Going into training camp this summer there were plenty of people throwing around the idea the Patriots could go 16-0. After all, the team that went to the Super Bowl last year added players like Anthony Gonzalez, Robert Gallery, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch (re-signed), Bobby Carpenter,Â Joseph Addai,Â Visanthe Shiancoe, Jeff Demps andÂ Jonathan Fanene. While none of these players are super stars, they certainly added depth to some key positions and were thought as players who could definitely help the team.
So, what do all these players have in common (besides Lloyd) now?
They are no longer on the active 53-man roster. They were all released, retired, or placed on season ending IR, with the exception of Shiancoe who is on the teams’ short-term injured reserve and is eligible to return during Week 10. The depth the Patriots had going into the season at key positions is now gone, and add in a few other issues the Patriots have had this preseason, has the perception of this team changed?
The Patriots have gotten a lot younger by parting ways with all of those veterans. In fact, as pointed out by Greg A. Bedard of the Globe earlier this week, this year’s Patriots team is the youngest team in coach Bill Belichick‘s time in New England. The oldest player on defense is Vince Wilfork, who is 30-years-old. With rookies Donta Hightower and Chandler Jones set to play significant roles it is clear Belichick might be changing his defensive philosophy and going with younger players, instead of players who are on the back nine of their careers and who Belichick is hoping to get another year or two out of. To be honest, there is nothing wrong with this approach at all and although the defense is inexperienced as a whole, I think it is a group that will surprise people.
One of the issues which has developed over the course of the preseason is depth at wide receiver. Going into camp people were discussing how the team had way too many receivers, now after all the cuts people are saying they don’t have enough depth. As it stands now the wide receiver depth chart is Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Julien Edelman, Matthew Slater and Greg Salas (who the Rams traded to the Patriots for a future draft pick). Not exactly what you would label a group that opposing defenses fear.
On the contrary, the current group is not much different than what the team had last year. Just switch Branch with Lloyd and Chad Johnson with Salas. There is actually an upgrade in Lloyd, and everyone remembers what an event each pass thrown Johnson’s way was. Also, the Patriots have arguably the best tight end combination in the league in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and did I mention the quarterback throwing to these receivers is Tom Brady? I don’t think there is any need to worry about the receiving corps.
One of the other concerns coming out of training camp is the offensive line. Center Dan Koppen, who played nine season with the team was released last week coming off of an injury last season. Guard Brian Waters who excelled last season never did make it to training camp like everyone expected him to. Young tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder did not have very good preseasons as Solder struggled and Vollmer didn’t play due to injury until the fourth preseason game. Brady took an unprecedented number of hits this preseason as well.
As it stands today the starting line from left to right is Solder, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Donald Thomas and Vollmer. In order for the Patriots offense to be at their best, Brady needs to be able to feel comfortable in the pocket, so it is critical the offensive line performs well.
Although there have been some questions with Solder and Vollmer, both will be fine. They have both proven they have the talent to be good tackles in the league, and are both very young. With some experience they will get better each passing week. The Patriots also have the benefit of having two tight ends, so they can bring an extra one in to block on a given play if they feel it is necessary. Also, the Patriots have brought back offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels loves calling screen plays, which are perfect to keep defenses off balance and will only help keep Brady on his feet. Also, with a 11-year veteran in Brady he certainly knows how to protect himself in the pocket and free himself to make good throws. Brady himself may be his best protection at least early in the season.
While the 16-0 predictions are few and far between, the Patriots will still be at the very least a 12-win team this season. To all the people worried about what took place during the preseason, just remember it is called the preseason — the real season begins Sunday.