With the NFL in kind of a down time for news (if that ever really exists), analysts have begun trying to churn out predictions as to how the 2010 season will turn out. So far, there are mixed opinions as to how the New England Patriots will fare. NFL.com’s Jason La Canfora think that the Pats will win the AFC East:
“I expect the Dolphins to make a push and have a feeling the Jets will end up being a nine-win team again this season, without the playoff heroics. The Patriots remain the class of the division. Belichick will tighten up the defense, Randy Moss will be motivated in what amounts to a contract year, Tom Brady will be better in his second full season after surgery, and the draft will yield dividends.”
However, SI.com’s Peter King thinks that the Miami Dolphins will win the AFC East and has them ranked 6th in his Power Rankings, with the Jets following close behind at 7th. Where are the Patriots? He has them on the playoff bubble, ranked 14th. Here’s his rationale:
“I still don’t know who will rush the passer, who the shutdown corner is, who the Mike Vrabel/Rodney Harrison defensive leader is, and if there’s enough depth at wide receiver to survive until Wes Welker returns.”
I don’t know if the Pats can win the AFC East this year. It’s going to be a tough, tough division to win. But 14th? Behind Carolina, Seattle, and Pittsburgh? A Big Ben-less Pittsburgh? I’ll try and answer the questions he poses about the team.
Who will rush the passer?
This is a legitimate concern. We don’t know if second-round pick Jermain Cunningham will be successful his rookie season and be able to significantly contribute. Perhaps Derrick Burgess improves in his second year in the system. Maybe Gary Guyton, who is currently listed as an outside linebacker, can use his tremendous speed to rush the passer. There could be a trade or free agent signing (Chike Okeafor, Greg Ellis) in the future as well, but this is unquestionably the team’s biggest concern.
Who the shutdown corner is?
Leigh Bodden did an excellent job last season, especially considering that the corners had to cover longer because of the lack of a pass rush. A combination of Bodden, second-year man Darius Butler, and rookie first-round pick Devin McCourty should provide a boost to the improved secondary. Jonathon Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley are the wild cards. They need to show improvement or one or both may not make it out of training camp.
Who the Mike Vrabel/Rodney Harrison defensive leader is?
Vince Wilfork has already begun stepping up into a vocal leadership role. As soon as his contract situation was cleared up and he signed his new deal, he began speaking about the locker room culture and his want of teammates who will give 100% effort 100% of the time. Aside from Wilfork, Jerod Mayo is candidate to step up and I strongly believe that rookie Brandon Spikes could step up sooner rather than later. His leadership in college was lauded and he had already begun to step up in rookie mini-camps.
Is there enough depth to survive at wide receiver until Wes Welker returns?
Yes, but I’m going to include the new tight ends into this equation. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will help provide Brady with some more targets over the middle of the field. Hernandez is versatile enough to line up at some WR spots as well. Last year’s third-round pick Brandon Tate has had a good offseason according to reports and Julian Edelman should improve upon his productive rookie campaign with another year in the system. Tory Holt will provide good depth and veteran leadership and don’t discount David Patten, who always had a good relationship with Brady. If he still has some gas in the tank, he could be a good safety net for Tom until Welker returns. This year’s third-round pick Taylor Price is a wild card and Randy Moss should be better than last year. Last season he was suffering from back and shoulder injuries and is entering a contract year. He will be healthy and have some extra motivation.
AFC East Champs? Debatable. 14th in the Power Rankings? I don’t think the team gets enough credit there.