With NFL teams stuck in a state of limbo thanks to the lingering lockout, we are taking a tour around the league and looking at where teams stand as they await the opening of the 2011 league year. Today, we offer our take on where the Patriots stand.
Top three story lines
1. Can the defense improve without any significant offseason additions? An opportunistic defense that compiled a ridiculous plus-28 turnover margin helped New England post a league-best 14-2 record, and that overshadowed the league's 30th-ranked pass defense and the worst "D" on third down. Part of the problem was a lack of a pass rush, but the team didn't address it in the draft. The Pats' sixth-round pick, OLB Markell Carter, is a developmental project, and they're not expected to address the need via free agency. That puts the spotlight on second-year OLB Jermaine Cunningham and DE Ty Warren, who missed all of 2010 with a hip injury. Bill Belichick's schemes are still some of the best in the game, and they helped overcome the injuries and youth on the defense. But the problems came back in the playoff loss to the Jets, and will need to improve if the Patriots want to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2007.
2. What will be Tom Brady and the offense's sequel to 2010? Brady, who won his second MVP award, led a steamrolling offense that peaked during an eight-game win streak to end the season. Brady's success helped heighten the game of the personnel around him. Undrafted, unknown RBs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead had big seasons, and rookie TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez exploded onto the scene. Brady is coming off offseason ankle surgery and will get all his weapons back in 2011. Some believe the lack of a deep threat hinders the Patriots, but the team believes Brandon Tate can be that player. The offense that made good use of tight ends and short-to-intermediate routes in a revelatory 2010 campaign won't be a surprise in ’11, but Brady still will be counted on to repeat the magic.
3. What will the offensive line look like? There is a chance that the O-line we see in Week One is the same we saw in last year's playoff loss, with OLT Matt Light, OLG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, ORG Dan Connolly and ORT Sebastian Vollmer. It's the left side of the line that is in question, though, as Light is set to be a free agent and could test the waters, especially after the Patriots used their first-round pick on a blind-side tackle of the future, Nate Solder. Mankins, who has wanted a lucrative, long-term deal, received the franchise tag. He didn't sign the tender and has had a rocky relationship with the front office. Mankins is one of the best run blockers in the league and Light is a veteran presence who still can protect Brady. If both have to be replaced, it could set the offense back.
2011 free-agency — whenever that happens
Unsigned players: CB Kyle Arrington (2), S Josh Barrett (3), RB Kevin Faulk (12), PK Shayne Graham (10), RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (3), OT Matt Light (10), OG Logan Mankins (6, franchised) S Brandon McGowan (6), RB Sammy Morris (11), OL Quinn Ojinnaka (5), S Jarrad Page (5), RB Fred Taylor (13), DE Gerard Warren (10), LB Tracy White (8). [Editor's note: The number after a players' name is his years of service in the league. If the NFL decides to go with free agency under the same rules as used in 2010, then a player would become a restricted free agent after three years and an unrestricted free agent after six years.]
Analysis: The biggest names here protect Brady's blind side, Light and Mankins. It was thought that Light would return for a couple more years to finish his career in Foxborough, something he desires, but the Patriots' decision to draft OT Nate Solder could change things. Mankins received the franchise tender, something he did not want as he still aims for a long-term deal. He is expected to return, however. Green-Ellis, Page and Arrington received restricted free-agent tenders and all should be back. Page's tender offer likely means that McGowan will be playing elsewhere. The Patriots drafted two running backs, signals to Morris and Taylor that their time in New England is complete. Faulk could return, but would have to compete to make the team. The Pats signed Marcus Stroud, who can replace Warren if the team doesn't re-sign him.
2011 rookie class
First-round OT Nate Solder (No. 17 overall) — Solder has raw talent at the position. He is a converted tight end but needs a lot of work and development before he can start on the blind side. He would benefit from spending a year or two behind Light.
Second-round CB Ras-I Dowling (No. 33 overall) — The Patriots have made it a habit of drafting cornerbacks. Dowling's physicality should line up well opposite Devin McCourty down the line. He will compete to play nickel to begin his career.
Second-round RB Shane Vereen (No. 56 overall) — An effective receiver, Vereen is similar to Danny Woodhead and will add a third back into the fold in a backfield that Bill Belichick likes to keep split.
Third-round RB Stevan Ridley (No. 73 overall) — An inside runner, Ridley could be a solid short-yardage back to spell BenJarvus Green-Ellis and replace Sammy Morris.
Third-round QB Ryan Mallett (No. 74 overall) — The surprise pick of the draft, Mallett will work under Tom Brady and will compete with Brian Hoyer to be the team's backup QB. Mallett has a cannon arm but slipped in the draft because of character concerns. He could be the next Matt Cassel and net the team a first-round pick via trade after he develops.
Fifth-round OG Marcus Cannon (No. 138 overall) — Another great value pick, Cannon, a tackle at TCU, will slide inside and play guard when he's ready, which likely will be in 2012 assuming he fully recovers from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Fifth-round TE Lee Smith (No. 159 overall) — Smith is a blocking tight end who eventually could replace Alge Crumpler, who turns 34 in December.
Sixth-round OLB Markell Carter (No. 194 overall) — The only edge rusher the team drafted, Carter will play linebacker for New England and has intriguing tools.
Seventh-round DB Malcolm Williams (No. 219 overall) — Williams will have to make a contribution on special teams to make the squad.
Lockout fallout: How impacted will the Patriots be by the work stoppage?
On scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most significantly impacted), the Patriots rate a 3. With most of the starters returning and only minor coaching changes, the Patriots are in prime position to repeat as AFC East champs. Bill O'Brien was named the offensive coordinator, but he has been calling plays for two years. Bill Belichick also did some rearranging among the defensive coaches. While Matt Light and Logan Mankins could be back, it's unknown until free agency opens whether one or both will return. The lockout also keeps the Patriots from working to improve the defense and get starters Leigh Bodden and Ty Warren back up to speed after they missed all of 2010.
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