DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Ty Warren, NT Vince Wilfork, RDE Gerard Warren. Backups -- Mike Wright, Damione Lewis, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, Darryl Richard, Kade Weston, Brandon Deadrick, Adrian Grady, Kyle Love.
Wilfork got a $40 million deal to remain the centerpiece of the 3-4 front. He had a great season a year ago as the team's most consistent, effective defender. He even showed the ability to move from nose to end out of necessity on occasion. Ty Warren remains a solid player on the left side, especially against the run. After trading Richard Seymour last September, New England never successfully filled the right end spot. Teams would run over the now departed Jarvis Green and Wright. Wright is a tremendously versatile, hard working backup option, but his production diminishes as an every-down player. Gerard Warren has been a starter everywhere he's played, and likely will be again in New England as a free agent addition. Another free agent addition, Lewis could be in a battle for a roster spot with second-year players Pryor and Brace as well as rookies Weston and Deaderick. A sixth-round pick a year ago, Pryor played far more regularly than his second-round draft mate Brace. The former showed more versatility and picked up the system faster as a rookie, while the latter struggled to earn his way on the field and got pushed around way too often once he did get some playing time late in the year.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- ILB Jerod Mayo, ILB Gary Guyton, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, OLB Derrick Burgess. Backups -- ILB Tyrone McKenzie, ILB Brandon Spikes, OLB Pierre Woods, OLB Shawn Crable, OLB Marques Murrell, OLB Rob Ninkovich, OLB Jermaine Cunningham, ILB Eric Alexander, ILB Thomas Williams, ILB Dane Fletcher.
The former rookie of the year and captain Mayo is the focal point of a questionable linebacking corps that's clearly in transition. He's the leader of the unit thanks to back-to-back 100-tackle seasons to open his career, although he needs to make more big plays to take the next step as a player. The other inside linebacker spot could be up for grabs, despite Guyton starting all 16 games there last season. More of a speedy, athletic player than an ideal 3-4 run stuffer, Guyton could slide into a sub role if either Spikes or McKenzie can win the starting job. Spikes was the heart and soul of the defense in his time at Florida, but he fell to the second round in this year's draft thanks to questions about his speed. A third-round pick last year, McKenzie tore his ACL in rookie mini-camp and missed the entirety of his rookie season. Both offer more physical styles and stoutness than Guyton can. Williams' versatility as a linebacker, special teamer and part-time fullback could keep him in the mix for a roster spot on the inside, while Alexander's days as a young, special teams contributor may be ending. Banta-Cain is the leader of the group on the outside after recording 10 sacks last fall in his return to New England. Banta-Cain evolved into an every-down linebacker by the end of last season, but in reality all the jobs and roles are open for competition on the outside. Burgess was a non-factor and disappointment after landing in New England via trade a year ago, notching five of the more forgettable sacks of the season. After seeing little interest in free agency he's back on another one-year deal and it's possible that a season in the system will help him out. Beyond that it's up to a variety of young players on the outside, including the second-round pick Cunningham, Crable, Woods and Ninkovich. Cunningham looks the part and has all the skills required, but given the endless requirement of an outside linebacker it may take time for him to get acclimated. Crable has two seasons of IR under his belt and nothing more. The former third-round pick will have to put up this summer or could very well be sent packing. Woods started five games last fall, but entering his fifth season the former undrafted player hasn't developed into much of a playmaker or reliable option on the edge.
Note: Crable was released by the team, but could possibly return in the future. (7/28/10)
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- RCB Leigh Bodden, LCB Darius Butler, S Brandon Meriweather, S Patrick Chung. Backups -- S James Sanders, S Brandon McGowan, CB Jonathan Wilhite, CB Devin McCourty, CB Terrence Wheatley, CB Kyle Arrington, DB Bret Lockett, S Sergio Brown, DB Terrence Johnson, DB Ross Ventrone.
The bulk of the depth chart at defensive back remains the same as a year ago, save for the release of veteran Shawn Springs. But there is plenty of competition for both starting jobs and playing time. At safety Meriweather went to his first Pro Bowl as an alternate, tying for the team lead with five interceptions. He's an athletic playmaker, but his consistency both in coverage and as a tackler leaves much to be desired. The other safety job will be a battle between the 2009 second-round pick Chung and the veterans Sanders and McGowan. The latter pair split the duties a year ago, but Chung took the bulk the practice reps this spring at the spot. He's the most athletic of the trio and offers the most upside, but it's questionable whether he'll be ready to take over after seeing limited playing time as a rookie. If not, Sanders offers the stability and experience of having started 41 games in his career in New England, even if he's somewhat limited physically and as a playmaker. McGowan had an impressive first season with the Patriots last fall, surprisingly starting 11 games as a physical presence. Either guy could be called on at any point. At corner, Bodden re-signed and is the team's top corner. He picked off five passes in his first season as a Patriot last fall and is a solid if not top-notch veteran corner. Butler had a solid rookie season as a second-round pick, intercepting three passes and showing impressive balls skills while starting five of 14 games. He appears poised to slide into the starting lineup on a full-time basis in 2010. That will leave former starter Wilhite, injury-prone 2008 second-round pick Wheatley and this year's top pick, McCourty, battling for reserve roles. Though he began last season penciled in as a starter, Wilhite may actually be better suited for a sub role in the slot. McCourty should see the field early on in nickel or dime packages, though he won't be thrown to the proverbial wolves. Wilhite may be fighting for his New England career after landing on IR in each of the last two years. Arrington and Lockett will battle it out for reserve and special teams roles, an area where the former excelled last season with 17 tackles in just eight games.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Zoltan Mesko, LS Jake Ingram.
Two of New England's three specialist roles are pretty set with young, proven talent. Gostkowski is an established All-Pro caliber talent at this point as a guy with a strong leg for both field goals and kickoffs. Ingram took over as a rookie a year ago for the departed legend Lonie Paxton and was virtually flawless on his snaps. The biggest question comes at punter, though, where fifth-round rookie will try to prove himself the next in the line of kicking game draft picks to latch onto a job. He's the only punter on the roster, but struggled in spring practice with his consistency as he tweaks his mechanics from those that helped him become a team captain at Michigan. He clearly has an NFL leg, but he'll have to improve his accuracy and situational work to earn Belichick's confidence.
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Breaking Down the Patriots Roster: Defense
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