The skill level is there, the diversity is there and the attitude is there. The New England Patriots look ready to rock and roll. Welcome to the calm before the storm.
Now that the free agency frenzy has quelled and the draft has concluded, how do you feel about the team? On a scale from one to five, how would you rate your confidence in the Patriots getting back to the Super Bowl in 2012?
I'm not overconfident, but I'm reasonably certain that the weapons are in place for a balanced attack. Obviously, you can't predict chemistry and injuries, so there's a margin of error on the books. But overall, this roster is a monster. On the one to five scale, I'm sticking at four.
We all know this is a team game, and no franchise embodies this philosophy more than the Patriots. But even still, there are a few key guys to keep your eyes on. These are the men who will make all the difference.
Here are the players most responsible for New England's success or failure in 2012.
From a physical standpoint, Rob Gronkowski is an animal who can't be caged. He's the best tight end in the NFL. And as if that weren't enough, his football IQ is ridiculously high. That's a rare combination to find.
But the unique mixture of his athletic and intellectual prowess is only a fraction of what makes him special. His best quality is his ability to smile. Sounds corny, but it's true.
Gronkowski sheds some sunlight on a perfectly disciplined franchise that traditionally operates in secrecy. He still adheres to the frustratingly tight-lipped mindset of the organization, but he cuts the bitterness with some candy-coated levity.
One word to describe Gronkowski? Refreshing.
Even in their most brutal and cunning moments of the 2011 season, the Patriots had a little streak of happiness running through their veins. It showed in their performance, week after week. That trend must continue in 2012.
Bottom line: We need Gronkowski to stay healthy. We need him on the field. We need him to be the athletic freak of nature he is and we need him to be the personable guy he is. He's infectious in the best way possible.
If Gronkowski succeeds, the team succeeds. Players don't get more important than him.
Rarely do the Patriots beat their enemies into total submission. Sure, you'll get the occasional blowout against the Chiefs, Eagles or Broncos. But most of the time, every game is a knock-down, drag-out affair.
Last year, the Patriots had the skill and efficiency to massacre the Cowboys. Instead, it came down to some last-minute heroics from Tom Brady and Aaron Hernandez. Several games against the Dolphins and Bills were also far more competitive than they should've been.
Intimidation matters. So does a lack of it, which is what keeps games close. For the 2012 Patriots, intimidation must become part of their weekly repertoire.
Enter Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, our newest and most prolific acquisitions from the draft. I lumped them together on the same slide because, to me, these two guys are like peanut butter and jelly; yeah, they're unique entities, but there's something about them that feels best represented as a duo.
This is the intimidation package we've been waiting for. These are the players who will haunt the dreams of our enemies. This is the darkness that lurks in the minds of scared men.
Jones and Hightower are frightening. That's really the best way to describe them. Neither of them have the devastating psychotic look of Jason Pierre-Paul, but their viciousness is on full display when they're on the field. I'm excited to see them dismantle every team who has the audacity to attempt to dismantle us.
For the Patriots to win the Super Bowl in 2012, Jones and Hightower must dominate. I don't expect either of them to have career seasons in their rookie year, but I expect them to be good enough to put New England over the top and bring the trophy home where it belongs.
No matter what marquee magician you have running downfield for the long ball, championships are still won by complete teams. You can have elite receivers like Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks on your team, but when push comes to shove, it might be your third-option guy who makes the biggest play of the season.
Luckily, New England has put together such a team. The Patriots have added depth and intelligence to an already strong roster. That's why Brandon Lloyd has the opportunity to be the man in 2012.
I'll refrain from putting the weight of the world on Lloyd's shoulders, but it's worth noting how badly this team needs a guy who can make the big play. We had Randy Moss in 2007 and still lost in the Super Bowl, which further illustrates the fact that no receiver is a magic elixir.
But here's the thing: This current team is better than the '07 team, and our offense is now centered around two tight ends and a slot receiver. That means Lloyd could be our fourth option, as opposed to Moss, who was almost always our first.
Therefore, while I may be slightly putting a heavy weight on Lloyd's shoulders, we're also lightening the load with a more diverse offense.
The point is this: We're not asking Brandon Lloyd to be Randy Moss, we're simply asking him to be Brandon Lloyd. Or at least, the Brandon Lloyd we're accustomed to seeing when Josh McDaniels is involved. That isn't too much to ask for, and it should be more than enough to make this offense fire on all cylinders.
If this team is going to win the Lombardi trophy in 2012, Lloyd needs to have a big impact.
With guys like Ras-I Dowling, Alfonzo Dennard, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner on deck, it's difficult to know what to expect from this defensive backfield. These guys could be great, or they could be terrible. Plus, we still don't know which Devin McCourty will show up for the 2012 season.
I see too many question marks in this backfield.
As of now, these safeties and cornerbacks are nothing more than raw talent. To pinpoint one of these guys as a hero is to essentially throw a dart at a board while you're blindfolded. All I see from this group is a vague abstraction; a collection of players with the letters "S" or "CB" after their names.
Fortunately, we have strong leadership in Patrick Chung; he's reliable, gritty, aggressive and totally dedicated to breaking the will of other men. He's a true leader, a natural born tornado of violence with a passion for winning. In my eyes, Chung is the captain of this crew.
I'm inclined to nominate Sterling Moore as Chung's second-in-command. Mind you, I'm promoting Moore to the rank of lieutenant commander based on one heads-up play during the 2011 AFC championship.
One play is hardly enough to judge the scope of a player's ability and consistency, but it's enough to judge the depth of his instinct and character. I'm going all-in with Moore.
I'm still hesitant about this backfield as a cohesive formation, but the leadership gives me faith. But that faith comes with the condition that Chung stays healthy and Moore keeps getting better. Neither one of these guys can slip or dip in production.
For another defensive hero to rise, that one-two punch of leadership must stay strong and productive.
Not all three of these guys need to have a great season for the Patriots to succeed in 2012. Only one of them really needs to excel at a high level. I don't care who it is, just so long as one of them gets the job done.
With the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, there's a job opening at running back. Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will be interviewing for the position. Like I said, I could care less who gets it, just as long as this team can still win ball games when the passing onslaught breaks down.
Look, it'll be a minor miracle if Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez get through the regular season and the playoffs in great health.
That isn't negativity or pessimism, it's simply an objective study on three guys who insist on running dangerous routes and taking big hits in the pursuit of victory. I appreciate the effort, but they're treading on dangerous ground.
We need a running back who can consistently produce when the double tight end / slot receiver offense is clicking, but who can also overproduce when that offense breaks down from injuries. No matter which receiver or tight end misses a game, or several games, we need to know that our ground attack can carry us through any tough stretch.
I'm inclined to give Woodhead the edge because of his experience, but I'm keeping my eye on Ridley and Vereen to give him stiff competition. As long as one of them embraces the spotlight and comes through, the Patriots will run through the season.
The top dog and unquestionable leader of the New England Patriots, Tom Brady is a living legend of the highest degree. You could offer me Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers and I'd still go with Brady. He's the best quarterback in the league and possibly in league history.
Brady can deliver an MVP-caliber season in his sleep, so I'm hardly concerned about him performing at a high level in 2012. I am, however, concerned about his health. Call it blind paranoia or the lingering psychological trauma from the injury that ended his season in 2008, but it worries me.
The status of Brady's body is the single most critical element to whether the Patriots succeed or fail next season.
If Brady stays healthy, I wouldn't be surprised if he throws 5,477 yards. I wouldn't be surprised if he throws over 50 touchdowns. I wouldn't be surprised if he flies overhead in a fighter plane and drops the ball into Gronkowski's paws for a touchdown. When Brady's leading your offense, anything is possible.
But he needs to stay healthy in order to achieve anything and everything. Post-2008, Brady has seemed extra cautious about his stems. At least, that's been my interpretation of his movements. It makes sense, considering what a drag rehab must be. But still, from time to time, it looks to me like he's thinking about it.
But then again, just when I think he's getting too cautious in his older age, he jumps over the Ravens' entire defensive line in the AFC championship for the score. So maybe age is just a state of mind. Maybe, just maybe, his injury from '08 has absolutely no bearing on his mindset at all. Who knows?
I do know one thing: We need Brady on the field. As long as he's healthy, another ring and another banner are well within reach.