Second in a three-part series analyzing the Patriots’ season.
The NFL combine begins Feb. 23 in Indianapolis, kicking off preparations for the 2012 season.
Free agency will start March 13, and then attention will focus on the draft, which will take place April 26-28 in New York.
But before we get to all that, let’s continue our look back at the 2011 Patriots season to prepare for the future.
These are the individual player grades for all 53 men that finished on the roster, along with the 12 that finished on injured reserve.
The grades are reflective of performance relative to other NFL players at the position, with no curve for age or experience. Roughly, A players are the upper echelon at their position, B’s are players that could start elsewhere in the league, C’s are average players, D’s are below average, and so forth.
Tom Brady: Was part of the MVP discussion for most of the season, and his play was worthy of such praise. Battled through two injuries (right elbow, left shoulder) but kept the team on the winning track. He threw 16 interceptions (against 47 touchdown passes) in 19 games. Grade: A.
Brian Hoyer: Completed the one pass he was allowed to attempt, for 22 yards. Even if the Patriots tender him at the highest level (a first-round pick in return if he signs with another club), he could generate interest. But the Patriots love him. Grade: Incomplete.
Ryan Mallett: Dressed for one game in his rookie season. Are the Patriots confident enough in him to let Hoyer go or to shop him? Not sure. Grade: Incomplete.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: His statistics plummeted, but not all of it was his fault. The whole run-blocking apparatus took a step back with an average of 5.8 stuffed runs (1 yard or less outside short yardage) allowed per game, compared with 3.4 the previous season. An unrestricted free agent whom the Patriots will likely retain only at their price. Grade: C.
Danny Woodhead: Despite playing a similar amount of snaps, he saw his touches go from 131 to 95. For whatever reason, he seemed to lack the same explosion from a year ago, but he’s a good player to have around. Grade: C.
Stevan Ridley: Overcame an ankle injury at the end of training camp to take the lead role in the final three regular-season games thanks to his 5.1-yard average and all five of the team’s rushes over 20 yards. But two fumbles left him on the bench in the final two playoff games. Very promising. Grade: C-plus.
Shane Vereen: Had hamstring troubles soon after he reported to training camp and wasn’t fully healthy until it was too late. Showed promise with 19-yard touchdown run. Grade: Incomplete.
Kevin Faulk: Was on the physically unable to perform list for the first six games, slipped right back in against the Steelers, and then was hardly heard from. Puzzling, but it seemed like the team didn’t want Brady to go back to relying on Faulk. Grade: Incomplete.
Loukasa Polite: Signed Dec. 27, played in the final four games. Didn’t make much of an impact. Grade: Incomplete.
Wes Welker: Nobody has done it better since he joined the team in 2007. Led the league in catches (122) and was second in yards (1,569). Due to become an unrestricted free agent. The sides don’t appear to be close on an extension, so the franchise tag is likely coming. Patriots can’t afford to let him walk. Will he play ball with the tag or take the Logan Mankins route (holdout)? That’s the big question. Grade: A-plus.
Deion Branch: Can still run the low end of the route tree with effectiveness, and is a terrific downfield blocker, he just doesn’t stretch the field. An unrestricted free agent at 32 who figures to be back at a fair offer, depending on how many other receivers the team brings in. Grade: B-minus.
Julian Edelman: Caught only four passes, but was a solid punt returner (one touchdown). Puzzling that they didn’t use him more on kickoffs. Grade: C-minus.
Chad Ochocinco: Did everything they asked of him - except grasp the playbook. His cap number is $4.7 million each of the next two seasons. Do they have faith that he’ll get it with a full offseason? There’s no penalty to find out. Grade: F.
Matthew Slater: An afterthought at receiver, he became an elite special teams player and was voted to the Pro Bowl. Even chipped in at safety. An unrestricted free agent. Grade: B-minus.
Tiquan Underwood: Was signed for the second time Nov. 24. Played only 98 snaps. Smart kid. Grade: Incomplete.
Shun White: Finished on the reserve/military list. Grade: Incomplete
Rob Gronkowski: Amazing to look back to early last season when he was the third tight end behind Alge Crumpler. Now, at 22, he has set a course to become the greatest all-around tight end the game has ever seen. He hardly ever drops a pass, he is impossible to tackle, and his blocking is so good he could probably fill in at tackle. Expect the Patriots to try to extend him early and get a little discount. Grade: A-plus.
Aaron Hernandez: Showed incredible toughness by returning much earlier from an MCL sprain than he should have (two games missed). When healthy, he is the key to the offense because teams have to indicate their coverages. Another candidate for early contract extension. Grade: A-minus.
Matt Light: Delivered a terrific performance the second half of the season against some of the game’s top pass rushers. Sacks allowed plummeted from 8.5 the previous season to 2.5. He looked to be on the downside in 2010 but corrected that and them some. Grade: A-minus.
Logan Mankins: Wasn’t the dominating player he was in 10 games in 2010, but by the end of the season, he wasn’t far off. He allowed one pressure every 38.7 snaps and one stuffed run every 32.5 as an All-Pro in ’10. This season it was 29.3 for pressure and 29.9 for run stuffs. Still elite. Grade: A-minus.
Dan Connolly: Looked to be headed for the bench when Brian Waters arrived at right guard, and was suddenly thrust into the center position when Dan Koppen went down in Week 1. Allowed only 1.5 sacks a year after Koppen allowed 5.5. An unrestricted free agent along with Koppen. Both deserve to start somewhere. Grade: B.
Brian Waters: The team’s best free agent signing. He slipped right in and was the line’s best pass blocker (12.5 pressures allowed). Allowed the same number of run stuffs as Mankins. Waters isn’t a plow horse in the run game, but he’s crafty. Grade: A.
Nate Solder: So much for learning from the bench. With Sebastian Vollmer out most of the season with various injuries, Solder held his own with 6.5 sacks allowed and 34.5 pressures. Imagine him with a strength program and offseason practices. Grade: B-minus.
Ryan Wendell: Started two games at center when Connolly was hurt, and after a slow start showed very good potential. Grade: C-plus.
Sebastian Vollmer: Shame he couldn’t stay healthy (seven games played) because he’s a dominating run blocker, and was on his way to improving on the 37 total pressures he allowed in ’10. Here’s hoping he’s over his back troubles. A future Solder-Vollmer tackle pairing would be formidable. Grade: C-plus.
Marcus Cannon: After cancer treatments, amazing he played 168 snaps. Showed good potential. Grade: D.
Nick McDonald: Pinch-hit as the fourth center when injuries hit. Allowed a sack. Team likes him. Grade: D.
Donald Thomas: Didn’t have much impact in 105 snaps. Allowed a sack. Grade: D.
Kyle Hix: Landed on injured reserve straight out of training camp. Grade: Incomplete.
Dan Koppen: Was injured 33 snaps into the season. Will the team bring him back or Connolly or both? Grade: Incomplete.
Rich Ohrnberger: Was placed on injured reserve with a concussion coming out of camp, where he got off to a terrible start. Grade: Incomplete.
Vince Wilfork: Most coaches wouldn’t dream of asking a 340-pound veteran to play more than 86 percent of the snaps, but Wilfork took it all in stride. Had 6 sacks, 15 hurries, 8.5 knockdowns, and a team-leading 17.5 stuffed runs. Oh, and two interceptions. The big fella did it all. Grade: A.
Andre Carter: What a terrific pickup, in the locker room and on the field. Despite missing the final five games after needing leg surgery, Carter still led the team with 41.5 quarterback pressures, and his 21 knockdowns were more than double the next Patriot (Mark Anderson, 10). If healthy, the unrestricted free agent has a home here. Grade: A.
Mark Anderson: Bill Belichick at his best. Anderson looked like a one-pass-rush-move pony in training camp and morphed into a player that could play stand-up linebacker. By the end of the Super Bowl, he led team with 12 sacks and had 36.5 pressures. Not sure he could do that anywhere else. Grade: B-plus.
Kyle Love: Not the most talented guy, but as the season went along, he learned to disengage from blockers like a veteran. Had 2.5 sacks, 15.5 total pressures, and 9.5 stuffs. Puzzling why he seems to vanish after hot starts. Grade: C-plus.
Gerard Warren: Despite playing roughly a quarter of the snaps, was sixth on the team with 11 pressures and was tough to block in postseason. Grade: C.
Brandon Deaderick: Played half as many snaps as Love after being on the PUP list and had 3 sacks, 15.5 total pressures, and 5.5 stuffs. When you talk to opposing coaches and scouts, it’s Deaderick’s potential they talk about. Grade: C.
Shaun Ellis: Patriots figured they’d get more than two sacks and 9.5 pressures for the $4 million he made. A good locker room guy. An unrestricted free agent who looks to be done. Grade: D.
Ron Brace: Played only 62 snaps after coming off the PUP list. There has to be a reason for that. Grade: D.
Myron Pryor: Along with Deaderick, another with vast potential. He showed that with 3.5 total pressures and a run stuff in the opener at Miami before a shoulder injury ended his season. Grade: Incomplete.
Mike Wright: Another concussion puts his future in serious doubt. Grade: Incomplete.
Jerod Mayo: Played through an MCL sprain even though he wasn’t close to 100 percent. He makes it all go, but hasn’t had much impact (nine pressures, nine stuffed runs). We’d love to see him with a consistent scheme and personnel around him. Grade: B-plus.
Brandon Spikes: Talent and instincts are unquestioned. In about half the snaps as Mayo, Spikes had six pressures and 8.5 stuffs. The next step is to be on the field for all 16-plus games because he gets better every snap. Grade: B.
Rob Ninkovich: A jack-of-all-trades whom the coaches realized they had asked to do too much, and gave him some breathers down the stretch. When rested, he can do it all, with coverage being his weakness. Improved his sacks from four to 10, and pressures from 27.5 to 34 (third on the team). Grade: B.
Dane Fletcher: Dealt with thumb injuries and surgeries dating back to camp. Shame, because when he’s on the field, he makes things happen. A little undersized to play every down. Grade: C.
Tracy White: Still a special teams standout who can pinch-hit on defense when need be. Not much more than that. An unrestricted free agent. Grade: C-minus.
Niko Koutouvides: Signed Nov. 9 and played well on special teams. Started against the Colts at outside linebacker. An unrestricted free agent. Grade: D-plus.
Gary Guyton: Didn’t seem to be his old self after the lockout, and that continued as he went from being far and away the team’s best cover linebacker to totally out of the mix. Lost a step somehow. An unrestricted free agent. Grade: F.
Jermaine Cunningham: After showing athletic potential as a rookie, he showed no improvement in camp and was buried on the bench before finally being put on injured reserve. Grade: F.
Christian Cox: Undrafted free agent went on injured reserve at the end of training camp with a groin injury. Grade: Incomplete.
Jeff Tarpinian: Undrafted free agent battled injuries and then got a surprise start against the Eagles. Played only 22 snaps. Grade: Incomplete.
Kyle Arrington: Was slotted as the No. 4 corner out of camp, but when injuries hit, he emerged as the team’s best. Confidence problems seemed to be a thing of the past. Did have his struggles. Tied for league lead with seven interceptions, all in the first 10 games. Grade: B.
Devin McCourty: Went from being a Pro Bowl cornerback as a rookie to being switched to part-time safety because of personnel and his own ineffectiveness. Had terrible problems with technique, and teams went after him. Still good against the run. Grade: C-minus.
Sterling Moore: Signed off the Oakland practice squad and released by the Patriots at one point, he definitely showed the important ability to play the ball, even if he struggled with technique at times. Would like to see him with more practice. Grade: C-minus.
Antwaun Molden: A good athlete, but like the rest of the unit, he struggled with technique. An unrestricted free agent. Grade: D.
Nate Jones: Signed Nov. 30 and got an emergency start. He served his purpose as a fill-in. An unrestricted free agent. Grade: D.
Malcolm Williams: Seventh-round pick landed on the roster twice to play special teams. Grade: Incomplete.
Ras-I Dowling: Despite being injured most of camp, started the first two games before being placed on injured reserve with a hip injury. When healthy, the team’s best man-cover corner. Can he stay that way? Grade: Incomplete.
Patrick Chung: Played and started nine games. When he’s in there, the defense is different. He has star written all over him if he can play fully healthy for a season. Grade: B.
James Ihedigbo: Brought much-needed stability in starting 15 games. A liability in deep coverage, he’s very good inside the box. A great leader and very smart. An unrestricted free agent. Grade: C.
Josh Barrett: Started the first four games before being sent to the bench and then injured reserve. Battled injuries during camp as well. Has potential but needs to play more to really get the game. Grade: D-plus.
Sergio Brown: Started three games, including two of the first three, and was a disaster with missed tackles, blown assignments, and bad angles. Has incredible speed chasing down a play - if he’s going in the right place. Promising special teamer. Grade: D-minus.
Bret Lockett: Tore his groin against the Buccaneers in the preseason and was lost for the season. Showed potential and should be back as an exclusive rights free agent. Grade: Incomplete.
Zoltan Mesko: Improved in every category in his sophomore campaign. Climbing the ranks leaguewide. Grade: B-plus.
Stephen Gostkowski: Rebounded better than most expected from a torn quad in 2010. Solid on field goals, great hang time on kickoffs. Only thing he hasn’t done is win a game at the gun. Grade: B.
Danny Aiken: Had one wayward snap on an extra point, but other than that, he was solid. Should be here for a while. Grade: B-minus.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.