Unit By Unit

<p>The insiders take a look at what the Patriots potential units looked like on Thursday, before the first major release of players. The final cuts will be announced on Sunday in order to comply with the NFL's mandated 53 player limit. Some will make the PUP and the IR list, others will be released, and as can usually be expected from this team, a few surprises will occur.</p> <p>Here is a look at the units and their potential for the upcoming season.</p>

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK:

Starter: Tom Brady.
Backups: Rohan Davey, Kliff Kingsbury.

The Patriots have one of the league's better starting quarterbacks in Brady, who has won two Super Bowl MVP trophies in three seasons as a starter. After a season in which he threw 23 touchdown passes and just 12 interceptions, Brady will be given more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage this year. It won't be a situation where he has only one or two plays to pick from, but one in which he will be able to audible to a different play to attack what he reads from the defense pre-snap. In his fourth year as the starter, Brady should be entering the prime of his career and his presence gives the Patriots a chance to win every week. He is the unquestioned leader of the offense and with his success has come full confidence from coaches and teammates. In 48 career games, Brady has thrown for 10,233 yards with 69 touchdowns and 38 picks for an 85.9 passer rating. He also has guided 15 fourth quarter or overtime game winning drives, including two in the Super Bowl. Jim Miller, meanwhile, didn't take a snap in the preseason because he is recovering from February shoulder surgery, but the other two backups - Davey and Kingsbury - inflated Miller's value through sketchy, at best, play during the preseason. Miller was released at the first roster cut down day, but is expected to be back in the fold at some point after final cuts are made. The only way Kingsbury makes the opening day roster is if Miller is unable to start the season on the active roster. Kingsbury's suspect arm strength has been obvious during camp while Davey has been nothing if not erratic. The Patriots could be in big trouble if Brady goes down.

RUNNING BACKS:

Starters: RB Corey Dillon.
Backups: RB Mike Cloud, RB Kevin Faulk, FB Patrick Pass, RB Cedric Cobbs.

Looking for a marquee lead back to replace the average Antowain Smith, the Patriots dealt a second round pick for Dillon and now hope that the eighth-year pro's best days aren't behind him. Dillon is coming off the worst season of his career when he missed three games with an injury and rushed a career-low 138 times for 541 yards with two touchdowns while essentially losing his job to Rudi Johnson. Before last season, Dillon was the main cog in a Bengals offense that lacked any firepower beyond him. He gained 7,520 yards in his first six seasons and went to three Pro Bowls. He has plenty of motivation after all but shooting his way out of Cincinnati with a negative attitude. He seems to be mentally refreshed and newly motivated by his new scenery, and while that's certainly a positive for the Pats, the team needs his production to take the next offensive step. He was not overly impressive in the preseason running behind different line combinations, but that should work itself out before the opener. His presence should make the Patriots a more effective play-action team. Cloud is likely to serve as Dillon's main backup and shouldn't get many carries unless Dillon goes down. Faulk will continue to serve his role as a change-of-pace runner and receiver, but won't be relegated to simply third-down duties. Faulk's 178 receptions in five seasons make him a viable option in the passing attack and he has shown an ability to make big plays with the ball in his hands when he is not overused and his strengths are accentuated. He performs better in space and the Patriots love to use him on delays, draws and screens, although they use him in a variety of ways to avoid predictability. Pass's role is almost exclusively as a special teamer while Cobbs is expected to start the season on the physically unable to perform list.

TIGHT END/H-BACK:

Starters: Daniel Graham, Benjamin Watson.
Backups: Christian Fauria.

With no true fullback to speak of on the roster, the Patriots will utilize two tight ends in many situations, including pass protection, in-line run blocking, as a fullback or as receivers from the line or the backfield. That is the versatility offered by speedy, physically tight ends Graham and Watson. After missing the first 18 days of camp in a contract dispute, Watson reported and immediately contributed to the offense. In his first two preseason games, he caught eight passes including one for a touchdown. His presence seems to be taking some of the pressure off Graham, who has had a strong summer after two seasons of inconsistent hands and dropped passes. Both of those first round picks can pose defensive matchup problems with their speed to stretch the field and get deep down the middle seam and keep safeties from helping on sideline go-routes. Graham caught 38 passes last year for 409 yards and four touchdowns and if he can eliminate the drops, he can have an even bigger impact. Watson appears to be a physical freak with terrific speed, and the Patriots will use several different formations and motions with those two on the field. Fauria still probably has the best hands of the group and will be used more on underneath routes and near the goal line. This group of tight ends might rival any in the league.

WIDE RECEIVERS:

Starters: Troy Brown, Deion Branch.
Backups: David Givens, David Patten, Bethel Johnson, P.K. Sam.

There are no true starters in this group. All of the receivers seem interchangeable and all have been productive at one time or another. Branch is starting to separate himself as the best of the bunch following a season in which he led the club 57 receptions for 803 yards and three scores. Brown will continue to be a go-to guy when Brady finds himself in a tough situation. Brown may not produce the catches he did from 2000-2002 when he caught 281 passes, but he will still be the guy in big situations. Brady's trust in the longest-tenured Patriot was obvious last year when he led the team (along with Givens) with 17 postseason receptions, including a huge leaping grab on the game-winning drive in the Super Bowl. Givens is a tough, physical receiver who can outmaneuver defenders when the ball is in the air and is especially tough in the red zone. His lone problem has been remaining healthy, but he led the team with six touchdown catches last year despite missing three games. Patten is back after missing most of last season with a knee injury and gives the Patriots another deep threat and clutch player. His speed looks to be intact despite his knee surgery. He has made some big catches since joining the club in 2001 and his return gives the Patriots another option in the passing game as well as quality depth. Johnson's speed is downright scary and he is home run threat every time he steps on the field. His speed forces instant respect from defenses, but Johnson has yet to prove he can be a consistent route runner and every down receiver. But he is certain to make his share of big plays. Sam is a question mark since he missed most of the summer with a leg injury. He could end up on injured reserve..

OFFENSIVE LINE:

Starters: LT Matt Light, LG Russ Hochstein, C Dan Koppen, RG Joe Andruzzi, RT Tom Ashworth.
Backups: T Adrian Klemm, RT Brandon Gorin, G/C Bob Hallen, G Stephen Neal.

The offensive line must prove that it can withstand the loss of Damien Woody and still be a consistent, productive group. Matt Light is a solid, unspectacular left tackle who does a decent job both in the running game and in protection, although he tends to struggle against the faster pass rushers and relies on tight end help in certain situations. Hochstein is under the spotlight as Woody's replacement and while he performed well in last year's postseason, he must now prove he can do it over a full season. Koppen should improve on an impressive rookie season with a year as the starter under his belt. He is an intelligent player who studies and understands opposing defenses. Andruzzi is the heart and soul and leader of the group. He gets it done with guile and attitude and has been instrumental in the unit's success over the past few seasons. Ashworth played decently last year at right tackle, but must take his game to the next level as teams look to exploit him more this season. Beyond those five, Belichick is likely to stick with versatility. Hallen, a free agent pickup from San Diego, is the one guy who could press for playing time at either guard spot or center while Klemm will stay around because he can play guard or tackle. Gorin's ability to play both tackle spots probably keeps him on the roster while Neal could stick around for one last go even though he is strictly a guard.

DEFENSIVE LINE:

Starters: LDE Ty Warren, NT Keith Traylor, RDE Richard Seymour.
Backups: DE Jarvis Green, DE Marquise Hill, NT Vince Wilfork, NT Ethan Kelley.

Potential is the operative word on the defensive front. If Seymour, Warren and Wilfork all play to their first round draft status, the Patriots could have a dominant young defensive line. But that did not happen in the preseason when the group struggled at times. Seymour, a two-time Pro Bowler and 2003 All Pro, is the cream of the crop. He is one of the top defensive linemen in the game and will need to again make a major impact for the Patriots to be successful. He finished last season with 80 tackles, eight sacks and 10 pass deflections. Warren has been up and down this summer after a quiet rookie year while Traylor has shown some growing pains trying to learn the nose tackle spot in his 13th season. Traylor's performance, or that of Wilfork if he plays the nose, will be critical to the Patriots defensive success stopping the run. New England finished fourth in the league last year in run defense, limiting opponents to 89.6 yards per game, but they allowed more than 103 yards per game in the preseason and the track record of defending champions isn't encouraging when it comes to run defense. All of the last five defending champions have allowed more than 12 rushing yards per game more than the previous season and all won less games during their title defense. With Ted Washington and the reliable Bobby Hamilton both gone to Oakland, the defensive line has undergone some changes and remains unproven as a group. Injuries to Dana Stubblefield and Rodney Bailey have forced Wilfork to take some reps at defensive end in the 3-4 and he could definitely see time there as part of the line rotation. Green will play inside in pass rush situations and spell the starters on the end while Kelley is a bubble player who would back up at the nose. Green is trying to build on a solid second season and will be counted on as a regular contributor. Hill has had a quiet rookie training camp and has yet to define a role.

LINEBACKER:

Starters: SOLB Mike Vrabel, SILB Tedy Bruschi, WILB Roman Phifer, WOLB Willie McGinest.
Backups: ILB Ted Johnson, ILB Dan Klecko, ILB Larry Izzo, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, OLB Justin Kurpeikis, OLB Matt Chatham, OLB Don Davis, OLB Rosevelt Colvin.

The linebacking corps is comprised of proven, experienced veteran players capable of playing in a 3-4 or 4-3 front. If Colvin can return to form after breaking his hip last September, the group can be as good as any top to bottom. The biggest concerns might be durability and age, which are probably related. Vrabel, Bruschi, Phifer and McGinest will be the starters with Johnson and Colvin expected to rotate in as Belichick manages play time to keep guys fresh. But of those six regulars, only Vrabel and Colvin are younger than 30 and Colvin is trying to come back from a major injury. Behind them is a dearth of inexperience and special teamers. Izzo has never been a regular defender nor have Chatham or Davis. Chatham will probably start the season on PUP with a leg injury. Klecko is learning to play inside linebacker but isn't like ready to be a contributor there while Banta-Cain and Kurpeikis fight for spots as reserves on the outside and as special teamers. Excluding Colvin, who missed most of last season, the other five regulars had solid seasons when healthy. They combined for 444 tackles, 17 sacks, six interceptions, 29 passes defensed and 11 forced fumbles. Vrabel's 9.5 sacks led the way while Bruschi and Phifer paced the tacklers with 137 and 133, respectively. Johnson and Vrabel both spent time on the sideline with broken bones. McGinest is always one play away from the injury report while Bruschi's all-out style certainly makes him susceptible as well. If this group performs well, it will be labeled experienced. If it doesn't it will be tagged as old.

DEFENSIVE BACKS:

Starters: CB Ty Law, CB Tyrone Poole, S Eugene Wilson, S Rodney Harrison.
Backups: CB Asante Samuel, CB Terrell Buckley, S Dexter Reid, S Je'Rod Cherry, S Shawn Mayer.

The Patriots pass defense has been shaky this summer and part of the reason has been a non-existent pass rush, but the secondary has been surprisingly inconsistent. The group returns its five regular from last year and has added some depth with Buckley and Reid, but would have been deeper were it not for rookie safety Guss Scott's season-ending injury. It will be interesting to see how the point of emphasis on defensive contact in the secondary affects this physical group that thrived in man coverage last season. Law remains a shutdown corner, which means Poole will be targeted often as he was last year. He answered the bell most of the season and tied Law with a club-high six interceptions in 2003. He faltered late in the year and it led to some big plays against a Patriots defense unaccustomed to allowing them. Some of that has carried over into this preseason, which has to have Belichick worried. Wilson spent the whole offseason recovering from a groin injury suffered in the Super Bowl while Harrison also endured rehab from a broken arm suffered in the same game. But those four had terrific seasons in 2003 and will need to repeat that performance for the Patriots to maintain their defensive dominance. Harrison was named All-Pro with 140 tackles, three sacks and three interceptions in 2003, but isn't getting younger while playing a physically demanding position where a player can lose a step quickly and become ineffective. He needs to play with the same sense of urgency and motivation he did last year after being released by the Chargers. Wilson should be better with a year of experience at safety and the same goes for Samuel, who should remain the nickel back. Buckley provides some insurance at corner while Reid has had a decent summer. Cherry and Mayer are exclusively special teamers.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

PK Adam Vinatieri; P Josh Miller; LS Lonie Paxton; H Josh Miller; KOR Bethel Johnson; KOR Patrick Pass; PR Troy Brown, PR Kevin Faulk, PR Terrell Buckley.

Vinatieri is coming off his worst season as a pro after missing a career-high nine field goals last year, but he battled through a back injury that gave him trouble most of the season and remained as clutch as ever in big spots, especially in the playoffs. He is not a concern nor is punting game since Miller has replaced the woeful Ken Walter, who struggled to hit a ball cleanly last year. Miller has had an impressive summer and has experience kicking in cold, windy conditions from his days in Pittsburgh. Brown will not likely be the sole punt returner this year as he gets long in the tooth, but will be called upon when the Patriots are receiving deep in their end. Faulk and Buckley will handle some of those duties, but Brown remains reliable even if he isn't as dangerous as he once was from a big-play standpoint. The Patriots expect to be strong in the kickoff return area with big-play threat Bethel Johnson returning behind an experienced group of special teamers. He led the AFC last year with a 28.2-yard kickoff return average that included a touchdown and several long, field-flipping returns. The Patriots should remain strong in coverage, although that area has been inconsistent in the preseason.

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