|Rating the Roster, Part 1||02.10.12 at 1:02 am ET|
With the 2011 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 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.
A quick note: The 53 players were taken straight from New England’s postseason media guide, the most up-to-date listing available. That means injured players such as Andre Carter, Mike Wright, Jermaine Cunningham, Dan Koppen and Ras-I Dowling, as well as practice squadders are not included for purposes of this exercise.
We start with No. 53 through No. 26.
53. Safety Sergio Brown: Fewer players slid down the depth chart as precipitously as Brown, who opened the season in a regular rotation at safety (he played every snap of a Week 3 loss to Buffalo) but saw virtually zero meaningful snaps after the Week 12 win over Philadelphia. His low point was a costly pass interference penalty in the regular-season loss to the Giants that set up the game-winning score.
52. Linebacker Gary Guyton: Guyton began the year as a starter, but like Brown, slid quickly down the depth chart. A solid locker room presence and good buddy of Jerod Mayo, he will almost certainly be elsewhere next season.
51. Safety Malcolm Williams: A defensive back who was a seventh-round pick of the Patriots last April, he saw limited action this season as a special teamer, getting into a December win over the Redskins.
50. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco: The Patriots preach value, and there have been few instances of them getting less value for a player than New England got for Ochocinco in 2011. The wide receiver was the recipient of a $6 million base salary, and had just 15 catches on the season. Needless to say, if he does return, it will be with a reworked deal.
49. Defensive end Alex Silvestro: He will always be known to the world as The Guy Who Took Tiquan Underwood’s Spot The Day Before The Super Bowl, he’s someone the organization likes, but still needs more seasoning.
48. Defensive back Nathan Jones: A late-season pickup who bounced around the league before landing with the Patriots, he was thrown right into the action as soon as he showed up — four days after he was signed, he started at corner against the Colts. A veteran, if he is back next season, it will be to provide depth in the secondary.
47. Long snapper Danny Aiken: No problems this season from Aiken at the long snapper spot, as the New England specialists had a good season.
46. Offensive lineman Donald Thomas: A youngster out of UConn, he was used sparingly for a snap here or there throughout the course of the regular season until the regular-season finale. A youngster who provides good depth along the offensive line.
45. Linebacker Niko Koutouvides: A good complementary player, Koutouvides provided depth on special teams and the occasional snap on defense. (The sight of him split wide in coverage late in the year against the Colts was one of the more interesting images of the season.)
44. Fullback Lousaka Polite: A solid locker room presence in his relatively short time with the Patriots, he played just 24 snaps in his four games with New England, including 14 in the postseason. It will be interesting to see what the Patriots do with Polite going forward, as they haven’t had a full-time, traditional fullback on the roster for a full season since Heath Evans in 2008.
43. Running back Shane Vereen: The rookie never seemed to recover after an early hamstring issue kept him on the shelf for an extended stretch (he was only involved in three games this past season), but it will be interesting to see what he can do with a full offseason in the facility. There may be some shuffling at the running back position this offseason (veteran Kevin Faulk could retire, while BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a free agent), and as a result, there could be some opportunities there for Vereen in 2012.
42. Quarterback Ryan Mallett: The rookie didn’t play at all in the regular season, but was a good teammate who, by all accounts, kept his eyes and ears open and his mouth shut. As has always been the case, it’s curious what the endgame will be between Mallett and the Patriots. Is he trade bait? Or is he in New England’s future plans?
41. Defensive lineman Ron Brace: After starting the year on PUP, he never seemed to get on track, and was using sparingly throughout the season when he wasn’t an occasionally healthy scratch. He still remains the primary backup defensive tackle.
40. Center/Guard Nick McDonald: McDonald was one of four different centers the Patriots employed this past season, getting the start in Week 13 and 14, and played about as well as could be expected. He wasn’t much of a factor the rest of the way, but his positional versatility is important, and if Brian Waters does retire, he figures to move up the depth chart.
39. Cornerback Antuwan Molden: Like Jones, he was immediately thrown into the mix as soon as he arrived in Foxboro. He went up and down the depth chart — there were three games where he played only one snap, while he also played significant snaps in the Super Bowl. Depending on what the Patriots do in free agency and the draft, he could return to more of a complementary role in 2012.
38. Offensive lineman Marcus Cannon: A great story because of what he was able to overcome over the last year, he provides depth at the tackle spot. Another player who will benefit from having a full year in the system without a lockout.
37. Linebacker Tracy White: Along with Matthew Slater, White is one of two of the most important members of the Patriots’ special teamers who aren’t specialists (Mesko, Gostkowski). He occasionally gets reps at linebacker — including a surprising start in the Super Bowl. White is never going to be an All-Pro, but he’s become an integral part of the system in New England.
36. Quarterback Brian Hoyer: A restricted free agent, it’s debatable that another team would pay the price when it comes to signing him away. At the same time, with the level of quarterback play across the league suffering, it’s not a crazy proposition, especially for someone like Hoyer who has experience in the New England system. One to watch closely this offseason.
35. Linebacker Dane Fletcher: A thumb injury set him back this season, but the rookie free agent has played his way into a fairly regular spot in the New England linebacking corps. He still has some issues from time to time (including in pass defense), but Rob Gronkowski’s housemate appears to have a secure spot in the team going forward.
34. Defensive lineman Shaun Ellis: Ellis was a bit of a mixed bag this season, struggling with injury at times. In addition, like many new members of New England’s defensive line, he occasionally appeared to have issues picking up the shift in scheme. It’ll be curious to see if the 34-year-old returns for another year with the Patriots.
33. Running back Kevin Faulk: We’ve stuck a personal favorite on his own No. 33 as a small tribute to what he’s meant to the franchise over the years. Eminently dependable, he’s one of the most respected guys in the New England locker room. His numbers have slipped in recent years, but few people command as much respect throughout the organization as Faulk. If this is the end for Faulk, he’ll be remembered as one of the most consistently underrated parts of the Patriots’ run of success over the last 10 years.
32. Safety James Ihedigbo: Because of some personnel moves and injuries, the defensive back was forced into playing more time than the team had initially planned over the course of the season. He ended up starting 12 games at safety, and remained a mostly positive presence on New England’s back end against the run and on special teams, but was occasionally exposed in coverage. A free agent, he will likely return if both sides can make the money work.
31. Defensive lineman Gerard Warren: “Big Money” did everything the Patriots asked of him this season and while the Patriots did a good job managing his playing time, he was productive against the run and the pass. He’s 33 years old and facing free agency, but if he’s healthy and wants to come back, I could see the Patriots signing him for one more season.
30. Defensive end Brandon Deaderick: He’s had a bit of a checkered start to his time in New England (a brief suspension as a rookie and a stint on PUP in 2011), but when he’s been healthy, he’s been an active part of New England’s defensive line. Depending on what the Patriots decide to do with some of their vets, he could be in line for more snaps in 2012.
29. Center/Guard Ryan Wendell: One of three center/guard combos for the Patriots, Wendell struggled with a calf injury that limited for a sizable portion of the season. Wendell is who he is — a quality backup who can provide solid depth at three spots on the offensive line. He could be in line for more snaps depending on what happens with impending free agent center Dan Koppen or veteran right guard Brian Waters, who could possibly retire.
28. Center/Guard Dan Connolly: The Patriots have a big decision to make when it comes to Connolly: If they feel secure enough in letting veteran center Dan Koppen leave as a free agent, it appears that Connolly will get the first crack at the job, as he was the primary center this season after Koppen went down in the regular-season opener. Connolly has played all three interior line spots for extended stretches, and done a serviceable job at all three spots over the course of his career, but it would be interesting to see his professional development if he was left alone to play one spot.
27. WR/KR/DB Julian Edelman: Few players were asked to do more in 2011 than Edelman, who lined up on offense (as a wide receiver), defense (as a defensive back) and special teams (as a returner). He’ll never be confused with a Pro Bowl corner, but he’s one guy who people will be watching closely in offseason workouts, minicamp and training camp to see where he gets the bulk of his reps.
26. Special teamer Matt Slater: One of the most unfailingly polite guys in the New England locker room, it’s safe to say the entire roster was happy for Slater and the success he enjoyed in 2011. The most important non-specialist among the Patriots’ special teamers, his attitude, leadership and speed (he’s the fastest guy on the team) are all attributes the franchise
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