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Rating the Roster, Training Camp Edition (Part 6)

07.28.10 at 9:56 am ET
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Here’€™s part six of our training camp edition of ‘€œRating the Roster,’€ which looks at the 21st through the 30th spots.

As we previously explained, we settled on these rankings (check out the previous entries here) by considering a combination of factors, including overall ability, positional versatility, expectations, 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 Patriots system.

This grouping is highlighted not by stars but by a handful of starters ‘€” both youngsters and veterans ‘€” players who will almost certainly be counted on to play a pivotal role in the success or failure of the 2010 Patriots.

30. Cornerback Devin McCourty: The first-round pick will likely open his rookie season as an extra corner ‘€” he got the majority of snaps in spring practice with the second team ‘€” but his real contributions in his first season will almost certainly come on special teams, where he made his bones as a collegian. The 5-foot-10, 193-pound McCourty averaged 25.4 yards on kickoff returns at Rutgers, and had a 98-yard kickoff return, third-longest in his school’€™s history. He was working as a return man in the spring, and with the kick return spot something of an unknown quantity since the departure of Ellis Hobbs III before the 2009 season, McCourty should get every opportunity to see reps there as well in the preseason.

29. Offensive lineman Nick Kaczur: Like several other o-linemen, Kaczur’€™s fortunes are linked to Logan Mankins. If Mankins isn’€™t in camp, expect the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Kaczur to move from his right tackle spot to left guard, as he did during spring practices. (In fact, if Mankins continues to stay away, it looks like the left guard spot will be a battle between Kaczur and Dan Connolly. Sources say the Patriots have not been kicking the tires on some of the available veteran guards like Chester Pitts and Brandon Gorin.) If Mankins is around, Kaczur will likely see time as a backup tackle, as he was passed last year by Sebastian Vollmer.

28. Outside linebacker Derrick Burgess: Burgess started slowly, but came on toward the end of the season and played well down the stretch, finishing the year with five sacks. With Adalius Thomas no longer in the picture, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain (and perhaps Jermaine Cunningham) will be counted on to bring pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. With no Thomas in the picture, if he stays healthy, Burgess will get plenty of reps this summer.

27. Running back Sammy Morris: Old reliable. Even after all these years, the 6-foot, 220-pounder out of Texas Tech brings a steadiness to the running back position, as well as a little positional versatility (he took a few snaps at fullback last season). The 33-year-old, who gained 319 yards on 73 carries in 12 games last season, isn’€™t a feature back anymore, but will likely serve as a situational back who could get more carries if either Laurence Maroney stumbles or Fred Taylor struggles with injury.

26. Inside linebacker Gary Guyton: As we said before, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Guyton and Brandon Spikes (as well as, perhaps, Tyrone McKenzie) should wage a terrific battle for the inside linebacker spot opposite Jerod Mayo this season. One of the fastest linebackers in the league, Guyton stepped into a bigger role this season, and took on added responsibility ‘€” when Mayo was out with a knee injury early in the year, Guyton had the green dot on the back of his helmet. Along the way, he did well enough to win the respect of Bill Belichick. ‘€œHe’€™s smart,’€ Belichick said of Guyton last year. ‘€œHe’€™s well-prepared. He has a real good understanding of football ‘€“ the running game, the passing game. ‘€¦ He understands defensive adjustments, not just his role, but where other people have to be or if somebody else has to do something and how that affects him. That’€™s really what you want in a defensive signal caller, somebody that understands how it all works.’€ Guyton isn’€™t the most talented linebacker on the team, but his speed and his experience at least give him the early edge over the other two in the position battle.

25. Wide receiver Brandon Tate: Kind of high for someone who is still such a limited body of work at the professional level, but he’€™s one guy people consistently asked about this offseason. He’€™s my choice as one of the most intriguing players to watch this summer. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder was taken in the third round of the 2009 draft with a knee injury, but spent the first few months rehabbing and actually returned for three weeks (actually, two games), returning four kicks for 106 yards before suffering another knee injury, which ended his season. He had a good spring, and that could lead to more reps this summer at both at kick returner and wide receiver if he’€™s healthy. At receiver, he could challenge veteran Torry Holt at the No. 3 receiver position, while he could also clearly take charge of a crowded and uncertain field at kick returner. Tom Brady says that Tate has had a ‘€œgreat offseason.’€ We’€™ll see how it all shakes out for the North Carolina product this summer.

24. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski: Solid, dependable and a borderline Pro Bowler, Gostkowski hasn’€™t made people forget about his predecessor, but is still one of the best young kickers in the game kicking in one of the tougher stadiums in the league. It wasn’€™t a problem working with a new long snapper last season in Jake Ingram ‘€” we’€™ll see how he does this season with a new holder in Zoltan Mesko.

23. Running back Laurence Maroney: He enters the 2010 season as the closest thing the Patriots have to a feature back, but now that Benjamin Watson is gone, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Maroney is undoubtedly the singular most polarizing player on the roster: Is he a great back who just doesn’€™t get enough carries to prove his worth? Or is he a first round bust? There were flashes of brilliance last season (he had five games of 75-plus yards in 2009), but even his critics wonder about Maroney after the way the 2009 season ended. Four bad fumbles, including two on the goal line, ended the year on a down note for the Minnesota product. That included a Week 16 goal-line fumble against the Jaguars ‘€” his last carry of the regular season. (He had no more carries that afternoon against Jacksonville, was a healthy scratch in the regular-season finale against Houston, and in the team’s playoff loss to Baltimore, Maroney only carried the ball once, despite getting the start.) Entering the final year of his contract, it’€™s a key summer for Maroney, who could be somewhere else when next season rolls around if he doesn’€™t pick it up sooner rather than later.

22. Safety Patrick Chung: Chung was brought along relatively slowly as a rookie, but will undoubtedly have more on his plate in 2010. With a crowded field at safety ‘€” including Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, Brandon McGowan ‘€” the 5-foot-11, 212-pound Chung will have a fight on his hands, but it should make for one of the more interesting positional battles during training camp. For what it’€™s worth, this spring the combination of Chung and Meriweather appeared to mesh nicely. ‘€œIt’€™s competitive. We make it real competitive,’€ Chung said this spring of his on-field collaboration with Meriweather. ‘€œIt’€™s fun. It makes practice fast. When you get fast practice, the games come easy. I like it.’€

21. Guard Stephen Neal: One of the foundations that the offensive line has been built upon since he grew into the role of full-time starter in 2003, the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Neal was close to retiring at the end of the 2009 season, but came back for (presumably) one more year in New England. When healthy, he remains a borderline Pro Bowler, an important part of the offensive line and one of the better run blockers in the league (just ask our pals at Pro Football Focus). There’€™s no reason to think Neal won’€™t be the No. 1 right guard from start to finish this season.

Read More: 2010 training camp, Rating the Roster,
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