I know, Training Camp is still two months away, but if the "experts" can already be conjuring up 2009 Mock Drafts then I can take an early stab at the anticipated position battles for the Pats.
Besides, Spygate is dead and we're in the middle of the worst part of the NFL Offseason, aka "The Void." There's not much football news out there, even for the Patriots, so why wait?
Here are the stories I'll be following come July in ascending order of interest to me...
5. Who Needs a Punter When You Never Have to Punt?
The Pats didn’t really need much out of their punter last year, and they didn’t really get much out of Chris Hanson.
They’ve brought in rookie Mike Dragosavich and throwback hero Scott Player who, if the Pats have to play with another retread, I would love to see get the job with his single-bar facemask and Fu Manchu.
Personally, I’m rooting for the rookie Drago to crack the team. At least that would be an interesting storyline and would bring a new energy to the special teams.
We all thought a punter youth movement was upon us last year when youngsters Tom Malone and Danny Baugher were in camp. Baugher looked like he had the job sewn up until he was suddenly cut and ended up beating the crap out of his dad the following day. That opened up the door for Hanson and that was that for 2007.
Anyway, Punter battles are never that cool or exciting so as long as it’s not Chris Hansen for another year, whatever. And even if it is Hansen, whatever.
Our probably-too-early prediction: I don’t care enough to make a prediction. Yet.
4. Where's the Big, Scary Tight End?
Before the Patriots suddenly became a multi-Wide Receiver offensive juggernaut last year, they were primarily a Two-Wide Receiver, Two-Tight End, Single-Back offense. Heading into camp this year the Pats have their worst Tight End depth in recent memory.
Ben Watson was injured again for a few games last year, and David Thomas played in one game before having his season ended by being put on IR. Kyle Brady supposedly had issues last year and was not brought back.
That leaves us with Stephen Spach, a Free Agent signed off the street last season; Marcus Pollard, whose best years are behind him; and undrafted rookie Free Agent Jonathan Stupar.
Where’s the big blocking Tight End a la Daniel Graham who can come in and help out the offensive line? Answer: not currently on the roster. It will be interesting to see if they make any moves to bring someone in or if David Thomas is healthy and improved enough to lend some major blocking help. After the Super Bowl, the Pats clearly need someone for this role.
Our probably-too-early prediction: Pats figure out how to get by with Watson, Thomas and Pollard.
3. Moss and Welker Can't Catch Every Ball
Jabar Gaffney surpassed Donte Stallworth last season and came through with a number of big catches, including a nice TD grab in the AFC Championship Game. Ever since the 2006 playoffs, Gaffney has clearly had a good rapport with Tom Brady. Brady trusts him and Gaffney always seems to make plays.
The wild card is Chad Jackson, who looks like he was designed in a factory to be an NFL receiver. He’s fought injuries for two years but now appears healthy and, per reports at passing camp, ready to contribute.
Even if Jackson can’t supplant Gaffney as the starting X-receiver he could prove to be a dangerous option as the fourth wideout. The 2006 second-round pick could be a new wrinkle in the Pats' attack in 2008. Kelley Washington could also be in the mix, though it’s already clear that he will be a top Special Teams contributor, no matter what.
Our probably-too-early prediction: Jackson can’t beat out Gaffney just yet, but makes his share of plays as the No. 4 receiver.
2. Young Patriots Linebackers: I Like the Sound of That
Every offseason, we hear the Pats linebackers are too old, but this year they’ve finally taken significant steps to get younger. Gone is Rosevelt Colvin and entering the fray are former-Jet Victor Hobson and 10th-overall selection Jerod Mayo. Junior Seau’s return is still up in the air, we probably won’t know if he’ll be back until July. Regardless, things will be looking different at the most important position in Bill Belichick’s 3-4 defense.
Versatility is not something that’s lacking. Adalius Thomas, Mike Vrabel and Hobson can all play ILB or OLB. Tedy Bruschi re-signed for two more years and Mayo is already displaying the speed that the Pats lacked in previous seasons. As always, the Linebackers will be on a rotation, and if Seau returns Mayo can be eased into things a little slower.
Either way, the Pats are looking better at LB than they have in a long time, despite the loss of Rosey Colvin. This will be a defining year for Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander. Rookies Shawn Crable, Vince Redd, Gary Guyton and Bo Ruud are also in the mix. Any of those six could make the team or be cut, neither would be a surprise. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.
Our probably-too-early prediction: Vrabel and Thomas start at OLB. Bruschi, Hobson, and Seau rotate in the middle with Mayo working his way in. Of Crable and Redd one makes the team, one gets put on the practice squad.
1. Defensive Backfield Redux
The defensive backfield looks to be this year’s “Throw-it-all-at-the-Wall” experiment similar to how they approached the Wide Receiver situation last season. With the losses of Asante Samuel and nickelback Randall Gay there are starting jobs to be had.
First we begin with our safeties, a solid group consisting of Rodney Harrison, James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather and Tank Williams. There still could be issues with Harrison regarding his contract and how much he’s going to cost; clearly losing Rodney would hurt, though his presence on the practice field and locker room would probably be missed more than it would on game day.
Sanders and Meriweather are the future and it looks like Meriweather was just starting to come around at the end of last season. If he can hold on to the ball in 2008 and continue to bring the hard hits he could be a star.
Rumors out of Foxboro are that Belichick has an open mind when it comes to the Cornerbacks this year, not even Ellis Hobbs is assured a starting position.
In the past, the Pats have been able to get to the Super Bowl with rookies at the corner position (see Randall Gay in 2004) and this year could be a repeat of that. Both Terrence Wheatley and Jonthan Wilhite are cut from the Ellis Hobbs mold: small and quick.
Vet Fernando Bryant adds a security blanket of experience should the rookies not “get it” from the start. Free agent vets Jason Webster and Lewis Sanders could also be in the mix. Replacing Samuel won’t be easy but Bryant could be a surprise and if the rookies grasp the system the Pats could be looking good at the corner position for the next few years.
Our probably-too-early prediction: Hobbs and Bryant start, Wheatley or Meriweather serve as the nickel with Wilhite/Webster adding depth.
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