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Rating the Roster, Part 2

02.11.12 at 7:50 pm ET
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Vince Wilfork is our highest-rated defensive player. (AP)

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 started with No. 53 through No. 26. Here’s No. 25 through No. 1:

25. Punter Zoltan Mesko: A borderline Pro Bowler, Mesko had an excellent year and was singled out earlier this season by an NFL scout we spoke with who acknowledged his work when it came to helping the Patriots win the battle of field position, especially early in games when New England was struggling to score points. Should be one of the best in the league for years to come.

24. Defensive back Sterling Moore: Released by the Raiders in September, he ended up playing significant minutes down the stretch and into the postseason. He made what was likely the defensive play of the year when he knocked the ball out of the hands of Baltimore’s Lee Evans in the AFC championship game. Regardless of what the Patriots do in free agency or the draft, he has played his way into the regular rotation of defensive backs going forward.

23. Tackle Sebastian Vollmer: It was a lost season for the big German, who struggled with back and foot issues for much of the season. Presuming that left tackle Matt Light will return as the starting left tackle in 2012, Vollmer will face a fight for his starting job next year at the right tackle spot with Nate Solder.

22. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski: A very good year for Gostkowski, who remains one of the more steady and consistent kickers in the league.

21. Defensive lineman Kyle Love: Love is likely the best and most consistent young defensive lineman on the roster. He played roughly half the snaps for the Patriots this season at the defensive tackle spot, and gained a wealth of knowledge playing much of the season alongside Vince Wilfork. It will be interesting to watch his progression into 2012, especially with a lockout-free offseason.

20. Wide receiver Deion Branch: He’s not the receiver he once was, but he maximizes the tools that are still at his disposal, including his smarts, his knowledge of the game and his relationship with Tom Brady. Prior to a couple of ill-timed drops in the Super Bowl, he still showed a knack for coming up big in big moments. A free agent, he’s one of the really intriguing decisions the Patriots face this offseason.

19. Running back Stevan Ridley: An interesting rookie year — he showed genuine flashes of greatness at times, running the ball for 5.1 yards per carry with real explosiveness. But there were a couple of fumbles late in the season, which ultimately meant that an occasionally promising year ended on something of a sour note. With a good offseason (lockout-free), he could push BenJarvus Green-Ellis for the role of lead back in 2012.

18. Defensive end Mark Anderson: One of the pleasant free agent surprises of 2012 (along with Andre Carter and Brian Waters), Anderson saw his role expand over the course of the season from that of a pure third-down pass rusher to a more complete defender. He’s not quite a complete three-down player yet in the New England system, but certainly progressed over the course of the season. Like Carter, his better-than-expected performance on a one-year deal will leave the Patriots with a decision to make at the start of free agency.

17. Tackle Nate Solder: The Patriots’ Rookie of the Year, he had a very good rookie season, working as a right and left tackle, a part-time tight end as well as getting reps on special teams. (According to Pro Football Focus, he was eighth on the offense in total snaps with 1,044, more than veterans like Dan Connolly, Deion Branch and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.) He struggled in the Super Bowl, but will almost certainly push Vollmer for the starter’s job at right tackle in 2012.

16. Running back Danny Woodhead: An up-and-down season for Woodhead, but when he was on, it was clear he’s emerged as a mostly positive heir to Kevin Faulk as the teams’ third-down/changeup back. (He’s not the blocker Faulk is, but has shown himself to be a statistical equal in several other areas.) Woodhead had a very good Super Bowl, and stands ready to be an integral part of the New England offense going forward.

15. Cornerback Devin McCourty: A mixed bag this season for McCourty, who struggled mightily in coverage over the first half of the season but did show some improvement over the second half, returning to his old physical self. He flashed some versatility late in the regular season and into the playoffs with a move to safety on third down and other passing situations, and he didn’t appear overwhelmed when he made the switch. Like Julian Edelman, he’ll bear watching in minicamps and other OTA’s when it comes to where he lines up. What the Patriots ultimately decide to do with him could have a sizable impact on the rest of the secondary.

14. Linebacker Brandon Spikes: It’s no coincidence that the defensive numbers took an upturn when Spikes returned from a knee injury. One of New England’s best when it comes to stopping the run, Spikes is an up-and-comer who figures to be an important part of the defense for a long time. He’ll occasionally swing and miss badly, but if he stays healthy and can play a full season, there’s no telling what sort of impact he can have on the Patriots’ defense.

13. Offensive lineman Logan Mankins: Mankins had a surprisingly rough season at the left guard spot — it’s debatable how much of his struggles could have been related to the fact that he was asked to help out the four different centers he played next to over the course of the 2011 season. His overall body of work is still good enough to give him a relatively high spot on this list, but he’ll be one to watch through the early stages of the 2012 season to see if he’s been able to shake off whatever slowed him in 2011.

12. Tackle Matt Light: The veteran had a very good year at the left tackle spot, providing quality support for the blind side against an impressive array of opposing pass rushers. Like the rest of the offensive line, he had his problems in the Super Bowl against the Giants, but Light figures to be around for at least one more season.

11. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich: Signed as a long snapper, he’s become the closest thing the current team has to Mike Vrabel, right down to the No. 50 — a smart, versatile presence who can rush the passer, drop into coverage and set the edge as either a defensive end or outside linebacker. After appearing to struggle with some of his responsibilities when the Patriots moved from a three-man to a four-man front at the start of the year, he settled in nicely as one of the team’s most important defenders down the stretch. Only two players in the league this season had at least six sacks and two interceptions: Ninkovich and Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs.

10. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis: Like Deion Branch, Green-Ellis is a free agent who will force the Patriots to make a tough decision. He’s certainly not flashy, but his consistency (everyone knows about the fact he’s never fumbled as a pro, and he’s averaged a steady four yards per carry since he broke in in 2008) and ability to make something out of nothing (he led the team in offensive touches this season, but averaged just one negative play for every 19 times he touched the football) make him a good fit for the Patriots. If he does stick with New England, expect Ridley to compete for carries as the starting back in 2012.

9. Cornerback Kyle Arrington: Maybe the steadiest cornerback this season for the Patriots, he ended up tied for the league lead in interceptions with seven. He went wire-to-wire in six games this season, including the Super Bowl, and did a very good job limiting New York’s dynamic receiver Victor Cruz. Like Moore and McCourty, regardless of how things shake out in the draft and free agency, he’s played his way into a regular rotation at corner going forward.

8. Safety Patrick Chung: Like Spikes, it’s no shock that the New England defense saw an improvement after Chung returned from a foot injury. A steady and consistent influence along the Patriots’ back line, Chung has grown into a valued part of the Patriots’ defense. He’s not yet the type of player for whom opposing offenses have to game plan, but Chung should only improve if he stays healthy.

7. Linebacker Jerod Mayo: There’s no shortage of opinions on Mayo — he’s either a glorified pile-jumper who artificially pads his tackle stats and is lacking playmaking ability … or is a great stabilizing presence and leader for the Patriots’ defense who’s presence is measured in more than just numbers. Regardless, the franchise (and Bill Belichick in particular) thought enough of him to gift the linebacker with a new deal this past season, more than a year before his old contract was up, which means he’ll be around for the foreseeable future. He did appear to take a step back in a few areas this season, but it is worth asking how much of that was due to trying to cover for the group of new players up front and in the secondary.

6. Guard Brian Waters: The best free agent pickup the franchise made in the offseason, Waters was a pillar on a New England offensive line that saw plenty of rotation. He was the only guy to start all 16 games at his position (right guard), and was a legitimate Pro Bowler. Durable (he was second on the offense in total snaps played to Brady), businesslike (he was described by Belichick as a “pro’s pro” with less than a month in the system) and talented (PFF had him graded out as the Patriots’ best pass-blocker with a grade of +19.3 — the next best lineman was at a +4.8), he will be missed greatly if he does decide to retire.

5. Tight end Aaron Hernandez: He had a dip through the middle part of the season (likely because of a knee injury), but every time that Rob Gronkowski struggled this season, Hernandez stepped up. That includes the Super Bowl, where the tight end (in name only) out of Florida had a team-high eight catches for 67 yards and a touchdown. While Gronkowski continues to get the lion’s share of the headlines, Hernandez is almost as important when it comes to the success of the passing game. His versatility (he’s lined up at four different spots on the field), speed and knowledge of the game make him one of the most dangerous young pass catchers in the league.

4. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork: Best year of his career. Regardless of his struggles in the Super Bowl, like Wes Welker, the team wouldn’t have made it all the way to the first week of February without him. Because there were so many new faces along New England’s defensive line, he was asked to play a lot more snaps this season than in years past, but handled the increased workload without a problem. Like Gronkowski, he’s a truly dominant force for whom opposing teams have to game plan on a consistent basis.

3. Tight end Rob Gronkowski: He wasn’t himself in the Super Bowl because of his left ankle injury, but he played 96 percent of the snaps this season, and was absolutely integral to the success of the New England offense, both as a pass catcher and as a blocker. Providing he gets over his injury, there’s no reason to think that Gronkowski won’t be an elite tight end in the NFL for the next 10 years. A frightening mixture of size and speed, when healthy, he’s capable of dominating a game. Paired with Hernandez, they make the sort of combination that will give defensive coordinators nightmares for years.

2. Wide receiver Wes Welker: Regardless of how things ended, the wide receiver remains a central part of the offense. He started the season on a record-breaking pace, but had to settle for merely a great year as opposed to one of the best in league history. He will likely be back for at least one more season on the franchise tag, but both sides certainly want to get a long-term deal (three to four years) done as soon as possible.

1. Quarterback Tom Brady: Everything flows through the quarterback, who remains the most important player on the roster. Brady had problems at times throughout the year (perhaps associated with the left shoulder issue that flared up throughout the season), but in the end, it was still one of the five best years of his career.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Andre Carter, BenJarvus Green Ellis, Bill Belichick
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