Predicting Patriots' Starting Lineup After the First Wave of Free-Agent Signings
When you look at the projected New England Patriots starting lineup, you'll see some fresh faces from the first round of free-agent signings sprinkled in among longtime fan favorites.
With all the defined roles on the offense and defense, New England perhaps features more starters—or the best at their position—than any other NFL team. Bill Belichick has a role for everyone he brings onto the 53-man roster.
While the starters are far from set—we're nearly six months away from opening day—this should give you a good look at how the roster is shaping up before the 2014 NFL draft.
Starting Quarterback: Tom Brady
Barring an appearance from Bernard Pollard—sorry for sending chills down your spine—Tom Brady will be leading the New England Patriots into battle on opening day for the 13th consecutive year.
He might not have 100 percent of the downfield touch and arm strength that he had during his record-breaking season, but his guile, wisdom and short-yard accuracy allow him to be a top quarterback in the league. Brady hasn't lost a step.
The Patriots have an unproven backup in Ryan Mallett that has been the subject of trade talks since he first arrived in Foxborough, MA, in 2011. If he is traded, look for Belichick to pick up the next project on Day 3 of the 2014 NFL draft.
Next Man Up: Ryan Mallett
Starting RB: Stevan Ridley
With LeGarrette Blount still a free agent, Ridley is easily the most dynamic ball-carrier on the New England Patriots. His fumbling issues are certainly a cause for concern, but he consistently gets more yards than he should on any given play.
If Blount ends up re-signing, look for him and Ridley to split repetitions.
Next Man Up: Brandon Bolden, Shane Vereen
Starting Third-Down RB: Shane Vereen
Vereen—despite his problem with drops on the wheel route—is one of the more dangerous receivers out of the backfield in the NFL. He is also a shifty runner on draw plays. Vereen can also run between the tackles better than most give him credit for.
If Vereen gets nicked up—and it happens a lot—Brandon Bolden has shown the ability to fill in for a game or two at a time.
Next Man Up: Brandon Bolden
Starting "X" Receiver: Aaron Dobson
Dobson showed enough promise—watch his masterful performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers—to give New England Patriots fans hope for a big sophomore campaign, provided he can stay healthy. Currently, he is recovering from a stress fracture suffered during the season.
Even if Dobson recovers and plays as well as many expect, look for Brandon LaFell and perhaps even Kenbrell Thompkins to get some snaps as well.
Next Man Up: Brandon LaFell, Kenbrell Thompkins
Starting "Z" Receiver: Julian Edelman
Edelman was Brady's security blanket in 2013 due to his uncanny ability to shake coverage on underneath routes. He racked up over 100 catches in his first season as a starter. Edelman is also a feisty blocker to boot, which is a necessity with the amount of screens the Patriots run.
Danny Amendola—when he isn't working from the slot—could see some snaps outside as well.
Next Man Up: Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins
Starting "Slot" Receiver: Danny Amendola
There is an embarrassment of riches at the slot position. Amendola should get the first look, but Edelman, LaFell and Josh Boyce could all see some time.
Next Man Up: Julian Edelman, Josh Boyce, Brandon LaFell
Starting "Y" Tight End: Rob Gronkowski
Like Brady at quarterback, Gronkowski will be the starter as long as he is healthy. His ability to be a dominant blocker as well as an extreme matchup problem for defenses makes him the top tight end in the league.
With Michael Hoomanawanui as his current backup, expect this position to receive a lot of attention in the 2014 NFL draft. Troy Niklas (TE, Notre Dame) and C.J. Fiedorowicz (TE, Iowa) are prototypical "Y" tight ends that should be available on Day 2 of the draft.
Next Man Up: Michael Hoomanawanui
Starting "Move" Tight End: James Develin
The New England Patriots don't have a true "Move" tight end on the roster, and they haven't since Aaron Hernandez traded the silver, red and blue for orange. Develin showed that he can fill some of the H-back and split tight end roles last season, but he doesn't really fit the profile.
Out of the box, players like Mark Harrison or Brandon LaFell might be explored here. The Patriots may also look for a talented prospect in the 2014 NFL draft like Colt Lyerla (TE, Oregon) or Gator Hoskins (FB/TE, Marshall).
Next Man Up: Michael Hoomanawanui
Starting Offensive Line: Nate Solder (LT), Logan Mankins (LG), Dan Connolly (C), Marcus Cannon (RG), Sebastian Vollmer (RT)
Ryan Wendell is conspicuously absent from the center position, but the veteran is still a free agent that could be re-signed. Dan Connolly has played there before, and that would help get the talented Marcus Cannon into the lineup.
Solder, Mankins and Vollmer are playing at a high level. As long as New England keeps those three together, the line won't be a disaster.
Look for the Patriots to add some depth to the interior line during the 2014 NFL draft.
Next Man Up: Josh Kline
Starting Defensive Ends: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich
This duo was one of the more productive defensive end combos in recent memory for the New England Patriots. Jones and Ninkovich combined for 135 total quarterback pressures in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
They each played a ridiculous amount of snaps last season—89 and 87 percent, respectively—and need some depth behind them. Expect this position to be addressed in free agency or the NFL draft.
Next Man Up: Michael Buchanan
Starting Defensive Tackles: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly
There has been a lot of saber-rattling on both sides of the Wilfork/Patriots standoff, but I wouldn't be shocked if they eventually came to an amicable solution. Wilfork and Kelly are stout enough to hold up against the run, but they would probably be subbed out for the likes of Chris Jones in passing situations.
If Wilfork is released or traded, look for Sealver Siliga—who played well down the stretch in 2013—to step into the nose tackle spot.
Next Man Up: Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones
Starting Linebackers: Jerod Mayo (Mike), Jamie Collins (Will), Dont'a Hightower (Sam)
With Brandon Spikes in Buffalo and Dane Fletcher in Tampa Bay, the starting lineup isn't hard to parse. Mayo should take up position in the middle of field, with the more athletic Collins able to make plays from the weak side. Hightower will take over the thumper role vacated by Spikes.
The depth at the linebacker position is severely lacking. Chris White, Ja'Gared Davis and Steve Beauharnais didn't log many important snaps last year. While the starters are set, the backups could see a big change this offseason.
Next Man Up: Ja'Gared Davis
Starting Outside Cornerbacks: Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner
Depending on the defensive scheme being deployed, New England Patriots fans could see a lot of cornerbacks line up across from Revis. Browner is the choice if you want to play a single safety and press the receivers at the line.
Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington will all likely see some time outside as well.
Next Man Up: Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington
Starting "Star" Cornerback: Logan Ryan
The "star" position—the cornerback that is inserted when the Sam linebacker is removed—is basically a starter, as NFL defenses are in sub-packages about half of the time.
Ryan showed last season that he is adept at playing inside and out. With his ability to get his hands on the football, the Patriots coaching staff will find a way to get him on the field.
Next Man Up: Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington
Starting Safeties: Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon
With Steve Gregory now a free agent, Harmon is the best option to line up next to McCourty, who was one of the best safeties in football last year. Harmon—a surprise third-round pick in 2013—held his own as a rookie.
Expect the Patriots to play a lot of single safety coverage with their talented group of cornerbacks. They can squeeze the field with their physicality and funnel receivers toward McCourty.
Adding a strong safety in the draft isn't out of the question.
Next Man Up: Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner
Starting Specialists: Stephen Gostkowski (K), Ryan Allen (P), Danny Aiken (LS), Julian Edelman (PR), Josh Boyce (KR)
With the exception of Boyce, there isn't much change from last year. Aiken, Allen and Gostkowski were all solid performers in 2013 and shouldn't be a cause for concern. Julian Edelman was fantastic as always as a punt returner.
Boyce provided some spark as a return man when given the chance, but look for LeGarrette Blount to steal some opportunities if he is re-signed.
Next Man Up: Danny Amendola (PR/KR), Matthew Slater (KR)