Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Updated: September 9, 4:26 PM ET
Pats roster analysis: Questions on D
By Mike Reiss
When analyzing the New England Patriots' 53-man roster, the offense has fewer question marks than the defense.
The club is well stocked with quality at quarterback, receiver and tight end. And while there are no consistent breakaway threats at running back and there are depth concerns along the offensive line, those units still have productive players who are talented enough to help win ballgames.
There is less certainty on defense, where questions remain on whether the line will be able to hold up at the point of attack and whether there is a viable option to start at one outside linebacker spot. Also, the secondary is young and relatively untested.
Here is a look at the roster, position by position, while considering where it ranks from an NFL perspective:
Starter: Tom Brady
Backup: Brian Hoyer
Analysis: For the second straight season, the team will keep just two players at the position. About half the clubs in the NFL kept just two signal-callers in 2009. Brady was sharp this preseason, while Hoyer, who made the club as a rookie free agent last season, showed that he continues to make positive strides. Overall, the Patriots' personnel at the position ranks as one of the NFL's best.
Running back (5)
Starter: Fred Taylor
Backups: Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Laurence Maroney, BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Analysis: While the Patriots aren't going to morph into a New York Jets-style ground-and-pound attack, there were some promising signs in the preseason when it came to situational, short-yardage running with Taylor and Morris. That's why they project to get the ball over Maroney at the start of the year. Faulk remains a weapon as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. With Taylor, Morris and Faulk all in their 30s, Maroney and Green-Ellis provide youthful depth and insurance should injuries strike. This unit ranks low from an overall NFL perspective, in part because there is not a clear No. 1 back in the group.
Wide receiver (6)
Starters: Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Brandon Tate
Backups: Julian Edelman, Taylor Price, Matthew Slater
Analysis: Moss looks motivated to have a big year and, as he showed in the preseason, he can still run well and threaten opponents in the deep third of the field. Meanwhile, Welker's recovery from a torn ACL and MCL has been quicker than anticipated, and Tate and Edelman appear primed to make significant leaps from their rookie seasons, assuming they stay healthy. This looks like it could be one of the NFL's more explosive receiving groups.
Tight ends (3)
Starter: Alge Crumpler
Backups: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez
Analysis: When training camp began, the Patriots were the only team in the NFL to not bring back a tight end from 2009, and the revamped group showed in the preseason that it figures to play a major role in the team's attack. Crumpler is a powerful blocker in the running game and still is a factor in the short to intermediate passing game, while the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski looks like an X-factor who could help the team improve in the red zone. Hernandez is a chess piece who figures to be moved all over the field. If what transpired in the preseason carries to the regular season, the Patriots could have an upper-tier group from an NFL perspective.
Offensive line (9)
Starters: Matt Light (LT), Dan Connolly (LG), Dan Koppen (C), Stephen Neal (RG), Sebastian Vollmer (RT)
Backups: Mark LeVoir (OT), Ryan Wendell (C/G), Quinn Ojinnaka (OT/G), Steve Maneri (OT)
Injured: Nick Kaczur (OT/G)
Analysis: The Patriots are holding a roster spot for Kaczur at this point, with the hope that he might recover from an injured back to help at some point. The starting line had a solid preseason, but the questions come in the depth department. Ojinnaka, who was acquired in a trade with the Falcons, is suspended for the season's first game and does not count against the roster limit. When he comes back, the team will have to trim from somewhere to create room. The offensive line without Logan Mankins looks like it's middle of the pack when compared with other NFL clubs.
Defensive line (7)
Starters: Gerard Warren (LDE), Vince Wilfork (NT), Mike Wright (RDE)
Backups: Ron Brace (LDE), Myron Pryor (NT), Brandon Deaderick (RDE), Kyle Love (NT)
Analysis: Ty Warren's season-ending hip injury is a significant blow and altered the Patriots' initial plans to have a Ty Warren/Wilfork/Gerard Warren starting trio. The trickle-down effect is that Gerard Warren moves to the left side and Wright becomes a full-time player. Wright is one of the team's best interior pass rushers and projects to stay on the field on third down, so the concern is that he might wear down with a full-time role. Brace looks like a better fit at end than nose, and if he emerges as a starter, that would be a big boost. Deaderick (late seventh-round pick) and Love (rookie free agent) beat the odds to earn spots as developmental types. From an NFL perspective, this position looks like a middle-of-the-pack group.
Starters: Tully Banta-Cain (OLB), Jerod Mayo (ILB), Brandon Spikes (ILB)
Backups: Jermaine Cunningham (OLB), Marques Murrell (OLB), Rob Ninkovich (OLB), Gary Guyton (ILB), Dane Fletcher (ILB), Tracy White (ILB)
Analysis: The Patriots play a 3-4 alignment so they'll need to find a starter on the outside among the group of Cunningham, Murrell and Ninkovich. At this point, it is a challenge to name any of them starters as they don't have a career start between them. Murrell started the first two preseason games, so he looks like the opening-day starter by process of elimination. Cunningham, a second-round draft choice out of Florida, has missed all four preseason games because of injury but could find himself thrown into the fire quickly. On the inside, Spikes stepped in for the injured Guyton on the fourth day of camp and hasn't looked back. From a league point of view, the Patriots have one of the more promising groups at inside linebacker, but the questions on the outside drag them down to the back half of the NFL.
Defensive back (9)
Starters: Devin McCourty (LCB), Darius Butler (RCB), Brandon Meriweather (S), Patrick Chung (S)
Backups: Jonathan Wilhite (CB), Kyle Arrington (CB), Terrence Wheatley (CB), James Sanders (S), Jarrad Page (S)
Analysis: Bill Belichick has never entered a season with such a young secondary, which is a result of losing eight-year veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden (torn rotator cuff) and sixth-year veteran safety Brandon McGowan (torn pectoral muscle) to season-ending injuries. The performance of this group will reflect, in part, how well the team drafted because all four starters were selected within the draft's first 41 picks -- McCourty a 2010 first-round pick, Butler a 2009 second-round pick, Meriweather a 2007 first-round pick and Chung a 2009 second-round pick. NFL-wise, the secondary has the potential to be a top group, but until they prove it, they reside in the middle.
Starters: Stephen Gostkowski (kicker), Zoltan Mesko (punter/holder); Jake Ingram (long snapper)
Analysis: There was no significant competition for any of the three jobs as the Patriots have done well in recent years identifying top specialists in the draft and then scooping other teams to select them. Gostkowski is a Pro Bowl-caliber kicker and how he adjusts to the new field-goal operation with Mesko as his holder will be important to monitor. As far as specialists go in the NFL, this group has potential to be among the best.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.