Let’s face it.
Winning has become the expectation and the Patriots have rarely failed to disappoint.
Led by a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback and arguably one of the top five coaches of all time, the Patriots captured three Super Bowl titles in the past decade.
But those days of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Ty Law making crunch time plays are long gone.
It’s 2011, and the defense features Andre Carter, Rob Ninkovich and Kyle Arrington as its top playmakers.
They’re not household names.
The Redskins let Carter walk after a poor season as a 3-4 outside linebacker, Ninkovich is a former fifth-round pick who has only started for two seasons and Arrington was an undrafted free agent from Hofstra.
While the talent may not be flashy, the Patriots still remain one of the best in the business at managing a roster, according to Matt Williamson of ESPN and Scouts Inc.
“It’s easy to be critical of Belichick lately because they’re so light in the secondary and the defense isn’t elite anymore,” he said. “But the standards are different in New England. They want depth. When guys go down, they still have good players around them.”
This method of building the middle of the roster is a far cry from the Colts’ top-heavy model.
“They put studs around Manning and spend money on Freeney, Mathis, Clark and Wayne,” Williamson explained. “The problem is they put all their eggs in one basket. The eggs are all cracked because there’s no Manning and no depth. The bottom of their roster is one of the worst in the league.”
One way the Patriots have built a strong, but affordable talent base is by trading down in the draft.
Since 2006, the Pats have drafted 19 players in the second or third rounds. While there have been some hits – Sebastian Vollmer, Pat Chung and Rob Gronkowski, there have been an equal number of misses.
In 2006, the team traded up with the Packers to draft former Florida wide receiver Chad Jackson, a 6-foot-1, 213-pounder with 4.3 speed who was expected to be the No. 1 receiver. Jackson was cut in 2008 and is in the UFL. Meanwhile, the Packers selected Greg Jennings who is one of the best receivers in the NFL.
Drafting and developing receivers has been one of the few weaknesses in the Belichick era as Jackson, Bethel Johnson and Brandon Tate all flamed out.
Williamson said the complexity of the offense can make it difficult for receivers to maximize their talents.
“You have to adjust on the fly and be a quick thinker,” he said. “I’m not sure Ochocinco, Chad Jackson and Brandon Tate fit that mold. A bigger wideout with speed that can get deep is certainly on their priority list.”
While the Patriots haven’t been able to replace Randy Moss, the offense has evolved due to their elite sophomore tight end combo.
Rob Gronkowski, a second-round pick out of Arizona in 2010, has become Brady’s most trusted target outside of Wes Welker. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder’s talents go beyond catching touchdowns.
“Gronkowski has become a total all-around tight end,” Williamson said. “You could say he’s the best right now.”
Williamson explained that Hernandez is the key matchup problem for defenses because he forces defensive coordinators to change their personnel depending on if they count him as a tight end or a receiver.
If teams insert a nickel back to cover Hernandez, the Patriots can simply run the ball. If he’s matched up on a linebacker, Hernandez’s athleticism will take over.
Despite a run of bad drafts between 2006-2008, the Patriots have set themselves up well for both the present and the future.
The team has built a strong offense, and rookies Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon should be building blocks on the offensive line.
Running backs Stevan Ridley (who Williamson said is the team’s best back) and Shane Vereen have complimentary running styles, and quarterback Ryan Mallet was a luxury pick who could pay dividends down the road.
But, as good as the offense is, the biggest hurdle that stands between the Patriots and their fourth Lombardi trophy is their defense.
Can they put enough pressure on the quarterback? Can the makeshift secondary slow down anyone? Are there enough playmakers?
Williamson cautions critics.
“The pass defense problems have been blown up too much,” Williamson said. “They made a huge effort this offseason to bring in a lot of defensive linemen and defensive backs. They let up a lot of yards, but they firm up in the red zone, are decent with creating turnovers and don’t let up a ton of points.”
“The Patriots have as good a chance as anybody outside of Green Bay.”
Then again, if we don’t win it this year, we’re armed with multiple first-round picks and a coach who’s unafraid to make a controversial move.
Let’s face it.
Matt Williamson is an NFL Scout for ESPN and Scout’s Inc. He previously scouted for the Cleveland Browns and the University of Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter at @WilliamsonNFL and he is featured on the ESPN Football Today podcast.