Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Patriots 2007 Season Preview (9/5/2007)

Hi all,

Apparently rolling Patriots *do* gather Moss. Get it, haaaahaaaahaaaa -- GET IT?!?!?!?! High comedy, that.

Since I didn't write an off-season email, this update will include the important things that have happened since the end of last year. Does that mean it might be long? My only guarantee is that it will be longer than a haiku and shorter than "War and Peace."

It has certainly been an interesting off-season, with the Pats being major players in free agency and draft-day trades. To know how much things have changed, consider the following fact: the Patriots opened at 12-1 odds to win next year's Super Bowl, but by the time the draft was over, they were heavy favorites at 2-1 to win it. A lot of time, effort, money, and changes went into that swing, and here are the ones I think were the most important, and how much those changes might have improved their play from the end of last year to the beginning of this year.

(As always, if you're sick of slogging through these emails, just drop me a note and I'll take your name off the list. - Scott)


Quarterback: 9.0 at the end of 2006, 10.0 to start 2007.

I thought Brady was burnt out at the end of last year, possibly from having to break in an almost entirely new set of less-than-stellar wideouts. It didn't help that his running backs were injured most of the year (more on that later) and that his sub-par receivers revolved in-and-out of the lineup every week. Consider that even though the team went 12-4, Brady's performance dropped significantly from 2005 when they were 10-6.

The improvement from 9.0 to 10.0 is due in large part to what's around him. I don't fault him for last year; after Deion Branch said, "Show me the money," the front office never gave him the talent needed to make another run to the Super Bowl.

Running Back: 3.0 at the end of 2006, 6.0 to start 2006.

Rookie Laurence Maroney played like a rookie last year, flashes of brilliance and too many injuries. Corey Dillon played like a ten-year veteran, a bit slower than in years past and less able to shoulder the load. The reason they were rated at 3.0 last year is that by the end of the campaign, they were both injured, leaving Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans to run the ball. And the results were predictable; they ran for less than 100 yards in the AFC Championship game and Evans committed a crucial "12 men in the huddle" penalty near the end of the game.

The improvement stems from Maroney's health and the addition of Sammy Morris (from the Dolphins). Morris is a better backup than Dillon would have been, and this leaves Faulk in his more effective third-down running back position. If they had more quality depth, they'd be a 7.5 instead; but if Maroney goes down, it would hurt almost as much as if Brady did.

Tight End: 3.0 at the end of 2006, 3.5 to start 2007.

Simply put, if Ben Watson doesn't have a breakout year, that 3.5 might be headed lower. The Pats essentially replaced non-receiving-but-amazing-blocker Daniel Graham with his twin from Jacksonville, Kyle Brady. I'm not expecting big things from David Thomas, and Marcellus Rivers (one of the better pre-season performers) ended up on the practice squad.

You might see more production out of the tight end position this year, but that will mostly be because the improvement at wide receiver could open up the middle of the field. Speaking of which...

Wide Receiver: 3.0 at the end of 2006, 7.5 to start 2007.

At the end of last year, the Pats receivers were among the most feared in the NFL -- feared by Patriots fans everywhere. So Reche Caldwell (who led the team last year) is gone; possibly great Randy Moss and possibly great Donte Stallworth were added; possibly mediocre Kelly Washington was added; possibly most important of all, Wes Welker (a.k.a. Troy Brown II) was added.

Welker gives them a threat over the middle and relieves Laurence Maroney in the kick return game, and Moss and Stallworth will both demand double-teaming if they're healthy. That should open things up for the tight ends and running game. But all of this hinges on the health of Moss and Stallworth (Moss missed the entire pre-season, and Stallworth missed 3 games last year and had only 38 receptions for the season). Both will start the season, and as they improve their timing with Brady, this number could be 8.5 or 9.0 in no time.

Offensive Line: 6.5 at the end of 2006, 7.0 to start 2007.

No real change, with the exception of some players being healthy now. The line was not a problem, nor was it a great strength of the team last year. I expect an improved running attack, due to an improved receiving corps that will force teams to play soft against the run. But I don't expect the team to dominate teams at the line of scrimmage.


Safety: 3.0 at the end of 2006, 4.0 to start 2007.

At the end of last year, both Eugene Wilson and Rodney Harrison were sidelined. This year, Harrison will serve a four-game suspension to start the year, and Wilson will be teamed with James Sanders (who started in the playoffs). The slight up-tick is mostly a nod to Wilson being better than Artrell Hawkins (starter at the end of last year, recently released by the Pats) and better depth with first-round pick Brandon Merriweather in the fold.

When Harrison returns (for the Browns game on 10/7), this number will go from 4.0 to maybe 7.0. He makes that much of a difference.

Cornerback: 6.5 at the end of 2006, 7.5 to start 2007.

There really isn't any change in personnel, just a change in experience and some better health. Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel (both starters at the end of last year) will start against the Jets, with Randall Gay and veteran Tory James backing them up. Rookie Brandon Merriweather has gotten significant practice and playing time at cornerback, but this rating is mostly about Asante Samuel reporting to camp, what I expect to be another year of improvement from Ellis Hobbs and a healthy year for Randall Gay (who actually started in their last Super Bowl victory -- in case you'd forgotten).

Outside Linebacker: 7.5 at the end of 2006, 9.0 to start 2007.

In case you hadn't heard, the Patriots got the jewel of the free agent class with Adalius Thomas, linebacker from the Ravens. He played mostly inside during the pre-season, but versatility is the key to his game, so I expect he'll play some inside and some outside during the regular season. And the team was helped by the release of Tully Banta-Cain, who was exposed as a very, very poor man's Willie McGinest.

In any event, if Thomas plays outside, that improves the pass rush. If he plays inside, that allows Mike Vrabel to play his more natural outside position. Either way, the outside crew is improved from last year, and with Rosevelt Colin on the other side, should be one of the most respected in the NFL.

Inside Linebacker: 2.5 at the end of 2006, 8.5 to start 2007.

Let's be honest about this, Tedy Bruschi had one of his worst years in 2006. Hardly any big plays, running backs bowling him over, tight ends and running backs getting open against him. One possible reason? Turns out he broke his wrist the opening game, and played hurt the entire year. So I expect he'll be better this year; although he is getting older and might never reach the heights he did from 2001 - 2004. At the end of last year, his teammate inside was Eric Alexander, who was repeatedly torched against the Colts and showed that he needs more seasoning.

Added for this year are Thomas and some guy named Junior Seau, who was playing very well last year until he broke his arm against the Bears. The addition of both Thomas and Seau make this the most improved position on the team. And teams will have to contend with big problems against the front seven because the defensive line is... well, just read on.

Exterior Defensive Line: 9.5 at the end of 2006, 8.5 to start 2007.

Ty Warren and Richard Seymour make one of the best outside linemen tandems in the NFL. Factor in veteran backups Jarvis Green and Mike Wright, along with new addition Le Kevin Smith (pronounced "Leh Kee-vin Smith" -- don't ask me why), this unit should be dominant. So why the downgrade? Turns out Seymour is recovering from off-season surgery, and won't start the season with the team. But with Green, Wright, and Smith in there, they should hold down the fort nicely until Richard returns.

BTW, don't tell Richard I said so, but Ty Warren had a better 2006 season than he did. But promise you won't tell -- Richard could still grind me into dust and sweep me out with the cat litter.

Interior Defensive Line: 8.5 at the end of 2006, 9.0 to start 2007.

Vince Wilfork anchors the defensive line from the middle. He'll never have the big stats, but his job is to clog up the middle on running plays and collapse the pocket on passing plays. He isn't the best in the game, but I thought he merited Pro Bowl consideration last year (i.e. he was one of the best three at his position). The slight increase in rating is mostly due to the addition of Le Kevin Smith (who can play both inside and outside).

Note: a moment of silence for last year's backup, Marquise Hill, who was killed in an off-season jet ski accident in New Orleans........................................................ Thank you.

Special Teams: 6.0 at the end of 2006, 7.5 to start 2007.

There's a lot to talk about on special teams. I don't usually put much stock in the pre-season, but the Patriots overloaded the line twice against Carolina to block field goal attempts, and there didn't seem to be much the Panthers could do about it. I like that kind of fire and effort; and it could pay off if the Pats have found something that could work against other teams.

Also in the pre-season, I saw Larry Izzo making big play after big play, and there was a lot of competition at punter. Former Pro Bowl punter, Chris Hanson, won the job, and promptly dropped a kick in at the two yard line in the last pre-season game.

Additionally, the Pats brought in Wes Welker, who should be an improvement over the return men from the end of last year, Troy Brown and Ellis Hobbs. Welker will also relieve Laurence Maroney from having to return kickoffs, which is important as the running back becomes a featured performer on offense.

Lastly, kicker Stephen Gostkowski didn't have a great pre-season, converting only 4 of 8 field goals -- although he booted the hell out of the ball on kickoffs. I think the unit is improved as a whole, but that 4 of 8 worries me a little bit.

Coaching: 8.5 at the end of 2006, 9.0 to start 2007.

The coaching was about as good as you could expect last year. Given the lack of talent at wide receiver and the injuries to their linebackers, the Pats went about as far as they could reasonably be expected to go. (Note: the injuries to Harrison and Seau just killed them in the playoffs.) They out-smarted themselves by using Eric Alexander instead of Tully Banta-Cain against the Colts. But for the most part, they pushed all the right buttons and came within a few plays of going to another Super Bowl.

There were no major coaching changes, although the influx of talented players might make them look a lot better than they did last year. I think both Dean Pees and Josh McDaniels will benefit from another year of seasoning. And keep an eye on the Cleveland Browns situation. If they fire Romeo Crennel, no doubt the Pats would gladly take him as an "Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Consultant" for the remainder of the year.

So what does it all boil down to? Well, the average score at the end of 2006 was 5.88; and the average score to start 2007 is 7.42. That's serious improvement, and most importantly, they improved where they needed to -- at wide receiver and linebacker.

I do worry how the team would handle the loss of Tom Brady or Laurence Maroney, but all teams face injuries and have to find a way through them. With the coaching staff and players they have in place, I expect the Pats would handle that kind of adversity better than most.


So finally, here's my breakdown of how the schedule is likely to go for the Pats. And as usual, I broke it down into four, four-game quarters of the season.

The season starts in New York, and I think the Pats will win, because what they kept under wraps in the pre-season is probably better than what the Jets kept under wraps. San Diego then comes to town, with revenge on their mind (from last year's playoff upset) and an entirely new coaching staff. Without Harrison and Seymour, I think the Pats will have to win a shootout, and Moss hasn't gotten enough practice with the first team, so put down a loss. The Pats should handle Buffalo at home the next week (especially since the Bills have a tough season opening schedule), and they destroyed Cincinnati at home last year, so I expect they'll at least beat the Bengals in Cincy the week after.

I don't see how the Cleveland Browns can beat us, so that's another win. After that, it's off to Dallas, a team that is historically always overrated. The Cowboys don't have a tough schedule around that time, and they usually beat the Pats (they're 7-2 lifetime against New England); but I don't see how the Pats talent won't overwhelm them. The October 21 tilt in Miami has all the benchmarks of a loss: division road game, against a team that gives Brady fits, and their two longest road trips back-to-back. But the Dolphins QB situation is a mess and both Harrison and Seymour should be back by then. So call me crazy, but I'm putting it in as a win (and keeping my fingers crossed). The Pats will finish the second-quarter of the season with a possible trap game (sandwiched between division-rival Miami and perennial-rival Indianapolis) against Washington. If Joe Gibbs's team had a QB, I might predict a win for them, but they don't, so I won't -- it should be another W for the Pats.

The third-quarter starts with one of those matchups of the year, Pats vs. Colts. Indy has an horrific schedule before and after that game (a division game at Jax, at Carolina, the Pats game, and then at San Deigo). The Pats get a walk-through with Washington, play the Colts, and then have a bye week. Moss, Stallworth, and Brady should be in sync by then, and Indy has lost too many defensive players -- so put it down as a likely victory. After the bye week, the Pats shuffle off to Buffalo, in a classic trap game -- for the Bills, that is. The Pats should win that one. The Pats should be able to beat Philly at home, but the Eagles have a pretty easy slate of games around that time. However, Baltimore will be in the meat of a very tough run. Normally, I might expect the Pats to beat Philly and lose to Baltimore; but based on the opponents schedule, I'll flip-flop that.

The fourth-quarter begins with an intriguing one: at home on a short week against Pittsburgh. The Steelers have a tough schedule at that time, but they don't have the short week. However, the Pats obliterated the defense that was run by new Steelers head coach (the Pats torched Mike Tomlin's defense for 31 points in Minnesota last year). But in the end, it's the short week that will probably cost the Pats... put 'em down for another loss. The last three should be a victory lap for the Patriots. The Jets come to town to get beaten again, the Dolphins never play well in the cold, and the Giants just aren't good enough (although the Pats could lose that one if the game means nothing to them and everything to the Giants).

Add it all up, and it's a 13-3 record -- or 14-2 if they beat the Steelers or 12-4 if they lose in Miami. Any of those records should get them a division title and 13-3 or 14-2 gets them a first-round bye. Are my expectations too lofty? I don't think so. The Pats were within spitting distance of another Super Bowl appearance (and likely win) last year, and they've added talent and depth to their most problematic positions (wide receiver and linebacker). Brady's health is, as always, of paramount importance; but add to that Laurence Maroney's health for this year. Sammy Morris should be a fine backup, but Maroney has to be the man or it could be trouble.

Hope this helps you enjoy the season, and I'll check in every week with new (and hopefully more interesting) stuff during the regular year.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Exactly one half of the Patriots games are against 2006 playoff teams (8 out of 16). That is the highest number in the NFL this year.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Richard Seymour can be replaced for a few games, but the loss of Rodney [Harrison] for the first month could hurt a lot more."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

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