Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Patriots 2006 Off-season Update (7/26/2006)

Hi all,

It's been yet another interesting off-season for the Patriots -- made a bit longer by the early playoff exit. And contrary to all the blather I've heard lately, I think the team is slightly better than they were at the end of last year. How is that possible, you ask... after all, didn't Willie McGinest, Adam Vinatieri, and David Givens all leave? They did indeed leave; but the list of additions and additions-by-subtraction outweighs the losses by a slight margin. Care to know how? I'll tell you how, with a "scale of 1 to 10" rating for each position (ratings are 1 for the worst in the NFL and 10 for the best). And please remember, these ratings are for how the position was at the end of the season and how I see it going into the new season -- it is not a rating for the entire 2005 season.

(As always, if you're sick of hearing from me, just drop me an email and I'll take your name off the list. - Scott)


Quarterback: 7.5 at the end of 2005, 10 to start 2006.

As I noted in early-November last year, Brady was having trouble throwing early in games -- some high, some low. The explanation came after the season, he was injured most of the second half of the year, and his performances showed it. He had two of his worst career games (statistically speaking) against KC and Denver. A healthy Brady is at least a 9.5, and a pretty big improvement over the end of last year. When healthy, no QB is more feared.

Running Back: 4.5 at the end of 2005, 6.0 to start 2006.

Late last year, Patrick Pass and Corey Dillon were both injured, Heath Evans was still learning the offense, and Kevin Faulk was overworked. To start 2006, Dillon will be healthy (or at least healthier), Evans will have an off-season under his belt, Faulk won't be overworked, and first round pick Laurence Maroney can only help. Health is the main improvement here. But if Dillon is truly ready to go and Maroney can learn the offense enough to get on the field, the rating could jump as high as 7.5.

Tight End: 4.0 at the end of 2005, 5.5 to start 2006.

They were below average at the end of last year and will start this year just above average. Daniel Graham's injury problems are the primary reason for improvement; but rookie David Thomas will force Graham to decide if he wants to compete for a job or just fall by the wayside. Along with a third-year Ben Watson, that competition will make them better in 2006.

Wide Receiver: 8.0 at the end of 2005, 3.0 to start 2006.

As 2005 drew to a close, the drop-off from Branch/Givens to Brown/Davis/Dwight/Johnson was frightening. I would have given the starting tandem a 9.5, and despite their job descriptions, Watson was their third-best and Faulk their fourth-best receivers. Branch could get open and/or take and take it the distance against anyone, and Givens probably had more clutch catches the past three seasons than any other receiver I saw. All that said, Givens is gone, Branch is holding out, and the current crop of backups/wannabes puts fear only into the Patriots coaching staff. If Branch holds out, the rating might drop to 1.5 -- yuck!

Offensive Line: 3.5 at the end of 2005, 6.0 to start 2006.

As last year drew to a close, Matt Light, Dan Koppen, and Nick Kazcur were injured and out of the Denver game. Russ Hochstein and Logan Mankins filled in admirably, but it just wasn't the same. Tom Ashworth signed elsewhere in the off-season; but the reason the rating is up is that Mankins and Kazcur were rookies who now have a season under their belts, and both Koppen and Light should be back this year.


Safety: 4.0 at the end of 2005, 5.5 to start 2006.

Rodney Harrison is unlikely to start the year on the field, but should return mid-season. And the Pats improved simply by re-signing Tebucky Jones and giving the rest of the crew time to heal. I know he never did anything in New Orleans, but we won a Super Bowl with Jones in 2002 and he understands the defensive system here. Also, he can play strong safety so Eugene Wilson can move back to free safety; Artrell Hawkins just has to be better as a backup, and both James Sanders and Guss Scott will be healthy backups.

Cornerback: 3.5 at the end of 2005, 4.0 to start 2006.

The rating has the potential to go up based on improved health for Randall Gay and Asante Samuel, and the emerging Ellis Hobbs. But for now, this unit is only slightly improved, mostly because it is healthier.

Outside Linebacker: 9.0 at the end of 2005, 8.5 to start 2006.

They lose a half-point because Willie McGinest isn't there to provide depth. But with Mike Vrabel moving back outside and Rosevelt Colvin getting better all the time, IMO this unit will be just as productive, just not as deep.

Inside Linebacker: 9.0 at the end of 2005, 8.5 to start 2006.

Tedy Bruschi was still a milli-step slow at the end of the year, but his partner inside, Mike Vrabel more than made up for that. However, with Vrabel going outside, it's left to Monte Beisel and a full-strength Bruschi to hold down the fort. I remember that Beisel took a well-earned beating in my game summaries last year. But he was playing much better at the end of the year and has reportedly been wow-ing them in the off-season workouts and mini-camps. He should be a solid contributor to begin 2006, but just not as good as Vrabel.

Exterior Defensive Line: 9.0 at the end of 2005, 9.0 to start 2006.

I don't think any teams relishes the idea of facing Richard Seymour and Ty Warren. And with Jarvis Green backing up and newcomer (and former #6 overall pick) Johnathan Sullivan coming in, there's a lot of talent on the outside of the line.

Interior Defensive Line: 7.5 at the end of 2005, 8.0 to start 2006.

Vince Wilfork started the 2005 season slow and worked his way into a force by year's end. I hope he's learned to stay in shape and stay sharp in the off-season. And I like Mike Wright and Marquise Hill as his backups/linemates.

Special Teams: 7.0 at the end of 2005, 5.0 to start 2006.

At the end of 2005, the kick coverage was good, the return game was suspect, the punting game was very good, and the kicking game was good. No more Adam Vinatieri and a host of possible return men give this area a lot of uncertainty. The punting game and coverage should be fine, and the kickoffs will likely be better. But no one knows how the return game will pan out, or how the rookie (Stephen Gostkowski) or the veteran (Martin Gramatica) will work out in Adam's absence.

Coaching: 7.5 at the end of 2005, 8.5 to start 2006.

An overmatched Eric Mangini is gone, replaced by Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees, a man with more of a coaching pedigree than Mangini. And Josh McDaniels is officially the Offensive Coordinator, thus ending speculation and questions every week about who is calling the plays. I think Mangini's new job as the Head Coach of the Jets is addition by subtraction for the Pats; and a solid hierarchy on the offensive side will only benefit the team.

So how does it all work out? The average score at the end of 2005 was 6.46, the average score starting 2006 is 6.73. I guess that simply verifies what I've thought all along; the team is slightly better today than it was at the end of last year.

I'll be along with my "What I'll be watching for in the pre-season" issue in about two weeks, and then my blockbuster "Season Preview" in early-September. Until then, stay cool and dry and enjoy all the training camp chatter.

Monthly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Jets? Bills? Dolphins? Time to make room for another 'AFC East Champions' hat in my closet!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott