This offseason has been a busy one for the New England Patriots. Roster turnover is inevitable in the National Football League. However, with several veteran starters leaving as free agents, the Patriots entered last week's mandatory mini-camp with plenty of question marks. Here is a position-by-position analysis of who left and how the Patriots plan to fill the holes:
Even before factoring Deion Branch's unexcused absence from this week's mini-camp, this is a unit that is in more flux than any other on the team. Gone is reliable Number 2 target Givens to the Tennessee Titans, a loss that will be felt especially on third downs. Givens' penchant for getting open when New England needed first downs was quite impressive, but his void is not irreplaceable.
The question is whether Jackson and Caldwell can both perform at a high enough level to let Tom Brady distribute the ball as widely as he has in the past. The Patriots liked Jackson enough to move up in the second round to draft the former Florida Gator. One thing Jackson has that Givens lacks is the speed to stretch the field vertically. The Patriots thought they had their guy for that role in Johnson, but his time in New England was an unmitigated disappointment.
If Jackson can get himself open for the 40 and 50-yard home-run balls, he'll give the New England offense something that has not been part of the repertoire for several years despite having speedsters like Johnson and Davis. Where Givens will be missed is the short to intermediate-length routes that Jackson didn't always excel at running in college. Jackson's inexperience with shorter routes and Dwight's departure could open the door for the ageless Troy Brown to see more primary reads on offense this season.
It's hard to figure just what to expect out of four-year veteran Caldwell. His first four years in the league have totaled numbers (76 catches, 950 yards, seven touchdowns) that many people expected would be his yearly norm. He looks to be at best a third receiver and might be most valuable running reverses and misdirection running plays.
|New England Patriots receivers Reche Caldwell (87) and rookie Chad jackson (17) ready themselves to begin a receivers drill during the morning session of the third and final day of Patriots football mini camp in Foxbrough, Mass., Thursday June 15, 2006. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)|
Arrivals: Laurence Maroney
As New England's first round pick (21st overall), Maroney is going to be expected to make an immediate impact. Corey Dillon is still the primary running back, but the Patriots saw him slip enough last year to realize they can't ask him to carry the ball as often as he has in the past. After a career-high 345 attempts in 2004, Dillon's body was worn down and the effect was felt last season. His 3.5 yards per carry average was nearly a full yard under his career norm.
Maroney should fit in nicely as the secondary running option, even if it is for only five to 10 carries per game. The Patriots appear to be joining the league-wide trend of splitting the workload between two running backs - one an older, experienced ball carrier; the other a starter waiting in the wings. The approach paid off big time for the Kansas City Chiefs, who seamlessly converted Larry Johnson from Priest Holmes' backup last year to a projected starter this season as injuries and age lower expectations for Holmes.
The Patriots expected too much out of Dillon last year and ended up being disappointed. This year, they have the player they see as their future bruiser as an insurance policy. Maroney doesn't need gaping holes to know where his best running lanes are and he has the cutback speed to make something out of nothing. He is undersized, however, so the fact that he isn't going to be pressed into starting duty right away is a good thing.
|New England Patriots first round draft choice, rookie running back Laurence Maroney, works on his touch as part of a pass catching drill during the morning session of the second day of Patriots football mini camp in Foxbrough, Mass., Wednesday morning June 14, 2006. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)|
Departures: Christian Fauria
The Patriots made it clear just how important the tight end position is in their offense by drafting Thomas (third round) and Mills (fourth round) to go along with Daniel Graham and Ben Watson. The health of Graham and Watson will determine how much the Patriots use the rookies. Both players appear to be hybrids between fullbacks and tight ends, so that versatility is appealing to the Patriots' innovative offense. Thomas' smaller size makes him less dependable than Graham and Watson as a blocker.
The loss of Fauria is minimal as the veteran did not see much playing time last season. But he was the senior member of a position that, according to Belichick, may be more complicated than it is given credit for. "(The tight ends) really do most of the formationing. In terms of being involved in the running game, the passing game, dealing with linebackers, secondary players and at times linemen, it's kind of like playing middle linebacker. You just have a lot more things to deal with, regardless of what the play is."
Departures: Tom Ashworth
Two late-round draft picks, tackle O'Callaghan and guard Stevenson further shored up an offensive line that is positioned to enjoy some continuity over the next few years. With Russ Hochstein recently signing a contract extension through 2008, the Patriots have all their starters signed through the next three years except center Dan Koppen, who is a free agent after this season. Ashworth's signing with the Seattle Seahawks opens the door for Hochstein to move back over to guard after filling in at center last season when Koppen was hurt.
|New England Patriots assistant head coach/offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is unhappy with the performance of his charges during the running of plays at the second day of Patriots football mini camp in Foxbrough, Mass., Wednesday morning June 14, 2006. Offensive linemen at left is unidentified, at right, center Russ Hochstein (71). (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)|
Departures: Doug Flutie
With Flutie retiring last month, Matt Cassel is suddenly the second quarterback on the depth chart. Mortensen and Bramlet, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Wyoming, don't figure to stick with the club through training camp. Look for the Patriots to sign an older veteran at some point before camp opens in late July. Depending on who they sign and how they perform, Cassel could still be next in the pecking order. Nevertheless, the Patriots need to add another signal caller with more professional experience under his belt.
|New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) leads members of the offensive unit through a running drill during the morning session of the third and final day of Patriots football mini camp in Foxbrough, Mass., Thursday June 15, 2006. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)|
Departures: Adam Vinatieri
There will be plenty of attention paid to the competition between Gramatica and fourth-round pick Gostkowski in training camp to succeed Vinatieri. Both newcomers have solid track records coming into New England, but this is one facet of the game that will undoubtedly suffer a downgrade. Ultimately, the Patriots will need to find ways to win close games without relying on kicking last-second, game-winning field goals. A lot of that will simply come down to luck. The question is will the Patriots need a 35-yard chip shot or a 48-yarder into the wind?
Gostkowski will be given every opportunity to win the job and he may be very capable of making some big kicks. But all it will take is one miss before those questioning the decision to let Vinatieri go are vindicated. With any luck, that first big miss won't come until some time in 2007.
|New England Patriots rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski, picked in this year's NFL college draft after Adam Vinatari signed with the Indianapolis Colts, is lifted up by teammates after he nailed a 40-plus yard field goal during the morning session of the third and final day of Patriots football mini camp in Foxbrough, Mass., Thursday June 15, 2006. The team is celebrating because head coach Bill Belichick said they would skip a conditioning run at the end of practice if Gostkowski made the kick. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)|
[Note: UDFA's were not included in the additions listing.]
Dave Fletcher is a longtime contributor to Patriots Insider. An accomplished writer and sports analyst, you can find more of his articles by searching for "Dave Fletcher" in the archives on PatriotsInsider.com