It was just another quiet offseason for the big dogs of the AFC East.
Except for Wes Welker signing to play with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, of course. And Rob Gronkowski having surgery a couple of times qualifies as a notable development. Signing Tim Tebow might not turn out to be much more than an entertaining distraction, but entertaining distractions are far better than the one Aaron Hernandez has provided.
Okay, so it was anything but quiet in New England. How much will all the noise wind up mattering, though? The Patriots have seen players come and go for all sorts of reasons since the start of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era and they’ve kept on ticking.
This might be a bigger challenge than some of those other years, but betting against them still doesn’t feel like a good idea.
Whatever their group of wide receivers and tight ends wind up looking like, the Patriots still have Tom Brady at quarterback and that should go a long way toward ensuring they remain a potent passing offense. He’ll need to find a new security blanket with Welker gone and they’ll lose a lot of dynamism with Hernandez in prison, but Brady’s career record provides plenty of confidence that he’ll make it happen.
The offensive line will help Brady deal with the change in circumstance. Nate Solder has established himself as a strong pass protector at left tackle, Sebastian Vollmer is one of the league’s best right tackles and Logan Mankins remains a rock at left guard. Center Ryan Wendell should improve in his second year as a starter and this group should keep Brady from tasting the turf too often.
Stevan Ridley ran for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, giving the Patriots one of the most productive seasons by a back in the Brady era. He’s joined in the backfield by Shane Vereen, whose versatility will likely be part of the plan to shore up the passing game in the face of the thin receiving corps.
Vince Wilfork remains one of the most effective defensive tackles in the NFL, the starting linebackers are strong in all phases of the game and Devin McCourty took to safety like a duck to water. That foundation would be enhanced if defensive end Chandler Jones can remain healthy and rush the passer the way he did before an ankle injury slowed him down in the second half last year.
For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, the Patriots are putting a lot on the shoulders of rookie receivers and guys coming back from injuries. Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce may be the next generation of Patriot pass catchers, but rookies take time to acclimate themselves to the game. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman have played all 16 games in a season once between them and tight end Jake Ballard hasn’t played in more than a year because of a serious knee injury.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest on suspicion of DUI is problematic for the Patriots because it raises the possibility that he’ll be suspended at some point this season. If so, the Pats will have to rely more heavily on the likes of Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling to shut down opposing receivers and that’s not something they’ve proven capable of doing in the past.
A healthy Jones and Rob Ninkovich can be a productive pass rushing duo, but it wouldn’t hurt to find a couple of other guys to get after the quarterback.
The Patriots are a bit thin on the defensive line after cutting loose Kyle Love and Brandon Dreaderick and they aren’t much deeper at linebacker behind the impressive starting trio. In past years, the Patriots have struggled to replace players lost to injury and they are vulnerable in both those spots heading into this year.
The Welker/Amendola swap grabbed the most headlines, but it was one of several moves at receiver for New England. Brandon Lloyd is also gone and Michael Jenkins joins the two rookies, which at least gives the team options as they try to put together a winning receiving corps. Expect to see more churning at this spot as the Patriots have already cut Donald Jones after signing him to a three-year deal early in the offseason.
Running back Danny Woodhead signed with the Chargers as a free agent and the Patriots traded track star Jeff Demps to Tampa for LeGarrette Blount. It’s unclear how much time he’ll see, but he definitely gives them the chance to go with a different look than Ridley and Vereen provide. The Patriots also added Leon Washington, although he’ll likely be put to more use as a returner than out of the backfield.
Two veterans who arrived at free agency are ticketed for big roles on defense. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and safety Adrian Wilson could both be upgrades over what came before, although neither one figures to be an every-down player at this stage of their career.
The question above about the depth of the defensive line will be answered more positively if CFL refugee Armond Armstead and second-round pick Jamie Collins can win jobs in the rotation. Collins may also play linebacker as the team moves from look to look.
And then there’s Tebow, whose role remains undefined at this point but who will presumably be doing something in New England if he makes the team as opposed to just watching as he did with the Jets.
While the team doesn’t appear to have any plans to move on from Dennard, the possibility of a suspension should lead to increased competition for the job opposite Aqib Talib. Rookie Logan Ryan could find his way into the mix with a strong camp.
Dan Connolly should get a push from Marcus Cannon at right guard, although the Patriots might prefer to have Cannon as their top reserve option at both guard and tackle.
Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanwanui will battle for tight end snaps left open by Hernandez and possibly those belonging to Gronkowski as well if he isn’t ready to return from surgeries on his back and forearm. On the other side of the ball, Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory will all be looking to grab the spot next to McCourty at safety.
There’s been a lot of talk about the potential for a drop off in New England this season, much of it focused on the uncertainty at receiver and tight end. The concerns about those spots are legitimate, but even with those questions it is difficult to mark them as anything but the AFC East favorite heading into the season.
How much more they can be than that will be a more significant question as the season unfolds. Baltimore and Denver both look very strong on paper heading into the season and the Patriots play their typically tough slate outside of the division. Trips to Atlanta, Houston and Baltimore will likely loom large for the Patriots as they fight for playoff position and all three of those games will test them on both sides of the ball.
If they survive those tests and get Gronkowski back at full strength sooner rather than later, the Patriots will be in the mix for the AFC title come playoff time. Which would make this season look a lot like most of the others in the last decade, even if the offseason was more chaotic than anyone in the organization might have liked.