New England Patriots: Grading the Strength of Every Position Heading into Camp

Marc FreshmanContributor IJuly 23, 2013

New England Patriots: Grading the Strength of Every Position Heading into Camp

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    The youth are getting restless. Brazen young players on the Patriots roster will be looking to mark their territory in training camp. These youngsters aren't just jockeying for position on the depth chart, they're competing for the right to assume leadership roles for the 2013 season. 

    Times are changing and so are the Patriots. They're getting quicker, leaner and meaner. They're strengthening their defense and boosting their ground game. They're assembling a team of gritty, hardboiled players. They're rediscovering the roots of their aggression. It's the same aggression that built a dynasty.

    Here are grades for every position on the Patriots roster heading into camp.

Linebacker

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    Players: Jamie Collins, Steve Beauharnais, A.J. Edds, Dane Fletcher, Dont'a Hightower, Niko Koutouvides, Jerod Mayo, Mike Rivera, Brandon Spikes, Jeff Tarpinian

    Analysis: Mayo had 147 tackles last season, good for fourth-best in the NFL. He's established himself as a tremendous leader, both from a physical and mental standpoint. Just a spectacular player.

    Hightower and Spikes are on the cusp of joining Mayo in spearheading a renaissance in New England's defense. Spikes needs to push his aggression even further than it already is. He's an agitator. If he can establish himself the most feared hitter on the team, his perceived limitations in coverage will cease to define him.

    Collins has flown a bit under the radar since the draft, but his athletic freakness and tenacity will eventually come through loud and clear. He's huge, explosive and mean. His ability to damage the passer will likely be one of the variables that turns this previously-tepid defense into a dynamite powerhouse in 2013.

    Grade: A-

     

     

Cornerback

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    Players: Ras-I Dowling, Alfonzo Dennard, Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington, Stephon Morris, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty (S/CB), Justin Green, Brandon Jones, Marquice Cole

    Analysis: Talib enters his first full training camp with the Patriots and has the potential to earn a longterm contract. This opportunity to shine should put him in the right headspace and align his stars for a career season. Look for him to take a commanding role.

    Another potential source of leadership could come from rookie Ryan. Not much has been made of this young man, he's flying way under the radar. But, he's a cerebral schemer and a brutal hitter. Most importantly, he's fearless. Fearless players become leaders.

    Dowling and Arrington continue to provoke more questions than answers. Dowling has been stellar this spring, but it'll mean nothing if he finds himself on injured reserve for a third straight season. Arrington had a rough dip from seven picks in 2011 to zero picks in 2012. Heading into camp, both players have a lot to prove.

    Arrington remains one of the more polarizing figures on the team, having divided Patriot Nation between those who appreciate the nuances of his game and those who pull their hair out every time they see him. Undoubtedly, his new four-year contract illustrates the incongruence between the way in which the team values him versus the way many critics view him. There's a strange conflict there. Arrington can put this whole issue to bed with a career season.

    Grade: B

Tight End

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    Players: Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, Brandon Ford, Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells, Zach Sudfeld

    Analysis: Gronkowski's skill is undeniable. He's an important player, not only for the Patriots, but for the league. He's altered the philosophy and the framework of his position. When healthy, he's the most dominant tight end in the game. But, the sneakiest way to break dominance is to corrode it from the inside, which seems to be what his body's doing. It's a tough situation to watch.

    Ballard is on the roster to smooth the gaps and compensate for health-related losses. He's a good player who registered 38 catches for 604 yards for the Giants back in 2011, but he didn't play a lick in 2012. It would be a mistake for the team to rely on him as a game-changer.

    Sudfeld and Ford are extremely exciting prospects. These guys could easily qualify as fan-favorites around New England. They can add personality and charm to the rotation, while keeping the forward-thinking culture of New England's tight-end scheme intact. Both guys are undrafted, which means they have a long way to go before snagging roster spots.

    Grade: C

Running Back

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    Players: Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Shane Vereen, Leon Washington, James Develin, George Winn

    Analysis: Ridley is a newly-minted stud who's coming off a breakout season with 290 carries for 1,263 yards and a dozen scores. If he stays healthy, he's reliable for another 1,000+ yards this season.

    Vereen has quietly become one of the team's more popular players, leading many to peg him as a breakout character in 2013. Strong possibility. Though, this running back unit is so stacked, there's a few guys who could easily steal his thunder. Blount, Bolden and Winn are extremely interesting guys to monitor, each of whom have the potential to become huge contributors for this team.

    This is one of the team's deepest units. Great stuff here.

    Grade: A-

Safety

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    Players: Adrian Wilson, Devin McCourty (S/CB), Tavon Wilson, Steve Gregory, Duron Harmon, Kanorris Davis, Nate Ebner

    Analysis: Part-time cornerback McCourty brings guidance in the form of ambition and energy, while 12-year veteran Adrian Wilson brings wisdom in the form of emotional discipline and sheer power. The acquisition of Wilson could very well prove to be the team's best move of the offseason.

    Gregory is a question mark moving forward. He's a bubble player on the fringe who's getting squeezed by the numbers game. But, if I had my druthers, I'd like to see him back for another spin. He's a tough, wily troublemaker in the secondary who made just enough plays to make me want to see more.

    Ebner, Harmon and Tavon Wilson were mysteries when they were drafted and they're mysteries now. This is a consequence of Bill Belichick's unique drafting method which can be, let's say, quirky.

    Grade: C+

Offensive Line

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    Players: LT Nate Solder, T Sebastian Vollmer, OT Marcus Cannon, G Dan Connolly, T/G R.J. Mattes, G Chris McDonald, C Ryan Wendell, T Markus Zusevics, T Elvis Fisher, T Kevin Haslam, T Will Svitek, G Logan Mankins, G Josh Kline, C Matt Stankiewitch, G/C Nick McDonald

    Analysis: This offensive line is composed of radical overachievers. That's why they're so good. Each guy is totally devoted to the "do your job" mentality. Young guys commit to the "next man up" philosophy. Everyone's on the same page, which is how they've managed to stay unified and surround Tom Brady like a brick wall.

    Solder, Mankins and Vollmer continue to set the physical and psychological tone for the line. Solder has really quieted his early critics with tremendous play. Vollmer's a spectacular warrior, though, his chronic back issues will be crucial to monitor as the season unfolds. Similar attention will be paid to tough-as-nails Mankins, whose been in a continuing state of repair. 

    The developments of Cannon and Wendell should be fun to watch.

    Grade: A

Defensive Line

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    Players: DT Vince Wilfork, DT Marcus Forston, DT Armond Armstead, DE Jake Bequette, DE/DT Jermaine Cunningham, DE Chandler Jones, DE Marcus Benard, DE Michael Buchanan, DE/DT Justin Francis, DT Cory Grissom, DT Tommy Kelly, DE Rob Ninkovich, DE Jason Vega, DT Anthony Rashad White, DT Joe Vellano

    Analysis: This is a deep unit, starting at the top with Wilfork, who continues to be the backbone of the team. He plays the meanest, nastiest football imaginable, but somehow, he does it like a gentleman. Another classy aggressor is Ninkovich, who's emerging as a reliable juggernaut and an efficient clutch performer down the stretch.  

    Jones showed great ambition in the first half of his rookie season, storming out of the gate with an assortment of dazzling moves, which helped him notch six sacks and three forced fumbles. The second half of his season fell apart with injuries and his downtick lingered into the postseason. Expect a profound second-year jump.

    Forston, Francis and Kelly have great shots at becoming key contributors in 2013. Benard had 7.5 sacks for the Browns in 2010 and he's only 27 years old, he has an opportunity to make some noise.

    Grissom ranked as the No. 1 defensive lineman on the list of top undrafted rookie free agents of 2013, as compiled by Gil Brandt, senior analyst for NFL.com. Fellow rookie Buchanan is flying under the bubble radar right now, but his skill level is tremendous and he could breakout early.

    Grade: A-

Wide Receiver

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    Players: Kamar Aiken, Danny Amendola, Perez Ashford, Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Mark Harrison, Lavelle Hawkins, Michael Jenkins, Quentin Sims, Matthew Slater, Kenbrell Thompkins

    Analysis: Hawkins and Thompkins took an early lead in the receiving race this spring with excellent workouts. Boyce and Dobson have off-the-charts potential, but we haven't seen any of it yet, as they were both banged-up this spring. Harrison is a supremely interesting sleeper to watch; he's powerful, exciting and loaded with star potential. 

    Amendola's a roster-lock, but that title is only superficially important. His body is notoriously unreliable. Appointing him as the top-receiver is fine from a talent standpoint, but the consequence is that the team will always be a hair away from a "red alert" situation. As of now, the Patriots don't have a "Plan B" to cover that situation.

    As a whole, this unit is fiercely erratic and difficult to envision in a crystal-clear way. From top-to-bottom, this is a melee of young players fighting for survival. It's lord of the flies. Where's the order to this chaos? Who's the leader? Who's the anchor?

    This is where the retention of Wes Welker would've been nice, as it would've cemented a stabling influence within this monumental whirlwind of change.

    Grade: D+

Special Teams

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    Players: P Zoltan Mesko, P Ryan Allen, LS Mike Zupancic, LS Danny Aiken, K Stephen Gostkowski

    Analysis: Gostkowski got off to a shaky start last September with a critical missed field goal against the Cardinals, which resulted in a bruising loss. He botched two field goals against the Bills, but the Patriots still found a way to score 52 points and win in a blowout.

    Gostkowski eventually rebounded, hitting nine field goals from between 40 and 49 yards out, along with a pair from over 50 yards out. He also went perfect in the postseason. Him and Mesko are still a very solid, dependable duo.

    The Patriots added special teams ace Leon Washington to boost their return game. That was a good move which should yield tremendous results. Edelman will likely see some more return duties of his own, though, ideally, it would be nicer to see him flourish as a receiver rather than continue on his Jack-of-all-trades path. Matthew Slater continues to be a standout on special teams. All in all, a steady group.

    Grade: B-

Quarterback

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    Players: Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Tim Tebow

    Analysis: Brady was tremendous last season. He beat Peyton Manning's Broncos, mauled Andrew Luck's Colts and blew-out the Texans twice. He also swept the divisional competition in style, including a thorough demolition of the Jets on Thanksgiving night and a shutout against the Dolphins in December (his 48th straight regular season game with a touchdown pass). He finished with 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns.

    Once again, the regular season felt like clockwork for Brady, but the playoffs brought disappointing results, including a scoreless second half against the Ravens. The Patriots averaged 32.1 points per game in 2011 and 34.8 points per game in 2012, but only notched 17 points in Super Bowl XLVI and 13 points in the 2012 AFC Championship. This is an alarming trend that needs to be addressed, not just with Brady, but with the entire offense.

    Mallett's potential continues to be somewhat hypothetical, but still, he's outlasted worthy competition and he remains a somewhat foreseeable heir to Brady's throne. The addition of Tebow has understandably drawn heavy emotion from both sides of the aisle, but still, it's a low-risk, high-reward proposition for the team. He's an intriguing variable, an unusual spice in the dish which could be surprisingly good.

    It's a good unit, but Brady's regular-season dominance makes this an easy one.

    Grade: A