This offseason has been a busy one for the New England Patriots. Roster turnover is inevitable in the National Football League. However, with several veteran starters leaving as free agents, the Patriots entered last week's mandatory mini-camp with plenty of question marks. Here is a position-by-position analysis of who left and how the Patriots plan to fill the holes:
Departures: Ty Poole
The Patriots experienced a slew of injuries in the secondary for the second straight season in 2005. A new combination of starters was a weekly occurrence, leading to a secondary that was 31st in the league defending the pass. With that in mind, the Patriots appear to be making a pointed effort to add even more depth going into this season. The one player they lost, Poole, couldn't stay healthy during his final two years in New England. One could argue his departure is already a step in the right direction as far as shortening the weekly injury report at cornerback. Poole's absence will be anything but unusual or astonishing.
Veteran cornerback Eric Warfield is a nice addition depth-wise, especially if Ellis Hobbs experiences growing pains. But the biggest signing at cornerback may yet to have been made. The Ty Law rumors seem to grow stronger by the day and the longer he remains without a team, the better the chances New England will be able to sign him. Other than the Patriots, the Kansas City Chiefs appear to be the only team courting Law at this point. New England seemingly has the edge as far as available cap room and local ties. But the Chiefs' new head coach Herm Edwards hasn't been shy about his desire to see Law follow his path from the Jets to the Chiefs. While Law wasn't signed until mid-summer last year, the Chiefs were reportedly close to finalizing a deal with Law early this week, according to Scout sources.
At safety, Jones may be in the running for early season playing time at safety if Rodney Harrison's recovery from knee surgery takes the full year that was estimated when he tore three ligaments last September. Harrison has been doing everything possible to come back sooner, but the Patriots have clearly hedged their bets by signing Jones and drafting Andrews for additional depth. Jones' familiarity with the Patriots defense was likely a determining factor in his signing as a free agent after a disappointing 2005 in Miami.
Second-year safety James Sanders showed promise when he was healthy last season and might be the favorite to play opposite Eugene Wilson if Harrison is unavailable. He demonstrated his play-making ability with his touchdown return in Buffalo and also had some highlight reel-worthy hits.
The veteran McGinest's signing with the Cleveland Browns after 12 years as a Patriot may be felt more in the locker room than on the field. But it will at the very least necessitate the return of Mike Vrabel to a full-time outside linebacker. Vrabel's style is probably more suited to the edge of the defense anyway, but there will be a void in the middle next to Tedy Bruschi that needs to be filled.
Incumbent Monty Beisel likely has the edge to win the starting job at middle linebacker despite a disappointing first season in New England. Beisel showed steady improvement against the run in the second half of the season and has reportedly bulked up an additional 15-20 pounds. This unit was infinitely better when Bruschi returned in Week 8 and probably isn't in as much trouble as some have suggested with the loss of McGinest. Rosevelt Colvin finally looked like the player he was with the Chicago Bears, notching six straight games with a sack at the end of last season.
One player who could be a surprise is Gardner, a former second round pick in 1999. At 6-1, 245 pounds, Gardner has the size to be effective as an inside linebacker, but he played mainly on special teams last season as a New York Jet. His main drawback is his limited experience playing in 3-4 schemes. If his learning curve is as drawn out as Beisel's was last season, Gardner's playing time will be scarce.
Speaking of learning curves, Mincey, the Pats' sixth-round pick out of Florida, will likely be making the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. Mincey played only two full seasons for the Gators and probably won't contribute much this season aside from special teams coverage.
Starters Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren make the defensive line perhaps the most talented unit on the team. Barring injury, it's tough to imagine the Patriots expecting - or needing - too much out of the newcomers. Sullivan seemingly fits into this group well as a fellow first round pick. But Seymour's former teammate at Georgia has not blossomed in the NFL as was expected when he was taken with the sixth overall pick in 2003. Sullivan's 330-pound frame does make him a good backup to nose tackle Wilfork, who came into his own in the second half of last season after an inconsistent start. Smith, a sixth-round pick out of Nebraska, has upside down the road but is unlikely to leapfrog backups Jarvis Green, Marquise Hill and Mike Wright on the depth chart this season.
[Editor's note: UDFA's such as Pierre Woods and other were not included in the additions listing. LB Jeremy Loyd has been released by the team.]
Part Two of this series will review the Partiots offensive changes.
Dave Fletcher is a longtime contributor to Patriots Insider. An accomplished writer and sports analyst, you can find more of his articles by searching for "Dave Fletcher" in the archives on PatriotsInsider.com