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2008 Team Report: New England Patriots

Quarterbacks

Starter: Tom Brady
Backup(s): Matt Cassel, Kevin O'Connell [R]

Starting QB: Tom Brady had a season for the ages last year eclipsing his personal best in all major passing categories. Brady posted videogame-like totals including 398 completions, 4,806 passing yards and 50 passing TDs, good for fifth, third and first all time, respectively. Certainly people have to wonder what he can do for an encore. New England returns just about everyone on offense save WR Donte' Stallworth, whose role had greatly diminished by season's end anyway. Brady saw his pass protection break down as the season progressed, and the Patriots saw their scoring drop from 41 ppg in their first 10 games to 27 ppg over their last nine games. Still, Brady's numbers should be among the best in the league. If everything clicks with a seemingly easy schedule -- and if the team shies away from the run again -- he could make a run at whatever records he failed to set last year.

Backup QB: With Brady having played in 128 straight games, the Patriots really don't know how effective their offense would be with anyone else guiding the team. Matt Cassel could be capable of moving the chains, but he has only thrown 39 passes in his three years with the team. Surprise third-round pick Kevin O'Connell from San Diego State appears to be a work in progress. The team hopes he will either develop into a capable backup to Brady, or that he could show enough to be traded to a quarterback-starved team for a future draft pick.

Running Backs

Starter: Laurence Maroney
Backup(s): Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, LaMont Jordan
Fullback(s): Heath Evans, Kyle Eckel

Starting RB: Predicting what will happen with the New England running game will be one of the greatest challenges of the upcoming season. The Patriots almost completely abandoned the run at times last year, at one point having just a single rushing attempt in the first half in one of their games. Laurence Maroney should get the majority of the workload with Sammy Morris also getting his share of carries if healthy. Maroney accounted for 820 total yards and eight TDs over his final eight games including the postseason, and was a centerpiece of the offense down the stretch. He showed more burst and capability than he had early on and seemed to kick into another gear just when the Pats needed him.

Backup RBs: With Maroney recovering from injuries early last season, Sammy Morris split the rushing workload almost evenly with Maroney. Morris had a couple of 100-yard rushing games before succumbing to a season-ending chest injury. With Maroney healthier and playing a bigger role late in the season, Morris likely won't see as big a chunk of the workload this time around. Veteran Kevin Faulk will again man the backfield in passing situations. He spent much more time on the field last year than in other seasons and has mastered the ability to get just enough yardage to eke out a first down in critical situations. LaMont Jordan has a chance to make the team but he'll have to impress in training camp and also prove his versatility on special teams.

Fullback: New England rarely uses a fullback except in short-yardage situations, which last year was not very often). Both Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel will get an occasional burst up the middle or short TD plunge, but they will never see much more than a carry or two unless Maroney and Morris are both dinged up.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney
Backups: Kelley Washington, Sam Aiken

Starting WRs: Like Tom Brady, Randy Moss had a season for the ages, setting an all-time record with 23 receiving TDs while also posting the most fantasy points in a season for a wide receiver. The Brady and Moss connection was almost unstoppable most of the season, although it was nowhere near as potent in the postseason. Moss should still be an elite receiver in 2008. The acquisition of Wes Welker proved to be almost as important, as Welker set a team record with 112 receptions. With Moss drawing double coverage downfield, the diminutive Welker feasted on underneath routes in the slot, taking four-yard dump-off passes for another eight to 10 yards. Heading into the season, Gaffney is tabbed to line up opposite Moss as a regular starter since the Patriots use a lot of three-receiver sets. He's made some timely catches and runs reliable routes, but it's unclear if the team really considers him an every-down player.

Backup WRs: Kelley Washington wasn't the best backup receiver in camp, but he was the best special teams player at the position and that helped him outlast Chad Jackson to make the 53-man roster. Sam Aiken is another surprise, he would be in line to play more of a possession role backing up Wes Welker if the need arises.

Tight Ends

Starters: Ben Watson
Backups: David Thomas, Stephen Spach

Ben Watson has been a decent contributor when healthy, but he has been a bit of a disappointment overall. Watson still is a big body with great speed, but he's missed time in all four seasons he's played and has struggled with dropped passes on occasion. Like other years, he could be in line for a big season if everything aligns properly, but that has yet to happen. Weathered veteran Marcus Pollard was signed this offseason but subsequently waived. David Thomas has also been nicked up and the team previously had plans to use him as a hybrid tight end, H-Back and fullback, but he's seen so little action that he will have to earn playing time.

Place Kicker

Stephen Gostkowski : As a rookie in 2006, Gostkowski hit 20 of 26 (76.9%) on field goals and 43 of 44 on PATs, although two of the missed field goals and the missed PAT were blocked. He hit 3 of 5 on 40+ yard field goals. Last year he improved on field goals, hitting 21 of 24 (87.5%). He once again hit 3 of 5 on 40+ yard field goals, but fared much better on shorter kicks this time, missing only once from under 40 yards. Gostkowski has done very well on kickoffs, averaging 64.9 yards with 12 and 15 touchbacks. After finishing 19th in kicker scoring in 2006, the Patriots jumped back up to second last year thanks to their ridiculous number of touchdowns. That will be nearly impossible to replicate.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Ellis Hobbs; Wes Welker; Matt Slater; Terrence Wheatley; Kevin Faulk; Laurence Maroney

As usual, the Patriots have a vast array of experienced and quite capable options for the return game. CB Ellis Hobbs took over the starting role late in 2006. He was the primary kickoff returner last year (35 returns, 26.0 avg.) and set the NFL record for longest kickoff return with a 108 yard TD. Hobbs had two off-season surgeries (torn labrum and sports hernia). WR Wes Welker handled almost all of the returns for the Dolphins from 2004 to 2006. Last year with the Patriots he averaged 25.1 yards on seven returns. Fifth round draft pick WR Matt Slater scored 3 TDs on 34 kickoff returns for UCLA last year. His 29.0 yard average ranked 12th in the NCAA. Second round draft pick CB Terrence Wheatley averaged 24.8 yards on 37 returns for Colorado last year. Versatile RB Kevin Faulk had an impressive year in 2002 (27.9 avg., 2 TDs), although his numbers have since dropped off (2 returns, 23.5 avg. last year). RB Laurence Maroney was the starter the first part of 2006 (28 returns, 28.0 avg.).

Punt Returners: Wes Welker; Kevin Faulk

Although Wes Welker handled both return roles for the Dolphins, his strength was punt returns. He handled the majority of the punts for the Patriots last year (25 returns, 10.0 avg.). Kevin Faulk led the team in 2004 (20 returns, 6.7 avg.) and in 2006 (31 returns, 10.6 avg.). The Patriots slipped to 12th in fantasy returns last year after having ranked 5th in 2006.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Matt Light, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, RG Billy Yates, RT Nick Kaczur
Key Backups: Wesley Britt, Steve Neal [PUP], Russ Hochstein

Commentary coming soon.

Team Defense

It's extremely difficult for a defense to remain at the top of the fantasy game over a long period of time. Year after year the Patriots roster is raided during free agency yet they always seem to fill the holes with bargain priced veteran contributors and quality draft picks who continue to get the job done. The '07 defense was once again near the top in most important categories. The pass defense improved to No. 6, the run D was top-10, they put up a very respectable 31 takeaways, only three clubs surrendered fewer points and only the Giants recorded more sacks. The club faced some challenges this offseason including an aging LB corps and the loss of Pro-Bowl corner Asante Samuel. Free agency landed a pair of veteran corners with starting experience in Fernando Bryant and Jason Webster, plus a young linebacker in Victor Hobson who already has experience in the scheme and will step right in. They further addressed needs by going LB, CB and LB with their first three draft picks then added another corner and linebacker in later rounds. Positions that once seemed like weaknesses are suddenly both talented and deep. Simply put, the Patriots were a top-three defense in any scoring system last season and there is no reason to think they will fall short of the top five in '08.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Richard Seymour, NT Vince Wilfork, DE Ty Warren
Backups: DE Jarvis Green, DT Mike Wright, DT LeKevin Smith

Starting DL: The defensive line continues to be the strength of the Patriots defense. Richard Seymour is one of the best defensive linemen in the league when healthy, but he's consistently underwhelming as a fantasy option. He commands frequent double teams, which limit his tackle and sack numbers, and he's also coming off a season in which he missed half the year with a knee injury. Vince Wilfork does a great job of tying up blockers and keeping the linebackers free to make plays, but he also makes a fair amount of plays himself. He is a low-risk player whose production has improved slightly every year he's been in the league. Ty Warren is a durable player who enjoyed a breakout season in 2006 before regressing back to his career average last year. He should remain a decent source of tackles but has limited upside as a pass rusher in this defense, which hurts his fantasy value.

Backup DL: Although technically a backup, Jarvis Green probably sees just as many snaps as most starters. He's proven to be the Patriots best pass rushing lineman with 14 sacks over the past two years and allows the team to move Seymour inside to DT when they line up in a 4-3 front. The rest of the Patriots key backups are young and untested. LeKevin Smith was a 6th round pick in 2006 who appeared in 13 games last year and will likely be the primary backup at NT. Mike Wright entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2005 and has been a key reserve ever since.

Linebackers

Starters: OLB Mike Vrabel, ILB Tedy Bruschi, ILB Jerod Mayo, OLB Adalius Thomas
Backups: OLB Shawn Crable [R], ILB Eric Alexander, OLB Pierre Woods

Starting LBs: Like most Patriots, Mike Vrabel is extremely versatile. After spending some time as an inside linebacker, he was moved back to his natural position of OLB last year and responded with the best season of his career, earning his first Pro Bowl and All Pro nods. Tedy Bruschi has been a leader on the Patriots defense for many years, but he's clearly on the downside of his career at this point. To keep him from wearing down, the Patriots frequently use a 3-man rotation at ILB, which limits their production and also makes them inconsistent from week to week. Adalius Thomas signed a huge contract to join the Patriots a year ago, but he wound up playing too many snaps inside and his production suffered. Some reinforcements were brought in this year to upgrade the depth inside, which should allow Thomas to move back to his more natural position of OLB and be turned loose as a playmaker. The Patriots hadn't taken a LB before the 5th round in any draft under Belichick, but that all changed this year. They broke the seal by selecting Jerod Mayo, the best ILB available, with the 10th pick overall. Mayo has good size and was extremely productive in college, and with the release of Victor Hobson is looks like Mayo will be thrown into the lineup immediately.

Backup LBs: The Patriots followed up that pick by selecting Shawn Crable in round 3. Crable has excellent measurables and should be able to contribute as a situational pass rusher early on. Eric Alexander is a former practice squad player who has developed into a valuable reserve and special teams player. He collected 10 solo tackles in his only career start, which came in the 2006 AFC Championship game against the Colts. Pierre Woods is a very good athlete who led the team in special teams tackles last year.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Rodney Harrison, FS James Sanders, CB Ellis Hobbs, CB Lewis Sanders
Backups: FS Brandon Meriweather, SS Tank Williams, CB Terrence Wheatley [R], CB Deltha O'Neal

Starting DBs: Rodney Harrison has battled injuries in recent years and probably doesn't have much time left at 35 years old. He did collect 11 solo tackles in the Super Bowl, however, and should provide some decent production as long as he can stay healthy. James Sanders was known as a big hitter coming out of college, but he's developed into a solid 2-way safety. He will likely be Harrison's eventual successor at SS and could be a very nice fantasy sleeper this year. Asante Samuel signed a huge free agent contract to join the Eagles and Randall Gay left to sign with the Saints, which leaves Ellis Hobbs as the team's uncontested new #1 CB. Hobbs doesn't have ideal size and struggled against Plaxico Burress in the Super Bowl loss, but he's an aggressive corner who could see a slight boost in his numbers if the Patriots decide to match him up against the opponent's best WR each week. Lewis Sanders is a CB with ideal size who also brings starting experience, having started 25 games since entering the league as a 4th round pick of the Texans in 2002.

Backup DBs: Brandon Meriweather was a 1st round pick out of Miami last year who should compete for playing time at free safety and nickel back. He is a very talented player with excellent speed and cover skills. Tank Williams was a productive SS early in his career with the Titans, but he didn't make much of an impact in Minnesota last year after spending 2006 on IR with a knee injury. The Patriots addressed their need for CB help with the selection of Terrence Wheatley at the end of round 2. Wheatley is a great athlete with sub 4.40 speed who intercepted 14 passes during his last 3 years at Colorado who could be pressed into action right away, but like most rookies he'll probably need some time to develop. Deltha O'Neal quickly signed with New England following his release by Cincinnati. O'Neal got his reputation in the league as a ball hawk, which is exactly what the Patriots need right now.

Last modified: 2008-09-01 22:59:08

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