Vince Wilfork's return highlights the New England defensive line. (AP)

Vince Wilfork‘s return highlights the New England defensive line. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We looked at the offensive side of the ball, as well as special teams. To open things up on defense, we examine the state of the defensive line:

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Defensive ends Jake Bequette (1 quarterback hit), Michael Buchanan (3 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (93 tackles, 8 sacks, 18 quarterback hits), Chandler Jones (82 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits), Will Smith; defensive tackles Joe Vellano (48 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (56 tackles, 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hits), Sealver Siliga (21 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits), L.T. Tuipulotu; defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (10 tackles, 1 quarterback hit), Dominique Easley, Tommy Kelly (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits), Marcus Forston, Zach Moore.

Overview: This was a position of strength entering the 2013 season — with Wilfork, Kelly, Chandler Jones and Ninkovich up front, this group was one of the best in the league. A month into the season, both Wilfork and Kelly were sidelined with season-ending injuries, and the New England defensive line struggled to replace them. While the replacements (Chris Jones, Vellano, Siliga) did as well as could be expected, it was a sizable dropoff, and the Patriots suffered as a result. New England brought Andre Carter back midway through the season, and swung a deal for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga at the deadline. And while Carter was able to give them some quality snaps, the veterans were unable to prevent teams from exploiting the Patriots woes up front. While Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were able to provide strong support off the edge — and Jones showed some positional versatility when he kicked inside on a few occasions to work as a long, lean defensive tackle on passing downs — it was an effort to keep things together throughout the year. The most damning evidence came in the AFC title game when New England’€™s defensive front was unable to get a hand on Peyton Manning.

Going forward, the Patriots addressed some of the depth issues up front with the addition of Easley at the end of the first round, and while there are some questions about his health and how quickly he can get up to speed at the next level, he could provide support sooner rather than later at a variety of positions. In addition, Moore is a small-school prospect who could have an impact relatively early on as a backup to either Chandler Jones or Ninkovich at defensive end. But ultimately, it comes down to Wilfork, and, to a lesser extent, Kelly. If they return to the same level they were at when they went down last year — and both are able to stay injury-free — then New England’€™s defensive line could again become a massive position of strength.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Vince Wilfork is the leader of the defensive line.

Like Logan Mankins on the other side of the ball, Wilfork remains the centerpiece of the New England defensive front, a leader who has a voice that cuts across all lines in the locker room. From an on-field perspective, when he went down with his Achilles’€™ injury last year, it left a gaping hole up front. Down the stretch, Bill Belichick said on several occasions, ‘€œYou don’€™t just replace Vince Wilfork,’€ and even though those who walked in his shoes weren’€™t short on effort, his absence was a major reason this team fell short of its final goal. (As was the case with Matthew Slater, it wasn’€™t a surprise to see him on the road with the team, as it was clear Belichick has a level of respect for him that transcends simple X’€™s and O’€™s.) A borderline Hall of Famer who has an ability to play multiple spots along the defensive line at a high level well into his 30s, he’€™s not always the elite presence he once was. But like Mankins, Wilfork at 75 percent is still better than most of the rest of the league. He’€™ll be a compelling individual this summer for several reasons, including the fact that it will be interesting to chart his progress as he works his way back after the Achilles’€™ injury. But removed from the rehab work, he’€™s had an eventful offseason on two fronts: one, one of his most trusted advocates, Pepper Johnson, is no longer with the team, having departed to become an assistant in Buffalo. And two, a contract situation in the spring between Wilfork and the team got a little heated. It’€™s not expected that either of those things will affect his ability to do his job, but the 32-year-old will start an interesting new chapter of his football career with the Patriots when he takes the field at camp later this month.

2. Rob Ninkovich remains one of the most underrated players in the league.

From this viewpoint, Ninkovich has never gotten the credit he deserves. A perfect fit in New England, he’€™s managed to provide support while working as a 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker, as well as seeing action on special teams. Whether it’€™s been dropping into coverage, working as part of the pass rush or setting the edge, he’€™s been consistent and steady ever since showing up as a backup linebacker/long snapper in the summer of 2009. In his five years in New England, he’€™s accumulated 27.5 sacks (including back-to-back eight-sack seasons the last two years), four interceptions and an absurd 12 fumbles recovered. (Ninkovich’€™s 11 fumble recoveries the last four years are more than anyone else in the league in that time.) The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder also has a streak of 79 straight games played (including the playoffs), having suited up for the Patriots every week since Nov. 30, 2009 against the Saints.

3. If everyone stays healthy up front, then Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Joe Vellano could do a nice job providing depth in 2014.

After Wilfork and Kelly went down early in the year, the trio was thrown into the deep end of the pool last season and forced to swim. As previously stated, they did as well as could be expected, with Jones showing a knack for working on passing downs (his six sacks were as many as Demarcus Ware and Nick Fairley), while Siliga was particularly stout against the run. Going forward, their body of work suggests that they could see work as backups in 2014.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. How does the acquisition of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner impact the defensive line?

Ninkovich isn’€™t usually given to hyperbole, but the look in his eyes when he was talking about the pickup of Revis this past offseason gives you some sort of idea of just how much the cornerback could have an impact on the New England pass rush. It’€™s a domino effect: Because of Revis’€™ cover skills, the quarterback is forced to hold on to the ball longer, meaning the pass rusher usually gets another second or two (or three or four) to get after the quarterback. As a result, the most impactful member of the New England pass rush this season won’€™t likely be the addition of a defensive lineman or defensive end like Easley or Smith, but the pickups of Revis and (when he’€™s back from his four-game ban) Brandon Browner.

2. Can Chandler Jones take the next step?

Over his first two years, Jones has gradually become one of the better young defensive ends in the league, going from a very solid rookie year (albeit a season where he stalled out about halfway through because of a bout with an ankle injury and some lingering effects from hitting the rookie wall) to a sophomore year where he became the first player since Mike Vrabel to finish a season with at least 11 sacks. (Jones had 11.5, while Vrabel finished 2007 with 12.5.) In addition, the 17.5 sacks in his first two years are third-best in franchise history, trailing only Garin Veris (21 in 1985 and 1986) and Chris Slade (18.5 in 1993 and 1994). There are times where he can be dominant, but he needs to be more consistent — he had just one sack after Thanksgiving last year. The presence of Revis at corner will presumably give him more chances to get after the quarterback in 2014, and his occasional ability to bump inside to a defensive tackle spot should continue to give offensive line coaches fits in 2014. It will also be interesting to see how the additional weight affects his game — he said he added about 10 pounds in his legs, and looks bigger. It’€™s unfair to measure a defensive end purely on sacks alone, but if he can continue that type of progression when it comes to rushing the passer, it’€™ll mean good things for the New England defensive front on 2014.

3. What sort of impact can Easley have as a rookie?

At first glance, Easley could face a big challenge when it comes to playing time. With Wilfork and Kelly entrenched at the defensive tackle spots, if they stay healthy, it figures to be their show for the most part. The biggest question with the youngster is likely health, as he’€™s coming off ACL issues in both knees as a collegian. He was kept under wraps for the bulk of the spring sessions, and only emerged late in minicamp. He appeared limited in what he could and couldn’€™t do, but when he was on the field, he showed a nice ability to cut and change direction, showing a decent level of explosiveness for someone who has had a history of knee problems. If he’€™s healthy, he could play a sizable role in New England’€™s defensive plans, as his versatile and skill set suggest he could have a major impact relatively quickly in the Patriots defensive fronts. (For more on that, check out Doug Farrar‘€™s excellent piece here.) If there is an injury up front, it’€™s conceivable he could follow the same trajectory that took Jamie Collins from reserve/special teamer to starter by the end of the 2013 season. But as far as the Patriots are concerned, spending the better part of his rookie season taking a postgraduate year at Wilfork University might be the best course of action.

By the numbers: Through the first four games of the 2013 season ‘€” with Wilfork and Kelly completely healthy ‘€” the Patriots yielded an average of 105 rushing yards per game, 13th in the league. By the end of the regular season, that number had jumped to 134.1 rushing yards per game allowed, 30th in the league

Key new player: Smith. The annual ‘€œLet’€™s see what this veteran defensive lineman has left,’€ Smith was a pickup after the Saints’€™ salary cap purge this past spring. (In the past, the Patriots have kicked the tires on a variety of guys like Carter, Shaun Ellis, Steve Martin, Albert Haynesworth, Keith Traylor, Ted Washington and Anthony Pleasant. Some have worked out, while some haven’€™t.) The defensive end, who has 67.5 career sacks, is a 33-year-old coming off a knee injury that kept him on the shelf for the duration of the 2013 season, so expectations should be managed. But if he’€™s healthy, he could fill the role that Andre Carter occupied to great acclaim in 2011, that of veteran pass rusher.

The skinny: So much of this position — particularly along the interior — comes down to health. Wilfork, Kelly, Smith and Easley are all coming off injuries that prematurely ended their 2013 seasons. If they are all able to bounce back in 2014, the Patriots will be able to count on the defensive line as a position of strength. If not, New England will be forced to turn to youngsters again and get creative with some of its defensive fronts.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

The Patriots announced Sunday they have signed veteran tight end Nate Byham.

Here’s a portion of the release issued by the team:

The Patriots announced Sunday they have signed veteran tight end Nate Byham.

Here’s a portion of the release issued by the team:

Byham, 26, is a veteran of four NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers (2010-11) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2012-13). The 6-foot-4, 264-pounder, originally entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick by San Francisco out of Pittsburgh in 2010. He was signed by Tampa Bay on Oct. 2, 2012 after being released by San Francisco on Aug. 16, 2012. In his four NFL seasons, Byham has played 29 games with 11 starts and has totaled 11 receptions for 83 yards and one touchdown. Last season in Tampa Bay, Byham was limited to four games and finished with three receptions for 38 yards.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Sounds like Rex Ryan is back to being old Rex again.

After sounding chastened the last few years, in a series of interviews Saturday, the Jets coach sounded off about the state of the NFL, his own legacy, and where the Jets stand in relation to the Patriots.

Despite missing the playoffs the last three years, Rex Ryan says he's a "great coach." (AP)

Despite missing the playoffs the last three years, Rex Ryan says he’s a “great coach.” (AP)

Sounds like Rex Ryan is back to being old Rex again.

After sounding chastened the last few years, in a series of interviews Saturday, the Jets coach sounded off about the state of the NFL, his own legacy, and where the Jets stand in relation to the Patriots.

“Somebody asked me if we focus on New England. Bull—-,” Ryan told the New York Post. “We’re focused on us. We’re focused on us and how are we going to be better. I have to be honest, I don’t worry about them. They need to worry about us. I think that’s really where we’re at now.”

Ryan didn’t make any Super Bowl predictions, but still sounded confident in his abilities as a head coach.

“Do I think that I’m a great coach? I absolutely know I’m a great coach,” Ryan told Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. “But it’s not just about me. What makes a great coach is the people that surround you, the people that are with you every day.”

Ryan, who has a 46-40 career record as a head coach and has seen his team fall short of the postseason the last three years, will lead the Jets against the Patriots twice this season — Oct. 16 in Foxboro and Dec. 21 in North Jersey.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price
Matthew Slater was one of two Patriots special teamers who made the Pro Bowl in 2013. (AP)

Matthew Slater was one of two Patriots special teamers who made the Pro Bowl in 2013. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We’ve examined the wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, running back and quarterback positions. Now, we take a look at special teams.

Depth chart: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski; punter Ryan Allen; long snappers Danny Aiken and Tyler Ott; special teams captain Matthew Slater; punt returner Julian Edelman.

Overview: It was a good 2013 for the specialists. With the exception of one glaring misstep (a late kickoff against the Dolphins in Miami caromed out of bounds, setting the stage for a Dolphins comeback), Gostkowski was very good all year, while Allen was a solid if unspectacular presence at punter. Meanwhile, the return games were mostly good and occasionally great at times, as LeGarrette Blount went from special teams punchline to quality return man — his highlights included an 83-yard return against the Bills in the regular-season finale. In addition, Edelman had another good year as punt returner, and his 12.3 career return average is now tied for seventh on the all-time list. Going forward, there are questions as to who will replace Blount as kick returner, as well as the possibility of some of last year’s core special teamers (like Tavon Wilson) being squeezed out of back-of-the-roster spots because of positional battles. But if the health of Gostkowski, Edelman and Slater (and some others) holds, Scotty O’Brien‘s crew appears poised for another good year.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the game.

Setting aside the previously mentioned botched kickoff in a loss to Miami (a game where he also missed a 48-yard field goal in the second half), Gostkowski had the best season of his career in 2013. He had game-winners to beat the Bills and Broncos, as well as big late kicks against the Jets and Texans, one that led to overtime and other that ended up clinching a road victory. He also successfully executed an onside kick in the dramatic win over the Browns. In all, he finished the year 35-of-38 on field-goal attempts, as well as 65 touchbacks. He led the league in scoring — his 158 points were a career-best, as well as best in the league in 2013 and 10th in NFL history for most points in a single season.

2. Matthew Slater is one of the best pure special teamers in the league.

We’ve said it roughly 3,000 times over the last few years, but spend the $70 and get the All-22 film. That’s likely the only way you’ll get a real sense of just how good Slater is when it comes to speed, strength and ability to work as a disruptive presence. Belichick was effusive in his praise of Slater’s work as a gunner last year, saying he’s “one of the best in the league” in that department, adding that he always seems to draw double teams when he’s on the outside. Good for two or three targets a season at wide receiver, he’s a pure special teamer, and has carved out a nice niche for himself on the roster. (One more thing worth noting: One of the most respected players in the New England locker room, the fact that the team took Slater on the road last season after he went down with an injury is a good sign of how highly regarded he is by Bill Belichick, as well as the rest of the franchise.)

3. The kick returning job is wide open.

The Patriots have found good kick return performances sporadically over the last five years — including the work offered by Blount over most of the second half of 2013 — but since Ellis Hobbs was dealt to the Eagles following the 2008 season, New England has struggled to find consistency at the position. Now, with Blount gone, the job is available again. A variety of faces rotated through the position throughout the spring, but no one was able to distinguish themselves during OTA’s and minicamp.

(One more thing: Allen was also one of the best things about the Patriots in the AFC title game, dropping three first-half punts inside the 20 and doing his part to help tilt the field for New England in the early going.)

‘€¨THREE QUESTIONS

1. Who has the inside track on the kick returning job?

Right now, you have to figure that the returnees who have shown some level of proficiency at the NFL level have the best shot. That’s a group that includes McCourty and Edelman, although you figure the Patriots would be reticent to lean on two key players like Devin McCourty and Edelman in the’€¦.wait, wait, scratch that. We’re talking about the Patriots here, and New England has never been afraid to throw a needed veteran into a key special teams role — toss them into the mix with everyone else. Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins figure to also get a crack at the job in hopes of proving they have some special teams value at the next level, which could ultimately help them if there’s a roster spot at stake. In addition, rookies like Jeremy Gallon (more on him shortly) and James White have experience in college, and could also get a crack at the job this summer.

2. Is special teams value enough to save some back end of the roster guys?

Certainly. The Patriots have never been shy about having player who might provide exemplary special teams skills take a roster spot. In year’s past, players like Dane Fletcher and BenJarvus Green-Ellis got their intro into the league through special teams, and then used that entry to go on to bigger and better things. In addition to youngsters like Gallon, White, Boyce and Thompkins (all of who could be angling for a return gig), there are veterans who work as part of coverage units who are hoping their special teams skills are enough to get them through the final cuts. Veterans like Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner have to be considered favorites to provide special teams depth (ahead of their defensive skill set, anyway), as well as new linebacker Josh Hull, who has extensive special teams experience with the Redskins and Rams.

3. Will the Patriots add anyone to try and push either Allen or Gostkowski?

Despite the fact that Belichick isn’t above trying to bring in another player to create some competition from time to time in hopes of pushing the incumbent — or even just keeping the starters on a pitch count throughout camp — there are no other kickers or punters on the roster at this moment. It’s no surprise, as both are coming off good 2013 campaigns, and both looked very solid over the course of the spring workouts (Allen in particular). While theoretically there’s still time for them to shuffle the roster between now and the start of camp, at this point, it’s their show.

By the numbers: 3 ‘€“ Gostkowski has three of the top 20 scoring seasons in NFL history — 158 points in 2013 (10th overall), 153 points in 2012 (13th overall)  and 148 points in 2008 (tied for 17th overall). He’s the only player in the history of the league to appear three times in the top 20.

Key new player: There are plenty of possibilities when it comes to replacing Blount at kick returner, including Shane Vereen, McCourty, Boyce, Thompkins and Gallon. It should be noted that the Patriots have enjoyed a good run of squeezing value out of seventh-round picks over the last decade-plus, a group that includes Edelman, Matt Cassel, David Givens and Alfonzo Dennard — Gallon could be the latest member of the Lucky Seven club. If Boyce or Thompkins could make the job their own (Boyce has a better shot than Thompkins), it could help them solidify a roster spot it what has suddenly become a crowded field at wide receiver.

The skinny: The Patriots have a well-entrenched incumbent at kicker and punt returner, and a punter who was above average, according to most metrics. In addition, the coverage areas are mostly solid. The only question at this point is who will take the reins at kick returner. If New England can nail down that question between now and the start of the 2014 season, it projects to be another pretty good season for the Patriots’ special teamers.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

The Patriots issued a statement Friday night via lawyer Andrew Phelan on the report there were 33 pages of texts between Bill Belichick and Aaron Hernandez turned over as part of evidence i

The Patriots issued a statement Friday night via lawyer Andrew Phelan on the report there were 33 pages of texts between Bill Belichick and Aaron Hernandez turned over as part of evidence in the trial of Hernandez.

“Earlier this week, a report indicated that an exchange of text messages between the team’s head coach and Mr. Hernandez totaled 33 pages. While it is unknown how the texts were printed or displayed, I thought it was important to clarify that during an early investigation conducted by state prosecutors, the team produced a total of 34 text messages (not pages of texts) spanning a period of five months (December 2012 ‘€“ April 2013) between the head coach and Mr. Hernandez.”

Hernandez has been charged with three murders, including one alleged to have occurred in June 2013.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price
Tom Brady starts the 2014 season still seeking that elusive fourth ring. (AP)

Tom Brady starts the 2014 season still seeking that elusive fourth ring. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We’€™ve broken down the wide receiver, tight end, offensive line and running back positions. Now, we wrap up the offensive side of the ball with a look at quarterback.

Depth chart: Tom Brady (380-for-628, 61 percent, 4,343 passing yards, 25 TDs, 11 INTs), Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Garoppolo

Overview: It won’€™t go on the mantle alongside the 2007 and 2010 seasons, but as we wrote here, to take Brady’€™s 2013 season as an indicator that he’€™s on his way out is to miss the big picture. With so many of his familiar targets gone, he wasn’€™t at his best over the course of the year — the October loss against the Bengals where he went 18-for-38 for 197 yards and a pick — was one of the worst outings of his long and distinguished career. In addition, he missed plenty of makeable throws last season, including some key shots downfield in the AFC title game. But at the same time, he played some of his best football over the course of the season, with his four-game stretch from Nov. 3 through Dec. 1 serving as his personal peak: Against the Steelers, Panthers, Broncos and Texans, Brady went 115-for-164 (70 percent) for 1,443 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions — a per game average of 29-for-41 for 358 yards, 2.5 TDs and 0.5 INTs. He was at the controls of an offense that actually outscored the Broncos over the second half of the season, and ranked No. 7 in the league in total offense and No. 3 in points scored. All that with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Sebastian Vollmer, and Shane Vereen combining to miss 33 games. (That doesn’€™t take into account Stevan Ridley being repeatedly benched for fumbling.) All in all, it wasn’€™t his best season, but considering everything around him, still not bad.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Brady has moved into a different phase of his football career.

The quarterback wants to always remind people he’€™s no bigger or more important than the 52 other guys on the roster. But Brady, who will turn 37 next month, is no longer a contemporary of his teammates. He will be the older guy on the team for the third straight season, and while he’€™s always been in a leadership role, that really became evident in 2013. Last year, he commanded a group of receivers who were young enough to watch him win Super Bowls while they were in grade school. (By way of example, Dobson was 10 years old when Brady and the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.) There’€™s more deference to Brady than there was in year’€™s past. That doesn’€™t mean he isn’€™t capable of doing some cutting up with teammates behind the scenes. Instead, he’€™s much more inclined to be spending an off day conducting weekly film sessions with the younger receivers.

2. Even though he hasn’€™t taken any significant snaps in the regular season, Mallett has done all he can to try and improve his stock.

It’€™s difficult to remember, but when Mallett came into the league as a third-round pick in 2011, he was a bit of a third rail. Despite the fact that he threw for more than 8,300 yards in three years as a collegian, he was dogged by character issues, which likely caused the draft fall. But since he’€™s arrived in New England, teammates have praised his attitude, work ethic and approach to the game. He may not ultimately get a shot with the Patriots, but he’€™s done well to put any questions about his past behind him.

3. Garoppolo’€™s development has shades of Brady’€™s evolution.

Garoppolo was tutored by quarterback guru Jeff Christiansen, and shortly after the draft, Christiansen told WEEI.com that much of the drills, technique and footwork that Garoppolo went through over the last 10 years all came straight from the book of the late Tom Martinez, who was Brady’€™s quarterbacking guru for nearly 20 years. “This is so surreal to me, it’€™s almost frightening,”€ Christiansen said after being told Garoppolo was drafted by the Patriots. “EVERYTHING we did [with Jimmy] was off Tom Brady. Brady set the standard for perfect technique, and so it just made sense for us to follow everything that Tom Martinez did with Brady.”

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Do the Patriots keep two quarterbacks or three?

The last time the Patriots carried three quarterbacks on the roster was in 2011, when the Patriots had Mallett as a third-stringer and Brian Hoyer as a backup to Brady. (The last two years, it’€™s just been Mallett and Brady.) Chances are good that they’€™ll keep three quarterbacks on the roster this time around, but the fight for snaps between Mallett and Garoppolo at the backup spot (in practice and in games) should make for one of the more compelling storylines of the summer for the Patriots.

2. What does the future hold for Mallett?

Mallett is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and while the Texans inquired about his availability over the course of the offseason, he remains a member of the Patriots, at least at this point. While trades have happened over the course of camp and into the regular season can happen, with each day that passes, a deal involving Mallett seems more and more unlikely. If that’€™s the case, it will be interesting to see if he hits the open market as a free agent following the 2014 season, particularly if he does so without any significant regular-season snaps on his resume. What sort of interest could he draw around the league? Would the Patriots be inclined to keep him? And could he succeed long-term as a quarterback in the NFL?

3. Is Garoppolo the eventual successor to Brady?

The Patriots used the 62nd overall pick on Garoppolo, the highest selection Belichick has used on a quarterback since he arrived in New England in 2000. In a perfect world for Patriots fans, he’€™d be the Aaron Rodgers to Brett Favre‘€™s Brady, sitting fir the next three or so years and leaning under the starter before taking the reins sometime roughly around Brady’€™s 40th birthday. History tells us that franchises that don’€™t plan for the future can struggle when faced with the prospect of having a Hall of Fame quarterback retire. While the Patriots are at least planning for the future, there’€™s still the matter of being able to have the successor execute the game plan. Only time will tell if that responsibility will fall to Garoppolo or some other quarterback.

By the numbers: We’ve used this one before, but it’s one of our favorites — if Brady can win another ring, he’€™d be only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl after his 35th birthday: Johnny Unitas (37 when he led the Colts to a win in Super Bowl V), Roger Staubach (35 when the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII), Jim Plunkett (36 when the Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII) and John Elway (37 and 38 when he led the Broncos to Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII titles).

Key new player: Garoppolo. The arrival of the Eastern Illinois product has sparked all sorts of speculation about the future of Brady and Mallett. In his brief stint this past spring — where he got some added reps because Mallett was missing for a few practices — he was a mixed bag, with some good throws and some bad. Two things, however, stick out about Garoppolo’€™s development to this point: one, rookies and veterans alike have been impressive by his ability to command a huddle. And two, he has taken on a leadership role with many of the younger players, quizzing them on their responsibilities on a given play and making sure everyone is on the same page. Those are two of the characteristics that distinguished Brady from the rest of the youngsters when he first showed up in 2000.

The skinny: We can write all day about the impact of players like Rob Gronkowski, Logan Mankins, Darrelle Revis and Vince Wilfork. Ultimately, this team will only go as far as Brady can take it. If the quarterback is able to build on the chemistry that was forged with the new receivers last season — and Gronkowski stays healthy for all 16 games and into the playoffs — there’€™s a good chance he and the Patriots survive the rest of the AFC and get another shot at an elusive fourth Super Bowl.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Robert Kraft said Thursday the league “should work very hard” to have a team in London before the decade ends.

Kraft made the comment today at a conference of television critics in California. The Patriots owner, who has been a longtime advocate of having a team overseas, has pushed for his team to play in the games in London on several occasions — New England has played games at Wembley Stadium in 2009 and 2012.