The 2011 NFL season is almost here which means it's time to preview every team's chances this year. SB Nation's Pats Pulpit gives us the scoop on the New England Patriots.
Record Prediction: 12-4, AFC East Champions
Coming off a 14-2 season, the Patriots have no doubt improved yet again. Last year, the team featured a flurry of young players on both sides of the ball. And although there was no traditional offseason, many of those young players can be expected to improve. That being said, setting a goal of 14-2 is probably a bit unrealistic from a Patriots standpoint, especially when considering the team's tough schedule. However, I think the team should be able to achieve a 12-4 record, as well as a third straight AFC East division title. The question then becomes: does the team have what it takes to get over their recent playoff slump and win a game in January since the first time since 2007?
Best Game on the Schedule: Week 5 vs. New York Jets
The "best game" label easily could have easily been given for the Patriots' Week 13 match-up against the Indianapolis Colts. However, considering how the Pats' 2010 season ended in a bitter home defeat to the New York Jets, this one seems like a good one to label "best game." This matchup is certain to have a lot of hype, a lot of smack-talking, and should contain a lot of hard-nosed football. And the Patriots could want some kind of revenge... I don't know... maybe.
Player Who Takes a Step Back This Year: Brandon Meriweather, S, #31
Brandon Meriweather has been inconsistent as a Pro Bowl player can be. After steadily improving over the course of his first two seasons, Meriweather broke out during the 2009 season, even earning himself a Pro Bowl selection. Still, even then, Meriweather showed some inconsistencies, making a terrific stop one play, then taking a terrible angle that leads to an opponent's touchdown the next. Meriweather's inconsistencies were further highlighted in 2010, a season in which he was replaced in the starting line-up at times by James Sanders. And despite his sub-par performance most of the year, Meriweather still earned a Pro Bowl selection. That brings us to 2011. While Meriweather is projected to start, there are rumors swirling that the coaching staff is unhappy with his performance and may even want to replace him at some point. Meriweather is as talented as they come. I'm not sure if he will take a step back this year. However, if you are expecting an All-Pro performance from him, I would advise you to lower your expectations.
Breakout Player Candidates
Here are a few players who I think could be breakout player candidates for the Patriots in 2011:
Patrick Chung, SS, #25: Chung excelled as the team's starting strong safety in 2010. He was second on the team in tackles and made big plays against the pass and on special teams. He was a good chance to become a Pro Bowl player for the team in 2011.
Aaron Hernandez, TE, #81: In the early part of the 2010 season, rookie Aaron Hernandez was one of Tom Brady's top options. He hit the rookie wall a bit late in the season (partially due to injury), but looks like he could be a Dallas Clark-esque option for Tom Brady in 2011. Hernandez will line up at tight end, h-back, wide receiver, etc. He is a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses.
Best Player on Your Team Others Have Never Heard Of: Dane Fletcher, LB, #52
A rookie free agent out of Montana State in 2010, Dane Fletcher was able to squeak out a roster spot at the end of training camp last preseason. There were initially questions as to what position Fletcher would play (defensive end in college), Fletcher seems to have settled in nicely as a middle linebacker here in his second season. Fletcher is strong, fast, instinctive, and finds a way to blow up plays. The team used him as a running back-spy in sub-packages in 2010, and with the team moving to a lot of 4-3 fronts, Fletcher could be used in a much larger role this season as a middle linebacker / strong-side linebacker.
Underrated Player: Jerod Mayo
Jerod Mayo was a Pro Bowl player last season. Jerod Mayo was an All-Pro player last season. Jerod Mayo made 175 tackles last season. Yet somehow, through all of this, the 2008 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year remains an underrated player when people discuss the best linebackers in football. Mayo is the type of player that is always around the ball. He's fluid, fast, smart, and can make the big hit. More importantly, he has become the leader of the Patriots' defense both on and off the field. The only knock on Mayo is that he hasn't made a lot of big plays (sacks, interceptions) thus far in his career. I expect that to change this season. If the preseason has been any indication, Jerod Mayo will be in all-out attack mode in 2011 for the Patriots. That won't make Mayo any better, but if he can rack up the big numbers, people may finally recognize him for what he is: one of the top three linebackers in football.
Fantasy Football Outlook
Good Bet: Tom Brady - When it comes to fantasy football, Tom Brady is always a good bet. Barring injury (cross fingers), Brady will put up his 30-35 touchdowns and 4,000 yards, while keeping his interception total low. Personally, I'm a fan of drafting quarterbacks early because you usually know what you're going to get from them on a consistent basis. Tom Brady is about as consistent as they come.
Bad Bet: Chad Ochocinco - Chad Ochocinco is working as hard as he can to get acclimated to the Patriots offense - but the fact of the matter is he's learning a completely new system at age 33. And even once he is ready to go, expect the Patriots to continue to spread the ball around.
Sleeper: Wes Welker - In his first year back following an ACL/MCL tear, Wes Welker returned to the field sooner than expected, producing 86 catches and seven touchdowns. The numbers were decent, but were a drop off. At times, Welker even struggled holding on to the football, making some pretty bad drops. However, by all indications, Welker is ready to get back to his old self in 2011. He's over a year removed from his knee injury, and could be in store for 100+ catches and 5-8 touchdowns.
Best Media Personality: Mike Reiss, ESPNBoston.com
When it comes to the most straight-forward, informational, and up-to-date Patriots news and analysis, Mike is your guy when it comes to the Patriots. Reiss has been covering the Patriots for nearly 15 years, and is as professional as they come. On his blog, he posts in-depth statistics (snaps played, personnel groupings, etc), breaking news, etc. - supplementing each piece with no-nonsense analysis that gets straight to the point, but offers the readers a valuable and informative opinion on the matter.
Best Patriots Players to Follow on Twitter
Chad Ochocinco (@Ochocinco) : Do I really need to explain this one?
Julian Edelman (@Edelman11): Personal favorite, gives daily insight into what it's like to be a Pats Player.
Darius Butler (@DariusButler28): Often goes back and forth with other Pats players.
Leigh Bodden (@LeighBodden): Good at responding to fans. Tweets often.
Vince Wilfork (@Wilfork75): Wilfork always has a sane voice in the insane world of Twitter.
Kyle Arrington (@Arrington27): Another personal favorite, always has interesting things to say (both on and off the field).