Will Gronk be grounded to start the season?
For a team likely to return 19 of its 22 starters, the New England Patriots have had an unusual amount of upheaval this offseason. From Wes Welker's acrimonious departure to Tebow mania, the Patriots have had the offseason spotlight shining on them more brightly than usual.
With OTAs and minicamp wrapping up last week and training camp just a month away, you can almost see the leaves turning gold and Bill Belichick breaking out his signature gray hoodie. New England should once again be top AFC contenders, but there have been more than a few doubters making sweeping proclamations of doom.
Mind you, it's still June, and it's hard to know what this team's identity will be until the games begin. But for now, here's an early read at the five biggest issues the Patriots currently face.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com
The NFL's most talked-about third-string quarterback may have to be more than just that to make the roster. Traditionally, the Pats have only carried two quarterbacks on the roster. The years where they carry three come when they've invested mid-round draft picks on a quarterback, such as Kevin O'Connell in 2008 and Ryan Mallett in 2011.
Whether Tebow will show enough promise in training camp remains to be seen. Josh McDaniels obviously had the intention of long-term development when drafting him as the Broncos head coach, and the Patriots have done a relatively good job of managing the media presence so far. After an initial frenzy at the first press conference following Tebow's signing, the Pats' head coach has been his usual dour self in diffusing attention on the quarterback.
As for other potential roles, New England may or may not need additional tight end depth if Rob Gronkowski begins the year on the PUP list, though healthy returns from Aaron Hernandez and Jake Ballard would likely lessen that area of need.
For what it's worth, the Pats signed fullbacks Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta before last season's training camp, leading some to speculate that the team would implement a more power-based running game. Neither made the roster, but tight end Michael Hoomanawanui did occasionally play fullback last year, so perhaps they would consider using Tebow in that role.
As for the punt protector, Tebow's most consistent role as a Jet, Nate Ebner currently occupies that spot in Foxboro. Though Ebner blew an assignment that led to this blocked punt last season, the second-year player from Ohio State was a generally reliable "core four" special teamer and figures to be in that role again in 2013.
If Tebow is to find a niche in New England, he will likely have to do so with his arm first.
With the surprising releases of part-time starters Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, the Patriots' defensive tackle depth is a little shaky at the moment.
Free-agent acquisition Tommy Kelly could be a nice find. The former Raider had 14.5 combined sacks in 2010 and 2011. Though his play dipped last season, resulting in just 1.5 sacks, part of Oakland's motivation to release Kelly likely stemmed from clearing his $6.5 million salary off their bloated salary cap.
Similarly, Armond Armstead could provide an interior pass rush if he lives up to his potential. Many believe the former USC product could have been a second- or third-round pick had he come out after his 2010 junior season. Indeed, Armstead showed off his pass-rushing ability in the CFL last year, recording six sacks for the Toronto Argonauts last season.
The signings of Armstead and Kelly have signaled an effort from the Pats to bolster the interior pass rush with more athletic defensive tackles, offering a complement to Vince Wilfork's invaluable run-clogging play. With that in mind, it appears the two other tackles most likely to emerge are Marcus Forston and Cory Grissom.
Both were undrafted free agents who have been injury-prone, but demonstrate significant athleticism. Forston, who was on New England's practice squad for much of last season, earned Feshmen All-American honors at Miami (FL) after bagging three sacks in eight games. Grissom, meanwhile, has been noted for his strong center of gravity, and he made the All-Big East Second-Team last year even after recovering from a broken bone in his ankle.
On paper, the Patriots are a little smaller at defensive tackle, but more agile and explosive. If one or two can step up, that would go a long ways towards relieving pressure off the workhorse Wilfork.
Of course, the most reliable pass rush generally comes from the edge, Geno Atkins notwithstanding. Chandler Jones appears poised for a breakout, and we can probably chalk up Rob Ninkovich for something like seven to nine sacks.
But the Patriots will likely need someone to supplement their top two rushers, especially if either one is sidelined or encumbered for a long stretch. Apart from a seven-sack outlier in Week 17 against the Dolphins, the Patriots recorded only 10 sacks in seven regular-season games after Jones' ankle injury, including just one in two playoff games.
At the moment, New England appears to have more quantity than quality among their potential candidates. Justin Francis and Jermaine Cunningham showed flashes last season, while Jake Bequette, Jason Vega and Michael Buchanan are relative unknowns with upside. Second-rounder Jamie Collins tallied 10 sacks last year at Southern Miss, but his versatility could have him dropping back in coverage as often as rushing the quarterback.
One other solution may be John Abraham. Patriots fans have been clamoring for the former Jet and Falcon since free agency's inception, but according to Josh Alper of PFT, his salary and playing time demands have scared off teams to date:
At the time, the amount of playing time Abraham would get with the Titans was reportedly the sticking point in talks between the two sides. A league source told PFT that Abraham was looking for 60+ snaps a game (and, most likely, the salary that comes with such a prominent role) while the Titans and other interested teams want him to play a situational role.
The Patriots certainly won't meet those demands from Abraham. But if the 35-year-old is willing to come on as a situational rusher and accept a one-year, $2.5 million type of deal, not unlike the one Andre Carter signed in 2011, that could bring him to Foxboro.
The Patriots are losing 250 catches from last year's roster. So far, they have signed or drafted eight new receivers, a proverbial throwing against the wall to see what sticks.
Designed Welker-replacement Danny Amendola has drawn rave reviews so far. A great sign of his early chemistry with Brady came during the penultimate minicamp practice, when Amendola made a subtle correction after the two saw something on film. Brady was visibly pleased, even going out of his way to praise Amendola. With no jersey numbers during spring practices, it almost looks as if No. 83 never left.
Unfortunately, things haven't gone nearly as well for the other newcomers. Second-rounder Aaron Dobson has had concentration issues so far, as his supposedly immaculate hands have betrayed him with untimely drops.
Dobson also missed most of mandatory minicamp with an undisclosed injury, though fourth-rounder Josh Boyce is really behind the eight ball. Boyce has not taken part in a single practice due to a broken toe suffered before the draft, per Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald. As Taylor Price showed during his stint, rookie receivers missing practices tend to get left behind.
Meanwhile, veteran additions Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins have been quiet so far. New England does not have a significant financial investment in either, so they will have to stand out in training camp and preseason to make the roster.
At this point, the two receivers getting the most first-team reps alongside Amendola have been Michael Jenkins and Kenbrell Thompkins. Jenkins is a smart nine-year veteran and a good locker room presence, while Thompkins may be this year's undrafted steal. But if either are playing significant snaps come fall, something has probably gone seriously wrong.
Frustratingly, this is the one issue the Patriots have no control over. Per Adam Schefter, Gronkowski is scheduled to undergo back surgery on Tuesday. He will then rehab his back and forearm simultaneously, the recovery timeline for which is about 12 weeks. New England's season opener against the Bills is...12 weeks away. Talk about cutting it close.
Everything pretty much has to go right for the tight end to play Week 1. Considering the array of setbacks Gronk has suffered to require five total surgeries this offseason, that seems highly unlikely.
A more prudent path might entail placing the tight end on the PUP list for the first six weeks, ensuring a complete recovery and allowing him more time to build up strength in his forearm. The first six weeks of the Pats' season is not impossible to navigate, and half of the six were among the top 10 in most passing yards allowed. Obviously things change from season to season—you can say the Bucs should improve after acquiring Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson, but similarly, the Jets pass D will likely regress.
Besides, the Patriots' standards are so high that their season does not truly begin until January. They have always prided themselves on peaking in the second half and carrying that momentum into the playoffs. As Pats fans have unfortunately found out, the offense cannot carry the load against Super Bowl-caliber defenses in the postseason without their indefensible tight end.
The Patriots signed Gronkowski to a six-year, $53 million contract because they expect him to sustain excellence for the next decade. Gronkowski is on a pace that would obliterate the stats of the greatest tight ends in NFL history. The Patriots should do everything in their power to ensure that he has the chance to fulfill that massive potential, even if it means dropping an extra game or two to start the season.