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Rating the Roster, Training Camp Edition (Part 7)

07.29.10 at 12:53 am ET
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Here’€™s the seventh and final segment of our training camp edition of ‘€œRating the Roster,’€ which looks at our picks for spots 1 through 17.

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 section is highlighted by the elite members of the roster ‘€” the sort of players who represent the very foundation of the franchise. These are the guy who, if they were lost for an extended stretch, would force Bill Belichick and the rest of the franchise to make some hard personnel decisions.

17. Defensive lineman Mike Wright: The single most versatile defensive lineman the Patriots have, Wright has improved greatly over the last couple of seasons. He’€™s still not the kind of player you want starting all 16 games, but the fact he can serve as a spot starter and a situational player in a pinch at any one of the three down linemen positions makes him very valuable in New England’€™s defensive scheme.

16. Cornerback Darius Butler: He’€™s ranked so highly in this system because there’€™s going to be a lot on Butler’€™s shoulders this season ‘€” after a rookie year where he sort of eased into the cornerback spot, he starts the 2010 campaign as the No. 1 left corner, opposite Leigh Bodden. Is he up to the challenge? We should know by the midway point of the season, as the Patriots will face some high-powered passing games (Cincinnati, San Diego and Minnesota) in September and October. He also gained special teams experience as a rookie, and could possibly be in the mix to work as a kick returner, something he was able to do quite well in college.

15. Left tackle Matt Light: Like Laurence Maroney, no one is lukewarm on Light. There are still times where he remains hopelessly overmatched ‘€” he might be the happiest guy in the world at the prospect of the retirement of Buffalo’€™s Aaron Schobel ‘€” but for the most part, he remains a key part of the offensive line. Tough to believe he’€™s going into his 10th season, but he’€™s been a two-time Pro Bowler. Keeping the left tackle spot warm for the day Sebastian Vollmer eventually takes over.

14. Safety Brandon Meriweather: A Pro Bowler, Meriweather still gambles and loses too often for many people, but he remains the best the Patriots have at the position, which is why he gets a spot in the Top 15. As the year begins, he’€™s probably the only safety in a group that includes James Sanders, Brandon McGowan and Pat Chung that has a job nailed down. Mentioned this before and it bears repeating ‘€” the Chung/Meriweather combination looked awfully frisky in spring practices.

13. Wide receiver Julian Edelman: No player taken in the seventh round had a better first season in the history of the New England franchise than Edelman. ‘€œFor Julian Edelman to come in and pick things up as quickly as he did last year and to be at the point as a receiver that he is right now ‘€” considering the fact that he, A) never played the position, and, B) converting to a new position as a rookie in an offense that has a number of moving parts and to be where he is now ‘€” is just phenomenal,’€ Belichick said shortly after the end of the season. How much playing time he gets early in 2010 could be tied to the overall health of Wes Welker, but it’€™s a safe bet that after the year he had in 2009, even if Welker is on the field, the Patriots will find some place for the converted college quarterback.

12. Center Dan Koppen: The leader of an offensive line that’€™s in a state of flux ‘€” Stephen Neal and Matt Light likely won’€™t be around much longer, while younger linemen like Sebastian Vollmer continue to emerge. (And no one is sure about the future of Logan Mankins in New England.) Koppen and Brady are as simpatico as any set of teammates in the New England locker room, and there’€™s no reason to think that Koppen won’€™t continue to be the starting center for the foreseeable future.

11. Running back Kevin Faulk: He’€™s not this high because of what he brings to the field, although he remains the best back on the team when it comes to blitz pickup and remains a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. Instead, he’€™s one of a couple of guys in the locker room who can command respect from players on both sides of the ball ‘€” players’€™ say his in-game sideline speeches are the stuff of legend. He won’€™t be as much of a factor on offense as he has been in the past, but with a renewed emphasis on leadership, the veteran remains one of the most important guys in the locker room.

10. Left tackle Sebastian Vollmer: Hands down, the Patriots’€™ 2009 Rookie of the Year. The second-year pick out of Houston was absolutely dominant at times, but was at his best in the November loss to the Colts, where he just blunted pass-rusher extraordinaire Dwight Freeney, holding him sackless. Whether he was filling in for an injured Matt Light last season at left tackle or stepping in for Nick Kaczur at right tackle, the offense was clearly better and more efficient when Vollmer was on the field. He’€™ll eventually move over from right tackle to left tackle when Light leaves, but barring injury, there’€™s no reason to think that Vollmer won’€™t be a beast for the next 10 seasons or more.

9. Cornerback Leigh Bodden: Bodden bet on himself, signing a one-year deal with the Patriots before the start of last season. Then, he was a relatively anonymous corner coming off an apocalyptically bad season with the 0-16 Detroit Lions. After a five-interception season, he became the best free agent corner on the market, eventually pulling down a four-year, $22.5 million deal, one made all the more impressive when you consider the looming labor uncertainty that surrounds the game. He will get the start at right corner this season, and barring injury, is the closest thing the Patriots have to a shutdown cornerback.

8. Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain: In his second incarnation with the Patriots, Banta-Cain went from nice situational player to becoming one of the MVP’€™s of the 2009 Patriots. Always considered an above-average pass rusher, Banta-Cain surprised just about everyone in 2009 with 10 sacks. (The performance ended up winning him a three-year, $13.5 million contract ‘€” not bad for a seventh-round pick.) New England made only relatively minor additions to the pass rush this past offseason, so Banta-Cain will likely be asked to replicate that performance in 2010.

7. Defensive lineman Ty Warren: Now that Richard Seymour is almost a year into his career with the Raiders, Warren has asserted himself as the top defensive end on the team, and if he can steer clear of injuries, there’€™s no reason to think he won’€™t continue to fill that role nicely for the next few seasons (he’€™s signed through 2013). It’€™s hard to believe that the soft-spoken Warren is entering his eighth season in the NFL.

6. Guard Logan Mankins: Of course, this comes with the understanding that no one is sure when the Pro Bowl left guard will see the field again, but under this system, he is clearly a borderline Top 5 candidate. However, he’€™s locked in a contract imbroglio with the New England front office, and the language coming from Mankins and his agent is so angry that it’€™s completely reasons to suggest that the Fresno Stater may have played his last game with the Patriots. If that’€™s the case, it’€™ll be too bad ‘€” the tough and durable Mankins has rarely missed a practice since he first arrived in 2005, and based on his body of work, has every right to stand alongside some of the best interior linemen in the history of the franchise.

5. Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo: The 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year took a step back in 2009 (we’€™re not sure how much of that was tied to the knee injury he suffered in the season opener against Buffalo ‘€” he has a legendarily high tolerance for pain), but he remains one of the most important parts of the New England defense. Even after only two years, you know what sort of on-field numbers (and havoc) he’€™s capable of producing. But what intrigues me are his leadership skills. Mayo, who is entering his third year in the league, is now the unquestioned leader of the linebacking corps. And now, with no more old-school linebackers (Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas, Junior Seau, etc.) in the mix, it will be interesting to see if he feels comfortable enough to flex some leadership muscles this season.

4. Wide receiver Randy Moss: While he is not the Randy Moss of 2007, he will almost certainly have better numbers than he did in 2009, when he struggled throughout the season with a bum shoulder. (Even with the injury, he still had 83 catches for 1,264 yards and 13 touchdowns.) Some of his fortunes will almost undoubtedly be tied to the health of Welker ‘€” if Welker can get on the field fast, it will divide the attentions of opposing defensive backs, and create positive opportunities for Moss. In addition, if any one of the other pass-catchers (Torry Holt, David Patten, or even the two rookie tight ends) can really produce, then No. 81 should see more single coverage and better chances.

3. Wide receiver Wes Welker: No one does a better job of moving the chains that Welker, who has more catches (346) than anyone since the start of the 2007 season. Even with the continued development of Edelman and the return of the pass-catching tight ends, it would be difficult for the New England passing game to operate with any sort of efficiency without Welker. Because of the injury, no one is sure what he will be able to contribute early, but it’€™s a safe bet he will be back to reasonable facsimile of the old Welker by the time Thanksgiving rolls around.

2. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork: If you are looking to run an effective 3-4 defense, you need a world class nose tackle, and Wilfork fills the bill nicely. After signing a five-year, $40 million contract in the offseason, there’€™s no reason that Wilfork won’€™t be the Patriots’€™ nose tackle for the next five years. Like Mayo, we know what he brings to the table from a skill standpoint. What really demands watching is how much he ramps it up from a leadership perspective. Shortly after signing his contract this past offseason, Wilfork had an epic conference call where I asked him about the state of leadership on the team, and he went off. (Listen to it here.) Look for him to be more vocal as a leader this season.

1. Quarterback Tom Brady: What, you were expecting someone else? Entering the final year of his contract, he remains the Hub of the whole operation. Coming off the most difficult season of his professional career, Brady should be better in 2010 ‘€” he said that while the offseason prior to the 2009 season was all about rehab, this offseason has been all about football. Teamwide, Brady said there’€™s also been a renewed commitment to toughness, something Brady said helped make the turn-of-the-century Patriots a great team. ‘€œCoach always used the words ‘€˜mentally tough’€™ to us. And I agree with him. When the going got tough, we didn’€™t get going,’€ Brady said this spring when talking about the 2009 team. ‘€œWe weren’€™t really a mentally tough team last year. I think that’€™s been a big point of emphasis for coach this offseason. Hopefully, we’€™ve found ways to address it with each other and also with coach bringing in different players to see if they can bring a little bit of that to our team.’€

One final note: Offensive linemen Thomas Welch and Dan Connolly and defensive lineman Myron Pryor were inadvertently not included earlier in the countdown. Here are quick thumbnails on the three of them. If you are scoring at home, Welch belongs in the 70s, while Pryor should be in the late 50s and Connolly should be in the late 30s.

Offensive lineman Thomas Welch: The rookie should provide depth at the tackle spot, but could ultimately land on the practice squad. Offensive lineman Dan Connolly: Connolly has worked himself into a valuable asset ‘€” he is probably the most versatile interior lineman on the team, working at guard and center on several occasions this year. As is the case with several other offensive linemen, his fortunes are tied to those of Logan Mankins. If Mankins is around, Connolly will serve as the primary backup to the starting interior linemen. If Mankins isn’€™t around, Connolly could find himself battling Nick Kaczur for the starting left guard spot. Defensive lineman Myron Pryor: Pryor played quite a bit as a rookie and flashed some versatility, which should serve him well going forward, especially with the Patriots importing Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis. If either one of those players stumbles, an opportunity could present itself for Pryor in the form of increased playing time.

Read More: 2010 training camp, Rating the Roster,
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