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PFW's Patriots reporter Kevin Fishbain answers five key questions facing the Patriots as they head into the 2011 season.
1. Can the defense improve from last season's ranking of 25th overall?
It would be a big disappointment if the Patriots couldn't improve last year's "D." The phrase "there's nowhere to go but up" applies, as they finished 30th in the NFL against the pass and 32nd on third down. Getting Mike Wright and Leigh Bodden healthy will help, and the gamble on Albert Haynesworth could ultimately pay off. Keep in mind, last year's defense was very young. Another season with Bill Belichick's schemes and the defense certainly should be better.
2. Where will the pass rush come from?
Many people were surprised that Belichick declined to go after a pass-rushing defensive end or outside linebacker in the draft. The team is confident in Jermaine Cunningham, who battled injuries last season. The team cut ties with OLB Tully Banta-Cain, who might have been the best pure pass rusher on the team, but his numbers have tailed off and he recently underwent abdominal surgery. That puts more pressure on Eric Moore and Rob Ninkovich, who each did a solid job of getting into the backfield, with Moore seeing time in the nickel. One of those three guys — Cunningham, Moore or Ninkovich — needs to overachieve in 2011. An improved pass rush certainly would help the third-down defense.
3. What can TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez do for an encore?
It might be asking too much for a giant improvement coming off very impressive rookie seasons for the pair, especially since they won't be surprising any defenses in 2011, but similar production can be expected. Hernandez could see his role expand a bit to take advantage of his versatility and help the Patriots' need for a bigger receiver by playing out of the slot. After last year's success, the offense probably will look to keep Gronkowski and Hernandez heavily involved, and Tom Brady proved he could balance their touches.
4. Which draft picks, if any, will make an impact on the 2011 roster?
Unlike last season, when rookies were a big part of the 14-2 club, this year's crop of rookies won't be counted on to make big impacts. Since Matt Light re-signed and Nate Solder isn't needed immediately, the best bet is CB Ras-I Dowling. The big, physical corner should help the team's nickel defense, challenging Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite for playing time. RBs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley are sure to get their touches in a loaded backfield, but neither is expected to make much of a dent unless Danny Woodhead or BenJarvus Green-Ellis gets hurt. The rest of the team's picks are developmental prospects, leaving Dowling as the most likely to make his mark as a rookie.
5. Are the Patriots legitimate Super Bowl contenders?
Yes. Tom Brady showed the league in 2010 what he was capable of without an A-list group of skill players. The opportunistic defense performed well, despite being filled with young players with veterans on injured reserve. The defense will be better, and if the offense is anything like what we saw during the Patriots' eight-game win streak, New England still should be considered one of the AFC's favorites.