Ladies and gentlemen, our long national nightmare is halfway over: The NFL offseason is at the midway point.
Sooner rather than later, teams will be heading back to camp and football will return on a regular basis. In fact, things will start to get interesting over the next month or so, as the Patriots have OTA’s and full-squad workouts — Monday marked the first day that rookies and veterans were in the Gillette Stadium locker room together as teammates.
But now, with the draft and initial rush of free agency in the books, the biggest team-building exercises are done. Barring a seismic trade (remember the deal for Ted Washington in the summer of 2003?) or a surprising release or two, the 53 guys who are going to be on the active roster for the regular season opener Sept. 12 against the Bengals probably all are in Foxboro already.
With that in mind, we went looking for the five biggest questions people have about the Patriots. In what turned into a combination Hot List/mailbag (with queries solicited via Twitter), here’s the five, and my best attempts to try and answer them:
@AngusCoal: “It’s simple, PLAIN & SIMPLE...who is going to rush the passer, the ghost of Seymour, McGinest, Colvin & Rodney past?”
Most of the questions I got dealt with the pass rush — it’s the biggest question facing this team. The Patriots struggled to get to the quarterback throughout the 2009 season (their 31 sacks last season was 13th in the AFC), and they did not acquire an impact pass rusher in free agency. As for new faces, they did draft Florida’s Jermaine Cunningham, but he was the only player who could be classified as a pass rusher, and it remains to be seen how much the rookie can contribute in his first season in the league. Another “new” face is outside linebacker Shawn Crable, who finally sounds like he’s going to be ready to go this summer, but as we all know, every bit of Crable-related information has to come with a disclaimer because he’s been on the shelf for two full years.
As for possible impact returnees in 2010, they brought back Derrick Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain, the latter of whom was the most consistent pass rusher on the team in 2009. But the belief here is the Patriots — who consistently preach team defense — decided the quickest way to improve the pass defense was to shore up the secondary instead of the pass rush, counting on defensive backs like the re-signed Leigh Bodden, rookie Devin McCourty and Darius Butler, who will be heading into his second season. Barring a trade, the hope is that better coverage will result in the quarterback holding on to the ball for an extended period, and consequently, more sacks.
@csoandy: “Is Brady back to form?”
Don’t know if he’s back to form, but the phrases that are coming out from Brady in two interviews recently (one with Peter King and one with “Dennis & Callahan”) certainly suggest that this offseason is dramatically different for the quarterback. Last offseason, he was all about rehabbing the knee. As a result, he clearly wasn’t where he wanted to be at the start of the 2009 season — statistically, he didn’t hit his stride until later in the year. This offseason, there’s been no rehabbing — instead, it’s been all about preparing for the 2010 season, which should give Patriots fans cause for optimism. “Last year I was ready for the season,” Brady told King, “but this year I’m not doing rehab. I’m just getting ready as normal for the season.”
If you’re looking for historical comparison, I’d point to what Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer did in their second year removed from their knee surgeries. (Granted, Manning’s knee surgery was far less invasive, but the two contemporaries use each other as measuring sticks in almost every other department, so I think it’s pertinent in this discussion.) Manning’s 2009 numbers are here, while Palmer’s 2007 numbers are here. Again, both comparisons should provide some sense of optimism for Patriots’ fans.
@WAD1980: “[I have] concerns w/ offense. WR & RB depth. Last yr I was of the belief that the team failed due to offensive woes. Bad red Zone. I am not convinced Tate and Edelman can solves those issues. They may but we have to see it."
When it comes to wide receiver, they did add depth, making some intriguing veteran additions on the outside in David Patten and Torry Holt. (Opinions vary on what Holt could still bring to the table. In addition, there is speculation as to whether or not Patten can play at the same high level he reached while with the Patriots in the earlier part of the decade.) Like the pass-rush position, they will get an infusion of talent from a relatively new player in Brandon Tate who essentially took a redshirt year, while there is no reason to think Edelman won’t be able to at least match last year’s numbers. The question is “Could Edelman sustain that level of production over an extended time as the primary slot receiver?” If Welker is out for an extended period of time, much more responsibility out of the slot will fall on Edelman’s shoulders. That is where the biggest question remains, one we won’t know the answer to until (possibly) the start of the season.
As for the rest of the wide receivers, while he is no longer the transcendent pass-catcher he was when he arrived in 2007, after a year when he was dogged by injury, Randy Moss should again provide a vertical threat. The rest of the receiving corps will be rounded out by a group that includes rookie Taylor Price, as well as Sam Aiken, Isaiah Stanback and Matthew Slater. Not a group of world-beaters, but a collection that will provide some depth.
At running back, it should be the same quintet as last year: Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. If Taylor can remain healthy — a big if — he could provide a sizable impact, but it figures to be a fight between Taylor, Maroney and Morris for carries, while Faulk will do what he does best: catch passes out of the backfield and serve as the No. 1 option in blitz pickup.
One thing that does bear watching at the running back spot going forward is the fact that all of the primary options at the position, including Maroney, Taylor, Morris and Faulk are in the final year of their contracts. It’s something they are all well aware of — Faulk noted it in a sitdown with reporters last week at Gillette Stadium. But at the same time, it sounds like they’re comfortable where they are — no potential impact running backs were brought in via the draft or free agency.
“They felt comfortable with what we were doing, of what we did last year, so why change it?” asked Faulk last week. “The fact of the matter that hey, they never brought a guy in, they have confidence in us now.”
@Dan_Mullen: “My biggest question is: Which players are going to step up and fill leadership role? Sounds like Vince is ready to. Who else?”
After Vince Wilfork signed his new deal, he held an epic conference call where he went on a nearly five-minute rant about the state of leadership on the Patriots. And while Vince isn’t a real “rah-rah” type of guy — and may guys on the defensive side of the ball already look at him as a leader — he will clearly be one to watch when it comes to leadership in 2010. I think there will also be some of the usual veterans, guys like Tom Brady, Kevin Faulk and Stephen Neal, who will re-examine the way they went about serving as leaders last season. (“I was one of the leaders last year and obviously I sucked at doing that,” Brady told D&C.)
But in many respects, this is a team in transition when it comes to leadership. A lot of younger guys — players who might have been a little uncomfortable doing so in the last year or two in a locker room filled with Rodney Harrisons, Richard Seymours and Mike Vrabels — weren’t ready to be leaders in 2009. Simply put, I don’t think they were ready to step up and assume the mantle of leader. But many of those guys will likely be more vocal in their leadership styles this season. Two players who come to mind who have already openly speculated that they need to be more vocal leaders this year are Dan Koppen and Leigh Bodden. And then, there’s Jerod Mayo, who is also not a real outgoing emotional type when it comes to rallying the troops, but will almost certainly be asked to provide more of a leadership role than he did last year.
@drjefflo: “Will Coach Bill be calling all the shots on offense and defense or will there be input from the coaching staff this season?”
Belichick will still makes the final decisions on play-calling — he said as much in interviews with The Big Show — and that will be the case in 2010 on both sides of the ball. As for input, it’s tough to gauge with such a small sample size, but after spending a couple of days at rookie minicamp, it appears that the two guys who have the most responsibility this season will be Bill O’Brien and Matt Patricia, both of whom were really hands on with the offense and defense, respectively. O’Brien spent the 2009 season as the quarterbacks coach, but was one of several people who were calling plays on the offensive side of the ball. In 2010, O’Brien will likely have his fingerprints all over the offensive game plan.
While Patricia was active with the defensive guys last season (as was Pepper Johnson), I’d reserve judgment on who will have the most input on the defensive side of the ball, at least right now. The best indicator? Who is wearing the red shirt on the sidelines this fall. For the Patriots, the defensive coordinator has traditionally worn a red shirt or jacket (really — we aren’t kidding). It allows them to stand out on a sideline of mostly blue or white when it comes to making the defensive calls. Whoever is wearing red when the season opens will have the most say on defense.