It’s a new year, we’re starting a brand new decade, and I find it fitting now to put together a roster of the best players from the best NFL team of the decade, the New England Patriots. The Patriots won 4 AFC Championships, 3 Super Bowls, went 18-0 before losing a 4th Super Bowl, and won 7 AFC East Division titles. They also previously held the record for the most consecutive wins (21) before the Colts broke that mark this season. I always go back and forth with these kind of lists at certain positions, though of course there are always locks. I put the offense together using a basic 2 wide receiver, 1 tight end, and 2 running back set. The defense was put together using the 3-4 base, the Patriots’ main base formation for the decade. Special teams includes a kicker, punter, and returner (I had to find a place for this particular individual).
Quarterback: Tom Brady: Who else could one possibly choose? He quarterbacked the Patriots for most of the decade, with the exceptions being the 2000 season (Drew Bledsoe), the first game-and-a-half of 2001, and last season when he was injured during the first quarter of Week One. Three Super Bowl championships, 2 Super Bowl MVPs, 5 Pro Bowls, an NFL record 50 touchdown passes in one season (2007), and a 14-3 postseason record (so far). Not bad. Also considered: no one.
Running backs: Corey Dillon & Kevin Faulk: Corey Dillon was acquired in 2004 for a second-round pick from the Cincinnati Bengals, and his running helped power the Pats to their third Super Bowl title of the decade. Despite missing a game in 2004, Dillon set the franchise record for rushing yards in a season (1,635), had 9 100-yard games and scored 13 total touchdowns. Kevin Faulk is the longest tenured Patriot with 11 years of service and while not a feature back, Faulk’s been able to do a little of everything very well. He’s an excellent pass blocker, pass catcher, and is an effective runner when called upon. He runs screen plays better than any running back in the NFL, and has been extremely reliable despite fumbling problems early in his career. Also considered: Antowain Smith for his role in the first 2 Super Bowl championships.
Wide Receivers: Randy Moss & Wes Welker: Randy Moss is the most freakishly gifted receiver the Pats have ever had and the NFL has ever seen. In 2007, he set the NFL single-season touchdown receptions record with 23 touchdowns and opens the middle of the field for other receivers to flourish. Belichick has consistently called Moss one of the smartest players he’s coached, something he doesn’t get enough credit for. Moss has the franchise records for most receiving touchdowns (23), receiving yards (1,493), overall touchdowns (23), and most points by a non-kicker (138). Wes Welker is a chain-mover and has put together 3 consecutive seasons with at least 100 catches, and broke his own franchise record this season for total receptions (122 so far). He also was a Pro Bowler last year and was elected to the Pro Bowl this year. Also considered: Deion Branch and David Givens for their roles in the 2003 and 2004 Super Bowls.
Tight End: Daniel Graham: Daniel Graham was a beast during his tenure with the Patriots from 2002 – 2006 and was one of the best blockers on the team, something the Patriots have surely missed since he left for his hometown Denver Broncos. He was more than just a blocker though, finishing his Patriot career with 120 receptions for 1,393 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was also elected to be an offensive captain in 2006. Also considered: no one.
Offensive Line: LT Matt Light, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, RG Stephen Neal, RT Nick Kaczur: This offensive line also happens to be the Patriots’ current starting offensive line, the exception being Kaczur who has been out with injury (and may have lost his job to rookie Sebastian Vollmer). Matt Light has been a mainstay since 2001 protecting Brady’s blindside and has been to 2 Pro Bowls. Logan Mankins has been one of the best guards in football since being drafted in 2005 and now has 2 Pro Bowls on his resume. Dan Koppen has been anchoring the middle of the line since mid-2003 and has been to a Pro Bowl. The right side of the line was the toughest to put together because neither RG or RT has had consistent players at a high level, but both Neal and Kaczur have spent the most time there and have been the most consistent, namely Neal. Neal did play in 2004 during the third SB run and has been an excellent run blocker. Kaczur has held the RT position for the most part since 2005. Also considered: G Joe Andruzzi who was a part of 3 Super Bowls.
Left Defensive End: Ty Warren: Since being drafted in 2003, he has worked his way into the defensive line and has started since 2004, helping to hold together one of the NFL’s top defensive lines.
Nose Tackle: Vince Wilfork: Wilfork is considered one of, if not the best nose tackles in the NFL, and has anchored the Pats’ 3-4 since 2004. He consistently eats up 2-3 blockers and clogs up the middle when defending the run. He has been elected to 2 Pro Bowls and has been named a defensive captain for two years in a row (2008 and 2009).
Right Defensive End: Richard Seymour: Seymour was one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL while with the Patriots and was on all 3 championship teams. He was elected to 5 straight Pro Bowls (2002 – 2006) and helped lock up offensive linemen to free up the linebackers. He also totaled 39 sacks while with the Patriots.
Also considered for the defensive line: no one.
Left Outside Linebacker: Willie McGinest: McGinest spent most of his career with the Pats (12 seasons) and was a leader in the locker room. He also came up with big plays in big games, the most memorable being his tackle of Edgerrin James during the 2003 regular season game against the Colts on 4th down, capping the goal line stand that eventually gave the Pats homefield throughout the playoffs. He also holds the record for most career postseason sacks (16). Also considered: no one.
Middle Linebackers: Tedy Bruschi & Ted Johnson: Tedy Bruschi was a lock here at middle linebacker. He spent his entire career with the Patriots (13 years) and had the leadership and big-play ability to help the Patriots stop the Greatest Show on Turf in 2001 and capture 3 Super Bowl titles. He made his first and only Pro Bowl in 2004 and then suffered a stroke, only to miraculously return to action later the following season. He was consistently among the team leaders in tackles and was a defensive captain 7 straight seasons. The second middle linebacker slot was tough to fill. I really wanted to give it to Jerod Mayo based on talent but he doesn’t have the resume yet, and the spot next to Bruschi had a lot of rotation. However, where Ted Johnson stands out was his ability to stop the run. He was a stand-out run stuffer but came off the field in passing situations. Also considered: Jerod Mayo and Roman Phifer.
Right OLB: Mike Vrabel: Another strong leader on the defense, Vrabel spent 8 years with the Patriots, serving as a defensive captain for 4, and was selected to a Pro Bowl. During his Patriot career, he totaled 48 sacks and also played on the offense. On offense, including the regular season and the postseason, he had 10 receptions, all for touchdowns, including one in Super Bowl 38. Also considered: no one.
Corners: Ty Law & Asante Samuel: Ty Law was one of the best corners ever to suit up for the Patriots. During his Patriots tenure, he was a shutdown corner and made his biggest plays in the postseason. In 2001, he intercepted Kurt Warner in the Super Bowl and returned it for a touchdown. In the 2003 AFC Championship Game, he intercepted Peyton Manning 3 times to help seal the victory. While in New England, he was selected to 3 Pro Bowls. Asante Samuel developed into a shutdown corner while with the Patriots and forced teams to throw to the other side of the field. In 2006, he tied for the league lead in interceptions with 10 and led the team with 6 INTs in 2007. Also considered: Earthwind Moreland (just kidding!!!)
Safeties: Rodney Harrison & Lawyer Milloy: Rodney Harrison was a team leader and was one of the most feared safeties in the league. He was elected a team captain 5 times, including his first season with the team in 2003. While a Patriot, he totaled 441 tackles, 9 sacks (NFL all-time leader among defensive backs with 30.5 sacks) and 8 INTs in the regular season and intercepted 7 passes in postseason play. Lawyer Milloy was a 4-time Pro Bowler with the Patriots, including 2 this past decade. He was also elected defensive captain 4 times, 3 this past decade. He played a large role on the team’s first Super Bowl championship team in 2001 and was poised to join Rodney Harrison in 2003 as the best safety tandem in the league before being released unexpectedly before the 2003 season. Also considered: Eugene Wilson for his role in 2 Super Bowl winning teams.
Kicker: Adam Vinatieri: This is the most hands-down selection aside from Tom Brady and Tedy Bruschi. Vinatieri made all the big kicks in all of the big games. Who can forget the Snow Bowl against the Raiders in the playoffs in 2001? His 45-yard kick in the snowy weather is considered among the best kicks in the history of the NFL. He also made 2 Super Bowl-winning kicks in 2001 and 2003 and also kicked the go-ahead field goal in Super Bowl 39 against the Eagles. When all is said and done, he may be considered the greatest kicker in NFL history. Also considered: no one.
Punter: Chris Hanson: The Patriots had a carousel of punters during the past decade, with none really standing out. However, the Pats’ current punter, Chris Hanson, has been the best of the bunch and has been with the team since 2007. His best, and certainly one of the best punt performances I’ve ever seen, came in the final week of the 2008 season. In extremely windy conditions in Buffalo, he averaged 45 yards per punt and was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
Returner: Troy Brown: I had to get Troy Brown on this list somehow. I considered going with 3 wide receivers, but didn’t want to leave off Dillon or Faulk by having to go to a single-back set, and because Troy Brown did a little of everything, why not have him here? He led the team in receptions in 2001 and 2002 and held the franchise record for most receptions in a season with 101 until Wes Welker broke it in 2007. He’s the franchise leader in career receptions with 557. He also played some defensive back, filling in when injuries riddled the secondary in 2004. His most memorable defensive play came when he intercepted former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe. He was also a feared return man, namely on punts. He has 3 career regular season punt returns for touchdowns and a career average of 10.2 yards per return. In 2001, he had his best year returning punts as well as receiving. In 2001, he averaged 14.2 yards per return and scored 2 touchdowns in the regular season. In the AFC Championship Game against the heavily-favored Steelers, he returned a punt for a touchdown. Troy Brown has rightfully earned the nickname “Mr. Patriot” and closes out my decade team.