Scouting the Patriots: Positional Analysis

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS OF THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS AS THEY PREPARE TO PLAY THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Tom Brady. Backups -- Matt Cassel, Matt Gutierrez.

    Brady is as consistent a quarterback as there is in football and he proved last season that he can carry a passing offense regardless of his receiving weapons. He's also one of the most durable quarterbacks in the game as evidenced by the third-longest start streak in the league despite taking a tremendous physical pounding at times over the last few years. Brady's durability is especially important because he's backed up by unproven third-year signal-caller Cassel. Cassel hasn't started a game at either the college or pro level and is the ultimate question mark. Gutierrez has played well in the preseason and has a good shot to stick around in some way, most likely landing on the practice squad. The hope in New England is that the names behind Brady on the depth chart continue to remain irrelevant but if The Golden Boy does go down for any period of time, it will most likely be the young Cassel who takes over the reins of the Patriots offense, not Testaverde.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Laurence Maroney. Backups -- Heath Evans, Kevin Faulk, Kyle Eckel.

    Maroney is the team's featured back and gained nearly 900 yards with very limited opportunities in a pass first offense. Faulk remains a tremendous third-down option and change-of-pace back who will play a varied key role in the offense. Faulk remains one of the best pass-catching backs in the NFL. Evans is a jack-of-all-trades fullback whose greatest action comes on special teams, although he does help the backfield out at times. Evans will be used in short-yardage situations, as well as a receiver out of the backfield.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Benjamin Watson, Kyle Brady. Backups -- Marcellus Rivers.

    With defenses focusing on the outside receivers, the middle of the field is usually open for Watson to make them pay. Brady was signed early in free agency to help replace Daniel Graham. Bill Belichick has referred to him as a third tackle as a blocker, but can catch the occasional pass.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Randy Moss,Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth. Backups -- Troy Brown, Jabar Gaffney, Chad Jackson, Kelley Washington.

    Moss has set an NFL record by catching 23 touchdown passes to go along with his 98 receptions overall. Stallworth, when healthy, is one of the best big-play targets in the game, and he's their third option. Welker set a career-best with 112 receptions, and is Brady's go to possession receiver. Gaffney had a fine year and made the most of his limited opportunities.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Matt Light, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, RG Stephen Neal, RT Nick Kaczur. Backups -- RT Wesley Britt, G/C Russ Hochstein, RT Ryan O'Callaghan, G/C Billy Yates.

    Over the course of the last few seasons, the Patriots have developed a solid group of young offensive linemen. Light went to his first Pro Bowl last year, but he remains an average left tackle who struggles at times with elite speed pass rushers. Mankins and Neal appear to be on the verge of reaching a Pro Bowl level themselves. Mankins, in particular, is turning into one of the best interior linemen in the league. Koppen re-signed last fall and is the anchor of the group from his center position. Right tackle remains the only spot where the starting job isn't locked down. Kaczur has started over the last two seasons, but has missed time due to injury. O'Callaghan started as a rookie in Kaczur's absence early last season but had concussion issues. The two have battled for the starting job all offseason, with Kaczur looking like the winner. The group of backups includes many who've started or seen significant time due to injury, including Britt, Hochstein and Yates. Hochstein is the most experienced of the group and he also has the ability to start at all three interior line spots.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Ty Warren, NT Vince Wilfork, RDE Richard Seymour. Backups -- DE/NT Kareem Brown, RDE Jarvis Green, DE/NT Le Kevin Smith, DE/NT Mike Wright.

    New England's front three is as good as there is in the game. Seymour is the obvious leader of the group after five consecutive Pro Bowl selections, although he missed the first six games while on the Physically Unable to Perform List. But it was Warren who had the best year in 2006. His breakout season included finishing second on the team in tackles while tying for second with 7.5 sacks to pace a defense that set a franchise record for points allowed. Warren can rush the passer and hold stout against the run in New England's two-gap, 3-4 scheme. Wilfork has also come into his own last season and is becoming one of the premier nose tackles in the game. His size makes him almost immovable, while his quick hands, speed and athleticism make him a beast for opposing interior lines to counter. Opponents can't double-team all three of New England's former first-round picks up front and this group will be the strength of the defense once again this season. Green is a versatile backup at end with plenty of starting experience. He's also a viable pass-rush option in sub packages. Even the former undrafted free agent Wright has seen plenty of action over the last couple years as he splits his time between end and tackle. The only real question mark with this unit is finding a viable backup at nose tackle behind Wilfork.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Adalius Thomas, WLB Mike Vrabel, MLB Tedy Bruschi, ILB Junior Seau. Backups -- MLB Eric Alexander, MLB Larry Izzo, OLB Pierre Woods, OLB Chad Brown.

    Thomas joins the group as the perfect fit in terms of his ability to play many positions, his freakish size and athletic ability and defensive intelligence. Thomas has spent all offseason at inside linebacker and that will be his primary position to start the year, although he can move over to the outside if needed. Vrabel has been forced to play on the inside over the last two seasons but will be back on the outside this year where the veteran is more productive. Bruschi has lost a couple steps over the last two seasons. He doesn't have the playmaking ability he once had but Bruschi is still solid and one of the defensive leaders. Seau was arguably New England's most productive linebacker in his first Patriots season last fall before landing on IR with a broken arm and he will add depth on the inside behind Thomas and Bruschi. After the top four names, there is a real drop off in experience and talent in the group. Izzo is a primary special teamer with little to add on defense. Alexander started the AFC title game last year in an effort to cover New England's lack of speed and athleticism in the middle of the field. Alexander struggled at times in that game and hasn't done much during the season. Woods has played well at times. That would be good news for the Patriots if the young pass rusher can step up and contribute.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Asante Samuel, CB Ellis Hobbs, FS James Sanders , SS Rodney Harrison. Backups -- S Willie Andrews, S Rashad Baker, CB Randall Gay, S Eddie Jackson, CB/S Brandon Meriweather, S Mel Mitchell, S Eugene Wilson.

    Samuel evolved into a true No. 1 corner last fall and played his best game of the season defending Marvin Harrison and Co. in the AFC title loss in Indy. Now that Samuel is back in the mix, he is the team's top corner. Hobbs has impressed this season as he is the corner that is picked on most often. Harrison has had two knee injuries in the last two years, but he isn't worried about his aging frame and durability after 13 seasons and he has shown why with his play on the field. Harrison appears to be at full strength and looks like a third-year player with the way he was flying around all year long. Sanders showed plenty in his second season and continues to improve. First-round pick Meriweather is a cover guy who can play both safety, nickel back and corner at times. He sees playing time in spots, and adds a playmaking ability that the unit has lacked at times in recent years. Andrews is one of the best special teams players on the team and a decent backup at safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Stephen Gostkowski, P Chris Hanson, LS Lonie Paxton.

    Gostkowski felt all the pressure of replacing future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri a year ago and came out the other side looking like he's going to be a solid player for a long time in Gillette Stadium's tough kicking conditions. This year, he ended up hitting 21 of 24 field goals in the regular season. Former Jaguar, Chris Hanson is the Patriots under utilized punter. Hanson doesn't have a particularly strong leg, but the Pats coverage unit is among the very best in the league. Paxton is one of the best long snappers in the game.


Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of JagNation.com, and a regular syndicated contributor to FoxSports.com, Sirius NFL Radio, MySpace Sports and Sportsillustrated.com. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and is a columnist for the New Smyrna Observer. Feel free to contact him -HERE- with questions or comments.



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