive end in their even front, where Andre Carter and Mark Anderson played last season. Jones potentially could slide right into that spot," Patriots beat writer Mike Reiss said.

    The Crimson Tide's Hightower is prepared to play at both outside or inside linebacker. The 6'2", 265-pound junior can jam the line of scrimmage or drop back into coverage.

    "He can play in any front, whether it's the 4-3, 3-4 or nickel, so he should have plenty of chances to get on the field," NESN.com's Jeff Howe said.

    Both of the Patriots' first-day draft picks will be able to step in early and prove why their names were called in Round 1.

The Secondary Is Deeper

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    Last year, the Patriots ranked 31st in pass yards allowed. Clearly, the Patriots front office wanted to change that trend this offseason by signing both veteran free agents and young prospects.

    In March, the Pats signed ex-San Diego Charger safety Steve Gregory and former Miami Dolphins cornerback Will Allen. These signings wont put a whole lot of fans in the seats of Gillette Stadium, but there's something to be said for experience in the defensive backfield.

    Gregory started 13 games for the Chargers in 2011, racking up 67 tackles and an interception for a touchdown. The 29-year-old can play safety, in the slot and also special teams.

    "Gregory is capable of filling a variety of roles in the secondary, which will help a Patriots secondary that featured a pair of wide receivers at times last season," Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald said.

    As for Allen, the 11-year pro has 15 career picks and started six games last year for Miami. At age 33, his prime is long gone, but he still adds reliable depth to the back end of the cornerback depth chart.

    Aside from subtle offseason moves, the Patriots also smoothed over the secondary via the draft in selecting Illinois safety Tavon Wilson in Round 2 and Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in Round 7.

    Wilson's waters were relatively uncharted by other NFL teams, but New England took a chance on the Fighting Illini safety early. The 6'0", 205-pound Wilson can play anywhere: cornerback, in the slot, safety or special teams. His role flexibility will give him a great chance to play as a rookie.

    "He's a good kid, and he's going to work hard, so you can rely on that," NESN's Jeff Howe said.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dennard. The cornhusker DB could have been a first-, second-, or even third-rounder. However, just days before the draft, he allegedly punched a police officer and his stock plummeted. Nonetheless, Bill Belichick is one for taking on challenges.

    "Dennard is a good player, no doubt," Howe said. "He wasn't the Big Ten's defensive back of the year by accident, but he's going to have to mature to earn a starting job. I don't mean that in an off-the-field sense, either. Dennard plays the game with a tough and physical mentality, and that's great, but he's going to have to be smarter with that style at the NFL level."

    After the improvements New England has made in the secondary this offseason, don't anticipate Julian Edelman and Matt Slater to be playing much defense in 2012.

Sterling Moore and Ras-I Dowling Could Be the X-Factors at Cornerback

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    New England's cornerbacks showed flashes in 2011, but their true success could depend on second-year men Sterling Moore and Ras-I Dowling, the wild cards of the cornerback group.

    Last season, Moore was thought of as just another undrafted free agent. That is, until he intercepted two passes against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 and ripped the ball from Lee Evans' grasp during the AFC Championship Game.

    "Moore was one of the defense's best playmakers during the final month of the Patriots' run, and I definitely liked what I saw," Patriots writer Jeff Howe said. "He plays with confidence, and he knows how to go after the ball."

    A year later, the tables have turned for Moore. The former SMU Mustang might be ready for an expanded role in 2012.

    Ras-I Dowling, the 33rd selection of the 2011 NFL draft, had his rookie season cut short due to injury. However, the Virginia corner proved he's no slouch and earned the starting gig prior to landing on injured reserve.

    "If he can come back healthy, 100 percent, have a good training camp and win over one of those cornerback spots, that gives them so much more flexibility in that defensive backfield where they can improve from being the 31st-ranked pass defense," former Patriot and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi said.

    Devin McCourty might be longing for his rookie form, when he picked off seven passes. And, Kyle Arrington is hoping he can keep his momentum after racking up a NFL-leading seven interceptions. However, if Moore and Dowling start up where they left off, New England's cornerbacks will be a force to be reckoned with next season.

Special Teams Toughness Continues to Be a Priority

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    This offseason, the Patriots reapplied the special teams glue for another go-around.

    The team re-signed utility man Matthew Slater, a special teams Pro Bowler in 2011. Linebacker Tracy White, who ranked second on the team in special teams tackles, inked a new deal. In addition, special teams contributor and linebacker Niko Koutouvides re-signed.Yet the Patriots were not completely satisfied with the grit of their special teams units.

    That is where Ohio State's Nate Ebner comes into the picture.

    The 6'0", 205-pound rugby player played only three defense snaps for the Buckeyes. However, he found another way to contribute: special teams.

    ”It happens so fast, it’s just one big blur and then it’s over," Ebner told the Boston Herald's Rich Thompson. "I just love it for some reason—I don’t know, maybe I’ve got a screw loose.”

    Totaling 30 career tackles isn't all that impressive, but his pro day numbers were. Ebner showed his athleticism, running a 4.47 40-time and leaping for a 39-inch vertical.

    Embracing the dirty work will go a long way towards not only ensuring the success of Nate Ebner, but also the Patriots. New England's special teams units are shaping up to be among the best in 2012. Field position is vital in a game where every yard counts.

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