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Rating the Roster, Part 2

01.14.10 at 1:19 am ET
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Despite his inconsistent season, Tom Brady still ranks No. 1 on the Patriots. (AP)

Despite his inconsistent season, Tom Brady still ranks No. 1 on the Patriots. (AP)

With the 2009 season in the rear-view mirror — and the Patriots facing a number of key personnel decisions — it seems like a good time to break down the current 53-man roster, taking a look at who might be the most valuable members of the franchise.

We arrived at this list by considering a combination of things, including overall ability, positional versatility, expectations vs. production, contract situation and place on the depth chart. We also looked at what might be best described as intangibles — loosely defined as a mixture of clubhouse character and willingness to work. In all, it helped us determine the overall value of each player within the New England system.

(The 53 players were taken straight from New England’s postseason media guide, the most up-to-date listing available we had when we started this exercise earlier this week. That means injured players such as Brandon Tate and Tyrone McKenzie — who likely will make the 2010 roster — as well as linebacker Bruce Davis, who was signed to the active squad earlier this week, are not included for purposes of this exercise. Ditto for practice squad players. We will, however, include Wes Welker as the exception to the rule.)

Yesterday, we examined No. 53 through No. 26. Today, it’s No. 25 through No. 1.

25. Quarterback Brian Hoyer: The No. 2 quarterback appeared to play well when called upon this season, but it’s incredibly difficult to gauge the playing abilities of any Brady backup because they get so little time. The rookie got into five games during the regular season, finishing 19-of-27 for 142 yards with one rushing touchdown. He certainly made a case to be the backup again next season, but expect the Patriots to kick the tires on available veteran backups come July.

24. Wide receiver/special teamer Sam Aiken: Aiken may not be a third receiver, but he takes great pride in the fact that he’s the special teams captain. The team loves him — he signed an extension through 2011 and is the sort of player who will do anything to stick on the roster. That sort of attitude makes him a keeper.

23. Running back Fred Taylor: When he was healthy, he was a good fit with the Patriots, but he never really got back on track after an ankle injury he suffered on Oct. 4. Taylor seemed to be a good mentor for Laurence Maroney and was frequently seen in the company of the young running back. But he’s due $2 million in base salary in 2010 and is not guaranteed to return.

22. Safety Brandon McGowan: The hard-hitting defensive back had a great start to the season but lost his starting spot down the stretch — consequently, we moved him down our list as a result. An utterly fearless competitor, he throws his body around like few football players we’ve ever seen, which should continue to make him a commodity. He signed a two-year deal before the start of the 2009 season but faces a real battle for playing time at the safety spot in 2010.

21. Linebacker Gary Guyton: Guyton exceeded expectations in 2009, taking on more responsibility at the inside linebacker spot after Jerod Mayo went down with an injury early in the season. One of the fastest players on the team, he’s not an every-down linebacker but is a good complementary player.

20. Defensive lineman Mike Wright: Wright was one of a handful of players who exceeded expectations in 2009. Not a Pro Bowler, but when you weigh expectations and salary against production, he is one of the best values on the roster. With a career-high nine starts and a career-high five sacks, Wright played a variety of spots along the line, but he is at his best at the defensive tackle spot. Signed through 2012 for relatively short money, he is not going anywhere soon.

19. Tight end Chris Baker: More of a blocker than a pass-catcher (that could change if Benjamin Watson is a goner), Baker has a good attitude, a good locker room presence and a more-than-affordable contract that makes him appealing on a number of levels. It’s a safe bet he’ll be around in 2010, but if Watson is out of here, don’t be surprised if the Pats do look for other options at tight end in the draft or free agency before the start of camp to give themselves some depth.

18. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski: He started 2009 as a Pro Bowler but trailed off halfway through the season. While he’s not quite consistently in the upper echelon of NFL kickers, he’s not too far removed. He hasn’t been put in pressure situations like his predecessor, but he has displayed consistency and a strong enough leg in his four seasons to make him the team’s best pick of the 2006 draft.

17. Left tackle Matt Light: If it wasn’t for Nick Kaczur’s slippage, Light may well have found himself Wally Pipped out of a job because of Sebastian Vollmer. One of the few remaining “three rings” players who can trace his football lineage back to Foxboro Stadium, Light — who is entering the final year of his contract — has struggled the last year or two and might not be around when the Patriots kick off the 2010 season.

16. Right guard Stephen Neal: He’s an old warhorse who has seen better days, and the gut feeling is he retires before the start of the 2010 season. Like Light, he’s been around for a long time, and he remains one of the toughest guys in the locker room. But no one would begrudge him if he decided to leave the game. It would open up a big hole at the right guard spot, one that could be filled by a variety of players, including Dan Connolly, who gave the Patriots a few games this season when Neal was injured.

15. Wide receiver Julian Edelman: He had an excellent rookie season (the best of any seventh-round pick in the history of the franchise), finishing with 37 catches, and should be a candidate for even more in 2010. But he cannot afford to rest on the laurels of a strong first season — with Wes Welker expected to miss some serious time because of his knee injury, Edelman’s ability as a slot receiver makes him extremely valuable to the future of the passing game in 2010.

14. Safety James Sanders: A veteran who ended the season on an up note, he’s a steadying presence in the secondary, offering a contrast to McGowan’s approach. Signed through 2011, he is a little on the expensive side but still a fairly safe bet to be back in New England in 2010.

13. Safety Brandon Meriweather: Only reason he’s not higher is because he had some bad errors late in the season, including against the Saints and Panthers. A Pro Bowler? That might be a bit of a stretch, but it did nothing to erase the idea that he belongs himself in that second tier of AFC safeties behind Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. With five picks, he’s the closest thing this team has to a true playmaker, and his rookie contract runs through 2011, which still makes him a bargain.

12. Cornerback Leigh Bodden: He had his struggles from time to time, but over the course of the 2009 season, the classy vet proved himself to be the most consistent cornerback on the team. He’s a free agent, having signed a one-year deal that prevents him from being franchised. The team should make every attempt to keep him.

11. Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain: He probably should be rated higher. Banta-Cain had the most surprising season of any player, coming out of almost nowhere to lead the team in sacks with 10. He’s a good locker room presence and an excellent value — the Patriots need more guys like Banta-Cain.

10. Defensive lineman Ty Warren: Warren is not as important as Vince Wilfork, but Warren’s veteran experience and knowledge of the system became invaluable this season on a defense that lost so many familiar faces. He’s not a dominant player, but the fact that he is still an impact player signed through 2013 at a reasonable rate makes him a big part of New England’s future. The franchise would still like him to be more of a leader, and more will be asked of him in that department if Wilfork isn’t around past 2010.

9. Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer: Whether Vollmer is at left or right tackle, this is a better offense when he is on the field. Go back and watch the job he did in the Indianapolis game and tell me he’s not one of the best young offensive linemen in the NFL. His youth, his contract and his positional versatility make him invaluable. The only reason he’s not ranked higher is his limited body of work.

8. Running back Kevin Faulk: Other than Wes Welker, Faulk is the most consistent and most dependable offensive skill position player on the roster. You never have a question about what Faulk gives you — he offers value in both the passing and running game, and his skills as a locker room leader are without question. A must-sign this offseason.

7. Center Dan Koppen: The captain of an offensive line that provided a career-low for sacks on Brady in 2009, Koppen is a heady, steady veteran who does an excellent job working with the veteran quarterback. A borderline Pro Bowler, he likely will be around for a long time to come.

6. Left guard Logan Mankins: The veteran is just what you want in a left guard — durable, tough and borderline mean. A must-sign in the offseason, Mankins should be one of the dominant left guards in all of football for the next decade. Can’t say enough good things about him.

5. Linebacker Jerod Mayo: The Tennessee product appeared to take a step back in his development this past season, but he still is rated as one of the best young linebackers in the AFC. The 2010 season will be key for him — it was understandable that he didn’t want to take a vocal leadership role in 2009, but by the dawn of his third season, he needs to assert himself as a dominant personality in the New England locker room.

4. Wide receiver Randy Moss: Moss’ effort down the stretch in 2009 might be debatable, but even his presence as a decoy has an undeniable impact. He’s not the wide receiver he was — age has unquestionably caught up with him — and the loss of Welker for any extended period of time in 2010 will put a severe crimp in his game. But when he and Brady are right physically, they are a powerful duo. Barring an unforeseen event (or a willingness on Moss’ part to accept a dramatic reduction in his next deal), 2010 figures to be his final season with the Patriots.

3. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork: The contract everyone is waiting on this offseason. Arguably the premier nose tackle in the NFL, Wilfork will more than likely get franchised this offseason, which could set the stage for a holdout. When he is healthy (he had a consecutive games-started streak that started at the end of the 2006 season snapped at the end of the 2009 regular season, a remarkable run of durability for a nose tackle), he is without peer and the Patriots’ finest defensive player.

2. Wide receiver Wes Welker: The worth of the wide receiver was painfully evident in the playoff loss to the Ravens, where there appeared to be offensive discord — especially in the passing game — without him in the lineup. Aside from Brady, Welker is most important part of the New England offense. A bona fide Pro Bowler who’s signed through 2011 at relatively short money, he’s one of the best bargains on the team when you weigh his contract against his overall production.

1. Quarterback Tom Brady: A no-brainer. Brady is the undeniable centerpiece of the franchise. Questions remain about Brady’s future — he enters the final year of his current contract without a new deal and will get a huge new contract from someone. Brady appears willing to take a hometown discount to stay in New England (he always has been acutely aware of the role his salary plays in the team-building approach employed by the Patriots), but that’s not to say it will be an easy negotiation. However, it does appear unlikely that Brady would be willing to start all over in a new city with a new coach at this stage of his career for a few extra dollars.

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