The New Look New England Patriots

As you all have heard by now, the 2013 New England Patriots will look nothing like the 2012 version of New England’s favorite football team.  Tom Brady’s top 5 receivers, and 6 of the top 8, from 2012 are either gone (Welker, Lloyd, Hernandez, Woodhead, Branch) or will likely start the season on the PUP (Gronkowski).  The new infusion of receivers is led by Danny Amendola, and consists of several rookies that were productive in college, but as we all know, that is not a barometer of success in the NFL.  If you listen to sports talk radio, read the local newspaper, and have Patriot-based conversations with your buddies, you are sure to have heard about how tough of a transition that 2013 will be for Tom Brady, how much the Pats will have to rely on the run game, and how the Miami Dolphins might challenge the Pats for the AFC East.  Well, never fear, Mattyoshow is here is dispel these ridiculous notions and assure you why the 2013 version of the New England Patriots will contend for yet another Super Bowl.

Offensively, the Patriots are expected to have some difficulty.  As I previously mentioned, there has been a lot of turnover at both wide receiver and tight end.  However, unlike most, the turnover doesn’t worry me.  Let’s start with what we know to be fact.  Stevan Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards in 2012.  Ridley ran for all of those yards while Tom Brady was completing 401 passes for 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns.  Ridley ran for all of those yards while only taking 55% of the teams carries (290 of 523 total carries).  Stevan Ridley ran for all of those yards behind an offensive line that was able to dominate the line of scrimmage at various points in games.  That is the same offensive line that is returning all 5 starters for the 2013 season, while also grooming dominant run blocker Marcus Cannon to be their new starting right guard.  Aside from Ridley, the Patriots backfield will contain an improved and more experienced Shane Vereen, two short-yardage specialists in LaGarette Blount and Brandon Bolden, and a proven change-of-pace back and return specialist in Leon Washington.  I expect the New England Patriots’ run game to be a force in 2013, and will help take some of the load off of Tom Brady.

While many are predicting a near-apocalypse for the Patriots’ receiving corps, I think that they will produce well.  If we begin to consider pure talent, the 2013 New England Patriots might boast their most talented group of receivers since 2007, when the Pats had Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, and Kelly Washington (and I wouldn’t be ready to induct that group into the Hall of Fame).  Amendola has proven that he can produce when he stays on the field.  Even with that said, I’m not as concerned with Amendola’s health as almost everyone else is.  Amendola tallied 14 games in 2009 and 16 in 2010 with the Rams.  In 2011 he suffered a rare elbow dislocation that cost him all but 1 game, and in 2012 he fell victim to a freak clavicle dislocation (which was millimeters from killing him), where he only missed 5 games.  Julian Edelman has produced in the Patriots’ system before, and will have to take a step forward in 2013.  Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are rookies, but all reports from training camp have portrayed them as being very studious, picking up the offense quickly, and making an impact in practice.  The Patriots tallest receiver in 2012 was Brandon Lloyd at 6’0”.  Aaron Dobson is 6’3”.  Undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins has been receiving high praise from the coaching staff and defensive players.  Kenbrell Thompkins is 6’1”.  Aqib Talib is on record speaking about Dobson and Thompkins saying, “[Dobson’s] got good releases off the line, that’s what I think he does real good. Him, KT [Thompkins], they’re both pretty good at releasing off the line.  I don’t know what it is, speed, quickness, strength. You either got it or you don’t. They got it.”  That’s pretty high praise for a top-notch NFL corner.  Will there be some learning curve associated with plugging in this many new pieces?  Yes, absolutely.  Will Tom Brady still be Tom Brady in 2013?  Yes, absolutely.  Will the 2013 version of the Patriots’ receiving corps be able to produce similar numbers to the 2012 version?  Yes, absolutely.

Arguably the biggest reason in my mind that the 2013 New England Patriots will once again contend for a Super Bowl is because of one thing, defense.  The defense for the New England Patriots will dominate in 2013.  After years of gathering talent, this is a group that is ready to impress.  Reports from training camp indicate that Devin McCourty has been splitting time between corner and free safety.  This off-season, they resigned Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington.  Pending an unforeseen result from his August DUI hearing, Alfonzo Dennard will be looking to retain his spot as the starting corner opposite of Talib.  Don’t forget about Ras-I Dowling as well, who has a ton of talent (if he can ever stay on the field).  Aside from those veterans, the Patriots also have brought in some young talent at corner in 3rd round draft pick Logan Ryan and undrafted free agent Brandon Jones.  The Patriots are also loaded at safety, with Adrian Wilson taking most of the 1st team reps at SS.  He has been spelled by Steven Gregory and Tavon Wilson.  The Patriots also have young safeties Duron Harmon and Nate Ebner getting reps as well.

Even with the depth in the secondary, the strength of the Patriots’ defense is in the front seven.  No matter the front (whether 4-3 or 3-4), the Patriots are loaded up front.  The linebacking core will consist primarily of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Don’t’a Hightower.  In the 3-4 front, Rob Ninkovich will kick outside to be their 3-4 OLB opposite of Hightower.  Up front, Chandler Jones and Nonkovich will start at defensive end, with Wilfork and newcomer Tommy Kelly plugging up the middle.  There is a ton of talent in the group that I just mentioned, but the depth of this Patriots team is what will make them excel.  In passing situations, the Pats will be able to substitute in Armond Armstead, who is a pass rushing defensive tackle, to pair with Wilfork/Kelly on the inside.  In 3rd and long situations, the Pats can bring in rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, whose athleticism makes him a scary defender for lineman to block, to group with Hightower, Jones, and Jermaine Cunningham to create an awesome pass-rushing package.  Do not forget about Justin Francis, an undrafted free agent in 2012 that showed he has the skill to rush the passer in the NFL (10 tackles, 3 sacks in 2012), and 2012 3rd round pick Jake BeQuette that will look to contribute in 2013.  As you can see, the Pats are absolutely loaded up front, which should correlate to a much-improved defense in 2013.

Keep tuning into your favorite sports radio station.  Keep reading your morning newspaper.  Keep having Patriot-based conversations with your buddies.  By all means, formulate your own opinions and stick with them throughout the season.  However, when it’s the end of December and we are looking at a New England Patriots team that is 12-4, won the AFC East by 4 games, and boasts a top-5 offense and defense in the NFL, don’t say you didn’t see it coming.  Just remember, when the Pats are fighting for another shot at a Super Bowl, Mattyoshow tried to tell you that this was going to happen it August.

Even if 2013 is a miserable season for the Patriots, God is on our side…because we’ve got TEBOW!!

2013 New England Patriots Roster Breakdown – May Edition

In this post, I’m going to take a look at the potential 53 man roster for the New England Patriots for the upcoming 2013 season.  Obviously, it is May so many things will change between now and the beginning of the season.  However, if the season were to start today, this is how I see the roster shaking out.  For each position, I will list the players in order from starter to backup (i.e. 1) starter, 2) backup, etc.).  Let’s do it…

QUARTERBACK: 2 (2)

1)    Tom Brady

2)    Ryan Mallett

Analysis: This one is a no brainer.  Brady is the man, and no one in the league could compete for his position.  The thing to watch at quarterback for the Pats this offseason is the  performance of Ryan Mallett.  While some believe Mallett was drafted to be groomed as Brady’s potential replacement, I think Mallett was brought in 1) Because they saw great value when they selected him in the 3rd round in 2011 and 2) They saw him as a potential trade chip for a higher draft pick than he was originally selected.  If Mallett performs this preseason, he could get dealt to a team that has a big need at QB.

RUNNING BACK: 4 (4)

1)    Stevan Ridley

2)    Shane Vereen

3)    LeGarrette Blount

4)    Leon Washington

Analysis: Ridley earned the starting spot after his performance throughout the 2012 season, however some late season fumbling issues forced the Pats to bring in some insurance at the running back position (Blount) to at least compete with Ridley for the top spot.  Shane Vereen will pick up where Danny Woodhead left off, and will produce at a higher level than Woodhead did.  Ridley’s biggest area of improvement needs to be in pass protection, where Woodhead excelled.  Leon Washington is kept on as a return specialist/emergency/change of pace back.  Blount beats out Brandon Bolden for a spot on the roster and will look to be used in short yardage and goal line situations.

WIDE RECEIVER: 6 (5)

1) Aaron Dobson [outside]

1) Josh Boyce [outside]

1) Danny Amendola [slot]

2) Julian Edelman

2) Donald Jones

3) Matthew Slater

Analysis: This is by far the toughest position to predict the roster breakdown for on the 2013 Patriots.  With so much change that has occurred at the position, determining the direction that Pats will go is tough.  In my opinion, this is how the depth chart will stack up in September.  I think that Dobson and Boyce will both make a smooth transition and earn starting spots on the outside, while Amendola is already penciled in as the starting slot receiver.  Julian Edelman makes the team for two reasons: 1) Familiarity with the system and 2) Depth in the slot (although Boyce can play the slot as well.  The position battle to watch here will be between Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins, and newly signed Lavelle Hawkins.  I think Jenkins’ skill set has diminished to a point where he won’t produce on this team.  Hawkins had some issues with coachability and offensive knowledge in Tennessee, which is the recipe for being cut here in New England.  That leaves Jones, who has proven he can produce in the division and has good speed and size.  Slater isn’t going anywhere.  He is a lifer with the Pats.

TIGHT END: 4 (4)

1) Rob Gronkowski

1) Aaron Hernandez

2) Jake Ballard

3) Michael Hoomanawanui

Analysis: The top two spots here are set in stone for the next 5-6 years.  Gronkowski is still dealing with forearm issues, which now has me concerned that he will not be ready for the start of the season.  Here’s my prediction: Gronkowski starts the season on the PUP list in an effort to get that forearm back to 100% (and because they know they can afford to miss Gronk for 6 weeks).  With that said, the Pats are utilizing the two tight-end set more than any team in the NFL, so they are forced to carry 4 (at least) on their roster.  After Gronk and Hernandez, the next two spots are up for grabs.  The Pats made a great move and grabbed an injured Jake Ballard off of waivers from the Giants, and the greatness of that move will be realized this year.  Ballard is a mammoth of a human (6’6″, 275 lbs), but is as a good receiver (2011: 38 rec, 604 yards, 4 TDs) as he is blocker.  The Pats re-signed Hoomanawanui to a one-year, $1.323 million contract this offseason, so I think that gives him a leg up over Daniel Fells for the 4th tight end spot.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE: 4 (4)

1) Nate Solder [LT]

1) Sebastian Vollmer [RT]

2) Will Svitek

2) Marcus Cannon

Analysis: The top two spots here are filled by returning players in Solder and Vollmer.  After that, I see Svitek as a near lock to make the roster considering he is guaranteed to make at least $500,000 this season even if he is cut.  Svitek has the versatility to play both tackle positions and has been a good back-up for several years in the NFL, while also having started 16 games throughout his career.  Marcus Cannon will be the other backup tackle.  Cannon played decently in limited action last year, and should continue to develop this offseason.  Some believe the Pats will look to move Cannon inside to guard, which could shift the depth chart at tackle a bit.

OFFENSIVE GUARD: 3 (4)

1) Logan Mankins [LG]

1) Dan Connolly [RG]

2) Nick McDonald

Analysis: I see the Patriots only needing to keep 3 guards on the active roster for a couple of reasons: 1) McDonald has the versatility to play both guard positions and 2) Cannon can bump inside and play guard as well.  Mankins and Connolly are locks at both starting guard positions, while McDonald has been a good, versatile backup over the last couple of seasons.  Over his career, McDonald has lined up at all 5 offensive line spots, and worked a lot on playing center last offseason.  This is a great advantage for the Pats, considering that they usually only keep one center on the active roster (Connolly has also played center in the past).  Nick’s brother Chris will push him for a spot on the 53-man roster, however I think Chris makes his way onto the practice squad.

CENTER: 1 (1)

1) Ryan Wendell

Analysis: Not much analysis required here.  As mentioned previously, McDonald and Connolly have both played center in the past, so if Wendell happens to go down, the Pats have options.

DEFENSIVE END: 5 (6)

1) Chandler Jones [Right DE]

1) Rob Ninkovich [Left DE]

2) Jermaine Cunningham

2) Justin Francis

3) Jake Bequette

Analysis: For consistency purposes, I am creating this depth chart based on the assumption that the Pats will primarily play a 4-3 defense in 2013.  Obviously, they often switch between defenses, however, I’m projecting all players as they fit into a 4-3.  At defensive end, Jones and Ninkovich get the starting nod, just as they did in 2012.  The battle at defensive end starts with the second string guys.  Unlike some other positions where the second stringers don’t see the field much, back-up defensive lineman are becoming much more important in the NFL.  High-powered passing attacks are forcing defenses to rotate lineman to keep fresh bodies on the field that can get to the quarterback.  For the Pats, pressuring the quarterback is a top priority in 2013.  There will be a battle for the back-up spots at defensive end this off-season.  Jermaine Cunningham showed flashes of the player expected when he was taken in the second round of the 2010 draft.  A 4-game suspension derailed some of that success, however I think his performance last season warrants him making the team in 2013.  Justin Francis went from being an undrafted free agent signing to top back-up performer for the Pats in 2012 (10 tackles, 3 sacks).  Jake Bequette only played in 3 games last year, however he was awarded practice player of the month in October of last season and is expected to make a bigger impact in 2013.  A prospect to watch here is 7th round pick Michael Buchanon.  Buchanon has the athleticism to rush the passer in the NFL, however he needs to ass some bulk in order to hold up in the run game.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: 4 (4)

1) Vince Wilfork

1) Kyle Love

2) Tommy Kelly

2) Armond Armstead

Analysis: The surprising release of Brandon Deaderick a couple of days ago makes me think that the Patriots have something in one of their young defensive tackles that we don’t know about yet.  Vince Wilfork is considered one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, and will remain a staple on the New England defensive line for years to come.  I believe that Kyle Love has earned a starting spot on this team.  Love has a Wilfork-like build (6’1″, 320 lbs) and is in the game on 1st and 2nd down to simple take up blockers.  On third down is where Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead come in.  Kelly is a formidable pass rusher from the defensive tackle position (14.5 combined sacks between 2010-2011) and will hopefully fill a Gerard Warren-like role for the 2013 Pats.  Armstead comes from the CFL through USC.  Armstead had a heart attack as a senior at USC and was never cleared to play college football again.  Therefore, he had to go through the CFL to make his way to the NFL.  Armstead had 44 tackles and 6 sacks in the CFL last year.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: 3 (3)

1) Jerod Mayo

1) Dont’a Hightower

2) Jamie Collins

Analysis: Jerod Mayo, one of the NFL’s best inside linebackers, make the transition to the outside in the Pats 4-3 defense in 2012, and seemed to not miss a beat.  Mayo amassed 147 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 1 interception.  Opposite Mayo, 2012 1st round pick Dont’a Hightower had a good first season in New England, ending with 60 tackles and 4 sacks.  I expect Hightower to become a more efficient pass rusher in 2013 and be most effective on first and second down.  Then there is 2013 2nd round pick Jamie Collins.  As mentioned in a previous post, I think Collins can contribute most on 3rd down as a rookie.  As a former safety, Collins has fluid hips as an outside linebacker and should be able to cover backs, tight ends, and slot receivers more effectively than the bigger Hightower (Collins: 6’3″, 250 lbs; Hightower: 6’2″, 270 lbs).  Niko Koutouvides and Jeff Tarpinian, former contributors for the Pats, will be competing primarily with inside linebackers for a roster spot as none of the aforementioned outside linebackers will be released.

INSIDE LINEBACKER: 3 (3)

1) Brandon Spikes

2) Dane Fletcher

3) Mike Rivera

Analysis: 2013 is a huge year for Brandon Spikes.  Spikes is in the 4th year of his rookie contract, and needs to prove he is worth the next contract he will get from either the Patriots of another team.  Spikes has already displayed great run-stopping ability in the NFL.  The problem is that Spikes is considered by some to be a 2-down linebacker.  2-down linebackers don’t usually get big-time money in the NFL.  Dane Fletcher was cementing himself as a good backup and possible future starter for the Patriots before he tore his ACL last season.  The Pats thought highly enough of Fletcher to re-sign him (he was a restricted free agent) this off-season.  Mike Rivera his filled in well for the Pats over the last couple of seasons and will be competing with rookie 7th round pick Steve Beauharnais for the 3rd spot on the depth chart.

CORNERBACK: 6 (7)

1) Aqib Talib

1) Alfonzo Dennard

2) Kyle Arrington [Nickel Corner]

2) Ras-I Dowling

3) Logan Ryan

3) Marquice Cole

Analysis: Unlike 2012, I’m projecting that the Pats only carry 6 cornerbacks in 2013 simply because they are overloaded at safety (and I believe a couple of their safeties could play on the inside at corner).  The Patriots got lucky this off-season when Alfonzo Dennard got sentenced to only 30 days in prison (starting in March 2014).  Dennard will look to build on a successful rookie campaign and start opposite of the $5 million man (Talib) in 2013.  Newly resigned Kyle Arrington played well enough over the past few seasons to earn 4-year $16 million deal this off-season.  Arrington will play, and is most effective in the nickel.  After than, the battle begins.  Logan Ryan is essentially a lock simply because of the position that he was drafted this season.  2013 is a make or break season for Ras-I Dowling.  If he is able to stay healthy and contribute, we may begin to realize some of his talent.  However, another injury may lead to Dowling’s release.  Marquice Cole gets the nod as the 6th corner because of his special teams prowess.  Rookie free-agent Brandon Jones could push for Cole’s roster spot if he proves that he can perform on special teams.

SAFETY: 5 (4)

1) Devin McCourty [FS]

1) Adrian Wilson [SS]

2) Tavon Wilson

2) Duron Harmon

3) Nate Ebner

Analysis: As I mentioned earlier, the Pats have an overload of safeties on their roster.  I project that 5 safeties will make the final 2013 roster, which is one more than last season.  I believe it is time that Devin McCourty makes the official switch to safety.  McCourty has performed well as a part-time safety over the last couple of seasons (although he was basically full-time last year), and it looks like the Pats think he may be a long-term solution at free safety.  I still think McCourty could be a good corner in the NFL, however I don’t get paid to make those decisions.  Adrian Wilson will get the start opposite of McCourty and will provide a physical presence that the Pats have lacked since the Rodney Harrison days.  At 6’3″, 230 lbs, Wilson has lost a step over his career, but McCourty’s responsibility will be to cover, Wilson will be asked to hit.  Behind those two, 2012 second round pick Tavon Wilson earns a roster spot after showing some promise in his rookie campaign (41 tackles, 4 interceptions).  Wilson also has the ability to drop down and play over the slot receiver, which will be useful as the Pats are only keeping 6 corners.  2013 3rd round pick Duron Harmon makes the roster over 2012 starter Steve Gregory.  Gregory was serviceable in 2012, although I think the Pats will decide to move in a new direction in 2013.  Special teams standout Nate Ebner gets the nod as the 3rd string safety due to his special teams ability (him and Slater are essentially the new Larry Izzos).

SPECIALISTS: 3 (3)

PK) Stephen Gostkowski

P) Zoltan Mesko

LS) Danny Aiken

Analysis: No change here from 2012.  The Patriots have brought in 2012 Ray Guy Award winner Ryan Allen to compete with Zoltan Mesko, however I expect Mesko to win that battle.  Some believe Allen may make the practice squad, which speaks to his talent as punters don’t often take up a spot on the 7-man practice squad.

PRACTICE SQUAD: 7 (7)

1)    Michael Buchanon, DE

2)    Matt Stankiewitch, C

3)    Chris McDonald, OG

4)    Brandon Jones, CB

5)    Steve Beauharnais, LB

6)    Jason Vega, DE

7)    TJ Moe, WR

Analysis: At this point in time, practice squad predictions are nearly impossible considering that training camp hasn’t even started yet.  However, in true Mattyoshow fashion, I’m giving it a shot.  Michael Buchanon is a raw talent out of Illinois that needs time in the weight room to bulk up.  I truly think Buchanon will push Jake Bequette for a roster spot at defensive end, but will wind up on the practice squad.  Matt Stankiewitch was a 25-game starter at Penn State at center, and certainly benefitted from Bill O’Brien’s tutelage during his last year at Penn State.  Stankiewitch is determined to learn to play guard in the NFL to improve his versatility and subsequently his odds of making the active roster.  Chris McDonald, younger brother of the aforementioned Nick McDonald, was a 39 game starter for the Michigan St. Spartans and will look to carve a position out at guard in the NFL.  Brandon Jones, yet another Rutgers product, will compete for an active roster spot this season, but will most likely end up on the practice squad.  Steve Beauharnais is an instinctual linebacker that ha a nose for the football.  Beauharnais doesn’t project as a 3-down linebacker, but a year in the weight room could lead to him competing for a roster spot in 2014.  Jason Vega is another CFL product signed this offseason.  Vega is a former Northeastern product (via Brockton) that amassed 66 tackles and 12 sacks in the CFL in 2012.  Missouri product TJ Moe draws comparisons to Welker simply based on his skill set and skin color.  Moe is bigger than Welker (6’0″, 200 lbs), stronger (26 reps at the combine), and maybe even more agile (Combine best 6.53 3-cone drill).  Moe could use a year of seasoning on the practice squad, however in 2013 he could look to replace Julian Edelman on the roster.

Week 11 – The Mattyoshow Review

In this segment I will provide a weekly review for the previous weekend’s Patriots game, as well as my prediction for next weekend’s game.

-Whew!  That game was much closer than it had to be, but what else could be expected when the team on the opposite sideline is led by arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play.  Peyton was sent out their with his top three wide receivers (Wayne, Garcon, and Collie), but lost Collie by the end of the first quarter, and the tight end Tamme couldn’t seem to catch anything meaningful (even though he finished the day with 7 catches for 60 yards, he had a few key drops in the red zone). Interceptions by Devin McCourty, Brandon Meriweather, and James Sanders were all wonderfully timed, proving to be huge momentum changers (McCourty and Meriweather) and game sealers (Sanders).  The secondary was exposed a bit as Manning through for almost 400 yards and 4 touchdowns, but came up with big plays when needed.

-What more can be said about Jerod Mayo that already hasn’t been.  This guy is playing like a flat-out animal.  On Sunday he racked up another 11 tackles (with 4 assists) which gives him 120 combined tackles on the season, according to NFL.com.  Mayo seemed to be in on many more plays than the stats imply, making stops on almost every crossing route that the Colts tried to run.  The Colts, who tallied up a surprising 20 carries, but only amassed 71 yards.  That lack of rushing production was due in part to Mayo’s effectiveness, but also to the play of Vince Wilfork, Gary Guyton, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes.  It was an all around solid effort to slow the Colts’ rushing attack.

-I was very disappointed with the Pats’ inability to pressure Peyton Manning.  Granted, the Colts give up the fewest sacks in the NFL, so getting to him and putting him on the ground isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible either.  Cunningham and Banta-Cain couldn’t seem to generate a consistent enough pass rush to disrupt Manning’s rhythm.  That being said, James Sanders’ game sealing interception (on a drive where the Colts looked destined to score and win the game) was caused by pressure put on Manning by Tully Banta-Cain.  So, to be optimistic, I guess it could be said that the pass rushers have very good timing, but they need to do a better job more consistently reaching the qb.

-186 yards and 2 touchdowns is a stat line that you expect from Colt McCoy or Josh Freeman, not Tom Brady.  But, as we all know stats can often be very deceiving.  On Sunday, Brady delivered passes with pin point accuracy, connecting on 19 of his 25 passes.  Brady spread the ball around to six different receivers.  Noticeably missing from the stat sheet once again was speedster Brandon Tate.  Wonderfully showing near the top of the stat sheet was Wes Welker (5 catches, 58 yards, 1 touchdown), who grabbed his first touchdown since week 2 and has performed well in the second consecutive game.  I have made a big deal out of Welker’s ineffectiveness since the Moss trade, and I’m not ready to abandon my stance on that just yet.  Tate still needs to become a bigger part of this offense before Moss will become a distant memory.  But, Welker’s revitalization is something the certainly has me excited for the upcoming weeks.

NEXT WEEK’S PREDICTION – Patriots 34 – Lions 24

Just a Quick Review

Reviewing what was encouraging and what questions remain after the Patriots second preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday, August 19th.

Encouraging Signs…

-How can I not begin with the return of Wes Welker?  The man has just returned to action in the National Football League just seven and ½ months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL.  Extraordinary.  I was encouraged to see how Brady tried to incorporate Welker into the offense immediately.  The first play of the game was a holding penalty, but the next three plays were directed at Welker.  Granted, two catches for 20 yards doesn’t look huge in the box score, but the simple fact that he is healthy enough to even be on the feel is a great sign for the season to come.  Forget about trying to develop young kids to fill in during Welker’s absence.  We are now developing these young receivers to compliment Welker and Randy Moss.

-Big ‘ol Ron Brace finally got his oversized ass onto the field.  It only took him a little more than two weeks to pass the team’s conditioning test (pathetic, I know).  But, he saw his first day of practice a week ago today (the Monday before the Thursday preseason game), and then finally got some game action in the game Thursday night.  Brace played decently, piling up 3 tackles and one forced fumble.  But, what was most encouraging was not his actually performance, but just his presence on the field.  The Patriots are thin at the defensive end position, still trying to fill in from the losses of Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green.  Newcomer Gerard Warren will likely start on one side with Mike Wright across the way, but behind those two there is little depth.  If Brace can catch up quickly through practice then he may have a shot to contribute to this defense in 2010.

-For the second game in a row the Patriots ran the ball with a good amount of success.  In the first game against the Saints, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Laurence Maroney led the charge as the team compiled 125 yards on 35 carries, topped off by 3 rushing touchdowns.  On Thursday Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris got the bulk of the work as the team compiled 120 yards on 30 carries, topped off by 2 rushing touchdowns.  Belichick’s emphasis on the run game is something that I have been calling for since 2006 when the Pats made Maroney a first round pick.  The real question is whether or not this trend will continue into the regular season?

-Earlier this summer I predicted that rookie cornerback Devin McCourty’s biggest area of impact would be on special teams, especially in the return game.  I am certainly excited to say that I may have been wrong.  For the second week in a row, McCourty has started opposite Darius Butler and has impressed in both outings.  We knew that he was fast, but his level of physicality was something that I just wasn’t expecting.  Compile that with his exceptional closing speed and we may be looking at a rookie cornerback that will make a huge impact this season in nickel packages (assuming Darius Butler and Leigh Bodden will win that starting spots).

-Man, do I love Brandon Spikes.  This kid was born to play as a 3-4 inside linebacker.  He is tall, strong, has the ability to shed blocks, can fill holes, blitz is he has to, and can even run sideline to sideline.  Spikes and Mayo, within a season or two, could comprise the best inside linebacker tandem in the NFL, they both have that kind of talent.  I’ve repeatedly knocked Belichick for his inconsistency in terms of success with high draft picks (see Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Adrian Klemm, etc.), but, so far at least, it seems like Bill got it right in 2010.

-Zoltan Mesko can kick the hell out of the ball.

Remaining Questions…

-The offensive line still scares the hell out of me.  Yes, the Patriots had pretty good success running that ball the past two weeks and the line has done a decent job of protecting the quarterbacks (although Hoyer takes some mean shots).  But, there is no way in hell that I feel good about this o-line going against the Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Chargers, Dolphins…damn just about anybody!  I’ve pretty much given up on Mankins at this point, but I really think that a move needs to be made to sure up the middle of that line.  (JUST HEARD ON WEEI WITHIN THE LAST 30 SECONDS THAT NICK KACZUR IS OUT FOR THE SEASON BECAUSE OF BACK SURGERY).

-Although the running game has put up some good numbers over the past few weeks, I would still like to see coach Belichick define roles within the running back group a bit better.  At this point there are four possible starters for the 2010 NFL season at running back, Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, or BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  I don’t know whether Maroney is going to put up 1,000 yards or is going to get cut.  I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore!  It has to be frustrating as a player to not know whether you are going to carry the ball 30 times or sit the entire game.

-I really hope that Brandon Tate lives up to the hype that has been surrounding him this training camp.  If Tate plays the way that he has supposedly been playing throughout camp then the Pats will have five or six viable options to catch passes (Moss, Welker, Edelman, Hernandez, Gronkowski, and Tate).  If Tate’s talents fail to translate onto the field then that split end receiver position opposite of Moss will be a dead zone for the third consecutive season.

Super Bowl or Bust (Defensive Edition)…

A majority of the draft picks that the New England Patriots have made since the 2008 season have been defensive players.  The Patriots top pick in 2008 was stud linebacker Jerod Mayo, and he is accompanied in that draft class by Terrence Wheatley, Shawn Crable, and Jonathan Wilhite.  The team’s first selection in the 2009 draft was safety Patrick Chung, and he is accompanied in that class by Ron Brace, Darius Butler, Tyrone McKenzie, and Myron Pryor.  The 2010 draft selections followed suit as the Pats chose Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes.  There certainly was some great offensive talent mixed in those three drafts for the Patriots (2009: Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon Tate, and Julian Edelman; 2010: Rob Gronkowski, Taylor Price, and Aaron Hernandez), but the majority of those draft picks, and more importantly most of the higher draft picks, were dedicated to defensive players.

One of the main focuses over the last few years for coach Belichick has obviously been to develop a younger, faster, and more athletic defense.  This is the year when all of that work needs to translate into one of the best defenses in the league.  The transition from the Seymour, Bruschi, Harrison defense is now complete, and it is time for the new set of stars (Wilfork, Mayo, Meriweather) to step up and make this defense their own.  Similarly to the offensive side of the ball, there are many questions surrounding the 2010 New England Patriots’ defense.  How those questions are answered throughout the course of the season may very well determine that amount of success that the Patriots have this upcoming season.

The defensive line had always been a spot of consistency for Bill Belichick’s defense.  Since drafting Vince Wilfork in 2004, the Wilfork, Warren, and Seymour combination always was consistent and performed their duties wonderfully.  The team has just undergone their first full off-season without Richard Seymour, and the right defensive end position is an area of concern.  Free agent signee Gerard Warren seems to be the front-runner to fill the void at right end.  But, don’t discount the skill set and experience that Mike Wright brings to the table.  Wright has been the fourth lineman, filling in at both the nose and two end spots, for the past four seasons, and dangling a starting position in front of him will certainly elevate his play.  Defensive line depth is certainly a strength for the Pats as backups consist of previously mentioned Wright, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, and 2010 seventh round draft picks Brandon Deaderick and Kade Weston.

The one position group that has me most excited for the 2010 season (and actually even more excited for the preseason games to see the young kids play) are the linebackers.  In my opinion, there is only one linebacker spot filled, and that is with Mayo in the middle.  I know that it is highly likely that Tully Banta-Cain will be starting come opening day, but with so much young talent and athleticism behind him it may be tough for him to keep that spot.  I really hope that Brandon Spikes begins the season as a starter alongside Mayo, but just the other day Belichick was talking about how different the Patriots’ defense is than the Gators’ defense, which may slow Spikes’ arrival into the starting lineup.  Once Spikes nails down the playbook and becomes comfortable in the defense (which is something that Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess were never able to do, so it is no easy feat) he fits perfectly into the Pats’ 3-4 defense and will be a certain upgrade to Gary Guyton.  Speaking of Guyton, he better get onto the practice field because Spikes and Tyrone McKenzie are gunning for his spot.  McKenzie apparently used his season on IR to his advantage as he was receiving praise from Belichick about his knowledge of the playbook.  There were high hopes for McKenzie (2009 3rd round pick) as a rookie, but his season was derailed by a torn ACL.  In 2010 McKenize hopes to push for a starting spot, and would also be an upgrade to the undersized Guyton.  As for the remaining outside linebacker spot, your guess is as good as mine.  Rookie Jermaine Cunningham has the natural ability to play the position immediately, but he is changing positions (from defensive end in college to outside linebacker in the NFL) along with trying to pick up one of the most difficult defensive systems in the league.  I expect Cunningham to contribute more towards the end of the season rather than at the beginning.  Remaining players consist of Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, and Rob Ninkovich.  I don’t see any of those guys as viable starters in the league.  One area I would like to see the Pats explore is signing Aaron Schobel.  Schobel has been a pain in Matt Light’s side since arriving in Buffalo in 2001.  His rushing ability alone would make him a good addition to this Patriot defense.

Brandon Meriweather is a Pro Bowl safety that will be a staple in the Patriots’ defense for years to come (pending any Mankins-like contract issues).  Addressing the free safety spot is where it gets interesting.  James Sanders has the experience factor and certainly does what is asked of him, but he lacks big impact in the run game and rarely makes big-time plays.  Pat Chung has apparently made great improvements in the off-season and it primed for a big year.  Chung dedicated his off-season to hitting the weight room and studying film.  I expect that Chung will overtake Sanders for the starting free safety spot by at least mid-season, if not by the opening game.

Simlarly to Pat Chung, Darius Butler spent most of his off-season hitting the weights and watching tape.  Butler is one of the most physically gifted corners in the league.  At 5’11” 190lbs, Butler posted a 4.4 40-yard dash and a 43” vertical jump.  Those numbers alone make him the most athletic corner on the roster.  Combine that athleticism with ball-hawking instincts and you have a great corner in the making.  I expect 2010 to be Darius Butler’s breakout season and for him to be supplanted as the starter alongside Leigh Bodden for most, if not all, of the 2010 season.  Bodden is pretty solid and you know what you are getting from him.  The Patriots were sadly a victim of a poor cornerback market this off-season, considering Bodden was the second best corner available.  But, his experience complimented with Butler’s athleticism should be a decent 1-2 punch.  The third cornerback spot looks to be locked up for the moment by Jonathan Wilhite.  Wilhite’s play has been nothing short of inconsistent, but his talent level certainly makes him the best option to play the nickel.  2010 is a make or break season for Terrence Wheatley.  Expectations for Wheatley were high after being selected in the second round of the 2008 draft, but he has struggled to stay on the field and when he has played he has looked very sloppy.  Another bad season and Wheatley’s days in New England will most likely come to an end.  Rookie cornerbacks have notoriously struggled in Belichick’s system and I do not expect that to change with Devin McCourty.  The 2010 first round pick is an exceptional athlete, but any contributions outside of special teams will be an unexpected bonus.

As for the special teams, Gostkowski is one of the most consistent kickers in the game, and in my opinion signing him is priority number two, after signing Mankins.  The punting position seems to be rookie Zoltan Mesko’s job to lose.  Mesko has seemingly impressed so far in training camp and I fully expect him to win the job.  The return game has been a sore spot for the Patriots for a few seasons now.  Last year, the combination of Maroney, Slater, and Edelman taking back kicks never really got the job done.  I expect McCourty to return kickoffs this season (maybe with some help from Brandon Tate and Taylor Price) and hopefully use his exceptional speed to grab a few touchdowns.  Punts will most likely be returned by Kevin Faulk and maybe occasionally by Welker.  Although I hate seeing Welker back to return a punt as that is just one more play where there is a risk of injury.

As for the 2010 season as a whole, I expect nothing less than greatness from this group of New England Patriots.  Their mindset alone gives them an edge on most teams in the league.  When ESPN’s Adam Schefter stopped by Patriots’ training camp on Friday and asked Welker to sign the Patriots’ logo after explaining what Rex Ryan wrote on the Jets’ logo (“soon to be champs”), Welker simply signed his name and then wrote, “one game at a time.”  You have to love that attitude.  Getting back to business, I expect the defense of the Patriots this year to be better than most expect.  Any offense led by number 12 will be good, and hopefully Maroney can have a decent season to accompany one of the best passing attacks in the league.  An AFC East title should be expected, and I would love to see a Colts vs. Patriots matchup in the AFC Championship game.  I think you know what my prediction from there would be, but I’m not going to say it just for the odd chance that I jinx the season and the in week one Brady goes down with a torn ACL in the other knee…oh shit…