2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Kevin Fishbain
Some believed that 2010 wouldn't necessarily be a rebuilding year, but a growing year for a Patriots team with an extremely young defense. Despite a 6-2 record, a 34-14 Week Nine loss to the struggling Browns seemed to reinforce that this was no more than a wild-card team.
What happened next defined why quarterbacks and coaches are so important in the NFL.
The Patriots won their last eight regular-season games, finishing with a league-best 14-2 record. Tom Brady won MVP, and Bill Belichick turned his young defense into the most opportunistic in the NFL while winning Coach of the Year honors.
But the magic ended there, as the Pats fell to the Jets 28-21 in the divisional round of the playoffs, seeing their season end in a home playoff game for the second consecutive year.
There's plenty to be hopeful about after a surprisingly successful regular season for the Patriots, and they weren't complacent, trading for WR Chad Ochocinco and DT Albert Haynesworth once the lockout ended. Belichick is no stranger to bringing big-name veterans into Foxborough, and the hope is that Ochocinco and Haynesworth excel in their new surroundings the way that Randy Moss and Corey Dillon did previously.
Belichick and Brady proved how lethal a tandem they are when the Pats steamrolled through the NFL in the second half of '10. If the offense picks up where it left off and the defense gets more consistent in '11, New England could be heading to Indianapolis in February.
The arrival of rookie TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez changed the makeup of the Patriots' offense in 2010, as they led the league in scoring. When the Patriots surprisingly traded Randy Moss after Week Four, Tom Brady transitioned to orchestrating a spread offense, and relying on a healthy Wes Welker, a rejuvenated Deion Branch and the talented tight ends up the seam. Bill O'Brien officially gets the title of offensive coordinator, but he has been calling plays the past two seasons. Personnel-wise, the offense adds the dynamic, and loud, Chad Ochocinco to the WR corps, giving Brady yet another weapon.
Quarterbacks: Tom Brady's pinpoint accuracy last season gave him the all-time record for consecutive pass attempts without throwing an interception. Excelling at getting his receivers the ball in space on short-to-intermediate routes, Brady threw 36 touchdown passes and only four picks. He struggled in the playoff loss, though, and had offseason surgery on a sprained right foot that he played with the second half of the season. Brady makes up for his lack of speed with great footwork in the pocket to avoid pressure. His backup, Brian Hoyer, got extended time in the season finale against the Bills and managed the offense well. He might not be the caliber of backup that Matt Cassel was, but he fits what the team needs behind Brady. The surprise of the draft, Ryan Mallett, comes to New England with a cannon for an arm, slow feet and a laundry list of character concerns. Expect Brady to mentor Mallett, who eventually could be trade bait or Brady's heir apparent.
Running backs: This group went from boasting four veterans (Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris) to thriving with two undrafted backs. BenJarvus Green-Ellis took the starting job in Week Four and became the first Patriot to rush for 1,000 yards since Corey Dillon in 2004. Green-Ellis is deceptively quick and has the ability to see holes and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Green-Ellis proved to be a reliable goal-line back and is good at fighting for positive yards. His backfield mate, Danny Woodhead, was an even bigger rags-to-riches story. Cut by the Jets prior to Week Two, Woodhead became a fan favorite in New England. At 5-foot-8, Woodhead uses great balance to pick up yards and was a better-than-average replacement for Faulk, racking up more than 900 total yards. Faulk, who tore the ACL in his right knee in Week Two, doesn't have many years left, but is a workhorse and locker-room leader. The Patriots added two rookie backs with promise. Shane Vereen is a smart runner and an effective receiver to complement Green-Ellis, but has barely practiced. Stevan Ridley is a banger who can spell Green-Ellis in short-yardage situations and has been impressive in the preseason.
Receivers: Once Randy Moss was dealt after four games, the receiver corps adjusted by becoming short-to-intermediate targets for Tom Brady, and the offense thrived. Wes Welker had a phenomenal season coming off ACL and MCL surgery, remaining Brady's safety valve and most reliable receiver. Welker is great at finding open space. As the season went on and his leg health improved, he started breaking tackles again. Heading into a contract year and healthy, Welker will continue to pick apart defenses. Chad Ochocinco's numbers tailed off last season with the Bengals, but he is a hardworking player who is very excited about his new home. He will be the Pats' target outside the numbers, using his quickness and physicality to separate himself from defenders. The threat of Ochocinco on the outside should help open things up in the middle. Deion Branch, re-acquired in a trade, came in for Moss and it was like he never left New England. He is quick, dependable and showed he's not just an underneath route runner. Brandon Tate has a great burst of speed and field vision, as seen on two kickoff-return TDs, but he has not materialized into a vertical threat. Julian Edelman, the punt returner and Welker's backup, was banged up at times in 2010 but showed his quickness and ability to shed tacklers in the return game. Taylor Price played in one game as a rookie, but the team has high hopes for the speedster. TE Rob Gronkowski is a good run blocker, and his hands and size help make him a quality red-zone threat. Aaron Hernandez doesn't possess great blocking ability but he is extremely athletic and knows what to do after the catch. He is versatile and often played out of the slot. Rookie TEs Lee Smith and Will Yeatman are battling to be Alge Crumpler's replacement.
Offensive linemen: The O-line allowed the fourth-fewest sacks in the league and paved the way for the ninth-best rushing attack. The Patriots maintained the left side by re-signing OLT Matt Light and signing Pro Bowl OLG Logan Mankins to a six-year deal. Mankins is one of the best guards in the game, a mauler who opens big holes in the running game. Light struggled early in 2010, especially against speed rushers, but the veteran came on strong late. C Dan Koppen will continue snapping the ball to Tom Brady. He is not a great run blocker but gets the job done. Dan Connolly should get the nod at right guard after Stephen Neal retired. Connolly is smart, versatile and showed his value by filling in at both guard spots last season. He also can play fullback. Sebastian Vollmer started all 16 games at right tackle. He brings a powerful punch versus rushers to provide stellar pass protection for Brady. Vollmer also is smart and proved he could stay healthy. The team used its first-round pick on OT Nate Solder, a converted tight end who will need time to develop. He has the build to be the blind-side tackle of the future. Fifth-round OG Marcus Cannon could be the Patriots' best value pick of '11. He has a 90 percent chance of full recovery from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and had early-round grades prior to the diagnosis. He is projected to move inside. Ryan Wendell filled in at guard when Connolly played fullback.
Bill Belichick enters his second season without a defensive coordinator. The "D" was the team's biggest Achilles' heel in 2010, especially against the pass and on third downs. The defense played mostly a 3-4, but personnel moves this offseason hint that we could see "40" fronts more often than not. Belichick mixes up looks often, and the team spent a lot of time in the nickel, making it hard to pin down a "base" defense for New England. The secondary should be improved with the return of Leigh Bodden at corner, but the team needs a consistent edge rusher to emerge from the group of veteran ends it picked up via free agency.
Defensive linemen: Injuries along the defensive line forced lots of shuffling and rotating in 2010, but the one mainstay was NT Vince Wilfork. The anchor of the line, he played tons of snaps, even moving to end to help clog up runs to the outside. He gets great penetration and helps the linebackers behind him make plays. Next to Wilfork — in the 3-4 or 4-3 — will be Albert Haynesworth. He was a huge disappointment with the Redskins, but the Pats hope he returns to the form he showed with the Titans, where he was dominant using power to get into the backfield. Haynesworth will be used often on passing downs to get an interior pass rush. The Pats poached from the rival Jets, adding DE Shaun Ellis. Ellis is a pass-rushing end with the size to play inside if needed. In a 4-3, Jermaine Cunningham and Eric Moore would be defensive ends, returning to their college positions. Cunningham is quick at the snap but didn't make much noise as a rookie as an outside 'backer. Moore, a former CFL player, joined the team late but was a solid edge rusher in the sub package. Veteran DEs Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, who both have had success in 4-3 defenses, add pass-rushing depth to the DE spot. Mike Wright has the versatility to play end or tackle, and he was the team's best pass-rushing D-lineman before missing the final six games with a concussion. Brandon Deaderick saw some time as a rookie, showing a good motor getting after the QB. Undrafted DL Kyle Love has a similar job as Wilfork — occupy multiple O-linemen. Gerard Warren returns for another year in the DL rotation. Myron Pryor is also expected to factor into the mix on the inside, while Ron Brace needs to stay healthy.
Linebackers: ILB Jerod Mayo had his best season, leading the league in tackles and making the Pro Bowl. He is always around the ball, using quickness to knife through traffic, and has the ability to play any of the three LB spots. He would play the weak side in the 4-3. ILB Brandon Spikes was playing well as a run stopper before his four-game suspension to end the regular season and would serve as the middle linebacker in a 4-3. OLB Rob Ninkovich had a breakout season in 2010. A high-effort player, Ninkovich is not the long-term answer on the outside, but he got into the backfield often. He would play the strong side in the 4-3. Gary Guyton started in place of Spikes and played in the nickel, making a few big plays. Dane Fletcher came out of nowhere to add depth at inside linebacker. He is undersized but fast enough to cover backs in the flat. Rookie Markell Carter is a developmental edge rusher who could be a 4-3 end or a 3-4 outside 'backer.
Defensive backs: The secondary gets some blame for the 30th-ranked passing defense, but injuries allowed multiple players to gain needed experience, and the unit now has some depth. Last season as a rookie, Devin McCourty tied for second in the league with seven interceptions. He overcame early struggles and showed he had the speed to run with the best receivers in the game. Opposite McCourty will be a battle between Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler and Kyle Arrington. Bodden should get the job if he is healthy after missing all of 2010 with a torn rotator cuff. He was tied for the team lead in interceptions in '09 with five. Butler was benched early in the season but has good athleticism for the position and could serve as the nickel corner. Arrington is good against the run but struggled in coverage. Jonathan Wilhite served as the team's nickel defender, and that's as big a role as he'll play. Ras-I Dowling is a physical corner who needs to prove he can stay healthy and should push to be the team's No. 3 corner. FS Brandon Meriweather is good covering receivers over the top, but he takes too many chances. Patrick Chung is the playmaker of the group, on both defense and special teams, but he needs to improve in coverage.
Led by coordinator Scott O'Brien, the Patriots have one of the best special-teams groups in the league. P Zoltan Mesko had a solid rookie season, helping boost the team's net punting average. He is smart with good ability to punt directionally. PK Stephen Gostkowski had converted nine consecutive field-goal attempts before being lost for the season with a leg injury. The kickoff rule should help the team's coverage unit, which had been the weakest part of the special teams. Former Jets S James Ihedigbo could join WR Matthew Slater as one of the team's gunners, an area in which Slater has excelled. Julian Edelman was very good on punt returns, taking one back for a TD. Brandon Tate showed an electric burst, taking two kickoffs to the house, but teams started kicking away from him and pinning him deep.
The Patriots surprised last season, but expectations are higher in 2011. The defense will be healthy again, with the youngsters gaining an additional year under their belts, and there's no reason to think the offense can't be even better than it was last season. All eyes will be on Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth, who will help to make the Patriots favorites in the AFC. It has been four years since the Pats won the AFC and seven since their last Super Bowl title. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick still have the magic, but the question is can the young supporting cast do enough to make New England a champion again?
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.