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New England Patriots: 2011 Opening Day Roster Projections

Mike MattesContributor IIIAugust 20, 2011

New England Patriots: 2011 Opening Day Roster Projections

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    After a dominating performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Thursday night's preseason showdown, the New England Patriots looked poised to go on another Super Bowl run in the 2011 season.

    Virtually every player on the roster has impressed so far, showing off the incredible depth on the Patriots roster that has been so vital to their success throughout the last decade.

    Now that we have reached the halfway point of the preseason, perhaps this is a good time to predict who is going to make the final cut come opening day. 

    But it certainly won't be an easy task.

Quarterbacks

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    This is by far the easiest positional spot to predict on the Patriots roster.

    It always helps to go into the season with one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, Tom Brady, leading the way.

    Third-year quarterback Brian Hoyer, and rookie Ryan Mallett, are locks to make the roster as well. And even though the Patriots would be in dire straights if Brady were to ever go down for the count again, there are certainly worse options to have than Hoyer and Mallett as insurance.

    Though Hoyer and Mallett did not play as well against Tampa Bay as they did against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first preseason game, their play so far has shown their extremely unappreciated potential. Both are still young, and both have a long way to go in their developmental process. But who better to learn from than the great Tom Brady?

Running Backs

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    The Patriots have a plethora of running backs this season after taking two of them (Shane Vereen, second round and Stevan Ridley, third round) in the first couple rounds of last April's NFL draft. 

    Last year, BenJarvus Green-Ellis far exceeded expectations when he became the first Patriot running back since Corey Dillon in 2004 to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. His 1,093 total yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010 were a shocking surprise to everyone last year, and "The Law Firm" looks primed to build upon that success even with the addition of Vereen and Ridley this season.

    Danny Woodhead was another pleasant surprise for the Patriots last year when he was able to muster up 926 yards of total offense after being picked up off waivers from the New York Jets early on in 2010. He served as a spark plug for the Patriots offense last season, and his ability to catch balls out of the backfield makes him a tough matchup for any opposing defense. His style of play makes him the perfect compliment to the bruising and powerful play of Green-Ellis.

    As far as the aforementioned rookies go, Shane Vereen has yet to take a snap in the preseason play due to an injury, but Stevan Ridley has been outstanding in both of the team's preseason games this season. Against the Jaguars, Ridley rushed for 64 yards while scoring three touchdowns. And he followed up this breakout performance against the Buccaneers on Thursday by rushing for 84 yards while demonstrating his powerful running style. Ridley has also shown his great ability to catch the ball as well, and his versatility should help him push Green-Ellis and Woodhead for some serious playing time this season.

    Twelve-year veteran Sammy Morris, also makes the cut due to his experience as well as his blocking ability that may help him earn more playing time as a fullback this season.

    Who makes the cut: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Sammy Morris

    Side note: Veteran Kevin Faulk was placed on the PUP list, and will most likely be activated around mid-season, costing another player a roster spot. 

Wide Receivers

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    Much like the running back position, the Patriots have great depth at the wide receiver spot.

    Wes Welker has been one of the best slot receivers in the NFL since 2007, amassing more receptions than any other player in the league during this time. Now that he is a year and a half removed from ACL/MCL surgery performed in February of 2010, he should be able to rediscover his old form this season as Brady's favorite target. Deion Branch has also been one of Tom Brady's most reliable receivers during their playing time together, and his return to the Patriots last season may have been one of the most important and undervalued transactions that the team has made during the Brady/Belichick Era. These two form one of the most dynamic receiving duos in the game today.

    And of course everyone has been talking about the acquisition of Chad Ochocinco from the Cincinnati Bengals this off-season. Ochocinco has been one of the most exciting players to watch (both on and off the field) throughout the last decade, and his extreme talent gives the Patriots another weapon in their already potent arsenal. He has had some struggles adapting to the Patriots complex offense thus far, but there should be very little doubt that Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick will be able to get him ready by opening day.

    Second-year player Taylor Price had an amazing performance against the Jaguars in the team's preseason opener, but did not play against the Buccaneers. Yet his breakout performance against Jacksonville (five rec, 105 yds, one td) makes him a lock to make the roster. Third-year man Julian Edelman also makes the roster due to his consistency and work ethic, as well as his great punt-returning ability.

    That makes the final spot a battle between the young Brandon Tate and the veteran special teams standout Matthew Slater. Some believe that Belichick will choose to go with seven wide receivers to begin the season, but the emergence of young players at other roster positions will make it hard pressed for him to do so.

    Tate was considered by many to be the steal of the 2009 NFL Draft when the Patriots were able to select him in the third round. Inconsistency, as well as nagging injuries, have continued to hinder his development, but his potential is too great for the Patriots to give up on at this point. Slater has been a special-teams hero throughout his career, but he has never shown great ability as a receiver. Plus, the new kick-off rule diminishes his coverage value quite a bit. Tate gets the nod over Slater in a very tough decision.

    Who makes the cut: Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, Taylor Price, Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate

Tight Ends

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    The Patriots undoubtedly got two of the biggest steals of the 2010 NFL Draft when they selected tight ends Rob Gronkowski (second round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth round). Both of them had first-round talent, and they certainly demonstrated that last season by combing for 87 catches and 16 scores during their rookie campaigns.

    Hernandez plays more like a wide receiver with his ability to stretch defenses and get downfield in a hurry. Gronkowski is a physical specimen at 6'6" and 265 pounds, and the freakish athleticism he possesses on top of that size makes him one of the most reliable red-zone targets in the league.

    The team also drafted another tight end, Lee Smith (fifth round), in this past April's draft. He is another enormously sized tight end like Gronkowski, and he will most likely be used as more of a blocker this season in three tight-end sets. Smith also gives the Patriots another big receiving option at tight end with the ability to go over the middle and gain tough yards, something Hernandez is not too used to doing.

    And finally, one of the surprises of the early preseason thus far, Will Yeatman, also makes the roster. Yeatman is an undrafted rookie tight end out of Maryland, but has impressed many in camp this year making him a surprise opening day roster candidate. Many teams were interested in signing Yeatman after the lockout ended, but the Patriots were lucky enough to snatch him up in time. It would not be much of a surprise to actually to see him push Smith out of a roster spot if Belichick decides to go with three tight ends. But for now, both make the team.

    Who makes the cut: Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Lee Smith, Will Yeatman 

Offensive Line

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    Heading into the offseason, the offensive line was perhaps the most glaring issue facing the Patriots roster besides their abysmal pass-rushing unit. Left tackle Matt Light was an impending free agent, the Logan Mankins contract saga continued to drag on, and right guard Stephen Neal, one of the team's most consistent performers for the past seven seasons, decided to retire.

    The Patriots immediately addressed the issue this past April when the team selected left tackle Nate Solder out of Colorado with the 17th pick in the first round. Solder has been extremely impressive so far in camp and also during the team's first two preseason games. There is even some speculation he could soon become the starter at left tackle even with the re-signing of Matt Light, who signed a two-year deal with the Patriots earlier this month.

    Then came the moment that every Patriots fan had anxiously been waiting for, the re-signing of Logan Mankins, perhaps the best left guard in the game today. Not only did the deal lock up one of the game's premiere offensive linemen for the next six seasons, but it also ended the ugly soap opera that had been surrounding the team since last season regarding his contract negotiations. 

    Incumbent center Dan Koppen is back for his ninth season with the team, and third-year man Sebastian Vollmer is back at right tackle after being named a Second Team All-Pro in 2010. This leaves the only question at right guard, where sixth-year player Dan Connolly is expected to step in and take over for the retired Neal this season. Connolly played well in 14 games last season, starting 13 of them due to the mounting injuries that plagued Neal toward the end of his career.

    As far as backups go, Ryan Wendell has pretty much solidified his status as a roster lock due to his ability to play both guard positions as well as center. Yet the last offensive line spot goes to an undrafted rookie out of Temple, one who was actually a tight end during his college years. He goes by the name of Steve Maneri, and he has been so impressive in camp so far that the team felt comfortable enough to release offensive tackle Mark LeVoir this week. LeVoir was originally expected to be the No. 1 backup at the offensive tackle position, but it seems as though Maneri is set to take over this role in 2010. 

    Who makes the cut: Matt Light, Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer, Ryan Wendell, Steve Maneri

    Side note: Rookie guard Marcus Cannon is also expected to be added to the active roster once he is activated from the PUP list sometime around Week 6.

Defensive Line

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    No other spot on the New England Patriots roster saw a bigger overhaul this offseason than the defensive line. It is no secret that the Patriots pass-rush needed some serious help heading into this season, and Belichick seemed to focus more on adding depth up front to assess that need rather than beefing up the linebacking core like everyone had expected. 

    Perennial Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork is the only starter from last season who projects to begin the season as a starter once again. The rest of the starting positions along the line are still pretty much up for grabs at this point, but the team has added an abundance of new talent this offseason, making this formerly weak area into a new strength.

    The addition of Albert Haynesworth from the Washington Redskins came as a surprise to everyone due to his extremely deviant behavior both on and off the field. But if he can learn to control his behavior (and in New England he'll have to in order to stick with the team) then he and Wilfork will form one of the most dominant defensive duos that the NFL has seen in years. Many are already concerned about the fact that he has barely practiced thus far in the preseason, and there were even reports about his impending release, but there is no way he fails to make the team. Remember, Randy Moss was virtually non-existent in the 2007 preseason for the Patriots, and look how that panned out.

    The team also added defensive end Shaun Ellis from the New York Jets in another surprise move, and his veteran presence will be vital in the development process of the line's younger components. Andre Carter was another veteran signing, and if his performance against the Buccaneers was any indication of how he'll play this season, the pass-rushing woes of 2010 will be all but forgotten.

    Second-year players Jermaine Cunningham, Myron Pryor and Kyle Love also return along with seventh-year man Mike Wright, who actually led the team with 5.5 sacks last season. The final defensive-line spot goes to newly signed Mark Anderson, a speed rusher who will be used mostly in sub-packages, giving the team the athletic edge presence it has lacked for quite some time.

    Who makes the cut: Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter, Jermaine Cunningham, Myron Pryor, Kyle Love, Mike Wright, Mark Anderson 

Linebackers

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    To the surprise of many, the Patriots linebacking core did not see much of a makeover this offseason.

    The group is led by inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, who recorded 175 tackles last season and may be perhaps the most underrated defender in the game today. Second-year player Brandon Spikes will also return alongside Mayo, and Rob Ninkovich will be asked to hold down the other starting spot.

    Undrafted rookie standout from 2010, Dane Fletcher, will return as well and will see an increased role at inside linebacker this season. Gary Guyton will also be back due to his special teams ability as well as his experience in the Patriots system.

    The last linebacking spot goes to newly signed Niko Koutouvides, an outside linebacker who spent the last two seasons in Tampa Bay. Some believe that ninth-year man Tracy White has the inside track for the final spot, but Koutouvides' greater size and defensive ability gives him the edge. Both are standout special teams performers, but White loses out in a close battle.

    Who makes the cut: Jeord Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich, Dane Fletcher, Gary Guyton, Niko Koutouvides 

Cornerbacks

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    Once the weakest spot on the roster, the Patriots' cornerback position has become a strength.

    Though their depth may be a little thin at the position, second-year man Devin McCourty quickly became one of the best cover men in the NFL last season and earned a spot on the All-Pro Second Team in 2010. Leigh Bodden returns this season after missing all of last year with a shoulder injury, and the two form a pretty formidable duo in the defensive backfield.

    Young Kyle Arrington will also return for a big role in 2011 after stepping up and exceeding expectations playing for the injured Bodden last season. Formerly a special teams player, Arrington became a key cog in the success of the Patriots defense last season, and his presence is needed at a position that is rather thin.

    Rookie Ras-I Dowling has yet to play this preseason, but the team has very high hopes for the first year man out of Virginia, and he should see some significant playing time once he is ready to return from injury. 

    That leaves the final spot in a lackluster battle between two players who have seemed to wear out their welcome in New England: Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite. Butler gets the edge over Wilhite due to the fact that he was a 2009 second-round draft pick, and the team is hoping that he can finally put it all together in what will likely be his last chance to stick around.

    Who makes the cut: Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Darius Butler

Safeties

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    The safety spot is an interesting area for the Patriots. They have two of the best young safeties in the league, but at times their inconsistent play has caused them to receive a heavy amount of criticism from coaches and fans alike.

    Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather have both shown flashes of absolute brilliance during their time in New England, but at other times, they have pulled some pretty boneheaded moves that have had some people scratching their heads in bewilderment. Chung has seemed to mature substantially over the past year, and he seems primed to take on a leadership role on the Patriots defense this season. Yet this may be Meriweather's last chance to prove that he is growing up. Though he is a two-time Pro Bowler and possesses an immense amount of talent, his immaturity and inconsistent tackling could force him to lose some serious playing time, and perhaps even a spot on the team once his contract is up after this season.

    The final two safety spots go to the veteran James Sanders and second-year man Sergio Brown. Sanders is now in his seventh season, and he is one of the most proven backups found throughout the entire Patriots roster. His ability to play either safety position is invaluable, and he is an absolute lock heading into opening day. Brown is another undrafted player who has impressed coaches since his 2010 rookie campaign. In fact, he has even taken many of the first team reps in practice this preseason leading many to believe that he may be pushing Meriweather for some serious playing time.

    The team also signed former New York Jets safety/special teamer James Ihedigbo on Friday, but he was most likely brought in as a scare tactic that will be used in order to light a fire under Meriweather before the season starts.

    Who makes the cut: Patrick Chung, Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, Sergio Brown

Specialists

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    The most accurate kicker in New England Patriots history, Stephen Gostkowski, returns for his sixth season with the team. Gostkowski is one of the premier kickers in the game today, and should be in the running to make yet another Pro Bowl again this season.

    Zoltan Mesko returns as the punter this season after an impressive rookie campaign in 2010. Mesko set an NFL rookie record with a net average of 38.4 yards, and his powerful leg makes him a real treat to watch.

    Matt Katula returns as the team's long-snapper, although his botched high-snap in the team's first preseason game may have put his status in jeopardy, especially after the recent signing of James Dearth. For now, Katula seems OK.

    Who makes the cut: Stephen Gostkowski, Zoltan Mesko, Matt Katula 

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