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State of the New England Patriots

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / April 25, 2012
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For years, a majority of Patriots fans have lived by the mantra “In Bill We Trust.” But that belief in Bill Belichick wavered last season when New England lost back-to-back games in Weeks 8 and 9 after struggling to beat Dallas in Week 6, before its bye. By the end of the season, however, the trust was restored, as Belichick led a team with a statistically terrible defense to the Super Bowl.

That trust will be tested again during the draft – fans have been clamoring for a young pass-rushing specialist, a player who can pin his ears back and get to the quarterback, and also would like to see Belichick either stand pat or even move up in the first round rather than trading back and acquiring picks.

Most of the major pieces for the Patriots are still in place; will the holes be filled for another run at the title? Here’s a position-by-position look at the Patriots, with players’ year of contract expiration:

* – NOT WITH TEAM IN 2011

Defensive line

Wilfork played a high number of snaps last season, but he’ll get help in the form of Fanene, who played both end and tackle with the Bengals. Love took a big step forward in his second season and can help in the middle. Free agent Andre Carter is expected back once he’s fully recovered from the torn quad suffered in December, but it will be interesting to see what happens with the oft-injured Brace, who hasn’t played up to his second-round draft status, and Pryor, who played well in the brief time before suffering a shoulder injury that cost him the bulk of the season. The Patriots have their eye on some pass rushers in the draft, namely Marshall’s Vinny Curry and Troy’s Jonathan Massaquoi.

Linebacker

The sizable contract extension Mayo received in December shows that New England believes he is a cornerstone to build the defense around. Spikes has had his share of problems, but is a thumper in the middle, and Ninkovich has earned more and more playing time by filling multiple roles. Before tearing an ACL in 2010, Scott was considered a pass rusher on the rise, and he should get the chance to get back on that path. The Patriots paid Carter more than $300,000 to stay on their practice squad last year, so they must like what they see from last year’s late-round project pick. This is a make-orbreak year for the thus-far-disappointing Cunningham.

Cornerback

The Patriots are expected to keep McCourty at safety, where he was moved late last season, and if that happens, they will likely look to draft yet another cornerback. Dowling was promising and a surprise Week 1 starter before a hip injury put him on the shelf. Arrington had a solid season, taking advantage of mistakes thrown his way and pulling in seven interceptions. Moore came on toward the end of the season. The veteran Allen will likely help at the star position in the slot, while Cole is more of a special-teams pickup.

Safety

This will be a big year for Chung, who heads into the final season of his rookie contract with a lot to prove after missing 10 games over the last two seasons to injuries. If healthy, he could be stellar. Barrett also will try to bounce back from an injury- riddled season. Gregory has the type of versatility NewEngland covets, and could be moved all over the backfield. The Patriots have kept communication open with James Ihedigbo, who received plaudits for his on-field smarts last year, and he could be re-signed. They could be looking to Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith, Alabama’s Mark Barron, or South Carolina’s Antonio Allen as possible draft picks.

Special teams

Not a lot to quibble with here. Gostkowski returned from a leg injury last year and was as consistent as ever, making all of his extra-point tries and 28 of 33 field goal attempts. In his second year, Mesko showed improvement; he had 24 of his 57 punts downed inside the 20. Long snapper Aiken was picked up during camp and fit in well, with no major mistakes. Koepplin will likely help Gostkowski with the kicking load in the offseason and preseason.

CB: Devin McCourty (2014), Sterling Moore (2012), *Marquice Cole (2012)

DE: Brandon Deaderick (2013), Aaron Lavarias (2012)

OLB: Rob Ninkovich (2013), Tracy White (2012), *Trevor Scott (2012), *Bobby Carpenter (2012)

SS: Sergio Brown (2013), Josh Barrett (2012), Ross Ventrone (2012)

DT: Vince Wilfork (2014), Ron Brace (2012), *Marcus Harrison (2012)

MLB: Brandon Spikes (2013), Jeff Tarpinian (2012), Niko Koutouvides (2012), Mike Rivera (2012)

DT: Kyle Love (2012), Myron Pryor (2012)

FS: Patrick Chung (2012), *Steve Gregory (2014), Malcolm Williams (2012)

DE: *Jonathan Fanene (2014), Alex Silvestro (2012)

OLB: Jerod Mayo (2017), Jermaine Cunningham (2013), Dane Fletcher (2012), Markell Carter (2012)

CB: Kyle Arrington (2012), Ras-I Dowling (2014), *Will Allen (2012)

Wide receiver

There are a lot of names here, but outside of Welker, who will make the plays? Ochocinco was a major disappointment in his first year here, though he deserves credit for taking a big pay cut to remain for this year. Lloyd knows the system and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, so that could be a good foundation for him to build upon. Branch still has a role and is a trusted Brady target. Stallworth and Gonzalez are question marks at this point. Slater is a special-teams ace who was rewarded with a multiyear contract in March. One other fact: Many of these players could be gone in a year. The Patriots need to keep looking for young talent to groom.

Quarterback

Barring unforeseen circumstances, there is at least one decision Bill Belichick and his staff won’t be fretting over: Who will start under center. Brady was his usual consistent self in 2011, completing 65.6 percent of his passes (nearly identical to the marks he posted in 2009 and 2010) for a team-record 5,235 yards, with 39 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Behind the scenes, Hoyer has impressed team brass with his development. He sticks around for another season as Brady’s backup but will likely hit free agency next year. Mallett never took a snap as a rookie, but word is he had a good first season of growth.

Running back/fullback

Talk about a changing of the guard: Ridley, Woodhead, and Vereen combined for just 179 carries last year (BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 181). Before fumbles in the regular-season finale and playoff game against Denver, Ridley showed promise and explosion; NewEngland had just five rushes of 20-plus yards, all from the LSU product. Vereen lost nearly all of his rookie season to a pesky hamstring problem, and Woodhead sawhis touches go down after his surprising 2010 season. The Patriots have been in the market for a veteran back to add to the mix, and they brought in three for workouts last week: Joseph Addai, Ryan Grant, and Tim Hightower.

Tight end

Every team weighs risk vs. reward when it comes to the draft, and the Patriots have been rewarded handsomely for the risks they took drafting Gronkowski (back surgery) and Hernandez (off-field concerns). Gronkowski set league records for touchdowns and receptions by a tight end in 2011, and with just two years under his belt, there already are some who believe he could be the best ever at the position. Hernandez is a dynamic playmaker who has lined up all over the field, from out wide to in the slot to the backfield with Brady. Fells, signed away from Denver, adds depth and is a bit better at pass-blocking than Hernandez.

Offensive line

Light has held the left tackle position for more than a decade, but this week he was placed on the reserve/retired list, the clearest sign yet that his playing days are pretty much over. Solder was drafted last year to step in when Light stepped out, and said he’s ready to take on the challenge. Vollmer missed most of last season with a back injury, which is scary, but when he’s healthy, he’s very good. The big question marks are on the inside of the line: When will Mankins (ACL) be ready to go? Can Gallery fill in? Will Connolly win the center job that’s his to lose against Koppen? Do the Patriots already have Waters’s replacement (he’s a candidate to retire after 2012) in-house or should they draft him?

WR: Wes Welker (2012), Chad Ochocinco (2013), Matthew Slater (2014), Deion Branch (2012), Julian Edelman (2012), Britt Davis (2012)

LT: Nate Solder (2014), Matt Light (2012; on reserve/retired list), Kyle Hix (2013)

LG: Logan Mankins (2016), *Robert Gallery (2012), Nick McDonald (2013)

C: Dan Connolly (2014), Dan Koppen (2013)

RB: Stevan Ridley (2014), Shane Vereen (2014), Danny Woodhead (2012), *FB Tony Fiammetta (2012), *FB Spencer Larsen (2013)

QB: TomBrady (2014), Brian Hoyer (2012), Ryan Mallett (2014), *Mike Hartline (2012)

RG: Brian Waters (2012), Donald Thomas (2012), Ryan Wendell (2013)

RT: Sebastian Vollmer (2012), Marcus Cannon (2014), Matt Kopa (2012)

TE: Rob Gronkowski (2013), Aaron Hernandez (2013), *Daniel Fells (2014)

WR: *Brandon Lloyd (2014), Tiquan Underwood (2012), *Donte’ Stallworth (2012), *Anthony Gonzalez (2012)

Special teams: K Stephen Gostkowski (2014), P Zoltan Mesko (2013), LS Danny Aiken (2013), *K Chris Koepplin (2012)

Patriots draft picks per round

PICK 27

1st round, from New Orleans

PICK 31

1st round

PICK 16

2d round, 48th overall from Oakland

PICK 30

2d round, 62d overall

PICK 30

3d round, 93d overall

PICK 31

4th round, 126th over

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