Above all others, one player has consistently frustrated the New England fan base more than anyone else over the last few seasons. For the third consecutive summer, the question remains: Is this the year when running back Laurence Maroney gets it all together?
The Patriots took Maroney with the 21st pick in the 2006 draft, ahead of the more highly-acclaimed DeAngelo Williams, as well as before Joseph Addai and Maurice Jones-Drew. Maroney was a flashy home-run hitter at Minnesota, and his Internet highlight reel had the fan base instantly tickled.
And things got off to a really good start. While complimenting Corey Dillon as a rookie, Maroney rushed for 745 yards and six touchdowns, and he averaged 28.0 yards per kickoff return. His emergence helped the Patriots part ways with Dillon after the 2006 season, and Maroney earned the majority of the carries in 2007.
Maroney was pretty good during his sophomore campaign, fighting through a groin injury to rush for 835 yards and six touchdowns on a team that achieved record-setting passing marks. He was even better in the playoffs, rushing for 280 yards and three touchdowns in three games.
But Maroney broke his shoulder against the Jets in 2008 and rushed for just 93 yards in three games. Last season, though, was basically a microcosm of his career. He had a six-game stretch in which he rushed for 420 yards and eight touchdowns, but he followed that up with a fumbling epidemic that arguably cost the Patriots a victory in Indianapolis and eventually led to his benching at the end of the season.
Most troubling, Maroney hasn’t really corrected the issues that have haunted him since he entered the NFL. He has happy feet in the backfield, doesn’t hit the hole with conviction, sometimes tries to dance too much and avoids contact.
In college — particularly in the Big Ten, which is deemed to be slower in relation to other conferences — Maroney was typically the fastest player on the field, and he could get away with these things because he just ran circles around defenders. But in the NFL, the running game is ultimately an 11-man commitment, not a one-man show.
Last month, Maroney said he's still got to improve his film study to learn how his offensive linemen are reading the defense and taking on their blocks. That’s fairly alarming to hear from a running back who is entering his fifth season, especially when his inability to run through those holes has been an issue for most of his career.
So, will Maroney's recognition of this yield better results, or will he continue to trend in unpredictable fashion like the stock market? He hasn’t provided a body of work that would suggest it will all simply click one day, but he's not exactly eating up a big chunk of owner Robert Kraft's bank account (the Patriots would reportedly save $530,000 if they cut Maroney this season, which is the last on his five-year contract).
At the very least, Maroney adds a change of pace from New England's other running backs — Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis — so it's probably worthwhile to keep him around for one more season.
However, head coach Bill Belichick was clearly aggravated with Maroney last season, and if Belichick doesn’t see enough improvement during training camp, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if Maroney is shown the door.
Outside expectations for Maroney are so wide-ranging, and that’s what has irked the team's fan base for several seasons.
NESN.com will be answering one Patriots question every day until July 24.
Tuesday, July 6: Can Bill O'Brien be more creative with play-calling?
Thursday, July 8: How will Randy Moss play in a contract year?