February 27, 2009
Looking Forward…It's a Good Thing to Do
By:  Stan Jaksina
PatsFans.com Fan Columnist

This is what the Patriots have done in the past weeks and changes are still being made preparing the front office and coaching ranks for the upcoming campaign. There has been a lot of interesting moved by teams and some coaches fallen have been a surprise, Shanahan and Dungy leading that pack. It was no surprise that Mangini was ejected from the Big appple, but a bit of one when he landed in Cleveland.

With the departure of Pioli and McDaniels, as well as Capers, Seely and Mangurian, the team has needed to make some moves. The largest hole to fill is that of Pioli who has been CoachB's right hand man for years. I think it is no coincidence that this past year, Nic Caserio moved from on the field coaching, back to the front office, possibly with the idea that Pioli might be leaving, so that he could be ready to step in, in time. He has been in scouting, coaching as well as more time in the front office. Seeing the operation from many angles, I think will help him a great deal. Also, to help out, the Pats brought in Floyd Reese, who was with the Titans for many years. It seems like he will be working more with contracts than anything else. Just this week they brought back Jason Licht, who was with the team for four years, ending in 2002. I remember when he left to join the Eagles and at that time, many thought it was a large loss. He understands scouting and what teams are looking for and having his eyes back will only help the larger picture in the front office. Between him, Reese and Cesario, I think things will be just fine. As always, the Patriots do work as a collective, both in the front office as well as with the coaching and to me it's always a strength. Doing things in that manner has worked for this team and provides a real continuity over the years.

As for the departure of four coaches, the Pats have made moves to fill the vacancies. Looking at the moves the Patriots made coaching wise, they brought in vet special teams coach Scott O'Brien, who coached for BB in Cleveland. Another O'Brien, Bill will move to quarterback's coach and will have a large hand in the offense, possibly the way Josh did that first year. He has an intensity and a tough attitude that should in time move him to the coordinator spot. The defensive back coach is Josh Boyer, who has been an assistant the last few years. He has worked with Pees at Kent State and will fill in nicely on that side of the ball. Shane Waldron who was also an assistant was promoted to tight end coach and just this week the team brought in Kevin O'Shea to coach wide receivers. He's been with the Chiefs and Vikings staff and before that seven years in the college ranks. They also hired Patrick Graham as an assistant. He's an interesting one as he has a degree from Yale and has been at several colleges, coaching in all areas of the game. He will be joining Brian Flores, who has been a scout as well as an assistant before. One thing is certain; the team has a lot of young, fresh blood in the coaching staff and this will be quite an interesting mix of the vet coaches and others who are learning.

As free agency approaches, there is more to look at as the team can make many moves. This is the time for all the arm chair GMs to come forward and give their two cents as to who and why the team should sign a particular player. Take a look at who is available and it's a question mark. Do the Pats sign him? Will he fit in with the team? Luckily, this organization has done a very credible job with bringing players in. That does not mean that there are no misses, but they have done just fine over the years. So will xxxx be a good player for them, a good pick up? Only time will tell what they do and if the moved they do not make is the best one. That does happen sometimes as well.

It is hard to sometimes judge what kind of players to add to a roster. There are cases where it's more a player for player swap, as in the case of a running back for Jordan or a wide receiver for Gaffney. Other times, there are multiple positions and special team use, so it's a lot harder to really compare one with the other. There is also a look to the future with younger players and that is what is the hardest for those on the fan sideline. As one views the players that are young and with little playing time, it's the coaches that evaluate and rate and look into the future to see if they can make the step forward. That is what is important to these players' future with the team. With some they may have a good idea about upside, but with others, it may be difficult at best. Many trained eyes see what they do and get an idea of intangibles and that plays a lot into it. If one looks at the combine, the number of players there and the amount of evaluation that goes on, it is amazing how despite that, the draft is just a crap shoot. When one starts to understand how hard it is to really get a handle on it, one can really appreciate how this is ore an art than any science. A player may look bad in a particular drill or even on the field and still may turn out to be an all pro. On the other hand, there are workout warriors that do great in the combine and who turn out to be a bust in the NFL. It's a very inexact.

Already, there have been some moves made. Cassel has been franchised, which was little surprise given his play and Brady's injury. While it is looking more TomB will be ready to return on schedule, locking in Cassel is insurance for the team. They also have cut special teams star and receiver Kelly Washington and backup lineman Billy Yates, although the latter re-signed with a different contract. They have also signed ex-Patriot linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and tight end/fullback Brad Listorti. who could add to the special teams mix. They are interested in RBs Taylor and McCalister and I am sure will be quietly active moving forward in adding to the roster.

On the surface all looks good and I really think the team is strong, even now. They are fine with quarterbacks and close in many areas. The area that really needs work is the defensive backfield, especially at safety. Young, very thin and with little experience, sort of sums up the backfield as it exists now. The good news is that they will be even better as they head into training camp with eighty players competing. Having a strong force going into camp will mean that the final roster will be deep and tough and that is what is needed, for the season is long and a real marathon and injuries can force so many twists to the fifty three.

Let's take a look at the current roster, with those that were on the team, free agents, cut etc. The ones on the roster are first. After the dashes are those that were on the team.

QB---(Brady, Cassel (fran), O'Connell, Gutierrez---none) This might be the strongest and most readied position. If Brady is ready to go, Cassel will be traded. Both O'Connell and Gutierrez will be backing him up. If neither is really ready for that back up role, a vet could be brought in. If Brady is not ready, the team has Cassel, so either way the QB situation is taken care of. The downside to the team having both is that they could be hampered a bit, money wise, but if that is not the case, they will get good compensation for him and have money to extend or spend for some quality players. I do not think the team will be greedy at all, but I do expect a shrewd move to get a pick and a player or maybe two high picks, one this year, one the next. The fact that the quarterbacks in the draft are not shining only ups his value.

RB---(Morris, Faulk, Green-Ellis, Maroney---Evans, Jordan) They are almost set with reliable vet Faulk as the 3rd down back and Morris and Maroney to carry the load. I think all wish to see Maroney injury free and able to get in the open outside more, as he did in his rookie season. Evans wishes to stay a Patriot and will be a tough short yardage back and blocker. Green-Ellis will develop and hopefully step into more of a role in the next years. Jordan will not be back, but already there is talk of a Fred Taylor or Deuce McCalister coming in and that will only make this group of backs stronger. There is also the possibility that younger backs will be added, to develop, as Faulk is getting a bit older and soon, a replacement will be needed, so he can mentor. I think Green-Ellis will stick in some form as he's a smart tough runner, who may not get the breakaway runs, but gets tough yardage inside and hardly ever loses yards. It's always better to have a larger group as running backs get dinged up and a solid ground game will only enhance the air attack.

WR---(Moss, Welker, Aiken, Slater---Gaffney, Washington (cut,) Price (sgn SF) The team has two of the best in Moss and Welker and the real issue is if Gaffney will be back or if another who is better will be added. I do think Jabar's return would be nice, but to think that another might not fill the bill is not way out of possibility. Aiken is a top special teams player, possibly the captain if Izzo does not return, and a very credible fourth receiver. He might not have all that much experience, but he made a few key plays on offense last year. Because of his cap number, special teams play and that he is a bit better receiver, Washington was expendable. Slater is one who can play multiple positions and will only get better as time goes on. He and Ventrone really help the depth issues with their triple threat possibilities. Price signed with San Fran, so, it looks like they will bring in some young wideouts for the future. Given how they have had trouble with high picks, I would think a day two or undrafted free agent might be the way they will go. I also think another vet could be brought in as the team has not had injury problems in the position, but should be ready just in case. Having one or two on the shadow roster is always helpful.

TE---(Watson, DThomas, DeVree, Listorti---none) Watson's blocking has improved, but he is not the tough hard nosed receiver that many thought he would be. There have been just too many drops for that. He's not bad, in fact he is very good, but just not where many projected him as a first round pick. Thomas was the go to guy in Texas and has shown flashes of being a solid receiver, but he'll need to take his receiving skills a step up. DeVree was a rookie and Listorti may as well be in the mix to play special teams and have a role. The team has four in the position, but it is not a very strong group. They do not have a sure handed receiver nor one who can block like a tackle that can really help the running game. For that reason, I do think they may moves to really bolster this area. There is some work to be done and maybe one of the three younger players can develop and step up this year.

OL---(Koppen, Connolly, Neal, Kaczur, Wendell, Light, Mankins, LeVoir, O'Callaghan, Yates (cut/re-signd)---Hochstein, Britt (RFA-not tendered), Stokes ) The team has ten already signed. Light, Mankins, Koppen, Neal and Kaczur are a solid five. They like Connolly on the inside as he was signed to the 53 late in the year to guarantee a spot moving forward. Yates was cut and re-signed, so he will be in the mix in the interior. O'Callaghan is young and has had injuries, but LeVoir looks like an interesting one to possible step up in the future. Wendell is young and might be in the mix in time. Hochstein could return in a backup role where he is solid, but they may go for a younger, cheaper solution. Britt was not tendered but could return, but with LeVoir's play, more a back seat. Stokes is older and it is doubtful if he will be back. Given the strength of this group, I do think if they have a chance to draft a solid tackle, they may make that move. Another interior lineman is also a possibility. Making this unit younger and stronger, in time, is part of the process and while it is not a priority, I could see a step in that direction in the draft and with undrafted free agents.

DL---(Seymour, Warren, JGreen, TAdams, Wilfork, LSmith---KSmith, Wright) The team has three of the best in the game, Seymour, Warren and Wilfork and JarvisG is a top notch fourth lineman, even though this past year was not one of his best. With so many contracts up, they may be looking to add a stud into the mix or find better value with a pass rusher. LSmith is making a move up and showing progress and Adams could do the same in a year or so. I do hope they will sign Wright as he adds a different style to the nose position and has been getting better as the years go on. Vet KSmith probably will not be back, but I can see a few brought in for development. especially at the nose or pass rushing slots especially if Wright goes elsewhere. This is a solid group that can only get better with additions.

LB---(Bruschi, Mayo, Guyton, Craig, Vrabel, Redd, Robertson, AThomas, Crable, Ruud, Banta-Cain, Alexander---Izzo, Seau, Colvin, Woods (RFA)-2nd tender) There are twelve signed and what it really means is that this group is heavily into transition with big changes ahead in the coming years. I'm thinking Bruschi and Vrabel will have a few more left and will guide the young ones into the limelight. With Vrabes, this will be less so this year, but I really think both will be used only in spots as opposed to carrying the load. Mayo will be solid inside for years to come and it will be interesting to see who winds up with him inside. On the outside it will be Thomas and Vrabel, but there are others who will be competing for a spot pass rusher position. Guyton certainly is one possibility inside, but I would not be surprised if Redd or Robertson would get a chance at that as well as vet Alexander who was injured last year. On the outside, there's newly acquired Banta-Cain, Craig, Redd, Robertson, Crable, Ruud and possibly Woods. It might be that they think Crable's injury problems will slow his development and will not make it. They have one RFA, Woods. They might not be as high on him as many think, but with a middle tender, he should be back. Colvin and Seau will be on the shadow roster and could make a return if needed, but I think the team will make moves to get some solid younger players to compete. Izzo could return for special teams play, but may have played his last days here. That will depend on many things. Alexander will get a shot there as well at special teams as he has been solid in the past. As it stands now, there are many question marks and usually when that happens, more players are brought in. That will be the case again this year as I see young linebackers giving it there all to step up and play. The future linebackers, starters and role players, will be clearer as the season goes on.

DB---(Hobbs, Wilhite, Richardson, Wheatley, Meriwether, Spann---LSanders, O'Neal, JSanders, Ventrone (ERFA), Dillard, Harrison, TWilliams ) The weakest area for now is the defensive backfield. Six are signed and Hobbs, in his fifth year, would be the vet of the group. Wheatley, Whilhite and Richardson are all young and may make it in the long run, but Hobbs needs to have some experience opposite him. I think LSanders would be an option as he can also play safety, but the team needs to look at a vet or two at corner to really be strong. O'Neal was okay, but I really do not see him returning. With a vet or two, the corner situation will be fine. That is not the case at safety where Meriwether is the only returning starter. I would love it for Rodney to return for another year, as he would be great with the younger players and contribute in spot duty, but I do not know if he wants that. He may wish to retire or be more on the shadow roster. He will be missed if that happens, because they do need a vet to come in and help keep the backfield cohesive. JSanders might return and that would be good if he did, but he may go for the green and lose value to the team. It is possible that Tank could return, but he has had several injuries and may not be the same player they thought he would be. Spann and Ventrone will be on special teams, but both may be found somewhere in the mix as well. I liked Dillard and thought he was a prospect, but I do not know if the coaches did. I do think a vet at safety and two at cornerback could be acquired in free agency, but again, it may depend on the money situation. Whether they go after another cornerback in the draft will depend on their evaluation of the three young ones, but safety may be a slot for an early pick. One thing is clear is that there will be a youth movement in the backfield as there was last year in the linebacking corps. It started somewhat last year and will continue this season.

ST---(Gostkowsli, Malone---Paxton, Hansen) Gostkowski will continue to improve and I have no doubt Paxton will be brought back as he's the best long snapper in the league. Hansen could return with Malone to battle for the punting job, but I would not be surprised if both a vet and another young punter are looked at as well. With the 80 player limit, there's no room for additional kickers, snappers or in fact, more than two punters.

So the team has now fifty two in the fold with twenty eight more to be added in the next month and then some. As usual, they will have probably twenty draftees and undrafted free agents and with the draftees not counting until signed, shuffle players in and out to get a look at many young ones.

How many spots will be open?? I really think that close to half of the teams's spots will be open for competition and that is always good for the team in the long run. There might be 25 or so spots that are solid and another 7 or so that are very close, but with a few spots open because of injuries, that really means that it's a bit more than half that could open. There will be some great competition for many back up positions and and non-starter roles.

Of the free agents, I do see a number returning quite quickly, Ventrone, Evans, Paxton, to name a few, but others like Jordan I doubt will make it back. I would enjoy seeing Harrison play another year, but that is more his decision and whatever he chooses to do, is really fine. He has been one of my favorites and will remain so whatever he does. I really hope that Wright, Gaffney, JSanders and LSanders will return. If they do not, their replacements had better be a bit better or it will not be looked at as an improvement. James Sanders, I believe, will sign for the money, but not here and he may have a change of heart in time. That is why I feel they will go after a vet safety, one that will be a step upward for them. Lewis Sanders, a vet that came in last year, is possibly more important in the long run as he has a lot of flexibility and is just getting accustomed to the Pats style of play. Gaffney would be a solid returnee, but there are others out there that can do the job. Wright is one that I have always enjoyed but he's getting better, and may seek play elsewhere. His loss may be the one that is hardest for the team as nose tackles are not easy to find.

Let it all begin today and see how this team will improve in 09!! I expect a lot of moves, ore under the radar ones, but moved that will make this team stronger and better and with a bit deeper team.

 Stan Jaksina
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