EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 29, 2009

Pats offensive talent can't be touched

But can Belichick find a pass-rusher and piece together a secondary?

On Pro Football

FOXBORO — You have to backpedal all the way to August of 2001.

For the first time since Drew Bledsoe's final preseason in New England, Patriots fans everywhere must endure their "summer of discontent" as Camp Belichick 2009 opens on the grounds behind Gillette Stadium tomorrow with a pair of workouts under the late July sun.

Defensive questions have bubbled like a nasty case of poison ivy.

And offensively, the stability of Tom Brady's recently-rebuilt knee represents the potential difference between Super Bowl favorite or AFC also-ran.

Unlike the last seven camps here, August matters, even if Brady never takes an exhibition snap.

The Patriots, who've lost Matt Cassel, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison and Ellis Hobbs, spent a busy offseason patching and planning for the future on defense while bolstering an already explosive attack with impact skill veterans.

Did Belichick and Scott Pioli's replacement, Floyd Reese, get the job done? On paper, maybe.

We'll see beginning tomorrow on the practice field.

Here's a look at the camp-opening roster of 82 by position — who's in, who's fighting and who'll be selling cars in a month.

Offense

Quarterbacks

The candidates: Tom Brady, Matt Gutierrez, Kevin O'Connell, Brian Hoyer

Who's in: Brady, for as long as the new wheel allow him to take them; O'Connell, unless he plays so poorly Belichick tries the Brian Griese/Trent Edwards/Brad Johnson-esque scrap heap.

Who's fighting: Gutierrez, whose ultimate fate will be decided by how the numbers shake out elsewhere.

Polish your resume: Hoyer, that is unless the rookie out of Michigan State shows enough to scrape out a spot on the eight-man practice squad.

Overall Grade: A+ if No. 12 is healthy; F- if he's not.

Running Backs

The candidates: Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, BenJarvus Green-Ellis

Who's in: All of them

Who's fighting: None of them

Polish your resume: Everybody is safe here.

Overall Grade: A. As soft and fragile as Maroney is, there's so much tested veteran insurance in Taylor and Morris. Faulk is the offensive glue, moving the chains on third down. And Green-Ellis knows the system and gained much respect in his fill-in work of 2008.

Wide Receivers

The candidates: Sam Aiken, Julian Edelman, Joey Galloway, Greg Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrence Nunn, Matthew Slater, Brandon Tate, Wes Welker, Shun White

Who's in: Galloway, Lewis, Welker, Moss

Who's fighting: Slater and Aiken — both of whom will win or lose their spots in the kicking game this month.

Polish your resume: Edelman, Nunn, Tate and White. If mini-camp meant anything, I liked Edelman's athleticism, but he is still the longest of longshots.

Overall Grade: A+ —The Moss-Welker tandem dwarfs any other pass-catching duo in the game, east of Phoenix.

Tight Ends

The candidates: Chris Baker, Tyson DeVree, Alex Smith, David Thomas, Ben Watson

Who's in: Baker, Smith — each was brought in here for a reason.

Who's fighting: Watson, on whom the clock is now ticking, and Thomas, who is one more nagging injury away from a ticket out of town.

Polish your resume: DeVree, who will be an able-bodied addition to the practice squad.

Overall Grade: C- ... If there is a weakness on this offense, and we're not saying there is, this is it.

Linemen

The candidates: Wes Britt, George Bussey, Dan Connolly, Russ Hochstein, Al Johnson, Nick Kaczur, Dan Koppen, Mark LeVoir, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Stephen Neal, Ryan O'Callaghan, Rich Ohmberger, Jermail Porter, Sebastian Volmer, Ryan Wendell, Billy Yates

Who's in: The returning starting five of Light, Mankins, Neal, Koppen and Kaczur, plus Britt, Hochstein and O'Callaghan.

Who's fighting: Connolly, Vollmer and Ohmberger anxiously stand ready to fill the injury void.

Polish your resume: Bussey, Johnson, LeVoir, Porter, Wendell and Yates.

Overall Grade: B ... The only thing keeping this group from being an "A" is the lack of a cornerstone/Jonathan Ogden type at left tackle.

Defense

Linemen

The candidates: Titus Adams, Ron Brace, Jarvis Green, Marvin Pryor, Darryl Richard, Richard Seymour, Le Kevin Smith, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Steve Williams, Mike Wright

Who's in: Seymour-Wilfork-Warren might not be the most dominant front in the game, but it's in the top four. Green is the Kevin Faulk of the defense. Wright has eased into the five hole quite nicely, too.

Who's fighting: Is it Brace vs. Smith for the sixth and possibly last spot on the roster?

Polish your resume: Adams, Pryor, Richard and Williams can slide up the ladder if they show the ability to get to the quarterback.

Overall Grade: A ... Are fifteen sacks too much to ask from these guys, though?

Linebackers

The candidates: Eric Alexander, Tully Banta-Cain, Tedy Bruschi, Vinny Ciurciu, Shawn Crable, Gary Guyton, Paris Lenon, Jerod Mayo, Tyrone McKenzie, Vince Redd, Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods.

Who's in: Mayo and Thomas. That's it.

Who's fighting: Alexander, Banta-Cain, Bruschi, Crable, Guyton, Redd and Woods are all quality camps away from the starting lineup. All seven are one bad camp away from the free-agent pool or in Bruschi's case, retirement. Ciurciu and Lenon will most likely earn their keep in the kicking game. McKenzie, the rookie third-rounder, is lost for the season with an injury sustained in mini-camp.

Polish your resume: Everybody's got a chance, but one or two will end up here.

Overall Grade: Incomplete ... Mayo has the chance to be a Pro-Bowler in his second year. Thomas hasn't impacted as expected when he got the big free-agent bucks, but he's a pro. After that it's Missouri, and to improve the grade, you'll have to "Show me."

Secondary

The candidates: Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler, Patrick Chung, Jamar Love, Brandon McGowan, Brandon Meriweather, Mike Richardson, James Sanders, Shawn Springs, Ray Ventrone, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, Tank Williams.

Who's in: Bodden, Springs, Butler, Chung, Meriweather, Wheatley, Wilhite and reluctantly the disappearing one, Sanders.

Who's fighting: McGowan is your typical over-achieving special teamer.

Polish your resume: Love is my darkhorse, but at best he's pegged for the practice squad. Richardson, Ventrone and Williams are all running out of chances.

Overall Grade: D+ ... Believe me, I tried to improve this grade to a C-, but then I realized that Sanders, Meriweather, Wilhite and Wheatley all played big roles in a 2008 secondary that allowed 27 TDs, a 60.8 completion percentage and 7.3 yards per attempt. Bodden has had one decent year in six, picking off six passes with the Cleveland Browns in 2007. Springs is 34 now, with 12 full seasons on his weary body. Can Chung hit with the big boys? And is Butler just an athlete in cornerback clothing?

Specialists

The candidates: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punters Chris Hanson and Tom Malone, snappers Nathan Hodel and Jake Ingram

Who's in: Gostkowski is a returning Pro Bowler. Hanson is a proven veteran. Hodel is new special teams coach Scott O'Brien's guy.

Who's fighting: Nobody

Polish your resume: Ingram and Malone, although both could bounce off and on the practice squad when the need arises.

Overall Grade: B+ ... Hanson won't make you think of Ray Guy, but he's adequate. And Gostkowski has made the entire six-state region forget about the best money kicker in the history of the game, Adam Vinatieri.