The State of the Patriots: October 4th, 2014

I’m stating the obvious here when I say that it has been a frustrating start to the 2014 NFL season for New England Patriots fans. Throughout that time frame, I have had countless debates, conversations, and occasional verbal eruptions with friends regarding my viewpoint on what’s going on with this team. Along the way, I’ve run into the “” people (thanks to Felger and Mazz for that title) that can just not be critical about this team. They believe in just blindly trusting Bill Belichick based on the body of work, and therefore leaving us fans with the inability to critique or criticize any move or decision that is made. On the flip side, I’ve run into the “doomsday” bunch that are saying Brady is a shell of himself, Josh McDaniels should be fired, and Bill Belichick may have lost it and the franchise may want to consider moving on. I find myself stuck in the middle of these two extremes, and reaching a boiling point of frustration from dealing with the aforementioned people. Therefore, after a long hiatus, I have returned to to express MY opinion on the current state of the New England Patriots.

Because this post will encompass the past 4 weeks, I’m going to limit my opinion sharing to a select few topics. If I touched on everything, we’d be here for a week. In no particular order:

Do I believe that Tom Brady’s skill set has diminished? Yes. Do I think that the team can’t rely on Brady to cover up for mistakes or a lack of talent like in pervious years? Yes. Do I still want Tom Brady as my quarterback? Without a shadow of a doubt. I still think that Tom Brady is a top 5 quarterback in the NFL. Is he playing like it currently? No not at all. But there are so many variables that play a role in Tom Brady’s performance. It’s impossible to judge how much Brady has declined based on several factors, including poor offensive line play, decreased talent at wide receiver, a still recovering Rob Gronkowski, and a very inconsistent run game. All of those factors lead to my original point, Tom Brady’s skill set has diminished slightly. In years past, the Patriots have had poor talent at wideout, and yet Brady would move the ball down the field effortlessly. Additionally, Brady is locking in on recievers more than I can ever remember. Is that a lack of talent? Maybe a lack of trust? Only Brady knows that, but it’s certainly an issue. In previous seasons, there have been issues along the offensive line, and yet Tom Brady would deliver quick passes that were on point and not allow the defense to get to him. However, I personally can not remember a season where the offensive line was in disarray and the receiving corps was not on the same page as Brady both at the same time. I believe that is the reason Tom Brady and the Patriots offense is struggling mightily to start the season.

Has the Logan Mankins trade affected the offensive line play so far this season? In my opinion, yes. If you gave me the option to do the trade all over again, would I? Absolutely not. I’m sorry, I just don’t understand the trade. I’m sure that Mankins’ play has declined, and I commented on it to some friends last season. But come on, I would take Mankins over Jordan Devey 10 times out of 10. I just don’t understand why you deal away arguably your best offensive lineman 2 weeks before the start of the season when you have a 37 year old immobile quarterback and when there doesn’t seem to be an in house replacement ready to go. However, that does not excuse Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, and the remainder of the lineman for their shit play this season. Last week I read an article by Pro Football Focus that ranked every single offensive lineman that played at least 1 snap this season. Solder ranked 65 out of 69 left tackles. Vollmer was 63 out of 69. Come on! That’s pathetic. Nate Solder is a 6’8” marshmallow. Vollmer looks very rigid and is an injury waiting to happen. The only lineman I like on the Patriots right now is Bryan Stork. The dude has a mean streak about him. That is what this team is missing. In Kansas City on Monday night, the offensive line played their best game thus far (that isn’t saying much). Stork looks like he may be the answer at center, and Fleming played a decent right guard. Now, Fleming has been ruled out of the game Sunday against Cincy. Maybe the Pats will give Devey another look! Looks like Brady will be in “duck and cover” mode again Sunday night.

A buddy of mine last week told me that the Patriots had the best defense in the league. I questioned him, commenting on the second half of the Miami game and the lack of competition in Minnesota and Oakland. He gave me shit about not judging the team based on one bad half, blah, blah. Well, he’s not making such definitive statements after the Kansas City game. Much has been made of Darrelle Revis not looking like an absolute stud. I’ll admit, he hasn’t been amazing. However, I can’t say that I watched every game Revis played in New York. Maybe he coasts against sub par talent. I do think the Pats are trying out a variety of schemes on defense, and Revis isn’t allowed to lock down on a wideout for the whole game just yet. AJ Green coming to town is the ultimate test of how good Revis still is and how the Patriots will utilize his strengths.

Revis isn’t the big issue for this team. It’s the defensive line. Much has been made of Chandler Jones making a big leap to become on of the elite pass rushers heading into year 3. Well, I’m not on board. I’ve never been thrilled with Jones’ skill set. He’s big, but gets overpowered way too often. He’s fast, but doesn’t seem to have that quick twitch speed off of the line. When teams run to his side, he gets steam rolled. A vast majority of his sacks last season were coverage sacks (surprising, I know). As we move down the line, we see Vince, who’s still a serviceable defensive tackle, but certainly isn’t the same player that he was 3-4 years ago. We find the combination of Silva Salinga, Chris Jones, and Joe Vellano. I’d rather have Scott Patterson and Chris Veltri shedding blocks out there. And finally Nonkovich. I’m not a big Ninkovich guy. Never have been, probably never will be. He isn’t consistent enough of a player to be relied on to start. Don’t forget, Tommy Kelly was cut over what likely would amass to about 800k in salary. Great move guys!

Via ESPN Boston – “In my year and a half with Aaron Dobson, he has always been respectful to me and to the rest of the coaching staff. He has never once been argumentative or confrontational. The suggestion and reporting that his playing time was in any way the result of a ‘loud disagreement’ with a coach is completely false.”

That was Bill Belichick’s prepared statement that was released approximately 3 hours after refusing to answer questions regarding Aaron Dobson at his press conference today. Is it just me, or is this whole situation really, really weird? Your second year 2nd round wide receiver is inactive for 3 of the first 4 games, not because of health or he wouldn’t have played in one game, but allegedly because of mouthing off. Now, Belichick comes out, says Dobson is respectful and never had a disagreement with a coach. So now, he’s inactive because he sucks? What the hell is going on? The Patriots have NEVER been able to evaluate wide receiver talent well, and the more that this saga continues, the more concerned I am that Dobson isn’t going to pan out.

As for the rest of the bunch, Edelman is Brady’s crutch. If he goes down, kiss the season goodbye. Lafell looked better last week, but I get the sense that they were trying to force feed him the ball to either boost his morale or give the defense another look. Either way, I’m not sold. Danny Amendola can’t get open without them running a pick play for him. Kenbrell allegedly isn’t very good either because he’s been inactive this season as well.

What I believe is really plaguing this group is the lack of a deep threat. We originally thought Dobson would be that guy, but apparently not. Ed Reed made a comment on whatever show he is on that he wouldn’t be afraid of any wide receiver the Patriots have. What that means to me is that they safeties creep up closed to the line of scrimmage, cornerbacks are more likely to jump shorter routes, and linebackers have less responsibility in pass coverage and can therefore blitz more often. All of that adds up to some ineffective play a wide receiver.

Zone coverage for Darrell Revis. Only 3 wide recievers are active against KC (5 running backs active), and yet we open the game in shotgun and don’t run the ball until late in the first quarter. Failure to stay committed to the run game (especially against porous run defenses like Oakland). Bringing back Patrick Chung to start at strong safety even though we let him go last time because he sucked. Putting Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins on the same side of the formation defensively, basically beginning teams to run in that direction, and get big yardage. We have to assume that things will get better, because Bill’s track record depicts that it should. However, many of these issues need to be addressed sooner rather than later, or I truly believe that the coaching staff will be in danger of losing this team.

I guess all it comes down to after that long ass rant is what Billy Boy said this past week, “We are on to Cincinnati.”

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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.

AFC East Free Agency Forecast

As with the NFL, and most recently the NBA, I have locked myself out of writing any posts for an extended period of time. However, with all of this hullabaloo (yea I said it) seemingly coming to an end with the NFL, I figured I would share some of my feelings with you.  You will have to keep in mind the whole restricted/unrestricted thing may change with a new CBA and some guys that I may list could be off limits. 

That being said The AFC East seems to be getting more competitive. The Jets are making a run of becoming the Eagles of this decade by losing two consecutive conference championships in a row. The Patriots still have Tom Brady and the young defense is starting to get it. The Dolphins defense looks to be even better this coming year and if they had a clue on offense could contend. The Buffalo Bills are no longer a scheduled win on the schedule and have a lot of young talent to steal some wins away.  Today I will be focusing on the offensive side of the ball and give you some names to look out for.

It would seem that there would only be two teams in the market for a quarterback, however the Bills seem to be standing by Fitzpatrick and in my opinion it’s the best move that Gailey has made since he’s been there.Miamiwill most likely be looking to land a veteran, some names I could see ending up inSouthBeachwould be Carson Palmer, Vince Young, Matt Hasslebeck, and possibly Mcnabb. I think the best fit would be Palmer however both he and Mike Brown seem to be sticking to their guns. I can’t see Palmer retiring and for the right price I think Brown would pull the trigger. Bottom line, Henne will probably start next year andMiamiwill run the ball about 60 times a game.

The running back position will probably see the most movement especially in this division.New Englandneeds more balance and an injection of some youth in the backfield. The law firm was great last season but with Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris applying for social security and Kevin Faulk most likely retiring, they need one or two guys to fill the void. The Jets simply cannot rely on LT and Shonn Greene to shoulder the load. They drafted McKnight out of USC last year and he struggled getting into the offense.Miami, similair toNew Englandneeds one or two backs. They drafted Daniel Thomas out ofKansasStateand the remaining backs from their roster are all free agents (Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Patrick Cobbs, Lex Hilliard).Buffaloseems to be the most stable at the position and may add someone to replace Fred Jackson

DeAngelo Williams is the biggest name and best buy in my opinion. I have sources (I really do) that have reported that Williams bought a home inMiami….coincidence? Probably, if I had the money I would have a home inSouthBeachtoo. That being saidMiamihas spent the most money in free agency almost every offseason in the past five years and I have a feeling Williams will end up inMiami. Another big name that will have some rumors swirling around it will be Reggie Bush. All signs point to the Saints moving on and you can’t tell me that a coordinator wouldn’t be able to find use for him.  Look for a Darren Sproles sighting in the AFC East next year as well. I could seeNew Englandlanding either player. Both can catch the ball out of the backfield and have the explosiveness that the current wide receivers are lacking. Ahmad Bradshaw would also be a good fit for the Patriots as well with his downhill running still. The Jets may want the players I just listed as well as any of the Ricky and Ronnie duo from the Phins. I could seeBuffalotaking a flyer on a guy like Mike Tolbert or Michael Bush to replace the hard nose runner they may be losing with Fred Jackson’s possible departure.

The wide receiver position will be interesting. The Jets would be dumb to not re-sign Santonio Holmes and they would be just as smart to re-sign Braylon Edwards. Edwars catches a lot of criticism and rightfully so, for his dropoff after his monster 2008 season. However towards the end of last season he came around. His catch against Indy was huge and if he does become a free agent he would command some decent cash from teams.New Englandcould be looking to add the stretch the field asset they once had with Randy Moss. Could that be Vincent Jackson? If so, there is no reason this team couldn’t make another Super Bowl run.MiamiaddedMarshalllast season and also drafted the speed guy they were lacking in Edmund Gates. They probably won’t be making a move for a wideout, however there has been some politicking going on from Brandon Marshall to add his best friend and ex-college teammate Mike Sims-Walker.Buffaloneeds another guy to help out Steve Johnson and lee Evans. They could be in the market for a guy like James Jones from Green Bay who I think is a poor mans Brandon Marshall, he is a big physical receiver just not a lot of speed.

I don’t see a lot of big time tight ends going anywhere. I also don’t see a huge need for the position within the division.New Englanddrafted a great pair with Gronkowski and Hernandez and should be set. The Jets have Dustin Keller and don’t use him enough in my opinion. The Dolphins could certainly use an upgrade at the position to help free up Fasano from blocking all the time. The Buffalo Bills have a number of young guys and could definitely bring in a guy like Owen Daniels who may move on from the Texans.

Offensive line will be interesting in this division. The biggest story will be what will happen with Logan Mankins. IfNew Englandparts ways with him depending on if they can and will franchise him again they have an issue in the middle of that line. They are very strong on the outside with Volmer and the new giant Solder on the other side. Light may resign for a hometown discount, but I’m not sure either side will be keen on that. The Jets lost Damien Woody and both Rex Ryan and Tony Sparano would love to add the high priced guard. If Mankins is off the table look forMiamito go after Davin Joseph hard. Carl Nicks, Ryan Kalil, and Harvey Dahl are all quality guys that again may or may not be available.  I’m not sure ifBuffalowould be in the bidding for Mankins but they could certainly use a tackle. The best options at Tackle are Tyson Calbo, Jared Gaither, and Doug Free. Who knows,Buffalocould keep Matt Light in the division and let Cameron Wake abuse him some more. Center is pretty solid in this division,Miamidrafted Pouncey to be their center in the first round of the draft  and the other teams in the division are pretty decent up the middle. If they wanted to upgrade they could try to pick up Olin Kruetz or Samson Satele, howeverMiamishipped Satele out of the division because he couldn’t handle the big nose tackles like Wilfork and Jenkins.

The Bills and Dolphins need the most help offensively ranking 28th and 30th in scoring offense but that doesn’t mean New England and New York won’t snag some of the players that I’ve listed. All four teams can improve in certain areas and it seems that we will soon be finding out who is going where.

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?

As we look forward to the 2010 NFL season for the New England Patriots, it is hard to ignore the past.  Between 2001-2009 the New England Patriots were the most successful franchise in the NFL.  The Pats amassed three Super Bowl titles (2001, 2003, 2004), no losing seasons, the only sixteen game undefeated regular season in NFL history, seven AFC East titles, four AFC Championship game victories (out of five appearances), arguably the greatest offensive season of all time, and compiling 111 wins.  There is little argument against the New England Patriots being declared the team of the decade.  But, as successful as the past decade has been for the Patriots, 2010 is a new season that brings about its’ own set of challenges.  Even though it is time to look ahead towards the future and leave the past in our rear-view mirror, the past decade can certainly be used as a building block that the New England organization can mold its’ future with.

As for the 2010 season, there are certainly a number of questions that need to be answered before 1pm on Sunday September 12th when the Cincinnati Bengals come to town to open the season.  The biggest question, in my opinion, may lie under center with number 12.  2010 will mark Tom Brady’s second season since returning from a torn ACL and MCL suffered in the 2008 season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.  Almost 4,400 yards, 28 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions (Brady’s 2009 statistics) are certainly nothing to scoff at, but at times last season (particularly towards the end of games) Brady’s play become sloppy and lacked the crispness that has always defined his play.  The Patriots success will rely completely on the play of Tom Brady (as it has over the past 4-5 seasons).  I expect Brady to return to his 2007 self (granted expecting 50 touchdown passes is quite outrageous) and play like the Tom Brady that we have come to know and love.

The running game has been a question mark since the Patriots drafted Laurence Maroney with the 21st overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft.  Sammy Morris is returning from an injury plagued 2009 season, as is Fred Taylor.  I’ve been calling for Belichick to put more influence on the run game for three seasons now, and I’m going to call for it again.  Establishing the run with three very capable running backs will do nothing but open up alleys for the passing game.  But, I expect little to change with the Pats’ philosophy and for them to use the run sparingly as usual.

I have lofty expectations for this group of receivers/tight ends for the upcoming season.  Randy Moss is a year older, but he is still a number one wideout in the league and will put up good numbers.  Welker has undergone arguably one of the fastest recoveries from ACL surgery for a professional athlete ever.  It is complete truth when they say every ACL surgery that gets done, the surgeons get a little bit better and the recovery time becomes a little bit shorter.  I think it will take a few weeks for Welker to get his head back on straight (you need to expect at least a minimal amount of apprehension towards making sharp cuts on his bad knee), but after week four or five I expect him to be back to his old self.  Torry Holt has certainly lost a step, but he will provide a target on the opposite side of the field from Moss that the Pats haven’t had since Stallworth left.  I am very excited about the contributions that will come from Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez.  I expect Hernandez to make the biggest contribution right out of the gate.  He has the perfect body type/athletic ability/skill set to excel in the “H-Back” position (similarly to Chris Cooley).  But, Gronkowski will be the starting tight end by the end of the season, and I expect Tate to contribute to the team by that time as well.  Coming from a small school, Price may need time to develop and master the playbook, but his speed alone makes him a great asset.

The Logan Mankins contract situation is certainly something that worries me.  Mankins seems prepared to sit out for a while, and as one of the best guards in the league, the Patriots cannot afford that loss.  Nick Kaczur has some experience and was supposed to fill Mankins’ spot at left guard, but an injury has sidelined him thus far in training camp.  Aside from Mankins, the offensive line will look the same as last season.  I’m excited to see how much Sebastian Vollmer has developed with one offseason of NFL workouts and preparation under his belt.  Matt Light becomes more and more of a liability every season.

Within the next couple of days I will preview the 2010 New England Patriots’ defense and special teams, as well as provide my expectations for the 2010 season as a whole.

The Mankins Situation

“Well, right now we’re just focusing on coaching the players that are here, I think we’ll go out and get things done, hopefully have a good practice today, and that’s where our emphasis is: the guys that are here.’’  Those were the ever-predictable words of New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick yesterday in response to a question regarding Logan Mankins’ contract situation.  Did you expect anything else?  Would you like Belichick to come out and say, “Oh man I don’t know what we are going to do without Mankins here, that beard is just so amazing!”  If that came out of Bill’s mouth, then you know that something would seriously be wrong.

I understand Logan’s point of view.  The man has performed since the day he put on a New England Patriots’ uniform.  Ever since being the 32nd overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, Mankins has been a model of consistency on the field.  Starting 16 games every season since being drafted, Logan was selected as a Pro Bowl starter twice (2007, 2009).  So, does he deserve to get paid?  Yes.  Should the Patriots pay him?  Absolutely not.

Nobody in the NFL really knows what is in store for the 2011 NFL season.  With the current Collective Bargaining Agreement situation completely unresolved, it is becoming more and more likely that there will be no football in the 2011.  Why would the Patriots dole out presumably top five offensive guard money (Saints’ guard Jahri Evans recently signed a 7-year $56 million deal) when they have no idea if they will play any games next season?  So, for Mankins to vocalize his disappointment isn’t completely outrageous, but he needs to realize that the team is in a very awkward position.  Balancing player happiness (or at least content) with being fiscally responsible is a fine line to toe, and we all know that if the Patriots waver off the line at all, it is certainly always towards the fiscally responsible side.

Also, let us not forget that back in December Vince Wilfork was a very large unhappy man.  He was complaining about the team not being loyal to him, vocalizing his desire to play in Miami, and voicing his complaints about the team’s disrespect towards veteran players.  But, sure enough the Patriots took care of their core players and gave Wilfork a 5-year $40 million contract.  I say this to you Logan: Stop complaining, bitching, moaning, and requesting trades, because as soon as the Patriots know when they will be playing football again after the conclusion of this season, you will get paid and be a Patriot for a long time to come.

Position Rankings (OTA Edition): Offensive Lineman

This article will focus on the big men up front, the unsung heroes of a team, the guys you only hear about when they screw up.   Being an offensive lineman in the NFL is sort of like being a janitor, you do all the dirty work and you only get noticed if there is poo on the seat.

Offensive lineman are the key to any offense and while janitors may not be vital to whatever building they are in, if there is a leak that isn’t fixed, or poo everywhere, they surely won’t keep their job.  If you can’t control the line of scrimmage you can’t win and you are starting to see more and more teams address these positions early in drafts as a result.  From 2000-2006 the average amount of offensive lineman drafted in the first round was about 3 and 1/2. The total number of lineman drafted in the top ten during that time span, was 7.  From 2007 until now those numbers have increased to about 6 linemen per draft in the first round, and 8 top ten draft picks!  Call them “safer picks” if you want, but just like any other position, there is a laundry list of guys that couldn’t cut it.  It seems that teams are starting to build from the lines because as I said before, if you control the line of scrimmage, you control the game.  This is how I see the pecking order for offensive lineman in the AFC East: 

1) New York Jets- The Jets were the best running football team in the league last season and averaged 4.5 yards per carry.  There is not doubt in my mind that the offensive line of this team single handedly paved the way to the AFC Championship game last season. Shonn Green led the post-season in rushing yards and probably was the main factor in letting go Thomas Jones.  The Jets boast 3 former 1st round picks on the line with a good mix of youth and experience. 

Damien Woody is the elder statesman of the line and this former 17th pick overall from the Patriots is still a solid RT.  Woody made the Pro Bowl for New England as a Center in 2002 but still finds himself getting the best of defensive lineman.  D’Brickashaw Ferguson was the fourth pick of the 2004 draft and has been a book-end LT for the Jets.  Ferguson is very athletic for his big stature and has very long arms that allow him to steer defenders when engaged.   

In that same draft (04) the Jets selected Nick Mangold out of Ohio State at 29th overall. Mangold is a very solid blocker and his only weakness is anchoring vs. a bull rush.  He is an extremely effective Center and is the key cog in this offensive line.  Mangold has become a perennial pro bowler for this team and really solidifies the middle of this front.  

  The guard spot is no doubt the weakest part of this line and the big whole left by All-pro LG Alan Faneca will be filled by a rookie out of UMASS, Vladimir Ducasse.  Ducasse is coming from a 1A college and is converting from Tackle to Guard.  This transition is something the Jets coaching staff will be monitoring all camp.  The RG spot for this team has been solid since 2004, another rushing title year for this line, by Brandon Moore.  Moore is a converted DT and was an UFA signing in 2002, he is easily the most under-rated lineman of this group and is extremely solid across the board. 

The depth on this front is a bit of an issue with two of their reserves seeing time as a third tight end in some packages, but none getting significant time at all other than special teams. The most valuable backup is Matt Slauson who was a solid lineman for a Nebraska and received second team honors in the Big-12 from several sources.

2) Miami Dolphins- Miami has stockpiled offensive lineman since they landed the big Tuna.  With a former offensive line coach as their head coach, Tony Sparano loves bringing in big men and has been quoted several times with saying, “you can never have enough bigs”. 

Jake Long anchors this offensive line that averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season and led the NFL in rushing TD’s.  He was the first pick in 2008 and has made the Pro Bowl every season since then.  Long is in my opinion the best offensive Tackle in this division and in time will be the top Tackle in the game along with Joe Thomas from Cleveland.  The RT spot for Miami is filled by Vernon Carey; a former 1st round draft pick out of “THE U” Carey is a solid RT that show flashes of greatness but has been known to kill drives with penalties. 

The Center of this offensive line is a little bit of an unknown in Jake Grove.  Grove is an extremely powerful blocker and is solid up the middle.  Grove was brought in from the Raiders in a trade with former 2-year starter Samson Satele who although was talented, he was far too small to handle the great DT’s in the division. Grove played well against the AFC East DT’s in 2008 and was brought in because of his performances against the likes of Wilfork and Jenkins.   

 The Guard slots of Miami are heavily rotated throughout the season.  It is something this coaching staff believes in to keep guys fresh.  John Jerry, the Dolphins 3rd round draft pick, and only offensive player drafted this season, will get the start at LG.  Jerry is a monster at 6’5″ 328, and his switch from RG to left will a big focus in Miami’s camp.  Miami also brought in bad-boy Richie Incognito.  Incognito has been a penalty machine in the past but also possesses great strength and brings intensity to an already physical line.  The Miami Dolphins have great depth at the interior line which helped them edge out the Patriots for this slot. 

Donald Thomas is going into his third season as a Guard for the Dolphins. He was a fourth round pick who worked his way to being the opening day starter for the Dolphins in 2008 only to go on IR with a foot injury week one.  He got off to a slow start last season and was eventually beat out for the starting guard spot by Nate Garner.  Garner will be competing for the LG spot with the rookie Jerry and he was a bright spot for the team in its closing games last season.  Justin Smiley who was the starter at LG, has been on the trading block since February and it’s rumored that his shoulder may need surgery. 

3) New England Patriots- New England gets the third slot here because it’s not as complete as the two teams listed above in my opinion.  The biggest misconception about the Patriots is that they cannot run the football.  This notion is totally false, New England ranked 12th in rushing offense and averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season.  Sure New England’s great passing game sets up the run but just because it isn’t the common approach, doesn’t mean that it isn’t effective.  The Patriots spread defenses out with multiple receiver sets and are still able to run effectively without bringing in TE’s for extra blockers. 

The Left Tackle spot filled currently, but not for long, by Matt Light, is a position that will change in the somewhat near future. Light, in my opinion, is the most over-rated Left Tackle in the game, and similar to former Colt Tarik Glenn, is given more credit because he has a great quarterback behind him.  Sure the Fagan door guy can block, but Brady’s great release and ability to manipulate the pocket, mask Light’s deficiencies over the past few seasons.  The Pats seem to have struck gold in the form of monster Sebastian Vollmer.  This 6’8″ Redwood is a converted TE out of Houston who has already been productive at LT when Light has gone down due to injury.   The RT slot is filled by Nick Kazcur who is an average RT that could be unseated if the Pats decide to start Vollmer there.  The Tackle position is definitely an interesting spot to watch in the offense this season.  Will Vollmer start as a backup LT or start over Kazcur at RT.  At this point I don’t see how you can keep him off the field. 

 The pats have probably the best guard in the division with the departure of Alan Faneca from New York in Logan Mankins.  Mankins was the 32nd pick in the 2005 draft and made his first pro bowl appearance in 2007, the only Patriot guard to do so since John Hannah.  The pair also share the achievement as being the only rookie Pat’s offensive lineman to start every game in their first season as well.  I’m sure Mankins would love to follow Hannah to the Hall of Fame, and he is well on his way to a solid career.  Stephen Neal is far from his production level in 2004 when he was a part of Cory Dillon’s franchise record setting season.  Neal, the converted wrestler, mulled retirement after the 2009 season, and although he is starting to decline in his skill set, he has three super bowl rings on his resume and has been a great Patriot. If he can get back to full health (12 stars last season) he should be serviceable in 2010. 

 Dan Koppen anchors the middle of this offensive front and he has been on the field for every game but on in the last 7 season for New England.  Koppen made his first career Pro Bowl with fellow teammate Mankins in 2007.  He was 2nd team All Pro in that season and with 13 playoff starts, Koppen’s experience is just as vital as his talent.   

The Patriots have been quietly addressing the age issue of this offensive line as it is getting older more than it is getting better.  Dan Connolly has the most experience and has backed up both Koppen at Center, and started four games at Guard in place of Neal.  Vollmer has all the makings to be the Left Tackle of the future but it ends there.  George Bussey was placed on IR in September of last season but was productive in college.  The Pats drafted him in the fifth round and hope that he could develop into a starter at some point in the future.  There is however another wrestler on the bottom of the depth chart in New England. John Wise was recently brought in as a free agent and under Neal’s tutelage might make the practice squad on the developmental side.

Buffalo Bills- The Buffalo Bills remain in the basement in this edition of the rankings and have themselves to blame.  Letting go of Jason Peters for peanuts was no doubt a necessary move when you get into the details of the matter.  However if you had to rank Left Tackles in the NFL right now Peters, would be on the short list.  The Bills offensive line was decimated by injuries last season, not to mention every guy on the opening day starting roster was either at a different position on the line, or in college the previous year.   The Bills running game was in the middle of the pack at 16th in total rushing yards and posted a solid 4.4 yards per carry average.  This offensive line was the fourth worst in the league at protecting its quarterback, allowing 46 sacks. 

 Demetrius Bell will play the LT spot for the Bills this season.  Bell is the bastard son of Karl Malone, this unfortunately does not boost his talents as a Left Tackle, but by genetics alone he should be athletic.  The Bills do like the young lineman and offensive line coach last season Sean Kugler [now with the Steelers] has said “he has the ability to recover when he finds himself out of position”.   The Right Tackle spot for the Bills this season will be occupied most likely by Jamon Meredith.  Meredith played his college ball at the University of South Carolina and proved to be athletic enough to play LT in Steve Spurrier’s offense.  He started 4 games last year and will be competing for the starting role with China’s hope for an NFL talent Ed Wang.  Even if Wang doesn’t start he will sell the most jerseys of any Buffalo Bill in recent history.  China has not had an NFL player and there have been over 300 articles written in China about the rookie already.  Wang is a typical size to play RT at 6’5″ 300 lbs and he should get an honest chance at a starting role.

The Bills drafted two offensive linemen with their first two picks of the 2009 draft.  Eric Wood was a Center that has converted to Guard and Andy Levitre will play the other Guard slot.  Wood is recovering from a broken leg that occurred in week 11 of last season.  In a recent interview at the end of March, Woods said he is shooting for July to be ready to fully participate in training camp.  The opposite Guard slot on the Left side goes to Andy Levitre.  Levitre started all 16 games last season for Buffalo and in his second season looks to improve on a decent rookie campaign.  Levitre is a tough physical blocker that has the opportunity to develop into a solid starter.  Woods injury really hindered the duo’s development as a potential force for the future in this offensive line and the new coaching staff needs them to develop in order to improve.After the 2008 season the buffalo Bills targeted Center Geoff Hangartner.  Buffalo Bills coach [at the time] Dick Jaroun commented on the signing of the center, “Our position is so tough on centers because of the 3-4 (defenses) and the quality of the nose tackles in our division.”  Hangartner, alongside Levitre, was a consistent force in the middle of the Bills defense and the only real consistent starter the team had. The biggest problem with the Buffalo Bills offensive line can also be seen as a positive.  The inexperience the Bills have with all of the youth spread across its offensive front provides if nothing more, hope. Hope for the future success of a struggling offense and franchise.  If this young line can stay healthy and come together, they have a chance to be successful, especially with the talent behind them at running back.