ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 9
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Is this the year another AFC East team surpasses the New England Patriots in wins?
For nine straight seasons, no team in the division has won more games each season than the Patriots.
But they're being pushed.
The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins have experienced greater successes the past couple years. The Jets went deeper into the playoffs last winter. The Dolphins won the division two seasons ago on a tiebreaker that kept the Patriots out.
The Patriots, aging on offense and patchwork on defense, seem vulnerable to being overtaken.
Still, they're the Patriots, and as long as Bill Belichick is the head coach and Tom Brady is the quarterback, they'll be a fearsome opponent. Randy Moss is back. Wes Welker looks like he's going to be a factor from the start of the season. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork will anchor the defense with linebacker Jerod Mayo behind him.
"Each year is a new year," Belichick said at the beginning of training camp, "and what a team looks like on paper and what they actually are in the fall and how they perform are two different things.
"Each year it seems like we have three or four new division winners. We have teams that go from one, two, three wins to double-digit wins and playoff teams and so forth. I don't know how you project all of that. I don't really spend a lot of time worrying about that. I think you do your preparation on your opponents -- the new ones and the ones you are familiar with like the Jets and Miami, teams like that, Indianapolis, and then you take them as they come."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. How will left guard Logan Mankins' absence impact the offense? Mankins is unsigned and publicly demanded a trade because the Patriots haven't presented him with a contract proposal worth signing. Those who know him don't think he's going to back off that stance easily.
The Patriots already are down to a third-stringer at his position. They switched last year's starting right tackle, Nick Kaczur, to left guard. He suffered a back injury that could threaten his season. That puts Dan Connolly, a sixth-year offensive lineman with four career starts, in the lineup.
That's a precipitous drop from Mankins. He went to his second Pro Bowl last year and is known as one of the division's great smash-mouth players, regardless of position. He has a mean streak that sets the tone for New England's offensive line, particularly in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
One of Belichick's objectives coming into 2010 was to improve New England's red zone efficiency. Belichick has shown he's willing to go with three tight ends if he must. But Mankins' presence certainly would help the offense in terms of attitude and production.
2. Will the Patriots be able to generate enough of a pass rush? They tied for 23rd in sacks last year, registering a lackluster 31, worst among all playoff teams.
So the Patriots had a problem when they entered the offseason and might have gotten less stable. They cut Adalius Thomas, whose three sacks ranked fourth on the club. Derrick Burgess, a two-time Pro Bowler, tied for second with five sacks. He hasn't reported to training camp and is said to be contemplating retirement. Update: Burgess was reinstated to the active roster Friday, and defensive end Ty Warren (hip) was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.
Tully Banta-Cain, who led the team with 10 sacks, is back. But he doesn't strike fear in opposing tackles. Half of his sacks came against the overwhelmed Buffalo Bills. Second-round draft choice Jermaine Cunningham didn't play in Thursday night's preseason opener, which should raise some eyebrows.
You can't tell me Rob Ninkovich or Marques Murrell are going to provide that desperately needed jolt. Murrell did beat Pro Bowl tackle Jon Stinchcomb to sack Drew Brees on Thursday night (the Patriots' only sack), but the undrafted former Jet hasn't started an NFL game. Neither has Ninkovich.
3. Will Tom Brady's contract situation be a distraction? In stark contrast to Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis' entrenched holdout, Brady's approach to his contract situation has been commendable.
Brady is entering the final year of his contract and reportedly has been aggravated by the fact he hasn't gotten an extension yet. Some pundits insist Brady will be a tough negotiator because he has made salary concessions in the past and will insist on receiving full market value for a three-time champion.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft wants Brady to remain the face of the franchise, but it's not that simple. Labor strife and the role each man plays -- Kraft an influential voice for the league, Brady an emerging union spokesman -- contributes to the delicate process.
Brady's contract has been a major storyline of camp so far, but because he showed up on time and said all the right things, it hasn't been a problem.
Welker didn't play in the exhibition opener, but he has demonstrated he's going to be ready to play in Week 1, barring a setback. The only visible evidence he's coming back from two torn left knee ligaments is a brace. He also had offseason shoulder surgery, but you'd never guess by looking at him. Welker went all-out in joint practices with the Saints, putting his body in harm's way to make tough catches. He sliced through defenders, fought through coverages and leaped for passes.
Burgess, the AWOL outside linebacker, has left the Patriots in a lurch with his indecision. He apparently wanted to play in June, when he signed a one-year contract worth as much as $1.65 million. The Patriots expressed surprise when Burgess declined to report for camp. With an inkling Burgess was having second thoughts, they would've had a better chance to address the situation before it was too late.
You have to wonder if Welker's speedy recovery is partially due to the presence of Julian Edelman. I'm not saying Edelman is Welker's equal, but knowing that Edelman's on the roster and ready to step in must have entered Welker's mind once or twice during rehab.
Edelman, the converted quarterback from Kent State, turned in a very Welkerish six-reception, 90-yard performance on Thursday night. He also had a 40-yard punt return.
Strong safety Brandon Meriweather continually has progressed toward star status in his previous three seasons and still has room to get better. With another year of experience, this should be a big year for him.
Interesting choice to start at running back in the preseason opener. Belichick went with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ran 11 times for 34 yards but darted for a 6-yard touchdown run.
Both rookie tight ends look like they'll be impact players. Aaron Hernandez (113th overall) has trouble blocking but is a dangerous receiver. Rob Gronkowski (42nd overall) looks like a power forward at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds. He'll be easy for Brady to spot in the red zone.
Second-year cornerback Darius Butler, meanwhile, committed a costly penalty in Thursday night's preseason opener. Butler was called for illegal contact on a fourth-down play in which the Patriots seemed to stop the Saints. The penalty extended a 20-play touchdown drive.
The Patriots will need more consistency out of their kicking game. Stephen Gostkowski, an All-Pro two seasons ago, had trouble kicking field goals this week, although he did nail both of his tries (from 35 and 28 yards) Thursday night. Zoltan Mesko can boom it, but the fifth-round draft pick occasionally delivers an onside punt.
If you're in a larger fantasy league, jot down receiver Brandon Tate on the margin of your cheat sheet. Draft him late. You might steal one.