Your Patriots Mock Draft (Post-Combine Edition)

Predicting what the Patriots will do in each draft feels like trying to plot out snowflakes in a blizzard: you keep track of every storm and graph each flake falling, but at some point you realize you’re just a nitwit out in the cold. I mean, imagine if local weathermen had the same record of forecasting that draft gurus do.

In our previous, Way-Wicked-Early Edition, we plotted out roster concerns and where we figured Bill Belichick & Co. would address them. Now, we review our initial picks and amend them where necessary.

We’ve given NFL.com criticism in the past for its pop-ups and occasional navigational quagmires, but they deserve credit for their combine coverage. For a list and a description of events, you can read (and listen to) this link.

Now come on along to check out our updated picks. And get ready for the big storm starting May 8.

Round One: The Versatile Defensive Lineman

Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (6-6, 312). (Actually 6-5, 304.) Tuitt suffered a foot injury and couldn’t work out at the combine beyond an impressive 31 reps in the 225-pound bench press. Coach Belichick’s rapport with Irish coach Brian Kelly could come in handy here, potentially giving New England’s personnel people access to some background that other NFL coaches may not have.

Fielding Tuitt on one end of the line and Chandler Jones on the other may prove too much for the Foxboro front office to forego. The junior played both defensive end and tackle, tallying 49 stops with 7.5 sacks for the Irish in 2013.

Round Two: The Long-limbed Cornerback

Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska, (6-3, 215). (Weighed in at 218 pounds.) New England has a history of drafting defensive backs in the second round, and – after Eugene Wilson in 2003 – it becomes a history they’d rather forget (Terence Wheatley, Patrick Chung, Darius Butler, Ras-I Dowling, Tavon Wilson). Will the Pats grow enamored of this player’s height and long arms? He’s so raw that his name comes with an asterisk and a warning at the bottom of the menu, but Jean-Baptiste’s size and power could see him go in the second round.

At the combine, Jean-Baptiste ran a 4.61 40, not fast but not slow enough to scare off the Pats, who tend to look for other traits beyond straight-line speed (Logan Ryan ran a decent 4.53; Asante Samuel a less-than-blistering 4.49). Jean-Baptiste had a so-so short shuttle at 4.33 seconds and showed fair strength with 13 bench reps, but he came alive in the jumping categories, leaping 41.5 inches vertically (best among DBs) and 10 feet, 8 inches broadly (tied for third best among DBs). The Cornhusker had 41 tackles, a sack, four interceptions and 12 pass break-ups last season.

Round Three: The (Other) Big Tight End

C. J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa (6-6, 262) (Actually 6-5, 265). While a rush on tight ends could come to fruition, a surplus of receivers will probably get picked over first. Other tight ends had surprising times in their 40s, bolstering the market for smaller, “move” types. In other words, Fiedorowicz has a solid chance to remain available in the third.

The Iowa product ran a 4.76 40 and benched 225 pounds 25 times, numbers that seem like a drag queen at the Provincetown Carnival: noticeable on their own, but probably not standing out on that particular day. He should be commended, however, for his 7.10-second 3-cone drill (someone notify WEEI.com’s Chris Price, who has kept track of the link between Pats drafts and 3-cone times).

The big ol’ Hawkeye managed 23 catches and five touchdowns in 2013 but could flourish in the right (read: Brady-led) offense. Coach Belichick’s relationship with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz won’t hurt in terms of getting a full picture.

Round Four: The Solid Interior Lineman

Tyler Larsen, Utah State (6-4, 317). (Weighed in at 313 pounds.) This guy had more starts than an over-caffeinated teen at a horror movie marathon, leading off 51 consecutive games at Utah State. Larsen made the All-Mountain West Conference team three times. Though weighing in at 313, his 6-4 is legit. Also legit? His upper body strength, as he had 36 bench reps in Indianapolis.

To be kind, he lacks foot speed, with a glacial 8.22-second 3-cone drill and a 23.5-inch vertical jump that won’t get him on the Celtics (although this year, maybe). Still, after watching Pats center Ryan Wendell get pushed around in the playoffs, a big, strong pivot could bring some punch to the offense.

Round Six: Doubling Down On Round Four

Marcus Martin, USC (6-3, 310). Would be nice, but …

John Urschel, Penn State (6-3, 313). We let Martin go here because the junior has risen up draft boards. Urschel caught our focus for several reasons, including his time at Penn State under former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. Urschel has been lauded for his smarts at PSU, earning a 4.0 average both as an undergrad and grad student in math.

The former Nittany Lion could fall to the Pats due to a lumbering 40 time (5.31 seconds); however, his size, strength (30 reps in the bench press), and 3-cone drill (7.55 seconds, top 10 for all O-linemen) make him intriguing. Add to that the fact he features more brains than a zombie movie (possibly from that horror marathon mentioned above) and that he has experience in a New-England-style offense, and he looks more and more like a Foxboro candidate.

Round Six: The Complementary Receiver

Kevin Norwood, Alabama (6-2, 198). Cody Hoffman, BYU (6-4, 223). We would love to see Norwood picked here, but his combination of production in the SEC, better-than-expected speed (4.48-second 40) and quickness (6.68 3-cone drill) should make him attractive to an NFL team before the sixth round. Hoffman could stay on the board due to his 4.65-second 40 time (that’s not just pedestrian, that’s icy-sidewalk-during-rush-hour-pedestrian) and his injury-plagued senior year. Tallying 57 catches for 894 yards and five touchdowns proved disappointing considering that, as a junior, Hoffman caught 100 passes for 1,248 yards and 11 TDs.

Hoffman would add size to the New England receiving corps, a group that – when missing the 6-3 Aaron Dobson – literally comes up short in competition. He lacks velocity, but his 6.89-second 3-cone drill shows the ability to break open in tight spaces. Could provide another bigger target outside the hash marks.

Round Six (Compensatory Pick?): The Special-Teamer/Quality Backup

Tyler Starr, South Dakota (6-4, 250). Not exactly sure how New England’s compensatory picks will work out, but we wanted to add Starr to the mix here. The Pats have looked to these later rounds for special teams depth since taking Matthew Slater in the fifth round in 2009 (Nate Ebner in the sixth in 2012 provides another example). At outside linebacker, Starr was the Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year for South Dakota with 71 tackles (15 for loss), nine sacks, one interception and four forced fumbles.

Starr ran a plodding 4.95-second 40 while putting up 24 reps on the bench press (10th among linebackers). He sticks out for his quickness, including his 6.64-second 3-cone drill (first among linebackers – Hey, Price! Three-cone alert!) and 4.15-second 20-yard shuttle (fourth). For perspective, his 6.64 3-cone proved better than any running back at the combine and would have tied for third best among all receivers.

Round Seven: The Big Defensive Lineman With Potential

Zack Kerr, Delaware (6-2, 334). (Actually 6-1, 326.) The Patriots have had some success with late-round additions to the D-line, including Myron Pryor (sixth, 2009) and Brandon Deaderick (seventh, 2010). At 326 pounds, Kerr has the bulk to man the middle of New England’s defense. He was named to the All-Colonial Athletic Association First Team, after 57 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles his senior year.

Kerr seemed to help himself at Indianapolis, benching 225 pounds 28 times and running a 5.08 40. At first we thought his speedy performance would put him into an earlier round, before we realized that for whatever reason everyone seemed to zip along at the combine. (Seriously, the ball boy could have run a 4.6.)

The big Blue Hen also leapt 28.5 inches in the vertical – pretty impressive if you consider that a 167-pound man would have to leap that height with himself on his back to demonstrate the same power.

ROOKIE FREE AGENTS

The Patriots have a consistent record of success when it comes to finding productive undrafted free agents. Below, we feature several athletes who may get bypassed during the draft but could easily find their way to Foxboro the following week.

Only one of these players got invited to the NFL combine (receiver Corey Brown out of Ohio State). We’ve kept our original stats-based comments about each and added combine results or pro day dates.

The Productive Small-School Running Back

Branden Oliver, Buffalo (5-7, 208). Who doesn’t like to root for the little guy (besides Shaquille O’Neal fans, maybe)? Oliver had 310 carries for 1535 yards (5.0 avg) and 15 TDs. Also tallied 25 catches for 173 yards and 1 TD. Buffalo’s pro day is March 4.

The Underrated Middle Linebacker

Greg Blair, Cincinnati (6-1, 252). New England could use more size and depth backing up the line, especially with the possibility that Brandon Spikes will play elsewhere. Blair led the Bearcats with 106 tackles, including seven for loss (one sack). He also had three passes broken up and one forced fumble. Cincinnati’s pro day is scheduled for March 6.

The Pass-catching Fullback/Tight End Hybrid

Gator Hoskins, Marshall (6-1, 244). We mentioned Hoskins in our Senior Bowl review, but his one reception in that game failed to demonstrate his potential. Hoskins, who snared 13 TDs to lead all tight ends nationwide, would fill the Foxboro gap of a smaller, pass-catching tight end/fullback hybrid who can split out wide. In 2013, he had 44 catches and averaged almost 17 yards per grab.

Marshall has scheduled its pro day for March 12.

The Small-School ‘Tweener Defender

Jerry “BooBoo” Gates, Bowling Green (5-10, 227). From Tavon Wilson to Adrian Wilson, New England has tried to bring in a run-stopping safety/linebacker hybrid with enough speed to cover a tight end and. Besides, who doesn’t love a good Yogi the Bear quote?

In 2013, Gates had 71 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, plus two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also averaged 31 yards per kickoff return. Bowling Green has yet to list a pro day on their website. Come on, Freddie and Frieda Falcon!

The Raw Receiver

Corey “Philly” Brown, Ohio State (5-11, 190). (Actually 178 pounds.) Last season, Brown led all Buckeyes with 63 catches, gaining 771 yards and scoring 10 TDs. Old Belichick friend Urban Meyer (though, considering some recent Florida alums that became Pats, maybe not Bill’s bestie at the moment) called on Brown as a rusher (four for 42 yards) and punt returner.

At the combine, Brown was timed with a 4.51-second 40, a 4.22-second 3-cone drill and a 7.16-second 3-cone drill. None will make NFL personnel directors get out of their chairs, but his experience, production and tutelage under Meyer could get him to New England.

The Backup QB For Grooming

Tommy Rees, Notre Dame (6-2, 214). Seemed like a good idea at the time. However …

Garrett Gilbert, SMU (6-3, 225). Despite Coach Belichick’s connection with Coach Kelly (and thus with Rees), we switched to Gilbert after we reviewed his accuracy. He completed 335 of 504 passes (66 percent) for 3,528 yards and 21 touchdowns in 10 games, missing the final two with a knee injury. Also ran for six TDs. He passed for over 300 yards in eight games and over 400 in three games. Totaled 538 yards passing vs. Temple.

SMU’s pro day is planned for March 28.

The Rutgers Guy

Antwan Lowery, Offensive Guard (6-3, 310). Rutgers rookies have been traveling to Gillette more often than Bon Jovi. Lowery battled injuries this past year but in 2012 was honored as a First Team All-Big East offensive lineman. In January, he participated in the East-West Shrine Game. During his redshirt freshman year he switched from D-line to offense, also filling in as a fullback for short-yardage situations.

Rutgers’ pro day is slated for March 12. (Put that on your calendar, Pats fans!)

What say you, draftniks? What players have we missed? What potential trades have we failed to take into account? Let us know in the space below.

Chris Warner can be reached via email at chris. [email protected] or through Twitter at @cwarn89

 

 

Round-By-Round Review, Pats Draft 2014

Last year on BSMW, we took a close look at each New England draft round  of the Bill Belichick era. Time to take 2013’s selections into account.

As of right now, Coach Belichick has seven picks in the 2014 draft, with an extra sixth-rounder making up for the lack of a fifth-rounder (resulting from the trade for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga). The Patriots may get an additional late-round compensatory pick due to some free agent defections in 2013.

Every one of New England’s seven 2013 choices saw the field, with some displaying strong progression throughout the year. The team also added a handful of undrafted rookies who contributed. A complete list of undrafted free agents signed right after draft weekend can be seen here.

[Read more...]

Your Patriots Mock Draft (Way-Wicked-Early Edition)

Welcome to what we’ll call BSMW’s rolling mock draft. We’ve listed certain positions New England should address in the 2014 NFL draft, along with Pats-compatible players who fit each ranking. These mocks should continue for the next three months (Three months? And we thought the run-up to the Super Bowl felt stalactitic). We’ll edit positions and names as trades or signings happen, noting changes and the reasons for them.

As of this week, New England has no fifth-round pick (traded for Isaac Sopoaga) and an extra sixth-rounder. More on potential compensatory picks below.

Ready? Let’s get rolling.

[Read more...]

Senior Bowl Standouts From A Pats Perspective

The Reese’s Senior Bowl happened in Mobile, Alabama on Saturday. Yes, Reese’s: because nothing says “elite college football” like a couple of guilt-inducing peanut butter cups in a non-biodegradable wrapper.

The South team beat the North team, 20-10, on a day where offenses looked out of synch due to strong D and apparent lack of practice.

Below, some notable players in whom the Patriots might take an interest.

[Read more...]

Shrine Game Notables – Because What The Heck Else Are You Doing Today?

To quote a great coach, “We’ll start working on 2014 tomorrow.” The tomorrow he’s talking about was yesterday. Let’s get going.

We present some players the Patriots may want to take a look at after solid performances in the East-West Shrine Game last Saturday, along with high school fun facts!

Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois QB (6-3, 222)

In the Shrine Game, Garoppolo completed nine of 14 passes for 100 yards and one TD. Looked smooth and comfortable on all of his passes, which comes as no surprise considering he passed for 5,050 yards and 53 scores this past season.

I don’t care if you play for Eastern Illinois or your local town rec flag football team, those are crazy numbers. Considering that – and the fact that Garoppolo has been added to the Senior Bowl roster – he’ll probably go too high in the draft for New England’s liking. Still, a guy to keep an eye on this spring.

High School Fun Fact: Garoppolo passed for 1,888 yards and 16 touchdowns his senior year at Rolling Meadows High in Illinois, earning Northwest Suburban All-Area honors. Also passed for 2,072 yards his junior year.

Chandler Jones, San Jose State WR (5-11, 175)

Jones – who would be the second Chandler Jones on the Patriots roster – had seven catches for 73 yards in the Shrine Game. This past season, he led the Spartans in receptions with 79, totaling 1,356 yards. He also set the SJSU school single-season record with 15 touchdowns. His 17.9 yards per reception this season was over four yards more than his junior year average (12.8).

High School Fun Fact: At Bishop Montgomery High in Torrance, California, Jones lettered in football and track & field, running the 100- and 200-yard dashes.

Matt Hazel, Coastal Carolina WR (6-3, 190)

Hazel scored a TD on a one-yard quick slant from Garoppolo where he used his body well to shield the defender. This past season, he had 70 receptions for 990 yards for the Chanticleers (14.1 avg), totaling 183 catches and 2,553 yards for his career.

High School/College Fun Fact: Hazel represented South Carolina in the 2009 (High School) Shrine Bowl. Had 75 grabs for 1,193 yards and 18 TDs his senior year at North Augusta High in S.C. As a sophomore at CCU, Hazel completed the only pass of his college career, a 21-yard touchdown.

Ethan Westbrooks, West Texas A&M DL (6-4, 263)

Westbrooks harassed opposing QBs all day and won the Defensive MVP for the East team (West Texas; East team. Go figure). In college, Westbrooks led the Buffaloes with seven sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. He also had five pass break-ups and a forced fumble.

High School Fun Fact: At Franklin High in Oakland, California, Westbrooks was named an all-conference football player. He also threw the shot put and discus for the track & field team.

Antwan Lowery, Rutgers OL (6-4, 305)

It’s hard for any offensive lineman to set himself apart in this game, so we looked at the New England roster and decided to go with the Rutgers guy. Lowery was named to the Outland Trophy watch list for best college offensive lineman. Arrived at the banks of the Raritan as a defensive tackle out of high school but switched to offense his redshirt freshman year, playing lineman and also taking on a fullback role in Wildcat packages. Played both left and right guard.

High School Fun Fact: Lowery played at Christopher Columbus High in Florida. Participated in the Under Armour High School All-America Game. Had 35 tackles and 2.5 sacks his senior year.

Justin Ellis, Louisiana Tech DL (6-2, 350)

Ellis got noticed at the Shrine Game for his surprising size/quickness combination. At La. Tech, he had 48 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss.

High School Fun Fact: At Neville High, Ellis was named a first-team all-state player by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. He also lettered in track & field and finished third in the state in the shot put as a junior.

Ross Cockrell, Duke CB (6-0, 190) 

Cockrell had an interception and showed solid footwork in the Shrine Game. At Duke, he had three interceptions and 12 pass break-ups.

High School Fun Fact: Playing both receiver and cornerback at Charlotte Latin in North Carolina, Cockrell caught 29 passes for 459 yards and 11 TDs as a senior while notching 34 tackles and three interceptions. Had nine INTs and four defensive touchdowns his junior year. Also lettered in hoops and track & field.

Alden Darby, Arizona State S (5-11, 195)

Darby nabbed an interception in the Shrine Game. At ASU, Darby had 72 tackles, four interceptions, nine pass break-ups, and two forced fumbles. His play earned him first team all-league in the Pac-12.

High School Fun Fact: At Millikan Senior High in Long Beach, California, Darby had 38 tackles, 15 pass break-ups and four INTs his senior year. Also led the team in passing (593 yards, seven TDs) and rushing (702 yards, 11 TDs) while somehow ranking third in receiving (14 receptions for 149 yards).

Any players you noticed at the Shrine Game, please let us know in the comments section below.

Keep an eye out for the Senior Bowl, airing on the NFL Network on Saturday, January 25, at 4 p.m. ET. We will, because what the heck else would we be doing?

Chris Warner can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @cwarn89

Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

In the next week leading up to the AFC Championship game – aka The Brady-Manning Bowl – you’ll hear a lot of numbers. But, in lieu of all that hype, we have one particular number – a fraction, actually – you should think about this week: two-thirds.

Tom Brady has started at quarterback for 12 out of his 14 years in New England (rookie in 2000, injured in 2008). In those 12 years, the Patriots have made the AFC Championship game eight times. Eight out of 12. Two out of three. Two-thirds.

Since the 2000-2001 season, the Ravens have four AFC title appearances. The Steelers have four. The Colts have three.

With eight showings, this vying-for-the-AFC-Championship thing has become normal in New England. Brady and Coach Bill Belichick in the postseason, again. The AFC East crown, again. This past week we even heard talk of something Foxboro-related called “playoff fatigue.” (Reading the piece, it seemed more like “playoff ticket price fatigue” but that’s another story.)

For those who have forgotten, or who lack the years on Earth to remember the Patsies, here’s another number: 91. That’s the point differential of the 132-41 combined score of big Pats games in the 20th Century. The Boston Patriots lost the 1963 AFL Championship to the San Diego Chargers, 51-10. They made an improbable run to Super Bowl 20, beating the Jets, Raiders and Dolphins, only to get crushed by the Bears, 46-10. They made a nice playoff run after the 1996 season, but then their coach leaked to the media THE WEEK BEFORE THE SUPER BOWL that he would leave for a division rival. They lost to Brett Favre (but mostly Desmond Howard) and the Packers, 35-21.

Other numbers? How about 1-15, aka the 1990 Rod Rust Record? Or 2-14 (we’ve got a couple of those: 1981, 1992). How about 1999 (Pete Carroll’s final, not-so-pumped season), starting out the year at 6-2, only to finish 8-8? When it comes to the pre-Belichick Pats, those types of numbers pop up a lot.

But now? Double-digit wins, again. During a season with 11 players on injured reserve, including six starters.

Two-thirds. Something to think about among all the other stats you’ll be reading this week.

Some other stuff we’re thinking of heading into the AFC Championship… [Read more...]

Forethoughts On The Playoffs: Fifth Quarter 2013

On the cusp of 2014, time to take a look back at another year of double-digit wins for New England, another first-round bye, and another year as AFC East Champs. Considering all that happened in 2013, 12-4’s not too shabby.

To review the fourth quarter of the regular season, the Patriots had a near-impossible 27-26 comeback win vs. Cleveland (including their first recovered on-sides kick since the Clinton administration), a disappointing (and, in retrospect, hard-to-understand) 24-20 loss down at Miami, a thorough 41-7 dismantling of the Super Bowl champs in Baltimore, and a wet-dog-ugly 34-20 win vs. Buffalo in the season-ender to secure their first-round bye.

Here are a few of the things we’re thinking of during a much-deserved – and much-needed – week off. [Read more...]

With A Little Bit Of Luck: Super Bowl Bounces

Due to today’s parity in the NFL, every team needs a certain amount of good fortune to win the Super Bowl.

For examples of what luck can bring, look no further than this current Patriots season. Down in Carolina, the Patriots lost a game where the home team got the benefit of the doubt on what appeared to be pass interference on Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. This past week in Foxboro, the home team got a pass interference call in their favor in the end zone (a touch foul on Josh Boyce), setting up the game-winning TD vs. the Browns.

With season-ending injuries to defensive stalwarts Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, plus Sunday’s terrible knee injury to Gronk, the Patriots will need a run of good luck to get to the podium.

For a look at how every team – no matter how deserving or how talented overall – needs the ball to bounce its way, see below, starting with the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run in early 2002.
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Forethoughts On Four Games: Fourth Quarter 2013

Just imagine how good the Patriots would look if they played a full sixty minutes.

A quick review of the previous four: In Game Nine, New England ran away from Pittsburgh, 55-31, after allowing the Steelers to tie it at 24 in the third quarter. Down in Carolina, Luke Kuechly and the Panthers held on for a 24-20 win (you know what we’re saying). The number 24 came up again vs. Denver, as New England proved overly hospitable in spotting the Broncos a 24-0 lead at halftime, then scored 31 unanswered points to squeeze out a 34-31 heart-stopper in overtime.

(I have a dear college friend named Chuck. He’s a Colorado native and lifelong Broncos fan. Let’s just say the tenor of our game-time tweets took a drastic turn midway through the third quarter, so much so that one would think Tom Brady’s first name was an expletive.) [Read more...]

Patriots Media Prediction Panel, Bye Week 2013

What with the bye week finally here, New England at 7-2, and myriad Patriots taking their leave of Foxboro (note to Kenbrell Thompkins: next time you’re in Miami, take me with you), we at Boston Sports Media Watch figured we’d ask some local pundits their thoughts on what to expect for the next several games. Thanks to all of them for contributing.

What improvements do the Patriots need to make to stay competitive in the second half? Do you think they can make those improvements?

Shalise Manza Young, The Boston Globe: I think they’ll be competitive in the second half even if they stay just as they are right now, but it isn’t the regular season they need to improve for, in my opinion. I think the offense needs to find more consistency, particularly in red zone and on third down, which we are starting to see now that Gronk is healthy, and the defense needs to find a way to fix its problem against the run (we know why that problem has cropped up, but it can’t continue). Sopoaga will help; stopping the run is his speciality, and it isn’t for Chris Jones.

Chris Price, WEEI.com: They need to improve their offensive consistency – that third-quarter dip (with the exception of the game against the Dolphins) is an odd statistical quirk that I can never remember a New England team having. Weird thing is that for the most part, it’s on both sides of the ball – offense and defense have both stumbled in the third quarter. Most of the time they have been able to right the ship in the fourth and it doesn’t come back to haunt them, but it undoubtedly cost them that Jets game. They can get by if they’re playing a lesser team, but they can’t afford not to be able to play four quarters of football against teams like the Broncos and into the postseason if they want to go deep into January. Not sure how you go about fixing that – they have to make a point of bringing energy on a consistent basis for all 60 minutes maybe. But it needs to be remedied.

They also have to find some way to cobble together a more sustainable run defense. Not saying it’s going to ultimately be its Achilles’ heel, especially in a pass-first league, but good teams are still going to be able to run the ball down the stretch and into the playoffs, and the Patriots have to find a way to cobble together some sort of defensive package that can at least slow down some of that against some of the better offensive teams in the league that aren’t one dimensional. I believe they have quality parts, but it’s just a matter of finding the proper rotation, personnel and scheme. Whether or not Isaac Sopoaga is a big part of that, I’m not sure. (He certainly looked impressive in his first outing against the Steelers, but it remains to be seen if he can hold up at that spot over the rest of the season.) Maybe you find an expanded role for Brandon Spikes. And Chris Jones and Joe Vellano will continue to be key parts of the defensive front, along with Andre Carter, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones.

Mike Reiss, ESPN Patriots blog: More consistency on offense, run defense and tightening up penalties (7 over the last 3 games) and coverage units on special teams are the three things that come to mind. I think they’ll be fine on offense, as the return of running back Shane Vereen will be a boost, and wouldn’t expect the struggles to continue on special teams. I’m a little less confident on the run defense, but perhaps the trade-deadline acquisition of Isaac Sopoaga is the difference for them.

Chad Finn, Boston.com: Losing Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo has affected the run defense just as tangibly as anyone who respected their abilities would have expected. The Patriots now have the fourth-worst run defense in the league in terms of yardage allowed (128.2 ypg). Only Pittsburgh (131.2) and Jacksonville (161.8) are worse, and the Jaguars are so brutal Roger Goodell is trying to relegate them to the Canadian Football League. (True story.) Isaac Sopoaga should help as he gets more acclimated, and we know what Brandon Spikes can do. It would help if Dont’a Hightower became more instinctive and consistent. Otherwise, there’s not much to worry about other than overall health and the continued progress of the young receivers.

Chris Warner, BSMW: The returns of Gronk and Danny Amendola accentuated the importance of a healthy roster. As more players come back (Vereen, Aqib Talib, now Steve Gregory) and new players get experience in lieu of those on IR (Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork), this team might end up more balanced than they have yet this season. On defense, I’d look for more aggressive schemes and fewer one-on-one battles where the newbies might falter. On offense, keep in mind that, in Game One at Buffalo this year, Vereen caught seven passes for 58 yards. In eight games since, Stevan Ridley (9 for 50) and Brandon Bolden (17 for 107) have combined for 26 catches for 157 yards. Bringing Vereen into the picture will provide an option that the Patriots have lacked since his injury.

How do you see the next seven games panning out? 

Shalise Manza Young: As things are right now, December looks a lot easier for the Patriots than it did in the preseason. Baltimore is a mess, Houston is having problems – heading into the season, those looked like pivotal road games and would likely impact AFC playoff seeding. Now? Not so much. I predicted an 11-5 record for them in our season preview, but it could be 12-4. Again – and I know I’ve gotten grief for this in the past – as nice as 12-4 is, it doesn’t mean a thing if they’re one-and-done in the postseason. Of course you need to have a good enough regular season to get into the playoffs, but after that, it doesn’t really matter. That’s why I say they need to tighten up the run defense and get that offensive consistency for the postseason, because that’s when they’ll need it most.

Chris Price: I think they lose two or three more games, which would put them at 12-4 at best and 11-5 at worst, and likely have them in the conversation for either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. There are some potential potholes over the final seven games, including the Broncos (I think that has the potential to be a fantastic contest), as well as the Panthers (that’s a sneaky good team where Carolina could take advantage of New England if the Patriots pull that third-quarter check-out). The other two that could be a problem are the road games in Baltimore and Houston. These two teams are nowhere near where they last season, but potential for danger is still there.

(For what it’s worth, I think the return of Shane Vereen is not being discussed enough – he’s a dynamic offensive presence with an ability to put pressure on opposing defense in a way that no other skill position player on the roster can. I know that Sunday represented the first time that Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Stevan Ridley were all on the field as close to 100 percent healthwise as possible, but I’m really interested to see what they can do as a group when Vereen gets back on the field.)

Mike Reiss: It’s easy to appreciate the mental toughness and resiliency this team has shown. I think the thing I look forward to over the final seven games is seeing how the return of cornerback Aqib Talib impacts the defense, and how the coaches strategize specifically with him in mind. The first five-and-a-half games he played were as impressive as I’ve seen a Patriots cornerback play. Steve Smith … Wes Welker … Andre Johnson … the first three games coming off the bye feature some big-time receivers. Can Talib do the same thing he did against Jimmy Graham? They’ll be in most every game and I expect them to be in the championship hunt.

Chad Finn: I think most Patriots fans are of the same mind-set right now. They’re looking ahead to the Denver game – it’s impossible not to, for all of the story lines that need no rehash (pre-hash?) here, while also being aware that Carolina is playing too well to look past coming out of the bye. Overall, though, it looks like a pretty tolerable schedule. It would be nice if they had the Texans or Ravens at home – neither team is what it was last year, obviously. The Browns are improving, but they’re not beating a Patriots offense that even faintly resembles the one we saw against the Steelers. The Dolphins franchise may have folded by the time they meet again. The Bills will be the 12th win and the final warmup before the Patriots host a game in the Divisional Round.

Chris Warner: Denver scares me, though the way their defense is playing I feel like certain teams have a shot against them. I can see Carolina ending up as rude hosts, especially given the efficacy of their running game – plus, the Pats have had their issues with running QBs, and Cam Newton fits that bill all too well. The thing is, as long as the Patriots make the playoffs, I’m not all that concerned about their regular-season record. If they can get into the post-season with good health and enough experience amongst the youngsters to instill some confidence and consistency, then who cares if they’re 14-2 or 11-5? I said it before and I’ll repeat: I think they go 2-2 over their next four games, then finish the season strong.

Any wacky predictions for the second half?

Chris Price: I think that with the amount of injuries this team has suffered, we could be headed for one of those goofy switches before the end of the season, like when Julian Edelman or Troy Brown shows up as a defensive back. I also believe that LeGarrette Blount is going to break off a great kick return before the end of the season. Not saying he’s going to take it all the way back, but it’s going to be one of those “Holy crap” moments we recall a few years from now.

Mike Reiss: Maybe a deja vu of this? LOL.

Chad Finn: Besides the upcoming trade for Richie Incognito AND Jonathan Martin, you mean? The weirdest thing – or at least unexpected – has already happened: Belichick absolved Stevan Ridley of a fumble. I think he got a mulligan from the coach on that one because Belichick was surprised Troy Polamalu was within 20 yards of the ball, and assumed Ridley was equally stunned.

Chris Warner: After reading the list of 83 receivers he has thrown to in his career, Brady starts to hassle Coach Josh McDaniels to put in trick plays in an attempt to reach 90 by the end of the season. So look out, Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Isaac Sopoaga (as Mike alluded to above), and Nate Solder (a previous, unsuccessful target this season); keep your eyes and ears open, LaQuan Williams, Mark Harrison and Cierre Wood: your number might get called.

Predictions for November, December and beyond? Let us know in the comments section below.