By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
The Patriots are seven full days into training camp and so far, so good. One week remains before the first preseason game and with the first preseason game comes the start of dissecting and analyzing the roster. There are a handful of players in camp this season who have more to prove this season than others, whose performances could go a long way toward determining their futures with the organization. Here are five to watch.
Since being drafted 21st overall in the 2006 NFL Draft, Maroney has shimmied his way into the doghouse of many a Patriots fan. Maroney has played in just 30 of a possible 48 regular season games over that stretch, starting just nine of those. While his 4.3 yards per attempt over his first three seasons in New England is nothing to sneeze at, it would seem that Maroney has underachieved. He has often appeared to be shy of contact, routinely taking handoffs and dancing behind the line of scrimmage, rather than putting his head down and plowing forward or even looking like he had a clue where there might be a hole through which to cut. He also has been injured in each of his three seasons here, with last season’s shoulder break ending his year after just three games. Now, entering his fourth pro season, Maroney is not even at the top of the depth chart, with Sammy Morris holding down that spot. If Maroney could only figure out how to recapture the flash he displayed in the latter stages and playoffs of 2007 when he looked like the slashing mix of power and speed the team thought it had drafted. He has been defiant so far this preseason in the face of questions regarding his toughness and work ethic but whether he can be anything more than a part-time player still remains to be seen. If he can’t stay healthy and/or drop the twinkle toes act, Morris, newcomer Fred Taylor and last season’s find BenJarvus Green-Ellis (as well the venerable Kevin Faulk) will be more than happy to pick up the slack and Maroney will be practicing his dance moves for another team next year.
It’s sort of hard to believe that Watson is about to embark on his sixth season in Foxboro, the last season of his rookie contract. It feels like he’s been here forever but has never really done anything. His diagonal, 100+ yard sprint and subsequent takedown of Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey at the one-yard line to prevent a touchdown in the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoffs is probably the most noteworthy moment in his Patriots career, the only time he truly seemed to live up to all of his freakish athletic ability and acumen. Like Maroney, he has never completed a full, 16-game schedule. A look at his career stats exhibits one good season, 2006, in which he caught 49 passes for 643 yards (13.1 yards per catch) and three TDs. Other than that, he’s never registered more than 36 catches and never garnered more than 441 yards in a year. He also has displayed a nasty penchant for fumbling, the most egregious example being his turnover against the Jets at Gillette last year, an oopsie that cost the Patriots the game in a year that resulted in missing the playoffs when one more win would have guaranteed a spot in the postseason. The Patriots have loaded up on tight ends since the close of last season and although Watson still heads up the depth chart at the position, he will be pushed by Chris Baker and Alex Smith, two guys who have started and been at least moderately successful elsewhere in the past, as well as by oft-injured but sure-handed David Thomas and second-year man Tyson DeVree. Whatever rope he’d been given would appear to be gone and the corresponding circumstances suggest that anything short of a huge year will spell the end of his tenure in New England.
Meriweather doesn’t have something to prove in the same way as Maroney or Watson. Rather, with the retirement of Rodney Harrison and the absence of Ellis Hobbs, Meriweather, in just his third year, joins James Sanders as the elder statesmen of the Patriots secondary. Of course, Shawn Springs is a seasoned veteran and Leigh Bodden has been around longer. But not here. Meriweather had a very nice year in 2008, completing his second consecutive campaign in which he played all 16 games and contributing four INTs, two sacks and 83 tackles, 61 solo. Furthermore, he showed no ill effects from his hands of stone performance in Super Bowl XLII, a game in which what looked like an easy, championship-clinching pick clanged off his fingers during the Giants winning drive. Meriweather had more moments like that in his rookie year but looked like a completely different player last year, not only justifying his first-round selection in 2007 but suggesting that the best has yet to come. It would be a major plus to see Meriweather take the next step this year as the Patriots break in all of their new faces, be they young (Patrick Chung, Darius Butler) or old (Springs, Bodden) in the defensive backfield.
There is no argument to be made regarding Wilfork’s importance to this defense. He is easily one of the top nose men/interior linemen in the league. He’s developed into a superior force, a player for whom opposing coaches have to game plan. He’s a leader in the locker room, always accountable and ready to talk and active in the community. But he still has as much to prove this season as anyone on the roster given his contract status. By all accounts, his talks with the team regarding a contract extension have gone nowhere and he will be forced to play out the last season of his rookie deal for a relative pittance. How he responds to this is the big question. Despite playing a premium position in a defensive system that relies on him more than most and playing it with excellence, he will have to deal with the fact that the Patriots simply don’t pay anyone not named Brady or Seymour (who, by the way is also in the last year of his deal and will not see anything close to what he’s now making if he’s still in New England next season). Unless he’s willing to play for less than what most other teams will likely dole out for his services, a la Randy Moss, he will go the way of Asante Samuel, Ty Law, Deion Branch and others who were unable to accept the fact that the Patriots would rather shut down the whole operation than set the market on pretty much anyone. So far, Wilfork has done his part by saying the right things and he’s given no reason throughout his five years here to believe that he will be anything less than a good soldier all season. In a way, he’ll be auditioning for his next employer. How will that affect him?
It seems positively surreal to even suggest that Brady, the best quarterback in the NFL, has anything to prove, especially in light of his track record. But the guy is coming off major, reconstructive knee surgery. There is no way of knowing how the knee will respond once the real games begin. Will he be gun shy in the pocket with the pressure coming? Will he be able to step up and make every throw with the same decisiveness and effectiveness he’s displayed in the past? Will he be able to move laterally both quickly and assuredly enough to avoid a blitz? Probably. But until he actually does, it’s OK to wonder.
Editor’s Note: This morning we’re pleased to welcome to fold Jeremy Gottlieb, the BSMW Full Court Press correspondent who will now be pulling the Bo Jackson/two sport act by joining the PD staff for the 2009 season. Welcome, Jeremy.