Nobody has had a more fascinating and interesting off-season than the New England Patriots, as we take a look at the Falcons fourth opponent in the 2013 season to see what to look for this summer as training camps loom.
First, their most potent offensive weapon (besides quarterback Tom Brady of course) in tight end Rob Gronkowski went through a series of surgeries. Most came on his injured forearm which developed an infection during the off-season and kept him out of OTAs. But the fifth came in June, and may be the most important because it puts his 2013 season in jeopardy. Gronkowski is such a potent piece of the Patriots offense. Not only is he the only tight end in the NFL that is without question better than the Falcons own Tony Gonzalez when healthy, but he creates so many opportunities for other options in the Patriots offense by being the focal point of coverages. Gronk has recently begun rehab for his back, but there is no exact timetable for his return to the field. Initial projections from his mid-June back surgery indicate he would be out three months which certainly would put his ability to compete against the Falcons in Week Four in potential jeopardy. But because of other events that have occurred this off-season for the Patriots, they probably don’t want to rush him back as it will be more important to have him at 100% rather than risking re-injury with him at less than that.
While Gronk is the Patriots most potent weapon, the team also lost Brady’s favorite target in Wes Welker. He didn’t get the offer from New England he wanted, and went across the country to Denver where he’ll be catching passes from Peyton Manning. The Patriots replaced him with Danny Amendola, who offers a very similar skillset. But Amendola has struggled to stay healthy the past two years in St. Louis. That will be the big question for him this year, and whether he and Brady can gel quickly as he will be carrying a big load.
That load got only heavier in the past month due to the issues surrounding tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has been arrested for alleged murder. The team already cut ties with him, even going so far as to allow fans to exchange their jerseys to do their best to wipe the slate completely clean. Hernandez was the “joker” of the Patriots offense, the wild card that had to be accounted for every play because of his ability to line up in the backfield, in the slot, or on the outside as a hybrid player at tight end, wide receiver, H-back, and fullback. They have no one else on the roster capable of filling such a role. Currently Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Daniel Fells are their remaining tight ends expected to fill in for Gronk and Hernandez. All three are capable blockers. Ballard was productive as the New York Giants starting tight end in 2011, but he certainly wasn’t a player that created mismatches. He benefited more from the presences of players like Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks than they did from him.
All of these developments put added pressure on Tom Brady to get the passing game clicking with so many new faces. Replacing Brandon Lloyd on the outside at wide receiver is expected to be rookie Aaron Dobson. The Patriots offense is notorious for being hard to pick up even for veteran receivers (see Chad Ochocinco) and getting on the same page with Brady is something that rookies historically have struggled to do (see Taylor Price and Chad Jackson). Dobson offers good size and vertical potential on the outside, but it will be a tall order for him and fellow rookie Josh Boyce to impact quickly.
The Pats did bring in Donald Jones and Michael Jenkins as veterans. Jones is quick and explosive and probably the most polished of the group. He is coming off a 41-catch in Buffalo, but he too has had his share of run-ins with the trainer’s table. Jenkins is a shell of the player he was three years ago in Atlanta, and being asked to be more than a fourth option at this point in his career is asking too much. They do have Julian Edelman still, which gives them insurance in case Amendola goes down with another injury. But as long as Amendola is healthy and producing, he’ll struggle to find a role outside of special teams.
All that means that the Patriots probably will have to lean heavily on their ground attack in 2013. It was an underrated unit in 2012, helmed by a committee of backs led by the powerful Stevan Ridley. Ridley has reportedly added more muscle this offseason, which should help as they may lean on him more in the early going. He’ll get help from the super quick Shane Vereen as a change of pace runner. Brandon Bolden was also productive despite limited workload last year. The team also picked up former Tampa Bay Buccaneer LeGarrette Blount, hoping a change in scenery does wonders to re-spark his career. Blount is another bruiser, but will be hard-pressed to shine in New England due to his limitations in pass protection.
And right now keeping Brady upright is their only chance to compete without their weapons on the outside. They’ll be helped in that regard by returning all five starters up front and hope injury-prone starters like left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer can make it through the entire season.
The last thing the Patriots want to see is someone other than Brady lining up under center, which brings us to the last big off-season move they made: picking up quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow will compete with Ryan Mallett for the backup position behind Brady. Mallett has been a disappointment thus far in his development in the pros. While he possesses a cannon for an arm, his footwork, pocket presence, and mobility have looked erratic on a handful of garbage time and preseason reps. The best case scenario for the Patriots this summer is Tebow’s presence inspires Mallett to step up his game, and that will give them the chance to redshirt Tebow in 2013 to try and work out some of the issues with his own mechanics in the hopes they can start to incorporate him offensively in 2014. But the talk of Tebow’s potential conversion to tight end is a pipe dream. While Ballard, Fells, and Hoomanawanui are by no means superstar tight ends, all are way more polished and able to contribute rather than Tebow who has shown no inclination for playing the position the way it needs to be played.
All the questions surrounding the offense makes the Patriots defense by comparison relatively settled. But in reality it is anything but. The defense, particularly the secondary has been a liability in recent years. The Patriots hoped to address that by shuffling around their roster and depth chart there. They picked up veteran safety Adrian Wilson from Arizona. Wilson is slowing down a bit, but is a really smart player that should be a much more consistent leader on the back-end than Patrick Chung was. Devin McCourty will move full-time from cornerback to free safety, where he was solid as a situational player in 2012. The Patriots are hoping that Aqib Talib, who they acquired at mid-season via trade will be able to take the flashes he showed last year and become the consistent No. 1 caliber corner that he was at times in Tampa Bay. That will be a tall order given that Talib doesn’t have the best head on his shoulders and off-field issues cost him in Tampa. If he can go back to being the type of corner that can go up against receivers like Roddy White and hold his own, it will be a huge boost to the Patriots secondary. Lining up across from him will be either Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, or rookie Logan Ryan. Dennard has had his own off-field incidents this year and may face suspension. Arrington is ready to step in as he’s done in recent years, although he’s ideally suited for the nickel spot rather than being a full-time starter.
Relative to the offense and secondary, the Patriots front seven is fairly settled. They added defensive tackle Tommy Kelly from Oakland to try and provide more pressure beside Vince Wilfork. He’ll replace Kyle Love, who was a solid run-stuffer but was released allegedly because he was suffering from Diabetes. The big key up front will be whether second-year defensive end Chandler Jones makes strides forward. They relied heavily on his ability to generate outside pressure last year and will do so again in 2013. He is joined by Rob Ninkovich, who is a Kroy Biermann-esque complementary rusher that is by no means special, but makes plays when they need him to (led team with 8 sacks in 2012). The big question will be which young players can also step up behind them and create a role in their rotation. Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette, Justin Francis, Marcus Benard, and rookie Michael Buchanan will be in the mix. Cunningham and Bequette appear to be the front-runners. Cunningham is in a make or break season, finishing with 2.5 sacks in 2012 despite being sidelined with a four-game suspension late in the year. Any contributions he or any of the others can make to the pass rush will greatly help as it can take pressure off an unproven secondary.
At this juncture, the big questions for the Patriots tend to loom on the offensive side of the ball and which of their untested set of receivers and tight ends can emerge to become primary playmakers for Brady. Hernandez is gone, and Gronkowski’s status is up in the air. Players like Amendola, Dobson, Ballard, and Donald Jones will be counted on to quickly get on the same page with Brady to help bridge the gap between now and the eventual return of Gronk.
That will put more pressure on the Patriots’ running game and their defense to pick up the slack. While the running game seems capable with a strong stable of backs and continuity in their front five, the defense remains a work in progress. But if players like Chandler Jones and Talib can step up, coupled with additions like Kelly and Wilson making their presences known, the Patriots defense has a chance to actually be an asset in 2013. If that is the case, the Patriots will continue to be the front-runner in the AFC East despite the upstart Dolphins, and won’t be counted out of the mix to win the AFC if things are clicking by December.