As the final pass from Tom Brady fell harmlessly to the turf in last February’s Super Bowl, the immediate thoughts move to the upcoming offseason. Of course the incomplete pass touched off a celebration for New York, but the assessment for each team’s possible return began. One thing was evident as you looked at New England: Bill Belichick and his Patriots may have arrived at the Super Bowl a year too early. Do you realize of the 22 starters from the 2007 16-0 team, 17 of them have been replaced some 4 years later?? Oops make that 18 with Left Tackle Matt Light’s retirement. This team has been completely overhauled and has remained a force in the AFC and the question has to be asked: If Belichick’s young defense is maturing and Brady, Welker, and Gronkowski remain a force on offense, who is going to keep this team from reaching Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans??
Quarterback: The number one reason why that question can be asked is Tom Brady is still at quarterback. He’s the only quarterback in NFL history to make it to the NFL Championship Game or Super Bowl with 4 different starting running backs. So losing Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis won’t cause to large a problem. He is the only quarterback in NFL history to have 5 seasons with 13 or more wins and only two of his Super Bowl wins were during those seasons. Last year’s stat-line?? He went 401 of 611 attempts for a team and AFC record 5,235 yards 39TDs and only 12 interceptions. Yet he’s only going into his 13th season and holds these distinctions as well:
- In 2011 he tied John Elway for the most Super Bowls as a starting quarterback with 5.
- Brady holds the record for most touchdown passes in a season with 50. (2007)
- In 2010 set the record for touchdown to interception ratio at 9. (36TDs / 4Ints)
- In 2010 set the record for most passing attempts without an interception at 335.
Although he’s one of the game’s elder statesmen, he still seems to have good feet within the pocket. He still has a zeal for the game and has helped TEs Hernandez and Gronkowski grow into the league’s best pair of tight ends through his leadership and play. So it’s at this point we expect Tom Terrific to have another great season. Possibly no passer in history utilizes his weapons better. His achille’s heal has been ever since the 2007 Super Bowl, if you get to him and hit him in his legs early, he will look down at the pass rush. Opponents hope to do more of that with the Patriots grooming a new Left Tackle. However it’s time to stop comparing Brady to his contemporaries. Where does he fit in history?? Well at quarterback the Patriots are Super Bowl quality.
Offensive Backfield: One of the reasons the Patriots used their short passing game so much was the inability to run the football with any consistency. They have replaced the departed Green-Ellis with former Indianapolis Colt Joseph Addai. The Patriots are hoping for a little more burst than the 3.7 yard rushing average Green-Ellis gave them. Although he did score 11TDs his number one problem was he couldn’t stretch a play past what it was designed for. At times in the NFL you have to be able to break a few 10 -15 yard runs. Neither he (667 yards) or Danny Woodhead (351 yds /1 TD) or Stevan Ridley (441 yds/ 1TD) could sustain a solid rushing attack. This was one of the deficiencies that came to haunt them in last year’s Super Bowl. They’re asking a lot of Addai who hasn’t rushed for more than 500 yards in his last two seasons. Since they didn’t draft a running back they may be forced to run by committee again. They’re still below average at running back.
Receivers: Believe it or not this was the other deficiency that reared it’s head in not only the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, but the loss to the Jets in the 2010 playoffs as well. This team can’t get deep. However it took teams with superior corners that allowed safeties and linebackers to sit on intermediate routes (20 yards and under) to finally get to Brady. Wes Welker has been re-signed and hasn’t declined at all as the game’s best slot receiver. His 122 receptions gave him his 4th season with over 100 which ties him with Jerry Rice for the most all time. Think about that for a second…that’s rarified air for a receiver who has only had 4, 1,000 yard seasons.
However when you couple Welker’s stats with those of TEs Rob Gronkowski (90 rec. 1,327 yds 17TDs), and Aaron Hernandez (79 rec. 910 yds 7TDs), you understand this is actually the Patriots replacement for an anemic running game. Yet this team can’t stretch the field and that brings down their grade at receiver. Deion Branch has lost a step and can’t threaten vertically either. When they go up against high ranking defenses they will have trouble. At receiver, this team is playoff quality not Super Bowl quality.
Offensive Line: Will have their hands full replacing Left Tackle Matt Light but shouldn’t be a serious problem. The Patriots favor the short passing game anyway. Last year this line ranked 10th in sacks allowed with 32 and 13th in quarterback hits allowed with 71. The team has been very cavalier moving to get a free agent tackle into camp. Belichick is going to go with the same passing style of the last few years, and Brady will see little pass rush with most plays being 5 step drops or less. Get used to mini rollouts in games also to keep backside pressure down as well. Yet don’t forget the Patriots selected Tackle Marcus Cannon from TCU in the 2011 draft. So “The Hoodie” is ready. However this line has to take a step back to average since Light was such a staple on the team and was a locker room presence. After all, he was the spokesperson who presented Robert Kraft with the painting to commemorate the 2011 season in his late wife’s honor. Locker room leaders like that are hard to replace.
Defensive Line: Proof positive that the NFL was upside down last year?? Here you had the NFL’s 31st ranked defense winning the AFC and they had to draft defense, defense, defense. Last year giving up 411 yards per game were too many and most of the issues come from a defensive line that is influx. Vince Wilfork is still a force in the middle but the hodgepodge set of pass rushers needs to be bolstered with a bonafide blue chip player. Last year Mark Anderson and journeyman Andre Carter each registered 10 sacks but Belichick was forced to juggle his line too much last year.
The Patriots used 1st and 3rd round draft picks on DEs Chandler Jones of Syracuse and Jake Bequette from Arkansas. Each player stands 6’5 and Jones is trying to beef up from his 247 lbs to rush the passer from the blind side. Last year the Patriots were 14th in sacks with 40. However Carter made the Pro Bowl last year and the Patriots need to re-sign this unrestricted free agent to help bring along a young Jones and give Belichick a chance to field a 3 DE pass rush alignment like the Giants. If they re-sign Carter this group has a chance to be playoff quality. If not defensive growing pains will drop them below average.
Linebackers: This unit took a step back last year. First Jerrod Mayo, who had an out of this world 2010 leading the NFL with 175 tackles came down to Earth with a total of 102 last year. Sure he missed a few games but the slip in play was the catalyst to the slide of the defense overall. However with an injury free camp, the Patriots expect a bounce back season for Mayo. A pleasant surprise was the heady play of LB Rob Ninkovich (80 tackles) who proved to be a solid overall defender. He registered 6.5 sacks last year and Mark Sanchez is still having nightmares from the pick six he took back to ice a pivotal divisional game last year. If he can repeat his performance and LB Brandon Spikes and Gary Guyton can stay on the field this season, the Patriots can improve to a good to middle of the pack defense overall. We have to see how they evolve this pre-season. Right now we have to give the linebacking corps an average ranking with a chance to be good.
Secondary: Quiet as it’s kept, the best set of corners in the AFC this season might be Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty. You have McCourty #32 who made the Pro Bowl in 2010 with 7 interceptions and Arrington who should have made it last year. His 7 interceptions had a lot to do with teams backing away from McCourty. These two have had some growing pains but at 24 and 25 years of age respectively, this year Belichick will have the best corner play this team has seen since Ty Law and Otis Smith. Yet with their speed, youth, and now on field experience, expect the pass defense rankings to go up this year.
Patrick Chung is a good young safety who came on after injuries early in the season. He needs to make just a few more plays and should in his second season after supplanting Brandon Merriweather. He only had 1 interception as an 8 game starter last year after having 3 in spot duty in 2010. Had he been just one step quicker, he could have knocked down that Eli Manning to Mario Manningham 4th quarter pass in the Super Bowl. Nah…that was just a fabulous throw. Well if you think about it if he improves a quarter of a step or half a step?? Regardless he’s expected to have a better 2012 than 2011. This is a good young secondary and it’s growing… have to give them an above average or playoff grade.
Overall: This team arrived at the Super Bowl one year too early. With a bounce back season from Mayo and improved play from a young secondary this team should win Super Bowl XLVII going away. Tom Brady can adapt and cover any deficiencies that could arise on the offensive end. If they re-sign Andre Carter and one of their rookie defensive ends can pay immediate dividends… Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will win their fourth Super Bowl with a fifth on the near horizon.
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