This week signals the start of another NFL season. For football fans around New England, that means another slate of Sundays watching Tom Brady and Bill Belichick likely lead the Patriots to the division title and a 58th consecutive playoff berth.
But things feel different this season. There have been rumors and whispers of a Brady-Belichick feud. Brady’s finally starting to show gray hair. The 2018 Patriots have more holes on their roster than Camp Green Lake. For the first time in my fandom, it feels like there is a very real and tangible finish line just over the horizon.
Because I’m feeling increasingly terrified for the future nostalgic, I figured now was a good a time as any to look back and reminisce just how great Patriots fans have had it since Belichick and Brady arrived in Foxboro. I wanted to attempt to assemble the greatest roster I could using only players that have played in New England since Belichick’s arrival in 2000.
To keep this column below the length of “War and Peace,” I limited myself to 46 selections; the same number as an active gameday roster.
Quarterback: Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe
Yes, of course Tom Brady is the starting quarterback, but I want to talk about my guy Drew.
Other QBs like Matt Cassel and Jimmy Garopollo spent more time holding the clipboard during Belichick’s tenure, but no one is better equipped to be the backup than Drew Bledsoe.
Bledsoe was the franchise quarterback before THE franchise quarterback. The first overall pick of the 1993 draft, Bledsoe led the Patriots to their second Super Bowl appearance, he was the youngest QB to ever make the Pro Bowl and he was on the fast track to being the greatest QB in franchise history.
Then, two games into the 2001 season and a freshly-inked 10-year, $103 million deal, it all came crashing down. New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis delivered a crushing hit that collapsed Bledsoe’s chest, hospitalizing him, and forced second-year backup Tom Brady into the starting role.
Brady would obviously go on to become the face of the franchise, but Bledsoe did get one last moment in the sun. When Brady went down with an ankle injury in the second quarter of the 2001 AFC Championship Game, it was once again Bledsoe’s duty to guide the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Months after nearly dying, Bledsoe came off the bench, threw for over 100 yards and a touchdown, sealing the 24-17 conference-clinching victory. Not bad for a backup quarterback.
Running Back: Corey Dillon, LeGarrette Blount, Kevin Faulk
The Patriots have never had a superstar running back while Belichick’s been there. He’s preferred to mostly pick from the clearance bin, finding good value in players who excel in one specific skill or whose value has decreased for one reason or another.
Such was the case with Corey Dillon. After a 541-yard 2003 campaign cut short by injury, the Cincinnati Bengals shipped Dillon to New England in return for a second-round pick.
Belichick turned the 30-year-old Dillon back into a workhorse. Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards which is still the Patriots’ single-season record. Dillon only spent three years in New England, but he was crucial to winning a championship in 2004.
When I set out to do this column, I had the No. 2 running back spot reserved for either BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Antowain Smith. My research turned over a startling result: LeGarrette Blount was better than both of those guys.
Let’s do a quick comparison. Antowain Smith: 26 games, 2,781 career yards, 21 touchdowns. BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 22 games, 2,064 yards, 29 touchdowns. LeGarratte Blount: 22 games, 2,917 yards, 34 touchdowns including the single-season record (18).
Welcome to the squad, Blount Force Trauma.
It’s slightly unfair to have Kevin Faulk be the No.3 running back on the depth chart. His 3,701 career rushing yards and 431 receptions are insane for a player that was rarely the feature back. Faulk could have likely done more in an expanded role but he was too good at being a third-down running back. No one was better or more clutch out of the backfield than Faulk was. I wouldn’t want anyone else I would rather have on third down.
Fullback: Patrick Pass
A part of all three Super Bowl teams in the early 2000’s, Patrick Pass was just as useful receiving as he was in the trenches. Pass amassed 570 receiving yards and 526 rushing yards from 2000-2006.
Pass also returned 36 kickoffs and was sprinkled in on defense occasionally.
Wide Receiver: Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Troy Brown, Danny Amendola
Just like Corey Dillon, Randy Moss was at a low point in his NFL career when he arrived in Foxboro. After just 553 receiving yards and three touchdowns in 2006, the Patriots acquired Moss by sending Oakland a fourth-round pick. It was a pick well spent.
Moss went on to have the greatest single season ever by a wide receiver in 2007. Moss caught 23 of Brady’s then-record 50 touchdown passes, another record in and of itself. Moss and the Pats fell short of winning a ring that year, but at least they gave us an all-time highlight reel.
Moss never quite gave maximum effort again and had a somewhat messy goodbye in 2010, but that 2007 season alone makes him the greatest receiver Brady has ever had.
Wes Welker came over in 2007 as well, but he ended up outlasting Moss. His 672 catches from 2007-2012 are the most in franchise history. Welker was an iron man who took hits from players almost twice his size and rarely ever missed a snap. The undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech tallied over 1,000 yards in all but one of his six years in a Patriots uniform.
Even though Julian Edelman took over Welker’s role as the slot receiver in 2013 and ended up winning rings in New England, the original was better in this case. Welker was more durable and also more dependable than Edelman ever was. Edelman has surpassed 100 catches once. Welker collected over 110 receptions five times.
Of course, Edelman does have a spot here. Edelman has been Brady’s safety blanket the last five seasons and finished Top 10 in the league in receptions three times. Edelman was also at the center of two crucial plays during the Patriots’ last two championship runs: the go-ahead touchdown reception in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX and the juggling catch at midfield in Super Bowl LI.
Not to mention he’s also useful as a QB in a pinch and finished the 2011 season as a starting defensive back.
Troy Brown is another player who could make this list based not only on his accomplishments as a receiver, but whose resume is only bolstered by his versatility. He was useful as both a slot receiver, on the outside and just about every other position you could think of.
After injuries ravaged the Patriots’ secondary in 2004, Brown played both sides of the ball, taking over as defensive back. He was so good in his new role, his three interceptions ended up leading the entire defense.
Brown might never be a hall of famer, but he has a hall of famer’s highlight reel. Trailing in the 2006 playoffs to the Chargers, it looked like the season was over after Brady threw an interception to Marlon McCree. However, Brown stripped McCree to give the Patriots a chance. A chance they pounced on. The Pats scored, tied the game and eventually won a field goal. His 23-yard reception in Super Bowl XXXVI set the stage for Viniatieri’s game-winning field goal as time expired. You can’t talk about the Patriots’ success without mentioning Troy Brown.
Danny Amendola earns a spot on the roster as the fifth wide receiver mostly due to his playoff performance. In 13 career playoff games, Amendola has tallied six touchdowns and collected 709 yards.
With Edelman sidelined with an ACL injury, Amendola was the Patriot’s best wide receiver during the 2017 playoff run, amassing 348 yards. Without his 84-yard and two touchdown performance against the Jaguars in the AFC championship, the Patriots don’t make the return trip to Super Bowl LII.
That’s a receiver I would like to have available in a pinch.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez
Gronkowski is another no-brainer here as the starter. Gronk could have retired this offseason and his case as one of the greatest tight ends of all time is already secure. He is one of six tight ends to collect over 60 career receiving touchdowns and was the fastest to do it, doing so in just 70 games. The previous record holder was Antonio Gates who did so in 110 games.
When he’s on the field, Gronk is better than every tight end in NFL history. The problem is staying on the field.
The No.2 tight end had significantly more pressing issues than injuries.
Hernandez and Gronkowski could have been the greatest one-two tight end combo the league had ever seen. Gronk was like a hammer; you use him to beat down your opponent. Hernandez was like a Swiss army knife; you could use him in any multitude of ways. Out of the backfield. In the slot. As a deep threat.
Despite only suiting up for three years, Hernandez had nearly 2,000 career receiving yards. His 2011 season was his best, racking up 910 yards and 79 receptions.
Listen, I didn’t want to put him on the list but you tell me a tight end who was better.
Starters: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Steve Neal, Sebastian Vollmer
Backups: Nate Solder, Joe Andruzzi, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters, Nick Kazcur
Outside of starting quarterback, no position has been as consistent as the offensive line since Belichick’s arrival. Just look at that list. The starting line has a total of 11 Pro Bowl appearances between them.
The backups alone might be the best offensive line in football if you just dropped them in the league today. I did play around with the backup O-line a little by putting Dan Connolly at center so I could sneak in Brian Waters as right guard. Despite playing most of his time as a guard, Connolly did play center in 2011 and I really wanted to work 2011 Pro Bowl right guard Brian Waters onto the roster.
Part 2: The Defense coming tomorrow
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.