Now that the lockout has finally been lifted, there is a palpable sense of relief amongst Patriot fans. The horrid thoughts that were creeping into the collective mindset of the fan base have been quickly dissipating. Suddenly, NFL nation has been jarred awake by a truly frenzied free agency, and all that was once a reality during the 76-day lockout now feels like a hazy dream. Vague notions that once made sense during our collective slumber are quickly slipping away into absurdity just like most dreams. The notions, that getting your girlfriend to follow College Football or that collegian fantasy football is just as fun have now taken their rightful place on top of the laughably ridiculous pile.

It’s important that as we collectively rub our eyes and prepare for the coming months, that we get a lay of the land. So here are the things Patriot fans have to look forward to:

1) An improved pass-rush.

Now I know it sounds crazy considering all the hoopla that has been made about not drafting a great outside linebacker or defensive end, but here me out. There are 3 ways to improve the pass rush.

  • Improve the secondary. This gives the slowpokes up front enough time to chase down the quarterback. Devin McCourty, panned by the likes of Mel Kiper as an obscure ‘first round overreach’, has clearly been a steal and was a premiere shutdown corner in the league last year. He seems hungry, smart, and dedicated which is a great sign for those who are worried about a second year setback due to complacency. On top of that, the Patriots get back their best corner from 2 years ago in the form of Leigh Bodden. He missed a whole season due to a rotator cuff tear, something that I am all too personally familiar with. And if it took me 1 year to return to my NCAA athletic career, I’m sure Mr. Bodden will back in full force. The Patriots didn’t stop there, as they drafted Ras-I Dowling, who has one of the coolest names in the NFL, with the 33rd pick overall and will surely be someone to keep an eye out during the pre-season games. Add to these 3 corners, the maturation and emergence of Patrick Chung and Kyle Arrington and you’ve got yourself a much improved and scary secondary.
  • Improve the Defensive Line. It collapses the pocket quicker, gives the linebackers more lanes to run through, and forces the opposing offensive lines to double team. Well last year’s serviceable D-line, got a big booster shot. The signing of Marcus Stroud,(note: reportedly released on Thursday) who used to be a beast and could still have a bit left in the tank, was a good pick up. Also, Ty Warren, who missed the whole 2010 campaign due to a hip injury, looks to be back to his formidable form. On top of this, Mike Wright, Ty’s very decent replacement, is back after suffering a concussion last year. So that’s three ‘new’ D-linemen, 2 of which, although not stars, are bona fide starters in the NFL. However, I know that ya’ll are much more intrigued by the trade for the disgruntled Albert Haynesworth. Here is the skinny on him—he doesn’t want to play nose tackle, and he is better in the 4-3 then the 3-4. Considering that we have Wilfork at nose, and that last year we played only 40% in our base 3-4 formation and couple that with the fact that we have a great history of rehabilitating malcontents, this should be a great bet and relatively inexpensive bet.
  • Improve Defensive Ends and Outside Linebackers. One way to do this is by cutting your best rushing linebacker, Tully Banta-Cain. Just seeing if you’re paying attention. Obviously losing him hurts, but not nearly as much as one might think. He was clearly losing favor with the coaching staff, and once Cunningham started performing, he really ate into Tully’s playing time. The trend was probably going to continue anyway, and considering that Tully just got surgery this week, he wouldn’t have been too productive at the start of the season. Either way, the free agency isn’t over, and while the Patriots clearly still need to sign a stud or at least add more depth to the position, the team seems to be in much better shape then last year.

2) A 14-2 team remains largely intact

There really aren’t any big departures from the team. The Patriots have Logan Mankins in camp after signing his franchise tender, and even if they don’t sign Light, they have Solder or Sebastian Vollmer to fill in.

3) A More Mature Team

Last year, there were something like 26 players on our 53 man squad that were in the league for less then 3 years. The Patriots went from one of the oldest teams in the NFL to one of the youngest teams, in a very short time. These players needed time to mature, and learn Bill Belichick’s complicated system. The growth was evident last year, with the likes of Chung, Cunningham, Arrington, Gronkowski, Vollmer, Hernandez and McCourty performing well. These players look to continue their growth, and if a few new guys step up or the likes of wide receiver Taylor Price makes the vaunted ‘second year leap’ then the team will be hard to beat.

4) The return of Stephen Gostkowski

Quick, who was the Patriots kicker in the playoffs? Don’t feel bad if you had to look it up. I did too. Considering that Gostkowski is one of the best in the league and that his replacement couldn’t get a kickoff past the 10 yard line, Stephen’s return will be a great improvement for the defense (better starting field position) and the offense (more field goals).

5) Wes Welker and Tom Brady’s ACL tears

It takes a while to return from ACL tears. Wes wasn’t even supposed to play last year considering that he tore his ACL in that ill-fated meaningless season finale 2 years ago. He will surely feel better, have crisper cuts and more explosiveness then he did last year. The same goes for Tom Brady. The ghost of Bernard Pollard will be less haunting as it fades into the rear view.