One Burning Question for Every Member of the New England Patriots' Roster
Tom Brady says it often. Every year, it seems.
That's not exactly true—the greatest preseason of all time couldn't hand Ryan Mallett or Brian Hoyer the starting quarterback job in New England.
But while not every player may be fighting for a position, every player does have something to prove. From the future Hall of Famer Brady to undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden, everyone on the roster has doubts and speculation to answer.
After all, this is the preseason. This is the time for questions. When the regular season starts, that's when we get our answers.
Q: Can Brady challenge his stats from last year?
Brady and the Patriots took the term "pass-happy offense" to new levels last year. Brady threw the ball 611 times—a career high by 10 attempts—and completed 401 of those passes for a record-shattering 5,235 yards.
This year, with an improved receiving corps, easy schedule, and the return of the offensive coordinator that helped turn him into a gunslinger, Brady could pass all of those numbers. It bears watching, as the New England offense is again set up to perform as well as No. 12.
Q: Is Hoyer going to be the subject of more trade rumors?
Hoyer has impressed as the backup quarterback in New England, but Ryan Mallett has the higher upside and projects more as Brady's heir apparent.
Hoyer has generated interest around the league, and the hints of a trade that popped up last year could return as the regular season nears.
Q: How much will a full offseason help Mallett's development?
The signs of Mallett's potential were clear during a preseason victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars last year (he went 12-of-19 for 164 yards and a touchdown), but the Arkansas product admitted there was a learning curve.
He feels better on the field this year. We'll see how much that confidence carries over.
Q: Is the second-year player ready to be the No. 1 back?
Ridley's rookie year was impressive (he gained 441 yards at 5.1 yards per carry, and ran for over 80 yards twice), but fumbles in the last two games in which he saw action—the regular season finale against Buffalo and the first playoff game against Denver—created cause for concern.
Putting the ball on the ground is a cardinal sin for running backs, but Ridley clearly has the talent to take BenJarvus Green-Ellis' spot as the featured back in this offense. This year will show if he can handle it, and if the team is ready to give him that responsibility.
Q: Can the former second-round pick stay healthy?
Vereen generated excitement after being drafted out of California in last year's draft, but the good vibes fizzled after injuries and difficulty getting up to playing speed scratched him from 11 of 16 regular-season games.
With Green-Ellis gone and Vereen's second-round price, the second-year back will face higher expectations to produce in 2012. It's early, but the signs are looking good for him.
Q: What will Woodhead's role be?
Woodhead's job with the Patriots was clear-cut the last two years. With Kevin Faulk hurt and aging and Vereen enduring a difficult season, Woodhead's hands and open-field ability made him the go-to back in the passing game.
With Vereen, who was lauded after the draft for his skills in the throwing game, expected to be in the backfield mix this year, Woodhead's snaps could go down.
He also spent time as a kick returner last year, so the Patriots could be looking at him there as well.
Q: Will the undrafted free agent crack the 53-man roster?
Bolden certainly has good precedent to build on, as Bill Belichick is no stranger to giving undrafted free agent halfbacks out of Ole Miss a shot.
Eric Kettani, Spencer Larsen
Q: Who will win the fullback battle?
When the Patriots put Tony Fiammetta on the exempt/left squad list, that made Kettani and Larsen, a Denver Bronco last year, the top competitors for the job. The additions of Fiammetta and Larsen suggest the team will try to carve out a place for the position in the offense this year.
Q: Is this Welker's last season in New England?
No game this season will bring about an answer to this question, but it's still the question that will enter every fan's mind whenever Welker catches a pass.
That makes it a question that could be pondered over 100 different times before the end of the year.
Sometimes, there's a player who becomes synonymous with contract struggles. Last year, it was Logan Mankins. This year, it's Welker. Time will tell if he has a big payday awaiting him following this season.
Q: What impact will Lloyd have on this offense?
Lloyd's talent is undeniable, but just how big an effect will he have on his new team? Will it be like Randy Moss' in 2007? Will his presence in the offense matter more than the stats will show? Or will he disappoint and be the underwhelming player he was before arriving in Denver?
There are high hopes for Lloyd in New England, and so far, he's been living up to them. But he bounced around three teams before breaking out in Denver, so a big season is not a slam dunk.
Q: Does Branch have another season left in him on this team?
The 33-year-old Branch has lost a step over the years, but still holds a high level of chemistry with Brady. However, with New England bolstering its wideout corps and currently carrying 10 receivers, a spot on the 53-man roster isn't guaranteed.
Someone has to be the odd man out. Brady loves Branch, but it still might be him.
Q: Will Gaffney be the No. 3 receiver?
Pop quiz: Which Patriots receiver has the most experience with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels?
Asking the question in this slot might give away the answer, but it's Gaffney. He was with McDaniels from 2006-08 in New England and 2009-10 in Denver. Knowing the offense won't be a problem.
Gaffney returns to a familiar offense at a time when, even at 31 years old, he's been getting better. His receptions and receiving yards have improved every year since 2006, and his previous chemistry with Brady makes him a good choice for the third spot behind Lloyd and Welker.
Q: Will an impressive training camp translate to the season?
Stallworth has looked good so far both on the field and from a leadership standpoint. He's in the mix to make the 53-man roster, and will need to keep the good start going.
Q: How much will Edelman split his time between offense, defense and special teams?
Though his position labels him a wide receiver, Edelman made less news on offense last year than in any of the other two phases of the game. It'll be worth watching to see if the defensive experiment continues, as well as whether Edelman cracks passing formations.
Q: Could Slater's lack of offensive skill cost him a roster spot?
This is a long shot. Slater is one of the weaker pass catchers in the unit, but his abilities on special teams (he was a captain and Pro Bowler last year) make up for it in Belichick's eyes.
Britt Davis, Jeremy Ebert, Jesse Holley
Q: Can these players find their niche on special teams?
With the supply far exceeding the demand among wide receivers, special teams work will be the difference between active roster or practice squad designation for the names at the bottom of the depth chart.
Q: Are there any injury concerns for Gronk?
When Gronkowski was steamrolling would-be tacklers and boxing out defensive backs last year, it was easy to forget that health concerns (namely a bad back) allowed him to fall to New England in the 2009 draft.
Now, following an ankle injury that needed surgery and seemed far more serious during Super Bowl week than anyone was letting on, it's important for the team to make sure its All-Pro tight end is 100 percent at the start of the year.
Q: Is Hernandez a tight end in name only?
Plain and simple. Hernandez lines up often as a wide receiver, and he gave the Patriots a spark running out of the backfield during the playoffs. He will contribute—big time—this year, but it will be interesting to see just how the Patriots work him into their plans.
Q: How will Shiancoe fit?
It was a surprise when the Patriots, perhaps the strongest team at tight end in the NFL, made acquiring Shiancoe a priority this offseason.
Shiancoe was a go-to option for Brett Favre in Minnesota, but the Patriots don't need another weapon. It's difficult to sense what Bill Belichick had in mind when he brought Shiancoe on board, but the answers are coming soon.
Q: How will Silvestro's position change work out?
One of the more interesting stories this offseason concerned Silvestro, who switched positions from defensive end to tight end. It was originally thought that this was a depth move, but Silvestro remains there even after Shiancoe was brought on at the same position.
Q: Is two years too soon to task Solder with protecting Brady?
Solder impressed in his rookie year last year, but the stakes are higher in 2012. Matt Light is gone. So in his second year, Solder is being handed the keys to the Porsche—the franchise left tackle spot, with the sole task of protecting the NFL's best quarterback.
Solder, at 6'8", 319 pounds, is big enough to handle all comers, but handling left tackle duties requires more than physical gifts. It requires an edge and a mental toughness, knowing you're going to see the best pass rusher the other team has to offer.
That was one of Light's biggest strengths. We'll see if Solder has it.
Q: Can Vollmer find his All-Pro level from 2010?
Injuries are becoming a problem for the big German. He was hurt early and rushed back for the Super Bowl last year, and he's ailing again this preseason. His status is a big issue for the Patriots because they need him—and they need him to be himself.
Q: Just what is Cannon's future with this team?
When Cannon was drafted in 2011, there was a lot said about how cancer caused his stock to drop, all the way to the fifth round. He's recovered and saw action last year. At a listed size of 6'5", 340 pounds, he certainly has the build for a fixture on the offensive line.
There's also a need for Cannon to step up this year with injuries to Logan Mankins and Vollmer, retirements by Light and Robert Gallery as well as Brian Waters' up-in-the-air status.
Q: Is there a spot on the thin offensive line for Kopa?
Kopa was a practice squad player a season ago, but he could get a harder look from Bill Belichick and position coach Dante Scarnecchia with the line in flux.
Q: Is Waters coming back?
This is the most obvious question for the team. Waters still hasn't reported, and is reportedly considering retirement.
Waters's transition to New England after being picked up last year was seamless, as he made his sixth Pro Bowl. The team could really use him this year, but Waters is a respected veteran. The decision is his.
Q: Is Mankins expected back soon?
Mankins had surgery to repair a torn ACL this offseason, and he's on the physically unable to perform list right now (as is Vollmer).
No one has an answer for when Mankins will be back, but seeing as he didn't have the surgery until after the Super Bowl, there's a chance his absence could linger into the regular season.
That means the Patriots could go into September without both guards and the left tackle from last year. Not good.
Q: Is Koppen going to take over the center spot after missing last year?
Koppen, for all intents and purposes, sat all of last year, as he was injured in Week 1 against Miami. He's been the center for this team for years, and he has a tried and true chemistry with Brady, but the team didn't lose its stride when Dan Connolly filled in last year.
So will Koppen regain his spot, or...
Q: Will Connolly challenge—and even pass—Koppen?
Connolly is three years younger than Koppen, and after playing well in 2010 as a fill-in for a holding-out Mankins at guard, he turned in a strong 2011 season at center. He was thought to be leaving in free agency for a sure starting job, but he opted to stay in New England.
The center battle could be a moot point. If the weaknesses at guard linger, it would make sense for Koppen to get the nod at center and for Connolly to slide over to guard. That would give the Patriots a good measure of damage control in the most dire scenario.
Q: Could Thomas benefit from absences of Waters and Mankins?
If the worst situation comes to light for New England, Mankins, Waters and Vollmer will be unavailable when the regular season begins. That would likely put Solder and Cannon at the tackles, with Koppen at center and Connolly at guard.
That leaves an opening for another guard. That could go to Thomas, who played 10 games and even started one last year.
Q: Is Wendell the top backup in the above situation?
Wendell's been with the team since 2008, and played in 15 games (three starts) in 2010 and 14 games (three starts) last year. He could be the go-to guy if the need arises at guard.
Nick McDonald, Jeremiah Warren
Q: Can injuries, retirements, etc. help these two make it on the active roster?
McDonald could also battle Wendell and Thomas for the emergency guard spot, as he started twice last season. Warren, however, started off on the wrong foot when he failed a physical in July.
Q: Is the future now for Jones?
If Jones is ahead of schedule, that would upgrade the Patriots defense from a work in progress to an already improved unit. That would be a big help for what was the 31st-ranked pass defense last year. Many teams, notably last year's Super Bowl champion New York Giants, have showed that a great pass rush can make up for other weaknesses in the defense.
Q: Is there hope for the former Florida Gator?
When Cunningham and linebacker Brandon Spikes were drafted out of Florida in the second round of the 2010 draft, it was thought to be a package deal. Spikes would grow into a fixture as an inside linebacker, and Cunningham would be the pass-rushing force the team needed.
A little more than two months later, Spikes has held up his end of the bargain, but Cunningham's been a disappointment. He was underwhelming his rookie season, and took another step back when he landed on the injured reserve list last year.
This year could be his last chance. He has that sense and has been preparing adequately. There's still a place on this team for a dangerous pass rusher. If it's Cunningham, who could line up as a 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 end, this will have to be the year he shows it.
Q: Does the free agent pickup project more as a lineman or linebacker?
He's a hybrid—he can play up, down, front or back. He can range to the side or attack straight ahead. It remains to be seen whether Scott will have an identity this year, or be a wild card the whole way, a player whose role isn't set until he runs on the field and enters the huddle.
Q: Was Fanene worth the offseason attention?
The Patriots made a quick move in free agency to land Fanene and add him to an already-packed group of imposing linemen. This is where Fanene's ability to pass rush would distinguish him from his competition.
Q: Can Bequette boost the pass rush?
The Patriots nabbed Arkansas's Bequette in the third round this year, and the big defensive end—he's 6'5", 274 pounds—certainly fit the mold of the kind of player fans wanted the team to take.
They wanted him, that is, if he can get to the quarterback. The Patriots have plenty of run-stuffers and space-fillers. They need someone who can be athletic and make plays in the backfield.
Q: Does Deaderick have a chance to crack the starting lineup?
He was only taken in the seventh round in 2010, but Deaderick has proven to be a solid player for the Patriots in his time here.
Does he have starting potential? The quick answer would be "no", but if the team reverts to Belichick's familiar 3-4 there will be a need for tackle-sized ends. That could be just the opportunity Deaderick needs.
Tim Bulman, Justin Francis
Q: Can the Patriots' fondness for line depth get these players a roster spot?
Bulman and Francis are behind the other names listed, but a solid preseason—they'll get their chances at playing time—could move them up the board.
Q: Can he be the play-making force he was in the playoffs all year?
Wilfork is as reliable a defensive tackle as there is in the game, but the big guy upped his game in the playoffs, especially the AFC championship game against Baltimore. He was everywhere—breaking through the line, driving back running backs and harassing quarterbacks.
He's always great, but for that stretch, Wilfork was the best player on the field every snap.
Wilfork has a clear-cut role as the space filler, but he showed that he can be more than that sometimes. Can he do it over the course of a season?
Q: Was last year the start of something big or a flash in the pan?
Love was an underrated player for the Patriots last season, perhaps more so than anyone else. He was well-suited to be Wilfork's partner-in-crime along the line, and he brought a degree of intensity to every play.
If he can keep that up, the undrafted third-year player will continue to be one of New England's biggest finds.
Q: Can Pryor give Love a push for that Wilfork backup role?
Pryor handled the responsibilities Love had last year in 2010, but a trip to the IR killed his chance to make an impact in 2011.
Q: Is the former Boston College Eagle really dedicated this year?
Brace may have been picked too high in 2009, but second-round picks should always be counted on to produce more than Brace has so far. A big part of it is desire. He says he's motivated now, but why it took him three years to get there is anyone's guess.
Q: How much more does he have left in the tank?
The 34-year-old isn't getting any younger, but he's been able to help the Patriots in his two years with the team. They like his ability to contribute at both the defensive end and tackle spots.
Q: Is there still the potential for Mayo to become a pass-rusher?
It's been the question surrounding Mayo since his rookie year. He has great strength, speed and instincts—couldn't he be put to use making life miserable for quarterbacks?
To date, he hasn't, though there are reasons. For one, Mayo's shown himself to be elite at chasing down ballcarriers (as his 114 tackles from 2010 would suggest). For another, the 3-4 defense that Belichick used until last year required two linebackers inside.
That could change this year. Brandon Spikes is there, and first-round draft pick Dont'a Hightower is a natural inside linebacker. That gives those players more opportunities to rush, and if it's Mayo getting the chance, there could be more games like the win over Tampa Bay last preseason.
Q: Can we rule out the setbacks with Spikes this season?
Since being drafted in 2010, Spikes has shown himself to be a key player in this Patriots defense going forward. It's surprising in a way because he hasn't exactly been a rock of production in his career.
He missed the final four games of the regular season in 2010, and he missed time due to injury in the middle of last year as well.
To his credit, every time he's come back the team has notably improved, especially in stopping the run. He's become a key contributor and tone-setter—he just needs to get on the field and stay there.
Q: Could Hightower be a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate?
Hightower's selection in April's draft excited Patriots fans all around New England, and for good reason. He's a player, and with this team, he should have chances to show it.
A middle linebacker by trade, Hightower will have an opportunity to try his hand as a playmaker with Mayo and Spikes behind him. He's a hard hitter, instinctive player and leader on the field—a lot like Mayo, who came away with the hardware after the 2008 season. The linebacking corps is a strength for the Patriots this season.
Q: Could Fletcher stick on the active roster?
Fletcher has a fair shot at staying on the roster when the preseason ends. He was a solid player last year after he came back from a thumb injury.
Q: Can Rivera escape the practice squad this year and contribute with the starting inside linebackers?
Rivera has his work cut out for him, as he's been a practice squad player for five teams since 2009.
Q: Will it be a hand in the dirt for Ninkovich?
Ninkovich was a clear-cut outside linebacker in the previous two Patriots defenses, but with the team spending a first-round pick on Hightower things may have changed in Foxborough.
He's been getting reps so far along the defensive line, which he's been happy about. A change would take one of the team's best pass rushers away from the linebacking corps, but it would also give the team some disruption up front in 4-3 looks.
Q: Is this the chance Carpenter's been waiting for?
It's been a disappointing career for Carpenter, a first-round pick who wore out his welcome with four other franchises. If Belichick's tutelage is the key to discovering that hidden potential, the Patriots could have a find on their hands.
Q: Can White be penciled in for the same high level of special teams play?
White had to sub in and play on defense when the Patriots were short-handed last year, but his true worth is on special teams, where he's been an excellent tackler in coverage units. He was second on the team with 18 special teams tackles last year.
Jeff Tarpinian, Aaron Lavarias, Niko Koutouvides
Q: Is there an active roster for these players?
Tarpinian (who started a game against the Jets) and Koutouvides got playing time last year, but all three will need impressive preseasons to stick after the final round of cuts.
Q: Is his confidence shot?
McCourty's sophomore crash was one of the most intriguing subplots of last season. The Rutgers product had a terrific rookie season, getting named All-Pro before being lost in his second year. He couldn't cover at all, getting burned by Pro Bowlers and journeymen alike.
This year will show which McCourty is the real one, but a lack of confidence could be the culprit for the slumps. Confidence is crucial to playing cornerback, as you get matched up with elite athletes who know what they're about to do while you don't.
You have to think you can stop them. If you don't, well, you look like Devin McCourty in 2011.
Q: After leading the NFL in interceptions, is this the best cornerback on the roster?
With McCourty's surprising letdown last year, there was even more pressure for Arrington to produce. He did, finishing with seven interceptions, and he was the team's best corner as a result.
This year, if McCourty is still totally lost, Arrington likely keeps that throne. Though he could have a challenge from...
Q: Are the injury problems a coincidence or systematic?
Dowling fell to New England in the second round of the 2011 draft largely because of injuries that derailed his final season at Virginia. His rookie season wasn't much different, as he was hurt and ultimately done for the year by Week 2.
If his senior season raised warning flags, his rookie year had some fans reaching for the panic button. He's easing the concerns this year, however. He just needs to keep it up, which will prove both that he's been worthy of the praise thrown his way and that he's not, in fact, made of glass.
Q: Could Moore crack the starting defensive lineup?
It's possible. He has three names to pass, but if Dowling is hurt or ineffective and McCourty is either still struggling or shifted over to safety, Moore will get his chance. He's not passing Arrington.
Q: Did the Patriots have a starting-caliber corner fall into their laps in the draft?
Dennard's legal troubles and character concerns blew apart his draft stock, as he fell to New England in the seventh round. The scouting reports on the former Cornhusker have been solid, however. He's in camp now, trying to make a spot for himself, which ESPN gives him a 45 percent chance of doing.
Q: Was this any more than a depth signing?
Allen's an experienced corner in this league, but at 34, age may have robbed him of his greatest asset—his speed.
Q: What special teams role will Cole play?
Cole played as a "gunner" for the Jets in 2010, and will be expected to contribute on special teams here.
Ross Ventrone/Malcolm Williams
Q: What are the chances of a roster spot for these players?
It'll be a stretch for Ventrone and Williams to crack the cornerback corps, which, while not exceptionally talent-rich, is still deep.
Q: Can Chung work himself onto the Lawyer Milloy/Rodney Harrison level?
A common theme among good Patriots defenses has been safety play. With Milloy and Harrison playing at high levels, the Patriots won—Super Bowls, even.
When Harrison aged and Brandon Meriweather took his place, the defense suffered—though Chung seems like a player in the mold of his predecessors.
He's energetic and a good hitter, and when he's on the field, his frenetic play calms everyone down.
He just needs to become more consistent. Staying healthy will be a key there.
Q: How much will the free agent pickup help?
The Patriots absolutely had to fix their safety situation at their very first chance this offseason, and their answer was former San Diego Charger Gregory. He'll likely start beside Chung, so the Patriots will see how much he brings to this defense.
Q: Why did the team use a second-round pick on Wilson?
Wilson's selection was one of the more bizarre moments of April's draft. He wasn't on anyone's draft boards, but there he was, getting picked 48th overall.
With the season starting, fans can see for themselves what the Patriots apparently knew that no one else did. Wilson has special teams experience, but it takes more than that to be worth a second-round pick. He has to be able to play safety and play well.
Q: Was it a one-and-done stint as a defensive starter for Ihedigbo?
Ihedigbo was brought on this team—and kept on this team—for his special teams work, but he performed admirably last year, when he was forced into duty starting for the sinking ship known as the Patriots' safety position.
Ihedigbo was re-signed before this year, and the unspoken understanding among fans and media now is that he wasn't brought back to return to safety. However, you never know.
Q: Could this be a dark horse for the free safety spot?
Barrett's 2011 was interrupted by a season-ending injury, but it's fair to say he would have gotten a crack at the starting spot last year. The preseason games will tell how the coaches view him—if he remains healthy long enough, that is.
Q: Are his days of big defensive minutes over?
Brown got to start at safety last year, but a disastrous final minute against the Giants (in November) resigned him to special teams work.
Q: How does the team view him?
The preseason will give fans their first view of Ebner, a rookie out of Ohio State and sixth-round pick known for his special teams play.
Q: Will Gostkowski face a defining kick this year?
The Patriots plan on playing several big games this year, so Gostkowski could face an Adam Vinatieri-esque moment. It hasn't happened yet, but it will.
Q: Will the Patriots keep two kickers?
If you're asking yourself any more questions besides this one about a backup kicker, focus on the rest of the team.
Q: How much will he be used this year?
The Patriots this year will score—a lot. When he does have to kick, though, Mesko's one of the best in the business.
Q: Will we see Aiken doing snow angels this year?
Long snappers in New England like to do that after certain playoff wins.