The best news for the Patriots, of course, is that they have general stability, too, in what has otherwise been an NFL summer fraught with uncertainty. Maybe this is part of the reason the Patriots made 24 selections in the 2009-10 drafts. The Pats now have continuity, particularly with regard to the other 31 NFL franchises, and so it will be a condensed version of business as usual in training camp.The learning curve will be steep for a comparatively select few. Most everyone else already has been integrated into Bill Belichick’s system, which should (in theory) help the Patriots as much as any NFL team in the post-lockout NFL.
After Mankins, does that mean the Patriots are free of issues? Of course not. Here is one set of opinions on the biggest issues now facing Belichick:
Let’s start with this: good for Belichick for taking the stance he did with Tully Banta-Cain, who recently had surgery to repair an abdominal injury he suffered last season. What Banta-Cain was doing during the lockout remains anybody’s guess, but he is hardly the kind of player who gets latitude based on his talent level. He should have been ready to go. He isn’t. Adios.
Yet, even before the Banta-Cain decision, the Patriots had questions at linebacker. Maybe you like Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham on the outside, the latter of whom was drafted in the second round last season. Regardless, the Pats are a long way from the championship corps of linebackers that included, at various points, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Ted Johnson et al.
Whether Belichick has anything major planned in free agency is anybody’s guess, but the Pats aren’t entirely set on the inside, either. Brandon Spikes missed the last four games of the regular season last year after violating the league’s drug policy. There are still lots of questions at this position, and the strength of the linebacking corps this season may go a long way in determining whether the Patriots are moving toward a championship-caliber defense.
In their last two playoff games, after all, the Pats have surrendered 61 points, at home, in January. Most of their defensive problems over the last few years have come on third down, where the absence of any reliable pass rush has been painfully apparent.
In 2007, when the Pats last went to the Super Bowl, they generated much of their pressure with their linebackers. Do the Pats have the horses at this position to win another title?
2. Left tackle.
The Patriots used their first-round pick in April on Nate Solder, but the work stoppage means that the team will have decidedly little time to integrate Solder into their system. As a result, how the Patriots handle the Matt Light situation is of great interest, particularly given that the clock is ticking on Brady.
In short, now more than ever, the Pats have to keep Brady in one piece. Left tackle is a dangerous place to experiment with a rookie. The return of Mankins certainly helps address concerns on the left side of the offensive line, but Solder currently projects as the starter and will be matched at various points against people like Dwight Freeney, Cameron Wake, Richard Seymour (remember him?), Demarcus Ware, James Harrison … you get the idea.
The obvious question here concerns what the Patriots intend to do if Light ends up elsewhere and Solder has difficulty. In the short term, would they move Sebastian Vollmer to the left side? Belichick has options here, it seems, so the only major personnel decision concerns Light. And if he goes, do the Pats need to make a veteran acquisition for depth?
3. Depth at wide receiver and running back.
Deion Branch and Wes Welker were a dynamic tandem at times last season, but here’s the problem: the Patriots always have been concerned about Branch’s durability and he has missed, on average, nearly four games per season during his career. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez certainly provide Tom Brady with other options, but the New York Jets shut down the Patriots’ passing attack during the postseason last year by jamming up the middle of the field.
Are Brandon Tate, Taylor Price and Julian Edelman really reliable options here? Or do the Pats need a more proven commodity to support Branch and Welker, regardless of injury?
As for the running back situation, the Pats spent two early-round picks on Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, who will presumably join a group that includes BenJarvus Green-Ellis (restricted free agent) and Danny Woodhead. Kevin Faulk (free agent) may or may not be in the mix following knee surgery, but the group overall comes with a lot of questions.
Given the fluid nature of rosters throughout the league, the Patriots may be able to address any issues at running back once they get a look at Vereen and Ridley during training camp. Running backs are obviously a secondary option (at best) in the New England offense, but this is still an area worth keeping an eye on.
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