Much attention has been paid to the defensive acquisitions the New England Patriots have made during free agency, and rightly so, since their dire need at cornerback has finally been addressed with quality players and not just a heaping addition of additional defensive backs.
So all systems go, right? Not so fast.
Tom Brady is supposedly back on track and should start the season on time, which may have triggered the early trade of Matt Cassel.
History has been kind to other quarterbacks recovering from the same type of injury. Carson Palmer and Donovan McNabb both returned the following season after suffering ACL tears.
Palmer’s return was more impressive in that he went down in a playoff game and still started the next season on time.
But given the code of silence in Foxborough, no one really knows if Tom Terrific is tracking towards a September return. If he isn’t, the fate of the offense rests in the hands of two inexperienced backups or a yet to be signed veteran or a yet to be drafted rookie.
Those options should have Patriots' fans pounding the Pepto.
For argument's sake, let’s assume that Brady will be back healthy. So we can expect another 50 touchdown passes right?
Randy Moss and Wes Welker are a nasty duo, akin to Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald out in the desert. With Moss on the outside and Welker in the slot and the Patriots featuring the three receiver set, they need a third burner opposite Moss to alleviate the double teams designed for Randy.
Is the recently inked Joey Galloway the answer? Word out of Tampa is that he can still fly, but he was hampered by a bad wheel last year. Lower body injuries are hard to heal and the recovery process is even slower for an aging player.
Based on talent and reputation, the nod should go to Galloway as the third receiver. But Bill Belichick won’t just give Joey the spot based on his resume, and this is a winnable position for Greg Lewis who was acquired in a trade from Philadelphia for a swap of draft picks.
If neither player steps up, the Patriots have a real problem. They could obviously draft a receiver, but most require two years in a system to mature and produce. And, New England is going into the draft thinking they are set at receiver so any rookie will likely be drafted in the later rounds or signed as an undrafted free agent, destined for the practice squad.
If the third-receiver position comes up lame, Moss will likely be double-teamed, while defenses will have a safety or nickel corner creep up to cover Welker.
This issue could be mitigated, if tight end Ben Watson was an actual downfield threat, but he is not. For such a physical freak and natural athlete, he does not block, catch, or run after the catch particularly well (he did run down a Champ Bailey interception return and covered 100 yards in doing so which might be his career highlight).
Watson has piled up some touchdowns throughout his career, but who hasn’t been scoring for the Patriots? Remember, linebacker Mike Vrabel had a bunch of touchdowns lining up as a goal line tight end as well.
The other tight ends on the roster don’t invoke fear amongst defensive signal callers either. A quick aside: why didn’t the Patriots demand Chiefs' tight end Tony Gonzalez in the Cassel and Vrabel trade?
Worst case scenario: it will be the Brady to Welker 110 times this season at 12 yards a clip with the occasional Moss-beating-the-double-coverage hook-up. If I'm Nick Casserio, I would seriously consider asking Troy Brown to come to camp.
Now, if the running game clicks, this opens up the passing game. As presently constituted, the Patriots' stable of running backs resembles a group of interconnected parts.
Kevin Faulk is seriously underrated and can line up in the backfield as a change-of-pace back, in the slot as a receiver or out wide and has an uncanny knowledge of the yardage needed for a first down.
The Patriots' running and passing game would not be as effective on third down without him, and he has taken over Troy Brown’s role as Mr. Reliable (he is also my buddy’s neighbor...ok, two miles away, but on the same street).
Sammy Morris has been a nice player for the Patriots. He runs with a viscous attacking style at times and is a bit of a poor man's Marion Barber.
I’m not saying he is Barber—no one compares to that savage—but he’s good for 10-15 rushes a game and is reliable around the end zone. He will also mash between the tackles which is a lost art among running backs these days.
Recently signed veteran Fred Taylor is another typical Belichick stealth move. After being cut by Jacksonville, New England quickly signed him to share ball carrying duties. Taylor has a sweet running style and has been a yardage horse throughout his career.
He has also shed the "Fragile-Fred" nickname and has been one of the more durable backs in recent years.
Conveniently left out until now is Laurence Maroney. His first seasons with the Patriots have shown the following: flashes of brilliance, injuries, and a skittish running style. At times, Maroney is afraid to hit the hole and in the NFL, running lanes vaporize quickly.
The end result is often a break-even play that could have gone for four yards had Maroney plowed straight forward.
I’m obviously down on Maroney, and I have him in a doghouse-for-two with Ben Watson. There really is no reason for either player to put up such inconsistent, pedestrian numbers which brings into question two things: their football IQ and/or their desire.
If it’s their football acumen, then they’re not a Belichick guy. If it’s their desire or lack thereof, they’re absolutely not a Belichick guy (or anyone’s guy in this league...well, maybe Matt Millen’s type of player).
The point here is that the running game will be as good as the sum of its parts. Between Taylor, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, they have the makeup of a consistent, dynamic rushing attack.
If they sprinkle in Maroney, you can expect something like this: negative rush, minimal gain, blown blitz pick-up, break-even rush, negative rush, the occasional break for eight yards, the occasional dance and eventual slaughter behind the line, and finally, a spot on injured reserve.
I won’t mince words: Maroney is the weak link and could really hamper this group.
The team is without a fullback with Heath Evans’ departure to the Saints, but evil genius Belichick has used offensive lineman Russ Hochstein in the backfield and nothing says “big back” like a 6’4” 305 pounder with No. 71 on his back.
Speaking of offensive linemen, the Patriots have rolled out the same group for the past few seasons.
There has been some movement at right tackle based on injuries to Nick Kaczur and Ryan O’Callaghan, but left to right, we’ve consistently seen: LT Matt Light, LG Logan Mankins (who is a free agent after this year and could command one of those ridiculous guard contracts of seven years and $40 million), C Dan Koppen, and RG Stephen Neal.
This is a consistent but unspectacular group. No player is considered a “road-grater” type, although O’Callaghan and back-up Wesley Britt fit the mold in that both are roughly 6’7” and 340 pounds.
They have protected Brady nicely in recent years, but Tom gets some of the credit for keeping himself out of harm's way with his pocket awareness (except that hit against Kansas City—ouch).
The Pats might look to drafting a guard and/or tackle on day one of the draft with the thinking that they could upgrade the right tackle spot or they could develop a young tackle should Matt Light leave after 2010.
They have a potential need at guard, if Mankins leaves after 2009 or if Neal leaves after 2010.
The Patriots boast a little-known coaching gem in line coach Dante Scarnecchia. He has a proven track record of getting all starters playing at a high level (Neal didn’t play college football; Koppen was a fifth-round pick), and they won Super Bowls with three different starting right tackles (ever hear of Brandon Gorin or Tom Ashworth? Didn’t think so).
Overall, the offense boasts tons of talent, but there are obvious question marks that will have a trickle down effect on the entire offense. They will manifest during the preseason, and the coaching staff will make the appropriate moves based on the early returns.
What should materialize is the Galloway-Lewis battle at receiver, the running back situation sorting itself out, and the biggie—monitoring Brady's progress.
New England is loaded with first-day draft picks and has one in the first round, three second rounders, their own third-round pick and another potential third-round pick from the league to compensate for the loss of cornerback Asante Samuel.
Madame Ruby sees the Pats drafting a safety, linebacker, tackle, and guard early on. Considering Belichick’s draft history, don’t rule out defensive tackle or tight end.
Bill could be just as fed up with Ben Watson as I am and could also be looking for the eventual successor to defensive end Richard Seymour or (gasp) nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
If their plan is to let Wilfork walk after this year, the Pats could surprise everyone by trading up for Boston College wide body, B.J. Raji.
Trying to guess what the Patriots will do is exactly that—guesswork. Their challenges within the AFC East are steep while Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Tennessee, and San Diego immediately come to mind as Super Bowl contenders as well.
Potential sleepers could emerge in Houston and Jacksonville, depending on the play of their quarterbacks.
One thing is for sure: There will be plenty of storylines to follow between now and September in New England. The biggie will have Patriots’ fans everywhere holding their collective breath, until Brady takes his first hit, dusts himself off, winks at Gisele, and gets back to the huddle.
Is it September yet?