New England Patriots
By Justin Mertes-Mistretta
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Despite finishing the 2010 regular season with a record of 14-2, the Patriots were eliminated by the Jets in the divisional round of the playoffs. It marked the second-straight year New England finished atop the AFC East only to go one-and-done in the playoffs.
The league's Most Valuable Player last year, Tom Brady, was extremely efficient, throwing 36 touchdowns to just four interceptions. What's more, he did most of his damage without his projected top target, Randy Moss, who was abruptly traded after Week 4. The Patriots certainly didn't have a shortage of pass-catching options in the wake of Moss' departure however, with Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski on hand. However, the lack of a deep threat eventually caught up with them in the playoffs as the Jets were able to pressure Brady, sacking him five times and forcing him to throw his first interception since Week 6.
The team addressed the need for a No. 1 receiver, trading for Chad Ochocinco. At age 33, the former Bengal receiver has his fair share of doubters, saying that "85" has lost a step. However, with all due respect to Carson Palmer, he has never played with a quarterback as talented as Brady. Ochocinco may not produce Randy Moss-like numbers circa '07, but he has a golden opportunity to revive his production in New England.
Along with an improved passing attack, the Patriots added depth to their backfield in the draft, taking Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in the second and third round respectively. Per usual with coach Bill Belichick running the show, the team's leading rusher may be different every week for the Patriots.
The defense may have improved just as much as the offense, as the Pats bolstered their run defense by adding the underachieving Albert Haynesworth from Washington and former Jets' pass rusher Shaun Ellis. The duo will join a defense that returns Pro Bowlers Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, cornerback Devin McCourty and safety Brandon Meriweather. Haynesworth and Ellis will be counted on to improve the pass rush, especially on third downs, an area where the Patriots finished dead last year. Belichick has also implemented a new defensive scheme early in training camp, switching from a 3-4, two-gap defense to a 4-3 front.
The Patriots face a brutal mid-season schedule, playing the Jets (twice), Cowboys, Steelers and Giants over a six-week span. However, this is the Patriots we are talking about. With Belichick moving the chess pieces and Brady motivated to snap his three-game playoff losing streak, the Patriots are once again favorites to finish atop the AFC East.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (17) Nate Solder, OL, Colorado
The former tight end has a ton of athleticism and should develop into an anchor for the front line for years to come.
2. (33) Ras-I Dowling, CB, Virginia
Dowling was the leader in interceptions and passes broken up in his first two seasons at Virginia.
2. (56) Shane Vereen, RB, California
The versatile back joins a crowded backfield but health permitting, could see immediate time on third-downs as a pass-catcher.
3. (73) Stevan Ridley, RB, LSU
The Patriots muddled their backfield even further by taking Ridley, who could take goal-line carries away from BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
3. (74) Ryan Mallet, QB, Arkansas
Fell in the draft due to off-field concerns, but he has the size and arm strength to succeed at the next level.
5. (138) Marcus Cannon, OT, TCU
Needs work on his fundamentals and technique, but he is a natural run-blocker with size and a ton of raw talent.
5. (159) Lee Smith, TE, Marshall
With tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski catching passes, Smith will do most of his work as a blocker.
6. (194) Markell Carter, LB, Central Arkansas
He played defensive end in a 4-3 scheme in college, but figures to play outside linebacker at the NFL.
7. (219) Malcolm Williams, CB, TCU
He was a backup in college, but the Pats liked what they saw from Williams at TCU's Pro Day.
Chad Ochocinco, WR (Bengals)
Belichick has made a living bringing in underachieving players only to see them resurrect their careers. Expect a similar outcome for Ochocinco.
Albert Haynesworth, DT (Redskins)
Motivation seemed to be the main problem in Washington. An opportunity to hoist the Lombardi trophy should be all he needs to re-focus in his new digs.
Shaun Ellis, DE (Jets)
Belichick will try anything he can to get the upper hand on the Jets, including signing their second all-time leader in sacks.
Ty Warren, DE (Broncos)
The run-stopper signed with Denver only to tear his triceps halfway through training camp.
Alge Crumpler, TE (FA)
With Hernandez and Gronkowski at tight end, there was little need for Crumpler, who is a shell of the pass catcher he once was.
Shayne Graham, K (FA)
Filled in nicely for the injured Stephen Gostkowski last season, hitting all 12 of his field goal attempts.
MALCONTENT OR SUPERSTAR?
Albert Haynesworth has a troubled past, most notably his cleat-stomping incident in Tennessee. He also was all over headlines last year for his failed physical after signing a seven-year, $100 million deal with the Redskins. We all know how that ended. Was it the lack of motivation or the deterioration of skills that held Haynesworth back? Bill Belichick figured it was worth a two-year, $8.7 million roll of the dice to find out.
While Chad Ochocinco hasn't been a "troublemaker" off the field, he certainly makes his fair share of noise, literally. Chad likes to chatter, which should be entertaining when the Pats play the Jets. The trash-talking is fun and all when Ochocinco is producing, but last year he was unable to back up his talk on the field. That is expected to change in New England, with a winning environment and Tom Brady throwing his way.
CAN BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS REPRODUCE HIS CAREER YEAR?
The Law Firm broke the 1,000-yard rushing yard mark for the first time in his three-year career and led the Patriots with 13 rushing touchdowns. So why is his ADP falling? While his numbers last year were impressive, they came in a year where Tom Brady had his fewest number of pass attempts (492) since 2005 (not including his injury-shortened 2008 season). That number is sure to rise in 2011 with the addition of Chad Ochocinco. To make BJGE's outlook even worse, is the fact that the Patriots decided to add more depth to an already crowded backfield, drafting Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. The latter is a serious threat to steal goal-line carries from Green-Ellis, a possibility demonstrated by his three-touchdown performance in the preseason opener. Green-Ellis could still have a few multi-touchdown games, something he did three times in 2010, but good luck guessing which weeks that will happen.
DEFENSE ON THE RISE
Once labeled as aging and lacking in athleticism, the Patriots' defense is now quite the opposite with promising young talents in Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Brandon Meriweather. The addition of Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis, joining Vince Wilfork and Gerrard Warren, provides a fierce frontline that will be a force to reckon with in 2011. If the team's pass-rush can improve some this year, this is a group that could be deep enough to propel a long post-season run.
Rising: Chad Ochocinco may not break double-digit touchdowns, but he will rack up the yards and catches with Brady throwing to him.
Declining: A crowded backfield and more pass attempts likely with the signing of Ochocinco, means that BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be hard-pressed to repeat his numbers from last year.
Sleeper: Ochocinco may be the weapon the Patriots need in order to stretch the field, but Aaron Hernandez will still be heavily targeted up the middle between the 20s.
Supersleeper: With Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead battling for catches out of the backfield, Stevan Ridley has double-digit touchdown potential, splitting goal line duties with BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Jerod Mayo, LB
Last year's top IDP linebacker with 175 total tackles.
Patrick Chung, S
Enjoyed a breakout season in 2010 with 94 tackles (72 solo) in just 14 games.
Devin McCourty, CB
Led all rookies with seven interceptions in 2010.
RotoWire Rank: 10