Burning Questions for the New England Patriots' 2013-14 Season
The preseason is over for the New England Patriots, and in the next day, they'll whittle their roster down to the final 53 men they'll embark on the 2013 campaign with.
There were plenty of ups and downs for the Patriots over the course of the offseason and preseason. From personnel departures, to unknown rookies emerging, and veteran players who look primed to become stars, there was never a shortage of storylines or notable performances in New England.
Now, we boil down all the concerns about the Pats that have built up over the last six months into 10 burning questions.
Will Tommy Kelly Form a Dynamic Duo with Vince Wilfork?
The biggest hole in the Patriots defense the last three seasons was the lack of an impact player inside at defensive tackle next to Vince Wilfork. The Pats gave Albert Haynesworth a shot there, while Gerard Warren was the closest they came to success, but even he was at the end of the line during his stints in New England.
In 2012, they ended up with Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, both solid, but average, players who were jettisoned this offseason.
Enter Tommy Kelly, who has looked like the long-awaited solution at defensive tackle this preseason. Kelly is a great complement to Vince Wilfork, and while they're different body types, both are massive men who can command multiple blockers to move them.
Perhaps most exciting about Kelly is how he has pushed the pocket, something the Pats have also lacked in recent seasons. He should see plenty of snaps in all situations.
Kelly's arrival could make a huge impact on many levels of the Patriots defense. He can give quality snaps in sub-packages to help spell Wilfork and will also ease some of the double-teams Wilfork has traditionally faced.
Kelly might just be the most impactful newcomer on the Pats roster.
Can Shane Vereen Replace Danny Woodhead?
Shane Vereen's start in New England was a bumpy one. He played in just five games in his 2011 rookie year after being selected in the second round, waiting his turn as Stevan Ridley grabbed all the early headlines.
His start to 2012 was equally quiet, missing the first three games with an injury, then seeing just two carries in his first three games when he returned.
Then Vereen's workload began to increase, and he started to show the talent that made him a second-round pick. His coming-out party was on Thanksgiving against the New York Jets, when he put up 133 yards of total offense and two touchdowns.
He followed that up in the AFC divisional round with three touchdowns against the Houston Texans.
Now, with Danny Woodhead departed, Vereen becomes a significant part of the Patriots offense as the primary pass-down back. His skill catching the ball downfield is special, and the Patriots have to love the mismatches he creates when being covered by a linebacker. They'll move him all over the formation to gain a favorable matchup, then exploit it.
Vereen has had injury and inconsistency issues in both his first two seasons, but his talent is undeniable. Woodhead was reliable and consistent in his three seasons in New England, and it's no small task for Vereen to take over his role.
Still, Vereen has looked explosive in the preseason, despite a fumble against the Detroit Lions and looks primed for a breakout year.
Can the Defense Defend the Flat and Seam?
In 2012, the Patriots' defense struggled covering the middle of the field against short passes.
Football Outsiders ranked the Pats 30th and 29th covering tight ends and slot receivers, respectively. The problem? The lack of a true coverage linebacker and having to rely on Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower next to Jerod Mayo in pure passing situations.
The Pats addressed this weakness in three ways this offseason.
First was re-signing linebacker Dane Fletcher after he missed 2012 with an ACL tear. Fletcher has always looked comfortable in space and excelled in "spy" responsibilities that line him up on running backs.
Second was the addition of Adrian Wilson. Wilson has struggled somewhat in the preseason and doesn't appear to run as well as he once did.
He was being pencilled in at the dime linebacker position, but after shaky preseason performances, the team might be forced to use rookie Duron Harmon or Tavon Wilson at that spot. Regardless, the team will have options for their coverage linebacker role and will need one of those three to emerge.
Third was the addition of freak athlete Jamie Collins, who played safety, linebacker and defensive end in college. Collins has been tasked with plenty of coverage responsibilities in the preseason from the strong-side linebacker position and should see action early and often this season, especially in sub-packages.
The Pats will need Spikes, Hightower and Mayo to improve as well, as covering the middle of the field is always a group effort, especially on early downs when they're still in their base defense.
The Lions exposed their underneath coverage in the preseason, especially against Spikes and Adrian Wilson. Will it continue into the regular season? The Pats will have to find some answers this year.
Is Aqib Talib a Shutdown Corner?
Aqib Talib signed a one-year "prove it" deal with the Patriots this offseason, and, so far, he's been proving it. He won a coveted offseason award for his leadership and commitment during the spring, and that hard work has carried over into the preseason, where Talib has been solid in both games and practices.
You can never downplay the effect of having a corner who can take on the opposition's top receiver man-to-man. It's something the Pats have lacked since Ty Law, though some might say Asante Samuel, even though he was always a zone corner.
Talib can make the entire New England secondary better, first by allowing Devin McCourty to play safety and second by taking on the biggest threat all by himself without major help. Talib is not Darrelle Revis, but he'll hold his own against anyone.
Throw in the slate of inexperienced quarterbacks the Pats will face in the AFC East and things have lined up nicely for Talib. If he stays healthy, he could be in position for a big pay day next offseason, one the Pat might have no choice but to pay.
Who Starts at Right Guard?
The Pats' depth at right guard was reduced to Will Svitek, a converted tackle, for much of the preseason. The anticipated competition there between Marcus Cannon and Dan Connolly never materialized.
Connolly had his snaps managed all preseason as he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, while Cannon went down in the second week of camp and just returned to practice this last week. He played at right tackle against the New York Giants and seems to be OK for the regular season. For now, the right guard experiment looks over.
Connolly's appearance in the final two preseason games is a positive sign that he could be ready to go when the games count. And if Cannon can return, the competition between the two players could resume into the regular season. But it's clear that Svitek is not a guard, as he was dominated by the Lions.
The Pats need to get healthy in hurry at right guard, or it could be the weak link in protecting Tom Brady and giving this new passing offense a chance to grow.
Can Stevan Ridley Build on His 2012 Season?
Few players are more entrenched as starters on offense than Stevan Ridley after his breakout 1,263-yard season in 2012. Ridley has picked up where he left off last season, running hard through the preseason, even when the holes were not there, as they weren't against the Lions.
Ridley has not been without his issues. He continued to be haunted by late-season fumbles in 2012, just as he was in 2011. That might be the only real hole in his game, though. He does not excel catching the ball, but that is something that can be managed. He runs with physicality and elusiveness, an interesting blend unlike many common running backs.
Ridley could have more pressure placed on him in 2013 if the passing game sputters or the offensive line struggles. He's also likely to be without the deadly hurry-up offense that Tom Brady was able to run so effectively, using his veteran receiving weapons in 2012.
There will be more focus on Ridley this season, can he live up to the task?
Can the Defense Stop Giving Up the Long Ball?
The Patriots defense has given up more 20-plus passing plays (208) in the last three seasons than any other defense in the NFL, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. The reason? A combination of inexperience and injuries at the safety position and the lack of a designated pass-rusher who could consistently get after the quarterback.
They've had both at certain points over the last three seasons, but they never seemed to happen all at once.
How have the Pats addressed this issue for 2013?
It starts with keeping Devin McCourty at free safety, where he had a steadying effect in 2012. It appears likely that his partner on the back-end will be Steve Gregory, who had an up-and-down first season in New England.
If Gregory falters, it might be on third-round pick Duron Harmon to take over next to McCourty. Harmon has flashed good range in preseason, but like any rookie, he's been inconsistent.
Marcus Benard appears to be the favorite to the pass-rush specialist, and his ability to bring pressure will be vital in conjunction with Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. Add in Tommy Kelly's pocket-pushing and the Pats could see a serious jump in their pass rush this season.
Coverage and pressure must work together to prevent the long ball, so there is no simple fix, but no other stat sticks out as badly as their deep pass defense has. Fixing that could be the quickest and most direct way to improving the defense.
Will Rob Gronkowski Return and Be the Same Old Gronk?
We still don't know for sure when Rob Gronkowski could be available to return. Some think the PUP list makes sense, so the Pats could prolong his recovery until Week 6. Though others think Gronk could be ready by mid-September.
While many were pencilling in Jake Ballard as a stout fill-in until Gronk returned, he hasn't looked as good as they had hoped. Daniel Fells showed a developed chemistry with Brady early in training camp, but missed much of preseason, leaving the Pats looking thin at tight end.
Michael Hoomanwanui could sneak on the roster; he's been the most experienced and healthiest of them all.
Getting by until Gronk returns is one thing, but will he be the same old Gronk once he does return? Coming back from arm surgery is one thing, but back surgery is a bigger deal. Not to mention, it has likely cost him as far as his conditioning and training go.
It might be too much to expect Gronkowski to immediately return and be the beast Patriots fans have come to know and love. The realistic long-term hope is that Gronk can be healthy and be back to himself when it counts the most, when they haven't had him healthy the last two seasons, and that's in the playoffs.
Can the New Receivers Do the Job?
With the departures of Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch, the turnover at the receiver position has been the biggest storyline of the 2013 Patriots.
Danny Amendola was the top free-agent target, and in the preseason, he looked ready, willing and able to take over Welker's role as the top slot receiver.
At the other starting receiver spot, the Pats brought in veterans and rookies and allowed competition to play out, and it was the rookies who were left standing.
At the top of the depth chart is the undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins, who has demonstrated a remarkable ability to win at the line of scrimmage and be where Tom Brady wants him to be. To start the season, he and Amendola should be the top two out of the gate.
But Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman and Josh Boyce aren't far behind, and all five should see significant action this season. Each has a slightly different element to their game, and the net result should be a New England offense that might be inconsistent at times, but still be among the top 10 offenses in the NFL once again.
Can the Patriots Get over the Super Bowl Hump?
Despite all the weaknesses and problems that we can pick out about the Patriots of the last few seasons, the fact is, this is a team that was in the Super Bowl and conference championship game the last two seasons and has been one of the top two seeds in the AFC the last three seasons.
They are a well-coached and experienced football team with an elite quarterback, so the only real question that matters for the Pats is have they done enough to win that elusive fourth Super Bowl?
Few doubt they should win their division, and most put them in the conversation for winning the conference, but taking home the big one remains the final and most difficult bridge to cross.
The team who wins the Super Bowl in February is always a perfect combination of avoiding key injuries, peaking for the three to four playoff games after the new year, and getting lucky at the vital moments when they need to. It's impossible to predict those factors, but on paper, it certainly seems like the Pats understood their weaknesses of the past few seasons and took steps to correct them.
Will they pan out? We'll have to wait until February to know for sure.