Over the offseason, head coach Bill Belichick made three moves that shook the earth beneath the feet of Patriots fans: He acquired Brandon Lloyd in free agency and traded-up twice in the draft to grab Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower.
These three chess pieces could be enough to fatally checkmate the rest of the AFC. But for even the most loyal Patriots fan, it's healthy to harbor a dose of skepticism and seek to build every last bit of fat into strong muscle.
For New England to maintain the AFC crown and book a ticket for the Super Bowl, Belichick will need to address five key issues which could ultimately prevent his team from reaching the promised land.
The Offensive Line
Protecting Tom Brady is Belichick's single most important priority. His offseason actions may have hinted otherwise, but make no mistake: Brady's bodyguards mean everything.
That's why this offensive line is a bit discouraging. With a thin list of roughly 10 active linemen and some of their best guys missing (Brian Waters) or sidelined on the PUP list (Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer), this line is looking like a hole in New England's armor.
Here are the active guys: Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell, Robert Gallery, Matt Kopa, Donald Thomas, Kyle Hix and Jamey Richard.
It's a solid group of guys, but they have a super-elite task on their hands: They need to protect the best quarterback in the league. In other words: They need to protect their team's season.
Here's some good news: Nate Solder was honored as one of the Patriots' top performers of the offseason. Here's some concerning news: None of the other offensive linemen made the list.
In the same "top performers" list, only one safety made the cut: Patrick Chung. This, in of itself, is alarming, seeing as how Chung has flirted with injuries throughout his career. If he goes down, then we lose the emotional leader of our defensive backfield (not to mention the only safety who made the list).
The other top performers were Stephen Gostkowski, Jerod Mayo, Bobby Carpenter, Julian Edelman, Trevor Scott, Danny Woodhead, Jermaine Cunningham and Jeff Tarpinian.
You'll notice that no cornerbacks are listed, either.
For a secondary that previously varied from ugly to ghastly, there hasn't been much improvement on the surface. While Belichick made profound choices with his defensive ends and linebackers, he rounded-out his defensive backfield with a collection of odd question marks.
Will Allen, Steve Gregory, Alfonzo Dennard, Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner could be tremendous additions. Ras-I Dowling could be healthy. Devin McCourty could be awesome. Notice how I used "could" three times to describe what we have here.
Truth is, there's no concrete way to expect great things from this secondary. Buying into this group of guys requires a leap of faith. Any magic that comes of this will have the feeling of a happy accident.
Of course, for Bill Belichick and his brain trust, there are no accidents. It wasn't an accident that Sterling Moore stripped the ball from Lee Evans in last season's AFC championship, because it wasn't an accident that he was on the team. Someone made a deliberate choice to put him in a Patriots jersey and give him that opportunity to shine.
So, maybe we should see the glass as half full. We'll see how it works out.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is gone, which offers us a conflicting set of truths to ponder; on one hand, he was solid as a rock and never fumbled, but on the other hand, he wasn't a difference-maker who gave us a bangin' run game. His absence hurts, but it also opens the door for a young stud to emerge.
The question is: Do the Patriots have such a stud?
With Danny Woodhead unable to claim the coveted position by now, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen seem to be running a three-way race for the top spot.
WEEI's fantastic blog, "It Is What It Is," had some nice observations on the running backs from day three of training camp:
Ridley was taking reps with the first-team offense on Saturday and looked good while running through contact during 11-on-11 drills. The second-year running back out of LSU made a couple of good runs during the non-contact drills, and he found holes and absorbed contact well during the full-contact drills.
Ridley did not look as comfortable coming out of the backfield as a receiver as Vereen or Danny Woodhead, and he dropped a ball during the catching drills. However, later in 11-on-11 drills, Ridley took a screen pass and cut through the defense for a big gain.
While Ridley was taking first-team reps at running back, undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden was impressive running the ball against the second-team defense. The Ole Miss product had at least two runs in which he cut through holes in the defense and sprinted into open field, where he would have certainly had a run of over 20 yards. Bolden also did not look bad receiving the ball, as he did not drop a pass throughout the practice.
I like what I see from Bolden. However, if this works out, it would be a true Cinderella story. Tough to bank on that. It's one thing to make the final roster, but it's another thing to be the franchise running back for the New England Patriots. I'm definitely pulling for him.
No matter how you slice it, though, someone has to do it, and it must be concerning for Belichick to have a wide open position.
Bottom line: We need a running game. Yes, the passing game is our bread and butter, but we need an ace in the hole for those 17-14 or 17-21-type games. Our running game doesn't need to be as breathtaking as our passing game, but it needs to be special in its own little way.
Belichick needs to make this concern a top-three priority.
As fortunate as we've been to have Tom Brady, we've been ever luckier with his health. The guy's only missed one season, and even that injury was a semi-freak thing. Plus, he came back better than ever.
We continue to skate on this pond of fortune, with little-to-no idea of what lurks beneath the ice.
How good is Brian Hoyer? How good is Ryan Mallett? If the unthinkable happens to Brady, can we still win a championship? I want to know the answer.
In this piece from ESPN Boston, Belichick sheds a little light on the backup quarterback competition, with some thoughts on Mallett's progress:
"I think it’s very competitive. Both guys have had good springs. Ryan, again, had less time last year to prepare. This year, he is much further ahead in terms of understanding the offense, adjustments, and knowing the league, and getting matchups and so forth. He's made great strides. I'm looking forward to the competition between those two players in training camp and preseason games. They'll both get a good look and we’ll see how it comes out. They've both done well, and Tom has done well. We've gotten good play out of our quarterbacks all spring."
As usual, Belichick doesn't reveal much here. But, by Belichick's standards, it's probably as good as we're going to get. And that's fine. He doesn't have to reveal anything he doesn't want to reveal.
But I want to be certain that he knows what he's got. Is he really happy with our backups? Can these guys play professional football? Are one of these guys our future franchise quarterback? If so, then which one? And if neither of them are the future of the franchise, then should we start looking elsewhere? How long can we go without answers?
This isn't a top-three concern for Belichick, but it should safely fit in his top-five.
Rob Gronkowski's Health
I haven't heard anything negative about Rob Gronkowski's recovery status from surgery. But here's the concerning thing: I haven't heard anything overly encouraging, either.
In keeping with the Patriot Way, the team has only released standard, cookie-cutter responses to the questions regarding Gronkowski's health. All of the answers are positive, but deep down, I'm still a little uneasy.
Our best scorer is coming off a truly inefficient Super Bowl appearance. He's a young guy who's already had surgery. He adheres to the Patriot Way and doesn't reveal any details about his progress.
As of now, I'm assuming that he's fine. I'm basing this assumption on two things: The massive contract he just signed and the fact that no camp reports have highlighted any losses in his game.
The closest thing to an unusual report that I've heard is that he dropped two balls in day four of camp. However, that's natural. Everyone drops balls from time to time. That report doesn't concern me at all.
But still, I won't be totally satisfied until I see him on the field in a game-time situation. Only Belichick and his closest advisors know how healthy Gronkowski really is.
If Gronkowski's fine, then we're good to go. But if he isn't totally healthy, then Belichick needs to start sculpting another plan for the 2012 season. This is where the acquisition of Brandon Lloyd could prove to be huge.
The Patriots look excellent. There are holes in the team, but every team has holes. Overall, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Belichick has no reason to panic.
Nevertheless, the offensive line and the secondary must be addressed immediately. Things will inevitably go wrong with any team, but it's a shame when you fail to thwart the dangers that you can see on the horizon. He must fix these issues now.
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