2006 Patriots preview

Updated: August 30, 2006, 1:33 PM ET
ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine

New England Patriots

THE BOTTOM LINE


Through defections and injuries the show always goes on in New England. So long as Tom Brady (89 straight starts, including postseason) remains healthy, the Patriots' offense should be worth the price of admission regardless of who lines up at wide receiver.

The offense has a chance to be great if Deion Branch were to end his holdout. It can be very good without him. Corey Dillon, explosive rookie Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk give New England a dynamic trio of running backs. Together they should restore balance to the Patriots' offense. Brady also has a good group of tight ends to throw to, led by emerging star Ben Watson.

There are some depth and age issues at linebacker, but the front and back ends are deep and talented enough to compensate for weaknesses at the second level. The major issue is whether rookie Stephen Gostkowski can handle the pressure of replacing local legend Adam Vinatieri at place-kicker. It's still preseason, but so far so good. And then, of course, there's the Bill Belichick factor. New England once again looks like a Super Bowl contender.



SCOUTS TAKE


The strengths of the Patriots' offense are Tom Brady and tight end depth, which enables offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to be creative with combo tight end packages. The trio of Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk puts the Pats' running game in good hands. The big question on offense is who will be the go-to receiver. Deion Branch is involved in a contentious holdout and several receivers are banged up.

New England's defensive line has great depth with Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour. The loss of Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi's wrist injury make the linebacking corps a concern. Cornerbacks Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel have played well in the preseason, but the jury is still out on them in 2006.

Prediction: Second in AFC East.



SCIENTIFIC METHOD

Ben Watson is possibly the most overrated player in the NFL. He is thought of as a fairly good vertical threat and the Patriots did throw him 13 deep and 15 medium passes last year. Watson ended up with a 4.4-yard SYPA (success percentage multiplied by yards per attempt) rating, however, and that is a terribly low figure for a vertical target.

Watson's blocking was not much better than his receiving. His 68 percent run blocking success percentage was the fifth-worst percentage for a tight end last year and the 2.5 yards per run attempt behind Watson's blocks was next to last among tight ends.

Watson has Pro Bowl caliber talent but his numbers clearly show that he has a long way to go to reach his potential.




From ESPN The Magazine
The Big Number
25 That secondary really does get worse every year. In 2003, the Pats had 29 picks and gave up 11 TD passes. In 2004, the ratio evened out a bit to 20-to-18. But last season, the Pats had just 10 INTs and allowed 25 TD receptions.

STRENGTH
The Pats are legit contenders as long as Tom Brady -- who completed 63 percent of his throws last season for 4,110 yards and 26 TDs -- is healthy. Simply put, there's nothing any defense can throw at him that he can't handle, no matter the situation. And he'll get more help this year, as the Pats spell Corey Dillon with top pick Laurence Maroney. But if the backs underperform and put the Pats in a bind, Brady will still be there to bail New England out.

WEAKNESS
The Pats ignored their porous secondary this offseason. Bad idea. Rodney Harrison's return from a torn ACL helps, but how long can the 33-year-old kamikaze hold up? And the starting CBs, 5-foot-9, 190-pound Ellis Hobbs and returnee Asante Samuel, don't keep offensive coordinators up at night. If one of them fails, the next best option is ex-Chief Eric Warfield.

PROSPECTS
Dillon's odometer is about to turn over. Meanwhile, trusty wideout David Givens bolted via free agency, as did even trustier DE-LB (and two-time Pro Bowler) Willie McGinest, who leaves behind a D that's working for its third coordinator in three years. "We'll replace them," says LB Mike Vrabel. "That's what we do." Easier said than done on special teams, from which Adam Vinatieri and his 19 career game-winning kicks (including four in the playoffs) defected to conference foe Indy, taking with him part of the franchise's heart and soul. Fortunately, the brains (Bill Belichick and Brady) are still around. That, plus the AFC's third-lightest docket (opponents' winning percentage: .473 ), should be enough to keep the Pats atop the AFC East for another year.

Team Preview Centers

Key Stretch: Weeks 3-7
Sept. 24: at Denver
Oct. 1: at Cincinnati
Oct. 8: vs. Miami
Oct. 22: at Buffalo

Comings & Goings
Key Acquisitions:
S Tebucky Jones; WR Reche Caldwell; LB Junior Seau.

Key Departures:
LB Willie McGinest; K Adam Vinatieri; WR David Givens; OT Tom Ashworth.

Offensive Starters (as of 8/30)
RB Corey Dillon
FB Patrick Pass
QB Tom Brady
WR Reche Caldwell
RT Ryan O'Callaghan
RG Stephen Neal
C Dan Koppen
LG Logan Mankins
LT Matt Light
TE Ben Watson
WR Deion Branch
Defensive Starters (as of 8/30)
LDE Ty Warren
NT Vince Wilfork
RDE Richard Seymour
LOLB Rosevelt Colvin
LILB Tedy Bruschi
RILB Monty Beisel
ROLB Mike Vrabel
LCB Ellis Hobbs
FS Eugene Wilson
SS Rodney Harrison
RCB Asante Samuel

• Complete roster