2011 NFL Season: 5 Reasons the New England Patriots Will Be in Super Bowl XLVI
However, a lot of New England faithful including myself will tell you it's not good enough unless that season ends in a Super Bowl victory.
With two early playoff exits in the last six years, the Patriots have much to improve on in hopes of capturing a fourth Super Bowl championship.
While there is no way for me to guarantee a Patriots Super Bowl appearance in the 2011 NFL season (if there is a season), there are plenty of reasons to believe that the 2011 New England Patriots will be a better team overall than that of the 2010 team.
In this article I explore five reasons why New England will be in the Super Bowl and may be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy when it's all said and done.
Injured Players Returning Healthy
New England's starting left defensive end Ty Warren had hip surgery and missed the entire 2010 season along with starting cornerback Leigh Bodden sidelined by a shoulder injury requiring surgery.
Defensive end Mike Wright, one of New England's pass rushing specialists, also dealt with concussion problems and missed six games after a strong start in 2010.
They are major contributors to what the Patriots do defensively and all three are poised for a big comeback in 2011.
Word has it that Ty Warren has added MMA training to his off season workout regimen in preparation for the 2011 campaign.
Warren, when healthy, has been a continual dominating force on New England's defensive line, adept at stopping the run and collapsing the pocket as a pass rusher.
You can expect Warren to be in great shape whenever NFL training camp begins and barring any setbacks he should retain his starting role.
The same goes for Bodden and Wright. Bodden led the team in 2009 in interceptions with five and Wright led the 2010 team in sacks with 5.5.
Just think how much better this defense would have been if all three had played a full season.
Mike Wright could have ended up with 10 sacks, Ty Warren might have had another Pro Bowl year and Leigh Bodden paired with Devin McCourty would have been a nightmare for teams.
Their return to form will provide immediate help to a defense that only recorded 35 sacks and finished with the league's worst opponents' third down conversion efficiency.
NFL Free Agency
With the 2011 NFL Draft officially in the books, the instant feedback from most Pats fans has been negative regarding the team's 2011 draft picks and the lack of a pass rusher on defense.
Head coach Bill Belichick waited until the fifth round before selecting defensive end Markell Carter from Central Arkansas, a project player converting to linebacker.
For a team that struggled to pressure the quarterback in 2010, the decision was perplexing and left many fans with a bitter taste in their mouth.
But that taste may end up bittersweet after all.
With the chaotic nature of the NFL right now due to the on-going drama that is the collective bargaining agreement, we seem to have forgotten that if, and when, the NFL season starts so does NFL free agency.
Belichick could easily add a veteran linebacker as we've seen so many times in the past (R.Phifer, M.Vrabel, R.Colvin, C.Brown, J.Seau, A.Thomas, T.Banta-Cain) along with a new weapon for Tom Brady at wide receiver (maybe Malcom Floyd or Santana Moss).
There is also plenty of undrafted free agent talent available to be brought into camp to compete for a spot on the team.
Belichick has been known for finding some pretty good players in this department.
The Patriots roster is stocked so anyone brought in will have to work his tail off just to play and New England will be a much better team as a result.
The Best Offensive Line
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has stated that he wants All Pro guard Logan Mankins to retire in a Patriots uniform.
Assuming that is true we can then assume that eventually the front office will sign Mankins to the long term contract he obviously deserves and the franchise tag feud will end.
With Mankins in the fold, New England's next move will be signing All Pro tackle Matt Light to some form of a veteran contract for two to three years.
These moves will be key in the development of 2011 draft picks, Nate Solder, a 6'8", 319 pound tackle from Colorado, and Marcus Cannon, a 6'5", 358 pound guard/tackle from TCU.
Although Cannon will have to make a full recovery from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma before he can step on the field and play, both he and Solder have tremendous upside and could develop into Pro Bowlers faster than most young lineman.
Second team All Pro Sebastian Vollmer, another 6'8", 315 pound tackle, will continue to be solid on the right side making strides in his third year as a starter.
Center Dan Koppen somehow remains underrated despite playing at a high level every year since being drafted in 2003 and will anchor the line yet again.
With Nick Kaczur most likely departing, Dan Connolly finally looks like he might be ready to step in as a consistent starter in 2011.
Provided the players stay healthy, retaining Light and Mankins, along with the addition of the two young studs, and the all around depth up front, New England's offensive line should be a formidable one in 2011 and the years to come.
Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley
New England was ranked 9th in the NFL with 123.3 rushing yards per game in 2010, a seemingly successful season, but only to a certain degree.
Sure, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the first 1,000 yard rusher for the Patriots since Corey Dillon and with an injured Kevin Faulk sidelined all season, Danny Woodhead more than stepped up to the challenge, not only filling Faulk's shoes but becoming a fan favorite in the process.
If you look closely you will see that New England has trouble closing games and sometimes looks stagnant trying to run the ball, unable to move the chains—especially against strong, physical defenses.
That could change drastically in 2011.
Enter 2nd and 3rd round draft picks, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley.
Vereen is 5'10", 205 pounds coming out of Cal and has been compared to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
He's got decent speed and elusiveness and is unbelievably strong for his size (35 bench reps at the combine).
He was a very productive runner in college (231 att, 1,167 yds, 13 tds in 2010) who will thrive and excell at all areas of the running back position.
Ridley is from LSU, and, at 5'11", 225 pounds, he is the polar opposite of Vereen. He is much slower and likes to pound opponents like a wrecking ball.
His bruising style of running can be very difficult for defenses to handle late in games.
He put up some gaudy numbers as a junior in the SEC (249 att, 1,147 yds, 15 tds) and could develop into a feature back for the Pats at some point.
Belichick now has fresh legs to work into the rotation along with The Law Firm and Woody and will utilize this to his full advantage when closing out opponents in 2011.
I strongly urge any Pats fans that are still upset about the Vereen and Ridley picks to watch some film on these guys and I'm sure you'll come away smiling as I did.
Developing Talented Young Players
The Patriots have at least 17 players on their team right now that have three or less years of experience—and that's not even including the 2011 draft haul.
While some may see this as a negative, I see it as a positive, as long as the players are progressing within the system.
Offensively, the Patriots young tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez looked more like veterans than rookies in 2010 and solidified the position for the next few years.
The wide receiver spot is questionable as Brandon Tate was shaky at best last season and we have seen too little of Taylor Price to gauge how he may factor in.
But if either player can become a reliable target for Tom Brady this season, New England's No. 1 ranked offense could become even more of a problem for teams.
Defensively, all eyes will be on linebacker Jermaine Cunningham to see how he progresses as a pass rusher.
He had only one sack in 2010, but Belichick's 3-4 defensive system is a complex one that takes time to learn and perfect.
Looking at the secondary, the Patriots got real lucky last year when corner back Devin McCourty stepped in for injured starter Leigh Bodden and went from disputed draft pick to Pro Bowl corner.
Now with Bodden healthy, Virginia corner back Ras-I Dowling, one of New England's second round draft picks, can be brought along at a slower pace and play when he is ready, instead of being forced into action like McCourty.
With Pat Chung maturing at safety, New England's defensive backfield looks like trouble for wide receivers in 2011.
On the defensive line there is a cascade of young talent developing (Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Myron Pryor, Kyle Love) that benefited from playing time due to injuries last season and provided Belichick with a ton of flexibility.
New England's 2011 opponents better take notice as the NFL's youngest team catapults themselves toward another Super Bowl Championship.