For so long the dominant team in the AFC East, the Patriots have had some real competition develop and even surpass them in the eyes of many.
But with Tom Brady now two years removed from Bernard Pollard going low on him and an offense featuring most of the talent that got them close to the perfect season, they’re still a match for anybody. The big question is, can they overcome what looks like a lackluster defense to hold off the Jets and Dolphins?
THE GOOD NEWS
1. The importance of depth.
Our recent offensive line rankings placed the Patriots at No. 3 for the 2009 season, and even with a bit of re-tinkering it’s a unit that you could see landing just as highly for the upcoming season. Even with Nick Kaczur potentially out for the season and Logan Mankins holding out for who knows how long, the depth of the unit gets a chance to show off.
Sebastian Vollmer came in at both right and left tackle last year and was superb. He displayed the versatility to switch sides that very few veterans have on his way to finishing as our fifth overall ranked tackle with a +17.7 grade. Vollmer was particularly impressive in pass protection, allowing just 11 total pressures on the year. He looks set to start at right tackle and should actually prove an upgrade on Kaczur.
The bigger question is whether Dan Connolly and Mark LeVoir (who played well as additional linemen) can make the potential loss of Mankins meaningless. While we doubt this (our thoughts on Mankins are perfectly clear here), Connolly especially displayed decent play during the 420 snaps he saw and finished with a +3.5 grade.
The hope has to be that Mankins’ contract situation is sorted out, but it’s still a good line without him. Now it’s a case of the running backs stepping up and making the most of the blocking.
2. Brady still has it.
Although he wasn’t at his best in 2009 (he “only” ranked ninth in our passer ratings), Brady still had a very strong season with the highlight a three-game stretch (Weeks 9 to 11 vs Miami, at Indianapolis, and against the Jets) when he was superb.
It’s a fairly safe assumption that (barring injury) Brady will at least match his 2009 form. With another year of rehab and confidence in his knee, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think he can take another step back to his best in 2010, avoiding poor showings such as the trip to New Orleans and wild-card game that ended his season.
He has help around him but not as much as you’d think. Randy Moss‘ physical skills are diminishing and he posted a solid but inconsistent 2009. Wes Welker‘s injury rehab seems to be going well but it’s hard to put complete trust in Welker being the player he was in 2009. He ranked as our third-highest pass-catcher with a +18.8 rating. Question marks over Brady’s two prime targets mean it’s even more important that he becomes the elite, pre-injury player, rather than the very good, post-injury player we saw last year. Would you bet against him doing this and keeping the Pats on top of the AFC East?
THE BAD NEWS
1. A one-dimensional pass rush.
Though Tully Banta-Cain (42 regular-season pressures) had a fine season, no one else stepped up. That leaves a lot of projections trying to fill the spot opposite him. The contenders have very little experience between them, which explains why rumors of Aaron Schobel to the Pats gathered steam.
Rob Ninkovich and Pierre Woods are the holdovers from 2009, but only combined for 334 innocuous snaps. Neither embarrassed himself, but neither did either show the kind of the potential that would suggest he is the answer. The same can be said of Marques Murrell, who saw a whopping 45 snaps for the Jets. And it’s asking a lot from second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham to contribute immediately. The best this unit may be able to hope for is that Banta-Cain can maintain his level of play into 2010
2. They haven‘t got it covered.
The Patriots’ defensive backs struggled in pass coverage throughout 2010. Aside from Brandon Meriweather emerging as a talented free safety (+7.5 rating) and a good rebound season from Leigh Bodden (a healthy 14th overall in our cornerback rankings), the Patriots defensive backs had some serious coverage issues.
After drafting Devin McCourty in the first round, the hope will be for a more impressive immediate contribution than Darius Butler or Jonathan Wilhite have been able to make. Wilhite was especially poor — the 6 touchdowns he allowed were one less than league-leaders Rashean Mathis and Marcus Trufant. They also go some way toward explaining his 91st-place ranking. Combining the Patriots’ two biggest issues is like simple addition: No pass rush plus uncertainty at corner equals teams picking up yards in the air. It could prove an uncomfortable time for the Patriots’ young cornerbacks.
In most other divisions you would think the Patriots have enough talent to win their division, but it’s so tight in the AFC East nothing can be taken for granted. The offense is going to need to reach levels akin to when it propelled them to the Super Bowl, but the question mark is that defense. Still, a top-tier quarterback can overcome a lot, so over to you Mr Brady.