AFC East Preview: New England Patriots
The following is an article written by Real Football Services. They are a frequent contributor on newyorkjets.com. Over the next three weeks, Real Football Services will provide an in-depth look at the Jets competition in the AFC East. First installment: the New England Patriots
Any discussion regarding the AFC East has to begin with the New England Patriots. The three-time defending division champs have put together a string of five straight winning seasons, and in that span have won three Super Bowl titles and four division championships. In fact, since 1994 the Patriots have posted only two losing seasons and recorded seven 10-win campaigns while making eight playoff appearances.
However, last season some prognosticators began to question whether the Pats could keep this run alive. Their lack of depth on defense was exposed by a rash of injuries. The coaching staff was in flux after the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. And only the brilliant play of QB Tom Brady kept the offense alive after Corey Dillon's injuries put the clamps on the running game.
Still, the Patriots finished strong, winning yet another division title and advancing to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. But now, in Bill Belichick's seventh season at the helm, some in NFL circles are once again wondering if this isn't a team that is going to have to re-group in 2006 before making another Super Bowl run.
There are few people who wouldn't take Tom Brady as their starting QB, and he did a masterful job in 2005 of running an offense that operated without a consistent rushing attack. In fact, New England leaned hard on their leader and he responded with one of the best seasons of his career, passing for over 4,000 yards for the first time and posting a 92.3 passer rating, the second-best mark of his career. So what happens if Brady goes down? The Patriots would rather you didn't ask. The backup is Matt Cassell, a seventh round choice a year ago, and two rookie free agents fill out the camp roster. But don't forget that Brady was once an unknown 6th-round selection who after taking over the reins three games into the 2001 season, led his team to the Super Bowl.
The problem is that Brady doesn't have a breakout player to rely on in the passing game. What he is so good at is spreading the ball to many different receivers, thus putting pressure on the defense and forcing them to cover the entire field, creating favorable coverages for Brady. WR Deion Branch followed up his Super Bowl MVP performance of 2004 with career highs in receptions (78) and touchdowns (5) in 2005, but only 13 of those catches were for 20 yards or more. He averaged less than 13 yards per catch and fell short of the 1,000-yard mark. To be fair, Branch saw some tight coverage because of the lack of a viable threat opposite him, and things don't appear to have changed for 2006. Reche Caldwell, who signed as an unrestricted free agent from San Diego, is listed as the other starter, but Caldwell hasn't recorded 30 catches in any of his four seasons and struggled to break into a weak starting receiving corps in San Diego. The third receiver is Troy Brown, who is reliable but aging, now in his 14th season.
The receiving corps could get some help in the form of rookie second round pick Chad Jackson who has the size (6-0, 213) to make plays in traffic and the speed (4.3 in the 40) to beat press coverage and stretch the field. But, despite his abilities as a receiver, Jackson didn't provide many big plays while at Florida and some scouts wonder about his ability to play to his track speed. If he can, he will be the player the Patriots have been looking for to add a spark to their offense.
Of course, the key to any Bill Belichick offense will be the running game. We saw last season that this team just isn't nearly as effective without the power running of Corey Dillon. If he's healthy, as reports indicate, this is a different offense. The Patriots have to be concerned about his ability to make it through the season unscathed, however. Despite a career year in '04, Dillon has a lot of mileage on those legs and hasn't played a complete season since 2002. The team has made due in recent seasons with the committee of Kevin Faulk, Patrick Pass, and Heath Evans, who all have adequate running and receiving ability, but the team lacked the dominant runner who could take over the game the way Dillon could in his prime. The Pats got that player in first-round draft pick Laurence Maroney. The former Minnesota standout has excellent size, strength, and toughness and is a powerful runner between the tackles. However, he also has 4.4 speed that makes him a dangerous outside threat, and the quickness and vision to make use of his cutback lanes. Expect the Pats to start the season with Dillon carrying the load, but they won't be able to keep Maroney on the bench for long. He will take some carries from Dillon right from the start, which could be a situation to watch come the fall.
Finally, the Patriots have made good use of the TE tandem of Ben Watson and Daniel Graham, but only because neither seems to be able to stay healthy or take a firm hold on the starting job. The Pats added another receiving TE in Texas' Dave Thomas in the draft, and also drafted FB Garrett Mills who was the leading receiver amongst TE's in the nation a year ago. Look for these players, like Pass, Faulk, and Maroney to be situational players who can add another dimension to the New England attack. The Patriots will have plenty of options in the passing game, and you can be sure that Brady will make opposing defenses account for them all.
New England lost offensive lineman Tom Ashworth to free agency, but the Pats have a host of system players who exhibit strength, toughness, and intelligence that allows the team to plug people into the line, seemingly without missing a beat. The only player who may need time to develop is part time starter Brandon Gorin at RT.
At the end of the regular season, the Patriots were playing as well as any defense in the league. However, injuries ravaged this group and exposed their lack of depth. They addressed some of those needs, but there are still questions. In the linebacking corps, can Tully Banta-Cain replace Willie McGinest? Is Rosey Colvin completely recovered from his hip injury? Can Tedy Bruschi play a full season? This is an aging starting group that will need to stay healthy if the Patriots hope to win another division crown. Veteran backups Monty Beisel, Don Davis, Barry Gardner, and Larry Izzo are adequate but limited, and youngsters Jeremy Mincey and Freddie Roach will need some time to develop.
In the secondary Rodney Harrison returns, but at his age, can he be the same player he was before his injury of a year ago? And if not, is Tebucky Jones the answer? Again, there is depth behind starting corners Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs, but if Harrison falters the Patriots may have some concerns to address.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees takes over this group after coaching the linebackers in 2004, but make no mistake, Belichick will have a tight hold on the reins of this group, as he will on the offense. Belichick, like his former mentor Bill Parcells, always puts a premium on special teams as well, and while special teams coordinator Brad Seely should once again have excellent coverage teams, the loss of K Adam Vinatieri has to be a concern.
In the end, the Patriots have enough to repeat as AFC champs, but have enough age and durability concerns to fall short. It'll be an interesting year for New Englanders.