10 Biggest Questions Facing the 2013 Patriots
The offseason for the New England Patriots is effectively over, and now begins the long wait until the opening of training camp. It's been a dizzying offseason for the Pats on the offensive side of the ball.
Wes Welker's departure, Danny Amendola's arrival, Rob Gronkowski's multiple surgeries and now Aaron Hernandez's potential legal troubles lead the way in a seemingly unending parade of turnover and bad news that has marked 2013.
Meanwhile, on defense, the Patriots have finally had an offseason of quiet continuity, returning all their starters from 2012 while adding solid vets Adrian Wilson and Tommy Kelly. Defensively, the Patriots look ready to take a big step forward, and they might have to if they're to overcome some potential growing pains with the offense, especially in the passing game.
With the majority of the roster set for camp, let's take a look at the questions that are at the forefront for the Patriots as they prepare for another campaign.
How Does Jamie Collins Fit into the Base Defense?
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Perhaps the greatest question for the Patriots draft picks, besides why did they take Duron Harmon in the third round, is how exactly they plan to use Jamie Collins.
Christopher Price of WEEI.com wrote this great article saying Collins could be the answer to the Patriots tight end coverage problems. However, there are also reports that Collins is too stiff to excel in coverage and is better served solely as a "north" player, meaning a hand-in-the-dirt pass-rusher.
The Patriots really have needs for both, and it's easy to figure they'll find a spot for him in sub-packages. But how about the base defense? Is he a defensive end? Is he a linebacker? And if so, which linebacker position best suits him?
Collins had a quiet minicamp and OTA season with the Patriots, where he worked at linebacker.
No one but Bill Belichick knows for sure where he'll end up and how he'll contribute, but Collins is a great athlete who gives the Pats a number of options.
Will Bolden and Vereen Take the Next Step?
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With the departure of Danny Woodhead, the Patriots will enter the season with a stable of young backs who are still largely unproven. Woodhead was the Pats' most reliable receiving back and often took a starting role.
Stevan Ridley should be the primary bulk of the carries, but what about his two main backfield mates, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden?
There are few places on the Pats roster where it's easier to pencil in a new player into a role than putting Vereen into Woodhead's passing-down running back one. Vereen had just 149 yards receiving and 251 rushing during the regular season of 2012, but in the playoffs, he finally began to flash the potential that made him a second-round draft pick.
Against the Texans in the AFC Divisional round, Vereen had 124 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. He added just 38 all-purpose yards against the Ravens, but it seemed clear that Vereen had elevated his game to the next level.
The biggest question is if Vereen will stay healthy. He missed the first three games of 2012 and touched the ball in only two games in 2011 due to injuries. Leon Washington is the emergency backup, but there's little question the passing-down back duties are Vereen's to lose.
Brandon Bolden was impressive in training camp last season, earning a roster spot and flashing some great potential in back-to-back wins in Buffalo (137 yards rushing) and against the Broncos. His season was derailed when he was injured against the Seahawks the following week.
It may be a stretch to think Bolden can bounce back and challenge Stevan Ridley to be the top early-down running back, but Bolden's hard-charging style certainly makes him an intriguing option given the Patriots history of liking big, physical backs like Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon.
Add in Ridley's fumble history that continued late last season and into the playoffs, and the door might just be open a crack for Bolden.
What Will Become of the Two-Tight End Offense?
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In 2012 the Patriots planned on using their two tight end offense to maximize their ability to create mismatches, while playing incredibly fast. That plan was quickly detailed in Week Two when Aaron Hernandez went down with an ankle injury, and later in the season when Rob Gronkowski was lost to a broken arm.
Now with Aaron Hernandez no longer with the team, and Gronkowski recovering from four offseason surgeries, it's unclear if the Pats will still stick with the 12 personnel as their favored offensive package.
Without Gronkowski and Hernandez there to be Tom Brady's support system, the entire offense could take a major step backwards. Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui provide some continuity at the position, but Jake Ballard is the likely starter until Gronk returns.
It seems likely the Pats offense will be inconsistent early in the season as it gets healthy and Brady gets accustomed to his new weapons, but will need Gronkowski for the playoff stretch, or else this could be the first pedestrian Patriots offense we've seen in a long time.
Can They Develop a New Dominant Receiving Corps?
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Of all the receivers that the Patriots have brought in, Michael Jenkins and Aaron Dobson are the main challengers for the X-receiver spot, while Josh Boyce could also be a factor with his elite speed.
The Patriots' struggles to develop an outside vertical threat since the departure of Randy Moss are well-chronicled, and now the Pats have three potential options, including two rookies, who have the size and speed to potentially step in.
The book is out on how to stop the Patriots offense of 2010-2012. Defenses could crowd the box without fear of a receiver taking the top off their defense. If the Patriots want to challenge that conventional thinking, they're going to need one of these receivers to strike fear into the back end of opposing defenses.
Despite the fact that the Patriots return 19 of 22 starters, the two they're missing on offense combined for 192 catches, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Replacing Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd's production won't be easy, and the Pats have added three rookie wide receivers and three proven veteran free-agent receivers—along with bringing back Julian Edelman.
Factor in undrafted rookies Mark Harrison and Kenbrell Thompkins, and the Patriots have an interesting pool of new receivers, especially the rookies.
At least two receivers must emerge from this group, and while Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola are the early projected starters, it will be an open competition. What makes it slightly scary is that you can count on one hand how many receivers Tom Brady has had sustained success with: Troy Brown, Deion Branch, David Givens, Wes Welker and Randy Moss.
Now comes the greatest test of Brady's career. Brady could never develop the trust needed with Joey Galloway, Chad Johnson or anyone else the Pats brought in over the years because he always had a safety blanket in Welker or someone else. Now he'll no longer have that safety blanket and will be forced to develop chemistry with someone new.
Who of the receiver group will "get it?" It will be one of the most interesting developments of Brady's career.
How Will the Roles of the Linebackers Evolve?
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When the Patriots selected Dont'a Hightower in the 2012 draft, I was a bit concerned he was a little too much like Brandon Spikes. Both are big, physical players who don't excel playing in space.
Hightower played 2012 at the strong-side linebacker spot, and despite battling a couple of injuries, he really began to come on at the end of the season, putting up 23 total tackles and a sack in the last four games of the regular season. He showed stout play and sure tackling, but the jury is still out whether the strong-side spot is the best fit for Hightower.
Many felt coming out of Alabama that middle linebacker would be his best fit. He does move a bit better than Spikes in space, prompting us to wonder if he could see more time in the middle this coming season.
Spikes can almost single-handedly destroy an opponent's running game. He's a fierce presence in the middle of the Patriots defense who can intimidate opponents with his aggressive style of play.
However, in the last two seasons that Spikes has been starting for the Patriots, he's been targeted in the passing game by teams looking to exploit what Spikes doesn't do best, drop into coverage. His seven passes defended in 2012 signal how much teams throw at him, and also that Spikes sometimes does do an OK job getting his hands on the ball.
But Hightower could be an interesting option in the middle as could Dane Fletcher, who manned the position while Spikes was missing from OTAs.
Despite Spikes' fearsome presence in the run game, it's a passing league, and the Pats have been torn apart through the air. Can Spikes make a jump and prove that he's a three-down linebacker in this contract year? It's a huge chance for him to cash in, and maybe his departure from Twitter this offseason is a sign of how hard he's working.
The Patriots have a talented roster of linebackers, almost all of whom can play multiple positions. While there's still a question mark around Jamie Collins, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
Can Tommy Kelly And/or Armond Armstead Provide Some Interior Pass Rush?
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Earlier this offseason, we identified upgrading Kyle Love as the quickest way for the Pats to improve their defense. We didn't expect they'd go so far as to cut him, but his diabetes diagnosis was unforeseen.
The Patriots have lacked a true interior pass-rusher since Mike Wright and Myron Pryor in 2010. Instead they had a combination of nose tackles and defensive ends, without a single player who had the quickness and size combination to hold up inside.
Vince Wilfork is an all-world player regardless where he's playing, but the Patriots cannot continue to over-rely on him. What Wilfork needed most was a complementary player to help take some of the heat off of him and allow him to be fresh for the entire season.
The Patriots added Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead this offseason, and both players will be tasked with making an difference inside. Kelly is likely a base-down player and can shift to multiple positions on the line, while Armstead should begin the season in the interior designated pass-rusher role occupied by an undersized Jermaine Cunningham in 2012.
If the Patriots can get quality pass rush from both players, the trickle-down effect should allow Wilfork to stay healthy and have a stellar season, and the overall impact on the defense will be immeasurable.
Can Ras-I Dowling Stay Healthy?
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One of the standout players of the offseason has been Ras-I Dowling, who has consistently stood out in OTAs and minicamp.
Dowling looks finally healthy, and if he can stay that way, he could have a major impact for the secondary in 2013. Dowling fits the mold of a man-to-man corner. He has size, length and physicality.
The Pats selected him 33rd overall in 2011, and he immediately started the opener against Miami after limited time in training camp. It proves the Pats believe in Dowling's talent, and though he was inconsistent in the games he played in 2012 before getting injured again, it's entirely possible that a return to full-health is all that Dowling needed.
With Dowling in the mix, the Patriots would have four corners who would allow them to play multiple styles of coverages and matchups. He just has to stay healthy, and the rest will take care of itself. But you can never have too much depth in the secondary.
Is Steve Gregory Worth a $2.18 Million Cap Hit?
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While the wide receiver position will be the most intriguing training camp battle on offense, on the defensive side, it's the safeties. Devin McCourty was sidelined for OTAs still recovering from offseason shoudler surgery, and that thrust Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson into the starting lineup.
With second-year player Tavon Wilson looking to make a jump to prove why the Pats took him in the second round, the focus is primarily on Steve Gregory and his $2.18 million salary cap. Unless Gregory wins the starting spot next to McCourty outright, his salary will be working against him.
Adrian Wilson looked outstanding in minicamp and has the veteran presence the Pats were hoping to get out of Gregory in 2012 but only got sporadically.
The Pats have enough injury-insurance depth and youth at the safety position, but if all emerge healthy at the end of August, it's likely Gregory will be on the chopping block. The wild card is Tavon Wilson, who wasn't selected in the second round to sit on the bench.
There will be three safeties who play a lot of snaps this season: the two starters and the dime linebacker or "Money." And Gregory is not a fit for the "Money" position. Thus, it will be a starter-or-bust training camp for Gregory.
Proving Year for Defensive Ends
It should be a fascinating year for the Patriots at defensive end. On the right side is Chandler Jones, who should be locked as a long-term starter. There's no question he'll need to show some improvement in his sophomore campaign, but he has the size and skill to be the perfect defensive end in Bill Belichick's defense.
On the other side is where things get interesting. It's likely Rob Ninkovich who's atop the depth chart as the edge player regardless if he's playing linebacker in the 3-4 or defensive end in the 4-3.
He enters the final year of his second contract extension with the Patriots. Can he earn a third? That would be quite an accomplishment, and he'll be pushed by a collection of other young talented players.
Jermaine Cunningham also enters the last year of his deal. Cunningham was starting to come on as a designated pass-rusher in 2012 before getting suspended for PEDs. He was then surpassed by Justin Francis, a second-year player who showed some spark late in the season and kept Cunningham on the bench after his suspension ended.
In all, the Patriots have a fascinating group of defensive ends with a good combination of veterans in contract years and young players looking to ascend. From this group they'll need to find both base defense ends as well as designated pass-rushers—with significant roles going to as many as four or five from this group.
Who will emerge for each role will be interesting to watch and a heated competition.
Have the Pats Addressed Their Weaknesses Enough to Win a Super Bowl?
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Ultimately, the Patriots of the last few seasons have had two main problems. Their offense went cold in the playoffs, and they could not get the last stop they needed to close out games.
Each of the last three seasons have ended due to one of those two problems. Now, with a revamped passing game, the Patriots will look to re-establish their offense away from the short passing attack centered on the middle of the field.
If the new receivers prove to bring an element of explosion, the Pats might be ready to take the next step against the best competition when it counts most.
On defense, the Pats have brought back all of their impact players and added a couple veterans who should help them improve their biggest areas of specific weakness—the interior pass rush and their pass coverage in the middle of the field.
Though there might be growing pains early, especially as Rob Gronkowski returns to health, the Pats look ready to take two steps forward as they return to a more reliable defense and a less-predictable offense.