The Patriots will open their 2009 training camp in just over four months. With the understanding this list may need to be tweaked between now and the last week of July because of personnel decisions, here’s our take on who’s going to be drawing extra attention when the heat is on this summer.
1. Laurence Maroney. To be polite, Maroney has been a mixed bag since he showed up in Foxborough in 2006. There have been plenty of impressive performances — in particular, he was effective as the No. 1 back late in 2007, delivering five 100-plus yard efforts that year (including back-to-back 100-yard plus efforts in the postseason). In addition, he’s averaged a perfectly respectable 4.3 yards per carry over the course of his career.
But other times, Maroney has been maddeningly inconsistent, tossing in more than his share of subpar performances. His toughness has been called into questions on several occasions, including once when teammates (only semi-jokingly) dumped diapers into his locker. For a back that checks in at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, he looks like a runner who can take a hit, but his constant dancing at the offensive line has left New England football fans shaking their heads. (Google “Maroney” and “dancing at the line,” and you get 4,230 responses.)
Things didn’t get any better for the man called “Kool-Aid” last season: After he went down with a season-ending shoulder injury early in the year, New England used a collection of running backs in his place (Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, LaMont Jordan, BenJarvus Green-Ellis) and was able to move the ball on the ground with some consistency, finishing in the Top 10 in every major rushing category across the board without him.
And now, with the Patriots dropping Jordan and adding Fred Taylor, its clear Maroney is entering a key stretch of his pro career. The running back would do well to heed the words of his 2006 draft classmate Chad Jackson, who was blunt when it came to offering advice about how to survive in the NFL. “Don’t get hurt,” Jackson warned shortly before the Patriots cut him last summer. “Once you get hurt, you fall way behind, especially in this league.”
2. Ben Watson. On the surface, Watson has always struck me as a Patriots kind of football player. He is exceedingly intelligent. He always provides insightful and thought-provoking — but never too insightful or thought-provoking — answers for the media. A workout warrior, he appears to be chiseled out of marble. And since his injury-riddled rookie season, he’s been fairly reliable, having played at least 12 regular-season games every year since 2005.
So why should he worry? Since he peaked with 49 catches for 643 yards in 2006, Watson’s numbers have steadily decreased across the board to the point where he’s almost an offensive afterthought. In the final six games last season, Watson caught a total of just three passes, the last of which was his football-under-the-shirt touchdown celebration against Seattle on Dec. 7 he meant as a shout-out to his pregnant wife.
In fact, Watson and David Thomas should worry about their situation. If Watson thinks he had it bad, he should listen to Thomas’ tale of woe — after his crucial penalty in a Nov. 2 loss to the Colts, he didn’t catch a single pass the rest of the season. One or two games without a significant contribution from your tight end in the passing game can be explained away behind the cover of an offensive game plan, but when your two top tight ends go the final six games of the season with three receptions between them, it’s clear there’s a glitch in the system.
The Patriots went out and got former Jets tight end Chris Baker in free agency, and if Baker can be the blocker/receiver he was a couple of years ago in New York, it could mean a significant decrease in playing time for both Watson and Thomas.
3. Nick Kaczur. Like Maroney, Kaczur has seen plenty of good and bad in his time in New England. There have been some very good moments — he was a starting offensive lineman for the 2007 Patriots, and was part of a unit that kept Tom Brady’s uniform absolutely clean … until Super Bowl XLII, anyway. After some injury troubles at the start of his pro career, he’s been durable, having started every game at right tackle for the Patriots since Week 8 of the 2006 season. And he does have some positional versatility — he flipped to left tackle in 2005 when starter Matt Light went down with injury — which could work in his favor if he gets pushed out of the starting right tackle spot by Ryan O’Callaghan.
But there have been plenty of embarrassments, both on and off the field, the worst of which included a 2008 arrest for oxycodone. Super Bowl XLII was a collective black mark against the New England offensive line. And while the Patriots collectively cut way back on penalties last season, Kaczur led all New England offensive linemen in false starts. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots grab another right tackle in the late round of the draft to push the big Canadian. At the very least, the looming position battle between Kaczur and O’Callaghan will bear watching this summer.
4. Brandon Merwieather. Meriweather will be in the spotlight this summer, but not for the reasons that have dogged Maroney, Watson and Kaczur. Instead, the young safety will likely be looked at as someone who needs to build on the success he had at the end of the 2008 season. In his second full season in the NFL, he played the best football of his professional career down the stretch last year, peaking in the win over Seattle when he delivered a key sack of Seneca Wallace late in the contest. In all, he started every game after Oct. 26, and while he didn’t re-invent the position, there were clear indications he had started to take his game to the next level. His hands — which betrayed him on several occasions as a rookie, by his own admission — were noticeably better, as he came away with four interceptions. And he hit double-digits in tackles twice down the stretch.
“He has certainly come a long way as a player in these two seasons and continues to get better,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said last December. “He is a really dependable guy. He's smart and makes very few errors back there in the secondary — not just himself, but also in terms of the overall communication back there with the group. He is playing with a lot of confidence and we have a lot of confidence in him because of the way he's been playing.”
The New England secondary will soon have to deal with the post-Rodney Harrison era. If Merwieather (and, for that matter James Sanders) can build on the success he enjoyed at the end of last season, it will go a long way toward establishing some long-term to the Patriots’ defensive backfield.
5. Nathan Hodel. On the surface, the long snapper probably isn’t going to get much ink. But when you’re replacing Lonie Paxton — a player who became a folk hero in New England, someone who never delivered a bad snap on a punt or a kick in the last nine seasons — there’ll be plenty of eyeballs on you.
The 31-year-old Hodel snapped for Carolina and Arizona, spending seven years with the Cardinals before getting released on Feb. 26 of this year. He has handled big games previously, having snapped for Arizona during their run to the Super Bowl this past season. (For what its worth, he’s also had four knee surgeries.) Paxton’s hallmarks were steadiness and consistency, executing flawless snaps in several big games over the last few years. He set the bar high — it’ll be interesting to see if he can match Paxton.
EXTRA POINTS: Are you a Patriots’ fan who has you posted your mock draft online? Send us a link, and we’ll make sure to promote it in a future edition of “The Hot List.” We’ll put together our Top 5 mocks from New England football fans some time before next month’s draft.
Christopher Price covers the Patriots for WEEI.com.