After scouting the New England Patriots? competition in the AFC East this week, it?s only fair to provide an early gander at the team right down the road on Route 1.
Patriots? 2008 finish: 11-5 (second in AFC East; missed playoffs)
Key additions: Running back Fred Taylor, wide receiver Joey Galloway, wide receiver Greg Lewis, tight end Chris Baker, tight end Alex Smith, cornerback Shawn Springs, cornerback Leigh Bodden
Key losses: Quarterback Matt Cassel, outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, strong safety Rodney Harrison, cornerback Ellis Hobbs, linebacker Junior Seau, wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, running back LaMont Jordan, fullback Heath Evans, long snapper Lonie Paxton, inside linebacker/special teamer Larry Izzo, wide receiver/special teamer Kelley Washington
Key draftees: Safety Patrick Chung, cornerback Darius Butler, defensive lineman Ron Brace
Why the Patriots will return to the top: Simple enough, they?re the best team in the NFL, and they?re getting quarterback Tom Brady back from a knee injury — if you haven?t heard by now. The Patriots won 11 games last season with a quarterback who hadn?t started a game since high school, and they might be even deeper at nearly every position in 2009.
Running back Fred Taylor will be a perfect addition to the Pats? spread offense, as he excels at blocking and catching passes out of the backfield. Plus, Galloway and Lewis give the Patriots a set of wide receivers that might be even better than the group they had during their record-setting 2007 campaign. It?s also worth noting that Brady and Randy Moss have worked together more during their 2009 offseason camps than they ever have before due to past injuries. That chemistry is a scary thought for a duo that combined for the best single season in history in 2007, when they basically went into the regular season cold turkey. If you need more, Baker and Smith will add much more depth to a group of tight ends that weren?t a tremendously productive group last season.
The offense hasn't been an issue, though, and this season, the secondary won?t be one, either. The Patriots never fully recovered after losing cornerback Asante Samuel to the Philadelphia Eagles prior to the 2008 season, and they were continuously short-handed as a result. They allowed 27 passing touchdowns last year, the second-worst mark in the league, and the Patriots surrendered at least 30 points in four of their five losses. With Springs, Bodden and Butler alongside Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, the Patriots have five talented corners, and that figures to be a position of strength in 2009.
Why there might not be enough in New England: As the Patriots saw last season, it would likely take something catastrophic — or at least, a series of brutal events — for them to fall anything short of the AFC Championship game. However, the Patriots aren?t invincible, and there are a few causes for concern as they head into training camp.
The trade of Vrabel and the retirement of Harrison have left the Pats without two of their smartest defensive players and most inspirational leaders. There has never been an issue this team hasn?t been able to self-police, and a large amount of that credit belongs in the corners of Vrabel and Harrison. There are obviously still plenty of leaders in that locker room, but you can?t really predict how a team will handle losing such instrumental voices.
Trading Vrabel has also left the Patriots thin at linebacker, particularly on the outside. It won?t be anything that will make or break their season, but they?re really going to need players like Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable and Gary Guyton to continue improving and make an impact.
And finally, the elephant in the room: We think Brady is fine. He moved around with relative ease during the Patriots? organized team activities and June minicamp, and he appears to be well on his way to having another great season. But we never truly know how an athlete will come back from a torn-up knee, and we?re still waiting for Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer to revert to his former self after blowing out his knee during the 2005 playoffs.
It?s a positive sign for Brady that the Patriots moved quarterback Matt Cassel to the Kansas City Chiefs, and there?s no reason to believe his recovery isn?t up to speed. After all, he was practicing last month throughout the heavy rain, when he would have had every excuse in the world to take the day off. Still, there?s no way to know with absolute certainty that he is back to form until he takes his first snap in live action, and until then, there is an unavoidable seed of doubt.
But for what it?s worth, I wouldn?t count out the guy who slayed the Greatest Show on Turf.