After a second Super Bowl loss in five years, it looked like Bill Belichick was going all-in when he started stockpiling free agents in the offseason: Jonathan Fanene, Bobby Carpenter, Donte’ Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, Steve Gregory, Daniel Fells, Brandon Lloyd – more than a dozen players in all. But only three remain, with some of the biggest names gone. Instead of veteran free agents, Belichick is going young, and on defense, very young, as in the youngest defense of his tenure in New England. Can these fresh faces get the Patriots back to the Super Bowl?
Players: Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, Greg Salas
Breakdown: You know what you’re going to get with Welker, and judging by training camp, he is as tough to cover as ever. Lloyd offers an outside-the-numbers, downfield threat, assuming he and Brady develop chemistry. Edelman may be relied on more in the passing game, and Salas, acquired from the Rams, was productive in college but a broken leg shortened his rookie season in 2011. Slater’s greatest contribution has been as a special teams ace.
Players: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Visanthe Shiancoe, Daniel Fells
Breakdown: It was a surprise when the Patriots cut so many receivers, but this group is a big part of the reason. Gronkowski and Hernandez are the best duo in the league, though at this point Hernandez is a tight end in name only — no telling where he’ll line up from play to play this season, and he’ll likely get the ball a lot. Gronkowski uses his massive frame and unique running ability for a player his size to full advantage. Fells can contribute as a blocker and receiver; Shiancoe missed nearly all of the exhibition season to injury.
Players: LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Connolly, RT Sebastian Vollmer, T Marcus Cannon, C/G Nick McDonald, G Donald Thomas, C/G Ryan Wendell
Breakdown: This group caused the most concern in the preseason. Solder, now in the spot he was drafted to play after Matt Light’s retirement, had some issues, and Cannon, who played in place of Vollmer, struggled. Mankins’s return from ACL surgery will undoubtedly help Solder, and a healthy Vollmer will be solid on the right side. However, if Vollmer’s back is problematic, Cannon is the only tackle remaining. The interior backups are serviceable. Line coach Dante Scarnecchia may have to do some of his best work for this group to look better than it did in August.
Players: Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett
Breakdown: Brady celebrated his 35th birthday during training camp, and faced numerous questions about his drive, his health, and going through the rigors of a 13th training camp. Time and again he assured: the passion is still there, his body feels great, and it showed on the practice field, his frustration on full display at times, his excitement obvious during other times. The only question mark here, and it’s a pretty big one: Is Mallett ready to carry the team if need be? Bill Belichick said Mallett is in the on-deck circle now.
Players: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Bolden, Lex Hilliard
Breakdown: This position is certainly far younger as a whole than it has been in recent years. There is no veteran such as Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, or even Fred Taylor (average age of current crop: just more than 24 years old) for the advice and wisdom of experience. The talent is there – Ridley is a far more explosive runner than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was as dependable as they come but rarely broke off any long runs. Bolden looks to be solid, but the oft-injured Vereen is not on the field enough for a true evaluation. Woodhead is a jack-of-all-trades.
Players: CB Devin McCourty, CB Kyle Arrington, S Patrick Chung S Steve Gregory, S Marquice Cole, S Nate Ebner, DB Ras-I Dowling DB Alfonzo Dennard, DB Tavon Wilson, DB Sterling Moore
Breakdown: This group has something Bill Belichick values highly: versatility. McCourty played some safety last season, and Arrington can play outside or in the slot. Rookie Wilson was moved all over the field in the preseason, and Moore has played corner and safety. Two things are key to this unit’s success: A consistent pass rush from the front seven, and the health of Chung. When the fourth-year safety is on the field, he’s on the doorstep of being a star – but he’s missed 10 regular-season games the last two years. Gregory established himself quickly, and is a welcome addition.
Players: Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, Tracy White, Mike Rivera
Breakdown: If the starting trio can stay healthy, the group will be formidable. Spikes played in just eight regular-season games last season, and Mayo missed two. First-round pick Hightower has shown well early, but the surprise release of Bobby Carpenter left the group without experienced depth: White got some snaps – and one start – at linebacker last season, filling in when Spikes and Dane Fletcher were injured; Rivera has not played a snap in a regular-season game.
Players: Rob Ninkovich, Kyle Love, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, Brandon Deaderick, Jermaine Cunningham, Ron Brace, Trevor Scott, Jake Bequette, Justin Francis, Marcus Forston
Breakdown: A lot of players here, and how they’re employed remains to be seen. Ninkovich or Cunningham could be used more as linebackers. This group looked strong against the run in the preseason, but few teams are run heavy now; pressuring the quarterback is the real key. Jones has shown he can pass rush, but the Patriots will need someone else who can consistently get to the quarterback. Cunningham showed flashes in the preseason, but rookie Bequette, who had success at Arkansas in the tough SEC, did not stand out in his first camp.
Players: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Zoltan Mesko, PR Julian Edelman, LS Danny Aiken
Breakdown: Gostkowski returned from an injury in 2010 to post a strong 2011 season, hitting 28 of 33 field goal attempts. Mesko looks to be improving after a good second season, and as long as Aiken keeps his snaps perfect, he’ll have a home in New England. Edelman statistically is the best punt returner New England has ever had, averaging 12.4 yards. The kick returner isn’t clear – seven players fielded them in the preseason. Olympian Jeff Demps seemed like the choice, but he’s out for the season.
Roster: HC Bill Belichick, DC Matt Patricia, OC Josh McDaniels, ST Scott O’Brien
Breakdown: McDaniels returned to great fanfare, but the offense was pretty darn good with Bill O’Brien here. McDaniels will add new wrinkles, including greater use of the running backs, both as ball carriers and as receivers out of the backfield. Belichick the coach may have done his finest work last season in overcoming the errors of Belichick the general manager, taking the worst defense of his Patriots tenure to the Super Bowl. Scott O’Brien’s units were solid last year, but the team could use a dynamic kickoff returner.