New England Patriots: Future Focus

Patriots Future Focus: Safeties

February, 4, 2011
Twelfth in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

Safety: Brandon Meriweather, Patrick Chung, James Sanders, Sergio Brown, Bret Lockett, Ross Ventrone

[+] EnlargePatrick Chung
Tom Croke/Icon SMIPatrick Chung made some big strides this year, but will one mistake in a playoff game set him back?
Stat check: Chung was second on the team with 89 tackles, while no safety played more than Meriweather (80 percent), followed by Chung (72 percent) and Sanders (70 percent).

First instinct: Some of the team’s best plays (e.g. James Sanders’ game-sealing interception of Peyton Manning) and worst plays (e.g. Brandon Meriweather’s $40,000 fine for hits to the head) came from this spot, which reflected an up-and-down year at safety.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Chung’s ability to bounce back. The second-year safety improved from his rookie campaign, but had the botched fake punt in the playoff loss. That can be a tough miscue for a player to carry with him over the course of the offseason.

Future: Jarrad Page, Brandon McGowan and Josh Barrett have contracts that expire. Barrett, who rehabbed an injured shoulder while missing the 2010 season, was claimed on waivers from the Broncos and could be part of the mix. Meriweather and Sanders enter the final year of their contracts, while Chung is signed through 2012.

Final thought: While deep in numbers, planning for the future is a consideration for the Patriots because Chung is the only player at the top of the depth chart with a contract that ends past the 2011 season.

Your thoughts: How do you think the Patriots should approach the situation at safety? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog.

Future Focus: Cornerbacks

February, 3, 2011
Eleventh in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

Cornerback: Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden, Kyle Arrington, Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler, Tony Carter, Thad Turner

[+] EnlargeLeigh Bodden
Elsa/Getty ImagesIf Leigh Bodden can return healthy next season, he and Devin McCourty would form a formiddable 1-2 punch at cornerback.
Stat check: McCourty, the team’s first-round draft choice, started all 16 games and finished with seven interceptions, the second highest total ever by a Patriots rookie. He earned a Pro Bowl berth.

First instinct: If Bodden returns to health after missing the 2010 season, the Patriots have a chance for one of the NFL’s better 1-2 combinations.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Butler at a crossroads of sorts. The 2009 second-round draft choice didn’t make the 1st-to-2nd year jump that the team had hoped. Can he turn it around in the other direction?

Future: McCourty is signed through 2014, while Bodden is locked up through 2013. Arrington is an exclusive rights free agent, which ensures he’ll be back, while Butler is inked thorugh 2012. Wilhite’s deal expires after the 2011 season, in which he’s scheduled to earn $1.2 million.

Final thought: The top of the depth chart looks strong, assuming Bodden returns to full health and his 2009 level of play. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots add to the position in the draft, creating more competition deeper down the depth chart.

Your thoughts: How do you think the Patriots should approach the situation at cornerback? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog.

Future Focus: Inside linebackers

February, 2, 2011
Tenth in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

Inside linebacker: Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher

[+] EnlargeBrandon Spikes
Stew Milne/US PresswireBrandon Spikes started off strong but his late-season suspension seemed to set him back.
Stat check: Coaches credited Mayo with a team-high 193 tackles. The next highest total on the team was 89, by safety Patrick Chung.

First instinct: Mayo, whose production declined in 2009 after he hurt his knee early, looked like a different player this year in his third season. He is a three-down player to build around.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Spikes’ development. The 2010 second-round pick had been coming on before his NFL-issued four-game suspension. The late-season suspension set him back as he was relegated to backup duties in the playoff loss to the Jets.

Future: Mayo is signed through 2012. Guyton, who played 57 percent of the snaps, is signed through 2011. Spikes (2013) and Fletcher (2012) both have multiple years left.

Final thought: Like tight end on the offensive side, this position should return intact for 2011 and looks well stocked. Mayo and Spikes start in the 3-4 alignment, with Guyton and Fletcher contributing most in sub packages, as the Patriots go four-deep here. It would be a surprise to see an addition at this spot.

Your thoughts: How do you think the Patriots should approach the situation at inside linebacker? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog.

Future Focus: Outside linebacker

February, 1, 2011
Ninth in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

Outside linebacker: Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Tully Banta-Cain, Eric Moore, Marques Murrell

[+] EnlargeJermaine Cunningham
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesThe development of rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham is something the Patriots will be watching closely.
Stat check: Banta-Cain played the highest total of snaps (66.7 percent), followed by Cunningham (50.9 percent) and Ninkovich (47.0 percent). Playing-time-wise, Moore came on strong late in the year, averaging 45 snaps in the final four regular-season games.

First instinct: The Patriots need to generate more pass rush from this spot.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Cunningham’s development. The 2010 second-round draft choice tailed off at the end of the season, which might have been tied to a calf injury. The offseason between a player’s rookie and second season is often the time for the biggest jump in improvement, and that could be threatened in the event of a lockout.

Future: Cunningham is signed through 2013, followed by Banta-Cain (2012), Ninkovich (2011), Moore (2011) and Murrell (2011).

Final thought: This is one of the most challenging positions to project in the draft, which makes selecting a player in the first round more of a risk. But with three of the draft’s first 33 picks, and six of the first 92, the Patriots figure to invest highly in the position.

Your thoughts: How do you think the Patriots should approach the situation at outside linebacker? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog.

Future Focus: Defensive line

January, 31, 2011
Eighth in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

[+] EnlargeWarren
AP Photo/Charles KrupaAfter missing the entire 2010 season (hip surgery), Ty Warren will be back on the Patriots' defensive line in 2011. But will he be the same player?
Defensive line: Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Mike Wright, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Landon Cohen, Darryl Richard, Kade Weston, Marlon Favorite

Stat check: The Patriots placed five defensive linemen on season-ending injured reserve in 2010 -- Brace, Richard, Warren, Weston and Wright.

First instinct: The Patriots have a lot of quantity along the line; the question is how much healthy quality.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Warren’s recovery from hip surgery that cost him the 2010 season and Wright’s future after sustaining a concussion that knocked him out the final seven games of the season. With Warren, how much has the wear and tear of surgeries taken a toll on him entering his ninth season? With Wright, will concussion concerns linger?

Future: Wilfork is the leader of the group and he’s signed through 2014. Warren (2013), Deaderick (2013), Wright (2012), Brace (2012) and Pryor (2012) are all locked up for multiple years.

Final thought: Wilfork had the best season of his seven-year career while moving from nose to end on a game-to-game basis. In the ideal scenario going forward for the Patriots, Wilfork will remain at nose and the sturdiness and consistency will be generated at the end spots. Veteran Gerard Warren, a two-down end who played 47 percent of the snaps in 2010, could also return.

Your thoughts: What do you think the Patriots should do along the defensive line? Stand pat because they have numbers? Or should they finally find a replacement for Richard Seymour with a first-round pick? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.

Future Focus: Kicker, punter & snapper

January, 30, 2011
Seventh in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

Specialists: Stephen Gostkowski (kicker), Zoltan Mesko (punter), Matt Katula (snapper)

Stat check: In his rookie season, Mesko ranked 19th in punting average (42.3) and 12th in net (38.4). He had 19 punts downed inside the 20 and five touchbacks.

[+] EnlargeMesko
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireThe Patriots used a fifth-round pick on Zoltan Mesko in the 2010 draft.
First instinct: The Patriots have their kicking and punting situations in good hands. The only question is whether they draft a snapper like they did in 2009 with Jake Ingram (sixth round).

Storyline not to be overlooked: Gostkowski’s recovery from surgery on his right quad. After Gostkowski was lost for the season Nov. 7 in Cleveland, the Patriots didn’t enjoy the same field-position type of advantage without his strong right leg booming kickoffs. Gostkowski’s recovery has been on schedule to this point and indications are that he should be ready to go for 2011.

Future: Gostkowski signed an extension last year that brings his pact through the 2014 season. Mesko is signed through 2013, while Katula is inked through the 2011 season.

Final thought: The Patriots have invested heavily in this area, with Gostkowski and Mesko the first specialists selected in the NFL draft in 2006 and 2010, respectively. They had hoped that Ingram, the first snapper drafted in 2009, would give them a trio that would grow together. The Patriots could try again at snapper, or stick with Katula, who seemed to do a solid job after he was signed to a two-year deal Nov. 10.

Your thoughts: What do you think the Patriots should do with specialists this offseason? Draft a snapper? Stick with Katula as snapper and worry about other needs? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.

Future Focus: Tight ends

January, 29, 2011
Sixth in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

Tight end: Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Carson Butler

Stat check: Gronkowski played the most snaps (756), followed by Crumpler (540) and Hernandez (486). Gronkowski finished with 42 receptions and 10 touchdown catches.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellRob Gronkowski had 10 TD catches in his rookie season.
First instinct: The Patriots hit it big with Gronkowski, who slipped to the second round of the 2010 draft because of a back injury that cost him his final collegiate season at Arizona. Gronkowski wasn’t slowed by the back in New England, playing in every game and not missing a practice.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Crumpler’s impact. A 10-year veteran, his locker was between Gronkowski and Hernandez and he took both rookies under his wing throughout the year. His leadership earned him a role as a team captain just a few weeks into the season.

Future: Crumpler enters the final season of the two-year contract he signed in 2010. He should be back in 2011, while Gronkowski and Hernandez are inked through 2013.

Final thought: This is one of the most solidified positions on the roster. The Patriots would be extending themselves to keep a fourth tight end on the roster, so the club is likely to return the same group of players in 2011. If the Patriots draft a tight end, it would likely be in the late rounds with the idea of grooming him on the practice squad.

Your thoughts: What do you think the Patriots should do at tight end this offseason? Stand pat? Start grooming Crumpler’s replacement?

Future focus: Center & guard

January, 28, 2011
Fifth in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

Center/guard: Dan Koppen (center), Dan Connolly (center/guard), Stephen Neal (guard), Ryan Wendell (center/guard), Rich Ohrnberger (guard), Thomas Austin (guard)

Stat check: Koppen started all 16 games and was the trigger-man on 310 shotgun snaps that resulted in a pass attempt, the eighth highest total in the NFL. Koppen didn’t have a botched shotgun snap this season, a key stat because of how often the Patriots use the shotgun.

First instinct: Logan Mankins is likely to receive the franchise tag and Neal, who is scheduled to earn $3 million, is unlikely to be back at that high figure.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Potential big changes at center and guard. Mankins and Neal represented the top of the depth chart at guard. Meanwhile, Koppen enters the final year of his contract, so grooming a potential replacement at center could be on the team’s radar.
[+] EnlargeMankins
Stew Milne/US PresswireShould the Patriots re-sign Logan Mankins at all costs? It's one of the big questions this offseason.
Future: Guard is arguably most wide open position on the roster and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots address it with an early draft pick because of the uncertainty of Mankins’ situation. Connolly is a Russ Hochstein-type option that winning teams need to have; he’s signed through 2011. Wendell, Ohrnberger and Austin have all came up through the pipeline and will be given a chance to emerge.

Final thought: There are plenty of examples of draft picks stepping right in and making an impact at center and guard -- Maurkice Pouncey (No. 18, Steelers, 2010), Alex Mack (No. 21, Browns, 2009), Ben Grubbs (No. 29, Ravens, 2007), Nick Mangold (No. 29, Jets, 2006) and Chris Snee (No. 34, Giants, 2004) to name a few – so it’s a realistic expectation for the Patriots to find an immediate starter early in the draft.

Your thoughts: What do you think the Patriots should do at center/guard this offseason? Re-sign Logan Mankins at all costs? Set a firm line on Mankins and don’t budge? Is it time for a change at center? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Future Focus: Offensive tackle

January, 27, 2011
Fourth in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

[+] EnlargeVollmer
Winslow Townson/US PresswireIf Matt Light is not re-signed, expect Sebastian Vollmer (pictured) to move from the right side to the left next season.
Offensive tackle: Sebastian Vollmer, Nick Kaczur, Mark LeVoir, Steve Maneri

Stat check: The Patriots ranked seventh-best in sacks allowed per pass play in the regular season, as quarterback Tom Brady was sacked 25 times in 517 pass plays.

First instinct: The tackle spot was solid in 2010, with 10-year veteran Matt Light on the left side and Vollmer on the right. Both were 16-game starters, giving the Patriots stability and a high level of play.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Light’s future, as his contract expires and he will be a free agent when there is a new collective bargaining agreement. Both sides have expressed interest in extending his deal -- probably in the two- to three-year range -- when the time is right (likely after a new CBA is reached). If Light is not back, Vollmer probably flips to the left side and opens the right side for competition.

Future: Vollmer and Kaczur are both signed through 2012. With Kaczur coming off back surgery that sidelined him all of 2010 and scheduled to earn a base salary of $3.4 million in 2011, one wonders if management -- which has been high on him in the past -- will now view him as too expensive to keep on the books. Kaczur’s future could wind up being tied to Light’s, or a possible high draft choice. Elsewhere, the Patriots have felt comfortable with LeVoir (signed through 2011) when he’s been pressed into duty, and thought highly enough of Maneri (signed through 2012) to claim him on waivers from the Texans and keep him on the 53-man roster for three weeks in 2010. Free agent Quinn Ojinnaka could also return.

Final thought: One of the big questions entering 2010 was where Vollmer would play -- left tackle or right tackle. He was named a second-team Associated Press All-Pro on the right side. While he has shown the ability to swing, the return of Light on a two-to-three-year deal, and keeping Vollmer at right tackle, seems like the best 1-2 punch.

Your thoughts: What do you think the Patriots should do at offensive tackle this offseason? Re-sign Matt Light? Let Light walk and move Sebastian Vollmer to the left side? Draft an offensive tackle in the first round? Share your opinions in the comments section of this blog entry.

Future Focus: Wide receivers

January, 26, 2011
Third in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

[+] EnlargeWelker
Andrew Weber/US PresswireShould the Patriots give Wes Welker a contract extension this offseason?
Wide receiver: Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman, Taylor Price, Matthew Slater, Darnell Jenkins, Buddy Farnham

Stat check: Welker was targeted 123 times, the highest total of any player on the team, followed by Branch (74), Tate (46) and Edelman (14). Welker’s 11 drops led the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking.

First instinct: The team’s potential moves at this position are tied to how they view Tate and Price, third-round picks from 2009 and 2010, and I think the view is positive. Thus, the feeling here is that a big move is not anticipated.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Do the Patriots have too many of the same type of receivers? As part of the year-end evaluation, that had to be a question that Bill Belichick and his staff were asking in an offense that featured more two-receiver sets than it had in recent memory. The offense looked generally sharp over the final eight regular-season games -- with the team scoring 30-plus points in each game -- but did the playoff loss to the Jets highlight the lack of a big-play option on the outer edges of the field?

Future: Branch and Welker enter the final year of their contracts. The next three players on the depth chart -- Tate (2012), Edelman (2012) and Price (2013) -- have multiple years remaining on their deals.

Final thought: If the Patriots felt they wanted to add a big-play option, perhaps they’d consider Randy Moss’ return as a free-agent. If it’s the 2007-type Moss from an attitude perspective, it would be a slam dunk. Outside of Moss, I don’t see the team attempting to acquire/sign another veteran, such as Chad Ochocinco. My feeling is that the club invested a year in developing Taylor Price and they’ll give him the chance to be the guy.

Your thoughts: What do you think the Patriots should do at wide receiver this offseason? Sign a big-play option? Give Welker an extension? Stand pat? Share your opinions in the comments section of this blog entry.

Future Focus: Running backs

January, 25, 2011
Second in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

[+] EnlargeWoodhead
John Munson/US PresswireWill Danny Woodhead's presence on the roster mean the end of Kevin Faulk's days as a Patriot?
Running back: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Thomas Clayton

Stat check: Green-Ellis played 41 percent of the offensive snaps in 2010, followed by Woodhead (39 percent), Sammy Morris (12 percent), Fred Taylor (6 percent) and Kevin Faulk (5 percent).

First instinct: The Patriots had to be thrilled with the production they received from Green-Ellis (first 1,000-yard back since Corey Dillon in 2004) and Woodhead. The running game averaged 4.3 yards per carry, the second-best total in Bill Belichick’s tenure as coach.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Is Kevin Faulk’s terrific 12-year career with the team over? Faulk is a free agent and coming off surgery to repair his ACL. With Woodhead playing a similar role, it’s hard to imagine the Patriots keeping both on the roster.

Future: Green-Ellis will either be an exclusive rights free agent or restricted free agent depending on the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, which makes it a near certainty he will be back. Woodhead is signed through 2012. Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor are all free agents.

Final thought: The Patriots figure to draft a running back, or sign one in free agency, as this position is short on numbers when projecting the 53-man roster. Green-Ellis and Woodhead were a solid 1-2 punch, so any addition is to complement them, not replace them.

Your thoughts: What do you think the Patriots should do at running back this offseason? Share your opinions in the comments section of this blog entry.

Future Focus: Quarterbacks

January, 24, 2011
First in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

[+] EnlargeBrady & Hoyer
Icon SMIThe Patriots seem set for 2011 with Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer at quarterback, but will they add a No. 3?
Quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Jonathan Crompton

Stat check: Coming out of 2010 training camp, the Patriots were one of 10 teams to carry just two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster. The league’s other 22 teams had either three or four.

First instinct: Tom Brady had his second best regular season (behind 2007), but saved his worst performance for the most important game. His first-quarter interception to BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the playoff loss to the Jets was his worst pass of the season.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Are the Patriots flirting with trouble by carrying just two quarterbacks? Sunday’s NFC Championship Game is one example of the importance of having a third option on the depth chart as Caleb Hanie stepped in for top options Jay Cutler (knee injury) and Todd Collins (ineffective). The Patriots have had just two on the active roster in each of the last two seasons. In the event of injury to Brady or Hoyer, receiver Julian Edelman would probably be the emergency option as he played quarterback at Kent State.

Future: Brady is signed through 2014, while Hoyer enters the final year of the three-year deal he signed as a rookie in 2011. That could make Hoyer a restricted free agent after next season, depending on the new collective bargaining agreement. It’s likely the team would tender him at a high level to keep him as he’s shown promise. Crompton, a 2010 fifth-round pick of the Chargers who played in college at Tennessee, was on the team’s practice squad this past season.

Final thought: Brady’s recovery from surgery on his right foot bears watching. Barring a setback, he is expected to be ready for the start of training camp, if not sooner. Hoyer is a promising No. 2 quarterback and if Crompton shows enough in training camp to earn a No. 3 spot, the Patriots will be well stocked. Still, drafting and developing quarterbacks is smart business and with nine selections, this is an area the Patriots could target in the mid-to-late rounds if the right player is there.

Your thoughts: What do you think the Patriots should do at quarterback this offseason? Share your opinions in the comments section of this blog entry.