With NFL training camps opening their doors next month, people are interested to see where their teams stand and what holes need to be filled prior to opening day.
Although the New England Patriots failed to reach the playoffs following their 2008 campaign, they are ready to compete.
By acquiring veteran free agents to fit the system, and drafting a new group of young football minds ready to learn the Belichick way, the Patriots stand taller than most teams at this point in the summer.
Barring unforeseen injury setbacks, the team should be one of the teams to beat in 2009.
Tom Brady, Kevin O’Connell, Matt Gutierrez, Bryan Hoyer (R) – The blaring question around the NFL is will Tom Brady, fresh off microscopic knee surgery to repair his torn ACL ligament, return to form in 2009 and be the same Tom Brady everybody remembers?
It is somewhat unlikely that he will be able to put up the numbers he was able to in the record-breaking 2007 season, but the Patriots have full confidence that he will be ready for opening day.
The early offseason dealing of Matt Cassel illustrates this confidence that the team has in Brady’s rehabilitation.
The Patriots have retained the major pieces, which Brady utilized in his legendary 2007 season so he has plenty of help around him to get the job done.
But, if Brady is unable to go for some reason, the ball will be snapped to second-year man Kevin O’Connell, a four-year starter at San Diego State.
Although he has been a student of the Patriot system for only a year, all signs point to him being ready to step in for Brady if need be as the coaching staff has praised him for being a fantastic athlete with a great football IQ.
But, there is a lot of pressure on Brady to perform and regain his All-Pro form, and the Patriots’ 2009 season may hang in the balance on this.
Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor (FA), BenJarvus Green-Ellis—It will be interesting to see how Belichick decides to use this stable of veteran running backs in the offense this season.
Maroney and Morris are both returning from injury-ridden seasons and will try and take every opportunity to contribute.
Kevin Faulk is the quintessential third-down, receiving running back in the league and has been an integral part in the success of this team’s offense since Belichick took reign of the team in 2000.
Fred Taylor signed a two-year deal with the Patriots in the offseason which will give the team another downhill running back who has seen it all and will help to mentor the younger players on the team.
Although, the sprained wrist he injured earlier in the month has slowed down his offseason workout program, this should not be a serious issue come training camp.
Green-Ellis proved capable when thrown in the mix last year, rushing for five touchdowns and gaining his first 100-yard game against Buffalo, after going undrafted and getting signed to the practice squad.
The X-factor in this quintet of backs is Maroney whose career has been marked by various injuries, but when healthy, has shown flashes of the speed and power which made him the Patriots’ first round pick in 2006.
Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Joey Galloway (FA), Greg Lewis (FA), Matthew Slater, Sam Aiken, Brandon Tate (R), Julian Edelman (R), Robert Ortiz (R), Terrence Nunn (R), Shun White (R)—The Patriots have arguably the best 1-2 punch at WR in the NFL.
On downfield routes, Moss almost always commands a double team, opening up many looks for Welker running routes underneath the secondary and tight ends running post and out patterns.
Welker has established himself as one of the NFL’s most dependable possession receivers, and has a knack for catching the ball in tight places, and is not afraid of taking a hit.
Galloway, who is now 37, will likely line up at the three-slot, but due to his age, he will not be able to be an every down player.
Hopefully, Lewis will be able to take 15-20 snaps a game to keep Galloway healthy. Slater and Aiken are both options for the Patriots in 4-5 receiver sets, but they need to prove themselves to stabilize these roles.
I like Tate as a low-risk, high-reward draft pick who was able to flourish at North Carolina. Before going down with a season-ending knee injury, he ranked 13th in the nation with 163.7 all-purpose yards a game.
There are some character questions about him, but if he can get healthy, he will have a chance to make an impact, both on the offense and in the return game.
Ben Watson, David Thomas, Chris Baker (FA), Alex Smith (FA), Tyson DeVree – This is the deepest stable of capable tight ends that the Patriots have had since releasing Daniel Graham following the 2006 campaign.
Watson is a freak-of-nature at TE with the speed and power to be a weapon in the offense, both as a receiver and blocker. When Thomas is healthy, he has shown a great ability to catch the ball.
The signings of Baker (via Jets) and Smith (via Bucs), should give their front line extra assistance as they are proven blockers.
Look for the Patriots to run several two-TE, and even three-TE sets in short-down situations, and play-action passes.
Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal, Nick Kaczur, Ross Hochstein, Billy Yates, Mark LeVoir, Ryan O’Callaghan, Dan Connolly, Wesley Britt, Al Johnson, Damane Duckett, Sebastian Vollmer (R), Rich Ohrnberger (R), George Bussey (R)
In 2007, Light, Mankins, and Koppen were all named to the Pro Bowl.
The Patriots hope that these linemen can get back to form in 2009 as they have a very important job this year: protecting the surgically repaired knee of No. 12.
Neal and Kaczur hold the other two starting positions and need to improve on their pass protection.
Matt Cassel was sacked a total of 47 times last year. Comparably, the previous year Brady was sacked only 21 times.
Whether or not having Tom Brady behind them was extra incentive to perform, this entire unit needs to improve on their protection from last season especially if they intend to keep Brady healthy for the entire year.
Overall, though, this is a deep unit with some star veterans, but look for increased competition on the right side of the line in training camp.
Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Mike Wright, Jarvis Green, Le Kevin Smith, Kenny Smith, Ron Brace (R), Myron Pryor (R), Darryl Richard (R) – On paper, this is probably the deepest group of talented players on the roster.
First-round picks, Seymour, Wilfork, and Warren anchor one of the best defensive lines in all of the NFL. Mike Wright and Jarvis Green have been key contributors for the team over the past several seasons.
There will be serious competition among the bottom part of the order to make the roster as the Patriots will not likely retain all of these players.
Look for Seymour to make a big impact, as he is once again healthy coming into training camp, the second time in two consecutive seasons.
There are some questions about the long-term status of this group, however, as Seymour and Wilfork will both be free agents at the end of the season and will likely draw significant interest from other franchises.
Tedi Bruschi, Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Eric Alexander, Antonio Appleby (R), Tyrone McKenzie (IR) – Led by NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Mayo, and Bruschi, these two anchor the starters in the 3-4.
Mayo had a fantastic rookie campaign, leading the team with 139 tackles and projects to continue to improve.
Bruschi is getting old, however, and likely will play even fewer downs than last year, opening up an opportunity for second-year man Guyton and special-teams’ stud Alexander to battle for time.
Guyton, the undrafted free agent out of Georgia Tech, will likely be the third man as he was effective in certain packages last year and will continue to get reps with the first-team in training camp.
The Patriots had high expectations for McKenzie, who was drafted in the third round out of South Florida, but he recently went down for the year with a torn ACL.
Similar to the OLB position, there is definitely a chance that Belichick, GM Nick Caserio, and front-office consigliere, Floyd Reese, will keep an eye on the market to see if the right opportunity arises to strengthen this core.
Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, Vince Redd, Tully Banta-Cain (FA), Angelo Craig (FA) –
Outside linebacker is arguably the thinnest position on the roster following the trade of mainstay team leader Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Look for Adalius Thomas to have a bounce-back year following his status on injured reserve last year with a broken forearm. At this point, Pierre Woods, the four-year man out of Michigan, seems to be the likely replacement for Vrabel.
Shawn Crable is another prospect who should contend for serious time at the position after missing all of his rookie campaign with a shin injury.
Tully Banta-Cain spent the beginning of his career with the Patriots before signing with the 49ers and playing there for the last two years.
If he is able to regain his 2006 form, he should provide a significant lift off the bench in certain packages.
Look to see if teams try to exploit mismatches by forcing Patriot OLBs to drop back in coverage. Do not be surprised if the Patriots attempt to bring in one more veteran via free agency to help solidify the position.
Shawn Springs (FA), Leigh Bodden (FA), Jonathan Wilhite, Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler (R), Mike Richardson -
Some members of the media argue that with the trade of CB Ellis Hobbs, the Patriots have a lack of any veteran players who are familiar with the system, putting the team at a disadvantage.
I must disagree with this, however. The signings of Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden, the development of second year players Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, and the drafting of rookie Darius Butler should produce significant competition for playing time in training camp.
Some argue that Butler does not have the size to match up one-on-one with big receivers, but his freakish athletic ability should allow him to become a shutdown corner in the league.
He was so dominant in his first few years at UConn that rival coaches refused to throw in his direction in his senior year.
I believe that this core of cornerbacks are much more talented than that of the 2008, and the newly signed veterans will not have much difficulty finding their niche in Defensive Coordinator Deen Pees’ system.
James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather, Patrick Chung(R), Tank Williams, Antwain Spann, Brandon McGowan, Ray Ventrone -
The Patriots used their first pick in the draft to select S Patrick Chung from Oregon at the 34th pick overall, 2nd pick in second round.
The 5’11” 212 pound safety projects to help replace the loss of Rodney Harrison as he is a hard hitter that can play the rover position, line up close to the line as an extra linebacker, or cover a wide receiver man-to-man.
Veterans James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather are the other safeties who will share time. Sanders has established himself as a fixture at safety, starting all 14 games last year in his fourth year in the league.
The team looks for Meriweather to continue to improve from last year where down the stretch he started the last ten games of the year and led the team in interceptions.
Tank Williams, who missed all of last year after tearing his right ACL in the first preseason game of the year, will be an intriguing story to follow through training camp.
Stephen Gostkowski(K), Chris Hanson(P) –
Gostkowski had the unfortunate job of replacing future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri, but he has surpassed expectations.
Coming off his first Pro Bowl year, he has established himself as one of the most reliable kickers in the league.
Hanson has fared well as the starting punter for the Patriots since signing with the team in 2007.
However, Belichick may sign another punter for insurance purposes as he has done in the past, but there is no immediate need for backups at either position.
Matthew Slater(KR), Wes Welker(PR), Kevin Faulk (PR), Darius Butler(KR), Brandon Tate(KR), Julian Edelman(KR) –
Ellis Hobbs will be missed by the Patriots more in their kick return game than as a cornerback. Hobbs has been one of the premier return guys for the last several years, averaging over 28 yards per return last year.
Matthew Slater will likely be the new return guy for kickoffs joined by some combination of Kevin Faulk, Darius Butler, Brandon Tate, and Julian Edelman.
I look to see the Patriots to try and fill the hole left by Hobbs with the athletic Butler.
Welker and Faulk have shared the punt returning duties the last few years and have done a great job.
Last year, Welker averaged 26 yards a return. The Patriots will likely try out their young defensive backs and receivers, such as Tate and Edelman, to find the best combination in their return game.