Bill Belichick may prize secrecy, but you didn’t need a background in espionage to suss out the plan in New England this offseason.
When the Patriots needed a play in the Super Bowl, though, the defense couldn’t come up with one and had to watch Eli Manning celebrate at their expense for the second time in the last five years. It was a fitting end to a year that was marked by the offense overcoming the defense too often to be sustainable.
Fixing a defense that was being held together by tape and spit by the end of last season was what New England knew it needed to do and they weren’t shy about making moves in hopes of accomplishing that goal. They let some players go, signed several others and drafted six defenders during a busy offseason.
The results of that makeover will probably determine how far the Patriots go this season since they went to the Super Bowl last year while turning over rocks to find cornerbacks. With Tom Brady at the helm of this offense, it doesn’t need to be a great unit for the Patriots to challenge for the AFC title again this year.
If it’s anywhere close, though, the Patriots will be heavy favorites.
How many times did you hear about a team trying to draft or develop a Rob Gronkowski-style tight end this offseason? Gronkowski’s remarkable 2011 season did more than help the Patriots to the Super Bowl, it redefined the tight end position and redefined the way defenses are built in an effort to stop this new style of tight end from dominating every Sunday. When you throw in Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots present matchup problems that few defenses are able to slow down.
Wes Welker might not have gotten the contract he wanted this offseason and this might be his final go-round with the Patriots as a result, but it should be a productive year all the same. With better options on the outside and the Gronk/Hernandez tandem in full bloom, Welker’s going to have plenty of room to make noise in the slot.
It helps when Brady is the guy delivering the passes to Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez, of course. All those mismatches aren’t worth much without a quarterback who can put the ball in the right place at the right time. Brady put the ball in the right place at the right time often enough to blow out scoreboards last season and there’s no reason to expect things to change this time around.
The one spot on defense that the Patriots didn’t need to address was the one filled by Vince Wilfork on the defensive line. Even as the unit around him reached for help anywhere they could find it, Wilfork thrived in the middle of the line and he could reach an even higher level this season with more help around him.
The Patriots let Mark Anderson go to Buffalo and they haven’t re-signed Andre Carter, which means that they are without each of their top two pass rushers from last season. The pass rush wasn’t always dangerous enough to overcome secondary problems last season, which puts a lot of pressure on new faces Jonathan Fanene, Trevor Scott, first-round pick Chandler Jones and third-round pick Jake Bequette to provide heat on quarterbacks this season. There’s talent there, but the Pats still need to prove it on the field.
The Patriots feel that they have addressed those secondary problems thanks to the return of cornerback Ras-I Dowling from injury and the addition of safeties Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson. Figuring out the right mix of players, which will also include Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, will be a crucial part of camp because the Pats might not be able to thrive with so much weakness on the back end for another season.
If everyone’s healthy, the offensive line should be in decent shape. Left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer are both starting training camp on the PUP list, though, and right guard Brian Waters isn’t a spring chicken. Nate Solder will be taking over the left tackle position, adding another question to a line that didn’t do a good enough job of protecting Tom Brady in the Super Bowl loss.
Add first-round linebacker Dont’a Hightower to the list of new faces on the defensive side of the ball. He should take over at strongside linebacker with Rob Ninkovich seeing some time at defensive end this season.
The Patriots’ offense was plenty good without getting much from wide receivers on the outside, with Chad Ochocinco standing out as a particular disappointment. Brandon Lloyd is now in that role and the offseason reports were glowing about his fit in an offense run by Josh McDaniels. McDaniels and Lloyd made good things happen in Denver and St. Louis, which led Lloyd to New England for McDaniels’ second go-round as Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator.
Jabar Gaffney and Donte’ Stallworth also signed at receiver, which will make for some spirited competition for spots come camp. The backfield shuffle saw BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk leave with Joseph Addai and fullbacks Tony Fiametta and Spencer Larsen joining the team.
Matt Light’s retirement opened left tackle for Solder and the team added former second overall pick Robert Gallery to provide depth on the offensive line.
Patriots camp isn’t going to be about fighting for starting jobs as much as it is going to be about determing the pecking order. The defensive line and secondary have been outlined above, but there are issues to sort out on the offensive side as well.
The departure of Green-Ellis seems to open the door for second-year running back Stevan Ridley to take on a featured role in the offense. Running backs in the Belichick era have been renters, though, and the presence of Addai, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead (as well as Hernandez’s occasional visit to the backfield) means that there’s still much to be decided on this front.
Wide receiver will also be a busy area. Welker and Lloyd are pretty much locked into their roles, leaving Gaffney, Stallworth, Deion Branch and Julian Edelman to battle for snaps at the other spots in the rotation.
It might be a new year, but it is pretty much the same old outlook for the Patriots.
The Dolphins are building a new identity, the Jets seem to have taken a step backward and the Bills are trying to turn a big offseason into regular season success. That leaves the Patriots as a heavy favorite in the AFC East once again and it is hard to come up with a preseason argument that doesn’t have them winning both the division and a bye.
Winning the division isn’t the ultimate goal, though. It’s all about the Super Bowl in New England.
If the defense is again unable to come up with key stops in big moments – remember how close the Ravens came to winning and/or extending the AFC title game with a big final drive – all of the offense in the world might not be enough to lift the Patriots back to the big game.