New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick has a lot of personnel moves to make this summer and the future of the team depends on how the training camp competitions pan out.
After making it to the Super Bowl, in what was essentially a rebuilding season, the Patriots could have gone into the offseason with the business-as-usual approach. After resigning former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels , who was an integral part of Tom Brady's record-setting 2007 season, it looked like the rest of the pieces would fall into place, with no major free agency splashes. After all, one would think there wouldn't be much to add to a team that went 13-3 and made it to the game's biggest stage.
Losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl for the second time in four years must have left a bad taste in Belichick's mouth, because New England rushed out of the gates this offseason. To this point, New England has been able to bring in many talented players.
Steve Gregory, Anthony Gonzalez, Brandon Lloyd, Jonathan Fanene, Will Allen, Robert Gallery, Donte' Stallworth, Bobby Carpenter, Jabar Gaffney and Joseph Addai are some of the marquee free-agents signed by the Patriots. This aggressive attack on the free agent market is unheard of from a team coached by Belichick.
The 2012 NFL Draft brought more uncharacteristic moves from New England.
The Patriots traded up twice in this year's draft. The last time they traded up in the draft even once was in 2003. Throughout his tenure as head coach in New England, Belichick has made a name for himself by trading down into future drafts to find high value players rather than flashy prospects.
Trading up didn't hurt the quality of New England's draft, though, as the Pats had four picks in the first two rounds and plenty to work with. Although the method was changed, the results were still positive. The Patriots were able to add Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones, Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette and Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard to their already stacked roster.
Jones and Hightower were stars at their respective schools and were both All-Conference athletes in 2011. Hightower and Bequette were both team captains for multiple years, continuing the Patriots recent trend of adding players who were leaders on their college squads.
The general consensus around the league is that New England had a stellar draft and offseason. NFL.com gave them an A as their draft grade and named the Patriots as one of the teams that nailed it this year.
With all of this new talent, Bill Belichick and his staff have a lot of decisions to make about some very crowded key positions.
The most crowded position on the roster is probably wide receiver. With the latest signing of draftee Jeremy Ebert on May 16, New England now has 12 receivers listed on its roster. The Patriots carried five players at that position last year and, if they stick with that formula, more than half of the competitors will be cut by the time the season starts.
Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and special teams captain Matthew Slater look to be the only locks of the group. That leaves Chad Ochocinco, Julian Edelman, Deion Branch, Jabar Gaffney, Anthony Gonzalez, Donte' Stallworth, Britt Davis, Matt Roark and Jeremy Ebert competing for the final spots.
Ochocinco was an immense disappointment for the Patriots last year. The former All-Pro caught only 15 balls on 32 targets with just one score. To show his devotion to the team-first mentality, Ochocinco took a $2 million pay cut. His performance will have to back that up as Belichick has not shied away from letting high-level talent go in the past, such as Richard Seymour and Randy Moss.
Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth are unique cases. Both are returning to New England after trying to find success elsewhere.
Stallworth's career has been up and down since leaving New England, whereas Gaffney had three solid seasons with Denver and Washington. Tom Brady's familiarity with them should bode well, since Deion Branch has thrived since returning to New England after an extended stint in Seattle.
Another big competition in this year's training camp will take place in the backfield. The Patriots' main running back from last year, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, has signed with the Cincinnati Bengals after another solid season with New England. To replace him, Belichick and McDaniels have many choices, including the second year duo of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley.
Vereen and Ridley join undrafted fan-favorite Danny Woodhead as the only returning members, with Patriots all-time great Kevin Faulk still unsigned. Joseph Addai was added in early May to shake things up and may be a dark-horse candidate for the job. Addai has had some big games against the Patriots, including a monster performance in 2007, in which he racked up 226 total yards and a touchdown. Addai's career has been plagued by injury problems and he saw his role get taken over by Donald Brown and Delone Carter last year in Indianapolis.
On the defensive side of the ball, there is tremendous competition and the ambiguity of New England's scheme means that any of the candidates could be lined up anywhere on the field. Wide Receiver Julian Edelman played corner in certain defensive packages in 2011.
Belichick has alternated almost weekly between the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes and changes his defenses to uncover his opponent's weaknesses. As a result, New England's roster is stocked with versatile, hard-working individuals who only want to come out and do their job, a mantra recited in many New England pre-game press conferences.
Along the defensive line, Vince Wilfork is about the only player that is guaranteed to see time on game day. Wilfork has been a force in the middle since coming into the league in 2004, no matter who flanks him. This year, it looks like he will see a mix of rookies Jones and Bequette, along with 3rd year man Brandon Deaderick, who started the team's final six games last year. Don't count out free agent acquisitions Trevor Scott and Jonathan Fanene though, as Belichick has always been a fan of stocking his defensive line with multiple able-bodies in case of injury.
The biggest question going into every Patriots minicamp over the last few years has always been who will be the team's edge pass rusher.
While Rob Ninkovich has played the role admirably in recent seasons, he is more of an all-around player and does not excel at it. Last year, the answers were Mark Anderson and Andre Carter. That will not be the case this year, as Anderson is recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered late last season, and signed a four-year deal with the Buffalo Bills.
The ambiguity of the scheme comes into play again here.
In the 4-3 defense, the defensive ends play the edge, but in the 3-4, that responsibility lies on the linebackers. There are very few players that can play both roles, so it may be a pass rush by committee type of set up next year. Bequette and Jones should be included in that committee, as well as Hightower, who usually plays inside linebacker. However, Hightower also has the size and strength to play outside in the 3-4 across from last year's starter, Rob Ninkovich.
Overall, the New England Patriots training camp will be an exciting place to be this summer.
With the hangover of a lost Super Bowl and the media questioning if the Belichick-Brady combination can reach the top again, this team should be fired up. This passion was exhibited at the voluntary organized team activities last week, which most Patriots attended, including star quarterback Tom Brady, who missed last year's OTA's.
Behind the scenes, no one will be working harder than the head coach.
He has three and a half months to trim this scrum of players into a team that compliments itself on both sides of the ball. This training camp features more talent than has been seen in New England for a while, and a majority of the players cut from the team will quickly find jobs elsewhere.
Belichick has to make the right decisions though, or he will see many talented players perform well for teams around the league.