SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 2, 2012

A look at key New England Patriots


NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

OFFENSE

Tom Brady, QB (12), 6-4, 225, 12th season, Michigan

Most accomplished quarterback of his era, has won three Super Bowls and is in his fifth ... Broke Dan Marino's record for yards passing in a season with 5,235, yet finished second in that category to Drew Brees' 5,476 for New Orleans ... Has career record of 2-2 against Giants ... Owns NFL mark for TD passes in a season with 50, set in 2007 ... Comes off mediocre game (for him) in AFC title win over Baltimore ... Operates no-huddle offense as well as any quarterback in history.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB (42), 5-11, 215, 4th season, Mississippi

Underrated runner with power and burst ... Never has fumbled in NFL career ... Scored 11 TDs rushing this season, has one in playoffs ... Has 29 career TDs ... Not a receiving threat ... Could be charged with picking up blitzes when Giants send DBs after Brady.

Danny Woodhead, RB (39), 5-8, 195, 4th season, Chadron State

Versatile back who also returns kicks ... Made it from Division II, where he was top player (Harlon Hill Award) in 2006 and 2007, to NFL ... Patriots pirated him away from division rival Jets and he became part of offensive core ... Good burst, excellent receiver, has not played much this postseason ... Lost fumble on kick return in AFC title game.

Wes Welker, WR (83), 5-9, 185, 8th season, Texas Tech

Led NFL with 122 catches, becomes second player with at least 120 twice in a career (Cris Carter) ... Has most receptions since 2007 in NFL (554) ... Set franchise record with yards receiving (1,569), was one catch short of his team mark ... Best slot WR in league, an All-Pro who was with Miami before Patriots acquired him in 2007.

Deion Branch, WR (84), 5-9, 195, 10th season, Louisville

MVP of Super Bowl win for Patriots in 2005 ... Left for Seattle in 2006 as free agent, but struggled there ... Reacquired in 2010 in trade with Seahawks, immediately slipped comfortably back into New England's lineup ... Had 51 receptions for 702 yards and five TDs this season, broke 61-yard TD catch-and-run against Denver in playoffs.

Rob Gronkowski, TE (87), 6-6, 265, 2nd season, Arizona

Record-setting tight end and All-Pro ... Combination of size and strength overwhelms defenders ... Battling left ankle injury sustained in AFC title game, but came back to finish that game ... Had record for TE of 1,327 yards receiving, scored 17 TDs on passes, also an NFL mark, and also ran for a TD ... Giants will try to double-team him at times with DB and LB or two DBs.

Aaron Hernandez, TE (81), 6-1, 245, 2nd season, Florida

Recently has lined up as a running back in some formations, especially out of no-huddle ... Broke 43-yard run against Denver in divisional playoff contest ... Very effective in open space as receiver, made 79 catches for 910 yards and seven TDs ... If not for Gronkowski, he might be an All-Pro.

Matt Light, LT (72), 6-4, 305, 11th season, Purdue

Has rebounded from some poor games in recent years to have solid season ... Second-round pick in 2001, has started virtually entire career ... Steady pass protector when on his game, and has been on it this season ... Only remaining Patriot from 2001 draft.

Logan Mankins, LG (70), 6-4, 310, 7th season, Fresno State

After some nastiness in contract negotiations, Mankins signed six-year deal after lockout and has played at high level all season ... Powerful run blocker and crafty in pass protection ... A team leader ... Was first-round pick in 2005 and is only remaining draftee from that year on roster.

Dan Connolly, C (63), 6-4, 313, 6th season, Southeast Missouri State

Acquired in 2008 as free agent from Jacksonville, has been backup much of career ... Was expected to be weak link in line, but has been solid ... Missed four starts with injuries, but snapped in both postseason games.

Brian Waters, RG (54), 6-3, 320, 12th season, North Texas

One of NFL's best for last decade in Kansas City, signed as free agent with Patriots after lockout ... Terrific run blocker, steady in pass protection, good leader, made Pro Bowl ... Never won a playoff game before this postseason ... Began career in college as tight end.

Nate Solder, RT (77), 6-8, 319, 1st season, Colorado

Pretty good rookie season, took over as starter when Sebastian Vollmer was out for season opener ... Projected as future left tackle in New England ... Huge wingspan, hard to get around, but footwork can be shaky ... Will be tested by New York's pass rushers.

DEFENSE

Shaun Ellis, LDE (94), 6-5, 290, 12th season, Tennessee

Like Waters, spent previous 11 seasons with one team, Jets, then was enticed to sign as free agent in Foxborough ... Situational player who has enough burst left to get to passer ... Solid against the run ... A quiet leader and strong locker room presence.

Vince Wilfork, LDT (75), 6-2, 325, 8th season, Miami, Fla.

Talk might be about Giants' defensive linemen, but Wilfork has been as good as anyone in postseason ... Played more than usual against Ravens, who couldn't block him with two men in AFC title game ... Has 2 1/2 sacks in playoffs ... Will challenge middle of Giants' line and is key to shutting down run game.

Kyle Love, RDT (74), 6-1, 310, 2nd season, Mississippi State

Has played well stacking the middle ... Situational player, comes out on many passing downs ... Made 55 tackles, had three sacks during the season ... Made Patriots as rookie free agent in 2010.

Mark Anderson, RDE (95), 6-4, 255, 6th season, Alabama

Career got off to big start when he was in Chicago, then fizzled ... Joined Patriots this year as free agent and shared sacks lead with now-injured Andre Carter with 10 ... Good off the edge and on stunts.

Rob Ninkovich, OLB (50), 6-2, 255, 6th season, Purdue

Was waived by both New Orleans and Miami before he signed in New England as free agent in 2009 ... Had two INTs in win over Jets that began 10-game winning string ... Played some tight end in college ... Also has done some long snapping, was special teams player before becoming starter at LB.

Jerod Mayo, MLB (51), 6-1, 245, 4th season, Tennessee

Best and most accomplished of Patriots' LBs, has had some health issues hold him back ... First-round pick in 2008, won Defensive Rookie of the Year that season ... Has had more than 100 tackles every year, including 103 in 2011 ... Already has team-high 21 tackles in postseason.

Brandon Spikes, OLB (55), 6-2, 250, 2nd season, Florida

Considered too slow to play the position by many coming out of draft, but has proven himself in New England ... Got healthy in time for final regular-season game after being idled for seven weeks, and had only Patriots takeaway in AFC title game, a fourth-quarter interception ... Second-round pick in 2010.

Devin McCourty, LCB (32), 5-10, 193, 2nd season, Rutgers

Slumped from great rookie season, when he made Pro Bowl ... Is aggressive in coverage, but can be beaten deep ... Went from seven interceptions as rookie to two in 2011 ... Has made 12 tackles in postseason, will probably change to make a few more covering Nicks, Cruz and Manningham.

Kyle Arrington, RCB (24), 5-9, 196, 3rd season, Hofstra

Tied for NFL lead with seven picks, one against Giants ... Very aggressive, will challenge receivers, go after the ball ... Sometimes gambles too much ... Could have trouble with taller wideouts, but uses body leverage and jumping ability to negate that ... School dropped football soon after he left.

Patrick Chung, LS (25), 5-11, 212, 3rd season, Oregon

Returned from injury just before playoffs, adding physical dimension to secondary ... Hardest hitter of the DBs ... Could see a lot of Ballard, but also might wind up on a WR at times ... Can blitz with nice burst to QB ... Had 67 tackles this season, but just one INT.

James Ihedigbo, RS (44), 6-1, 214, 5th season, Massachusetts

Another former Jet finding success in New England ... Hits hard, not great in coverage ... Also has played on kick coverages ... Made 72 tackles during season.

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SPECIAL TEAMS

Stephen Gostkowski, PK (3), 6-1, 215, 6th season, Memphis

Has no championship rings, but has not allowed dropoff from Adam Vinatieri over the years ... Regular season field goal percentage (.844) is better than Vinatieri's (.819) ... Kickoffs usually soar through end zone ... Pats unafraid to ask him to make clutch kicks, scored 143 points, made 28 of 33 field goals during season.

Zoltan Mesko, P (14), 6-5, 231, 2nd season, Michigan

Lefty whose kicks sometimes confound returners ... Has strong leg and led AFC in net average with 46.5 per kick ... Native of Romania, where he played soccer ... Came to United State in 1997 at age 11.