Ten predictions for the 2010 season
Expect a big season from rookie linebacker Brandon Spikes
Ten predictions for the '10 New England Patriots season to file away and revisit come early January:
1. The Patriots will win 10 games. Although the roster has undergone significant turnover and there are question marks on the defensive side of the ball, an explosive offense triggered by quarterback Tom Brady still makes the Patriots a tough matchup and a club that should be playing into January in the playoffs. The win total would have been higher if not for a run of injuries to key players -- offensive lineman Nick Kaczur, defensive end Ty Warren, cornerback Leigh Bodden and safety Brandon McGowan -- as well as Logan Mankins' contract standoff. That's a tough preseason in terms of losing key players.
2. Wes Welker will not lead the team in receptions for the first time since 2007. In part because he is still working his way back to form from a torn ACL, but also because the Patriots look primed to spread the ball around more, Welker will not top the team's receiving charts. He should still be in the 70-catch range, however, and still will be a dangerous threat working in the slot.
3. Brandon Spikes will be in the discussion for defensive rookie of the year. The second-round draft choice, whose instincts have been praised by coach Bill Belichick, is projected to start at inside linebacker next to Jerod Mayo. His 18 tackles in the preseason ranked third on the team and his presence was also felt as a blitzer up the middle. While there are sure to be some early growing pains with Spikes, it looks like the Patriots have found themselves a sturdy young talent in the middle for years to come.
4. Logan Mankins will play for the Patriots this season. It might not happen until the 10th week but the veteran guard will ultimately report to gain credit for an accrued season. His absence has already hurt the team as replacement Nick Kaczur, transitioning from tackle to guard, is battling a significant back injury. While there are surely hard feelings on both sides, business is business and Mankins' decision would be based on what's best for his future.
5. Rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski will have double-digit touchdown catches. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound target was exactly what the Patriots needed in the red zone, where they were inconsistent last season. His four touchdown catches in the preseason tied for the NFL high and his consistent presence on the field -- with no indication that his prior back injury is an issue -- has helped accelerate his development.
6. Stopping the run, not rushing the passer, will be the team's primary issue. For all the angst over the team's ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks, significant changes within the front seven of the defense will make stopping the run the bigger issue for the club, especially in the first two weeks of the season against the Bengals and Jets. The Patriots are banking on three unknowns: 1.) Can veteran Gerard Warren transition to the two-gap style of play at left end; 2.) Can Mike Wright hold up long-term at right end; 3.) Can a player who hasn't started an NFL game -- Marques Murrell, Rob Ninkovich or Jermaine Cunningham -- emerge at left outside linebacker?
7. Defensive lineman Mike Wright will win the 12th player award. While perhaps miscast as a full-time starter at right defensive end, Wright is arguably the team's best interior pass-rusher, so he figures to stay on the field on third down by moving inside and working against centers and guards. With the Patriots facing questions about their pass rush, Wright's potential impact will be crucial for the team. Wright was disruptive during the preseason, putting him in position to earn the annual honor given to the player who has exceeded expectations.
8. Stephen Gostkowski will have some early struggles adjusting to a new operation. With punter Zoltan Mesko the team's new holder on field goals, kicker Stephen Gostkowski will work to find a new comfort level. He got only four chances in game conditions during the preseason, with a 46-yarder hitting the upright and going through, another attempt missed but nullified by a Falcons penalty and then successful tries of 35 and 28 yards.
9. Tom Brady will throw for more than 30 touchdowns. The Patriots' offense has the potential to be one of the NFL's most explosive units and Brady looked especially comfortable in the preseason while integrating new weapons into the mix such as tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, as well as receiver Brandon Tate. As long as the protection holds up, and it was solid in the preseason, there could be some big-time offensive fireworks.
10. Fred Taylor will be the team's leading rusher. Projected to be the first running back with the ball in his hands on opening day, the 34-year-old Taylor looks like the leader of the team's committee-type approach. While the club plans to use all its backs, and injuries could potentially alter the picture, Taylor is positioned as the runner to earn the most carries per game.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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