After an offseason in which the Patriots were relatively quiet in free agency, the team heads into what could be the most competitive training camp New England has seen in a decade. Much of that competition will come from young players as Bill Belichick and his assistants evaluate the 24 players New England has selected in the last two drafts, including eight players taken in the top-two rounds in the last two years.
Those youngsters - along with a few veteran free agent additions like Torry Holt, Alge Crumpler, Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis -- will be competing for starting jobs as well as roster spots. Conservatively, more than a half dozen starting jobs could be up for grabs this July and August on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium. How those jobs are filled, and how the team's influx of young players develop, will go a long way toward deciding whether the Patriots remain one of the elite teams in the NFL.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Tom Brady. Backups -- Brian Hoyer, Zac Robinson.
Brady bounced back from the knee injury that cost him virtually all of 2008 with a impressive season a year ago. While his clutch efforts late in game weren't up to his high personal standards, statistically he had one of the best years of his career despite battling broken ribs and a finger injury. Though much has been made of his personal life, less-frequent participation in New England's offseason program and unsettled contract situation heading into the final year of his current deal, the expectation is that Brady will be as good as ever. With good reason, No. 12 is has been as consistent as he's been successful in his career having thrown between 23 and 28 touchdowns compared to between 12 and 14 interceptions in six of the seven seasons of his career in which he's started all 16 games. The one exception to those statistical rules? His 50-touchdown, eight-interception effort for the record books in 2007. New England has plenty of questions, but even with his contract situation hovering over the team Brady is not one of them. But the same cannot be said for the backups. Hoyer is a second-year undrafted free agent with a below average arm who threw 27 passes as a rookie. He has more impressive intangibles than physical skills, though, which may be how he held the backup role as a rookie. Robinson is an athletic seventh-round pick.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Laurence Maroney. Backups -- Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Thomas Clayton, Chris Taylor.
Another year in the New England backfield brings the same basic committee approach the team has used to varying degrees of success since Corey Dillon's departure. Maroney led the way with nine touchdowns a year ago but averaged less than 4.0 yards a carry and developed a fumbling problem late in the season. The former first-round pick has never developed into a top talent and is what he is at this point heading into his fifth season. That's why veterans like Taylor and Morris are key fall-back options. The trouble is all three top backs have extensive injury histories, although Maroney actually stayed healthy last fall. All three will likely earn starting assignments throughout the year, as it's unlikely that anyone will be productive or healthy enough to win the starting job outright. Faulk remains a productive force as a third-down back, re-signing with the team for a 12th season in New England after averaging 5.4 yards on the ground and tying for third on the team with 37 receptions last fall. Green-Ellis is a former undrafted free agent who's been productive in his limited chances over two seasons, and he could remain on the roster thanks to the aforementioned injury histories of the top every-down backs on the depth chart.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Alge Crumpler. Backups -- Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Myers.
The practice sqauder Myers is the only holdover, so Brady will have to build summer bonds with his new big-bodied weapons. Crumpler spent the last two seasons as primarily a blocker in Tennessee and has weighed as much as 300 pounds in recent years. He still has the soft hands, though, and relative athleticism that made him a Pro Bowler early in his career in Atlanta and should get his chances in many of New England's multi-tight end sets. Gronkowski and Hernandez are two very potential-filled, but very different rookies. The second rounder Gronkowski is a well-rounded, old-school tight end with the size and strength to succeed as an in-line blocker but also the soft hands and athleticism to be an option in the passing game. A fourth-round pick, Hernandez is more of a true pass catcher coming out of Florida. He will likely line up wide in many of New England's various spread passing sets. He has the ability to make plays after the catch and potentially replaces the type of athleticism that Benjamin Watson (who signed with the Browns) and Daniel Graham offered the offense over the years. The tight end spot is completely overhauled. That makes it a question mark, but one that has the long-term potential to be a real strength of the offense thanks to the complementary skills sets of Gronkowski and Hernandez.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman. Backups -- Torry Holt, Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, David Patten, Sam Aiken, Buddy Farnham, Darnell Jenkins, Matthew Slater.
Moss remains one of the top receivers in the game, coming off a year that drew some criticism despite his 13 touchdowns and 15.2-yard average that was identical to the number he posted in his record-breaking first season in New England. Welker took part in some OTA and mini-camp work despite February surgery to repair torn ACL and MCL suffered in last season's finale. He now appears a legit option to be in action to open the season which is great news for the passing attack as the All-Pro has three-straight 100-catch seasons and hauled in more passes than anyone over the last three years. Moss and Welker complement each other well, but the rest of the depth chart is much more unknown. Holt was solid last season in Jacksonville and retains the smooth route running and hands to be a positive veteran presence. Edelman converted from college quarterback to catch 37 balls as a Welker fill-in as a rookie. He should only improve as another underneath option. Tate and Price are the real wild cards in the group. The two third-round picks over the last two years have great speed and could be options to stretch the field opposite Moss. But Tate missed all but two games of his rookie season to knee injuries and Price comes from a not-so-intricate Ohio passing attack. As much as their physical skills with be key to their immediate futures, both will have to show comfort in the Patriots intricate passing schemes to carve out roles for themselves on the offense. Aiken had a career year (20 catches for 326 yards and two scores) as an extra receiver last fall, but remains primarily a special teams guy. Patten returns to New England after a year out of football and is a long shot to make the roster. Slater is another special teams type, although the former fifth-round pick may be in a real fight for his roster life in his third season.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Matt Light, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, RG Stephen Neal, RT Sebastian Vollmer. Backups -- Nick Kaczur, Mark LeVoir, Dan Connolly, Rich Ohrnberger, Ryan Wendell, George Bussey, Ted Larsen, Thomas Welch, John Wise.
Were it not for Pro Bowl restricted free agent Mankins' contract impasse and trade request, the Patriots would have the type of offensive continuity that teams strive for. But with the former starting right tackle Kaczur sliding inside to fill the likely void left by Mankins' absence and second-year Vollmer taking over at right tackle, there is some change up front. The former All-Pro Light is in the final year of his contract and likely last season protecting Brady's blindside as Vollmer is the future at the position after an impressive rookie season a year ago. Neal contemplated retirement and misses at least a handful of games to injury each year, but he's back as a physical, athletic presence at right guard. Koppen's play has slipped a bit in recent years, but he's a former Pro Bowler. Though it's no certainty that Kaczur can get the job done at guard, and the loss of the line's most consistent, durable, talented player in Mankins will clearly hurt, the greatest competition up front may be for backup roles. Connolly, Ohrnberger, Wendell and Larsen will battle it out as versatile reserves on the inside, while LeVoir would seem to get the nod as a backup swing tackle. Look for a couple of the recent late-round draft picks like Bussey, Welch, Larsen or even the rookie free agent former wrestler Wise to end up in the development program on the practice squad.
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