By Greg Knopping, Pats Pulpit
For the first time in quite a while, the New England Patriots are beginning a season in which they are not the consensus favorites to win the AFC East. In fact, while most prognosticators have the Patriots finishing second in the division to the New York Jets, some have the team finishing third, behind both the Jets and the Miami Dolphins. While the national perspective has been down on the Patriots, the fans of the team itself feel they have a lot to look forward to. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is going to be in his second season removed from ACL surgery, Bill Belichick has control of the defense, and the team has a lot of promising young players that they feel can step up and make a big impact in 2010. Not to mention that the Patriots roster had very little turnover from 2009, a roster that won 10 games as well as the AFC East division title (including five losses that were by eight points or less).
Significant Offseason Additions/Subtractions
While the Patriots didn't add any big name players in the 2010 NFL Free Agency, they worked hard to re-sign players and keep the core from 2009 intact. The team made its first major splash by re-signing veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork to a record contract of six years and $40 million. Following Wilfork they re-signed cornerback Leigh Bodden and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, two players who had big rebound years and became big contributors in 2009 for the Patriots. Unfortunately for the Patriots, it was announced this week that Bodden was going on injured reserve, ending his season. Lastly, the team also re-signed two longstanding team veterans in running back Kevin Faulk and Stephen Neal, further insuring continuity from the 2009 season. The team was also able to retain outside linebacker/pass rush specialist Derrick Burgess, who was acquired from Oakland last August. In addition to the six key players the Patriots re-signed, the team also added a few veterans. While veteran wide receivers Torry Holt and David Patten didn't pan out, the team also signed tight end Alge Crumpler and defensive linemen Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis. Warren and Crumpler figure to be big contributors for the Patriots in 2010.
The Patriots only lost a pair of players to free agency: defensive lineman Jarvis Green and tight end Benjamin Watson, while also getting rid of locker room cancer Adalius Thomas. While the former two started for the Patriots in 2009, they figure to be easy to replace from both a production and personnel standpoint. Sixth year defensive lineman Mike Wright, who started seven games last season for the Patriots, will take over at right end for team. At tight end, the Patriots have a veteran presence in Alge Crumpler, as well as two rookies in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, whom the team picked up in the draft. Gronkowski is a 6-6, 265 pound tight end out of Arizona, whom the Patriots took with the 42nd pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Gronkowski is an athletic all-around tight end, and figures to start for the team from day one. Aaron Hernandez was selected in the fourth round out of Florida, and already has garnered some comparisons to Colts' Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark, in that he can line up in a variety of spots (tight end, split wide, slot receiver, h-back, fullback, etc.), and cause a lot of mismatches.
Speaking of the draft, the Patriots were able to pick up some great in April. While many questioned the selection of Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty initially, the 27th overall pick has shown a lot of potential in the preseason, and has the chance to start as a rookie. The 53rd pick, outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, is currently rehabbing from an undisclosed injury, but showed promising signs early on. If he can recover quickly, he has a chance to be a key player for the Patriots later in 2010. The last of the Patriots' second round picks was Florida inside linebacker Brandon Spikes. Spikes has impressed early on, wrestling a starting spot away from the incumbent Gary Guyton, and earning praise from Patriots' coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots also selected punter Zoltan Mesko in the fifth round, and he will be the team's starting punter from day one. Third round wide receiver Taylor Price out of Ohio and seventh round pick Brandon Deaderick out of Alabama will also both likely be on the Patriots final roster.
The Patriots offense will probably have a slightly different feel in 2010 than it did in 2009. While the team worked out of the spread, with the three-receiver package the base, I would expect Tom Brady to work under center a lot more than in 2009. Speaking of Brady, in his second year following his knee injury, he looks a lot sharper, and has been giving defenses fits through the first three preseason games.
Brady will also have a lot of new tools to work with. As previously mentioned, the Patriots had a complete overhaul at the tight end position. With the team working out of a lot of two tight end sets, expect the tight ends to have a lot more balls thrown their way, something that certainly has lacked in the Patriots offense in recent years. The number one down-field target will continue to be receiver Randy Moss, who is in a contract year, and looks like he is ready to have a great season. Slot receiver Wes Welker looks poised to return to full-form just seventh month after undergoing re-constructive knee surgery. While his production may drop due to all of the new targets for Tom Brady, he will still be an integral part of the Patriots offense. Beyond Moss and Welker, the Patriots have two second year receivers poised to have big impacts in 2010. Julian Edelman, who transitioned from quarterback to wide receiver after being drafted in the 7th round out of Kent State last season, continues to progress. Like Welker, the bulk of Edelman's work will come out of the slot. However, Edelman, who is blessed with tremendous quickness, can also get open down the field. Another second year receiver who looks like he will be a big part of the Patriots offense in Brandon Tate. Tate was selected in the third round of the 2009 draft out of North Carolina. Once considered a first round pick, Tate's stock dropped after tearing his ACL midway through his Senior season. While he missed almost all of the 2009 season, he is back and ready to go in 2010. He's put a lot of hard work in, and looks like he is ready to step up and be the big-play threat the Patriots have desperately needed across from Randy Moss.
The big issue surrounding the Patriots offense will be the team's ability to stay balanced between the run and the pass. At times last season, the team would drift away from the run, particularly in the second half (which is never a good thing when it comes to clock control). Laurence Maroney has been inconsistent, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor are aging and past their primes, while Kevin Faulk, who is arguably the best in the business in his 3rd down duties, will never be an every down back. The Patriots have five solid backs (including Benjarvus Green-Ellis), but not one that can carry the load of the ground game for an entire season. Collectively, this group can get the job done. The success of this group will likely come and go with the confidence Bill O'Brien and the coaching staff has in them, and how many carries this group gets as the team moves deep into games.
The offensive line for the Patriots appears set in stone at four of the five positions. The left tackle position will be manned for the 10th straight season by Pro Bowler Matt Light. Center, for the eighth straight year will be featuring Dan Koppen. The right guard position will have the underrated Stephen Neal entering his seventh straight year as the starter. The change along the line starts after those three. Second year tackle Sebastian Vollmer will be starting at right tackle. Vollmer was a second round pick out of Houston last year, and excelled as a swing tackle as a rookie, starting a total of eight games. He is the heir apparent to Matt Light on the left side, but will man the right side for this season.
The real problems begin at left guard. The starter since 2005 has been Logan Mankins. Currently, he's under the Patriots control as he is a restricted free agent, but he has yet to sign a contract offer. Mankins believed he played without complaints last season under the promise he would be compensated fairly following the season. Apparently, a contract that would have made him among the top three paid guards of all-time didn't come across as "fair" to him. He's currently holding out, and the situation is getting worse as each day passes. His replacement was projected to be Nick Kaczur, who was the team's starting right tackle since 2009. However, he recently underwent back surgery and could be out for the season. With those two likely out of the picture, the likely starter is now Dan Connolly. Connolly, although not a household name, started four games last season and has looked really solid in training camp and the preseason. If he pans out, he will be another unheralded project from the Dante Scarnecchia school of offensive line.
After experimenting with a 2-gap 4-3 at times in 2009, it looks like the Patriots will be back to the 3-4 full time in 2010. On defense, the Patriots lost only one starter from last season; defensive end Jarvis Green. Green will be replaced by Mike Wright, who won't be spectacular, but should be able to get the job done. Defensive end Ty Warren will also be out for the year as he was placed on injured reserve earlier this month with an ailing hip. Warren will be replaced by someone with the same surname, Gerard Warren. While Gerard Warren wasn't a high profile signing when the Patriots picked him up in late April, he was adjusted to the 3-4 nicely, and has been a good mentor for some of the young players on the Patriots' defense.
The Patriots also have a few young players taking over starting positions. At cornerback, Darius Butler, the second year cornerback out of Connecticut, will likely be starting at left cornerback for the Patriots. With Bodden out for the year, it could be rookie Devin McCourty taking over at the other corner spot. The Patriots also have another second year player taking over in the secondary; safety Pat Chung. Chung was the team's top pick out of Oregon last season, and he played in a reserve role as a rookie. So far, Chung has impressed in preseason and training camp, and looks to take over that hard-hitting, in-the-box, jack-of-all-trades strong safety spot that Rodney Harrison played for New England for the greater part of last decade. Rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, whom Bill Belichick lauded as a "unique" player, is projected to start at inside linebacker opposite Jerod Mayo. Other young players and rookies projected to increase their playing time and have a big role on defense for the Patriots include Myron Pryor, Jermaine Cunningham, Devin McCourty, and Ron Brace.
The Patriots will also be relying on a group of young leaders to carry the defense that had some locker room and chemistry issues last season. Vince Wilfork is, with most of the defensive leaders from the Super Bowl teams gone, now the heart and soul of the Patriots defense. While nose tackle is generally a pretty unheralded position, Wilfork has risen to the occasion and become more of a vocal leader for the team. Big contributions are also expected from third year inside linebacker Jerod Mayo as well as fourth year safety Brandon Meriweather, both on the edge of elite status.
Jerod Mayo had a sensational campaign his rookie season, nearly unanimously winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Last year, however, Mayo was slowed by a torn ACL. An extremely hard and dedicated worker, the defense will largely be relying on Mayo to improve his game and become the player he can be. If he can live up to his potential, Mayo, who will be back to his more natural position on the weakside (thanks to the presence of Brandon Spikes), can be an All-Pro player. The same goes for fourth year safety Brandon Meriweather. While Meriweather is a playmaker who made the Pro Bowl last season, he left a lot to be desired; specifically from a leadership and a tackling perspective (he often took bad angles to the ball). If Meriweather can improve on those two things, he has the potential to be one of the best ball-hawking safeties in the game.
One of the big "issues" for the Patriots defense in 2009 was the lack of a consistent pass rush, and it figures to be a big storyline in 2010 as well. Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who led the team with 10 sacks this season, is the team's best pass rusher, but must be able to put together another solid campaign in 2010. Last August, the team traded a third and fourth round pick to the Oakland Raiders for pass rushing specialist Derrick Burgess. Burgess was largely a disappointment last season, but came on strong near the end of the season and looks to be more of a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker this year. Beyond the two veterans, the Patriots have a platoon of relatively unknown and/or unproven players. Second round pick Jermaine Cunningham showed some promise in pass coverage, but is injured and has yet to play in a preseason game. The team picked up journeyman Rob Ninkovich last offseason, and he proved to be a pleasant surprise last season, yet only picked up one sack and doesn't appear to be starting material. Marques Murrell started the first two preseason games while Derrick Burgess contemplated retirement and played well, but has no starting experience in the NFL. While veteran Pierre Woods has a little starting experience and is the longest-tenured outside linebacker on the team, he has only recorded one career sack. If no one steps up in the pass rush department for the Patriots, the team will likely have to rely on unique blitz packages, pressure from the defensive line, as well as play out of more sub-packages with five or six defensive backs.
The Patriots have a solid group of special teams players at the three "key" positions. All-Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski recently inked a four year contract extension and is one of the most accurate kickers in the game. His strong leg is also an asset on kickoffs. At long snapper, the Patriots have Jake Ingram, who was a sixth round pick out of Hawaii last year. Ingram went largely unnoticed last season, which means he was certainly doing his job well. At punter, the Patriots have rookie fifth round pick Zoltan Mesko, who played college ball at Michigan. Mesko can sometimes be inconsistent, but for the most part, has impressed in training camp and the preseason.
The return game looks to be solid for the Patriots as well. Rookies Devin McCourty and Taylor Price, as well as second year receiver Brandon Tate look to be handling the kickoff return duties for now. In the preseason opener, McCourty ran two kicks back for more than 50 yards each, while Tate ran one back to the house last week against the Rams. While Taylor Price and Brandon Tate have returned punts, it looks like that job will belong to Julian Edelman, whose shiftiness makes him dangerous every time he touches the ball on a return. Wes Welker has returned punts in the past, but probably will not in 2010, as the team will try to protect him as much as possible. The team's safety valve for the return game is Kevin Faulk. Faulk doesn't have elite speed anymore, but he isn't going to muff any kicks either.
In kick coverage, the Patriots have a core group of players that make the units the best the league has to offer. Such players include Sam Aiken, Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung, Eric Alexander, and Pierre Woods. The Patriots really value special teams, so players such as Alexander and Arrington, who conceivably are on the roster bubble, have a very good shot to make the team because of their special teams value.
The Patriots still have the best head coach in the business when it comes to Bill Belichick, who will be entering his 11th season as the Patriots' head coach. In addition to his usual coaching duties, Belichick will be taking on an expanded role with the defense. Therefore, if the defense isn't up to par, there is no one to blame but coach Belichick himself. However, I think most Patriots fans are willing to bet on the Hoodie.
While the Patriots don't have any official coordinator titles, there are a couple of guys who essentially have those duties. Quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien, who started with the team as a receivers coach, will enter his second year calling the Patriots plays. O'Brien faced a lot of criticism last year for not mixing it up on offense and being too predictable, so it will be interesting to see if he can improve in 2010. Linebackers coach Matt Patricia will be wearing the red shirt in 2010, which essentially makes him the defensive coordinator. A lot of the Patriots players have praised Patricia as being very intelligent, and an NFL head coach in waiting. However, to this point, we still don't know a lot about Patricia as a coach. In addition to Patricia, defensive line coach Pepper Johnson will have an increased role with the defense. While Johnson won't be calling the plays, he actually played in the Patriots' system, and he therefore takes a more hands-on approach with the players.
A couple of other coaches to note: Corwin Brown was added as a defensive assistant this offseason, and has been instrumental in developing the team's safeties. Scott O'Brien will enter his second season as the team's special teams coach. Dante Scarnecchia is the team's assistant head coach, and has been with the team as an offensive line coach since 1982.
Conclusion/Prediction for 2010
One of the ways I've heard the 2010 New England Patriots described is as the "wild card of the NFL." They could finish the year as Super Bowl champs, or they could finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs. In many ways, it's hard to disagree with this assessment: this Patriots team is headed in the right direction. In 2010, the Patriots will likely go as far as some of their top young players can take them. But then, there's Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense. And when you compare Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense to the other quarterbacks and offenses in the AFC East, there's no question that the Patriots have the most proven track record. Because of this, I still think they are a step ahead of the Dolphins and Jets in the AFC East, and I think they should be able to win the division once again. Because of their tough schedule however, I don't see this team winning more than twelve games. My final prediction: 11-5, AFC East champions.