Kings of the Mountain: The 2006 New England Patriots

I know the Patriots have lost some key players to free agency this past offseason, but until both, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are no longer part of the Patriots organization, I’m not prepared to count them out of anything.

Having said that, I realize that a lot of people are enamored right now with the Miami Dolphins prospective return to the upper echelon of the NFL, but until the ‘Fins forcefully take away, at least the AFC East division title, I am going on record to say that the Patriots will once again find a way to conjure up a double-digit win season. Here is my 2006 preview for the New England Patriots.

Quarterback

Tom Brady may have led the NFL in passing yards in 2005 (4,110 yards), but I actually believe less of Brady’s arm – and a better mix of positive rushing yards – would produce better results for the Patriots in 2006 than they did in 2005. However, it’s hard to argue with a guy who threw for 26 touchdowns last season, however he did mix in an un-Brady-like 14 interceptions.

One thing I will say though, is that, should Brady go down at some point in the regular season, the Patriots can absolutely kiss their season goodbye. Second-year man, Matt Cassel, is nowhere ready to take over, so this position could become a problem for the Patriots at some point, as idiotic as that may sound for a team with a three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback calling at the helm.

Running Back
I know that Corey Dillon rushed for nearly 1,00 less yards last season than he did in 2004, but I believe that fact was an aberration that was more indicative of New England’s throwing the ball more last season than they had the previous season.

However, Bellichick smartly drafted Dillon’s backup and future replacement this season by selecting running back Laurence Maroney with the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft. The Patriots will also have a healthy Kevin Faulk this season to spell Dillon as well.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

Everyone in the world knows that Super Bowl MVP, Deion Branch is holding out for a huge payday. What most people don’t know however is that the Patriots are still one of the most solid receiving corps in the league even without Branch.

New England drafted a potential No. 1 receiver prospect in Chad Jackson in the second round, as well as a pass-catching tight end from Texas named David Thomas, not to mention multi-talented Tulsa H-back, Garrett Mills. Let’s not forget that the Patriots still have Troy Brown and tight ends Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, whom I think could possibly have a breakout season this year.

Offensive Line

The Patriots have more questions along their offensive line than at any time in recent memory. If left tackle Matt Light, who missed 13 regular season games and the playoffs last season, and center, Dan Koppen, who missed more than half the season with a torn rotator cuff, don’t return to full form, then the Patriots will be forced to go with youngsters, Nick Kaczur and Brandon Gorin. Guards, Stephen Neal and Logan Mankins – are solid, if not outstanding players, but by no means does this unit inspire any feeling of security. To be absolutely honest about it, former Patriot guard and Hall of Fame inductee, John Hannah, could probably out-block this entire offensive line all by himself.

Defensive Line

Simply put, End, Richard Seymour, is as good as they come. Nose tackle, Vince Wilfork, is a player that is getting better with every snap and Ty Warren is solid if not spectacular. The Patriots could however, use another nose tackle to back up Wilfork.

Linebacker

I love the Patriots linebackers even with the loss of Willie McGinest. Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin are all intelligent players who make up for their physical inabilities by always being in the right place at the right time. The loss of McGinest will undoubtedly hurt the Pats in what used to be their best unit. Worse yet, the Pats young linebackers may or may not be ready to back up their aging brethren.

Defensive Backs

This could be another problem area for New England this season. If safety Rodney Harrison doesn’t come back strong from his major knee injury, then the Pats secondary could be downright atrocious.

The Patriots have defensive backs like Eugene Wilson, Tebucky Jones, Guss Scott, James Sanders and Ellis Hobbs to go along with their best defensive back, Asante Samuel. All in all, I’m sure Belichick is worried about this unit and if he isn’t, he should be.

Special Teams

The loss of Adam Vinatieri is absolutely a blow to the gut for the Patriots, who have brought in veteran Martin Gramatica to try and replace the master of the late-game dramatics. The Patriots also have major question marks with their return game – on both kickoffs and punts and could be in trouble here as well.

Coaching

Although the Pats are replacing another defensive coordinator this season, I am fully confident that as long as Belichick remains on the New England sideline, the Pats will at least be very sound defensively no matter who holds the title of defensive coordinator, which will now be manned by veteran defensive mastermind, Dean Pees.

I know New England’s offense isn’t the most complex in the league, but I still think the loss of Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator was a crucial blow that New England may never overcome.

Having said that, I fully expect the Pats to once again, win double digit games this season and be a legitimate contender for the AFC championship.

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