After adjusting to a rash of coaching changes, the Patriots must rebuild their staff and fix some of the holes on the field that caused them to miss the playoffs in 2008.
Scott Pioli, Josh McDaniels, Brad Seely and Dom Capers are either gone or on the way out, but no major player changes have occurred yet. The Patriots still have 20 free agents they'll need to address beginning in March with most of the attention focused on Matt Cassel.
The quarterback situation likely will play a factor in how the rest of the team is built, particularly because the salary cap may be a bit dicey with two players at the same position possible combining to make roughly $30 million in salary.
Once the Patriots address that issue -- and find a suitable replacement for McDaniels as offensive coordinator -- the rest of the pieces will fall into place.
QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Matt Cassel. Backups -- Kevin O'Connell, Matt Gutierrez. Injured reserve -- Tom Brady.
We all know the story by now. Brady blew out his knee in the season opener, paving the way for Cassel to earn himself accolades across the league, in addition to a hefty pay raise for 2009. Cassel did an admirable job filling in for Brady and developed tremendous pocket presence and accuracy by the end of the season. The question now is what the Patriots will do to ensure that their quarterback situation is squared away for next season and that they don't lose Cassel for nothing. All signs suggest they'll franchise Cassel and either keep him around depending on Brady's progress or trade him while his value is at an all-time high.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Sammy Morris. Backups -- LaMont Jordan, Kevin Faulk, Heath Evans, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Injured reserve -- Laurence Maroney.
The Patriots entered the season with tremendous depth at this position, only to watch it get stretched thin when Maroney, Jordan and Morris suffered significant injuries. Maroney's shoulder injury put him out for the season, and it's a question now whether he'll be back next year, as the Patriots might have grown tired of his act. Morris and Jordan were solid backups, but their production was limited due to leg injuries. Faulk continued his role as the premiere jack-of-all-trades, and Green-Ellis gave the team a brief spark before falling back to earth toward the end of the season.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Ben Watson. Backup -- David Thomas.
The Patriots never got the explosive production they expected out of the group partly due to injuries not only at that position but across the entire offense. The extra bodies in camp such as Stephen Spach never made the cut, and the Patriots ultimately needed more help with blockers up front than they did with tight ends running routes. Watson missed some time early and eventually finished the season with 22 catches, while Thomas blossomed more in other roles than he did as a pass-catching threat.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Randy Moss, Wes Welker. Backups -- Jabar Gaffney, Kelley Washington, Sam Aiken.
The Patriots were thin at this position from the start, and it showed throughout the season. Moss drew a lot of double coverage throughout the year, paving the way for another big season for Welker, who continued to establish himself as the most dangerous slot receiver in the league. The injury to Brady put a strain on the passing game, as Cassel needed time to get used to the weapons he had. Washington and Gaffney were only moderate threats as backups. The offense revolved around the running game and the 1-2 punch of Moss and Welker.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Matt Light, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, RG Stephen Neal, RT Nick Kaczur. Backups -- Billy Yates, Russ Hochstein, Wesley Britt, Mark LeVoir. Injured reserve -- Ryan O'Callaghan, Barry Stokes, Anthony Clement.
The line needed time to get adjusted with Light and Neal missing time early due to injuries. Kaczur ultimately won back his job despite injuries, and Yates filled in admirably at right guard while Neal's shoulder healed from offseason surgery. Sacks were an issue, though plenty of that had to do with Cassel's lack of pocket presence early in the season. Once both sides were on the same page, the sack totals dropped and the offensive production increased, as evidenced by the team's performance against the Raiders and Cardinals in December.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren. Backups -- Le Kevin Smith, Jarvis Green, Mike Wright. Injured reserve -- Kenny Smith.
At times, the pressure appeared nonexistent, which was in stark contrast to the way this star-studded line has played in the past. With three first-round draft picks as starters, the Patriots expect perfection, but the defensive line dealt with its share of struggles early in the season before jelling in the final month. Seymour reverted to Pro Bowl form at times thanks to a healthy offseason, while super backups Green, Wright and Smith helped form a steady rotation.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- Jerod Mayo, Junior Seau, Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin. Backups -- Tedy Bruschi, Vince Redd, Gary Guyton, Larry Izzo. Injured reserve -- Pierre Woods, Adalius Thomas, Bo Ruud, Shawn Crable, Eric Alexander.
The starters looked much different by the end of the year. Thomas and his replacement, Woods, wound up on injured reserve, and Bruschi didn't play down the stretch due to a knee injury. As a result, the Patriots had to dig Seau and Colvin out of the mothballs for the stretch run. The two performed admirably, but the Patriots certainly missed Thomas, who had developed into a defensive leader in the wake of all the team's struggles. Mayo and Vrabel were the two constants -- particularly Mayo, who had a monster rookie year and was named the league's top defensive newcomer at the end of the season. Redd and Guyton showed they have potential as backups in 2009.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- Ellis Hobbs, Jonathan Wilhite, James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather. Backups -- Deltha O'Neal, Lewis Sanders, Matthew Slater, Ray Ventrone. Injured reserve -- Tank Williams, Rodney Harrison, Terrence Wheatley, Jason Webster.
The Patriots never replaced Asante Samuel, and it showed throughout the season. They brought in plenty of free agents to compete, but none of them stuck around long enough. O'Neal struggled early after some mild success, and Wheatley ended up hurting his wrist just as he got his chance to shine in the starting lineup. That left Wilhite -- normally a slot defender -- as a starter on the outside. Harrison suffered another season-ending injury midway through the season, forcing Meriweather into a more extended role, where he succeeded. James Sanders is still a work in progress, but the Patriots should be encouraged with Meriweather. Hobbs remained a constant on the outside but tailed off toward the end, as the Patriots gave up more passing touchdowns than anyone in the league.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- K Stephen Gostkowski, P Chris Hanson, LS Lonie Paxton, KR Ellis Hobbs, PR Wes Welker.
Gostkowski turned into one of the league's best kickers this year -- if not the best -- as he earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. His accuracy left him as arguably the most consistent player on the team this year outside of Mayo. Hanson struggled throughout and never really got the knack for pinning opponents near their own end zone, which is supposed to be his specialty. Nonetheless, the Patriots stuck with him, and his issues never really cost them on the field. The kick return unit got a boost with Hobbs' return to health, though the team never really did much in the punt return game. Slater got opportunities and fumbled twice, which means he has a long way to go before he can work his back into the fold.
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