Patriots: Final Roster Analysis

Chad Brown and Monty Beisel in New England? Not this year. Junior Seau gets the job. The Patriots have cleaned house in the linebacker corps for better or worse. With so many new players on the roster, the depth chart barely resembles the same lineup from last season, at least at the skill positions. Inside look at the final roster heading into the season.

QUARTERBACK:
Starter: Tom Brady.
Backup: Matt Cassel.
Brady and Cassel were both razor sharp in the preseason, despite missing WRs Deion Branch and rookie Chad Jackson and losing WR David Givens in free agency. Brady spent time in the offseason honing his deep throws but he didn't have much chance to test them out in the preseason games as his most reliable targets were TE Benjamin Watson and WR Troy Brown, hardly a deep threat at age 35. At the top of his game, Brady should benefit further from a more reliable running game this season. His best asset is an ability to see the whole field and take what the defense gives him. His penchant for spreading the wealth will come in handy since his wide receiver options might be limited. Cassel's strong play halted talk of importing a veteran backup.

RUNNING BACKS:
Starter: Corey Dillon.
Backups: Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Heath Evans, Patrick Pass.
Dillon got off to a good start in the first preseason game, but his production waned the next two weeks. Meanwhile, Maroney looked very strong, displaying a good burst and an ability to break tackles. He also caught the ball well in practice, although he hadn't showcased that skill in preseason games yet. Maroney clearly is the future. It's up to Dillon to determine if the future is now or if Maroney's speed and elusiveness will complement, not supplant, Dillon's battering-ram style. Faulk is the veteran third-down specialist with a knack for finding soft spots in the defense and keeping drives alive. He's not an every-down option, which is why Maroney was a necessity with Dillon turning 32 in October. Evans is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield and can provide the beef to move piles in the middle. Patrick Pass is on the PUP for seix weeks.

TIGHT END/H-BACK:
Starters: Benjamin Watson, Dan Graham.
Backups: David Thomas, Garrett Mills.
Perhaps the deepest unit on the team with rookies Thomas and Mills bolstering the Watson-Graham foundation. The Patriots prefer two-tight end sets, and for good reason - both starters are former first-round picks. This is supposed to be Watson's breakout year, and his production in the preseason did nothing to dampen those expectations. Graham's contract expires this season. His hands have improved and he could be more of a pass-catching force - he's never had more than 38 receptions in a season - but the Patriots value his blocking so much that he winds up on the line a lot. Mills is a tight end/fullback hybrid with soft hands. Thomas was Vince Young's favorite target at Texas.

WIDE RECEIVERS:
Starters: Deion Branch, Reche Caldwell.
Backups: Troy Brown, Chad Jackson, Doug Gabriel, Jonathan Smith.
This unit was a mess in the preseason with Branch holding out in a contract dispute, Jackson sidelined by a hamstring injury and Caldwell not stepping up to fill the void. The team made a late move by acquiring Doug Gabriel from Oakland a week before the season opener. Branch is small but lightning quick and even though he hasn't had a 1,000-yard season yet - barely missing with 998 yards a year ago - he has come up huge in the playoffs when Brady needed him most. If Branch isn't in the picture, the passing game might have to rely too much on the tight ends and backs. The ever-reliable Brown will move into the starting lineup until Jackson is ready to return. Smith, acquired days ago has a long road ahead to learn the offense. His contributions will come on special teams where he was a dangerous weapon for Buffalo.

OFFENSIVE LINE:
Starters: LT Matt Light, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, RG Stephen Neal, RT Ryan O'Callaghan.
Backups: OT Nick Kaczur, OG/C Russ Hochstein, OG/C Gene Mruczkowski, OT Wesley Britt.
O'Callaghan, a fifth-round rookie, is the latest success story for a team that seems to find tough, dependable starters every year to replenish departed free agents such as Damien Woody, Joe Andruzzi and, this season, Tom Ashworth. Light (broken right leg) and Koppen (torn left rotator cuff) are back from season-ending injuries a year ago. Koppen, an undersized technician heading for free agency, holds it all together in the middle. Mankins, a first-round pick last year, is a rising star. There's solid depth. Hochstein filled in admirably for Koppen last season, and Kaczur started 11 games as a rookie in place of Light before a lingering shoulder injury allowed O'Callaghan to jump past him this summer. Britt split time with O'Callaghan in camp, but eventually lost out to the rookie in the preseason. Mruczkowski has versatiliy and could be called upon in an emergency at center or guard.

DEFENSIVE LINE:
Starters: LDE Ty Warren, NT Vince Wilfork, RDE Richard Seymour.
Backups: DE Jarvis Green, DE Mike Wright, DE Marquise Hill, NT Johnathan Sullivan, DT Le Kevin Smith.
Talented, young and under contract through at least 2009. That's the story of the starting defensive line, which features three former first-round picks - a future Hall of Famer in Seymour, a quiet workaholic in Warren and future Pro Bowler in Wilfork. Seymour won't rack up big sack totals given the Patriots' two-gapping, 3-4 style, but he's unblockable at times. Look at how the run defense fell apart last season when he missed four games with a knee injury. Wilfork struggled early in 2005 when he was too aggressive. He backed off the ball to give himself more time to make his reads and rediscovered his 2004 rookie form. The coaching staff's confidence in Green allows the Patriots to switch to a 4-3 whenever the mood strikes them. Wright has really come on since going undrafted out of Cincinnati last year. Sullivan, a former first-round bust in New Orleans, isn't guaranteed a roster spot after arriving in an offseason trade. Hill has done little since being drafted by the Patriots in secon round of the 2004 draft. He has the physical tools to be a contributor if he can stay healthy and avoid mental mistakes. Big things are expect of Smith in the future, for now he just has to learn the ropes.

LINEBACKER:
Starters:
LOLB Mike Vrabel, ILB Tedy Bruschi, ILB Junior Seau, ROLB Rosevelt Colvin.
Backups: OLB Tully Banta-Cain, OLB Pierre Woods, ILB,Eric Alexander, ILB Don Davis, ILB Larry Izzo.
Thanks to Bruschi's broken right wrist early in camp, the projected starting four did not play together in the preseason. This is the second year in a row Bruschi hasn't had an exhibition game under his belt. He sat out all of last summer recovering from a stroke. His status for Week 1 is unclear. Seau, a 17-year veteran, was lured out of retirement on Aug. 18 after the coaching staff apparently soured on Beisel, who missed practice time himself. Monty Beisel is gone, so Eric ALexander has to step up his game. Seau, 37, looked good in his first preseason game with the team, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy the past two years. Banta-Cain, a fourth-year pro, has never started a regular-season game, but he had a strong preseason, benefiting from OLB Willie McGinest's free-agent departure. Colvin looks poised to recapture his 10.5-sack days from Chicago. Davis and Izzo are core special team veterans. Brown, 36, re-signed right before camp started but missed almost all of the preseason with a hand injury and lost his spot to Pierre Woods who had an excellent camp and preseason on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS:
Starters: LCB Asante Samuel, RCB Ellis Hobbs, SS Rodney Harrison, FS Eugene Wilson.
Backups: CB/S Chad Scott, CB Randall Gay, S Artrell Hawkins, S James Sanders, S Willie Andrews.
Samuel, not known as a ballhawk over his first two years, became just that down the stretch last season and picked up right where he left off this summer. Hobbs was a breath of fresh air as a supremely confident rookie last year. Now he must avoid the sophomore jinx. He's undersized at 5-9, but he made an immediate statement in his first NFL start by defending back-to-back fade routes in the end zone in the closing seconds of a win in Miami. Harrison's return from a serious knee injury was the best news of the summer. Wilson, a college cornerback, will play the slot in nickel and dime looks. Hawkins and Sanders are the top backups at safety with Jones providing valuable special teams work. Scott, the former Steelers corner, has played safety in sub packages. Gay, a starter by default in Super Bowl XXXIX, appeared to be on the bubble late in the preseason.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Starters: PK Stephen Gostkowski, P Josh Miller, LS Lonie Paxton, KOR Laurence Maroney, PR Kevin Faulk
Unit Analysis: Gostkowski, a rookie, gets the unenviable task of filling Adam Vinatieri's shoes. Vinatieri was a folk hero and Super Bowl legend, so the bar has been set rather high. The Patriots liked Gostkowski's strong leg - on both field goals and kickoffs - coming out of Memphis, and so far he's been what they thought they were getting with their fourth-round draft pick. Miller and Paxton are as reliable as they come. Rookie S/WR Willie Andrews impressed in both return spots, but he wasn't assured of making the roster. Maroney has the speed to be a good kick returner, but Faulk averaged just 6.7 yards per punt return when he had the job in 2004.

PRACTICE SQUAD: DB Antwain Spann, WR Bam Childress, WR Kelvin Kight, LB Corey Mays QB JT O'Sullivan, OG Dan Stevenson, OG Billy Yates Billy, DL Thomas Santonio

IR: S Tebucky Jones, S Mel Mitchell, LB Barry Gardner, WR Matt Shelton

NFLEL/IR: S Ray Ventrone, Earl Charles, WR Zuriel Smith

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