The New England Patriots are the most consistent NFL franchise, and they displayed that consistency by having another great year in 2011. The Pats went 13-3 before falling to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl once again. With Tom Brady at the helm and an improved defense, the Patriots are still in good shape to make the Super Bowl. But once they are there, can they beat the best the NFC has to offer?
Last season, the defense was horrendous against the pass by allowing 7.1 net yards per attempt. They weren’t that much better against the run either, as the team allowed 4.6 yards per carry against them. Brady had another incredible year, but a lot rests on a new, younger, and better defense.
Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL- second to only Aaron Rodgers in my mind- so there isn’t any use in extolling praise upon him. Brian Hoyer is an accurate, unspectacular backup who is a pretty good backup QB. Ryan Mallett hasn’t developed as expected, and he lacks a natural feel for the game. He shows flashes with some excellent throws here and there, but he is poor in the pocket and overshoots receivers at far too high of a rate.
The running back position lacks a true feature back, because the Patriots don’t need that type of a player with four backs who figure to get carries. Stevan Ridley looks ready to make the jump and has the makings of a quality back, and Danny Woodhead brings a dual-threat presence at RB to the table. Third-stringer Shane Vereen should soon be the team’s second-string running back, as he has shown great burst out of the backfield and is a better pure rusher than Woodhead. He’s also an excellent receiver out of the backfield. The undrafted Brandon Bolden is clearly the worst of the four, but he looks like a useful backup who has great strength and can get a solid run or two at certain points in a game if needed.
Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd are two of the best receivers in the game, and both receivers operate much differently than each other. Welker is the best slot receiver in the game and is almost uncoverable. All Brady has to do is wait a little and find Welker; he’ll get open eventually. Lloyd is an excellent deep threat and is capable of making some awe-inspiring grabs, as we saw last year in his brief stint with the lowly St. Louis Rams.
The third and fourth wide receiver slots should be given to veterans Jabar Gaffney and Dont’e Stallworth, with the latter wideout having an impressive offseason for the Patriots. Julian Edelman will get some reps in the slot and is another solid depth receiver to have, and I don’t think there’s going to be a set receiver breakdown after Welker and Lloyd. Only Welker and Lloyd will get major targets, as Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski will obviously get a lot of looks due to their immense talent. It’s always nice to have the best tight end duo in the league. Deion Branch also figures to be in the wide receiver rotation at the back end if he makes the roster, but that’s not a guarantee.
The offensive line has been of concern this offseason, even though Tom Brady has said that he has confidence in it. If Brian Waters returns from wherever he is, then things will be fine once he and Sebastian Vollmer are back. Second-year right tackle Marcus Cannon has struggled, and he looks like more of a guard than a tackle in the NFL at this stage; the drop-off between Cannon and Vollmer is immense. Nate Solder is athletic and has a lot of upside, and he has proven to be a more than capable run blocker. His pass protection needs work, but he will get better as the season goes on.
The interior of the offensive line will be strong with Logan Mankins at left guard, as he is one of the best offensive linemen in the game. The right guard and center spots look uncertain due to the drop-off of Dan Koppen and the rise of Ryan Wendell. Dan Connolly is a guaranteed starter, and it looks like Wendell has overtaken Koppen at center. Keep an eye on that.
The Patriots defensive line has a solid amount of depth with Jake Bequette, Rob Ninkovich, Trevor Scott, Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Jonathan Fanene, Ron Brace, Chandler Jones, and Jermaine Cunningham among others.
Bequette has looked solid as a pass rusher so far, but there is still a ways to go for the rookie. Jones is the more heralded DE, and the first-round pick from Syracuse has been an absolute monster so far; he’s my pick for breakout player.
The depth at linebacker suffered a huge blow when Dane Fletcher went down with a torn ACL, but the position won’t be a weakness for the team with three quality starters. Rookie Dont’a Hightower has looked lively thus far, and Brandon Spikes is one of the premier run stoppers in the game with his violent, physical play. Veteran and leader Jerod Mayo does everything well, and it looks like he will be blitzing more often in 2012. Mayo is a great tackler, an intelligent linebacker, and a player who is able to cover running backs.
Speaking of covering running backs, first-round bust Bobby Carpenter has finally found his niche in the NFL with the Patriots. Due to the injury to Fletcher, more will be asked from Carpenter this upcoming season. While he is still a terrible tackler who can’t defend the run well, he has value for the Pats as a great coverage linebacker with his speed; he is one of the best LBs in the league at covering backs.
The secondary looks a little different this year, but the cornerbacks should be a strong position for the Patriots with Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling, and Kyle Arrington. The team has confidence in McCourty, and I do too based on his solid performances in training camp. He’s going to be more 2010 than 2011, which is something every Patriots fan really wants to see; McCourty is no one-year wonder.
As for Dowling and Arrington, the Pats will utilize Arrington as the nickel corner and move Dowling to the outside. Last season, Arrington led the league in interceptions and is also one of the best blitzing corners in the league. He is versatile enough to be one of the better nickel corners in the league after a good but often-debated 2011 breakout year. Dowling is a big, physical corner who has looked good so far this offseason. Sterling Moore remains a question mark as the No. 4 corner, because he is prone to making and giving up big plays.
The safety position is an interesting one for the Patriots with Steve Gregory lined up as the free safety and Patrick Chung locked in as the strong safety. Rookie Tavon Wilson was a much criticized pick by Bill Belichick that high, but he has proved the doubters wrong with an encouraging offseason. He gives the team a lot of versatility, as he is a third safety who can also play linebacker and can cover tight ends and running backs at a solid level already. He will get third safety looks and already looks like a significantly better coverage corner than Chung. But, of course, Chung has the clear advantage as a run defender and fits the SS spot.
Josh McDaniels is back with the New England Patriots as the offensive coordinator after the departure of Bill O’Brien to take up the head coaching post at Penn State. McDaniels previously had a terrible head coaching stint with the Denver Broncos and followed that up by coaching the St. Louis Rams futile offense last season. Tom Brady has already praised McDaniels, and there is no questioning his offensive intellect.
The expectation is always a Super Bowl appearance for Bill Belichick and the Pats, and there really is no point in going over the greatness of the best coach in the NFL. But please Michael Irvin, why would you want to rename the trophy? Vince Lombardi was the most groundbreaking coach of all time.
If you watched the New England Patriots first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, Chandler Jones was “The Guy” in that game. He absolutely torched Jermon Bushrod in pass protection, and he’s a pretty good tackle. Jones has all the physical tools, but scouts doubted his strength coming in. Well, from the start of training camp, he certainly showed that he is strong. Jones has a good chance at becoming the Defensive Rookie of the Year if he keeps it up. Ryan Wendell is also a recent rising OL on the Pats who could take over the starting center spot and quietly have a breakout year as a quality starter in this league.
2012 Prediction 14-2
I’m a little hesitant on calling a 14-2 season for most teams, but the Patriots look like the class of the AFC. The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers look weaker than they were last year, while the Patriots got stronger with a good draft and a much-improved defense. The addition of Brandon Lloyd gives Tom Brady a legitimate deep threat to throw it to and a fourth top receiving option. I think the Patriots have a great chance of going to the Super Bowl.