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New England Patriots: The Biggest Early Season Storylines

Oliver ThomasContributor IOctober 31, 2016

New England Patriots: The Biggest Early Season Storylines

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    It's only Week 3 of the NFL regular season, but the New England Patriots have already made plenty of headlines.

    Some news out of Foxborough has been positive, some has been negative, but it's all been noteworthy. From players stepping up, to schemes phasing out, there's a lot of food for thought.

    Here are the top storylines of the Pats' 2012 campaign thus far.

Where's Waters?

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    The Patriots have reconfigured the offensive line in the absence of veteran guard Brian Waters.

    Waters hasn't reported to the Patriots after missing all of offseason OTAs and training camp. Needless to say, the delicate situation has caused a stir.

    Per a tweet from the Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young, the Pro-Bowl lineman reportedly contemplated retirement following the Super Bowl. Then, on Sept. 3, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss discussed the notion that Waters may want to stay home in Texas because last year was tough on him and his family.

    When Patriots president Jonathan Kraft shared his thoughts on the radio show 98.5 The Sports Hub on Sept. 9, a different perspective was voiced. According to the Boston HeraldKraft said "Brian has chosen not to report and not to come in, so he’s on a reserve status. He’s under contract to us. He’s probably going to have to decide what’s in his personal best interest.”

    If Waters was willing to come back, it would be hard for the team to refuse.

    Although, the Globe's Manza Young tweeted on Sept. 18 that Waters doesn't appear interested after he turned down a pay raise.

    Even if Waters did return, he would need to find a new number. Currently, rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower is donning No. 54, a number previously worn by both Waters and folk hero Tedy Bruschi.

Stevan Ridley, the Lead Running Back

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    Heading into the season, it appeared as though the Patriots would continue to use a backfield committee approach.

    Things have changed, thanks to former third-round draft pick Stevan Ridley.

    Ridley locked up the starting tailback job through his Week 1 performance. The Natchez, Miss. native rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries against the Tennessee Titans. Even as a receiver, Ridley looked more than capable, catching two passes for 27 yards.

    In Week 2, Ridley continued to be the man, gaining 95 total yards on 21 touches.

    Despite strong efforts from 2011 second-rounder Shane Vereen, vet Danny Woodhead and undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden, the Patriots have found their No. 1 back.

    The entire rushing corps will certainly have some sort of role in the offense. However, Ridley has taken the ball and ran with it—in more ways than one.

Questionable Offensive Line

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    New England's offensive line looked like a serious threat during the preseason—for all the wrong reasons.

    In four exhibition games, the Pats' blockers allowed 10 sacks, per NFL.com. The quarterbacks were being hit left and right, and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was left to watch the mess unfold.

    But in times of worry, it's important to remember that Scarnecchia has 43 years of coaching under his belt. He's seen the best out of his blockers, so he defends them to the brink.

    Case in point: Nate Solder.

    The second-year left tackle has had an up-and-down season. When he's not saving quarterback Tom Brady's blindside, he's fighting off the Matt Light comparisons.

    When asked about the 2011 first-rounder on Aug. 23, Scarnecchia stood firm, via Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald. Scarnecchia said he thinks “Nate Solder is a better player today than he was all of last year. You figure that out. Next question.”

    Scarnecchia's assessment has proved to be an accurate one.

    Two games into the regular season, the O-line crisis hasn't been as dreadful as previously thought. In total, five sacks have been allowed.

    The protection certainly hasn't been great, but hasn't been horrible, either. For a group that's moving on from Dan Koppen, Matt Light and perhaps Brian Waters, things must be put in contrast.

The Success of Top Draft Picks

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    Top draft selections Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Tavon Wilson have made an immediate impact.

    Jones and Hightower have secured starting jobs at defensive end and strongside linebacker respectively, while Wilson is receiving his share of reps in the secondary.

    Jones has recorded a strip-sack, Hightower has recovered a fumble for a touchdown, and Wilson has hauled in two interceptions.

    WEEI.com's Mike Petraglia caught up with Jones, who provided a level-headed opinion on the early success of the rookies. “I feel like as far as the rookie class, we’re very mature. We all are leaders on our own. That’s one characteristic we all have,” said Jones.

    The exuberant talents have lived up the hype right off the bat. Still, it will be a task to keep the momentum going throughout the campaign.

The Lack of Welker

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    Wes Welker didn't have the season debut he would have hoped for. Consequently, the Patriots faithful were left to speculate why.

    The franchise-tagged slot receiver collected an underwhelming three catches for 14 yards against the Titans in the opener. Yet what was more glaring was his limited role in the offense.

    CBSSports.com's Nick Underhill vets that Welker sat out 24 of New England's offensive snaps. However, Underhill explained that Welker only missed seven pass plays, which effectively breaks down the enigma with No. 83.

    Attempting to throw water on the fire, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels attributed Welker's quiet game to the game plan against Tennessee. According to WEEI.com's Christopher Price, McDaniels said:

    “Wes’ role is the same as we’ve always gone. We’ll go each week and try to do what we think is best to help us win. Sometimes that may include playing more multiple tight ends. Sometimes it might be playing a lot more receivers. We kind of try to feel that out as we go through our preparation and then make the decisions that go along with it.”

    Welker had a better game against Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, catching five passes for 95 yards. Yet he wasn't in the game as much as Julian Edelman, explained ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss via Twitter:

    Final tally of snaps w/ Julian Edelman utilized as No. 2 receiver over Wes Welker -- Edelman 75, Welker 63. Penalties/2-point conv included.

    — Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) September 16, 2012

Devastating Injury to Aaron Hernandez

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    Against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 16, tight end Aaron Hernandez got his leg caught in a pile of bodies. He limped off the field with the help of trainers, putting no pressure on his right ankle.

    As a result, the Pats' offense is without its most dynamic talent. The Boston Globe's Greg A. Bedard analyzed how the personnel was impacted following Hernandez's injury via Twitter:

    Patriots are now a 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR team, at least for this game. Run same personnel since 81 left.

    — Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) September 16, 2012

    New England's home opener provided many with the same feeling the 2008 home opener did: deflation.

    Against the Kansas City Chiefs four years ago, following a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants, Tom Brady tore his ACL and MCL. The entire season shifted with one blow to the leg. This is all too similar.

    Fortunately, the injury to No. 81 does not appear to be as severe. NBCSports.com's Pro Football Talk tweeted an injury update:

    Source with knowledge says Pats tight end Aaron Hernandez could miss up to six weeks with ankle injury.

    — ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) September 16, 2012

The Return of Deion Branch

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    When wide receiver Deion Branch was released by the Patriots during the final cuts this preseason, it was unclear what his future entailed.

    Now, it looks like Branch will be back in Foxborough catching passes from Tom Brady.

    According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter (h/t ESPNBoston.com), the 33-year-old Branch has agreed to terms with the Patriots on a new deal.

    Seeing as though Branch's locker was never taken down, per Jen Slothower of NESN.com, it's not a shock that No. 84 is back. 

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