EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 26, 2011

Time to ponder Pats' positives, potential pitfalls

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

I crave Patriots talk.

I admit it. The lockout battered all of us like Dwight Freeney on Brady's blind side.

But finally, as if it were orchestrated like a WWE title match, the labor strife has ended, just in time for training camps across this great land of ours.

All is again right with the world, even if two-a-days are a thing of the past and practice in pads is about to go the way of the "bull in the ring" drill.

Tom Brady will be back in that fire-engine red non-contact jersey, burning the rookie free agent from San Angelo State with 60-yard spirals to Brandon Tate. And all those loopy Patriots fans will swelter in the heat and cheer every non-contact screen pass that the big fella tosses to Kevin Faulk, who then dances through retreating defenders.

So with training camp 2011 ready to open, where do you stand?

Are the Patriots coming off a 14-2 season?

Or is this a football team that has dropped three straight playoff games, two in blowouts before the faithful at Patriot Place.

To me, I can't be satisfied the way this franchise has not capitalized on Brady's presence since 2004.

I've said it before, and I will stand behind it for as long as he toils at Patriots Place. The QB's health guarantees 10 wins at the minimum.

But no true Pats fan can believe in the talent around him as championship caliber, not with the way they've melted in January vs. the Jets last year and Baltimore following the 2009 season.

This roster has craved an upgrade in talent since the excruciating 2006 AFC title loss at Indianapolis.

The believers in these parts deem Jerod Mayo, Pat Chung, Brandon Meriweather and Devin McCourty as the new breed, ready to again carry this football team to the promise land.

You point to Pro Bowl appointments — something ex-personnel boss Scott Pioli outwardly mocked in his days here — and state emphatically that you can count on this defense.

But after watching the Jets pound this group, I ask ...

Really?

All eyes must analyze this defense, not in front-running blowouts against Miami or Buffalo or the Lions but in the four-to-six regular season games that truly matter.

Scrutinize honestly, from the opening of camp.

Is Mayo impacting anywhere near the line of scrimmage?

Will Chung every play all four downs efficiently?

Can Meriweather survive the weekly hits on him if his penchant for the kill is shot?

And will McCourty survive teams actually doing their homework and testing him horizontally not just vertically?

For the first time maybe ever under Brady and Belichick, the offense has serious question marks as well.

It begins up front where Stephen Neal has already retired.

Matt Light, a free agent, is poised to hit megabucks, one of those serviceable veterans whose price is about to skyrocket under the new CBA.

When a Tampa or Cincy tosses $24 million for two years at Light, how could the Pats possibly match?

That leaves rookie Nate Solder alone on the island at left tackle. Remember, Bill Belichick stressed that Solder was a "left tackle" on draft day. Did the coach mean "the left tackle?"

And will Logan Mankins show up with the rest of his mates this week?

The $10 million he is bound by CBA to play for under the Pats' transition tag looked pretty fair last February.

Six days from now, it might be an insult in this new market.

On the bright side, the Pats remain one of the most professional organizations the NFL can muster.

Seasons of sage financial decision-making has New England in a prime position to act when the free agent period opens.

Pick a pass rusher, an impact receiver, a versatile offensive road grader or two ... the Pats can stay on the top shelf comfortably.

So bring on the heat of camp.

It's simply awesome to have the Pats back.

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