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NFL team preview: New England Patriots

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INSIDE SLANT

The predications surrounding the 2010 Patriots are as varied as they are readily available after an eventful, up-and-down preseason.

One school of thought is that any team that fields Tom Brady and is coached by Bill Belichick has a chance not only at the playoffs, but at a deep January run. Sporting two of the top options at two of the most important spots in football is a good start for any team. Throw in Randy Moss, Wes Welker and the makings of an offense that's been amongst the best in the game since 2007 and there is reason for the hope that permeates plenty of corners of Patriots Nation.

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But the flipside of that is a realistic and more analytical look at a team that last we saw was being run off the field by Ray Rice and the Ravens on wild-card weekend. New England has done little to improve that defense that showed it was anything but playoff ready, will start a slew of young players in 2010 and faces a pretty formidable schedule that includes matchups with such presumed NFL elite as the Colts, Jets (twice), Packers, Vikings and Ravens.

Of course the end reality may be somewhere in between the predictions of doom and those of a return to domination for New England.

Those who point to the strengths of Belichick, Brady, Moss and a proven offense are correct. Add in the emergence of rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as well as young receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate, and the offense has the potential to be better than 2009 when it ranked third in all of football. Wes Welker looks ready to return to form and the offense has high hopes.

The defense, on the other hand, is a clear work in progress. Rookies such as inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and cornerback Devin McCourty could very well start. Unproven second-year players safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Darius Butler will clearly have major roles. Even unproven newcomers such as defensive end Gerard Warren will have a lot thrown on their plate for a defense that ranked 11th in the NFL last season but wasn't nearly that good when it came to making key plays. Bend but don't break in New England was replaced by bend and then break when the game is on the line a year ago.

Put it all together and the Patriots will not only be in a potential dogfight for their playoff lives, but more likely left to battle the Jets and Dolphins for the division and maybe just to consistently put wins together.

Belichick isn't big on comparing one team to the next, but the coach knows there could very well be more question marks surrounding this team in New England than any of its recent predecessors had entering the regular season.

"I couldn't really rank one year with another or two years ago. [You] just deal with whatever you have to deal with the particular year and do the best you can with it," Belichick said of all his team's questions entering September. "We'll find out here in a few weeks where we're at. As far as an installation schedule and things like that, we have a lot of things installed. There are other things to do, but that's the way it always is. But we'll find out once we start the regular season competition. We'll find out where everybody is."

During the Belichick era, and since shocking the world with a Super Bowl title in 2001, the Patriots have been arguably the most consistent franchise in the NFL. That form may take a hit in 2010 as New England seemingly retools on the run with a slew of young players, including 24 draft picks over the last two seasons, learning on the run as the team hopes to remain competitive in the AFC playoff hunt while working in the youth movement.

Only time, games and the development of the young players will tell how well the Patriots succeed in augmenting the foundation of Belichick and Brady with young talent in an effort to bring thoughts of late January championship runs back to Foxborough.

COACHING: Bill Belichick, 36th year, 11th with Patriots (148-92).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 10-6 (1st in AFC East); lost in wild-card game to Ravens, 33-14.
PREDICTING: 2010 regular season record 9-7 (2nd in AFC East); lose in wildcard game.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Like most teams, the Patriots have dealt with their share of injuries in training camp. While dealing with losing starters DE Ty Warren (IR, hip surgery), CB Leigh Bodden (IR, shoulder) and OL Nick Kaczur (back surgery) is difficult, projecting the status of moderate-term injuries can be equally as challenging or more so.

Projected key contributors like rookie OLB Jermaine Cunningham, rookie TE Aaron Hernandez, second-year WR Julian Edelman and others have all missed significant time in training camp. At the very least, all were set back in camp due to injury and won't be quite as ready for opening day. At worst, the injuries will linger into the season opener against Cincinnati and will test the team's depth from day one. All teams' depth gets challenged during a long NFL season, but New England's may already be facing a test before the 2010 campaign even gets under way.

PLAYER NOTES

--CB Leigh Bodden was the most interesting of the Patriots move to get down to the 75-man limit on Aug. 31. The starting cornerback was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder problem suffered in the third preseason game. Bodden was New England's lone truly experienced corner and leaves a huge void in the secondary.

--S Josh Barrett was placed on injured reserve Aug. 31 with a shoulder injury. The third-year veteran had been claimed off waivers from the Broncos Aug. 6, coming to New England with the injury. He did not appear on the practice/preseason field with the team and was claimed off waivers with an eye toward 2011.

--DB Bret Lockett was place on injured reserve Aug. 31 with a chest injury. The second-year player saw action in 10 games for New England in 2009, but had missed the bulk of the summer to injury.

--DL Daryl Richard was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury Aug. 31. The 2009 seventh-round pick spent all of last season on the practice squad and had seen limited reps in training camp this summer.

--DB Terrence Johnson was re-signed Aug. 29. The rookie free agent out of California University of Pennsylvania was released by the team Aug. 23 after missing most of training camp with an unknown injury. Johnson was then cut yet again as the team got down to 75 players on Aug. 31.

--OL Brian Simmons was released Aug. 29. The rookie free agent out of Oklahoma had signed with the team Aug. 15.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/27, CB Devin McCourty, Rutgers -- Top pick has seen plenty of reps in camp and is battling for a major role on defense, if not a starting job early in his career.

Rd. 2/42, TE Rob Gronkowski, Arizona -- Big, soft-handed target has shown his abilities as a blocker and pass catcher in camp and drawn praise from Tom Brady. Will be a major part of the offense in a variety of roles as a rookie.

Rd. 2/53, OLB Jermaine Cunningham, Florida -- Looking to make the transition from college defensive end, Cunningham has missed weeks of practice and the first three preseason games with an unknown injury. At this point his rookie season, and expectations on his potential impact, are diminishing.

Rd. 2/62, ILB Brandon Spikes, Florida -- Spikes elevated to the first defense when Gary Guyton went down with a camp knee injury, and the rookie looks like he'll remain in the starting lineup to open the regular season. A good fit for the tough inside job in the 3-4, he'll be the thumper next to the more athletic Jerod Mayo.

Rd. 3/90, WR Taylor Price, Ohio University -- Price flashed early in camp but has regressed in recent weeks and caught just one pass for 7 yards in the first three preseason games. He'll be near the bottom of the receiver depth chart.

Rd. 4/113, TE Aaron Hernandez, Florida -- Hernandez was lighting up the practice and game field until an injury sidelined him after the second preseason game. Depending on his health, he's still expected to get his chances as a spread, slot option in the Patriots' various passing sets.

Rd. 5/150, P Zoltan Mesko, Michigan -- Mesko has been rather inconsistent in the summer and preseason, but baring any last-minute change the punting job is his.

Rd. 6/205, OL Ted Larsen, N.C. State -- Larsen closed camp on the roster bubble and may be destined for the team's practice squad and offensive line development program.

Rd. 7/208, OL Thomas Welch, Vanderbilt -- Welch also is on the bubble, who depending on roster numbers may be better suited for the practice squad.

Rd. 7/247, DL Brandon Deaderick, Alabama -- Deaderick had a leg up on the defense thanks to his college career in Nick Saban's Patriots-like 3-4. He took advantage with plenty of preseason reps and could win a reserve job on the line.

Rd. 7/248, DL Kade Weston, Georgia -- Technically, Weston was the first rookie to stick with the team, landing on IR with an unknown ailment after clearing waivers in the middle of camp.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Tom Brady. Backup -- Brian Hoyer.

Brady bounced back from the knee injury that cost him virtually all of 2008 with an impressive season a year ago. While his clutch efforts late in game weren't up to his high personal standards, statistically he had one of the best year's of his career despite battling broken ribs and a finger injury. Though much has been made of his personal life, less-frequent participating in New England's offseason program and unsettled contract situation heading into the final year of his current deal, the expectation is that Brady will be as good as ever. With good reason, No. 12 is has been as consistent as he's been successful in his career having thrown between 23 and 28 touchdowns compared to between 12 and 14 interceptions in six of the seven seasons of his career in which he's started all 16 games. The one exception to those statistical rules? His 50-touchdown, eight-interception effort for the record books in 2007. New England has no questions about its starter, other than when he'll reach an agreement on a long-term contract extension as he heads into the final season of his current deal. That deal, which will likely approach $100 million for the 33-year-old future Hall of Famer, has been on the negotiating table all summer but has yet to be finalized.

Hoyer was a surprise as New England's only backup as an undrafted rookie a year ago. The former Michigan State star doesn't have a strong arm, but has impressed overall with his decision making, accuracy and improvement over the last year, even drawing comparisons to former Brady understudy and current Chiefs starter Matt Cassel.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Laurence Maroney. Backups -- Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Another year in the New England backfield brings the same basic committee approach the team has used to varying degrees of success since Corey Dillon's departure. Maroney led the way with nine touchdowns a year ago, but averaged less than 4 yards a carry, developed a fumbling problem late in the season and has seen surprisingly little action this preseason. The former first-round pick has never developed into a top talent and heads into his fifth season, though he's not a guy the team will part ways with yet even if fans are ready to run him out of town. That's why veterans like Taylor and Morris are key fall-back options. The trouble is all three top backs have extensive injury histories, with Morris and Taylor having missed a combined 14 games in 2009, although Maroney actually stayed healthy last fall.

All three will likely earn starting assignments throughout the year, as it's unlikely that any one will be productive or healthy enough to take the backfield bull by the horns. Faulk remains a productive force as a third-down back, re-signing with the team for a 12th season in New England after averaging 5.4 yards on the ground and tying for third on the team with 37 receptions last fall. Green-Ellis is a former undrafted free agent who's been productive at times in his limited chances over two seasons, and he could remain on the roster thanks to the aforementioned injury histories of the top every-down backs on the depth chart, though he was clearly on the roster bubble to close the summer.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Alge Crumpler. Backups -- Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez.

Tom Brady has three all-new, big-bodied weapons to work with at tight end and seemed to enjoy his initial work with the trio all summer. Crumpler spent the last two seasons as primarily a blocker in Tennessee and has weighed as much as 300 pounds in recent years. He still has the soft hands, though, and relative athleticism that made him a Pro Bowler early in his career in Atlanta and should get his chances in many of New England's multi-tight end sets. Gronkowski and Hernandez are two very potential-filled but very different rookies.

The second rounder Gronkowski is a well-rounded, old-school tight end with the size and strength to succeed as an in-line blocker but also the soft hands and athleticism to be an option in the passing game. A fourth-round pick, Hernandez is more of a true pass catcher coming out of Florida. He will likely line up wide in many of New England various spread passing sets, if he can shake the injury bug that bit him midway through the preseason. He has the ability to make plays after the catch and potentially replaces the type of athleticism that Benjamin Watson (who signed with the Browns) and Daniel Graham offered the offense over the years. If early returns from summer action are accurate, the tight end spot could be a future strength of the offense thanks to the complementary skills sets of Gronkowski and Hernandez.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Brandon Tate. Backups -- Julian Edelman, Taylor Price, Sam Aiken.

Moss remains one of the top receivers in the game, coming off a season that drew some criticism despite his 13 touchdowns and 15.2-yard average that was identical to the number he posted in his record-breaking first season in New England. Welker has been a quick healer, bouncing back from the ACL injury suffered in last season's finale. Though he'll wear a brace on his left knee, Welker seems more than ready to go on opening day. The only question is whether the All-Pro can return to the same level of play that brought him three straight 100-catch seasons and saw him haul in more passes than anyone over the last three years. Moss and Welker obviously complement each other well, but the rest of the depth chart is much more unknown. Edelman converted from college quarterback to catch 37 balls as a Welker fill-in as a rookie. He should only improve as another underneath option, but he ended camp with an unknown injury and his durability remains a concern.

Tate and Price are the real wild cards in the group. The two third-round picks over the last two years have great speed and could be options to stretch the field opposite Moss. But Tate missed all but two games of his rookie season to knee injuries and Price comes from a not-so-intricate Ohio University passing attack. As much as their physical skills will be key to their immediate futures, both will have to show comfort in the Patriots' intricate passing schemes to carve out regular roles for themselves on the offense. Aiken had a career year (20 catches for 326 yards and two scores) as an extra receiver last fall, but remains primarily a special teams guy.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Matt Light, LG Dan Connolly, C Dan Koppen, RG Stephen Neal, RT Sebastian Vollmer. Backups -- OL Nick Kaczur, T Mark LeVoir, C/G Eric Ghiaciuc, T/G Quinn Ojinnaka, C/G Ryan Wendell, C/G Ted Larsen, T Thomas Welch.

Were it not for Pro Bowl restricted free agent Mankins' contract impasse and trade request, the Patriots would have the type of offensive continuity teams strive for. But with Mankins' absence and second-year Vollmer taking over at right tackle, there is some change up front. Kaczur was the first choice to replace Mankins, but he suffered a back injury in camp and underwent surgery that put his season in doubt. The fifth-year veteran Connolly has filled in well in the preseason but remains an unproven commodity at this point. The former All-Pro Light is in the final year of his contract and likely last season protecting Brady's blindside as Vollmer is the future at the position after an impressive rookie season a year ago. Neal contemplated retirement and misses at least a handful of game to injury each year, but he's back as a physical, athletic presence at right guard. Koppen's play has slipped a bit in recent years, but he's still a former Pro Bowler.

The greatest competition up front in camp was for backup roles. Wendell, Larsen and Welch are somewhat versatile youngsters. The team traded for Ojinnaka, who is suspended for the opener for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy in a domestic incident while in Atlanta, to compete for a backup role. Ghiaciuc is a former starting center for the Bengals and offers depth on the inside since signing during camp. LeVoir seemed to have been groomed in recent years as the backup swing tackle, but the addition of Ojinnaka may be a commentary on how the team feels about him. Though the starting lineup may be set, the backup jobs on the line and how those guys end up being used could vary during the season.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Gerard Warren, NT Vince Wilfork, RDE Mike Wright. Backups -- Damione Lewis, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick.

Wilfork got a $40 million deal to remain the centerpiece of the 3-4 front. He had a great season a year ago as the team's most consistent, effective defender. He even showed the ability to move from nose to end out of necessity on occasion. With Ty Warren landing on IR with a hip injury in camp, veteran Gerard Warren takes over on the left side. The newcomer had been signed to help fill the void created after the team traded Richard Seymour last September. That void was a big one last fall as teams would run over the now departed Jarvis Green and Wright. Wright is a tremendously versatile, hard-working backup option, but his production diminishes as an every-down player. But that could very well be the role he finds himself in for 2010.

Another free agent addition, Lewis could see backup reps or even spell Wright with some regularity. Brace is the wild card. The 2009 second-round pick disappointed in limited action as a rookie, was ready to start his second training camp and then got hurt after flashing in the second and third preseason games. He has talent, but must prove he can be relied upon. If he can do that, he could unseat Wright on the right side. A sixth-round pick a year ago, Pryor played far more regularly than his second-round draft mate Brace. The former showed more versatility and picked up the system faster as a rookie and at the very least will get some action in two-man sub fronts in passing situations.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- ILB Jerod Mayo, ILB Brandon Spikes, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, OLB Derrick Burgess. Backups -- ILB Gary Guyton, ILB Tyrone McKenzie, OLB Pierre Woods, OLB Marques Murrell, OLB Rob Ninkovich, OLB Jermaine Cunningham, ILB Eric Alexander, ILB Thomas Williams, ILB Dane Fletcher.

The former rookie of the year and captain Mayo is the focal point of a questionable linebacker corps that's clearly in transition. He's the leader of the unit thanks to back-to-back 100-tackle seasons to open his career, although he needs to make more big plays to take the next step as a player. The other inside linebacker spot could be up for grabs, despite Guyton starting all 16 games there last season. More of a speedy, athletic player than an ideal 3-4 run stuffer, Guyton could slide into a sub role if either Spikes or McKenzie can win the starting job. The former was the heart and soul of the defense in his time at Florida, but he fell to the second round in this year's draft thanks to questions about his speed. A third-round pick last year, McKenzie tore his ACL in rookie mini-camp and missed his rookie season. Both offer more physical styles and stoutness than Guyton can. Williams' versatility as a linebacker, special teamer and part-time fullback could keep him in the mix for a roster spot on the inside, while Alexander's days as a young, special teams contributor may be ending.

Banta-Cain is the leader of the group on the outside after recording 10 sacks last fall in his return to New England. Banta-Cain evolved into an every-down linebacker by the end of last season, but in reality all the jobs and roles are open for competition on the outside. Burgess was a non-factor and disappointment after landing in New England via trade a year ago, notching five of the more forgettable sacks of the season. After seeing little interest in free agency he's back on another one-year deal and it's possible that a season in the system will help him out. Beyond that it's up to a variety of young players on the outside, including the second-round pick Cunningham, Crable, Woods and Ninkovich. Cunningham looks the part and has all the skills required, but given the endless requirement of an outside linebacker it may take time for him to get acclimated. Crable has two seasons of IR under his belt and nothing more. The former third-round pick will have to put up this summer or could very well be sent packing. Woods started five games last fall, but entering his fifth season the former undrafted player hasn't developed into much of a playmaker or reliable option on the edge.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Devin McCourty, RCB Darius Butler, S Brandon Meriweather, S Patrick Chung. Backups -- S James Sanders, S Brandon McGowan, CB Jonathan Wilhite, CB Devin McCourty, CB Terrence Wheatley, CB Kyle Arrington.

There has been plenty of competition in the secondary in training camp in New England. The one place where there seemed to be some certainty was at safety, where Meriweather went to his first Pro Bowl as an alternate a year ago, tying for the team lead with five interceptions. He's an athletic playmaker, but his consistency both in coverage and as a tackler leaves much to be desired. The other safety job will be a battle between the 2009 second-round pick Chung and the veterans Sanders and McGowan. The latter pair split the duties a year ago, but Chung took nearly all the first-team reps this summer. He's the most athletic of the trio and offers the most upside, but it's questionable whether he'll be ready to take over after seeing limited playing time as a rookie. If not, Sanders offers the stability and experience of having started 41 games in his career in New England, even if he's somewhat limited physically and as a playmaker. McGowan had an impressive first season with the Patriots last fall, surprisingly starting 11 games as a physical presence. Either guy could be called on at any point.

At corner, Leigh Bodden re-signed and was the team's top returning corner before a shoulder injury landed him on IR at the cutdown to 75. That leaves a huge hole on the outside and a lot of work for the young players. Butler had a solid rookie season as a second-round pick, intercepting three passes and showing impressive balls skills while starting five of 14 games. He appears poised to slide into the starting lineup on a full-time basis in 2010, though he hasn't had a great summer. That will leave former starter Wilhite, injury-prone 2008 second-round pick Wilhite and this year's top pick, McCourty, battling for the rest of the action at corner. McCourty had a solid camp and got the starting nod in the preseason with Bodden banged up. Though he began last season penciled in as a starter, Wilhite may actually be better suited for a sub role in the slot. Wheatley may have been fighting for his New England career after landing on IR in each of the last two years, but the loss of Bodden gave him a reprieve. He had a strong camp and should see some sub reps early on. Arrington excelled last season with 17 tackles in just eight games on special teams. He battled injury in camp, but is a decent backup considering his value in the kicking game.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Zoltan Mesko, LS Jake Ingram.

Two of New England's three specialist roles are pretty much set with young, proven talent. Gostkowski is an established All-Pro caliber talent with a strong leg for both field goals and kickoffs, skills that were rewarded in camp with a four-year, $13 million extension. Ingram took over as a rookie a year ago for the departed legend Lonie Paxton and was virtually flawless on his snaps.

The biggest question comes at punter, where fifth-round rookie Mesko was the only punter on the roster all summer, so the job was his all along. He had an inconsistent camp, struggling with his situational and directional punting. He clearly has an NFL leg, but he'll have to improve his accuracy and situational work to earn Bill Belichick's long-term confidence.

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