by Chris Warner

Outside of my cynical outer shell, I am essentially a sentimental creature. I love stories with happy endings for underdogs. I still consider myself president of the unofficial Bam Childress Fan Club (aka “The Bamwagon”), even though he’s gone to the Eagles.

Coach Bill Belichick has taught Patriots fans that sentimentality will get you a biscuit and a pat on the head, but not much more. From Bernie Kosar to Drew Bledsoe to Lawyer Milloy, the coach has eschewed fan favorites to build what he considered a better team.

So, how does New England improve this year? On the negative side, they can’t do any better than 16-0; on the positive, we all know what 16-0 got them last season. In 2008, look for the team to take some chances. Time to rebuild with youth, get better as the season progresses and gain momentum going into the playoffs. Hey, it beats peaking in November at Buffalo.

Hence, some measured (and somewhat unfounded) predictions of where the Pats will make changes, keeping a consistent theme of youth.

Quarterback – The ballad of Tom Brady continues. I like to think of it as a happy, heroic song with many verses yet to be written.

Rookie to watch: Kevin O’Connell. A standout leader on a bad college team.

Replacing: Matt Cassel. More than any other position in football, the role of backup quarterback resembles that of an understudy. If the star goes down, you take the stage and all eyes look to you. Maybe Cassel’s big, it’s the pictures that got small.

(Okay, I’ll make you a deal: no more “Sunset Boulevard” references if you promise to bookmark Patriots Daily. Do it now before I change my mind.)

Running Back – Let’s match the player with his prototype: Laurence Maroney, starting RB; Sammy Morris, backup RB; Kevin Faulk, third-down RB; Heath Evans, utility RB (not quite any of the previous three, but a solid contributor).

Rookies to watch: Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Kenny Cattouse. Green-Ellis runs with power up the middle. Cattouse has great quickness. I’m teetering near my “Patrick Cobbs will make the team!” debacle of 2006, but they need a smaller, quicker RB to backup Faulk. I think Cattouse makes it. (Check this morning to see if I’m already wrong.)

Replacing: Right now, Kyle Eckel is a between-the-tackles-type runner who backs up at least two other between-the-tackles-type runners. Green-Ellis also fits that description. Shouldn’t the most prolific passing team in history get a backup receiving RB? Hello? Is this thing on?

Wide Receiver – Except for Donte Stallworth, the main gang returns: Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney. Chad Jackson gets his last chance to make Belichick look like the savvy dealmaker we thought he was when he traded up in round two in 2006 to get him (and by “we,” you know I mean “I”).

Rookie to watch: Matt Slater. He’s fast and he can return kicks. I know so little about him that I’m beginning to suspect a witness protection program at work here.

Replacing: Just as Jackson will get every chance to show what he can do, so shall Slater. He’d have to do something awful – like get videotaped taunting puppies – in order to have the front office fail to justify his selection in the fifth. Slater may take Troy Brown’s roster spot, although he will never take the same spot in our hearts (see the sentimentality?). If New England keeps only six receivers, say goodbye to free agent special teamer Sam Aiken.

Tight End – Do you think Benjamin Watson and David Thomas talk a lot while they’re in the trainers’ room? And if so, do you think they discuss their myriad injuries, or do they ignore them and, for example, list movies they both want to see?

Rookies to watch: Jonathan Stupar caught 40 passes last year at Virginia. Tyson DeVree caught 37 for Colorado. Both arrived last week as undrafted rookies. Thomas needs a backup and either Stupar or DeVree could fill that role. Stupar has a slight advantage as he seemed to stand out more in camp.

Replacing: Not sure where free agent Marcus Pollard fits. If they need a blocker, I see keeping Stephen Spach for a lot less cash. Most of the other TEs on the roster fill the pass-catching role.

Offensive Line – For a while after his last performance, I nicknamed Matt Light “Matt Darkness-Shall-Reign-Over-All-That-Is-Good,” but I’m over it. The starting o-line will stay intact. Maybe this year they’ll excel all the way through, instead of deciding at the Super Bowl to SMEAR FILTH ALL OVER MY DREAMS.

(Deepgreenforest, coolbluelake; deepgreenforest, coolbluelake. There. Better.)

Rookie to watch: Ryan Wendell, the center out of Fresno State, has the reported technique to become a developmental player. Early reviews of Josh Coffman haven’t been as positive, skills-wise.

Replacing: No one that I can tell. Unless the 6-7 Coffman puts on another 40 pounds (a feat he accomplished in college), Ryan O’Callaghan doesn’t have much to worry about.

Defensive End – If Richard Seymour can get back to his old self, he, Ty Warren and Jarvis Green make a ferocious rotation (Actually, they were still pretty awesome with the 2007 version of Seymour). Hang on, Mike Wright fans: he’s listed as a nose tackle below.

Rookie to watch: Casey Tyler. He’s got the proverbial motor of overachieving 3-4 defensive ends (much like Wright does). Would at least contribute as a strong practice squad player.

Replacing: I don’t see anyone. LeKevin Smith is better suited at end than tackle but has too much flexibility for the Pats to let him go (hope I haven’t jinxed him). The Patriots’ defensive line is like a T.V. makeup department: when they don’t do their jobs, it all goes ugly in a hurry.

Nose Tackle – Vince Wilfork plays mountain in the middle, with Wright spelling him for some passing downs. Wilfork has become one of the best in the game and has that certain je na sais quois of 3-4 nose tackles. Actually, no mystery here: he’s huge, quick and strong.

Rookie to watch: Henry Smith comes from Warren’s alma mater (Texas A&M), but that seems to be the only comparison thus far.

Replacing: As great as it would be to give some of Wilfork’s early downs to a younger player, those are some huge shoes to fill. Quick and strong shoes, too.

Inside Linebacker – Welcome back, Tedy Bruschi. Hope you get some help with Victor Hobson aboard. (Hey, you know what I just realized? The Patriots’ linebackers were old last year. Surprised no one said anything about that.)

Rookies to watch: Jerod Mayo, Bo Ruud. Despite dealing with the inevitable condiment jokes, Mayo appears to be the right find. He’s a heavy-hitting, intense player who should see lots of playing time. In other words, they won’t go light on the Mayo. (Ha! See? No one can resist!) Ruud, at 234 pounds, seems out of position in the middle but took reps there during mini-camp.

Replacing: I assume that Junior Seau shall continue to enjoy surfing. Eric Alexander hasn’t seen significant playing time since he started the 2006 AFC Championship (go figure). If someone can explain why Mayo shouldn’t be a part of the ILB rotation from day one, I’ll listen. (Then I’ll scoff. Fair warning.)

Outside Linebacker – Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel make the type of bookends you want to see in Gillette. Pierre Woods has been a strong special teams player but hasn’t made strides on defense that some expected (again, by “some,” I mean “I”).

Rookies to watch: Shawn Crable, Vince Redd. We’re looking at two tall, rangy athletes with experience in hoops (Crable in high school, Redd briefly at Virginia). Though New England’s defense is only slightly less difficult to figure out than cold fusion, each player’s versatility should accelerate the process.

Replacing: Woods and Ruud may not find their happy-ever-after in Foxboro. Crable could get the Wolverine welcome over Woods. Redd’s build and experience in a similar 3-4 college system mean that a UDFA will make the roster over sixth-rounder Ruud (look forward to the headline “Ruud Awakening”).

Cornerback – This position has seen more shifts than a hospital intern. Asante Samuel and Randall Gay left. Free agents Fernando Bryant, Jason Webster and Lewis Sanders arrived. Ellis Hobbs remains, along with practice-squad member Antwain Spann and second-year player Mike Richardson. Hmm. My chest hurts.

Rookies to watch: Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, whom I shall officially nickname The Dubs (you read it here first, people). Small and fast, like rabbits but with better awareness, we hope. Of course, as rookies they’ll get burned – it’s only a matter of how badly, how often, and how quickly they learn.

Replacing: Wheatley and Wilhite (I won’t really call them “The Dubs” – it’s a little too skater-speak for me. But please, feel free to do so at home) will take over for Spann and Sanders. At over six feet tall, Sanders no longer belongs in Foxboro. They actually have signs outside the locker room that say, “You must be this short to play corner.” Richardson could stick around because he’s another young, quick guy whom the coaches seemed to like last year before his arm injury.

Safety – At free safety, James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather make up a strong duo. While Meriweather has been rumored to take over cornerback duties, the rookies will allow him time to develop at safety. Tank Williams will step in to relieve Rodney Harrison, who’s approaching his fiftieth birthday (I’m not exaggerating as much as I’d like to be).

Rookies to watch: They signed Mark Dillard (La. Tech) to a contract, but it’s tough to make a dent in the above rotation. Other than that, it’s possible that Slater will take the defensive side of the ball. Shoot, they’ll try Slater out at option QB to make sure he sees time on the field.

Replacing: Eugene Wilson signed with Tampa Bay (or, as I like to call it, Massachusetts South. You snowbirds know what I’m saying). The description of Willie Andrews as “blazing” refers to more than his speed after his February charge for marijuana possession. They’ll miss his special teams prowess, but the Patriots have paid a lot of attention to getting those types of players this off-season. Speak of the devil…

Special Teams – Longsnapper Lonnie Paxton and kicker Stephen Gostkowski have little rookie competition as yet (although TE Stupar reportedly snapped the ball over the weekend). The battle for punter has been ongoing for over two seasons now, with a virtual posse passing through Gillette. Incumbent Chris Hanson will face off against free agent Scott Player.

Rookies to watch: Mike Dragosavich had a successful tryout over the weekend, booming his punts inside the practice bubble. Out of 158 career attempts at North Dakota State, he had 47 over 50 yards and 61 inside the 20.

Replacing: Belichick and Co. want youth. Player is 38 and Hanson is 31. The situation looks solid for so-called Drago. Besides, any specialist with a nickname that involves “Rocky IV” is fine with me.

Here’s to a younger team with the leeway to rebuild. All the way to the Super Bowl.

(Deepgreenforest, coolbluelake. There. Better.)