New England Patriots: The Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses of the 2012 Team
Defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower were drafted in the first round to attempt to improve a defense that was near the bottom of the league in yards allowed per play last season. The Patriots also used their second round pick on safety Tavon Wilson, their third round pick on defensive end Jake Bequette, and late-round picks on safety Nate Ebner and corner Alfonzo Dennard.
Jonathan Fanene was the team's biggest free agent splash on defense to provide interior pass rush help, but he was already released due to allegedly failing to disclose a preexisting injury. Steven Gregory was also brought in to add depth to the safety position, which became so thin last season that wide receiver Matthew Slater converted to defense to try to shore up the position.
With the meaningless preseason now concluded, here are some of the Patriots' biggest strengths and weaknesses on paper as the season approaches.
Strength #1: Brady & Belichick Combination
In the decade of seasons in which Belichick has coached Brady as the starting quarterback, the Patriots have won nine AFC East titles, five AFC Championships and three Super Bowls. They've also managed the only 16-0 season in NFL history.
With a track record like that, it's hard to bet against the Patriots finishing with less than 11 or 12 wins in any given season as long as Brady remains healthy.
Strength #2: Horizontal Passing Game
The Patriots' biggest offseason acquisition on offense was wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who could give them the deep threat on the outside that they've lacked since Randy Moss ran himself out of town.
Whether or not Lloyd works out might not matter all that much given Brady's ability to attack the defense horizontally with his outstanding tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the best slot receiver in the game, Wes Welker.
Gronkowski is the best all-around tight end in the league, with excellent blocking and receiving skills. Hernandez is not the blocker that Gronkowski is, and the Patriots use him as a wide receiver more than they use him on the line of scrimmage. He plays tight end like a running back in that once he gets the ball, he's exceptionally dangerous in space because of his ability to see the field.
Welker and the Patriots were unable to iron out a long term contract this offseason, so he returns on a one-year franchise tender. Welker controls the middle of the field despite his lack of size due to his exceptional quickness and cutting ability, which led to an NFL leading 122 receptions last season.
Strength #3: The Front 7
The Patriots' defense has had its struggles over the past two seasons, finishing near the bottom of the league in yards allowed per play in 2010 and 2011. Their ability to force turnovers and buckle down in the red zone has kept them from allowing as many points as their yards allowed would indicate, however.
That said, the Patriots' front seven was underrated last season. Mark Anderson, Andre Carter and Rob Ninkovich provided solid pass rushing ability at defensive end, while Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love were stout against the run on the interior of the defensive line.
Anderson and Carter are gone, but Ninkovich should pick up some of the slack with a full time move to defensive end, while Jones, Bequette and former 2010 second round pick Jermaine Cunningham will be counted on to fill the rest of the void.
Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Hightower should provide solid work as the starting linebackers. Mayo is the leader of the defense and an all-around linebacker, while Spikes is a vicious downhill thumper in the running game.
Weakness #1: Secondary
Patrick Chung has played well when he's been healthy, but he only managed to play in half of the games last season due to injury.
Gregory comes over from San Diego to take the safety spot opposite Chung, which was filled mostly by journeyman special teamer James Ihedigbo last season, with Tavon Wilson likely playing in nickel packages.
The jury remains out on whether or not the Patriots have solidified the safety position during the offseason.
Devin McCourty was an All-Pro corner in 2010, but he followed that up with a nightmare season in 2011. Kyle Arrington struggled in his first go around as a starter two years ago, but he showed significant improvement last season.
2011 second round pick Ras-I Dowling is a bit of an unknown after missing most of last year due to injury, while Dennard slipped to the seventh round in the draft due to questions about his character.
Sterling Moore saved the season by knocking the ball out of Lee Evans' hands in the AFC Championship game, but he was picked up as a street free agent, so questions remain about him as well.
Marquis Cole was mostly a special teams player for the Jets, but like Ihedigbo last season, he may play a key role in the secondary with Patriots.
There is enough talent and experience on hand to see the secondary improve significantly in 2012. However, given the struggles of this unit over the past two seasons, it takes a leap of faith to see the secondary as a strength.
Weakness #2: Offensive Line
Unlike the secondary, the offensive line has long been a strength of the Patriots under the guidance of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
However, bookend left tackle Matt Light retired in the offseason after protecting Brady's blind side for the last ten years.
2011 first round pick Nate Solder will assume the left tackle position after playing predominantly at right tackle in place of the injured Sebastian Vollmer last season. Vollmer finally returned to action during the final preseason game, so he should be ready to take over for Marcus Cannon come opening day.
Brian Waters, who was arguably the team's best offensive lineman last season, remains on the Reserve/Did Not Report list.
If Waters reports, Vollmer gets healthy, Solder continues to improve and Logan Mankins returns to form after undergoing offseason ACL surgery, the offensive line should continue to be a strength.
However, if Waters doesn't report and if Mankins or Vollmer can't stay healthy, protecting Brady could become a serious problem this season.