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Examining New England Patriots' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin OnslowContributor IIMay 28, 2013

Examining New England Patriots' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    The 2012 NFL season saw the New England Patriots fall just short of the Lombardi Trophy for the seventh consecutive year, this time at the hands of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens with a shocking 28-13 loss in the AFC Championship game.

    New England hasn’t won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season but is always in the mix. The preeminent team of the 2000s has made a playoff appearance in 10 of the last 12 seasons, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be back in the postseason hunt in 2013.   

    While Bill Belichick’s personnel decisions often go against the grain, he has managed to create sustainability and continuity with Tom Brady at the helm, always adding and subtracting the right pieces to make it work. Never employing the same tired strategies year in and year out, Belichick has kept his team at the forefront of the AFC.

    However, this offseason was a little different in a few notable ways. Despite stockpiling draft picks in recent years, the Patriots entered the 2013 draft with only five draft picks with which to work. As always, it would be up to Belichick to make some creative moves on draft weekend to find the right pieces to bring it all together.

    There was nothing particularly impressive about what Belichick did in the draft, but he almost always finds a way to develop the talent that has sustained the Patriots’ success. Part of this year’s plan was to add to a receiving corps that will look drastically different in 2013.

    With Wes Welker’s contract expiring and the Patriots unwilling to offer him a large payday, the league’s best slot receiver was left to walk in free agency, signing with the AFC powerhouse Denver Broncos. He’ll no doubt find a great fit in Denver as one of Peyton Manning’s top pass-catching weapons.

    But Belichick had a plan in place in the event that Welker wouldn’t return at a bargain rate. Without much hesitation, New England pulled the trigger on a five-year, $31 million contract that would bring former St. Louis Rams receiver Danny Amendola to Foxborough.

    The oft-injured Texas Tech product shined in St. Louis with Sam Bradford at the helm, but he missed almost all of the 2011 campaign (15 games) and found himself on the sidelines in five more contests in 2012. If the Patriots hope to replace their iron-man slot receiver’s consistent production in 2013, Amendola has to remain healthy and on the field.

    To further his plan of bolstering New England’s group of receivers, Belichick selected Marshall wide receiver Aaron Dobson in the second round and TCU wide receiver Josh Boyce in the fourth round of April’s draft. It remains to be seen how much either player will contribute in 2013, but it’s safe to say New England’s receiving corps will look much different going forward.

    Perhaps the biggest story of the offseason, however, has been the health of two-time All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.

    Brady’s favorite red-zone target has been battling injuries since the latter half of the 2011 season, and he missed his first career games last year in playing just 11 contests. This offseason, Gronkowski had additional surgery on the left forearm he broke in 2012, and his health should be a major concern for New England as the season approaches.

    This offseason wasn’t all about offense, though.

    To stabilize a pass defense that finished 29th in the league in total yards last season, the Patriots re-signed Aqib Talib and fellow cornerback Kyle Arrington. They also inked former Arizona Cardinals standout safety Adrian Wilson to a three-year, $5 million contract and added Rutgers cornerback Logan Ryan in the third round of the draft.

    Ryan and teammate Duron Harmon (safety) join former Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty—now New England’s most consistent safety—in a defensive backfield that needed some work this offseason.

    Let's take a look at many of these offseason moves, as well as some key positional battles to watch as the 2013 season approaches.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 2 (Pick 52): OLB Jamie Collins, Southern Mississippi

    Round 2 (Pick 59): WR Aaron Dobson, Marshall

    Round 3 (Pick 83): CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers

    Round 3 (Pick 91): S Duron Harmon, Rutgers

    Round 4 (Pick 102): WR Josh Boyce, TCU

    Round 7 (Pick 226): DE Michael Buchanan, Illinois

    Round 7 (Pick 235): ILB Steve Beauharnais, Rutgers

     

    Grade: B

     

    Either New England’s scouts spent a little extra time on Rutgers’ campus, or they saw something they loved in Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and Steve Beauharnais.  

    The trio of former Rutgers defenders fills several needs for the Patriots, though there has to be something more to the fact that the Patriots have drafted four Scarlet Knights in the last four drafts.

    In any case, Bill Belichick did what he needed to do to make the 2013 draft a successful endeavor for the Patriots. With a receiving corps clearly suffering from a lack of young talent and a defensive backfield in need of repair, New England made the most of its selections, especially in Rounds 2, 3 and 4.

    Belichick traded out of the first round to acquire more selections, ultimately adding another second- and third-round pick in the process. With those extra selections, the Patriots were able to add additional depth at linebacker and cornerback.

    Second-round pick Jamie Collins probably won’t crack the starting lineup if Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower remain healthy, but he should see considerable action as a situational pass-rusher and special-teams performer. Likewise, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan add depth, but neither should be in line for a significant role to start the 2013 season.

    The same may not be true for Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson, however.

    The Patriots added Danny Amendola and former Minnesota Vikings receiver Michael Jenkins this offseason, but the pair of 2013 draft picks have a very good chance of playing a big role in New England’s offense in 2013. With the depth chart wide open and Tom Brady in need of a couple deep threats to take the top off defenses, Dobson and Boyce could be in line for a lot of work in 2013.

    In all, Belichick did well to fill needs without going too much against the grain. It wasn’t a flashy draft class for the Patriots, but they got exponentially better in a couple areas in desperate need of rejuvenation.

Receiver Roles

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    Tom Brady will ultimately be remembered as one of the best quarterbacks of all time, but he’s not going to finish his career on a high note without some fresh faces at the receiver position.

    The Patriots added several this offseason in Dobson, Boyce, Amendola and Jenkins—a group that gives Brady some new options for opening up the offense in 2013.

    Amendola will slide into the slot position vacated by Wes Welker, but the remaining spots are up for grabs. If Dobson and Boyce impress this offseason, there’s no reason to believe the pair can’t have an immediate impact on Sundays this season.

    Dobson is more likely to assume the No. 2 role, however, with Boyce battling for the fourth or fifth spot in what has become a crowded New England receiving corps. Along with the top four new faces at the position, the Patriots also have the opportunity to see what they can get from Julian Edelman, offseason signee Donald Jones and former Tennessee Titans receiver Lavelle Hawkins.

    Sometimes fixing a problem is as easy as stockpiling talent, and New England certainly has some options for the 2013 season.

    As it stands, Amendola should assume the role of Brady’s No. 1 target, though it will be interesting to see how much the Patriots plan to use him outside the slot. With Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez figuring to play another big role in the offense this season, Amendola could eat into the playing time of Dobson, Jenkins and whoever else earns additional action at the position.

    Any other season might dictate a veteran contingent of starting receivers, but that strategy didn’t work out as well in 2012. The Patriots were focused on adding youth to their receiving corps, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if their starters include Amendola, Dobson and either Jenkins, Jones, Edelman or Hawkins.

A Ridley Repeat

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    It’s been a while since the Patriots’ running-back situation was one worth looking forward to entering a new season. Despite several years of underwhelming production and a veritable revolving door at the position, New England has settled in with a running attack that provides ample balance to Brady’s arm.

    Stevan Ridley was terrific in 2012 with 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, and he’s a virtual lock to shoulder most of the workload in 2013. However, the backfield depth chart gets a little crowded behind the 24-year-old bruiser.

    New England traded for former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount on draft weekend and already have both Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen in place. Each member of that trio will fill a different role, though it’s hard to predict which player will emerge as New England’s No. 2 option at the position. 

    Considering Vereen’s do-it-all skill set and pass-catching ability, there’s a good chance he remains New England’s change-of-pace option behind Ridley. The California product tallied 251 yards and three touchdowns on the ground and added eight receptions for 149 yards and another receiving score in 13 games last season.

    Provided Ridley avoids the injury bug and Bolden or Blount aren’t forced to assume the starting role, Vereen should be in for an even bigger workload in 2013.

    Regardless of which player assumes the No. 3 position on the depth chart, this much is true: The Patriots will rely heavily on their running game again this season in an attempt to keep defenses off balance and out of position.

    Expect the passing game to take center stage this season, but don’t be surprised if Ridley and Vereen each surpass their 2012 production with quality 2013 campaigns.

Defensive Line Depth

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    While New England focused heavily on its defensive backfield and receiving and linebacking corps this offseason, it didn't do a lot to address the defensive line. Apart from the free-agent signings of Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead and Jason Vega, the Patriots did very little to bolster this unit.

    In addition, New England released former starters Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, leaving questions of who will step up to fill those roles in 2013.

    Vince Wilfork will again anchor New England’s hybrid 4-3 front at the defensive tackle position, but there’s still some uncertainty as to which players will line up next to him on a majority of defensive snaps. Given Kelly’s age (33) and his recent decline in production, it wouldn’t be unexpected to see the former Oakland Raiders defensive tackle split time next to Wilfork with Armstead or second-year option Justin Francis.

    Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and defensive line coach Patrick Graham will find a way to maximize the talent at defensive tackle, but depth may prove to be an issue in 2013. Unless New England makes additional signings this offseason, big questions will remain entering this season.

    The depth chart won’t be so muddy at defensive end, however.

    Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will tie down the bookend spots again this season with Jermaine Cunningham (and potentially Dont’a Hightower in pass-rushing situations) adding depth at the positions. Jones and Ninkovich combined for 14 sacks in 2012, and each should continue producing at a high level this season.

    While there’s plenty of uncertainty at defensive tackle, New England’s defensive line shouldn’t be a major concern in 2013—as long as it can avoid the injury bug.

Safety in Numbers

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    The safety position was a big question mark for the Patriots last season. Devin McCourty made a smooth transition from cornerback and played extremely well in 2012, but a lot of work still needed to be done this offseason.

    Perhaps New England’s biggest signing of the free-agent period was Adrian Wilson, who made his way to five Pro Bowls and four All-Pro selections as a member of the Arizona Cardinals. The 33-year-old is no longer in the prime of his career, but he is expected to play a big role at the back end of New England’s defense this season.

    Steve Gregory will garner some attention at the position, but Wilson brings a lot of experience and physicality to the Patriots’ secondary—something it was missing in 2012.

    While it wouldn’t be a surprise for a mid-round pick like Duron Harmon to earn some playing time at either safety position this year, the presence of Tavon Wilson will likely relegate the rookie to a limited role.

    McCourty has the free safety spot locked down, but it will be interesting to see the Wilsons battle for the starting spot across from him. The most likely scenario is one in which Tavon Wilson retains the starting role with Adrian Wilson making his way to the field in nickel and dime packages as an extra pass defender.

    No matter how the position battle plays out, though, the Patriots certainly have a lot more depth at the safety positions this season. With additions (and re-signings) at cornerback and the additions of Harmon and Adrian Wilson at safety, New England’s pass defense is in line for a much more consistent campaign in 2013.

2013 Schedule

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    2013 New England Patriots Schedule
    Week Date Opponent Time (ET) TV
    1 Sept. 8
     @ Buffalo Bills 1 p.m. CBS
    2 Sept. 12
     vs. New York Jets 8:25 p.m. NFL
    3 Sept. 22
     vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m. FOX
    4 Sept. 29  @ Atlanta Falcons 8:30 p.m. NBC
    5 Oct. 6  @ Cincinnati Bengals 1 p.m. CBS
    6 Oct. 13  vs. New Orleans Saints 4:25 p.m. FOX
    7 Oct. 20  @ New York Jets 1 p.m. CBS
    8 Oct. 27  vs. Miami Dolphins 1 p.m. CBS
    9 Nov. 3  vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 4:25 p.m. CBS
    10 Nov. 10  BYE N/A N/A
    11 Nov. 18  @ Carolina Panthers 8:40 p.m. ESPN
    12 Nov. 24  vs. Denver Broncos 8:30 p.m. NBC
    13 Dec. 1  @ Houston Texans 4:25 p.m. CBS
    14 Dec. 8  vs. Cleveland Browns 1 p.m. CBS
    15 Dec. 15  @ Miami Dolphins 1 p.m. CBS
    16 Dec. 22
     @ Baltimore Ravens 8:30 p.m. NBC
    17 Dec. 29
     vs. Buffalo Bills 1 p.m. CBS

     

    *For a complete look at New England's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    If the Patriots are to add to their post-2000 dynasty with another Lombardi Trophy, this will be the season to do so.

    Tom Brady is entering the twilight of his career and will be looking to build on his 2012 success, and as has been the case for most of his career in Foxborough, New England’s offense will start and end with his production and leadership.

    But the path to the Super Bowl may not be as daunting this season, either. With a favorable 2013 schedule and some good young pieces in place, the Patriots should be a favorite to emerge from the AFC en route to another Super Bowl appearance.

    The AFC East is in flux with the New York Jets spinning their wheels, the Buffalo Bills transitioning with a new head coach and quarterback and the Miami Dolphins looking to reestablish a new identity after an impressive offseason of big acquisitions. This has been the Patriots’ division for more than a decade, and that likely won’t change this season.

    New England’s non-division schedule isn’t particularly troubling, either. With matchups against the Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, the Patriots have a few games on the slate they should consider very winnable contests.

    Games against the New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens may present some difficult challenges, but it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Patriots don’t finish the season with at least 10 wins and another AFC East title.

     

    Prediction: 11-5, first in AFC East

    There’s a very good chance Belichick’s squad comes out of its AFC East schedule with at least four wins. Adding in at least three potential victories against its toughest non-division opponents, New England should be in line for another tremendous regular season and a postseason berth.

    The Patriots’ hopes rest on Brady’s shoulders, but he’s been a model of consistency throughout his career. As long as he remains healthy in 2013, there’s no reason to believe New England can’t make another deep playoff run this season.

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