On a proven, veteran team such as the 2009 New England Patriots, positional battles and depth chart struggles are more than likely to occur along the periphery. There will not, for example, be any question as to who’s lining up under center, who’s the first, second, or third option at wide out, or who’ll be protecting Brady’s blindside. For the most part, Bill Belichick enters the upcoming season knowing full well who is supposed to be playing where on both sides of the ball. This peripheral alignments of depth, however, can be the crux to success, and the pinpoint of downfall.
Let us not forget last season: coming off their near perfect 2008-9 campaign, the Patriots didn’t seem to have many holes. The secondary was worrisome coming off their Super Bowl blunders, but the battle between Matt Cassel and Matt Gutierrez for the right to become ensconced behind Brady as the second string quarterback was really the only pressing question of summer camp.
Most people were entirely bored with the pre-season competition because, well, we were all so certain that #12 was destined for another stellar, healthy season. As it turned out, the events that led up to Cassel winning the backup job turned out to be immensely important to the development of last year’s Patriots squad.
As I see it, this year’s team has two primary areas that must be addressed during the summer workouts, both of them on defense: the linebacker group, and the defensive backs. Let’s break them down separately and take a look at the personnel involved in what hopefully will become an improved defensive unit from a year ago.
Many people- myself included- were surprised when the Patriots, who held multiple selections in the first two rounds of the draft, completely ignored the linebacker position. Belichick stated that he simply wasn’t that high on the draft crop at linebacker in terms of getting value for the pick, so he passed, bulked up at other positions, and acquired assets for next year. It’s hard to argue with the man when it comes to his draft strategy.
Nevertheless, without a young ‘backer entering the depth chart (3rd Rd. pick Tyron McKenzie, who some thought was a steal, was placed on IR with a torn ACL), the Patriots are somewhat barren at a crucial position in their 3-4 defensive scheme.
What the Patriots do have is a developing star at the position. Jerod Mayo is the rock of the group and should only improve upon his Defensive Rookie of the Year status in year two. Mayo and veteran leader Tedy Bruschi will start on the inside, with second year man Gary Guyton serving as the primary backup. Guyton, Eric Alexander, and the newly signed Paris Lenon (who led Detroit in tackles a year ago) are likely to assume varied, albeit considerable, playing time given the age and deterioration of Bruschi.
On the outside, there will be plenty more competition throughout summer camp, with the only “sure thing” of the group being Adalius Thomas. Thomas is coming off an injury that limited him to just nine games a year ago, but his health and level of effectiveness is certainly not foremost on the mind of linebackers coach Matt Patricia. The battle for the remaining outside spot and the top slots on the depth chart will involve two holdovers from a year ago in Pierre Woods and Vince Redd, an ex-Patriot brought back in the fold in Tully Banta-Cain, and a second year player who spent his rookie year on IR in Shawn Crable.
Banta-Cain knows the system best and was fairly productive in his past stint under Belichick, but his lack of agility and athleticism are definite downsides. Woods and Redd showed marginal improvement a year ago, but neither have proven anything as starters in this league. As of now I’d say Woods is the more developed talent. Crable- much like McKenzie this year- was thought to be an outside candidate for playing time a year ago, before a pre-season shin injury sidelined him for the season. Crable spent his time on the IR wisely though, learning up on Belichick’s complex system and devoting himself to the mental aspect of playbook and film room analysis. He has prototypical size for the 3-4 scheme, and he could emerge alongside Thomas on Belichick’s second level.
So Mayo, Thomas, and Bruschi are definite contributors, but two of the three are aging and one is coming off a season cut short by injury. Beyond that, the Patriots have a group of six or seven linebackers who possess varying degrees of skill, experience, and risk, yet who will be relied upon this season to make substantial contributions. It will be highly intriguing to see who wins the battles and impresses the coaches most during summer camps. If I had to guess, I would say Mayo, Bruschi, Thomas, and Woods will be the starting four, with Crable, Banta-Cain, and Guyton as the primary backups on the depth chart.
This group is a little more solidified than the previous one. Unlike the ‘backers group, the Patriots made several transactions in the off-season to address what has been an achilles heal of the team for several years; dependable down field pass coverage. Starter Ellis Hobbs is out, while free agents Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden and draft picks Darius Butler and Patrick Chung are in. The Pats will also depend upon promising second year cornerbacks Jonathan Wilhite and Terrance Wheatley, as well as the continued maturation of safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders.
All in all, it’s maybe the deepest, youngest group Bill Belichick has ever had to coach in New England. Aside from Springs, there is really no veteran leader at the back end. With Rodney Harrison likely retiring from football, the Patriots will be looking to Meriweather and Sanders- both returning starters from a year ago- to assume a good amount of the communication burden that is so crucial at the last level of defense.
In my eyes, the development and effectiveness of this group hinges on the younger players and the battles they endure during summer training. That is a tenuous position to take according to legendary coach/executive Bill Parcells, however. When coaching the Patriots, Parcells assertively verbalized his belief that any NFL team would lose one game for every rookie they started on the defensive side of the ball. Looking at the Patriots secondary, they may very well be starting, or at least frequently rotating in, two rookies in Chung and Butler, while second year players Wilhite and Wheatley had limited exposure a year ago and should be thought of as rookies, at least in the cognitive sense. That is a lot of losses, if you follow Parcells’ line of thinking.
The battles this summer will mainly be at cornerback, where uncertainty is the theme of the current roster as it stands today. Springs is a veteran producer, but he’s had trouble staying on the field throughout his career. Bodden is a talented, athletic player with high upside tools, but he may not latch on right away in Belichick’s system. Butler was thought to be maybe the most athletic, freakishly explosive corner in the draft, but asking him to do too much in his first year is likely a mistake Belichick is looking to avoid. Wheatley and Wilhite, while promising, have not proven they can produce as durable, intelligent cogs of the grander defensive machine. Again, there is just a lot hanging in the balance and even more to watch during summer workouts at the cornerback position.
And while safety seemingly is secure with two starters returning, the personnel behind Meriweather and Sanders is something to keep a close watch on this summer. The Patriots first pick of the draft at #34, Patrick Chung, has promise and could add ball skills and an element of size to the position, but again, he’ll be learning on the job. Free agent signee Brandon McGowan does not inspire much confidence in this writer. Reliable depth could emerge out of the backup group consisting of Antwain Spann, Mike Richardson, and Tank Williams, but in recent years the Patriots have been burned for relying on such players to produce. Ideally, someone will emerge this summer as a player Belichick feels he can trust, and if I had to guess I’d slot either Chung or Williams into the primary backup slot on the safety depth chart.
There will be considerable grappling for position within the depths of the Patriots DB pool, and the degree to which Belichick can depend upon guys such as Wilhite, Wheatley, Chung, and Butler will likely reflect the effectiveness and dependability of a unit in flux.
Keep a close watch on the positional trends developing this summer at linebacker and defensive back; they may just yet determine how far Brady and Co. advance this post-season.