What to Look For…

The New England Patriots are off to a somewhat surprising 5-1 start (tied for the division lead) and look to continue to build on the success and the development of their young players as the season progresses.  Contrarily, the Minnesota Vikings are off to a disappointing 2-4 start (3rd place in the NFC North) and are hoping that week 8 marks the beginning of their turnaround.  Here are a few things to look for during Sunday’s Patriots vs. Vikings game:

-How could I start this segment without mentioning Randy Moss?  Moss returns to New England, just four weeks after being traded to Minnesota for a 2010 third round pick.  There are a ton of questions swirling about Moss’ return.  Will he give the Vikings some of the Pats’ defensive calls/signals?  Will he be applauded or booed?  How will coach Belichick and Brady greet Moss after the game?  But the most important question in my mind is how will the Patriots’ game plan and coverage schemes look against Randy Moss.  As I continuously say every week, this secondary is very young and although they get a bit better every week, are guys like Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington ready to individually handle Randy Moss?  I look for a safety to be over the top of Moss all game.  But, one thing we can be sure of is that coach Belichick will have a great game plan on how to contain Moss.  What to look for: What defensive schemes the Patriots’ defense uses to minimize the “Moss-effect.”

-Speaking of game plan, how can you create a game plan for a guy like Adrian Peterson.  Peterson is a one of a kind, once in a generation type of back.  His combination of speed, strength, desire, determination, and just downright pissed-offness (yup, made that one up) is unlike anything that the Patriots have or will see.  Peterson runs harder than any back that I have ever watched play the game.  The key with him is that every year he seems to be amongst the league leaders in yards after contact.  It takes two, three, and sometimes four defenders to take Peterson down.  Tackling will be huge in this game, and I look for Jerod Mayo to lead the charge in attempting to contain Adrian Peterson.  What to look for: How the Patriots’ defense performs against one of the best running backs in the league.

-Last week the Patriots passing offense did not perform up to its usual standards.  I am completely aware that even soon to be Hall of Fame quarterback is allowed to have a bad week once and a great while, but if you put two performances together like that back-to-back, then I begin to worry.  I stand by my notion that this offense seriously lacks a deep threat (with both of the longest passes in each game going to Hernandez, where the yardage was attributed mainly to yards after the catch).  Brandon Tate hasn’t done anything since Moss left.  Deion Branch has been a pleasant surprise, but his production has led to a serious decline in Welker’s impact.  No one seems to be able to get behind the defense (Taylor Price earned co-practice player of the week honors this past week, maybe signaling some upcoming playing time for the young speedster out of Ohio), which after a couple of weeks of film, and safeties creeping closer to the line of scrimmage, will hurt this Patriots’ offense.  What to look for: How the offense continues to evolve, now four weeks (and three games) after the departure of Randy Moss.

-Speaking of practice player of the week awards, Price received the honors along with practice squad corner Tony Carter and the ever-elusive corner Darius Butler.  Butler’s role in the defense has basically dwindled to nothing ever since his disappointing performance in week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals.  Butler’s playing time has essentially been limited to dime or quarters packages (6 or 7 defensive backs on the field).  This has been a major disappointment, especially for me because I really thought that Butler was primed to have a big season.  Receiving recognition for his work in practice may be the first step towards getting back on the field and having a real impact on this defense.  What to look for: How much playing time Darius Butler gets after a great week in practice, and against a talented Minnesota receiving corps.

-I wouldn’t be happy with myself as a source of information and wisdom if I didn’t at least touch on the Brett Favre situation in this post.  We all have heard it a thousand times, Favre is an iron man.  He plays through injuries that other guys would be out weeks with.  Yes, 291 straight starts is very, very impressive.  I’ve got it.  Sadly, Mr. Favre, you playing this week against the New England Patriots is NOT in the best interest of your team.  In 2007, Tavaris Jackson started 12 games (essentially his one season as a starter).  Jackson threw for almost 2,000 yards (with a 58.2% completion percentage), with 9 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.  He also rushed for 260 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Jackson compiled a passer rating of 70.8.  In 2010, Brett Favre, through 6 games, has thrown for almost 1,200 yards (with a 58.1% completion percentage), with 7 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.  Favre has compiled a passer rating of 68.0.  After looking over those stats, let me restate what I said earlier: Sadly, Mr. Favre, you playing this week against the New England Patriots is NOT in the best interest of your team.  What to look for: How the whole Brett Favre/Brad Childress/Tavaris Jackson/Jen Sterger/Roger Goodell/Scottie (oh sorry, nix that last one) saga plays out.

-THIS WEEK’S PREDICTION – Patriots 35 – Vikings 34

Advertisements

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…

Position Rankings (OTA Edition): Corner Backs

In my opinion corner back is one of the toughest positions to play in the NFL.  Most positions you can be aggressive and at the snap get right after the ball.  When you’re out there on an island you have to sit back and use your instincts to diagnose routes and react off of a number of factors.  Film study is crucial to get a read on what your weekend foe will be doing.  When a receiver runs an out does he cut it at 6 or 7 yards?  How well can he get off of a jam?  Can he out jump you?  There are a ton of keys that a defensive back has to look for and when he makes up his mind he had better be right, or he could be on the wrong end of a highlight reel.  Let’s not forget he could be subject to a pulling guard or tackle on a screen play with no help. 

It’s a bit of bang or bust when it comes to corners, and for this reason you see teams address the position all over the draft board and in free agency.  There are so many different schemes and zones that you may see a player succeed in one defense and fail miserably in another.  Think of covering a guy who runs a sub 4.4 that is 6′- something who can jump through the ceiling… sounds like dating a girl with 13 brothers and a minister for a father.  It is not a fun position unless you are playing against Jamarcus Russell every week (shout out to the Purple Drank), seeing as he will eat and drank’ his way out of the NFL it doesn’t look good. The AFC East as you should all know by now has the best corner and arguably the best football player in the league, yeah I said it.  The season that Darrelle Revis had last season against the players he faced is almost as impressive as Tom Brady’s bludgeoning of the NFL in 2007.  I digress with the rankings…

1) New York Jets- When you have someone like Revis on one side of the field it wouldn’t matter who was alongside for the Jets to achieve the top ranking here.  However, when you add someone with the pure athleticism of Antonio Cromartie, you cause fits for offenses and coordinators across the league.  I will throw some numbers at you in case you have forgotten what Darrelle Revis did last year; here is what the best receivers in the world did against him: 

Andre Johnson- 4 catches 35 yards 0 TD

Randy Moss (2 games)- 9 catches 58 yards 1 TD

Marques Colston- 2 catches 33 yards 0 TD

Steve Smith ( the real one) -1 catch 5 yards  0 TD ( Revis picked off two passes headed Smith’s way and returned one for a 67 yd TD.

Rhoddy White -4 catches 33 yards 0 TD

Reggie Wayne (shouldn’t count but it supports my point) -3 catches 33 yards 0 TD

Chad Johnson (I don’t call him a Spanish numeral)- NOTHING!!! In fact, the Bengals only threw for 31 yards the whole game!!

So in 8 games the best recievers in the world averaged about 3 catches and 25 yards a game!!!  Revis is one of the few players that will be worth the contract they sign, no matter how much it is.  There is also some solid depth at this position for the Jets.  Dwight Lowery has played starters minutes at that position and has been productive.  Then when you think they are set at the position, they draft Kyle Wilson, arguably ( and in my opinion) the best corner in the draft at the 29th overall spot.  These four players make up the best corner back unit in the league!

2) Miami Dolphins- Call me biased if you want but this young tandem in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith reminds me of the Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison dominance of the late 90’s.  Both players are entering their second year in the league and received on the job training last season playing in every single game their rookie year.  Vontae Davis is an extremely physical player, at 5’11 Davis can jump with the best of them ( ask Randy Moss who Davis jumped over for an interception at New England this season) and is a very strong tackler at the edge.  Sean Smith is a converted wide receiver and stands 6’3″ tall! This gives him a great advantage in jump ball situations and when he improves his tackling he will be a complete corner in this league.  Then you have the veteran in Will Allen.  Allen’s season was cut short last year due to an ACL tear.  Before the injury Allen was having his best season yet.  He needs to get used to playing the Nickel position because the two sophomores will play ahead of him.  Adding depth to the defensive backfield is Jason Allen.  A former first round pick out of Tennessee, Allen has been a disappointment given his draft position.  He was shuffled back and forth from safety to corner with the different coaching staffs he experienced, and he has settled into a solid Nickel and Dime package defensive back that is also a special teams standout.  Rounding off this group is rookie Nolan Carroll out of Maryland.  I throw his name into the mix here because I value high character guys and Carroll has a great pedigree.  If it weren’t for a broken ankle in his senior season he would’ve been drafted much higher than the fourth round and the Dolphins feel like they got a steal with him.  I see Carroll competing and possibly winning the 4th slot in the middle of this season. 

3) Buffalo Bills- The Buffalo Bills edge out New England because they have a good blend of experience and youth at this position.  They also have a very physical group of corners, it seems to be a theme with the franchise.  Reggie Corner and Drayton Florence finished 4th and 5th in tackles on the team.  Both players like to stick their nose into plays and be physical.  They are almost the same in that they can tackle but have hands like feet and they will let a few interceptions slip through their hands.  Terrence McGee is a pesky defender who is an absolute ball hawk.  In seven seasons he has 17 interceptions and 83 deflections.  McGee is an undersized corner who will lose a jump ball and in phone booth situations with larger receivers.  Leodis McKelvin is going into his third season and is coming off of a broken leg that ended is 2009 campaign.  McKelvin is most notably remembered for fumbling a kick off return that set the tone for an awful season for his Bills.  However McKelvin is considered a play-making corner that has excellent ball skills and when it is in his hands has the potential to take it to the house every time.  Expect McKelvin to work slowly back into the starting role and knock out one of the veterans in front of him.  Ashton Youbooty is the fifth corner on the squad that will see the field in limited action.  .

4) New England Patriots- I can hear Pats fans getting their pitchforks ready and sounding the homer alarms.  The bottom line with this ranking is that there is too much flux at this position and not enough talent.  Another contributing factor to this ranking is the lack of pass rush forcing them to cover longer, which will hurt them. Leigh Bodden is a very solid corner and this ranking does not reflect him as much as it does the supporting cast.  Bodden is a very instinctual corner who, if I were an English teacher, I would give him a B+.  The problem is he isn’t getting younger and his supporting cast maybe needs to be a bit older.  Darius Butler, a very young player is maybe a year away and Jonathon Wilhite is way too inconsistent to be called anything more than serviceable.  Wilhite allows receivers’ get too much separation when running down the field and he lacks the size and speed to dictate a route.  Butler will no doubt start this season and should begin his ascension to being a productive starter.  I think he has the potential to be a solid corner in this league I just don’t know when it will be.  He is very athletic and can jump through the roof.  His development will be critical to this group’s success this season.  Devin McCourty was the very unpopular first round pick from the Patriots in this years draft.  He will compete for the Nickel position and may blossom into a starter, you never know at this position.  Terrence Wheatley was a 2nd round draft choice in 2008 and he could work his way into the 4th cornerback slot.  He suffered a broken wrist last season against Indy and will figure in at the bottom of this rotation.  The biggest difference with this team as it always is, is the coaching.  Bill Belichick has won super bowls with what has seemed like a lack luster defensive backfield and his scheme has proven time after time that it can be effective.  Maybe the youth at this position will get a chance to play together for a long period of time and gel to crate a solid unit.  Maybe they draft another 7  with their plethora of picks next year.  No one knows what the hoodie is thinking.