Patriots Season Preview
For the New England Patriots, this past offseason could not have been much crazier. The loss of Wes Welker to the Denver Broncos, the signing of third-string quarterback Tim Tebow (who didn’t make the final 53-man roster), and the rehabilitation of Rob Gronkowski from back and forearm surgeries kept the team in the headlines. Oh, and not to mention, one of their most important players, tight end Aaron Hernandez, was arrested and charged with murder.
But now it’s time to focus on football. New England, coming off of a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship, travels to Buffalo on Sunday for a meeting with the Bills to kick off the 2013 season. Much of New England’s roster remains the same from a year ago, but when the Patriots take the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium just after 1 p.m., all eyes will be on their revamped receiving corps.
Tom Brady will be without his top five receivers from last season when the year begins. Welker is in Denver, Hernandez is behind bars, Brandon Lloyd is still a free agent, Danny Woodhead is with San Diego, and Gronkowski is expected to miss at least the first two weeks of the season.
That’s 338 receptions from last season gone. Julian Edelman (69 career receptions) and Matthew Slater (1 career receptions) will be the only receivers on the roster to have caught a pass from Brady. Running backs Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden have also caught balls from Brady.
But the two-time MVP will have his work cut out for him, especially early on. Three rookies – Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, and Kenbrell Thompkins – will be major pieces to the offensive puzzle. The trio developed a good rapport with Brady during the preseason and could be important contributors. Thompkins, an undrafted free agent, may be the legitimate deep threat the Patriots have been looking for since they traded Randy Moss in 2010.
Zach Sudfeld, the 6-7, 260 pound rookie tight end out of Nevada, also an undrafted free agent, impressed during training camp and the preseason. His size and strength, paired with his tremendous ball-catching skills, has drawn comparisons to Gronkowski. Sudfeld could fill the void left by Gronkowski in the red zone until he returns.
If the rookies struggle, Brady will be able to rely on free agent pickup Danny Amendola. The slot receiver is considered by many to be Wes Welker 2.0. Unlike many free agent receivers the Patriots have brought to Foxborough in recent years (Chad Ochocinco, Lloyd, Torry Holt), Amendola and Brady looked like a duo that had been together for years during the preseason.
Ridley, who rushed for 1,263 yards last season returns as the Patriots lead running back. He’ll be joined by fellow returnees Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, as well as newcomer LeGarrette Blount, who had a solid preseason.
Much of the offensive line is back, as well. Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, and Ryan Wendell should be the starting five. Marcus Cannon, Will Svitek, and Markus Zusevics are among the backups.
On defense, questions remain for New England, especially in the secondary. Bill Belichick didn’t do much to improve the unit from a year ago when it ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (271). Belichick brought in veteran safety Adrian Wilson, a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, but Wilson was placed on injured reserve and will miss the entire season due to a hamstring injury.
Devin McCourty will be back as one of the starting safeties. Veteran Steve Gregory will likely be the other. Second-year players Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner and rookie Duron Harmon (Rutgers) round out the relatively young group.
The Patriots re-signed Aqib Talib to a one-year deal to start at one of the corner spots, while Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington will both see significant time as well. Marquice Cole and rookie Logan Ryan (Rutgers) complete the depth chart.
New England’s front seven is one of the better groups in the NFL. But they will have to improve the pass rush to help out the secondary. Many of the problems with the Patriots’ pass defense stem from the lack of pressure put on the quarterback. With Chandler Jones a year older and back to full health, he’s poised to have a breakout season off the end. Rob Ninkovich, newcomer Tommy Kelly, and, of course, Vince Wilfork will make it tough for opposing teams to run on the Patriots.
The linebacking corps is much of the same. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower comprise a strong unit, with Dane Fletcher (back from missing all of last season with a torn ACL), and rookie Jamie Collins backing things up.
Stephen Gostkowski returns as the team’s kicker. And in one of the more surprising moves of the preseason, rookie punter Ryan Allen beat out veteran Zoltan Mesko.
While questions remain on both sides of the ball, the Patriots are in good position to make another postseason run in the AFC. They are a virtual lock to win the AFC East, and Denver seems to be the only team that is better at this point. With all of the distractions and turnover on the roster, the Patriots still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. And with those two running the show, New England will always be contenders.