Every team takes a turn making headlines during the offseason but the Patriots stole the show this past summer, as TE Aaron Hernandez was arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd in late June. The team released him the very same day and while there is never a good time for this to occur, the loss of the Pats other Pro Bowl tight end, Rob Gronkowski, who underwent back surgery in mid-June made this a even worse situation. With Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead no longer with the team, Tom Brady will begin this season without his top five pass catchers from last season.
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With them last season, Brady’s bunch once again finished the season with one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. The Pats led the NFL with 557 points, set an NFL record for most first downs in a season with 444 and scored 67 touchdowns in 2012, the second most in the team history and tied for the fourth most in NFL history. While we all know about what the air attack is capable of, NE finally established a consistent ground attack, as they finished seventh in rushing in the league and contributed 25 rushing touchdowns. The Patriots finished 2012 with 6,846 total yards, second in team history to the 6,848 in 2011 and the fifth most in NFL history.
For the third straight season, the Pats defense continued to bleed yards, as they finished 25 out of 32 teams. However, they allowed just 331 points, ninth fewest in football, despite giving up the eighth-most yards.
Love him or hate him, Tom Brady is simply one of the best to ever play the quarterback position. Brady has quarterbacked the Patriots to victories in 136 of his 175 career regular season starts, compiling a .777 winning percentage and giving him the best record of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era. LY, Brady finished with 34 passing touchdowns for his third straight 30-touchdown season and now has four 30-touchdown seasons overall. With 4,827 passing yards in 2012, he became just the fifth player in NFL history to reach 4,000 yards in five or more seasons and he has now tossed at least one touchdown pass in 48 straight games, the NFL’s longest active streak. His 48 straight games with at least one touchdown pass is second all-time, behind Drew Brees (54), who broke Johnny Unitas’ record last season. Former Arkansas Razorback Ryan Mallett continues to back up Brady.
The Patriots have not had a running game this talented and deep during the Belichick/Brady era. LY, Stevan Ridley ran for 1,200 and did so as a two-down back. If Ridley had played even a handful of third downs, he could have been a top-five rusher. He also finished tied for third in the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns in 2012. Ridley is likely to remain a two-down back because the Pats have Shane Vereen, who played in 13 games last season and finished with a career-high 400 total yards and four touchdowns. He rushed for 251 yards on 62 attempts for a 4.0 average.
The Patriots added LeGarrette Blount, a 250-pound brick wall with feet, who rushed for 1,000 yards with the Buccaneers back in 2010. The former Oregon Duck led all NE backs in the preseason with 24 carries for 137 yards (5.7 YPC) and two touchdowns, including a 51-yarder.
If boy wonder offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel’s and Bill Belichick can figure out how to blend Brady’s passing game with his three running backs—and why wouldn’t they–then it is possible the Patriots may not miss having their top five pass catchers from last season. If they can run the ball more without losing yards or points, they may even be able to add another year or two to No.12’s career in the process and isn’t that what the rest of the AFC wants to hear.
Replacing 283 receptions, 3,194 yards and 19 touchdowns will be no easy task for the next crop of NE pass catchers but if the Pats hope to win 11 or 12 games in 2012, it must somehow be done. Taking over for Wes Welker, who was last season’s leader in receptions and yards is Danny Amendola. While many say this has the potential to be an even swap, Amendola’s inability to stay healthy casts doubt the probability of this happening. They are both very similar in almost every aspect of the game and even went to the same college, Texas Tech but duplicating the Brady-to-Welker connection will not happen overnight—or can it.
In the year before Welker came to NE, he had 67receptions for 687 yards and one touchdown in Miami. LY in St. Louis, Amendola hauled in 63 receptions for 663 yards and three touchdowns. Welker was 26 when he came to NE, Amendola is 27 and is two inches taller and is faster than Brady’s former slot receiver. But he cannot stay healthy. Amendola has battled a slew of injuries during his brief career and has played in only 12 games the past two seasons. But if he can stay on the field for all 16 games and produce—say-1175 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013, which is what Welker did in first year coming over from Miami, then the Patriots won’t miss a beat—or Welker.
The only other veteran presence at WR is another Wes Welker/Danny Amendola type in former Kent State product, Julian Edelman. His career numbers would have been a down year for Welker at any time during the past five seasons with 72 catches, 947 yards and three touchdowns. It is hard to imagine Bill Belichick relying on three rookies to make one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses stay prolific in 2013—but that is likely to be the case. The Pats drafted Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, but undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins has stepped up the most during training camp and in preseason games. Thompkins and Dobson combined to catch 26 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns in four games this summer—so it is not out of the question that Brady won’t make this work in a big way this season.
At TE, Rob Gronkowski is the man that has made the most recent successful version of the Pats offense so effective. Nevertheless, Gronk underwent multiple surgeries on a forearm that limited him late last season and then ended up having back surgery in early June. Brady will need his big TE in the red zone but when he will have him is likely to remain a mystery knowing Belichick. The Pats did not place Gronk on the PUP list to start the year. However, there is bound to be constant dodging of the “when will he return” question by Belichick. According to many close to the situation, he is likely going to get back on the field faster than expected. Speaking of the red zone, Gronkowski’s 38 touchdown receptions since the start of the 2010 season are the most among all NFL players during that span. The fact that the Patriots cut TE’s Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells are further proof of Gronk’s earlier than expected return. Michael Hoomanawanui, who had just five receptions for the Pats last season and rookie Zach Sudefeld, as well as six team veteran Matthew Mulligan, round out the position.
The Patriots possessed one of the league’s best offensive lines in 2012. All five starters will return to this year’s team. According to Pro Football Focus, the group allowed defenses to pressure Brady just 25 percent of the time on his dropbacks. They also finished second in their cumulative run blocking grades. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer had excellent seasons and center Ryan Wendell was PFF’s highest rated run blocker at his position. Five-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins was good but not great LY but he should bounce back now that he is finally healthy for the first time in three years. Dan Connolly was the line’s weak link in 2012 and if he continues to struggle in 2013, Marcus Cannon could replace him at right guard.
New England’s defense has struggled to defend the pass in recent seasons but their run defense has more than held it’s own. Led by, rookie Chandler Jones (45 tackles, three forced fumbles as a rookie) and Pro-Bowl linemate Vince Wilfork, the Pats finished ninth in the league at stopping the run in 12.
At 29-years old, (he will turn 30 the day before the Super Bowl), Defensive end Rob Ninkovich still has plenty left in the tank. He showed that he could rush the passer with a team leading eight sacks and five forced fumbles a season ago. Outside of Jones, he is probably New England’s top pass rusher.
At 6-feet-6, 325-pounds, newcomer Tommy Kelly is a large and durable asset the Pats added from Oakland. He has not missed a game since 2007. He is not a great pass rusher with just one sack last season. NE will count on three rookies to factor into the DL rotation. Two MD Terps, Joe Vellano and AJ Francis, as well as Illinois’s Michael Buchannan, were all three-year starters in college.
The Patriots possess perhaps the best linebacking trio in all of the NFL and it starts with two-time Pro Bowler Jerod Mayo. Entering his sixth season out of Tennessee, Mayo has 428 career total tackles and covers as much ground as any weakside linebacker in the game. Last year, he finished with 147 tackles, three sacks, four forced fumbles, as well as an INT for good measure. It was the second time in three seasons Mayo has finished among the NFL’s top four tacklers. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes may not be as talented as Mayo yet but he is entering his fourth season. The former Gator from Florida registered 92 tackles last season, a career best. Spikes tied left end Rob Ninkovich for the team lead in forced fumbles (five each).
Former Alabama stud and 2012 first-round pick Dont’a Hightower had a monster rookie year with 60 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles. Hightower may actually end up being the best of the trio when he realizes his potential and that could start in Week 1 vs. the Bills. Rookie Jamie Collins, Dane Fletcher, as well as another rookie, Steve Beauharnais round out the depth chart for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
The Patriots secondary has been travelling downhill at a high rate of speed it seems ever since they allowed Asante Samuels to sign with the Eagles after the 2007 season. The Patriots ranked 27th in pass defense in 2011 and 25th in 2012. Moving by two’s is not going to cut it for coach Belichick, especially if the offense falls off with the loss of so many receivers.
Midway through last season the Pats traded for the troubled Aqib Talib, who was having issues on and off the field in Tampa Bay. His play was an immediate boost, as Talib performed well at times. His injury in the AFC Title game vs. Baltimore seemed to be the turning point for the Ravens offense an Anquan Boldin, whom Talib essentially shut out until he left the game. Talib was a free agent this offseason, but New England was able to retain him to a relatively small deal (1 year, $5 million) because of a diminished market for cornerbacks. Talib is a gambler but more often than not, he guesses right. He has already recorded 19 interceptions in his first five seasons.
Devin McCourty moved from CB to free safety last season and led all Patriots defensive backs with 82 tackles and five interceptions. Talib and McCourty could anchor what has the potential to be a much—much better secondary in 2013. Listed as the starting right corner on the depth chart, Alfonzo Dennard produced a top-notch rookie season and should improve upon that in 2013. It should be noted that he has been arrested twice since 2012 and considering the Aaron Hernandez situation, can ill afford another slip up. Strong Safety Steve Gregory is the veteran of the group with 97 games of NFL experience and his three picks last year were a career-high. Kyle Arrington provides great depth, as he is only two years removed from his 66-tackle, seven- interception year in 2011. The Patriots were fifth in the league in interceptions last season with 20. Considering the lack of talent at the quarterback position in the division now, they could be even better in 2013.
Stephen Gostkowski enters his eighth season and is as solid as ever. He has made 84 percent of his career field goals and was 11-of-15 from beyond 40 in 2012. Punter Zoltan Mesko averaged average 43.1 yards, which was 28th in the league last season. As a result, he was beaten out by rookie Ryan Allen, who is a two-step left footed punter and led the country with a 48-yard average while placing 20 punts inside the 20- yard line at Louisiana Tech LY.
New England’s return men are Julian Edelman on punts and Devin McCourty and Leon Washington on kick offs. Special teams captain Matt Slater might be the best gunner in football as he recorded 13 tackles last season.
Despite the loss of pass catchers, the Patriots play in perhaps the weakest division in football and that alone should be good for five wins if not a division sweep. In the end, it is likely another 12-win season with a first round bye is on tap. With an improving defense, do not be surprised to see NE in the first cold weather Super Bowl, which should make Jets fans ecstatic.