|Ras-I Dowling and the Patriots secondary only occasionally found their footing in 2011. (US Presswire)|
If Brady plays, everyone else plays for second place.
That's comforting news for a club that just won the AFC, but the Patriots have holes that must be plugged. That's the bad news. The good: They'll have the opportunity. They have four of the first 62 picks in this year's draft.
QB: There's nothing wrong with Brady other than advancing age. The guy turns 35 this season, is still at the top of his game and is the reason the Patriots always are a threat to win the Super Bowl. Brady has been the starter for 10 seasons (he was hurt after one game in 2008), and the Patriots went to the Super Bowl in five of those years. Follow the bread crumbs, people. The guy is one of the game's best quarterbacks ever, and as long as he's upright the Patriots have nothing to worry about.
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RB: With the departure of Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots have ... what? Danny Woodhead? Stevan Ridley? Ridley, who averaged over 5 yards a carry last season, looks like the starter here, with Woodhead in a familiar role as relief pitcher. But I wouldn't forget about Shane Vereen, the second-round draft pick who was bothered by a hamstring injury most of 2011. The Patriots are thin here, but they have been in recent years. These guys throw the ball and run it effectively when they have to -- which isn't often. Nevertheless, they're looking for help at this position.
WR: For the second straight season, the Patriots tried to operate without someone who could stretch the field, and for the second straight season it hurt them in the playoffs. Now they've added Brandon Lloyd, and maybe he's the solution. He's not a burner but can get behind the secondary. Anthony Gonzalez and Donte Stallworth are additions, too, with Gonzalez the more significant -- provided, of course, he can stay healthy -- and Stallworth another possibility as a deep threat. With the re-signing of Deion Branch, the restructuring of Chad Ochocinco's contract and the retention of Wes Welker, the Patriots have options -- lots of options -- where they did not a year ago.
TE: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 catches, 2237 yards and 24 touchdowns. Any questions? Well, yes, one: How does free-agent Daniel Fells fit in. Answer: He could serve as the second tight end if Hernandez is moved to wide receiver. I'm not saying it happens; I'm just saying it's a possibility.
OL: Veteran guard Brian Waters played better than anyone expected, but he might retire. So where does that leave the Patriots? In better shape than you think. First of all, they're set at tackle, with Sebastian Vollmer, Matt Light and Nate Solder. There is no guarantee Light returns, either, but let's say he doesn't. The Pats are set with Vollmer, who can start on the right side, and Solder, last year's first-round draft pick. Logan Mankins is a franchise left guard, but he's coming off a torn ACL that may affect his availability for the coming season. Maybe that's why the Patriots signed Robert Gallery, better suited as a guard than tackle. The bigger question is: What happens at center? Dan Connolly looks like the starter there, but he could move to right guard if Dan Koppen is OK. If not, there could be a vacancy on the right side New England has to fill.
DL: The Patriots' top two pass rushers last year were Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, and they may lose both. Anderson already is gone to Buffalo, and Carter is a free agent coming off a season-ending injury. Subtract them, and you subtract half of the team's 40 sacks. Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love are solid inside, but the Patriots could be vulnerable on the outside. But that's where free-agent acquisition Jonathan Fanene comes in. He can play inside or out and can rush the passer. He can also defend the run ... provided he's healthy. When he was OK the past two of the past three years he had 12.5 sacks, but he played more than 60 percent of the snaps only once (2009) in his career. Former Raider Trevor Scott could be in the mix, too, but he could translate as an outside linebacker, too.
LB: With the potential departures of the Patriots' top two pass rushers, there's a feeling that New England could go back to a 3-4 setup -- which would move Scott to outside linebacker. No matter who plays there New England must be able to pressure the pocket from the outside, and maybe Scott is that guy; maybe not. My guess: Not. Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo are the outside backers in New England's 4-3 scheme, with Mayo the better of the two. Ninkovich had a solid season, but he's more of an overachiever than a rising star. Brandon Spikes anchors the middle, and while he wasn't spectacular, he did excel late in the season, particularly in the playoffs.
DB: There were holes galore here, and opponents took advantage -- one reason New England ranked 31st vs. the pass. Cornerback Devin McCourty took such a giant step backward that by the end of the season he was taking turns at safety in certain packages. But, then again, everyone seemed to be, including wide receiver Julian Edelman. I mention Edelman because some think he might have a future as a defensive back. Nobody knows where McCourty's next stop is -- cornerback or safety --and Ras-I-Dowling's return might factor into the decision. He was lost for last season but could be the second or third cornerback here. Kyle Arrington made a lot of interceptions, but he also made a lot of big mistakes -- and it's a tossup which need is bigger, cornerback or safety. All I know is that Patrick Chung is the only reliable safety and could use help -- thought Sterling Moore was a pleasant surprise, especially in the playoffs. Newcomer Steve Gregory adds depth but little more.