As Mark Sanchez's knee came down to touch the turf of Foxboro on the 16th of January this year, it brought down with it the New England Patriots' hopes of winning the Super Bowl for the fourth time in the past decade.
The Patriots weren't considered major contenders heading into last season. Their young defense was expected to hold them back as it underwent a transition period. However that was not the case during the regular season as the team finished with the best record in the league.
Their notable blow outs of the New York Jets and Chiacgo Bears during the regular season had fans across the nation penciling them in for another Super Bowl run. Alas it wasn't meant to be as the Jets bounced back from their 45-3 drubbing during the regular season to win 28-21 in the playoffs.
Vitally for the team heading into next season, there is a more veteran presence on the defense. Obviously the fact that young contributors such as Pat Chung, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty have another year added to their careers will help.
However the major additions will come from players that didn't play a snap for the Pats all of last season. Veteran leadership in the form of defensive end Ty Warren and cornerback Leigh Bodden will return after being placed on IR before the start of last season.
Bodden was a big free agent signing prior to last season after spending the previous season with the team. Should he return fully healthy he will quickly supplant Kyle Arrington as the team's starting corner to make a top of the line pairing with McCourty.
Warren should have a bigger effect however. Warren has spent his whole career with the Patriots and should still have a lot to give at 30 years of age. He is a strong run stuffer in an area that the Patriots struggled last season. He will instantly reclaim his starting spot and make the defensive line rotation much better.
Another defensive line addition comes in the form of former 4-3 defensive tackle Marcus Stroud who will convert to a 3-4 defensive end with the Patriots.
Stroud is 32 years of age and spent the last three seasons with the divisional rival Buffalo Bills before signing with the Patriots in February. He will provide another stout piece for the Patriots' defensive line to rely on. A front trio of Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Marcus Stroud will give the team a veteran and talented trio to lead by example for the rest of the young defense.
The addition of rookie Ras-I Dowling rounds out the additions to the defense. Dowling was taken at the top of the second round of the most recent NFL draft. He won't be under pressure to perform instantly should Bodden return but could be in contention to take Kyle Arrington's place otherwise. Nonetheless his addition gives the Patriots added depth at cornerback.
At this point the only additions to the offense come in the form of rookies.
The Patriots used six of their first seven draft picks on offensive players in the draft. The contribution of each player is at this point unknown. The team's first round pick—Nate Solder—will become a starter if the team doesn't re-sign Matt Light. If they do however he will have the opportunity to learn from the bench or potentially play guard early in his career.
The Patriots then added even more bodies to an already crowded backfield with the additions of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Vereen is an explosive back who could take over the Danny Woodhead role for the team while Ridley is a bigger back that may see playing time in the place of BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Green-Ellis could leave in free agency depending on the outcome of the CBA negotiations. Bill Belicheck will obviously want to re-sign him but that is dependent on how much money it will take. Ridley and Vereen give the team better diversity at the position.
The final notable addition through the draft came in the form of Ryan Mallet. Mallet was a first round talent that fell due to attitude concerns all the way to the third. He is not going to see much time on the field as he will likely be the team's third string quarterback next year but you can never have too much talent at quarterback.
The fact that the Patriots' didn't add a receiver tells you one of two things. The team is going to make a big splash in free agency or Aaron Hernandez will be moved to permanently play wide receiver.
At this point Hernandez is a hybrid type of tight end as he can both block and run routes. However he is noticeably better as a receiving option and shows great speed to get vertical. Hernandez could be the team's attempt to solve their problems with stretching the field from last season. Moving him to receiver would make him a more viable option for that role.
The Patriots will be happy to sustain their offensive production from last season to next. The improvement on the defense could make the difference between their season ending in January or if they make a trip to Indianapolis in February 2012.
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