The draft has come to an end and, as the Patriots brass filed out of their draft room, they could be proud with the class that they put together. In a relatively weak group of prospects, they found a potential future stud at left tackle, a cornerback prospect with a lot of upside, two talented running backs, a possible heir to Tom Brady, an offensive guard who fell due to injury questions, a blocking tight end with versatility as a long snapper, a potential pass rusher and a special teams player. However, now the real question comes to light: how has this draft affected the landscape of the New England Patriots? Here are my thoughts, position by position, of how this draft has changed the team heading into (hopefully) minicamps and training camp in the near future.
The Likely Scenario: By all accounts, the Patriots should be willing to carry three quarterbacks for the next season. There is absolutely no way that Mallett would make it onto the Patriots practice squad, and Hoyer is too valuable as a backup to let go without some form of compensation. I think that Hoyer getting traded is a possibility, albeit unlikely at the moment. Perhaps at the end of the season the team can accrue some value for him. At this point, however, it is likely that the team will keep three quarterbacks. Crompton will be PSed or cut.
The Potential Surprise: I think that Bill Belichick likes Ryan Mallett a lot...and I think that Mallett could be the heir. I do not think that Bill has the intent to trade him away. Bill has an interesting family background, including a son of his own who has gotten into legal troubles in the past. I think he sees a lot of his own son in Mallett, and I suspect that he will push Ryan to the brink to try and get him to succeed...and, eventually, he well could.
The Likely Scenario: The Patriots will probably take five backs with them to the regular season at this point in time. I would be a bit surprised if Kevin Faulk, a traditional Belichick favorite, is shunted aside so quickly. Morris and Taylor have not been 100 percent for a while; I expect that both will be cut. Green-Ellis will get some much needed help in the backfield in the forms of Vereen and Ridley, while I think Woodhead may be used in some more versatile sets than last season. Both he and Faulk have the capability to split out as wide receivers, and it would not be surprising if they played similar roles for this season. If Faulk is cut, it will be a bittersweet ending to a great career in New England. Ridley and BJGE will compete for powerback carries, and I think there is room for both to get their touches. However...
The Potential Surprise: I think Shane Vereen will start from Day 1. He has the blend of size, speed, and vision to assert himself from Day 1. He may be the best pure running back that the Patriots have had since Corey Dillon, and he also has a lot of versatility. His ability to play all four downs as well as his hands and vision in the screen game make Vereen a deadly weapon in the Patriots scheme. I think that, if he is utilized fully, Vereen could be a top 15 fantasy option in the NFL this coming year. He is certainly a sleeper in PPR leagues.
The Likely Scenario: The Patriots have a plethora of weapons in the receiving game: Branch, Edelman, Price, Tate and Welker each bring different things to the table. The player who I am most excited about is Price; I think that, with a good camp, he could vault into the starting role over Tate due to his combination of size and speed. Tate also has an opportunity to make a huge step forward in his development. Either way, both will be called upon to provide a deep threat opposite the heady Branch and the stellar Welker and Edelman. Slater may stick as a special teamer, but that depends on the development of Malcolm Williams as a gunner.
The Potential Surprise: Do not be shocked if Wes Welker is traded away. There are not any rumors about deals circulating, but Welker may be a bit redundant with Edelman in tow, and this would be the time to gauge his value to the rest of the NFL. I do not expect Welker to be traded simply because he is a better fit in the Patriots offense than he would be in any other scheme, but there is always a chance that Bill sees a team willing to overpay and bites on an offer.
The Likely Scenario: All four should make the team: I think that Smith sticks as a fourth tight end, a special teamer and a long snapper. Gronkowski, Hernandez and Crumpler are a really great trio, and the young talent should only improve over time.
The Potential Surprise: Smith could end up overtaking Crumpler's role by the end of the season. He has pretty soft hands and a strong work ethic. Crumpler will be the ultimate mentor for Smith, but he could eventually lose his job to him in the process. Smith has a lot of upside as a Crumpler type TE.
The Likely Scenario: First thing's first: Matt Light has been a tremendous player for many years in New England. However, I am thrilled that an heir has risen to take over the position. Nate Solder has some technical issues, but he is in a perfect situation in New England. I think he and Sebastian Vollmer should be a great tandem for the future, with Nick Kaczur lurking as a backup.
The Potential Surprise: That Solder/Vollmer tandem could start sooner rather than later. Do not be surprised if Light does not return to Foxboro and Solder is thrust directly into the spotlight. Light may find greener pastures somewhere with more job security, and I think that, if the lockout ends soon, Solder could get the preparatory time necessary to start by the beginning of the season. His main issue is technique: that is not too difficult to teach. It may be a bit of a learning process for him, but I think he is capable of having an instant impact.
The Likely Scenario: Cannon is a great piece of depth to add to this offensive line, and Connolly proved himself last year to be a capable guard. Mankins, if resigned, is one of the best at pulling and manipulating defenders from the guard position, while Koppen is, at the very least, an adequate starting option at center.
The Potential Surprise: Ryan Wendell has some hidden value on this team: I think he could be an opening day starter. If Mankins leaves, he would almost certainly slide into the right guard role. However, and possibly more importantly, I think that even if Mankins returns there is a gaping hole on the Patriots offensive line: the center position. It would not surprise me if Connolly ended up starting Opening Day at center with Wendell at right guard. Koppen simply has trouble handling power rushers nowadays. He's a good player, but Wendell could help the Patriots line reach its full potential.
The Likely Scenario: I put both Warrens on this list, but Gerard is probably gone when Ty returns. Still, I think there is a lot of potential in this unit. Four of the main rotational players have been in the league for three years or less, and I think all of them could have major steps forward this season. There is also a veteran presence in Stroud and Wright, and the stalwart leader in Wilfork. I expect all of these guys to get time on the defensive line and form a really intriguing, fresh rotation. T. Warren's re-emergence will help this team progress as well.
The Potential Surprise: If I had to put odds on one slightly under-the-radar guy claiming that end spot opposite T. Warren as his own, it would be Kyle Love. There are a lot of talented players on the defensive line for New England, but Love was the only one to my recognition who was able to get a consistent push and was a factor in both the running and passing games last season. Ron Brace could take a huge step forward as well, but I have some faith in Love. I think he could be a very good player if he continues to develop.
The Likely Scenario: There is talent at this position: over the last half of the season, the Patriots were second in the NFL in sacks. I think that Jermaine Cunningham has the potential to make a huge jump this year. He has a lot of physical ability and could be the elephant of the future that so many Patriots fans dream about every night. He was sort of the forgotten man last year, but provided a great push and got his hands on the quarterback multiple times per game: now he just has to work on finishing sacks. Banta-Cain, Carter, Fletcher and Ninkovich all should contribute to the rotation as well. All are good athletes and I think that Fletcher is very underrated: he was very good in a pass-rushing role last year. However...
The Potential Surprise Eric Moore may end up starting next season opposite Cunningham. He is a big body and impressed against both the run and the pass this past season. He was sort of shoehorned into the playbook three-quarters of the way through the season and still produced. He has the athletic measurables that Coach Belichick would look for at the position, and he may have earned a long-term stint with this team due to the way that he has performed.
The Likely Scenario: Dane Fletcher also fits at this position: he proved to be quite a dynamo as an inside linebacker this past year. However, the main stalwarts are Mayo and Spikes, with Guyton acting as a supplemental coverage player. All three have their strengths and weaknesses, and this may be a bit of a watershed year for Mayo. He is the leader of this budding, young defense, and, plain and simple, he needs to make at least a few more plays. Having Spikes for a full complement of games will help, but Mayo is the key to this defense: when he was at his best last year against Buffalo and Miami, this team was scary.
The Potential Surprise: Mayo may garner another Pro Bowl nod, but Brandon Spikes is going to gain notoriety as the intimidator for this team. Had he played a full slate of games last year, he would have been second among linebackers in terms of stuffs. He is a beast against the run and his flaws are covered well in the Patriots defense. I am hoping that he continues to improve and, eventually, the duo of Mayo and Spikes could become the most feared in the NFL
The Likely Scenario: The selection of Ras-I "The Destroyer" Dowling basically means that Wilhite and Butler have numbered days to prove their worth or be shipped out. Wilhite is closer to the guillotine than Butler is, but I do not expect either to be cut outright: Bill will undoubtedly shop them for picks in the preseason. Williams offers special teams value along with coverage skills, but I am not sure if he will end up making the team. As constituted, Bodden will probably end up being the slot defender since neither McCourty nor Dowling have experience in that position. I expect all three to be regulars in the lineup. However...
The Potential Surprise: I think that Dowling plays everywhere. Cornerback, safety, slot corner, you name it, he can do it. Dowling could have the largest impact of any rookie on this team next season, and he has the skillset to grant a ton of flexibility to the coaching staff regarding formations and personnel packages. Dowling has the potential to be a Charles Woodson type of enforcer in the NFL, and I think that he will be used in a similar fashion.
The Likely Scenario: The Patriots have tons of flexibility at this position, and I expect a good amount of attrition to take place. Chung, Meriweather and Sanders seem to be the major players here. I think that Dowling could get some snaps at safety as well: he provides a good insurance policy should the Patriots not wish to keep Meriweather after this season. The safeties were below average last year in terms of coverage metrics: however, I think that there is reason for optimism here. Why do you ask?
The Potential Surprise: I think that Chung will, unlike last year, not have to cover guys man-to-man. This was the biggest weakness for the Patriots last year: Chung was simply incapable of keeping up with wide receivers. I still have nightmares of Blair White owning him in the Colts game. Dowling will give the Patriots flexibility to make Chung into more of a rover, a much better role for someone with his skillset. Chung could blow up due to Dowling.
The Likely Scenario: Gostkowski and Mesko will stay, and kick well hopefully. Mesko will also play outside linebacker, return punts, split out wide in some receiver sets and run a special play designed for him called "Bow To Your Emperor," where he will split out wide, come in motion, take the hand off from Brady and run an option left, with the opportunity to pitch the ball if he feels sympathy for the defensive players who would hypothetically have to attempt to tackle him (or, in the case of Mesko, bounce off him harmlessly as he steamrolls to the end zone.)
The Potential Surprise: I think that Lee Smith could unseat Katula. His value as a long snapper is very apparent, and Katula was brought in due to his comfort level with Shayne Graham. Smith could certainly take over snapping duties.