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Patriots 2012 Roster Preview: Will the Kids be Alright?

Deion Branch (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Michael Felger began his show on Tuesday with a very interesting question. I am paraphrasing, but the question was do Patriot fans feel the same way about the team’s chances this year as they did at the beginning of training camp?

Felger and Massarotti spent a lot of time discussing a Monday column by the Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard, who discussed some of the Patriots’ recent moves as they trimmed their roster to the league-mandated 53. Bedard also revealed the shocking truth that this is youngest team Bill Belichick has coached in his 13 years in New England.

Bedard’s column was excellent, not because all the material is spot-on, but because it taps into some of anxiety that may be going through the minds of Patriots fans right now.

Just to recap, in the offseason, the Patriots traded up twice in the NFL draft to select defensive end Chandler Jones and All-American linebacker Dont’a Hightower. In an election year, this fired up the base. Then, after a patient start to free agency, the Patriots seemed to add key pieces.

Here were some of the notable signings:

  • DE Jonathan Fanene – 6.5 Sacks last season.
  • S Stephen Gregory – 67 tackles, 1 INT in 15 games last year.
  • LB Bobby Carpenter – 16 GP, 29 tackles, 1 Touchdown
  • WR Brandon Lloyd – 70 receptions, 966 receiving yards, 5 Touchdowns
  • WR Jabar Gaffney – Career best 68 receptions, 947 receiving yards, 5 Touchdowns
  • TE Daniel Fells – 15 starts, 19 receptions, 3 Touchdowns
  • TE Visanthe Shiancoe – 14 starts, 36 receptions, 3 Touchdowns
  • G Robert Gallery – 12 Starts with Seattle last year
  • WR Donte Stallworth – 22 receptions, 11 games played, 2 Touchdowns

The Patriots also resigned Deion Branch, who started 15 games last year and had 51 receptions. And finally, we were told over and over that the conventional wisdom was that Brian Waters, who started all 16 games for the Patriots last season, would return to the team instead of retiring.

Fanene was injured and then cut. Robert Gallery retired. Shiancoe has yet to get on the field. Stallworth and Carpenter were also released. The shockers of camp though were the releases of both Jabar Gaffney, who was injured in camp but coming off a career year, and Deion Branch, a Brady favorite, who had been one of the few receivers to make any plays in the preseason. Both Gaffney and Branch can return after Week 1 in non-guaranteed deals but Gaffney has worked out for the Dolphins recently, so stay tuned.

Matt Light retired in the offseason, Brian Waters apparently isn’t coming to Foxboro and the play of the offensive line both during training camp and in pre-season was not good. So there is reason for concern. That being said, this team still has Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Rob Gronkowski and a favorable schedule and should be considered the favorite in the AFC.

So, let’s break down a few key tidbits from Bedard’s column.

“Why did the Patriots, in what used to feel like was an “all-in, go-for-it, cover-every-base bid to get another Super Bowl title” season, decide to part with experience now? Part of it was the key older players they cut (Dan Koppen, Deion Branch, James Ihedigbo, Bobby Carpenter, and Brian Hoyer) either weren’t better than the other players, or the difference wasn’t that great, so why spend more money?”

Bedard hints at a salary xap squeeze down the line and although that might have been a slight factor, I disagree. Belichick has never hesitated in cutting a veteran who he felt was past his prime. Usually that plan has worked with a few exceptions. Last year, his decision to cut James Sanders in favor of Josh Barrett did not work out well. Sanders, while not Ed Reed, had been a consistent performer for the Patriots in 2011. He was a capable starter in Atlanta with the Falcons last year.

“The Patriots hit on some that were very cost effective, like Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, but $11 million is a big bagel to swallow. That’s money wasted when if they were just a tad better at drafting and didn’t have to rely on free agent retreads, they could have saved a ton of cash and reinvested that in the roster (Wes Welker anyone?).”

I can’t argue with Bedard on this point. The Patriots definitely went through a lull in the draft, like all teams do. While I would have not broken the bank for Welker this offseason, you can make an argument that some of that dead money could have brokered the gap between Welker and the Patriots at the negotiating table. Both sides could also have worked to get a deal done sooner.

“I’m increasingly starting to believe, from the free agent missteps to questionable decisions such as Hoyer’s tender, that the Patriots’ real front office is solely in Belichick’s head, and when he decides to let his lieutenants in on his thinking, it’s very late, they have to scramble, things get rushed, and there isn’t enough time for someone to say, “Hey Bill, maybe we want to think about this a different way.” If there is anybody who can do that after Scott Pioli left, that is.”

This might be true on defense. Maybe Belichick decides at the last second that Mike Rivera offers more to the Patriots right now than Bobby Carpenter could. After last season, is it possible that he feels you can play with the bottom of your roster on a week-by-week basis? But, what I don’t buy is that Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator of the Patriots and former head coach of the Broncos, would cower to Belchick on offensive personnel decisions. McDaniels is not 28 years old anymore. He could have probably taken a job elsewhere, but he chose to come back to New England. If McDaniels really wanted Gaffney or Branch here, then I think they would be here. Remember, TE Daniel Fells, WR Brandon Lloyd and WR Greg Salas all played for McDaniels in Denver or St. Louis.

“As long as Lloyd stays healthy, the Patriots have the missing boundary piece they need in the tight end-heavy offense. Branch was not that. There are always drawbacks in assembling rosters certain ways, and by going younger, the Patriots are basically operating with less of a net. The biggest areas of concern are backups at quarterback, running back, offensive tackle, end, and linebacker.”

This is the gamble. A gamble Belichick has never been afraid to take. In the end, the Patriots have always been able to bridge the talent and injury gap because of Belichick’s coaching or Tom Brady just being Tom Brady. Last year, late in the AFC Championship game, Tom Brady was intercepted trying to force a pass to backup wide receiver Matthew Slater, who was being double covered by the Ravens secondary. It was a bad decision by Brady, but it also showed the lack of depth that the Patriots had at wide receiver last year. It almost cost the Patriots the game and the season.

Patriot Nation will be keeping their fingers crossed that the team can avoid injuries at positions where they have chosen youth over veteran security.

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Discussion

One comment for “Patriots 2012 Roster Preview: Will the Kids be Alright?”

  1. Have you ever seen Citizen Kane? Substitute “force a pass to backup wide receiver Matthew Slater” for “rosebud”. I think this is what’s in store for you.

    Posted by GoldJerry | September 7, 2012, 1:41 pm

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