6. People often accuse me of being too negative and too reactionary, especially while watching Patriots’games. However, even I am upset with how many people are willing to panic over OT Nate Solder and his “struggles” in two preseason games. Yes, Nate Solder has had some struggles thus far, but he is doing so with a patchwork offensive line and a vanilla offense. His mistakes have been magnified because he is replacing Matt Light who could be counted on each year and because he protects Tom Brady’s blindside. When he gets beat or called for a hold it sticks out and people are quick to analyze. How quickly people forget that Nate Solder played pretty well throughout last season at both tackles spots right from the get go. I have even seen some writers go out of their way to try to suggest the Patriots should try to replace him. Are you kidding me? The Patriots invested a top 20 pick on Solder. He has had two preseason games as the starting LT and it’s already time to give up on him? The expectations on Solder are high and they should be, but people expecting him to be perfect right away are driving me crazy. Dante Scarnecchia has been able to turn much less talented players into serviceable offensive linemen (Tom Ashworth or Greg Robinson-Randall anyone?). Give Solder some time to adjust and develop at one of the most difficult positions on the field. Most of all trust Coach Scarnecchia and his impeccable track record. I believe Solder will be just fine during the season and anyone that believes otherwise can come talk to me after week 16. I doubt Solder will be much of a concern then.
7. Julian Edelman deserves an increase of playing time at WR and not just as a decoy or 5th option. Edelman really stood out on the practice field during the week of practice I attended. He has developed as a route runner and is extremely quick in and out of breaks, much like Wes Welker. He’s tough to cover with linebackers out of the slot and can easily shake coverage. His best trait is his ability with the ball in his hands. Once he catches the ball he is the most dangerous player on the team (outside of Aaron Hernandez). Time after time he breaks tackles and makes defenders miss with his jump cuts and fakes. Edelman gives OC Josh McDaniels even more flexibility as he can line up all over place. A formation where the Patriots employ Lloyd, Welker, Edelman, Gronkowski and Hernandez is almost impossible to stop. It’s time to expand Edelman’s role and see what they have. Welker is an UFA after the season and if Edelman can give the team 75% of Welker’s production at 1/12th the price, Welker could end up walking.
8. When the roster is cut down for the last time in two weeks keep an eye on how many running backs stick around. The Patriots currently have six players who have a legitimate possibility of making the roster; Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Jeff Demps, Brandon Bolden and FB Spencer Larsen. Since Bill Belichick became Head Coach of the Patriots the team has never kept more than five running backs (including fullbacks), so at least one of the six players is going to get let go. It’s safe to assume that Ridley and Vereen are safe. They will be the feature backs to start the season and have shown flashes of explosiveness. Danny Woodhead has had a lackluster and quiet preseason, but his role in the no huddle offense, special teams and third down ability probably keep him around. Jeff Demps has to be considered a lock. The Patriots beat out 29 other teams for the opportunity to sign Demps and then guaranteed most of his salary. The team has a major need at kick returner, which makes him a valuable roster piece. That leaves one spot to for two players Spencer Larsen or Brandon Bolden. It’s definitely possible that both players will be cut and the team keeps just four running backs. The Patriots have used the fullback heavily in the preseason, which might give Larsen a slight edge. Bolden could slip through to the practice squad and Bill Belichick has been willing to take risks by releasing rookies before. Just last season he released 5th round pick TE Lee Smith, hoping he would get through to the practice squad. Even though Smith got claimed, Belichick could take the chance with Bolden. This roster battle is one of the most intriguing and one of the toughest to figure out.
9. It’s very very early, but so far the returns on the Patriots 2012 NFL Draft class look extremely promising. This year’s rookie class could be the difference in the Patriots making the Super Bowl and winning the Super Bowl. Chandler Jones has looked like a stud, exceding all expectations, even the ones the Patriots had for him. It took him all of two practices to lock down the first team RDE position and Jones hasn’t looked back. He abused Saints OT Jermon Bushrod and looks like the pass rusher that Patriots fans have longed for years. Dont’a Hightower has been as advertised. He jumped into the first team defense on day one and hasn’t relinquished his spot. Hightower has played all three linebacker spots, has called plays and played on all three downs. Hightower along with Jones are the future of the defense and so far the future is bright.
I was furious with the selection of Tavon Wilson and while safeties will ultimately be judged by their play in game situations Wilson looks worthy of the selection. Wilson has been used to cover opposing team’s tight ends, something Brandon McGowan did nicely in 2009, but the team has since been awful at. Wilson is also a very good blitzer and can dish out contact. When watching Wilson, I see a smart player who knows his role and doesn’t make many mistakes. He probably won’t be a star, but he will be steady. Third round pick Jake Bequette hasn’t “wowed” thus far, but he has been used in a lot of different positions, including RDE, LDE, OLB, DT and even TE. He has been lauded for his smarts and football IQ. During the MNF broadcast Jon Gruden said he reminded the Patriots of Mike Vrabel. While he has got a ways to go, he should be able to contribute this year. Sixth Round Safety Nate Ebner has been a surprised. When he was picked I assumed he would only be a special teams player, but he has exhibited good instincts and ball skills in coverage. Ebner has worked his way into the safety rotation, which is good news, but a surprise none the less. Alfonzo Dennard has been sidelined most of camp, but started off nicely. I think he sticks and is one of the top four corners by November. Jermey Ebert has been the only rookie who has disappointed. He’s struggled to catch the ball and looks destined for the practice squad or the street.
10. Sebastian Vollmer’s value to the team can’t be understated. Marcus Cannon has shown clearly that he is not ready to be an everydown Right Tackle and might not be a tackle at all. If Sebastian Vollmer gets hurt and misses significant time, it would be devestating to the team. The Patriots don’t have another tackle on the active roster (Markus Zusevics is on PUP) who could possibly play RT in an NFL game. Vollmer is ticketed to be a free agent at the end of the season. It’s safe to say he has a lot of the line this season. The coaching staff took it slow with Vollmer wanting to make sure he was 100% healthy before putting him back on the field. Now he just has to stay that way the rest of the year.