- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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With negotiating progress made Saturday setting the stage for the NFL Players Association executive committee to recommend lifting the lockout, the time is right for a refresher on the 2011 New England Patriots roster.
The positions are ranked based on the uncertainty surrounding them (from most to least), creating a clearer picture of where some of the club's bigger question marks reside (rookies in italics):
Breakdown: The Patriots drafted Solder in the first round (17th overall) and hope he's their left tackle of the future. The question is how quickly he can get up to speed without the benefit of spring minicamps and time in the team's strength program. Arguably nothing is more important than protecting Tom Brady's blindside, and, with that in mind, the Patriots and veteran left tackle Matt Light (unrestricted free agent) have left the door open for a possible return. Kaczur missed the 2010 season after undergoing back surgery and has about a $4.3 million salary cap charge, which is significant. His status bears watching.
Breakdown: Mankins, the team's starting left guard since 2005, has been assigned the franchise tag. While many believe he will sign the approximately $10 million tender quicker than he signed his restricted free-agent tender last year, when he reported after seven games, the Patriots must also consider contingency plans for the possibility he doesn't. With starting right guard Stephen Neal retiring, guard is a position the Patriots could target a veteran free agent for both experience and insurance. Connolly is the front-runner to start at Neal's right guard spot while Cannon's medical progress after undergoing chemotherapy treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma will be a factor in how much he could contribute as a rookie.
Breakdown: Although the Patriots didn't consistently generate a pass rush from this spot in the 3-4 alignment last season, they return the same group, with the addition of Carter, a sixth-round pick from Central Arkansas. That puts more pressure on Cunningham, a 2010 second-round pick, unless the team targets this area in free agency. Free-agent outside linebackers Matt Roth (Browns) and Manny Lawson (49ers) both have backgrounds in the 3-4. Banta-Cain has a salary cap charge of close to $4.5 million, which is significant. His status bears watching from an economic standpoint.
Breakdown: The Patriots have no shortage of big bodies here, led by Wilfork, who is the clear-cut top player of the group. If Warren (ninth year) returns to form after missing 2010 with a hip injury, that would solidify the left end spot in the 3-4, but there are questions on who will emerge at right end. That will be one of the big training camp competitions to monitor, with one of the questions being how much Stroud, a free-agent signing before the lockout, has left entering his 11th season.
Breakdown: This group returns intact from 2010, with the top two targets -- Branch and Welker -- entering the last year of their contracts. There was significant media-based debate this offseason on whether the Patriots should target an explosive, down-the-field type receiver. If Branch shows signs of slowing, and decision-makers don't see the desired development in Tate (third year), Edelman (third year) and Price (second year), this could be a spot where the team eyes a trade.
Breakdown: All eyes will be on Bodden, a nine-year veteran, to see if he returns to form after missing 2010 with a shoulder injury. Bodden was the Patriots' best corner in 2009, and if he teams with budding star McCourty, it could be one of the NFL's better tandems. Dowling (2011 second-round pick), Arrington (14-game starter in 2010) and Butler (2009 second-round pick) also figure into the mix opposite McCourty.
Breakdown: The main question: How does veteran blocker Crumpler return from offseason shoulder surgery? Gronkowski and Hernandez had solid rookie seasons in 2010, and Smith is a fifth-round draft choice who the Patriots hope will ultimately fill the block-first role of Crumpler, who enters the last year of his contract. If everyone is healthy, this could be a year where the Patriots keep four tight ends on the roster, trimming from another area.
Breakdown: Green-Ellis, the team's leading rusher in 2010, is a restricted free agent. It would be a surprise if another team signs him to an offer sheet, but with several teams having plenty of salary cap room, it is an outside possibility to consider. Assuming he's back, the main question is whether the Patriots keep four or five players at this position, and whether veteran free agent Kevin Faulk is re-signed and part of the mix. If the Patriots keep just four, Faulk could have a tough time making the cut.
Breakdown: The top of the depth chart (Meriweather, Chung, Sanders) returns, although Meriweather and Sanders enter the final year of their contracts so this is a spot that looks a bit thin from a long-term perspective. The door remains open for veteran Jarrad Page to return as a free agent. A bit further down the depth chart, one wonders if the Patriots part ways with Lockett, a special-teamer, after his public back-and-forth with Kim Kardashian that didn't reflect well on the Patriots logo/brand.
Breakdown: Close attention will be paid to Gostkowski's return from a torn right quad muscle that cost him half of the 2010 season. He looks to be on schedule, although with the roster expanding to 90 players, it makes sense to think the Patriots will bring another kicker to camp to lighten the load.
Breakdown: Brady is coming off foot surgery, so how he responds to the constant pounding once training camp begins is worthy of a close look. Hoyer has been a solid No. 2 the last two years and he faces a challenge from Mallett, a third-round pick. Overall, this position looks promising from both a short- and long-term perspective. Hoyer enters the final year of the three-year contract he signed as a rookie free agent in 2009.
Breakdown: The same group as 2010, and it's young and promising. Mayo is entrenched as one of the starters, with Guyton and Fletcher looking to push Spikes for the other spot.