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2006 Team Report: New England Patriots

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Quarterbacks

Starter: Tom Brady
Backup(s): Matt Cassel, Todd Mortensen, Corey Bramlet

Starting QB: There's not much to say about Tom Brady that hasn't already been said. He's one of the games all-time greats and will be a Hall of Famer unless some unauthorized videotapes start circulating. He is the epitome of a clutch player and team leader, and his job is about as secure as any in the league. The Patriots used play action to their advantage last year, and they cashed in on many big plays by faking the run and going deep over the top of defenses-a far cry from the dink and dunk passing game plan earlier in his career. Brady may have similar success this year if the ground game reappears this year.

Backup QB: Matt Cassel is a gritty, more mobile QB than Brady is. In his limited time leading the team, he's scrambled and run the ball far more often than Brady ever has. As a backup to Matt Leinaart and Carson Palmer in college, Cassel is used to seeing very little action but perhaps is ready to play at a moment's notice. Despite his lack of playing time, the Patriots are very pleased with Cassel.

Running Backs

Starter: Corey Dillon
Backup(s): Laurence Maroney [R], Kevin Faulk
Fullback(s): Patrick Pass, Heath Evans

Starting RB: Dillon was never himself last season and apparently suffered from season-long injuries that never were fully disclosed. If he returns healthy, he has proven to be a punishing back and averaged 109 rushing yards per game in 2004. That total slipped to 61 yards per game last year, so there is some reason for concern. Dillon had very little spring in his step last year, and if he remains a liability, Maroney will get his chance sooner rather than later.

Backup RBs: Maroney received high marks entering the draft and the Patriots made him their first round pick. Many felt that New England would restock on defensive players, but instead they invested most of their draft picks on offense and special teams. At some point, Maroney will be given a chance to be the featured back in New England, the question is when that will occur. He has a well-rounded game with strong inside running, breakaway speed, solid receiving skills, and above average blocking skills. Faulk has had established a niche role with the team, and he has done well in situational roles and has come up with some key first downs.

Fullback: Patrick Pass has done fairly well on the few occasions he's carried the ball. Evans was a midseason addition claimed off waivers from Miami, and when the rest of the RB corps was banged up, he responded with a total of 197 yards in two starts as the primary back. Both fullbacks are decent blockers and can catch the occasional pass. The tandem is far from phenomenal but certainly is adequate and gets the job done.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Deion Branch, Reche Caldwell
Backups: Chad Jackson [R], Troy Brown, Bam Childress

Starting WRs: Branch will be the top receiving option in the offense if he reports to the team and plays for the Patriots this year. Unhappy with his contract, he is currently holding out and has been granted permission to seek a trade. Branch has had some big games but a lot of stinkers as well. If and when he reports, he should see a lot more targets given that David Givens has moved on and there are not a lot of proven WR options on the roster. Jackson will eventually be a starter, but it's unlikely that the Patriots will throw him to the wolves on opening day. That leaves Caldwell as the most likely candidate to lineup opposite Branch, even though he's never had more than 28 receptions, 352 receiving yards, or 3 TD in a season. He's also been banged up quite a bit, and the Patriots hope he can hold the fort down until Jackson can learn the complex offense and start contributing.

Backup WRs: There's really not a whole lot of depth here. Troy Brown has not been a mainstay in the offense since 2002. He appears to have settled into a WR3 role with a normal range of 30-40 receptions. With New England still far under the salary cap, there is always the possibility that the Patriots bring in someone else. A potential candidate is former Patriot David Patten if he were to be cut by Washington after June 1st.

Tight Ends

Starters: Ben Watson, Daniel Graham
Backups: Dave Thomas [r], Garrett Mills [r]

The Patriots regularly use two tight end sets, so Graham and Watson are best viewed as co-starters. Both were first round draft picks, and both are projected to see a similar amount of plays on the field. Watson is the more talented receiver of the two. With New England's OL suffering some key injuries last year, Graham was asked to block more than usual and his numbers suffered accordingly. Many are anticipating a breakout season from Watson, and there have been some whispers of Watson lining up in some formations as a wide receiver with the state of the WR corps.

Place Kicker

Stephen Gostkowski : Fourth round draft pick Stephen Gostkowski improved during each of his four years at Memphis. During his impressive senior year he hit 88.0% on FGs, including 3 of 3 from 50+ yards. One of the better kickers during his first four years in the NFL, Martin Gramatica either literally and/or figuratively fell apart during the 2003-2004 seasons. He was out of football last year. He started out training camp looking more consistent than Gostkowski on field goals. The rookie quickly closed the gap however, and always looked stronger on kickoffs. New England released Gramatica midway through the pre-season. The Patriots are coming off a year in which they only scored 100 kicking points, after having averaged 121 the four previous years.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Willie Andrews; Ellis Hobbs; Doug Gabriel; Jonathan Smith; Laurence Maroney; Kevin Faulk; Reche Caldwell; Patrick Pass [PUP]

As a rookie, CB Ellis Hobbs emerged as the primary backup (15 returns, 24.1 avg.) Seventh round draft pick CB Willie Andrews owns most of Baylorís career kickoff return records. First round draft pick RB Laurence Maroney averaged 23.8 yards on kickoff returns and scored once during his college career at Minnesota, and could join the mix for the Patriots. Versatile RB Kevin Faulk had an impressive year in 2002 (27.9 avg., 2 TDs), although his numbers have since dropped off (4 returns, 20.3 avg. last year). RB Patrick Pass (2 returns, 15.5 avg.) also gets an occasional return. Newcomer WR Reche Caldwell has some limited experience, returning kickoffs for the Chargers in 2002 and last year. WR Doug Gabriel lead the Raiders in kickoff returns in 2003 and 2004 (4 returns, 16.0 avg. last year).

Punt Returners: Willie Andrews; Troy Brown; Kevin Faulk; Jonathan Smith

Tim Dwight, the Patriots top punt returner last year, has moved on to the Jets. WR Troy Brown has served as a backup the last two years, although he did lead the team from 1999 through 2003. His average has declined recently, to a career low of 4.3 yards last year. Kevin Faulk missed half of last year, and did not have any punt returns. He led the team in 2004 (20 returns, 6.7 avg.). Willie Andrews returned punts (10.2 avg.) for Baylor last year, and has an outside chance of being the primary punt returner for the Patriots.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: RT Ryan O'Callaghan [R], RG Steve Neal, C Russ Hochstein, LG Logan Mankins, LT Matt Light
Key Backups: C Dan Koppen, G/T Nick Kazcur, G/T Wesley Britt, C Dan Stevenson [R]

Over the past few seasons the Patriots have lost a few quality lineman to other teams around the NFL such as Joe Andruzzi, Damien Woody and this season Tom Ashworth but the starting five is still a decent group led by left tackle Matt Light and left guard Logan Mankins. For the 8th straight year, Dante Scarnecchia will lead this group and he has been a very good coach over that span. Light missed all but three games last season and his absence was a huge blow to this unit. He isnít an elite player but is intelligent with good technique and is the best lineman remaining on the team. Mankins, a rookie last season showcased why the Patriots were so high on him by playing in all sixteen games and doing a very solid job. He should continue to improve this season and his tenacity is 2nd to none. Steve Neal, the former collegiate wrestler has come into his own as a lineman over the past two seasons. He has great leverage and his technique continues to improve. He was very effective last year. Brandon Gorin, last year's part-time starter at RT, was traded to Arizona which leaves either Nick Kazcur or rookie Ryan O'Callaghan to start. This unit has been coached well and the schemes in place are outstanding. This unit wonít be confused as one of the best ones in the NFL, but expect more of the same in 2006.

Team Defense

After losing Romeo Crennel to the Browns a year ago, the Patriots lost another defensive coordinator this year when Eric Mangini left to take the head coaching job with the Jets. Rather than bring in an experienced replacement from the outside, the Patriots promoted linebackers coach Dean Pees, who has only been in the NFL for 2 years but spent time coaching under Nick Saban at Michigan State. The Patriots defense struggled at times last year and disappointed a lot of fantasy owners, but there are a few reasons to be optimistic about their chances this year. The defensive line is one of the most talented 3-4 fronts in the league and Richard Seymour has now gone to three straight Pro Bowls. Tedy Bruschi has returned after missing half of the 2005 season while recovering from a stroke. Although they let Willie McGinest leave in free agency, the linebacker group is still very strong with Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Roosevelt Colvin in place. Additionally, Rodney Harrison missed most of last year with a serious knee injury, but he is hoping to be back in time for the season opener. There are still some questions about the secondary, but the team has built a lot of depth and should be able to find some quality players out of the bunch.

Defensive Line

Starters: RDE Richard Seymour, LDE Ty Warren, NT Vince Wilfork
Backups: DE Jarvis Green, DE Marquise Hill, DT Dan Klecko, DT Santonio Thomas, DT Johnathan Sullivan

Starting DL: Richard Seymour was invited to his third straight Pro Bowl in 2005 and is one of the best defensive linemen in the entire league. Heís versatile enough to dominate at either DT or DE and the Patriots locked him up to a long-term contract extension last year so he should be a fixture of the line for years to come. Ty Warren was a first round pick of the Patriots a few years ago who has developed into a very solid complement to Seymour. He doesnít add much as a pass rusher, but is a very strong run defender who finished 2nd on the team in tackles last year. NT Vince Wilfork was a steal when he fell to the Patriots late in round 1 a couple years ago and he basically took over the Ted Washington role as a big gap-clogging player who gives everyone else around him a better chance to make plays. All three starting defensive linemen were first round picks and all of them are still very young players who have yet to reach their prime.

Backup DL: Jarvis Green again served as the 3rd DE for the Patriots last year, but didnít make much of an impact. He provides quality depth and can step in at either DE spot if necessary. Marquise Hill was a project when he entered the league and probably should have stayed in school a year longer, but heís a talented player who could develop into something special. Dan Klecko has been moved back and forth between defensive line, linebacker, and even fullback at times. Heís a versatile player who can contribute on special teams and a variety of other ways. Santonio Thomas was an undrafted free agent out of Miami last year who spent his first year on the practice squad. Prior to last season, Johnathan Sullivan had been a huge disappointment after being selected 6th overall in 2003 by the Saints. His motivation and conditioning was much improved last year and it showed in his run defense.

Linebackers

Starters: ROLB Roosevelt Colvin, RILB Monty Beisel, LILB Tedy Bruschi, LOLB Mike Vrabel
Backups: ILB Junior Seau, ILB Don Davis, ILB Larry Izzo, ILB Eric Alexander, ILB Barry Gardner, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, OLB Jeremy Mincey (R), LB Pierre Woods (R), LB Corey Mays (R)

Starting LBs: Linebackers have been the strength of the Patriots defense ever since they started winning Super Bowls but some cracks are starting to show in the foundation. Tedy Bruschi is back after some time away from the game to recover from a stroke, but heíll be 33 years old and may not be the same type of athletic playmaker he was a couple years ago. He suffered a broken wrist in training camp and will miss the entire preseason. The Patriots did not appear very interested in bringing back Willie McGinest and he wound up signing in Clevelend. Mike Vrabel was moved inside midway through last season and played great, leaving the OLB spots to McGinest and Roosevelt Colvin. Now that McGinest is gone though, it remains unclear if Vrabel will stay inside or move back outside. If he does move back to OLB, that would open up a starting spot for Monty Beisel. Beisel struggled with the adjustment to playing 3-4 ILB last year but played better as the year progressed and could show improvement after a full year in the system. Roosevelt Colvin showed signs at the end of last season that he could be getting back to being the pass rushing phenom who put up 22 sacks during his last two years in Chicago. With Bruschi, Vrabel, and Colvin, the Patriots still have the makings of a very strong LB corps, but there isnít much depth behind them.

Backup LBs: Junior Seau retired and then promptly unretired to sign with the Patriots in mid-August. He will get a chance to start at inside linebacker, but at the very least would vault to the top of the backup group. Don Davis and Larry Izzo are core special teams players who will be 34 and 32 years old respectively, but neither contribute much on defense. Eric Alexander is a former undrafted free agent who spent time on the Patriots practice squad and could earn the the #3 ILB job. Tully Banta-Cain is younger, but is still learning the LB position and has minimal playing time on defense in his first 3 years. Jeremy Mincey is a high motor player who the Patriots drafted in the 6th round, but heíll likely need some time to make the conversion from DE to OLB. Pierre Woods and Corey Mays both signed as undrafted free agents and could wind up on the practice squad.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Asante Samuel, CB Ellis Hobbs, SS Rodney Harrison, FS Eugene Wilson
Backups: CB Eric Warfield, CB Randall Gay, S Tebucky Jones, SS James Sanders, S Gus Scott, S Artrell Hawkins, CB Hank Poteat, CB Chad Scott

Starting DBs: Asante Samuel has developed into a quality starting cornerback. After a shaky start to the year, he finished strong and added two interceptions in two playoff games, including a 73 yard return for a TD in the 4th quarter against Jacksonville. Ellis Hobbs was a 3rd round pick last year who wound up starting the final 8 games of the season and finished tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions. Samuel and Hobbs are both young and should finally provide the Patriots with some stability at CB. Rodney Harrison has been one of the best strong safeties in the game for most of his career and will probably be headed for the Hall of Fame someday, so losing him to a knee injury last year was devastating. Everyone in New England is hoping that heíll be ready for the beginning of the season, but that is far from a sure thing at this point. Eugene Wilson was converted from CB to FS soon after joining the Patriots in 2003 and heís never looked back. Wilson is excellent in coverage, but can also come up and support the run as well. His presence in the deep secondary has really helped the Patriots weather the storm of CB problems theyíve had in recent years.

Backup DBs: After being decimated by injuries in the past and being forced to use WR Troy Brown at CB, the Patriots have a pretty obscene amount of depth in the secondary at the moment. They have 6 cornerbacks who have considerable playing experience and at least 6 or 7 safeties that could realistically contribute. Eric Warfield was a low cost signing from Kansas City who has a lot of starting experience and once collected 4 interceptions for four straight seasons from 2001 to 2004. Randall Gay came out of nowhere to play a big role for the Patriots in their Super Bowl run of 2004 but was mostly a reserve last year before suffering a season ending ankle injury. After Harrison went down with an injury last year, the Patriots tried five or six different replacements including James Sanders and Gus Scott before finally settling on Artrell Hawkins, a converted CB who they picked up off the street. In addition to those options, none of which are too promising, the team also brought back Tebucky Jones. As a former first round pick of the Patriots, Jones certainly has talent but he hasnít quite lived up to it and was already traded away once in his career. Adding to the CB depth are nickel back Hank Poteat and veteran Chad Scott.

Last modified: 2006-09-04 05:30:39



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