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2009 team preview: New England Patriots
With all the turnover in personnel and among the team's top coaches and decision makers, why exactly is a second-place team from a year ago that took January off thanks to an 11-5 record expected to be in Miami this February?
That's a rhetorical question, but we'll answer anyway. Four words. Two people. Bill Belichick. Tom Brady.
As long as those two are around - and surrounded by a still very talented cast that includes the likes of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Adalius Thomas, Vince Wilfork and endless others - the Patriots will be among the elite in the game.
And while many entered the summer wondering about Tom Brady's surgically reconstructed left knee - the one injured in the first quarter last opening day that led to the aforementioned playoff-free season - the 2007 NFL MVP has shown no signs of being anything other than himself this summer.
If anything Brady seems more focused and reinvigorated, steeled once again to return to dominance after a year away from the game he loves and amidst questions surrounding his health.
"That's '08. We've moved on," Brady said following his return to action in the preseason opener against the Eagles, that before seemingly going on to put the rest of the league on notice. "It think it's a real small step for this whole team in a very long journey.
"We're on a mission this year."
That mission is simple, complete the unfinished business Brady, Moss and Co. left on the table while getting upset by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII and losing out on the perfect season.
Signs of that mission have been everywhere this summer. Belichick opened training camp in New England with more than a week of nothing but double sessions, a huge change from his practice routines of past years. Brady has not missed a single practice this summer, that after sitting out last preseason and monitoring all his practice time and throwing in recent years.
But Belichick and Brady's combined focus on returning to the top of the league aren't the only reasons for infinite hope bordering on cockiness in Patriots Nation these days. Brady not only returns to an offense that re-wrote the record books in 2007 and has new weapons like running back Fred Taylor, wide receivers Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis and tight end Chris Baker.
Defensively a major overhaul has taken place in the back end that so badly let the team down last fall, a pass defense that gave up too many big plays, too many third-down conversions and too many touchdowns. The defense remains anchored by a front line that includes Richard Seymour, Wilfork and Ty Warren as well as linebacker Adalius Thomas. And returning young players like Defensive Rookie of the Year Jerod Mayo have a year under their belt. Add in free agents Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs, trade addition Derrick Burgess and draft picks Patrick Chung (safety), Darius Butler (corner) and Ron Brace (defensive line), and Belichick hopes his re-tooled group of defenders will be ready to play the type of defense New England's teams have been known for in the past.
All that might not matter, though, were it not for the return of No. 12. Make no mistake Brady is the leader of the offense. The face of the franchise. And, the main reason the Patriots are once again focused on February action with an eye at bringing a fourth Lombardi Trophy to New England.
COACHING: Bill Belichick, 15th year, 10th with the Patriots (153-90)
REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 11-5 (2nd in AFC East); missed playoffs for first time since 2002
PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 13-3 (1st in AFC East); win Super Bowl.
Notes and Quotes
"He's helped create a tradition here that we're all proud of. The torch has been passed, and we'll try to carry it on. It's a high standard. It's a high standard. I'm proud of everything he did and the payout that he's paid for all of us going forward."
"For the past 10 years, Kevin Faulk has been one of our go-to guys, both on and off the field," Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft said. "He has been quick to volunteer for dozens of charitable events through our community relations department and is always the first player to arrive and the last to leave. For the past few years, he has been bringing his children to the community events he attends to teach the values he learned as a child, to help those who are in need. We are proud to present Kevin with the 2009 Ron Burton Award. He is a deserving honoree."
--QB Tom Brady took a big hit from Washington's Albert Haynesworth late in the second quarter of the third preseason game. While the hit ended Brady's game and left him a bit sore, he returned to the practice fields last week and is "expecting" to be ready for the Monday night season opener at Gillette Stadium against the Bills.
"Well, there's a chance I won't make it down to the stadium in the next 30 minutes," Brady joked in a weekly call-in interview on WEEI radio in Boston. "There's a lot of time before that game. As I said, there's a lot of players on our team that have bumps and bruises. I have bumps and bruises. It's a physical game. I fell a little bit awkwardly, but I'm expecting to be out there."
--Former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has gotten a lot of attention for his sideline attire in his first preseason at Broncos head coach. The former Bill Belichick understudy has paid homage to his former boss by wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt while running the show in Denver, although he's gone with rolled up sleeves rather than the cut-off look preferred by the reigning New England football fashion trendsetter.
"I told him I liked his hoodie he was wearing," Tom Brady revealed recently of a text exchange with his former position coach. "He said it was in honor of where he came from."
The hoodie teacher and pupil have a chance to meet on the field this Oct. 11 in Denver.
BY THE NUMBERS: 8 -- The number of consecutive seasons in which the Patriots have won nine or more regular-season games. They are the only team in the NFL to have won at least nine games in each of the last eight seasons entering 2009.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If you ask me to sum up how I feel about Tedy Bruschi in five seconds: he's the perfect player, perfect player." -- An emotional Bill Belichick at Tedy Bruschi's Aug. 31 retirement press conference.
Strategy and Personnel
--LB Tedy Bruschi announced his retirement Aug. 31.
--QB Kevin O'Connell was released Aug. 31. The former 2008 third-round pick sent packing after barely more than a year in New England.
--T Mark LeVoir was placed on Reserve/PUP Aug. 31.
--LB Tyrone McKenzie, a rookie third-round pick out of South Florida, was placed on Injured Reserve Aug. 31 with a knee injury suffered in rookie mini-camp.
--WR Brandon Tate, a rookie third-round pick out of North Carolina, was placed on Reserve/Non-Football Injury Aug. 31 as he continues to work back from a knee injury suffered last fall with the Tar Heels.
PLAYER TO WATCH: LB Gary Guyton -- He has come a long way since draft day 2008 when he went unselected out of Georgia Tech. As a rookie free agent last fall in New England he played in 14 games with a pair of late-season starts, serving mainly as a sub player on passing downs. Now in just his second season the speedy, athletic 6-3, 245-pounder will be asked to fill much of the void left by Tedy Bruschi's late-summer retirement. With a lack of depth at the position Guyton will be asked to do a lot this fall in New England.
Rd. 2/34, S Patrick Chung, Oregon -- Chung is a smart, versatile player who'll be given the chance to fill a variety of sub roles on defense while factoring in as a key special teamer.
Rd. 2/40, DL Ron Brace, Boston College -- Brace is a behemoth who's shown the ability in camp to play all the spots on the defensive line. He should get reps to spell the starting group of former first-round picks.
Rd. 2/42, DB Darius Butler, Connecticut -- Butler is ultra-athletic. He's worked both on the outside and in the slot in camp as well as earning reps as a kick returner. He'll add youthful depth to the re-tooled secondary.
Rd. 2/58, T Sebastian Vollmer, Houston -- The massive Vollmer - 6-8, 315 - will open the season as New England's swing tackle. He played only the left side in college, but has gotten plenty of reps, including with the first team, at both tackle spots this summer.
Rd. 3/83, WR Brandon Tate, North Carolina -- Tate will open the season on NFI as he continues to recover from the knee injury suffered last season with the Tar Heels.
Rd. 3/97, LB Tyrone McKenzie, South Florida -- After tearing his ACL in rookie mini-camp, McKenzie will spend his rookie season on IR. But he still could have a future at inside linebacker in New England.
Rd. 4/123, OL Rich Ohrnberger, Penn State -- Ohrnberger is a versatile if undersized interior lineman who will be given time to develop while serving as an emergency backup at both guard and center.
Rd. 6/207, DL Myron Pryor, Kentucky -- The oversized tackle has been one of the surprises of camp, including earning starts and major reps with the top defensive line in preseason action. He's just a depth guy at this point, but he's clearly impressed his coaches.
Rd. 7/232, WR/PR Julian Edelman, Kent State -- The converted college quarterback exploded on the scene in the preseason opener with a punt return touchdown and Wes Welker-like performance out of the slot. He's also gotten reps as a running back and could be a Wildcat QB option. Coaches and teammates rave about his ability to work and learn quickly.
Brady is the face of the franchise and looks ready to rebound big time from the left knee injury that cost him all but portion of the first quarter of last season's opener. He's had a solid camp and is ready to put the injury behind him and return to the ways of his MVP season of 2007. Beyond him the depth chart is thin with Matt Cassel in K.C., second-year player Kevin O'Connell getting his walking papers late in camp and the former Oakland castoff Walter backing into the backup role after joining the team Aug. 3. Unless they bring in a more suitable backup option the story here is Brady or Bust.
It doesn't garner much attention, but the New England backfield combined for nearly 2,300 yards last fall, with Morris leading the group with 727 yards. A committee approach will likely be the theme again as entering his fourth season Maroney has never developed into the lead back the team probably expected when it selected him in the first round in 2006. Morris, Maroney, and the talented newcomer Taylor all have injury histories so the depth could be key through the course of the season. Faulk remains one of the better third down backs in the game and is coming off his best season at the age of 33. Green-Ellis is a pure depth guy who had a nice preseason after notching a 100-yard game as an undrafted free agent a year ago. The rushing attack may not be elite or have a true No. 1 back, but thanks to a dominant passing attack it should be more than good enough.
Bill Belichick has called this maybe the most competitive group of tight ends he's ever coached. Baker, a former Jet, is a solid free-agent addition and while not as flashy as Watson, likely unseats the oft-injured former first-round pick atop the depth chart. Watson is in a contract year, but once again missed plenty of camp time to an undisclosed injury. He continues to show no sign of living up to his impressive athletic skills as a player. Thomas is also in a contract year and has had a nice preseason as a blocker, including plenty of reps from the fullback spot and in motion in the backfield. Smith was acquired from the Bucs for a fifth-round pick but has done little all summer and was in a battle for his roster life at final cuts. Overall the group has the talent to be a complementary part of the high-powered passing attack and should help the running backs in the ground game.
Moss and Welker are one of the most productive pass catching duos in the league in their two seasons together in New England. They've yet to miss a game in a Patriots uniform, and neither fell off the map last fall after Brady's injury, in fact Welker once again proved the NFL's ultimate slot machine with 111 receptions. Moss has had a great training camp and preseason and looks ready to dominate once again with Brady back at the helm. Galloway and Lewis come aboard to add second-tier depth to the passing game that was lacking last fall, but neither had a great camp and Galloway in particular seems slow to learn the many adjustments of the passing game. The rookie seventh-round pick Edelman is an intriguing option as a slot receiver with a similar set of skills and even visual resemblance to Welker. Aiken is a special teams ace and likely captain. Ventrone is a versatile, hard working player in the kicking game but is always on the roster bubble even in his fourth season in New England.
New England entered camp with all its starters and top backups from recent years, before unloading some depth by trading Russ Hochstein. Light, Mankins and Koppen are only a year removed from the Pro Bowl. Neal is always an injury concern, missing 13 games over the last two years. Kaczur is the least entrenched of the starters, but earned a contract extension this summer. All told the undersized but athletic starters took some heat early last season as Matt Cassel was sacked too often. The starting group probably isn't as good as it was given credit for with the three Pro Bowlers in 2007 or as bad as it was made out to be at times early last fall. Vollmer is an impressive rookie who shows the ability to backup both sides as a swing tackle. Yates has started 11 games over the last three years, including eight last fall, and will serve as the top backup at all three interior spots. Ohrnberger is a developmental rookie with similarly versatile inside depth possibilities while O'Callaghan is more of a run-based backup at primarily right tackle.
As has been the case for years now, the trio of former first-round picks in Seymour, Warren and Wilfork will be counted on to be a strength of the defense. Wilfork and Seymour are both in contract years and have looked sharp in the preseason. Warren is coming off an injury-plagued 2008 season but is always solid if unspectacular. Wright and Green are proven veteran backups and both rookies Brace and Pryor have shown the ability to play both tackle and end in the preseason, part of the reason New England is expected to use more four-man fronts in 2009 after having been a primarily 3-4 team for the better part of the last decade. The group has always been pretty dominant against the run, but if there is a complaint it's that it could do just a bit more to help out a suspect pass defense with more consistent pocket-collapsing pressure.
The group is undergoing a transition as long time mainstays Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel depart and Thomas and Mayo take over greater leadership roles. Mayo is the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year and spoke all offseason about focusing on making more big plays in 2009. Thomas has never put it all together to play at a Pro Bowl level since joining the Patriots from the Ravens and also will be counted on for a big year. The rest of the group is a question mark. Guyton played in sub packages as an undrafted rookie but could start in either 3-4 or 4-3 looks this fall. Woods has developed as another former undrafted player and could help set the end in 3-4 fronts, but lacks much in terms of pass rush ability. Burgess is the wild card after joining the team via trade in August. Just two years ago he was a Pro Bowl pass rusher who notched 27 sacks over two seasons, including leading the league with 16 in 2005. In preseason action New England has used him as a sub rusher from left defensive end, but at some point he'll likely see reps as a standup 3-4 outside linebacker. Regardless of where it comes from, he'll be counted on to get the passer. Banta-Cain is situational pass rusher in his second tour in New England, while Alexander and the ultra-versatile Ninkovich are mostly a special team options and emergency depth guys.
After an absolutely dismal 2008 the cornerback spot gets a complete overhaul for 2009. Ellis Hobbs was traded away. Returning sophomore Wilhite will get a chance to start to open the season, a role he filled to close out last fall. Bodden brings veteran experience to the other starting spot after one very disappointing season in Detroit. Springs missed nearly all of the preseason but should add depth to the group as a nickel corner and sub package player. Butler can play inside or out and shows promise as a second-round rookie, while the second-round sophomore Wheatley still looks raw after a rookie season that ended on IR. Safety is a young strength of the team with returning starters Sanders and Meriweather, a duo that will combine to fill the leadership void left by the now retired Rodney Harrison. Sanders is solid if unspectacular while the more erratic Meriweather has shown the ability to make plays in both coverage and in box or rushing the passer on well-timed blitzes. If he can improve on his tackling he could be due for a breakout season. The team's top pick, the second rounder Chung, already looks to be a versatile addition. While he'll contribute initially on special teams he may work his way into the sub mix in the defensive backfield later in the year much like Meriweather did as a rookie in 2007.
Gostkowski is the reigning All-Pro kicker and enters a contract year. He has a strong leg on both kickoffs and field goals and missed just two field goals of less than 48 yards last fall. Hanson doesn't have the most powerful leg and can shank an occasional attempt, but the coaching staff likes his situational abilities. The rookie sixth-round pick Ingram replaces one of the most consistent long snappers in the game in the free agent departure Lonie Paxton. He had a solid camp, but it bears watching whether there are any early bumps in the road that could affect the work done by either Gostkowski or Hanson. New England has a lot of capable options in the return game, but it looks like Maroney will take over the kick return role he held as a rookie in 2006 when he finished second in the NFL with a 28.0-yard average. It looks like the team would like to get away from having to go with the veteran Welker or even Kevin Faulk on punt returns and the college-quarterback Edelman showed promise in the preseason, including a 75-yard touchdown. But Belichick always seems hesitant in putting young players back on punt and both Edelman or fellow rookie Patrick Chung will need to be very careful on any regular season opportunities they get if they are to retain the job long term.