And what an offseason it has been, folks.
New England's offseason has been, in a word, tumultuous.
Following a slew of recent developments centered on the Patriots' dynamic duo of tight ends, it appears the Pats may well enter the 2013-14 season without any of their top-four receiving weapons from last year.
That's not good news for QB Tom Brady, who turns 36 years old in August and may find himself with an empty cupboard of offensive toys this season.
But it hasn't all been bad for the Pats, who may finally have continuity and upside on defense for the first time since the Super Bowl years.
Let's take a look at some winners and losers of the Pats offseason.
If it feels like a long time since the Patriots had an above-average pass defense, that's because it has been.
2007 was the last year the Patriots finished in the top half of the league in pass defense defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), per FootballOutsiders. That year, they finished seventh, but they've been 16th or lower every year since.
Despite the pedigree of many of the players who shuffled through the defensive backfield since then—Darius Butler, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Ras-I Dowling and Brandon Meriweather were all first or-second rounders—the Pats continued to struggle.
Why? Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Mike Dussault may have the answer: a startling lack of continuity.
Noticed the heavy turnover year to year for the Pats DBs, Dussault postulates that continuity and chemistry may be reasons for the failure of the pass defense.
If that's the case, the Pats may finally produce a respectable pass defense for the first time since 2007. Thanks to the return of top corner Aqib Talib and slot CB Kyle Arrington, the Pats may start the year with the same defensive backfield they ended the previous year for the first time since 2007.
See the correlation?
That's good news for cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer and safeties coach Brian Flores, who came under fire in the past for the performance of the secondary. Boyer, in particular, has overseen some terrible defenses since taking over as defensive backs coach in 2009.
If both coaches can finally maximize the talent of a familiar secondary, New England's passing defense could actually be watchable in 2013.
No surprise here.
Rob Gronkowski's stats since the start of the 2013 playoffs aren't pretty: zero touchdowns, zero receptions, zero yards, five surgeries. Even his fantastic in-line blocking can't make up for that kind of production.
"Gronk's" most recent surgery, this time on his back, was reportedly a success, but the big tight end has been placed on the preseason PUP list. It remains to be seen whether he will open the season with the team or be placed on regular-season PUP, which would cost him at least the first six games.
Gronk is a huge part of the Patriots offense, and his absence hurt the team significantly in each of its last two postseason runs. His first three years rival those of any TE in history, but his legacy will be tarnished if he can't stay on the field.
Gronkowski is built like a Mack truck, but apparently he's little more than a supersized Tim Naehring with elite football skills.
At least, that's the common perception of him now, which may or may not be fair due to the freak nature of some of his injuries.
Still, it's up to Gronk to change that perception by producing when it matters most—in the playoffs.
It has been a nice offseason for Danny Amendola.
The former St. Louis Rams slot man signed a five-year deal worth $31 million with the Pats, including $10 million guaranteed.
He also landed a spot in the new Foot Locker ASICS ad as himself.
But the biggest plus for Amendola is his new quarterback, Tom Brady.
Amendola's former QB, Sam Bradford, is talented and capable. But Brady is an all-time great, and his offense is tailored around the slot receiver.
Amendola's predecessor, Wes Welker, ranked among the top-10 most targeted receivers in the NFL in three of the last four years. Now Welker's gone, and it's Amendola's job to assume the role of high-efficiency receiver in New England's highly efficient offense.
Alright, the money is probably still the biggest plus. But playing with a QB like Brady? Not bad at all.
Brandon Spikes needs a Delorean because he's in the wrong time period.
Spikes would have been an All-Pro in the 1980s, but unfortunately for him, the game has changed drastically since then.
What do I mean by that? Well, despite playing on a bum ankle, Spikes ranked fourth in the NFL among inside linebackers in run-stuffing, per ProFootballFocus' grading metrics. He's a phenomenal run-stuffer, arguably the best in the league.
But he's playing in a passing league, and he struggles in coverage. During the 2013 playoffs, Spikes yielded nine catches on nine targets for 73 yards and two touchdowns.
That's not good.
Those struggles, coupled with his absence during OTAs, don't bode well for Spikes, who is an impending free agent. The Pats have a number of options in the front seven—they can use Dane Fletcher in his place due to superior coverage skills or start rookie Jamie Collins at outside linebacker and move either Jerod Mayo or Dont'a Hightower inside.
Here's hoping Spikes makes a leap in his coverage skills this offseason, which may start with shedding some extra weight. He's a fascinating player to watch and brings a unique—and much-needed—brand of nastiness to the defense.
I'm one of his biggest fans. But if he can't play three downs, he's not worth re-signing after the season.
If any time is Shane Vereen's time, it's now.
Vereen has shown flashes of his brilliance, including this 83-yard catch-and-run TD against the New York Jets on Thanksgiving. But this year, he should finally get the opportunity to grow into a consistent weapon.
The departure of fan favorite—and certified Tom Brady safety net—running back Danny Woodhead leaves the role of "third-down RB with receiving skills" open.
That's where Vereen can excel—his quickness and ability out of the backfield make him a mismatch against linebackers in man coverage.
Vereen has the versatility that the Pats love—he can line up in the backfield or split out wide and beat his coverage. His effort and technique in pass protection are exemplary, giving him a chance to fill that third-down role with ease. He presents both a running and receiving threat in those situations.
His fellow 2011 draft classmate, Stevan Ridley, has already established himself as a contributor to the Pats. Now, it's Vereen's turn.
This doesn't look like it's going to end well.
I won't speculate or try to report anything about Aaron Hernandez's situation—especially since reports will probably change 20 times between now and when this article is published—but the Pats' star TE is currently being investigated in connection with a homicide.
If Hernandez is arrested, the Pats may try to get out of his contract. According to Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft, they might be successful:
I was told the Patriots protected themselves very well for off the field concerns and Hernandez's contract.. if he is charged and tried
— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) June 20, 2013
Even if they can get out of Hernandez's contract, the Pats are up a creek. Hernandez is their most versatile and explosive receiving weapon, and he may never play another down for them.
If things don't break his way, this could be the end of Hernandez's career in New England and may jeopardize his NFL career as well.
Aaron Dobson had some early struggles in New England, uncharacteristically dropping some catchable balls in OTAs.
But if he can straighten out a problem he hasn't struggled with historically, Dobson will get his opportunities—more than most rookie receivers ever get with the Pats.
The one silver lining from all this bad news comes for Dobson, who will now get the chance to shine in the absence of other stars. With Gronkowski sidelined, Hernandez possibly in deep trouble and WRs Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd departed, the Pats need weapons.
Dobson, the Patriots' top offensive pick in the 2013 draft, has the potential to substitute for Brady's favorite playmakers. He's 6'3" and is clocked at a 4.43 40 time. He has the ability to step into the "X" receiver role and produce immediately.
It's difficult for young receivers to gain the trust of Brady and coach Bill Belichick, and it remains to be seen if Dobson can break that mold. But Dobson is in the "winner" category because he'll get the chance. It's up to him to make the most of it.