New England Patriots: NFL context

NFL context: Pats & outside linebackers

June, 29, 2010
6/29/10
8:45
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Seventh in an ongoing series looking at each position on the Patriots roster and how it is viewed when compared to the rest of the NFL:

Projected starters: Derrick Burgess, Tully Banta-Cain

Top backups: Pierre Woods, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Shawn Crable, Marques Murrell

NFL chatter: One of the first questions that comes up in discussions with scouts, coaches and media members covering the NFL is how the Patriots will generate a pass rush. This is the primary position in which teams looking for help in that area often find it. Like the Dolphins, the Patriots enter training camp relying on the development of young players at the position, which creates an element of the unknown.

Overall depth chart: Banta-Cain is the team's best rusher. He played approximately 67 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2009 and while he is projected to start this year, the coaching staff figures to manage his playing time on early downs to maximize his pass-rush impact. Burgess is primed to see his role expand, and if he does, it could coincide with some scheme tweaks because if Burgess is playing the traditional 3-4 outside linebacker role -- in which he's dropping back in coverage often -- that figures to hurt the team. After Banta-Cain and Burgess, it's a question of development. How fast can Cunningham, a second-round draft choice, help? Is Ninkovich, who played approximately 12 percent of the defensive snaps in 2009, ready to do more? Will Crable finally emerge?

Final analysis: The position with arguably the biggest question mark on the roster. The development of Cunningham, and what he might contribute to the pass rush, looks like the greatest unknown which could potentially boost the group. Compared to the rest of the NFL, it looks like a group that would be in the bottom third of the league right now.

Other positions: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers; Tight ends; Offensive line; Defensive line

NFL context: Pats & defensive line

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
8:30
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Sixth in an ongoing series looking at each position on the Patriots roster and how it is viewed when compared to the rest of the NFL:

Starters: Ty Warren (LDE), Vince Wilfork (NT), Gerard Warren/Mike Wright (RDE)

Top backups: Gerard Warren/Mike Wright, Ron Brace, Myron Pryor, Damione Lewis, Darryl Richard, Brandon Deaderick

NFL chatter: Wilfork is a top nose tackle who would have been in demand on the free-agent market because of his talent and the growing number of teams playing the 3-4 defense. He's the centerpiece of the line. Ty Warren is a solid complement to his left, while questions linger on whether the Patriots have the right parts to fill the void on the right side. Such questions are also being asked with other AFC teams (Who fills the void at right defensive end for the Jets?; Can Randy Starks transition to nose tackle for the Dolphins?; Do the Chargers have a long-term answer at nose tackle?).

Overall depth chart: Not as deep as the Patriots have been in the past, when they had Richard Seymour at right defensive end and Jarvis Green the top reserve. The development of younger linemen such as Brace and Pryor, who enter their second seasons, will ultimately determine the quality of depth along the line.

Final analysis: Tough to compare NFL defensive lines with significantly different responsibilities, as the Colts are a top group for what they do, while the Ravens are a top group for what they do. When looking at all NFL defensive lines, the Patriots unit looks like it falls into the pack of 5-10 teams after the top 3 that includes Baltimore, Indianapolis and Minnesota.

Other positions: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers; Tight ends; Offensive line

NFL context: Patriots & offensive line

June, 25, 2010
6/25/10
7:45
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Fifth in an ongoing series looking at each position on the Patriots roster and how it is viewed when compared to the rest of the NFL:

Starters: Matt Light (LT), Logan Mankins (LG), Dan Koppen (C), Stephen Neal (RG), Sebastian Vollmer (RT)

Top backups: Nick Kaczur (LG/RT), Mark LeVoir (OT), Thomas Welch (OT), Ted Larsen (C/G), Dan Connolly (C/G), Rich Ohrnberger (C/G), Ryan Wendell (C/G), George Bussey (G/T)

NFL chatter: The Patriots ask their linemen to make sight adjustments based on the defensive alignment as much as any team in the NFL, which puts a premium on smarts. The inclusion of Vollmer in the starting lineup looks promising for the future as this is one of the league's older units. Mankins is entering his prime and is a two-time Pro Bowler, so if he's not part of the mix (contract dispute) it's a hit in both the short- and long-term. Almost every NFL team has one significant personnel question on the offensive line (e.g. the Jets and replacing left guard Alan Faneca; the Cowboys and replacing left tackle Flozell Adams), so the Patriots aren't alone.

Overall depth chart: The Patriots go four deep at tackle, proving in the past that they can win with any of the top four in the lineup. That's impressive. The depth doesn't appear as strong on the interior, where Dan Koppen has struggled at times against bigger nose tackles. The future on the interior is tied to the development of Dan Connolly, Rich Ohrnberger, Ryan Wendell, George Bussey and Ted Larsen.

Final analysis: Top 10 group in the NFL.

Other positions: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers; Tight ends

NFL context: Patriots & tight ends

June, 24, 2010
6/24/10
6:45
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Fourth in an ongoing series looking at each position on the Patriots roster and how it is viewed when compared to the rest of the NFL:

Starter: Alge Crumpler

Backups: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Myers

NFL chatter: Bill Belichick's affinity for the tight end position is well documented, from devoting first-round picks (Daniel Graham in 2002; Benjamin Watson in 2004) to aggressively acquiring veterans like Chris Baker and Alex Smith in 2009. This position has been completely turned over in 2010. Crumpler could help the running game as he is still a top performer in that area, but he isn't expected to be a major factor as a pass catcher. So that likely means the Patriots will be relying on rookies to step up as pass-catchers, which creates a dynamic of the unknown.

Overall depth chart: Unlike last season, when the Patriots had just two pure tight ends on their 53-man roster for most of the year, this looks like a season in which they will have three, with each having a good chance of being active on the 45-man game-day roster. That opens new possibilities for the offense and could help most in the red-zone. Crumpler is currently leading the way and is more likely to play on the line, while Hernandez is a "move" target who might initally see more playing time than Gronkowski because his receiver-like skills better complement Crumpler. Myers looks like a developmental prospect who could stick on the practice squad.

Final analysis: Middle of the NFL pack, with rookies Gronkowski and Hernandez a promising pair to groom.

Other positions: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers

NFL context: Patriots & receivers

June, 23, 2010
6/23/10
9:05
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Third in an ongoing series looking at each position on the Patriots roster and how it is viewed when compared to the rest of the NFL:

Starters: Randy Moss, Wes Welker

Backups: Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate, Torry Holt, Taylor Price, Sam Aiken, Matthew Slater, David Patten, Darnell Jenkins, Buddy Farnham

NFL chatter: Moss is still a feared receiver that most defenses must alter their game-plan around, while Welker is arguably the toughest matchup in the slot of any receiver in the NFL. Because a big part of Welker's game is sharp cuts and quick change of direction, there is a question as to how effective he will be coming off surgery to repair a torn left ACL. Edelman shows promise, with one scout saying that his big challenge will be to show he can absorb a pounding and make it through a 16-game schedule.

Overall depth chart: Moss and a healthy Welker is as good a 1-2 combination as there is in the NFL, with Edelman (37 receptions as a rookie) primed to take another step. After those three, there are some questions as to how things will shake out. The Patriots would like to see 2009 third-round draft choice Brandon Tate or 2010 third-rounder Taylor Price emerge, and have veteran Torry Holt (51 catches in 2009) as a top insurance policy.

Final analysis: Welker's recovery creates some uncertainty (my opinion is that he will start the year on the physically unable to perform list). Still, this is a top 5 group in the NFL.

Other positions: Quarterbacks; Running backs

NFL context: Patriots & running backs

June, 22, 2010
6/22/10
9:15
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Second in an ongoing series looking at each position on the Patriots roster and how it is viewed when compared to the rest of the NFL:

Starter: Kevin Faulk

Backups: Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Pat Paschall, Chris Taylor, Thomas Clayton

NFL chatter: Over the last four drafts, the Patriots have selected just one running back (Justise Hairston, 6th round, 2007), which is why the team has one of the oldest running back groups in the NFL. As noted by ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli, of the 13 running backs over 30 years old in the NFL, the Patriots have three of them (Faulk, Morris, Taylor). Faulk is still viewed as a difference-maker, as evidenced by the interest from other clubs in free agency. He remains a tough matchup for defenses out of the three-receiver set, is a top pass-protector, and has played more snaps than any Patriots running back in each of the last three seasons.

Overall depth chart: The Patriots kept five running backs on the roster in 2009 and the set-up looks like it will be committee-based again this year, with Faulk the top "passing" back and Maroney, Morris and Taylor leading the "running" game. The drop-off from the top of the depth chart to the bottom is not as steep as many teams, but the top of the depth chart doesn't have a player that defenses must fear.

Final analysis: A position defined by its depth and experience, but missing that consistent breakaway, home-run threat. Bottom third of the NFL.

Other positions: Quarterbacks

NFL context: Patriots & quarterbacks

June, 21, 2010
6/21/10
9:30
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First in an ongoing series looking at each position on the Patriots roster and how it is viewed when compared to the rest of the NFL:

Starter: Tom Brady

Backups: Brian Hoyer, Zac Robinson

NFL chatter: The same theme often emerges when speaking with coaches, scouts, players and analysts around the NFL. As long as Brady is leading the huddle, the Patriots still have a chance to be an elite team. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently called him the best in the NFL.

Overall depth chart: As broken down by Pat Kirwan of NFL.com, the Patriots are one of eight teams to employ a backup with no NFL starting experience. This will mark the fourth straight season the Patriots will take that approach, and while it seems risky, the team showed it can work in 2008 when Matt Cassel emerged. Earlier in Tom Brady's career, Bill Belichick usually had a veteran sounding board at the position, whether it was Damon Huard, Jim Miller, Doug Flutie or Vinny Testaverde. No longer.

Final analysis: Top 3 in the NFL, along with the Colts and Saints.

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