Logan Mankins is the straw that stirs the drink for the New England offensive line. (AP)

Logan Mankins is the straw that stirs the drink for the New England offensive line. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened wide receiver, tight end and running back. Now, it’s the offensive line.

Depth chart: T Nate Solder, G Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, G Dan Connolly, T Sebastian Vollmer, G/T Marcus Cannon, C/G Bryan Stork, T Cameron Fleming, G Jon Halapio, G Chris Barker, C/G Braxston Cave, G Josh Kline, T Chris Martin, T Jordan Devey

Overview: Traditionally one of the strongest and deepest spots on the roster, in 2013, the Patriots offensive line showed a few cracks. There were times where they had issues, particularly in the early going when it came to pass protection. Some of the problems can also be blamed on the fact that, as a group, the offense as a whole was still searching for an identity and struggling with the acclimation of so many new faces at the skill position slots. (If you think of the offense as a series of chain reactions, Tom Brady has to hold the ball a second longer while a young receiver gains separation. That means an offensive line has to hold his block a second longer. When you are facing some of the most devastating defensive fronts in the league, that can be a challenge for any offensive line.) And some can be blamed on health issues — Vollmer missed eight games because of a leg injury, while Solder was out with a head injury and Mankins suffered several bumps and bruises along the way.

But don’t look for the offensive line to offer any excuses. It’s a proud group that continued to hold itself to an almost impossibly high standard regardless of the opponent and situation. Despite the fact that it lost Vollmer and Solder for a stretch, it’s important to remember Patriots were one of three teams in the NFL last year to rush for at least 2,000 yards and finish with at least 4,000 yards passing. You don’t put up those kinds of numbers without a strong, dependable and versatile offensive line.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Logan Mankins is one of the toughest guys in the NFL.

When it comes to toughness — both mental and physical — Mankins remains the gold standard for anyone who has ever strapped on a New England helmet. (‘I’ve coached a lot of tough guys,’ said Bill Belichick late last season after Mankins came back from injury. ‘I don’t think there’s any that I would put ahead of him. Maybe some on that level, but none ahead.’) Mankins, who played the entire 2011 season on a torn ACL, came back from an ankle injury late in 2013, and ended up playing the second-most snaps of any left guard in the league, according to Football Outsiders (1,164). He also managed to move from his traditional left guard spot out to left tackle after Solder went down with an injury. He may not have been at his best last season — the combination of injury, age and the fact that New England faced some of the most devastating front sevens in the league all contributed to that. But Mankins at 75 percent is still better than most of the rest of the league.

2. The Patriots feel pretty good about their left tackle situation.

If you could pick one spot on the offensive line where stability and consistency are most important, it would likely be left tackle. And when it comes to New England’s situation, they have to feel pretty good about where it stands with Solder, at least at this point in his career. The first-round pick out of Colorado in 2011, he’s done a good job stepping into the shoes of Matt Light. He’s started 44 of a possible 48 regular-games over the course of his career, and has consistently graded out as an above average left tackle. One more thing about Solder — when you consider the going rate for above average left tackles this offseason, the Patriots made the right move in locking him up for another year when they exercised the club option for 2015 on him at a cost of $7 million. In this era, considering Solder’s play in his first three years, it’s money well spent.

3. As camp dawns, there are questions about the interior, specifically right guard and center.

It’s telling that two of the three offensive linemen drafted by the Patriots this year were interior linemen — specifically, a highly-regarded right guard (Halapio) and center (Stork). When it comes to the Halapio/Connolly debate, the issue with Connolly is not so much his level of play. Instead, it’s whether or not he performs to the level of his contract: Entering the final year of a contract that is set to pay him $3 million, he could be a veteran cut if Halapio appears ready for prime time. (For what it’s worth, Kline also played well at guard in his lone start last season against the Ravens.) As for center, Wendell has performed well since taking over on a full-time basis in 2012, but he’s played a ton of snaps the two years. (Per Football Outsiders, he was fourth among all offensive linemen last year with 1,197 snaps, and second in the league with 1,231 in 2012, trailing only Solder.) However, Wendell was second on the team in 2013 with 42.3 snaps per blown block. Has he worn down slightly from overuse? Or is it the stress of having to deal with guys like Mo Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Haloti N’gata on a weekly basis? It’s debatable — the Patriots faced some of the best fronts in the league in 2013 season. But New England’s decision to use a fourth-round pick on Stork, as well as the fact that Wendell drew almost zero attention on the market as a free agent this offseason (he signed a two-year deal to return to New England), might not be completely coincidental.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. How will the change in coaches affect the overall level or quality of play?

The move from Dante Scarnecchia to Dave DeGuglielmo as the position coach makes an already intriguing situation all the more interesting this season. Scarnecchia, who had coached the New England offensive line for the last 15 years, was a rock-solid presence for not just the offensive line, but also the franchise as a whole. As a result, even if DeGuglielmo followed his approach to the letter, there’s bound to be some bumps in the transition.

2. Who is going to be the backup swing tackle?

The Patriots were hoping veteran Will Svitek could have filled that role last season, and while he saw limited action, the Patriots turned more toward Cannon to fill the position. (New England also got a game at left tackle from Mankins after Solder went down late in the season — Kline filled Mankins’ old spot at left guard when the veteran moved to tackle.) Cannon held up pretty well while showing some nice positional versatility. (He also stepped in at right guard briefly for Connolly when he went down with a foot injury.) This year, there are two candidates to fill the role — Cannon and Fleming. Expect that to be one of the more interesting positional battles of the summer.

3. How many of the rookies will make the 53-man roster?

We are believers in Stork (more on him shortly), and sincerely think that the Patriots find a way to sneak Fleming through somehow. (You’ve got to get a rocket scientist on your roster.) Halapio is a very interesting case — a sixth-round pick out of Florida, he looked impressive throughout the course of the spring practices while working along the interior. However, our pal Miguel Benzan had an interesting note about the chances of a sixth-round pick making the roster.

Regardless of his odds, and based on how he looked in spring workouts, it appears that Halapio has a shot.

By the numbers: Over the course of the regular season,. the Patriots utilized four different starting lineup combinations along their offensive line. (That’s down from five in 2012.) Overall, as a result of injury and personnel decisions, New England had 14 different starting lineups on offense over the course of the regular season, tied for third in the league. (By way of comparison, Seattle, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Tampa Bay tied for the league lead with 16 each.) The league also listed the Patriots with 293 unique offensive lineups, which was seventh highest in the NFL. And among the final four teams left at the end of the playoffs, they had the lowest percentage of plays featuring the most common lineup at 2.45 percent.

Key new player: Stork. At times over the course of the spring practice sessions, it appeared the rookie was on a continuous loop around the practice fields because of some infraction, either real or imagines, in the eyes of the coaching staff. But his versatility (he played tackle, guard and center as a collegian) and his resume (he was the Rimington Award winner while starting every game this past year at center for the national champions) suggest he could push for a job sooner rather than later. While he does have a background at multiple positions, the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder will most likely get his best chance at center, where he could challenge incumbent Wendell.

The skinny: The offensive line has played a sizable role in the success of the New England offense over the last decade-plus, and this year will be no exception. The veteran leadership of Mankins, the steady and consistent work of the tackles (health willing) and the infusion of youth and arrival of a new position coach in DeGuglielmo should all make for an interesting mix up front for the Patriots in 2014. Certainly one of the positional groupings worth keeping an eye on this summer.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

The mystery over Armond Armstead has ended in retirement.

The 23-year-old defensive tackle originally signed with the Patriots on Feb. 1, 2013, after one season with the Toronto Argonauts. The 6-foot-5, 305-pounder, who was brought in as potential depth along the defensive line, was placed on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury List on Aug. 26, 2013.

There was plenty of speculation about his future in New England before the move to place him on the NFI list and over the course of this offseason, including OTAs and minicamp.

Armond Armstead (97) was a rare sight on the practice field for the Patriots after dealing with surgery to treat infection in 2013. (AP)

Armond Armstead (97) was a rare sight on the practice field for the Patriots after dealing with surgery to treat infection in 2013. (AP)

The mystery over Armond Armstead has ended in retirement.

The 23-year-old defensive tackle originally signed with the Patriots on Feb. 1, 2013, after one season with the Toronto Argonauts. The 6-foot-5, 305-pounder, who was brought in as potential depth along the defensive line, was placed on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury List on Aug. 26, 2013.

There was plenty of speculation about his future in New England before the move to place him on the NFI list and over the course of this offseason, including OTAs and minicamp. Armstead could never fully recover after surgery on July 29, 2013 to treat an undisclosed infection.

But all of that ended Wednesday, eight days before the opening of full training camp.

‘€œIt has been a pleasure being around Armond, as he gave everything he could to play for us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday in a team-issued statement. “Armond worked extremely hard since joining us last February. He’€™s had a lot of adversity personally that he’€™s had to deal with ‘€“ unusual compared to most other players ‘€“ but he’€™s always had a great attitude, worked hard and really did everything we asked him to do. While it is unfortunate he will not be able to play football, Armond is an outstanding young man who has a very bright future in whatever path he chooses.’€

Armstead played for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League after signing with the team as an undrafted free agent in 2012 out of the University of Southern California. He compiled 43 tackles, two special teams tackles and six sacks with Toronto. He was also named to the CFL All-Star game and helped Toronto win the Grey Cup. He started in 24 games at USC from 2008 through 2010.

Blog Author: 
Mike Petraglia

According to a court filing (via The Associated Press), the District Attorney’s office claims that the fiancee of accused murderer Aaron Hernandez repeatedly lied to a grand jury and that it has “direct evidence” to prove it.

According to a court filing (via The Associated Press), the District Attorney’s office claims that the fiancee of accused murderer Aaron Hernandez repeatedly lied to a grand jury and that it has “direct evidence” to prove it.

Prosecutors say their evidence contradicts the testimony of Shayanna Jenkins, who has pleaded not guilty to perjury related to the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd. Her attorney has attempted to have the charge dismissed.

At one point, Jenkins told the grand jury she could not recall where she disposed of a box that she put in a trash bag, covered with baby clothes, and that she was not hiding her actions. Hernandez allegedly directed her to get rid of the box, the contents of which are unclear.

Jenkins, who was granted immunity before testifying, is free on personal recognizance.

Blog Author: 
Jerry Spar
Stevan Ridley is heading into the last year of his contract. (AP)

Stevan Ridley is heading into the last year of his contract. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened wide receiver and tight end. Now, it’€™s running back.

Depth chart: Stevan Ridley (178 carries, 773 rushing yards, 7 TDs), Shane Vereen (44 carries, 208 rushing yards, 1 TD; 47 catches, 427 receiving yards, 3 TDs), Brandon Bolden (55 carries, 271 rushing yards, 3 TDs; 21 catches, 152 receiving yards), James Develin (4 carries, 10 rushing yards, 1 TD), James White, Stephen Houston, Jonas Gray, Roy Finch.

Overview: While the passing game occasionally stalled out in 2013, the running game became one of the positions of strength down the stretch last season. While Ridley struggled with fumble issues (so much so he was benched for a December game against the Texans) and Vereen had health problems, it was LeGarrette Blount who provided a boost midway through the year. And after Vereen returned to full health and Ridley bounced back from his ball security issues, that trio formed an impressive group that powered the Patriots late in the regular season and into the divisional playoffs against the Colts. In particular, it was Blount who led the way — after being hooked up to the rejuvenation machine, he produced 431 yards in a three-game stretch (two at the end of the regular season and one playoff game), including 189 yards in the regular-season finale against the Bills. Bolden and Develin did well providing depth, with Bolden seeing an uptick in snaps when Vereen was on the shelf. And Develin provided one of the highlights of the season with his Csonka-esque TD run against the Texans. Going forward, Blount left for Pittsburgh as a free agent, but the Patriots used a fourth round pick on White, a Wisconsin product who fumbled just twice in 754 career touches as a collegian. In addition, they picked up Houston, Gray and Finch, with at least one of them likely ticketed for the practice squad.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. When healthy, Shane Vereen is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league.

Vereen played in just eight games last season because of a thumb injury, and while there were some ill-timed drops in the second half of the year, was still able to finish with 47 catches and 44 carries. It’€™s one thing to become a 40-40 guy — Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead were the last New England running backs to turn the trick. However, it was made all the more impressive by the fact that Vereen did it in just eight games. The full range of his impressive abilities were on display in the 2013 opener against the Bills where he had 14 carries and seven catches, and averaged 7.57 yards every time he touched the ball. If he can ever stay healthy for a full 16-game season, he has the potential to reach Sprolesian levels.

2. The Patriots believe in the fullback.

The last few years, New England had occasionally added part-time fullbacks to the roster, but players like Lousaka Polite and Lex Hilliard usually only ended up sticking around Foxboro for a few weeks before moving on. But in 2013, for the first time since they had Heath Evans on the roster in 2008, the Patriots employed a full-time fullback in Develin. He was one of 11 fullbacks to finish the year with at least 325 snaps over the course of the regular season, per Pro Football Prospectus. And while he didn’€™t post crazy offensive numbers — four carries, 10 yards and a touchdown — he was an effective member of the offensive game plan. In perhaps a nod to Develin’€™s effectiveness in 2013, according to Football Outsiders, the Patriots were one of the few teams to run better from two-back formations (5.0 yards per carry) than from single-back formations (4.6 yards per carry).

3. At running back, the Patriots are planning for the future.

New England entered the offseason as one of the deeper teams at the running back position — at least before the departure of Blount — but that didn’€™t stop them from using a fourth-round pick on White this offseason. In addition, they added three rookie free agents, including an intriguing prospect in Finch who impressed many in spring workouts. With Ridley and Vereen heading into the final years of their respective rookie deals, it’€™s hard not to look at the collection of youngsters and wonder if New England is guarding itself against the potential loss of one of both of them following the 2014 season. That’€™s not to suggest that White or any of the rest of the rookies aren’€™t capable of providing support this season. It just seems that in a perfect world, the Patriots might have their eye on White, Finch and the rest of the backs as potential contributors in 2015 and beyond.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Ridley keep ball security issues at bay?

Ridley had fumble problems throughout the 2013 season, and while he rounded into form late in the year — he had 63 straight touches without a fumble to end the year — people are still going to wonder about ball security issues. He fully admitted this spring that he’€™ll be in the spotlight this year when it comes to avoiding turnovers, and can erase any sort of doubts if he can hang on to the rock for the bulk of the 2014 season.

2. Can Vereen stay healthy?

Vereen was dogged by wrist and groin problems in 2013, with the former leaving him sidelined last year for eight games. (He was placed on IR-designated for return after the opener against Buffalo.) When he did return, the wrist likely played a role in the fact that he ended the year with a whopping nine dropped passes. He told ESPN Boston this past spring that his surgically repaired wrist still isn’€™t completely healed. As a result, his pass-catching skills will certainly bear watching when camp convenes later this month.

3. Which one of the rookies has the best chance to make the 53-man roster?

Probably White (more on him shortly), but Finch showed enough in OTAs and minicamp to indicate that he could make it tough for the Patriots to try and get him through waivers and to the practice squad. A 5-foot-7, 167-pounder out of Oklahoma, Finch was a multidimensional threat for the Sooners — as a collegian, he had 262 carries for 1,412 yards and eight touchdowns to go with 58 receptions for 442 yards and two touchdowns. He looked good through the spring sessions, showing a nice pair of hands out of the backfield.

By the numbers: In 2013, the Patriots were one of three teams to finish with at least 2,000 yards rushing and at least 4,000 yards passing. (Green Bay and Philadelphia were the other two.) New England has had good offensive balance in years past, but were almost always considered a pass-first bunch. (Frankly, when you have Tom Brady under center, it just makes sense.) But in a year where the Patriots needed the running game to assert itself, the backfield really did an impressive job stepping into the void.

Key new player: White. The 5-foot-10, 194-pounder — who appears to have an awful lot of Vereen-type of qualities — finished his Wisconsin career ranked No. 4 in school history with 4,015 rushing yards, including a career-high 1,444 yards on 221 carries (6.5 average) and 13 touchdowns. He also finished third all-time at UW in rushing touchdowns (45), which is tied for the eighth-most in Big Ten history. But the stat that really jumps off the page are his fumbles. Or back thereof. He fumbled just twice in 754 career touches as a collegian.

The skinny: The 2013 Patriots came within two wins of becoming the first team since the 1987 Redskins to win a Super Bowl while employing a running back by committee. (Defined as a team that had at least four different backs finish the year with 40 carries or more.) With the departure of Blount — and the expected return of Rob Gronkowski, which should give a boost to the passing game — don’€™t look for New England to spread the wealth in similar fashion in 2014. However, the Patriots will still rely on multiple backs to move the chains on the ground. Both Ridley and Vereen will be fascinating studies this year — both are expected to get the majority of work in 2014, but both are entering the final year of their rookie deals. How long will New England wait when it comes to potentially re-signing them? Will the fact that he doesn’€™t have a deal beyond this season be a distraction for Ridley? And how will Ridley respond if ball security issues become an issue again? The combination of questions will make the running back spot one of the most intriguing positions on the Patriots roster this upcoming season.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann joined Dennis & Callahan on Tuesday to discuss the latest on former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. To hear more from D&C, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann joined Dennis & Callahan on Tuesday to discuss the latest on former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. To hear more from D&C, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

Michael McCann

Michael McCann

Court documents on Monday revealed evidence that prosecutors turned over to Hernandez’s defense in the Odin Lloyd murder case. The documents included interviews with Patriots personnel including Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft, and 33 pages of text messages between Belichick and Hernandez from February 2013 to May 2013.

“I think Hernandez is interested in developing some type of — at least potentially — some type of defense where maybe he lacked the mental capacity to commit first-degree murder, that he doesn’t have the sophistication or there are other mental defects, if you like, that would have prevented him from engineering the murder of Odin Lloyd,” McCann said.

“I don’t think there’s anything in those text messages that implicates the Patriots or Bill Belichick. I have a feeling that they’re going to be — and again, I’m speculating — something more along the lines of conversations about plays or other teams’ players that the Patriots may have interest in. I don’t think there’s going to be anything in there that damns the Patriots.”

The content of the text messages haven’t been made public, but McCann said he doesn’t expect there to be anything in the texts that would put the Patriots in a dicey legal situation.

“I think we would have already seen the Patriots, if not charged with a crime, some indication that that would happen,” he said. “It’s now been over a year; I would be surprised that Belichick would have been able to just continue to coach without any charges if he’s in any way implicated in this case. I could be wrong, there could be something in there, but I have a feeling it’s not going to be, again, as damning of Belichick.

“Now, there is a clause in the collective bargaining agreement, Article 21, that prohibits meetings between coaches and players during the offseason. Maybe that was broken through these texts, but that’s really an NFL issue, not a legal issue.”

McCann said the text messages likely will not be made public, although he said he wouldn’t be surprised in they got leaked. If the messages show that Belichick was aware that Hernandez was with the wrong crowd and tried to steer him away from those people, McCann said it could have an affect on the Patriots’ image.

“I think morally it would raise some issues about what the Patriots maybe could have done to better enforce rules against Aaron Hernandez, that maybe they tolerated him and they knew of his behaviors that were publicly endangering,” he said. “But I don’t think that would lead to civil liability for the Patriots, because it’s very hard to show that Aaron Hernandez was acting within the scope of his employment when he allegedly killed Odin Lloyd and the two other fellows. It’s really not part of his employment with the Patriots.

“So I don’t think it’s going to lead to any civil liability for the Patriots. But I do think it would raise moral issues, and maybe the NFL would take some type of action against the team.”

McCann said Belichick and Kraft might have to testify if Hernandez makes his character an issue at the trial.

“Now, generally speaking, character evidence is inadmissible in a trial unless the defendant wants to make it an issue,” McCann said. “That’s a dangerous move in some ways by Hernandez’s lawyers, because there’s a lot of reasons to think there’s some damaging information about his character in the past. But if he does do that, perhaps to argue that he wasn’t capable of committing first-degree murder, then Bill Belichick, and maybe to a lesser extent Bob Kraft, would be likely witnesses, because they would be familiar with his character, they would have worked with him in the time prior to Hernandez allegedly committing these acts. So I do think there’s a chance that Belichick could go on the stand, and maybe Kraft as well.”

Fall River Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh on Monday refused to throw out video surveillance evidence against Hernandez. McCann said that could be bad news for Hernandez.

“That is evidence that does not reflect well on him, there’s no question about it, and it’s going to be difficult for him to explain that away — unless he can say, ‘Well, I normally do that. I lock my house, I defend it,’” McCann said. “Maybe there’s some creative script they can come up with. But yeah, that’s a crucial piece of evidence.”

Blog Author: 
Nick Canelas
In 2014, Rob Gronkowski will attempt to play a full season for the first time since 2011. (AP)

In 2014, Rob Gronkowski will attempt to play a full season for the first time since 2011. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened with a look at wide receiver. Now, it’€™s tight end.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski (39 catches, 592 yards, 4 TDs in 7 games), Michael Hoomanawanui (12 catches, 136 yards, 1 TD), D.J. Williams, Asa Watson, Justin Jones.

Overview: The Patriots have gone from a team that relied heavily on tight ends to one where the position became a relatively ancillary part of the passing game. (In 2011, New England tight ends had 169 catches on 237 targets. Last year, the Patriots got 53 catches on 92 targets from the same positional group.) That’€™s not to suggest that — when healthy — Gronkowski isn’€™t an absolutely vital part of the offense. In one impressive four-game stretch last year (from Nov. 3 through Dec. 1), he had 27 catches for 419 yards and four touchdowns. It’€™s just that with the removal of Aaron Hernandez and the injury issues suffered by Gronkowski, the Patriots have been forced to adapt. Hoomanwanui was a trusted piece of the puzzle in 2013, while New England also got quality snaps from Matthew Mulligan, who has since departed as a free agent to Chicago. Going forward, Hoomanawanui will help pick up the slack if Gronkowski is out for another stretch, while the possibility remains the Patriots will reach out to one of the available veteran free agents still on the market in Dustin Keller and Jermichael Finley. In addition, Williams is still on the roster, but was seen sparingly in workouts this spring, so it’€™s hard to get a handle on just where he is at this point. In addition, rookies Watson and Jones present themselves as possibilities as depth additions and possible practice squad pickups.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. When healthy, Rob Gronkowski is a difference maker.

When he’€™s at 100 percent, there are few offensive players who are more dominant at their respective positions than Gronkowski is at tight end. (Calvin Johnson? Adrian Peterson?) Despite the on-again, off-again 2013 season, his campaign was highlighted by the aforementioned four-game stretch that was highlighted by a nine-catch, 143-yard performance against the Steelers (both season-highs) that included a touchdown grab. In addition, there was a six-catch, 127-yard game against the Texans that featured a sweet fingertip touchdown catch on a ball from Brady that was off the mark. When he’€™s healthy, no tight end in the game brings the skill set that Gronkowski can deliver.

2. Michael Hoomanawanui isn’€™t an elite tight end, but he’€™s an eminently reliable type of player you need on your roster.

Hooman doesn’€™t bring the thunder like Gronkowski, but he’€™s a better-than-average blocker and has some positional versatility (he can play some H-back in addition to tight end). Throw in a 63 percent catch rate (12 receptions on 19 targets) and a good level of familiarity with the offense, and it’€™s easy to see why the Patriots signed him to a two-year deal in the offseason. (He also had one of the prettiest catches of the 2013 season.) He figures to be a quality No. 2 tight end behind Gronkowski in 2014.

3. Brady trusts Gronkowski more than just about any pass catcher he’€™s ever had.

Gronkowski was on the field for just seven games last season, but according to NFL gamebooks, Brady targeted him a total of 66 times, an average of 9.4 targets per game, tied with Julian Edelman (151 targets over 16 games) for most average targets per game. By way of comparison, Shane Vereen was next on the list with an average of 8.6 targets per game, while Danny Amendola was fourth with an average of 6.9 targets per game and Aaron Dobson was fifth with an average of at 6.58 targets per game. He’€™s far and away the leader at tight end — Gronkowski was targeted 17 times in his first game of the 2013 season, an Oct. 20 loss to the Jets (the seventh contest of the regular season). Through the first six games of the year, the entire group of New England tight ends had been targeted a total of 15 times.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Gronkowski stay healthy?

The big tight end is a game-changer, but his health issues remain a problem. If you’€™re an optimist, you can point to the fact that there have been no surgeries (that we know of, anyway) for Gronkowski since the reconstructed knee work he had done in January. (By all accounts, he no longer needs his Hoveround to maneuver through Whole Foods.) And if he can stay injury free, he’€™s a transformative offensive presence who can help separate the Patriots from the rest of the AFC. If he’€™s sidelined for an extended portion of the regular season (or the playoffs), New England’€™s chances of a fourth title are diminished. That doesn’€™t mean it can’€™t happen — hey, the Patriots got all the way to the NFL’€™s Final Four last January despite the fact that Gronkowski, Dobson, Vereen, Amendola and Sebastian Vollmer combined to miss 33 games last season. It’€™s only to suggest that the impact of a healthy Gronkowski can’€™t be overstated.

2. Will the Patriots add a free agent tight end?

As of mid-July, both Keller and Finley were still available on the open market. It’€™s believed the Patriots kicked the tires on Keller earlier this spring, while their level of interest in Finley is unclear at this point. Both would likely represent short-term value in being able to offer support while Gronkowski works his way back to 100 percent. Both are coming off injury-plagued 2013 seasons — Keller suffered a nasty knee injury in the 2013 preseason which kept him sidelined for the year, while Finley suffered a spinal contusion last season and underwent neck surgery, bringing his 2013 campaign to an early end. However, the Patriots have never been shy about giving an injured tight end a little extra time to heal. (See Jake Ballard.) If they like what they see from Keller or Finley, it would be a surprise to see them try the same thing this time around.

3. Can one of the rookies make the roster?

Watson and Jones have fascinating backstories. Watson is the younger brother of former Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson and played in 36 games for North Carolina State, catching 29 passes for 351 yards with one touchdown. That despite the fact that he’€™s battled heart issues over the course of his life ‘€” they showed up late in his freshman year, and surgery caused him to sit out the 2011 season. (Watson has Wolff-Parkins-White Syndrome, which causes rapid heart beats.) As for Jones, at 6-foot-8 and 274 pounds, he’€™s a massive presence, one who had great measurables as a collegian at East Carolina. (He posted a 4.90-second 40-yard dash, a 6.88 3-cone drill and 38-inch vertical jump.) He had 52 catches for 598 yards and 12 touchdowns at ECU. Some of it depends on the other skill position areas. (Do the Patriots keep an extra wide receiver or running back?) And some depends on whether or not they decide to chase after one of the veteran tight ends on the market. But they do have some viable options at the back end of the depth chart.

By the numbers: Gronkowski opened his professional career with a string of 46 consecutive games played. Then, his forearm snapped while blocking on an extra point in a November 2012 win over the Colts. Since then, because of forearm, back and knee problems, he’€™s played in just nine of a possible 26 games (including the playoffs), with two in 2012 and seven in 2013.

Key new player: Williams. A fascinating prospect who has played for both the Packers and Jags, Williams had the quote of the year shortly after he was signed late last season. The former Green Bay draft pick said learning the New England offense was like trying to pick up an attractive Latin woman. “€œIt’€™s like trying to pick up Spanish. This offense is very attractive and if you found a very attractive Hispanic lady, you’€™d pick it up pretty quick,”€ he said. “€œI’€™ll get in trouble for that. Just have a good time. That’€™s all it is.”€ The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder played two games with the Patriots last year, but could be a part of the mix in 2014 if New England chooses not to sign one of the veteran tight ends still on the market.

The skinny: As we’€™re evaluating the Patriots’€™ tight ends for the coming year, there’€™s one thing to consider: No franchise prides itself on being more offensive flexible than the Patriots — witness what they were able to do in 2013, going from an offense in search of an identity to a group that became a pass-heavy unit throughout the middle of the season, and then ended the year as a team that boasted one of the stronger ground games in the NFL. Expecting them to go with plenty of two- and three-tight end sets just because it’€™s what they’€™ve done in the past is a mistake. That doesn’€™t mean that Gronkowski (if he’€™s healthy) won’€™t necessarily be the focus of the passing game. Only that when it comes to the New England offense, it’€™s dangerous to assume the Patriots will revert to the expected form just because it’€™s something they’€™ve done in the past.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Detectives working the Aaron Hernandez murder cases have interviewed Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft and Nick Caserio about the former Patriots tight end, according to multiple media reports.