NFL Preseason: New England Patriots Storylines

Dmitriy Ioselevich@dioselevSenior Analyst IIIAugust 25, 2010

NFL Preseason: New England Patriots Storylines

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    The New England Patriots are 2-0 so far in the preseason. They have begun to resemble the dynasty teams of old with impressive victories over the New Orleans Saints (27-24) and the Atlanta Falcons (28-10).

    But it is, after all, only the preseason.

    The Patriots still have games left against the St. Louis Rams and the New York Giants, with several roster spots yet to be determined.

    Two weeks remain before the Patriots kick off the 2010 regular season September 12th against the Cincinnati Bengals. Here are the top storylines to watch for in the remaining days.

    Share your thoughts below. 

Will Logan Mankins End His Holdout?

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    Mankins, the Patriots Pro-Bowl left guard, is still missing from training camp as he continues his holdout. Reports have the two sides far apart on a new contract.

    Mankins is the best offensive lineman the Patriots have, but the protection for Brady has looked solid in the preseason without him. The Patriots also just acquired reserve tackle/guard Quinn Ojinnaka from the Atlanta Falcons to provide some depth.

    So are the Patriots willing to go into this season without Mankins?

    All evidence point to yes. The New York Jets recently resigned center Nick Mangold to a seven-year, $55 million deal. Mankins, generally regarded as a better player than Mangold, would figure to receive at least as much. But the Patriots don't seem to be budging.

    An interesting wrinkle to all this is that the NFL is in an uncapped year, one of the main reasons the Jets were able to give Mangold that much money. The Mankins camp is likely trying to use that reality as leverage, but it doesn't seem like the Patriots are willing to mortgage their future financial flexibility.

    The likely scenario would be for Mankins to return in week 10 and play in the Patriots final six games, allowing him to accumulate his sixth accrued season. He would then become a free agent in 2011.

Is Wes Welker Back?

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    Welker saw limited action in the Patriots second preseason game against Atlanta, catching two passes for 20 yards.

    It was his first game action since tearing his ACL in week 17 last year. 

    Welker looked comfortable on the field and absorbed some contact, an important step in getting him back to his old ways. He will be relied on more heavily in the next preseason game against St. Louis, hopefully providing Coach Bill Belichick with a barometer by which to judge his readiness for the 2010 season.

    Welker is obviously a vital cog in the Patriots offense. He has caught over 100 passes for over 1,000 yards each of the past three years. 

    He's on his way to getting back to that level of performance, but he's not quite there yet. Let's wait until he gets 10+ looks a game and plays through a few offensive series. The game against St. Louis should reveal more about where he stands.

What Will The Defensive Line Look Like?

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    With defensive end Ty Warren out for the year with an injury, the only guaranteed starter on the Patriots line is Pro-Bowl nose tackle Vine Wilfork.

    After that, it's anyone's guess.

    The Patriots signed veteran defensive tackle Gerard Warren in the offseason, and he is the favorite to start at one of the end spots in New England's defense.

    The other spot will likely go to Mike Wright, a sixth-year player who has played in every Patriots game each of the past two seasons.

    A darkhorse candidate for the spot is Ron Brace, a 2009 second-round draft pick who came out of Boston College as a nose tackle. Brace saw time at end in New England's preseason game against Atlanta and played well. At 6'3" and 330 pounds, Brace has the potential to add some size to the Patriots line.

    Myron Pryor, a 2009 sixth-round draft pick, played well in his rookie season and will also likely see some playing time at both the end and nose tackle spots.

Who Will Be The Starting Corners?

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    The Patriots have several quality defensive backs and should have one of their strongest units in years. But who will we actually see on the field?

    Leigh Bodden, resigned by the Patriots after a strong 2009-10 season in which he totaled 5 interceptions and 55 tackles, should be a lock at one of the corner spots.

    Opposite him there's a battle between 2009 second-round pick Darius Butler and rookie first-round pick Devin McCourty. 

    Butler had a solid rookie season with three interceptions as quickly adjusted to the PAtriots style of defense and was able to contribute almost immediately.

    McCourty, however, is the better athlete and may be the fastest player on the Patriots roster. If he can pick up the defense well enough and shows Belichick that he's ready for the NFL, the starting spot will be his.

    Jonathan Wilhite, a third-year player, is the other corner likely to make the Patriots roster and will provide support in dime packages.

Can the Patriots Run the Ball?

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    The Patriots haven't had a consistent running game since Corey Dillon retired. But with a passing attack that looks as unstoppable as ever, a strong rushing attack could give the Patriots one of the premier offenses in the NFL.

    There are no shortage of potential quality backs on the Patriots roster. Between Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Chris Taylor, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, coach Bill Belichick has a wealth of options.

    But can any of them actually run the ball effectively?

    Projected starter Laurence Maroney has severely underachieved since being drafted 21st overall in 2006. But he's finally healthy and is in a contract year, so it's now or never for the former Minnesota running back.

    Fred Taylor is also healthy after suffering a season-ending ankle injury last season. He's 34 years old but he still knows how to run and has looked good in the preseason. 

    Faulk is almost exclusively a third-down back while Morris's role is unknown following an injury plagued 2009-10 campaign. There is probably only one spot available (maybe none) between the veteran Taylor and spirited Green-Ellis, who runs hard but lacks elite athleticism.

    The Patriots don't use a feature back, so expect the carries to be fairly evenly split between Maroney, Taylor, and Faulk. The other backs will likely only see limited action and will provide depth in the case of injury.

    The Patriots rushed for 1,921 yards in the 2009-10 season, good for 12th in the league. They will need to do a bit better than that if they want to contend for a championship.

The Final Roster Cuts

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    There are only a few spots left open on the Patriots roster. Here are the main the position battles to watch out for during the remainder of the preseason.

    Running back: The Patriots really like Green-Ellis but there are too many players above him on the depth chart. Ditto for Chris Taylor. Both will probably be cut.

    Wide receiver: This position is stacked. The Patriots top five receivers are the probably the most skilled group in the NFL. Look for New England to carry six receivers into the regular season, meaning one of Sam Aiken or Matthew Slater will be cut. 

    Offensive line: Only the five starters are guarantees to make the roster. The top backups are tackle Mark LeVoir, guard Ryan Wendell, and center Ted Larsen. George Bussey and Thomas Welch will compete for the final tackle spot, and Rich Ohrnberger will fight Larsen for another spot.

    Linebacker: The return of OLB Derrick Burgess will force someone from the roster, possibly the recently acquired Marques Murrell. At inside linebacker, 2009 third-round pick Tyrone McKenzie seems to be on the outside looking in after limited preseason action.

    Defensive back: At cornerback one of Terrence Wheatley or Kyle Arrington will have to be cut. Arrington is the favorite to get the roster spot because of his ability to contribute on special teams.