In the wake of the most eventful offseason in recent franchise history, there are two distinct ways to look at the state of the Patriots. With the start of training camp five weeks away, we broke down five reasons to feel good about the team -- including the fact that they still play in the AFC East -- and five reasons for pessimism, primarily based on the myriad of anticipated changes in personnel at wide receiver and tight end.
(Note: This should not be construed as "pessimism" in the 5-11, they-won't-make-the-playoffs sense of the word, but about their chances as a possible Super Bowl contender.)
Reasons for optimism:
The running game. Led by Stevan Ridley (who was seventh in the league in rushing last season with 1,263 yards), the New England running game played a large part in bringing real balance to the offense for the first time since 2004. And with the anticipated changes on offense, the running game will be asked to shoulder a sizable burden again in 2013. An impressive stable of backs joins Ridley, including Shane Vereen (who will almost certainly take over the bulk of the responsibilities that fell to Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk) and youngster Brandon Bolden. In addition, there are new vets LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington in the mix. While the roles for the new players have yet to be defined, that should all shake out very early in training camp.
Defense. With the exception of cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s legal issues and the return of Aqib Talib, all the offseason drama that’s taken place around this team has occurred on the offensive side of the ball. The New England defense improved down the stretch in 2012 by any metric you want to use, and with the return of Talib, as well as the addition of veteran safety Adrian Wilson and defensive lineman Tommy Kelly and the drafting of hyperathletic linebacker Jamie Collins, there’s reason to be optimistic about this group going forward.
They play in the AFC East. Despite the changes, the Patriots still have to feel good about their chances in the division. None of the other three teams in the division reached .500 last season, and despite their collective offseason additions (particularly in Miami), it would be a stretch to see any of them challenge New England for division supremacy, particularly when you consider the recent struggles of the Jets and the Bills hitting the reset button with a new coach and new quarterback this offseason. (In addition, based on the 2012 results, the Patriots’ schedule is the 14th toughest in the league -- their 2013 opponents posted a 130-126-0 mark last year. And while New England has tough road games looming this season against Baltimore, Atlanta and Houston, the only game the Patriots play outside the eastern time zone is when they travel to face the Texans.)
Rookies. The Patriots have made some intriguing young additions on both sides of the ball, and while Collins could take some time to find a spot (like Dont’a Hightower did last year), the drafting of big, physical wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce could herald a new era for New England when it comes to young receivers.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Let’s face it -- New England’s quarterback/coach combo remains one of the most powerful in the league, and should be able to carry the Patriots through some of the rough patches this season. One AFC personnel man told WEEI.com last season when it appeared New England was going through a rough patch, “as long as they have Brady under center, they have a chance to win every Sunday, and that’s the bottom line.” In the end, while plenty of teams around the league are gleeful about the latest round of woes the Patriots have endured, there’s still a healthy level of respect -- and fear -- when it comes to trying to stop Brady and Belichick.
Reasons for pessimism:
Turnover at wide receiver. While there was a lot to like about what Danny Amendola did over the course of the spring practice sessions, the fact remains that the Patriots only have one wide receiver on the roster who caught a pass from Brady last season. Stocked with relatively anonymous vets like Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones, the chemistry experiment between Brady and his new receivers remains a work in progress. If there’s a quarterback who can make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what, it’s Brady -- just remember 2006. (It’s also important to remember that no quarterback is better at adjusting to new personnel being thrown at him than No. 12.) But it’s a tall order.
No Gronkowski and Hernandez for much of the 2013 season. Gronkowski is now set to start the preseason on PUP (and likely to start the regular-season on PUP as well). Meanwhile, Hernandez’ future is even murkier -- even if he’s absolved of any guilt in this case, he could very well be gone for the entire season if commissioner Roger Goodell’s recent track record on discipline is any indication. (Remember that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t charged, and still got a six-game suspension, which was later reduced to four.) For an offense that’s leaned on the two brilliant young tight ends for sizable portions of the 2011 and 2012 season (when they were healthy), this is a difficult blow. With Hernandez and Gronkowski on the shelf for an extended stretch, the Patriots will have to make do with a combo that includes Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui (who have caught a combined nine passes from Brady), as well as possible contributions from rookies Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford.
New faces means slower football. The defining characteristic of the Patriots offense the last two seasons has been its uptempo, no-huddle approach. In 2011 and 2012, the Patriots went no-huddle on 25 percent of their snaps, an astounding total that allowed them to push the pace and keep opposing defenses off guard. Part of the reason they were able to do such a good job pushing the pace was because the skill position players were familiar with the system. That was one of the primary reasons why Chad Johnson had trouble staying on the field in his one season in New England. And that was one of the reasons that, at least early on in 2012, the Patriots frequently leaned on Danny Woodhead (whether in the backfield or split wide), as the undersized running back displayed a nice understanding of the system. With a tremendous amount of turnover at wide receiver, as well as wholesale changes at tight end, the New England offense may have to ease off the gas, at least at the start of the season, until everyone is clearly on the same page.
Distractions. When the players arrive at Gillette Stadium, they are greeted with several reminders on the front door, one of which is “Ignore the noise.” In the past, they have managed to do a pretty good job blocking out the distractions and focusing on the task at hand. But that focus will be put to the test -- regardless of where the Hernandez situation goes between now and the end of July, his case will be one of the primary topics when training camp rolls around, and will be one of the continuing storylines throughout the 2013 season.
The rest of the AFC elite has gotten stronger (or at the very least, been able to tread water). While there are questions about the state of the Patriots’ offense (and the passing game in particular), the rest of the top teams in the AFC have feel good about where they are at this stage of the offseason. The Texans (bringing in smart veteran Ed Reed) and Broncos (Wes Welker) made big additions, and while the Ravens suffered some losses in free agency, they figure to remain a worthy foe as they begin defense of their Super Bowl crown. Meanwhile, there’s always the Colts and Bengals to consider, two playoff teams from 2012 who figure to be just as competitive in 2013.