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Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallet – Not much dispute at this position as Brady is clearly the man. However, the battle for backup between third-year man Brian Hoyer and rookie Ryan Mallet is an interesting storyline to watch should catastrophe strike.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen – Each runner contributed in several aspects during the preseason in different situations. Green-Ellis got a majority of goal line carries when he played, while Woodhead provided excellent runs and hands out of the backfield, especially in shotgun formation. The roles of rookies Vereen and Ridley are unknown, but both players looked sharp in exhibition games.
Surprise – Sammy Morris – Morris is somewhat of a surprise due to his leadership and his special teams play. The NFL’s new kickoff rule from the 35 ultimately harms Morris though, as being the fifth back in a stable of young, talented rushers provided his fate.
Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, Julian Edelman, Taylor Price, Matt Slater – This position is not only of the deepest on the roster, but also most experienced. Welker, Branch and Ochocinco should start the year and hopefully mentor youngsters Edelman and Price, who both looked explosive in the preseason. While Slater does not expect to see many reps at wideout, his presence on special teams continues to keep Coach Bill Belichick happy enough to employ him.
Surprises – Brandon Tate, Matt Slater – Like Morris, Tate’s value was greatly diminished by the new kickoff rule. While Tate can run fast, his inability to contribute as much in the kicking game coupled with the emergence of Price and trade of Ochocinco shifted Tate down the depth chart. Slater is a different case, as his value on special teams saved him a roster spot. Slater is often seen on both kickoff and punt coverage and has made some big plays in his tenure.
Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Dan Gronkowski – The sophomore tight ends can hopefully develop as expected. The team released fifth-round pick Lee Smith and training camp standout Will Yeatman, who were both claimed off waivers by the Bills and Dolphins respectively. The Patriots signed free agent and Rob’s brother Dan Gronkowski on Tuesday, who should add depth to the position.
Matt Light, Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Brian Waters – Light, Mankins, Koppen and Vollmer are locks to start, but the starter at right guard remains unsure. Recently signed Brian Waters, a Pro-Bowler in 2010 with the Chiefs, stated he is ready to start Monday if needed. Dan Connolly is the other option to consider if Waters is not ready in time. First round pick Nate Solder is a good third option and could be an asset around the goal line. Wendell provides depth on the interior.
Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter, Jermaine Cunningham, Kyle Love, Mike Wright, Myron Pryor, Mark Anderson- Belichick completely reloaded the defensive front in the offseason, turning most of a line that allowed over 100 yards to the Jets in the postseason over. Wilfork remains the lone starter to remain after the Pats acquired Hayesworth, Ellis, Carter and Anderson to greatly bolster the position. Wright recorded 5.5 sacks in 10 games last year, while Cunningham looks to be a force off the edge after moving from 3-4 outside backer. Love and Pryor fill out the position and are solid role players to bolster the position’s depth.
Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Gary Guyton, Rob Ninkovich, Dane Fletcher, Tracy White, Jeff Tarpinian, AJ Edds – Mayo has impressed in his change to the outside in 4-3 alignments, while Brandon Spikes looks to be a tremendous run stuffer behind the big boys on the defensive line. The third linebacker remains a question, with Guyton, Ninkovich and Fletcher vying for the role. White is superb on special teams while Tarpinian impressed enough in camp as an undrafted rookie to make the squad. Claimed on Wednesday from Miami, Edds looks role is unknown, but he may contribute in the kicking game.
Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Antwaun Molden- Belichick is showing a belief in strength in numbers, keeping a total of five corners. McCourty is expected to start on the left side, but his partner opposite is still in the air however. Arrington saw snaps on the outside during the preseason, but Bodden’s return from could be enough to earn the starting role, shifting Arrington to the slot. Third-round pick Dowling, a 6’2” corner, is an interesting project to watch, but only appeared once in the preseason. Molden, a fourth-year player from Eastern Kentucky, was claimed off waivers from the Texans prior to the preseason finale and delivered a tremendous performance against the Giants to earn his spot.
Surprise – Darius Bulter – Bulter’s horrid 2010 marred a solid rookie campaign in 2009, where he registered three interceptions. An awful sophomore year and unimpressive preseason doomed the UConn alum, as Belichick released Butler on Tuesday to sign Gronkowski.
Pat Chung, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, James Ihedigbo – The release of Brandon Meriweather is clearly the offseason story, but the emergence of third-year rising star Pat Chung is instrumental to the play of the safeties. The Patriots signed former Jet Ihedigbo to possibly play with Chung, but Josh Barrett and Brown could compete for snaps based on early season play. Both will also play on special teams. One intriguing concept to consider is shifting Dowling to safety, similar to what Belichick did with Eugene Wilson in 2003, or signing a veteran like Darren Sharper, who remains a free agent.
Surprise – Brandon Meriweather – Meriweather’s release surprised some fans, while others saw the writing on the wall. Despite two Pro-Bowl seasons, the Patriots clearly have not received the production they expected from the Big Bang Clock. Belichick has sent plenty of messages to Meriweather throughout the years, playing him late in preseason play, benching’s, etc. All were lost on Meriweather, forcing the Patriots to play three relatively unknown safeties opposite Chung.
Stephen Gostkowski, Zoltan Mesko, Danny Aiken – Gostowski returns after a season ending injury in 2010, while the sophomore punter Mesko will look to improve the Patriots’ kicking game. Danny Aiken has been signed to long snap, but with the instability at the position over the past few years, this could be a revolving door position.