Monday, January 29, 2007

Patriots 2006 Regular Season Awards (1/29/2007)

As happened last year, there was no playoff bye week for the Patriots, so I held this off until the season was over. I wanted to take a few minutes to honor the best regular season players of 2006. The team improved from 10-6 to 12-4, and there were some bright spots to provide hope for the future.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady

Honorable Mention: Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins

You might think "same as it ever was," since I tend to choose Brady every year. But he excelled this year even when working with a totally revamped receiving corps and injuries that kept him wondering who would play from week to week. His numbers were down, but even throwing to newcomers Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, he managed to complete 62% of his passes and threw twice as many touchdowns as interceptions (24 to 12). Only his coaches can tell you if this was his best year (I think 2005 was), but given the talent around him, it was an exceptional performance.

Koppen is the other half of Brady's brain on the field, changing protections, snap counts, faking snaps in the shotgun -- all the while trying to block the 350-pound tackles across the way. And if you need proof that Mankins is fast becoming one of the league's best linemen, I read several national columnists who think he should have been in the Pro Bowl this year.

Most Improved Offensive Player: Logan Mankins

Honorable Mention: None

Mankins was last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he was even better in 2006. He was a very good positional and power blocker on running plays, bringing the nasty attitude you need to run the ball and rarely taking off a play. By my count, he allowed only 1 sack for the season, and by the official NFL count, he committed only 5 penalties the entire year. Not bad given the pressure on the O-line -- as Brady and the receivers spent about 10 games getting in sync.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Laurence Maroney

Honorable Mention: None

Maroney really was in a class by himself this year. He showed flashes of brilliance early in the year, providing the Patriots with their first fast/slashing runner since Curtis Martin. He was second on the team with 745 yards, and would have led the team if a rib injury hadn't cost him a few mid-season games. He hit the rookie wall late in the year, so he'll have to improve his conditioning. But Maroney appears to be a running back who can do it all, so the future looks bright at that position.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Ty Warren

Honorable Mention: Asante Samuel, Mike Vrabel

It was all about Ty Warren this year. He totaled almost as many tackles as his regular linemates combined -- Warren had 84, Seymour and Wilfork had 90 together. Seymour and Wilfork each had a season high of 7 tackles in a game (each did it only once); Warren had at least 7 tackles 6 times. It's rare for a lineman in the 3-4 to lead his team in tackles, but Warren did it in the Jets game (11 tackles). And in the playoffs, the Chargers and Colts both preferred to run at Seymour and away from Warren. This was quite a contract push by Warren. Here's hoping the Patriots pay him to stick around.

Asante Samuel had quite the contract push, too. He tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions, and threw in 2 in the post-season (both of which he returned for touchdowns). Mike Vrabel's versatility was key to the Pats defense. Without his switch to the inside (after Junior Seau was injured), the team would not have finished 2nd in the NFL in scoring defense -- because that unit would have been in shambles otherwise.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Asante Samuel

Honorable Mention: Ty Warren, James Sanders

Quite an improvemend for Asante Samuel this year. His 10 interceptions were 7 better than his previous high, and his 59 tackles and 14 passes defensed were also career bests. And if you need more proof that he has arrived, consider that with all the INTs and passes defensed, he was called for pass interference exactly *once* the entire year. In fact, he committed only three penalties for 18 yards in all of 2006; some accomplishment with the rules skewed the way they were against the defensive backs.

Ty Warren posted career highs in tackles, sacks (7.5), and passes defensed (4). James Sanders was a nightmare as an early year replacement for Eugene Wilson, but he was steady and consistent by year's end. He had career highs across the board, too. Maybe his play will allow Wilson to return to cornerback next year.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: None

Name me one Patriots rookie who played very much on defense this year, and I'll give that man the award.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Lonnie Paxton

Honorable Mention: Larry Izzo

Second year in a row that I can't remember a single bad snap by Paxton. And it was more critical this year than last, with a rookie placekicker, three punters, and three holders all in 2006.

As for Izzo; well, even in his 10th season, he still brings it like a rookie fighting for a roster spot.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Ellis Hobbs

Honorable Mention: None

My lasting image of Hobbs's special teams play last year was his fumble in the Denver playoff game. This year, he returned fewer kickoffs but made them count more. He improved his return average by 50%, and of his 10 returns, 3 went for over 40 yards and one was returned 93 yards for a touchdown. And best of all, no fumbles the entire year -- woo-hoo!

Special Teams Rookie of the Year: Stephen Gostkowski

Honorable Mention: Laurence Maroney, Antwain Spann

Gostkowski was supposed to replace Adam Vinatieri, so here's a comparison of the numbers (looks like the rookie did himself proud):

Vinatieri in 2005: 20 for 25 in field goals (80%), 61.7 yards per kick-off and 10 touchbacks.
Gostkowski in 2006: 20 for 26 in field goal (76.9%), 65.5 yards per kick-off and 12 touchbacks.

Maroney teamed up with Hobbs to put the spark back in the kick-return game. He broke several for over 40 yards, and more importantly, he made teams afraid to kick to him. Antwain Spann made several heads-up plays this year that distinguished him from the crowd of special teamers.

That's about it for this week. I'll send something next week about the team's off-season needs.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. My Super Bowl pick: Colts 31 Bears 17.

PPS. This is my 102nd Patriots Update. Thanks for your interest and for giving me a forum for the past three years.

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