I've decided that I'm going to attempt to preview all of the NFL teams in the upcoming months. I'm going to start with the team that I know best in the New England Patriots. I hope to provide a comprehensive overview of the players and the overall strength of the team.
Quarterbacks: There isn't much to say that hasn't been said about the group's leader Tom Brady. He threw for 50 touchdowns last year setting an NFL record as well as leading the league in completion percentage, yards, and passer rating. He will look to continue his success this year with mainly the same supporting cast. Backing him up will be an interesting battle in training camp. The Patriots took Quarterback Kevin O'Connell in the fourth round of the draft and he seems likely to get a roster spot. That leaves the two other quarterbacks from last years squad fighting for the backup position. Matt Cassell has the most experience in the Patriots system, but hasn't shown much in the few opportunities he's had, most notably in the game against the Dolphins last year in which he threw an interception and was promptly replaced. Matt Gutierrez did not get on the field last year in his first year with the team and is an unproven commodity.
Running Backs: Many times there is a question of which running game is going to show up for the Patriots. The team returns their starter Laurence Maroney. Maroney has at time appeared dominant while at other times wholly ineffective. He turned it on in the playoffs last year and the Patriots hope that this is the player that will show up in the fall. Backing him up will be Sammy Morris who ran effectively last year before suffering a freak injury that ended his season. Kevin Faulk remains one of the better third down backs in the NFL and is deadly coming off of screens and draws. He lacks the ability to be an every down back so that job falls to Maroney and Morris
Wide Recievers: Here also the Patriots return a player fresh off a record setting season. Randy Moss last year broke the record for touchdown receptions surpassing the old record held by Jerry Rice. He will look to have another productive season alongside slot specialist Wes Welker who tied for the NFL lead in receptions last year with 117. This duo work extremely well together as when moss is double teamed, it opens the underneath routes that welker preys upon. When teams focus on Welker, Moss burns them deep. The recieving corps did lose reciever Donte Stallworth to free agency, however he had been slipping in the depth chart during the season and the team feels that reciever Jabbar Gaffney will be an adequate replacement. The team will also hope that Chad Jackson can fill the potential he had when the Patriots drafted him in the second round. Thus far he has been hampered by injuries, but he should be coming in healthy this season and If there was ever a time for him to show some development it's now. Behind these players is a hodgepodge of others who will battle for the fifth reciver spot on the roster. At this point my prediction would be for Kelley Washington to get the spot in light of his great work on special teams especially as a gunner on punts.
Tight Ends: The pats have a solid group of tight ends though definetly not an elite grouping. Ben Watson is the leader of the group and had a solid year although abbreviated due to injuries and overshadowed by the group at wide reciever. He can dissappear at times and needs to show more consistency in his play. Behind him is David Thomas who most say has the best hands on the team. He didn't get on the field last year due to a foot injury, but looks to be healthy going into training camp. The team also brought in Marcus Pollard who will look to fit in somehow with this group. This group lacks a true blocking tight end as all three of the above are more recieving tight ends. I would not be surprised to see them add another tight end to come in and block in three tight end sets.
Offensive Line: This is a group that performed very well all year long and then completely laid an egg in the superbowl. The unit returns three Pro Bowlers in Matt Light, Logan Mankins, and Dan Koppen. Light is a bit of an enigma. He can at times stop elite pass rushers dead in their tracks and at others players can eat him up. Mankins is an animal at the left guard spot. He plays with the mean streak that teams love to see in their lineman and is a dominant run blocker. Koppen is a very intelligent center who rarely makes the wrong call at the line. On the other side Stephen Neal is a decent player but is often hurt and definetly not a superstar. at the right tackle comes one of the more interesting story lines going into training camp. The presumptive starter Nick Kaczur was involved in an offseason incident involving oxycodone and it is unknown as of now whether there will be discipline from the NFL. If he is suspended then Ryan O'Callaghan will move to fill his spot. O'Callaghan has a shot to be the starter regardless as there is not much of a drop off between the two players. I see this being a hotly contested battle in training camp. The team also signed free agent Oliver Ross who has also had a very productive year. As backups the team has Russ Hochstein who can play both guards and the center position in addition to Wesley Britt, and Billy Yates.
Defensive Line: This is one of the better defensive lines in the NFL. The group doesn't necessarily put up the numbers of a 4-3 front, however, their job is to occupy blockers and the big bodies up front do that as well as anyone else. The leader of the line is Richard Seymour who missed his first pro bowl in five seasons last year as a result of being injured. Vince Wilfork is an absolute beast on the inside who constantly commands a double team. At the other end Ty Warren is the best pass rusher of the group and compliments the other two exceptionally. At backup the patriots have defensive end Jarvis Green who would start on most teams. Mike Wright and Le Kevin Smith round out the unit.
Linebackers: This unit underwent a major overhaul in the offseason. This could be unit that puts up a lot of sacks as Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas should both play exculsively on the outside this year where they are both most comfortable. Both are very effective edge rushers and Vrabel is an all pro from last season. On the inside Tedy Bruschi will return for another season. Although he is nowhere near the player he once was he can still be effective in small doses. In order to make those doses small, the patriots brought in a pair of other linebackers to give the team a three man rotation at ILB. The team signed free agent Victor Hobson from the Jets. Hobson is already familiar with a similar defense from his time playing under Belichick disciple Eric Mangini. He should adapt quickly and I think will be a very solid contributor to this defense. The team also used the tenth pick in the draft to draft linebacker Jerod Mayo out of Tennessee. Mayo is an athletic backer who excells in space and has the speed to be very effective in pass coverage. The team also drafted outside linebacker Shawn Crable who is a bit of a project, but has the raw skills to be a monster pass rusher. Another interesting player is Vince Redd. He is very raw but has a great deal of size and athleticism that could allow him to stick around if he can make himself a spot on special teams. There is also the possibility that Junior Seau could return for yet another NFL season, however that is an unknown at this point.
Defensive Backfield: In my opinion the shakiest unit on the team. The loss of Asante Samuel will hurt as he was their most consistent player in the backfield. Ellis Hobbs will now be asked to be the team's #1 corner and there is considerable doubt as to whether he can handle this. The team signed free agent Fernando Bryant and at this time he is the presumptive starter opposite hobbs. The team also signed corner Jason Webster and used a couple of draft picks here in Terrence Wheatley and Jason Wilhite. Wheatley has a chance to make an impact this year as the nickel back while Wilhite will be in a battle to make the roster. At safety the situtation is a little more stable. The team lost Eugene Wilson, however he was falling on the depth chart and James Sanders is an extremely underrated starter. Rodney Harrison will man the Strong Safety position and should be solid unless an injury crops up as they seem to have done in recent years. Backing up Sanders will be Brandon Meriweather who started to come on late in the season last year and could have a chance to start at some point this season. We just have to hope that he spent a lot of time on the juggs machine this offseason as he dropped at least five passes that should have been intercepted. Backing up Harrison will be free agent pickup Tank Williams who was once a highly touted young safety, but had some rough years with the Vikings.
Special Teams: The team returns Kicker Stephen Gostkowski to handle kickoff and field goal duties. Gostowski has a booming leg and can pin a team deep on kickoffs. On field goals, he is solid but not exceptional and his ability to kick in the clutch is largely unknown as the team was ahead pretty much all of last season. handling the punting duties will be Chris Hanson who is more of a dicrectional punter than a power punter. He excells at pinning teams down near the goal line. Punt retruns will likely be handled by Wes Welker as Belichick likes surehanded players to handle that spot. Kickoff returns are a bit of an unknown at this point. It is likely that they will be handled by a variety of different people as the season goes on. Maroney, Faulk, and Hobbs have all handled kicks in the past, but the team drafted special teams specialist Matt Slater who also has a chance to return kicks if he has a good camp.
Team Strength: The passing game. The record setting unit from last year is mostly intact. Look for another good season from this group although it would be hard to replicate the success of last season.
Team Weakness: The defensive backfield. Already a weakness on the team, it was further hampered by the loss of Asante Samuel. A lot will depend on the ability of the rookies to play as well as the performance of Fernando Bryant.
Wildcard: The Linebackers. What many people think to be a weakness on this team I think could turn out to be a big strength. I think Hobson will perform much better than people expect and again a lot will depend on how well the rookies are able to develop.
Chance to surpise: Victor Hobson and Chad Jackson. Not much is expected of Hobson so if he can come in and be solid I think that will be a welcome surprise for pats fants. Chad Jackson is bordering on being labeled a bust. If he's going to change that this is the year to do it. I think he will surprise this year and eventually start opposite Randy Moss where he should face a lot of single coverage deep downfield.
Record: 14-2 Although I would love to say 16-0 again I know that is highly unlikely. I'm going to say they lose two this season. They have a fairly easy schedule given how teams performed last year. I think one loss will come to either the Colts or Chargers while the other will come in the last game of the season at the Bills as the Patriots will have their playoff spot wrapped up and the Bills will be fighting for a wild card spot.