The Question: Which player who spent a significant chunk of the 2010 season on injured reserve will have the biggest impact in 2011?
Three factors: Did players receive proper medical attention and rehab during the lockout?; Mike Wright’s long-term health; Depth on the defensive line
Finding the answer: To start with, here are the 14 players the Patriots had on their IR list at the end of the season, with their injury and the date they were placed on IR in parentheses -
K Stephen Gostkowski (quadriceps, Nov. 10)
CB Leigh Bodden (rotator cuff, Aug. 31)
CB Jonathan Wilhite (hamstring, Dec. 15)
DB Bret Lockett (chest, Aug. 31)
S Brandon McGowan (torn pectoral, Aug. 31)
RB Kevin Faulk (torn ACL, Sept. 22)
G Stephen Neal (shoulder, Dec. 2; now retired)
DL Kade Weston (abdomen, Aug. 24)
T Nick Kaczur (back, Oct. 12)
DL Darryl Richard (foot, Aug. 31)
DL Ty Warren (hip labrum, Aug. 13)
DL Ron Brace (elbow, Jan. 3)
DL Mike Wright (concussion, Jan. 7)
DB Josh Barrett (shoulder, Aug. 31)
As the question says, we’re more interested in which of the guys who missed a chunk of last season will have the biggest impact, so for the purposes of this discussion, Neal and Brace are eliminated – Neal because he isn’t returning and Brace because he didn’t miss a game due to injury until the postseason. Wright is included because even though he wasn’t formally placed on IR until the regular season had ended, he missed the final six games of the year after a concussion suffered against the Colts.With that sorted out, the opinion here is that Warren and Wright will have the biggest impact. Just about anyone who has an opinion on the state of the Patriots will tell you that their pass rush is in need of help, and that help starts right up front with the return of two of their three best defensive linemen. While Wright, despite missing six-plus games, lead New England with 5 ½ sacks, when the Pats are playing with a three-man front it is generally the job of the linemen to win the trenches, occupying the O-linemen and hopefully collapsing the pocket, while the outside linebackers chase and/or sack the quarterback. As colleague Greg Bedard pointed out in yesterday’s Question, the Pats don’t need sacks as a statistic as much as they need to pressure quarterbacks and make life uncomfortable for them. The return of Warren and Wright, who would join nose tackle Vince Wilfork, help make that happen.
The concern for Wright is whether he’s more susceptible to concussions and the debilitating effects he dealt with for weeks after the Indianapolis game. Another knock could lead to him missing more time, and more frightening for a player not yet 30, would affect his career health going forward.
Bodden and Gostkowski are the other players whose return will have an impact. Bodden opposite Devin McCourty is quite the cornerbacking tandem, and allows the Patriots to experiment with Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler or possibly rookie Ras-I Dowling at the nickel spot. While Shayne Graham didn’t miss a field goal try in Gostkowski’s stead (he did miss two extra-point tries), his kickoffs were noticeably shorter than the normally big-legged Gostkowski’s. Having the sixth-year kicker back will help the coverage unit.
One of the many negatives of the lockout is that team medical staffs have not been allowed to have contact with injured players. The assumption is that players sought the best care they could, but for those who have been with the Pats for several years, there may not be a doctor who knows them better at this point than the team doctors.