With the Patriots' training camp approaching, the team has been left with some interesting positional battles to monitor and some roster decisions to make. I'll try and break down the Pats' roster, position-by-position, and discuss possible roster cuts, as well as needs.
Let's start with the offense.
Tom Brady, Matt Cassel, Matt Gutierrez, Kevin O'Connell
Of course, the Pats don't need much help in the quarterback department: Tom Brady is the best QB in the league.
However, it would be ignorant for the front office to ignore the threat of injuries. With that in mind, the Pats have stacked three quarterbacks behind Brady: Matt Cassel, Matt Gutierrez, and Kevin O'Connell.
Matt Cassel, the returning No. 2 QB, has the prototypical quarterback build (6'4", 230lbs), and is quite possibly the best backup quarterback to ever exist (he backed up Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC before coming to the NFL to watch Brady).
However, he failed to impress in his few opportunities last year, even with all the offensive weapons a quarterback could ask for. He is also entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Next is Matt Gutierrez, who beat out veteran Vinnie Testaverde for a roster spot last year. He has a decent arm and has above average speed, but he has not distinguished himself in any one way. He was listed as the third QB last season, and started getting more opportunities when Cassel failed to impress.
The team's lack of confidence in Cassel (or lack of confidence in him returning next year) was apparent when they drafted QB Kevin O'Connell 94th overall. O'Connell has great speed, a good arm, and is a natural leader (he led San Diego State in both rushing and passing yards in 2007, while serving as captain for each of his four seasons with the team). He is a great athlete and I would be shocked to see him released by the team.
Expected Cut: None. I expect the Pats to carry four quarterbacks, and use O'Connell in creative ways. However, if they do cut a player, expect it to be Cassel or Gutierrez—and expect them to be grabbed before they clear waivers, which would prevent them from being signed to the practice squad.
Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis
The Patriots' running-back situation is a difficult one to analyze: they're extremely skilled, but they also lack durability.
Laurence Maroney has shown steady improvement since being drafted by the Pats, but he has shown a tendency to let his injuries linger. Last year, his lack of reps caused some NFL analysts to question whether Maroney still had the full support of the Pats' staff (the Patriots refuted this claim). Maroney quieted naysayers with a strong surge late in the season.
Sammy Morris is a beast, but an injury against the Cowboys sidelined him for the remainder of last season. Whether or not he's healthy is going to make a huge difference in the coming season: Morris is the team's pound-it-out RB, and is essential to Maroney's success.
Nothing much needs to be said about Kevin Faulk. He has been one of the most consistent, team-first players in the Pats' organization for years. Even with all those offensive weapons to choose from, Tom Brady still seems to trust Kevin Faulk more than most of his other targets. And for good reason, too. Faulk rarely drops a pass or misses a block. He's the model Patriot.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis was considered a sleeper in the NFL draft. He is touted as a having a rare package of agility, acceleration, and size. He does, however, lack skills in the passing game, which will most likely lead to his release. On the Pats, you need to be able to catch, unless you're damn good at something else.
Expected Cut: BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Pats will likely try to retain him on their practice squad.
Heath Evans, Kyle Eckel
Heath Evans was released by the Dolphins a few years ago and immediately became a cornerstone in the Patriots' offense. He has shown consistency in his running game and in his blocking ability, though he is only above average in both categories. He is the typical Patriots role-player and doesn't look to be replaced.
Behind Evans is Belichick's Navy guy, Kyle Eckel. Eckel was used sparingly last year, but will most likely make the 53-man cut. He'll primarily contribute on special teams, where he had success in the postseason.
Expected Cut: None
Not much needs to be said about the receiving staff that includes one player who had the most receptions in the NFL last season, and another who set the NFL record for TD receptions.
Donte Stallworth will soon be forgotten in New England, thanks to the continued improvement of Jabar Gaffney (who surpassed Stallworth as the No. 3 receiver partway through last season).
The Stallworth departure also opens the door for young, underperforming WR Chad Jackson. Still trying to justify the Patriots' trading up to draft him, Jackson has been reportedly working with the first-team squad in training camp.
This comes as good news to the Pats, because he has only been wasting a roster spot for the past few seasons. To his credit, Jackson has been injured for much of his career.
Kelley Washington was amazing last year, yet he didn't catch a single pass. It turns out that being a special-teams gunner is what this guy was built for. Realizing that he was used more productively in New England, Washington chose to re-sign with the team for a much smaller contract. Don't expect to see him much in the receiving game, but I can't say he'll put up another zero-catch year.
Matthew Slater, who also moonlights as a safety, will most likely be the Patriots' primary kick and punt returner. Don't expect to see him much (if at all) at the receiver position. He had a stellar career in college returning kicks, and has been compared to Devin Hester by many NFL scouts. Slater was also the first rookie to sign a contract with the club, with the Pats inking him to a four-year deal.
Sam Aiken has been, and will continue to be, used primarily on special teams. Expectations for him are low. Don't expect much more from C.J Jones or Robert Ortiz, either. Both players will most likely be cut or signed to the practice squad.
Needs: None whatsoever
Expected Cut: Robert Ortiz and C.J Jones, with Jones re-signing as a practice-squad player
Ben Watson, David Thomas, Marcus Pollard, Stephen Spach, Jonathan Stupar
Tight end is a position of some concern for the Pats. Watson and Thomas have both had recent injuries and surgeries, while newly signed Marcus Pollard showed his age last year in Seattle. However, assuming all of these tight ends stay healthy, the Patriots still need some help.
Ben Watson is a great tight end (yeah, I said great) who has gotten a bad rep. Expectations were set high when he looked to be Brady's go-to guy (over Reche "wide-eyes" Caldwell), but opponents also recognized that he was Brady's most viable option and game-planned against him accordingly.
Even though his numbers aren't bloated, Watson has skill; there's no denying it. He's fast, he can run his routes properly, and he can catch. He's improving as a blocker, but can't fight off some of the bigger pass-rushers in the game, and he's a bit injury prone. If he can step his game up a bit, he'll be one of the highest scoring TEs in the NFL in 2008.
Behind him comes David Thomas, who sat out last year with a broken foot. Although he has yet to see extended playing time, Thomas has exceptional hands (he's one of the biggest reasons Vince Young was able to look so good in college). His fault lies in his blocking ability, which I hear has been improving. If Thomas is healthy, he'll be a regular contributor in the passing game.
Next up is Marcus Pollard, who has been a receiving TE throughout his career, but developed the "dropsies" in Seattle last season. How well (or poorly) he's aged is of concern to the Pats, but he is exactly the type of player that could thrive in Belichick's "do one thing and do it well" system. I expect some good things from Pollard this season.
Stephen Spach was signed last year in emergency, didn't really do much, and will likely be released by the team (and re-signed in case of emergency). Rookie TE Jonathan Stupar is also on the fringe. Expect both of these tight ends to be released, and a blocking tight end signed in their place.
Needs: A blocker
Expected Cuts: Stephen Spach, Jonathan Stupar
Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell, Logan Mankins, Billy Yates, Stephen Neal, Oliver Ross, Russ Hochstein, Gene Mruczkowski, Dan Connolly, Jimmy Martin, Matt Light, Wesley Britt, Nick Kaczur, Ryan O'Callaghan
To wrap up this discussion, we dive into the biggest question mark for the Patriots: the offensive line. After performing brilliantly all season long, they were exposed as a tired, slow group against the Giants in the Super Bowl. Add in a couple injuries and the fact that Nick Kazcur's availability for the season is unknown, and the Pats have some work to do.
On the left side of the line, Matt Light stands as one of the league's top left tackles. He's strong, fundamentally sound, and intelligent, but he looked like the slowest of the bunch in the Super Bowl.
Next to Light is Logan Mankins, a player the Patriots were criticized for drafting so early (32nd overall). Of course, the Pats saw something in Mankins, and now the rest of the league sees it, too. He's easily one of the top five (if not the best) left guards in the game.
At center, Dan Koppen will be snapping to Brady once again. After stepping in as a rookie starter (due to injuries) in 2003, Koppen started 46 consecutive games on the way to back-to-back Super Bowl championships. He is a cornerstone of the offensive line, and will not be replaced for a long, long time.
The right side of the line is of more concern. Nick Kaczur may face a personal-conduct penalty from the NFL, and no single player has shown the consistency to be a lock at either the RG or RT positions. Assuming Kaczur can play, he will most likely split time with Ryan O'Callaghan at tackle, while Stephen Neal (if healthy) remains in the guard spot.
The problem with the right side is that there are too many "what-ifs". Injuries have plagued the offensive line (notably the right side), off-field issues are arising, and consistency of play has been an issue. The Patriots need at least one "lock" on the right side, either at guard or tackle.
Regardless of these needs, don't expect the OL to be any worse than a top-five group. The Patriots have shown an ability to be extremely successful with a patchwork offensive line in the past few years.
Needs: A right-side starter
Expected Cuts: Jimmy Martin, Ryan Wendell. I expect most of last year's backups to be with the club again this year
Well, that about does it for the offensive side of things. What do you think? There aren't many needs here, just a blocking tight end and some right offensive-line help. I completely expect this group to deliver similar results to last year's record-breaking offense.