The New England Patriots have been hard at work since last season ended. The offense has been tweaked, the defense has been boosted—even the coaching staff received an upgrade.
As a result, with weeks to go until the preseason begins, the Patriots are favorites to go deep into the playoffs—perhaps even back to the Super Bowl.
Champions are never crowned in July, but the Patriots and their fans should feel comfortable about what's in store for 2012.
Even with a brand new conference championship trophy and banner at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots didn't take this offseason off. The flaws in New England were apparent last year, and the team didn't let a trip to the Super Bowl cause it to forget them.
Here are the six best actions the team took to prepare for the 2012 season.
For the first time since 2009, the title of "defensive coordinator" in New England isn't a bonus term for Bill Belichick.
It's its own position. And it's now Matt Patricia's.
Patricia is the right man for the job. While the 38-year-old has presided over statistically poor defenses as a de facto defensive coordinator the past two seasons, he has also had to get by with below-average talent.
Under Patricia, both of the past two defenses recovered from bad starts and became functional units at year's end. Belichick deserves most of the credit for getting a ragtag group to play winning football, but Patricia had a large impact on the unit.
With Patricia getting the official title, the Patriots' coaching hierarchy is made more clear. It also provides Patricia with the respect and confidence he has earned while on the sidelines.
Given the way the Chad Ochocinco experiment flopped last year, the Patriots opted for a different route in building wide receiver depth.
New England was hurt by investing money and time in a receiver who didn't get the offense last year, so this year, it chose to take that element out of play. Instead, the Patriots got receivers who had played in their offense before.
Donte Stallworth, a 2007 alum, came over from Washington. Jabar Gaffney, a receiver in New England from 2006-08, returned as well, also from the Redskins. Brandon Lloyd, who had the best year of his career under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, signed on also.
The result is a situation in which familiarity will reign. Stallworth and Gaffney may not be what they were in 2007, but there's very little chance of an Ocho repeat, in which the player didn't know the playbook enough to warrant playing time.
Between Wes Welker, Lloyd, Gaffney, Stallworth and Deion Branch, the Patriots will be lining up receivers who know the system, and Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and McDaniels have historically been able to do more with lesser talents who know the offense than the other way around.
The Patriots' pass defense was miserable last year, but the team took steps to fix it for this year.
New England signed former Charger Steve Gregory in free agency, and then made secondary-focused moves in the draft. The Pats took safety Tavon Wilson in the second round, then got a perceived steal in the seventh with troubled Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
None of those moves grabbed headlines the way the Eagles did when they signed Nnamdi Asomugha before the 2010 season, but they're sensible moves that patch up what was a glaring hole last year.
The offense in New England is good enough that the pass defense doesn't need to be great. But last year's flirted with record-breaking inadequacy. This year's has to be better, and with the moves made to this point, it seems like it should be.
Losing the starting left tackle is usually a bad sign for the offseason, but the Patriots met the challenge head on.
Even with Matt Light calling it quits after 11 years, New England went to work in maintaining the offensive line's depth, which has been an ingredient to most Patriots teams since Bill Belichick took over in 2001.
The team made what some considered a surprising move by re-signing center Dan Koppen, and also kept center/guard Dan Connolly. New England made an insurance move at tackle by signing Robert Gallery, and Brian Waters's return rounded out the action in the trenches.
Light's replacement, which will likely be Nate Solder, will be an in-house promotion, but the team still deserves credit for keeping the line as a priority. Thin or weak offensive lines can be an Achilles' heel for otherwise good squads, and the Patriots did well to keep their pass protection and run blocking a team strength.
There wasn't much to complain about with the Patriots' offense last year, but there was one legitimate need all season.
New England didn't have anyone to line up on the outside and test the opponent's coverage. Nobody at the wide receiver spot at least—Aaron Hernandez became the team's best option out wide during the latter part of the season.
Now, that role will be taken care of. Brandon Lloyd was brought in to do just that. He was a top-notch receiver during Josh McDaniels' days in Denver, and he'll bring 1,000-yard, deep-threat talent to the position—something New England hasn't had since Randy Moss wore the jersey.
The Patriots didn't have anyone to beat man coverage and stretch the field from the outside last year. Now they do—and that should make the offense even more lethal.
Has Bill Belichick ever had a more fan-friendly draft?
The fans got exactly what they wanted this past April. The Patriots went out and got defensive players. They did it early, too, spending two first-rounders on the same side of the ball.
Both of the first-rounders went where the Patriots needed them most. New England improved its pass rush and front seven, landing defensive end Chandler Jones from Syracuse and linebacker Dont'a Hightower from Alabama.
The immediate effect on the pass rush might be minimal—Hightower played inside linebacker for the Crimson Tide, and Jones is regarded as raw—but the move is important because it represents a shift in organizational philosophy.
Going into this season, the Patriots drafted while using value picks as their method of choice. When they wanted to address a position, they did it with a lot of lower picks. It was cheaper but also a quantity-over-quality plan.
This year was different. New England recognized the flaw, recognized the players most suited to fix the flaw and got those players. There was no settling for whatever was available. This time, the Patriots had their guys in mind, and they went out and got them.