New England's Tight Ends Are Among the Best Units in Football
The Patriots head towards the season with a roster that is arguably stacked with about as much talent as it ever has been in franchise history. Bill Belichick has done a good job mixing a solid group of veteran free agents to go along with some of the top defensive rookies to come out of this year's draft. These moves should aid the Pats this season, as well as the years to come.
Here is a breakdown of how each positional group grades out, as the team creeps closer to the start of training camp next month.
Current Personnel: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett
It is hard to dislike a position where the Patriots hold arguably the best player in the league—possibly in league history—in Brady.
Behind him is a backup in Hoyer who has grown comfortable with the New England system over his three years with the team and could very well bring solid play to the field if he had to in a pinch. An argument could be made the Patriots would be better off with a veteran backup with more playing experience, but Hoyer would be a capable option if needed.
They even have a possible quarterback of the future to develop in their highly-talented third-string QB Ryan Mallett. The Patriots have all their bases covered.
- Grade: A+
Current Personnel: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Joseph Addai, Danny Woodhead, Tony Fiammetta, Spencer Larsen, Eric Kettani, Brandon Bolden
The Patriots head into the season with Ridley expected to be the featured back after his flashes of potential throughout last season before falling out of favor with a fumble late in the year. He has the ability to be perhaps the first running back taken in the draft to develop into something special since Bill Belichick took over the team.
Vereen was actually taken in the second-round ahead of Ridley. This would make you think the team viewed him as something more than a simple third-down back. Do not rule out the possibility he could also have a large role this season.
Addai could prove to be a wild-card as he brings a veteran presence they were previously lacking and could be successful in the Patriot offense with his ability to be a traditional runner, as well as catch the ball out of the backfield.
Woodhead is the third-down back until if/when Vereen steals that role from him. Either way they should feel good about that position.
Bolden has been deemed by some to be Benjarvus Green-Ellis 2.0, coming from his alma-matter at Ole Miss with a somewhat similar style of play. That being said, Bolden will be hard pressed to make the roster out of camp. Keep in mind, even Green-Ellis had to make his way up from the practice squad at first.
Three fullbacks enter camp on the roster for the first time in a long time in Fiammetta, Larsen, and Kettani. Kettani is the lone man who has not played in the league after serving in the Navy. It is not out of the realm of possibilities all three could be cut; none of them are anywhere near locks for the roster.
- Grade: B+
Current Personnel: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells, Brad Herman, Nick Melillo
Simply said, the Patriots have, without a doubt, the most versatile and talented pair of tight ends in the league in Gronkowski and Hernandez.
Free agent acquisition Daniel Fells, who the Patriots had interest in prior to this offseason, should serve as the perfect well-rounded third tight end, the one thing the team lacked at the position last season.
Take into account in the extra bodies that have been brought in to try out and take some reps in camp with undrafted free agents Herman and Melillo, and you have a complete set at what has become arguably the strongest unit on the roster.
- Grade: A+
Current Personnel: Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Donte’ Stallworth, Chad Ochocinco, Matthew Slater, Britt Davis, Jeremy Ebert, Matt Roark
Free-agent acquisition Lloyd is the unquestioned No. 1 of the group as far as outside receivers go and should be the most productive other than Welker.
Welker should continue his ridiculous production this season as teams double-team Rob Gronkowski and also have to worry about Lloyd's ability to make plays outside the numbers.
Gaffney, Branch, Stallworth, and Ochocinco bring great depth and should be battling it out for the role opposite Lloyd, although Ochocinco clearly is fourth in that four-man race right now.
Edelman will continue to hold down the spot as Welker's backup in the slot and likely continue his punt-return duties, at which he has excelled.
Davis, Ebert and Roark are longshots to make it to the 53-man roster following training camp.
Though Slater is listed, he should have little to no contribution to the offense as his role continues to be focused on special teams. The team has a good mix of youth and veterans, though a more talented young receiver would have been nice to leave the draft with.
- Grade: A-
Current Personnel: Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Brian Waters, Sebastian Vollmer, Dan Connolly, Robert Gallery, Marcus Cannon, Ryan Wendell, Donald Thomas, Nick McDonald, Kyle Hix, Matt Kopa, Markus Zusevics, Jeremiah Warren, Jamey Richard, Jon Opperud
The team enters the season with outstanding depth across the line. One of the only questions is at the tackle positions as Solder will need to replace the retired Matt Light full-time at left tackle and often-injured Sebastian Vollmer is currently slated as the starter at right tackle. If Vollmer stays healthy, the Patriots could have one of the best young tackle pairs in the league. If he cannot, second-year lineman Cannon will need to play a big role at right tackle.
The interior of the offensive line is the most impressive depth wise as Mankins, Koppen and Waters are backed up by Connolly and Gallery, two capable starters.
The team also brings a host of young faces to camp in hopes that offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can work his magic and develop another Dan Connolly-type player for use down the road.
- Grade: A-
Current Personnel: Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Jonathan Fanene, Gerard Warren, Brandon Deaderick, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, Alex Silvestro, Marcus Harrison, Marcus Forston
This is a tricky evaluation to make without knowing for sure which scheme the Patriots will be running defensively in 2012. For the sake of this exercise I assumed a 4-3 would be the team's base set, in which case this unit would be the traditional defensive lineman, and the next slide is made up of the edge-type pass-rushing members of the line.
The Patriots have great depth on the defensive line, but no true stud other than Wilfork. The line has come a long way since they lined up all first-round picks on the line in Seymour, Wilfork, and Warren.
Love is a good young player and there are a few other solid players like Warren, Pryor and Deaderick, but just no true standout.
Fanene, a free agent acquisition from the Bengals, could become a good inside disruptive presence in the mold of former Patriot Mike Wright. He should be a key contributor for the team in 2012.
Brace could be on his way off the roster if he does not stay healthy and have a good training camp. He has been a failure thus far after being a second-round pick back in the 2009 draft.
Additionally, Silvestro, Harrison and Forston are all long shots to be a part of the final roster.
This team will not lose because of this line, but at the same time, it will not win them many games.
- Grade: B-
Current Personnel: Chandler Jones, Jake Bequette, Trevor Scott, Jermaine Cunningham, Markell Carter, Aaron Lavarias, Justin Francis
The Patriots have a very inexperienced group of pass-rushers/defensive ends where Cunningham is the longest tenured with only two years of experience, much of which was spent on the bench.
Jones and Bequette should see much playing time this year as rookies, possibly alongside Andre Carter, who could be back with the team at some point.
Scott showed promise at points early in his career in Oakland and could become a large factor at the position in New England. To this point, he is the most proven pass-rusher of this group at the NFL level, having tied for the team lead in sacks twice with the Raiders.
Cunningham, Markell Carter, Lavarias, and Francis are the least likely contributors and Cunningham may very well be on the outside of the roster looking in after being selected in the second round in 2010.
This group could very well have received a grade of "Incomplete" on this report card because there are so many question marks at this point.
- Grade: C
Current Personnel: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, Dane Fletcher, Tracy White, Jeff Tarpinian, Niko Koutouvides, Bobby Carpenter, Mike Rivera
The Patriots are loaded at linebacker top to bottom, with players who can fill a variety of roles. They will likely take the field with a very talented starting three in Mayo, Spikes, and Hightower. This group that should highlight this defense, as long as Spikes stays healthy and Hightower lives up to his potential.
Ninkovich will not be a forgotten man, coming off a career-high 6.5 sacks last season. They also have a good pair of special teamers in White and Koutovides.
Bill Belichick also decided to take a chance on former first-round pick Carpenter, but he will probably be cut at some point unless he can manage to steal Fletcher’s role in sub-packages.
Tarpinian, though Belichick clearly sees something in him after putting him on the 53-man roster out of camp last season, will be hard pressed to make the squad this season along with Rivera.
- Grade: B+
Current Personnel: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Sterling Moore, Will Allen, Alfonzo Dennard, Marquice Cole
The cornerbacks are a much-maligned group, but they still are actually a good collection of talent.
If McCourty can be anywhere near the player he was in 2010, the team will obviously be much better off. It is hard to imagine him playing as bad as he did last season moving forward. Expect him to be a key piece to the defense's success in 2012, performing at a level between where he has played in his first two seasons. He should not be as bad as he was in 2011, but he may not be as good long-term as he looked in 2010 either.
Arrington is an quality player who has been their most consistent corner over the past couple of years.
Dowling could become a factor if he is fully recovered from his hip surgery from a year ago, but his health has been a problem his whole life, so it will be something to obviously keep an eye on going forward.
Moore will look to build off a good playoff run and become a consistent contributor to the defense in 2012. If he is able to make plays on a week-to-week basis, he should have no problem finding a niche for himself on the Patriot defense.
Allen is the one real veteran presence in this group, but he may have a hard time cracking the roster strictly due to numbers.
The most interesting player is Dennard, who was loooked at as an early pick in the draft, but fell to the Patriots in the seventh-round due to legal issues. If he gets out of his legal troubles, he could be a steal for the team.
Cole will have to make the roster through special teams work.
- Grade: B-
Current Personnel: Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Josh Barrett, Tavon Wilson, Sergio Brown, Ross Ventrone, Nate Ebner, Malcolm Williams
This group could be the Achilles heel of this defense. Chung, the team's best safety, is good coming up and playing in the box, but is overrated as a complete safety by many outlets.
Gregory is a decent free safety with some coverage ability, but is by no means a star.
Barrett may again see playing time after spending most of last season on injured reserve. He is a player Bill Belichick liked, previously stashing him away on injured reserve a whole season to snag him away from the Denver Broncos and Josh McDaniels when he was waived/injured by them.
A player who could make things interesting is Wilson. If Belichick found a gem in this second-round pick, things could be better than they look. If Tavon Wilson is not able to secure a spot in the rotation at safety, people are going to look at this failed pick for years to come.
Ventrone, Ebner, Brown and Williams will all have to show their worth to the team as special teamers as they currently have little worth to the team defensively.
- Grade: C
Current Personnel: Stephen Gostkowski, Chris Koepplin, Zoltan Mesko, Danny Aiken
The team is well set with a former Pro Bowl kicker in Gostkowski, an above-average punter in Mesko, and a serviceable long-snapper in Aiken.
Back-up kicker Koepplin will obviously not make the team barring an injury to Gostkowski.
The Patriots should once again have a top special teams unit in 2012.
- Grade: A-