Predicting Trouble Ahead For These Patriots

Even with the man in the hoodie orchestrating things from the sideline, the 2010 Patriots are a work in progress. Buoyed by youth, perhaps the team's greatest asset-- smart young players -- will also be it's biggest weakness. Any team with Belichick and Brady has a chance to win, but ...

The predictions surrounding the 2010 Patriots are as varied as they are readily available after an eventful, up-and-down preseason.

One school of thought is that any team that fields Tom Brady and is coached by Bill Belichick has a chance not only at the playoffs, but at a deep January run. Sporting two of the top options at two of the most important spots in football is a good start for any team. Throw in Randy Moss, Wes Welker and the makings of an offense that's been amongst the best in the game since 2007 and there is reason for the hope that permeates plenty of corners of Patriots Nation.

But the flipside of that is a realistic and more analytical look at a team that last we saw was being run off the field by Ray Rice and the Ravens on wild-card weekend. New England has done little to improve that defense that showed it was anything but playoff ready, will start a slew of young players in 2010 and faces a pretty formidable schedule that includes matchups with such presumed NFL elite as the Colts, Jets (twice), Packers, Vikings and Ravens.

Of course the end reality may be somewhere in between the predictions of doom and those of a return to domination for New England.

Those who point to the strengths of Belichick, Brady, Moss and a proven offense are correct. Add in the emergence of rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as well as young receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate, and the offense has the potential to be better than 2009 when it ranked third in all of football. Wes Welker looks ready to return to form and the offense has high hopes.

The defense, on the other hand, is a clear work in progress. Rookies such as inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and cornerback Devin McCourty could very well start. Unproven second-year players safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Darius Butler will clearly have major roles. Even unproven newcomers such as defensive end Gerard Warren will have a lot thrown on their plate for a defense that ranked 11th in the NFL last season but wasn't nearly that good when it came to making key plays. Bend but don't break in New England was replaced by bend and then break when the game is on the line a year ago.

Put it all together and the Patriots will not only be in a potential dogfight for their playoff lives, but more likely left to battle the Jets and Dolphins for the division and maybe just to consistently put wins together.

Belichick isn't big on comparing one team to the next, but the coach knows there could very well be more question marks surrounding this team in New England than any of its recent predecessors had entering the regular season.

"I couldn't really rank one year with another or two years ago. [You] just deal with whatever you have to deal with the particular year and do the best you can with it," Belichick said of all his team's questions entering September. "We'll find out here in a few weeks where we're at. As far as an installation schedule and things like that, we have a lot of things installed. There are other things to do, but that's the way it always is. But we'll find out once we start the regular season competition. We'll find out where everybody is."

During the Belichick era, and since shocking the world with a Super Bowl title in 2001, the Patriots have been arguably the most consistent franchise in the NFL. That form may take a hit in 2010 as New England seemingly retools on the run with a slew of young players, including 24 draft picks over the last two seasons, learning on the run as the team hopes to remain competitive in the AFC playoff hunt while working in the youth movement.

Only time, games and the development of the young players will tell how well the Patriots succeed in augmenting the foundation of Belichick and Brady with young talent in an effort to bring thoughts of late January championship runs back to Foxborough.

COACHING: Bill Belichick, 36th year, 11th with Patriots (148-92).

REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 10-6 (1st in AFC East); lost in wild-card game to Ravens, 33-14.

PREDICTING: 2010 regular season record 9-7 (2nd in AFC East); lost in wildcard game.

NOTES
--The Patriots made their final roster cuts and began preparing for Sunday's season opener against the Bengals, yet there's still no sign of Logan Mankins in Foxboro.

The veteran left guard is continuing his holdout due to a contract dispute and there appears to be no resolution in sign since the Patriots aren't going out of their way to lure him back to the field.

"I'm going to coach the players that are here," head coach Bill Belichick said of Mankins. "We'll talk about the ones that are here."
--One of the players dismissed this weekend without much of a chance to contribute was second-year linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, who missed all of 2009 with a knee injury and was cut this past weekend.
A third-round pick last year, McKenzie didn't get much playing time in preseason games, which doesn't make the move surprising.

--The biggest shock on cut-down day was the release of veteran linebacker Derrick Burgess, who was expected to play a significant role in the pass rush opposite Tully Banta-Cain. Burgess missed most of camp while wrestling with the decision to play football or not in 2010. Upon his arrival, the Patriots threw him back into the mix, but he looked shaky in the preseason finale against the Giants, perhaps making this move much easier for Belichick and the coaching staff to digest.

--WR Sam Aiken didn't make the final cut this year despite being a key contributor on special teams. The most surprising aspect of this move, though, was the fact the Patriots kept Matthew Slater, who has shown more potential than production the past two years.

Aiken's ability to play wide receiver made it seem apparent he'd have a role on the '10 roster, but Slater made the cut despite his special teams' struggles on kickoff and punt returns and limited experience on defense. His speed is his biggest asset and the Patriots are banking him replacing Aiken's production.

--The release of linebackers Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander also came as a bit of a surprise this weekend considering their contributions that past two years. Alexander had been a special teams' ace during most of his tenure with the Patriots while Woods earned a shot with the first-unit defense two years ago when injuries riddled New England's defense.


Woods and Alexander both made the cut initially as undrafted free agents.

BY THE NUMBERS: 8 -- Number of Patriots games that went down to the final possession in 2009, five of which were losses for New England.

QUOTES TO NOTE: "I probably won't even go to sleep. That's how nervous I am." -- WR Darnell Jenkins on the eve of cut day. Jenkins did not make the final roster, but was signed to the practice squad.

"Less than zero." -- Coach Bill Belichick on the chances that he'd offer up an injury report before the league mandate that he do so on the Wednesday before the regular season opener.

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