2007 Patriots versus 2017 Patriots: Running backs/offensive line
The similarities are obvious.
Both teams loaded up in the offseason, willingly parting ways with draft picks to bring aboard more experienced talent. Both teams went into their respective seasons with an embarrassment of riches offensively. Both teams assembled defenses that combined savvy veteran leadership and younger athletes in their physical primes.
Despite having nothing but a few spring workouts under its belt, the current iteration of the Patriots roster has already drawn comparisons to its 2007 counterpart -- the one that went 18-0 before losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Sports books have Bill Belichick's club favored to win each of its 16 regular-season games. Tom Brady is considered the early front-runner for MVP, an award he first won a decade ago. Here at CSN, we've wondered if the NFL has a "Patriots problem" because of what looks like a widening gap between them and their competition.
Perhaps in light of some of the hype they've received, Patriots coaches seemed to do what they could during OTAs last month to keep players humble. They called it a "teaching camp," as they always do, but substitution infractions meant laps. Matt Patricia blew a gasket or two. And during one press conference, Belichick took a moment to remind anyone listening exactly how much this year's group had accomplished.
"We’ve had enough parades, enough celebrations and enough everything," he said. "This ’17 team hasn’t done anything yet. None of us have."
Yet here we are, with the entire league off for the summer and little in the way of events to cover, so why not compare one team that hasn't done anything to another that's considered one of the best of all time?
The similarities are there. We've got the time. And it might spark some debate to keep us occupied until camp begins.
-- We'll pit Patriots players from 2017 and 2007 against one another and answer the question, "Who is the better player?" We're not judging them based on what they were capable of in their primes. We're not stacking one player's career against another's. It's just Player X in 2017 versus Player Y in 2007.
-- Players will be matched up as logically as possible based on position, but roles won't sync up perfectly . . . particularly in the front-seven. We've chosen to include the players who saw the most playing time in 2007, per Pro Football Focus, and lined them up against players on this year's roster that we believe are in line to see the most work. We realize that by the end of the 2017 season some of the names included here could look ridiculous. So be it.
-- Several Patriots beat reporters from 2007, including our own Tom E. Curran (then with nbcsports.com) and Mike Giardi (then with NECN), have been polled for their opinions, but I'll make the final call for each. Let me know if you disagree. I know you will. But obviously feel free to clog Tom and Mike's notifications as well. They'll be happy to hear from you.
Keep an eye on our @CSNNE Twitter account for polls corresponding with these matchups so that you can make your voice heard that way as well.
Patriots '07 vs '17: Breaking down the RB/OL group
MATT LIGHT VS. NATE SOLDER
MATT LIGHT: 29 years old in 2007, 6-foot-4, 305 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 19 starts, 4 sacks, 10 hits, 24 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
NATE SOLDER: 29 years old in 2017, 6-foot-8, 325 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 18 starts, 6 sacks, 6 hits, 30 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: The Patriots couldn't post all of those gaudy passing numbers in 2007 if their quarterback had opposing defensive ends wedging their facemasks into his spine on a regular basis. That's where Matt Light came in. Named a First-Team All-Pro he was one of the leaders of one of the top offensive lines in the league that year. Nate Solder put together one of the best seasons of his career in 2016 after missing almost all of 2015 to injury, and his combination of size and athleticism gives more of a prototypical left tackle look when stacked up against the shorter Light. But Light protected a marked man at quarterback in a year during which the Patriots offense made little attempt to hide its affinity for throwing the football. Pass-rushers knew they could pin their ears back to get up the field -- they had to. And Light stopped them anyway.
THE CHOICE: Light
NICK KACZUR VS. MARCUS CANNON
NICK KACZUR: 27 years old in 2007, 6-foot-4, 315 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 18 starts, 6 sacks, 10 hits, 30 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
MARCUS CANNON: 29 years old in 2017, 6-foot-5, 335 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 18 starts, 3 sacks, 8 hits, 22 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Marcus Cannon has always had the athleticism and size to succeed in the NFL. Before last season, he admitted, he may have had a little too much of the latter. After reuniting with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, he shed weight and had what was far and away his best season. He protected Tom Brady effectively and formed a brutal run-blocking duo with right guard Shaq Mason that helped him to earn Second-Team All-Pro honors. He was the unanimous choice among 2007 beat reporters polled.
THE CHOICE: Cannon
LOGAN MANKINS VS. JOE THUNEY
LOGAN MANKINS: 25 years old in 2007, 6-foot-4, 310 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 19 starts, 7 sacks, 3 hits, 18 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
JOE THUNEY: 25 years old in 2017, 6-foot-5, 305 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 19 starts, 5 sacks, 10 hits, 34 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Logan Mankins was firmly in his prime in 2007, and he played like it. He saw more playing time than any other Patriots offensive lineman, and he was absolutely dominant as a run-blocker. Like Koppen and Light, he was also named to the Pro Bowl for his efforts -- his first of seven. Thuney had a strong rookie season, winning the starting left guard job in training camp and never giving it up. But Mankins was already one of the best in the game in 2007, and Thuney's second-year leap would have to be remarkable for him to reach that level.
THE CHOICE: Mankins
STEPHEN NEAL VS. SHAQ MASON
STEPHEN NEAL: 30 years old in 2007, 6-foot-4, 305 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 11 starts, 0 sacks, 1 hit, 8 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
SHAQ MASON: 23 years old in 2017, 6-foot-1, 310 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 18 starts, 6 sacks, 2 hits, 21 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Stephen Neal was banged-up over the course of the 2007 season and missed time due to a shoulder injury, but even with those limitations he gets the slight edge on up-and-comer Shaq Mason. Bill Belichick has frequently lauded Mason's unique athletic ability -- he's a wrecking ball when he gets defenders lined up in space -- but Neal is in a small class of players that Belichick references regularly to this day . . . several years after his retirement. The former college wrestler holds a special place in Belichick's heart, and with good reason. He's one of the best guards the Patriots have had during Belichick's tenure in New England.
THE CHOICE: Neal
DAN KOPPEN VS. DAVID ANDREWS
DAN KOPPEN: 27 years old in 2007, 6-foot-2, 300 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 18 starts, 0 sacks, 4 hits, 17 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
DAVID ANDREWS: 25 years old in 2017, 6-foot-3, 295 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 19 starts, 1 sacks, 5 hits, 20 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Dan Koppen picked up a Pro Bowl nod for his work in the middle for the Patriots in 2007. A good athlete up front, Koppen wasn't the biggest center in the league, but for the purposes of this discussion, his size doesn't really come into play because of who he's up against. David Andrews is a quality athlete in his own right who flashed good movement skills when asked to get out in front of Patriots screens. He's also developed a strong working relationship with Tom Brady, and between the two of them scoping things out pre-snap there are very rarely ghastly mistakes made in protection. Yet Koppen was the same way. And in this tale-of-the-tape, Koppen's experience gives him the edge since 2007 was his fifth year. Andrews will be going into his third season in 2017.
THE CHOICE: Koppen
LAURENCE MARONEY VS. MIKE GILLISLEE
LAURENCE MARONEY: 26 years old in 2007, 5-foot-11, 220 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 246 attempts, 1,120 yards, 9 touchdowns, 4.6 yards per carry, 2.1 yards after contact per carry, 40 missed tackles forced, 0 fumbles.
MIKE GILLISLEE: 27 years old in 2017, 5-foot-11, 219 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (with Buffalo): 101 attempts, 577 yards, 8 touchdowns, 5.7 yards per carry, 3.3 yards after contact per carry, 16 missed tackles forced, 0 fumbles
THE DECIDING FACTOR: What makes this entire exercise a fun one to delve into? It's the fact that we're comparing known commodities (2007 performances) to great unknowns (2017 performances). That reality can also happen to make this summertime endeavor a tad maddening. We really have no idea how Mike Gillislee is going to perform in New England's offense this year. We know the Patriots were willing to give up a draft pick for him and make him their highest-paid back this offseason. Good sign. But it was hard to gauge his fit in the offense during spring passing camp since he'll be more of a traditional "big back" with LeGarrette Blount gone. Will he be the guy who couldn't stay on the field from 2013-2015? Or will he be the hard-charging, hit-the-hole-quickly kind of runner he was last season in Buffalo, who averaged almost six yards per carry? Laurence Maroney was relatively inconsistent in 2007 -- he missed time with a groin injury early in the season and was capably replaced by Sammy Morris -- but when he was right, he was a threat behind one of the game's best offensive lines. In the regular season, Maroney had games where he picked up 103, 104 and a career-high 156 yards rushing. He also had eight games where he averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry. He was strong in the postseason, however, recording back-to-back 122-yard games against Jacksonville and San Diego in the Divisional Round and Conference Final. According to Pro Football Focus, he forced a whopping 16 missed tackles in the postseason, including five in the Super Bowl despite accumulating just 36 yards on 14 attempts. He had size. He was elusive. And he protected the football. Do I think Gillislee has the ability to better Maroney's 2007? Yes. But we've seen so little of Gillislee, it's hard not to choose Maroney during his best year. Plus, Gillislee will be in competition with fellow newcomer Rex Burkhead as well as all-purpose runner Dion Lewis and sub back James White for what could be a more evenly-split workload than the one the 2007 crew divvied up. Maroney shared carries with Morris, Heath Evans and Kevin Faulk, but he was the guy when he was healthy. He's also the guy here, the narrow winner among 2007 beat reporters polled.
THE CHOICE: Maroney
KEVIN FAULK VS. JAMES WHITE
KEVIN FAULK: 31 years old in 2007, 5-foot-8, 202 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 68 attempts, 289 yards, 0 rushing touchdowns, 4.3 yards per carry, 2.0 yards after contact per carry, 77 targets, 67 receptions, 553 yards, 8.3 yards per reception, 7.0 yards after contact per reception, 1 receiving touchdown, 16 missed tackles forced, 3 drops, 1 fumble
JAMES WHITE: 25 years old in 2017, 5-foot-10, 205 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 46 attempts, 195 yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, 4.2 yards per carry, 1.9 yards after contact per carry, 95 targets, 78 receptions, 688 yards, 8.8 yards per reception, 7.8 yards after contact per reception, 7 receiving touchdowns, 21 missed tackles forced, 4 drops, 0 fumbles
THE DECIDING FACTOR: This is going to sound strange, but Kevin Faulk's playing career has been a little bit of a hot-button issue at CSN for the last couple of years. When he was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame, Tom E. Curran was one of the biggest proponents for his candidacy. I openly wondered why Faulk was voted in ahead of other eligible players who made more tangible contributions to championship teams, specifically Mike Vrabel, Matt Light and Rodney Harrison. (A certain No. 12 jersey worn by Faulk during the 2016 draft may have impacted the fan vote.) During those discussions, though, my argument was sometimes misunderstood. I was never denigrating Faulk's contributions. He was a dependable player who was trusted in key spots. His longevity with the team was an indication of the value he had to Bill Belichick and his staff. I just wondered if he was perhaps too often held in higher esteem than some of the other championship players he shared the field with. I say all that because what I'm about to write won't help my cause when it comes to proving that I appreciated Faulk's career. I chose James White as the sub back over Faulk, in one of the closer matchups of this entire exercise. Remember this is a strict 2017 versus 2007 comparison, not a career versus career battle. OK first, let's look at the numbers. In terms of their averages as runners, White and Faulk were almost identically . . . um . . . average. As receivers, White's production was better across the board in 2016 compared to Faulk's 2007. And we all know what White did in the Super Bowl, outshining any postseason game Faulk (or any other back in Patriots history) put together. Then there's the age difference, which leans strongly in White's favor. Faulk was consistent in critical moments in 2007, racking up 170 total receiving yards across three games in the postseason. And as much as Tom Brady trusts White, by 2007 Faulk was probably one of the most trusted teammates Brady had to that point. Yet, the fact that White has already established himself as a key part of the offense and is still improving at this stage of his career is enough for me to make him the choice over the Faulk.
THE CHOICE: White