What's New for the New England Patriots in 2013
Of course, in the NFL, change is inevitable, and the Patriots have never been shy about replacing players just before their expiration date or taking chances on a player who might've had injuries or been in bad situations.
While some of the biggest pieces like Belichick, Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork remain in place, there was plenty of turnover elsewhere on the Patriots' roster this offseason. Some of the household names of recent seasons are now gone, opening the door to a new collection of players ready to be part of the Patriot Way.
Here's a look at what's new in New England this season.
You might notice the field in New England looking a little different this season, and that is due to the new logo the Patriots unveiled early this spring. Their script logo has been in the end zone in Foxboro going back to the old stadium that the Pats ditched in 2002.
The script logo will remain below the NFL shield on the Patriots' jerseys, but the end zones receiving the Gronk spikes will be the new one.
The Safety Next to Devin McCourty
Even at the end of the preseason it remains unclear how the safety position will play out. On one side we have Devin McCourty, the former cornerback, whose move to safety made the entire defense better in 2012. Now McCourty should be at safety full-time, but who lines up next to him remains a question mark.
The safe bet is on Steve Gregory despite an up-and-down 2012 season. Gregory isn't the biggest linebacker but excels in a "Robber" role where he's able to read the quarterback and come downhill to make plays on the ball.
The other three safeties are in the strong safety mold, and all could see time at some point, especially in the base defense where they can use their size to take on the run.
Adrian Wilson appears to have his best days behind him but might still be able to contribute in a dime linebacker role. However, youngsters Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon could push him off the team.
The Pats have a number of options next to McCourty, but none are clear-cut starters. Injuries and performance will likely determine who sees the bulk of time on the back end.
The Patriots ranked 25th in the NFL in kickoff return average in 2012 using a rotating collection of players, none of whom were especially explosive. Devin McCourty was the closest to a suitable return man and did return a kick for a touchdown against the Jets in October, but McCourty is far too valuable on defense to risk him returning kicks.
Enter Leon Washington, who averaged nearly five more yards per kick return than McCourty with the second-best return average in the NFL. Washington should also provide value and insurance at punt returner, where he ranked 20th in the NFL last season.
The Patriots have lacked a consistent and dangerous kick returner since Ellis Hobbs, and now Washington should fill that hole.
Attitude and Athleticism in Defensive Middle of the Field
In their season-ending loss to the Ravens, the Patriots looked listless in the second half. It culminated when old nemesis Bernard Pollard delivered a knockout shot to Stevan Ridley that forced a fumble and effectively ended the game.
The Ravens also exploited the Pats defense through the air, especially in the middle of the field, leaving no question that New England had to get more athletic and develop a new toughness in the middle of its defense.
Jamie Collins should be a welcome addition in this area where his athleticism can shine in coverage. While Dont'a Hightower and Dane Fletcher should also see increased snaps on passing downs.
Vince Wilfork's Partner in the Middle
Over the past few seasons, the Patriots defense has evolved into a "double-nose" scheme. This involves having two big bodies at defensive tackle who can either two-gap or one-gap and allow five other athletes at defensive end and linebacker to make all the plays.
What has been lacking most in this scheme is an impact player next to Vince Wilfork. The Patriots used Gerard Warren there some in 2011 while giving Albert Haynesworth a shot as well but ended up with seventh-round pick Brandon Deaderick and undrafted Kyle Love there for most of the time in 2012.
None of those players had the kind of ability to cause matchup problems. Offenses could still primarily focus on Wilfork and not have to worry extensively about whoever was next to him.
The Patriots are hoping that changes this season with the addition of Tommy Kelly. Kelly arrives in New England after nine playoff-less seasons in Oakland, and through the preseason, he has looked like just what the Hoodie ordered for the middle of the defense.
Kelly can push the pocket but also has the size to hold his ground. He should be a huge part of the defense and not only allow the Patriots to cut back on Wilfork's snap totals, but also free Wilfork and the others up to make even more plays.
Continuity on Defense
With the Patriots defense, constant change had become the norm in recent years, especially in the secondary. But this year the Pats return all their starters outside of Kyle Love, and that kind of continuity has been rare since 2007.
The Patriots had no choice but to rebuild their defense, as the one that won them Super Bowls got old and slow. Belichick has done it methodically. Most of the key pieces have been brought in through the draft, including Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty and Chandler Jones.
The holes have been filled via affordable castoff free agents like Kyle Arrington, Steve Gregory and Rob Ninkovich as well as the occasional high-profile free agent like Aqib Talib.
Put it all together this season and you have a young defense that has played a lot of games together on big stages. That continuity has its trajectory headed upwards.
Shane Vereen had enough talent coming out of Cal to be taken in the second round, but his first season-and-a-half in the NFL was marred by injuries and invisibility. Finally, Vereen burst onto the scene in 2012 on Thanksgiving day, taking a dump-off pass all the way to the house to start a furious scoring rally by the Patriots against the Jets.
He added three touchdowns in the divisional playoff round against the Texans and set himself up for this coming season. The Patriots allowed Danny Woodhead to leave for San Diego, effectively handing Vereen the lead passing back job.
Vereen's skill as a pass-catcher, especially downfield, is topnotch, and in the preseason he looked explosive. If he can stay healthy, he could be one of a few new breakout stars on offense.
The Patriots always have a collection of rookies who find ways to contribute, and this year should be no different. Leading the way are the rookie receivers, where Kenbrell Thompkins looks to be the best of the lot early on. Don't rule out Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce both making significant contributions as well.
Zach Sudfeld has won a roster spot with his great performances in the summer and should catch a lot of balls. Despite being close to Rob Gronkowski in size, he'll fit more into a "move" role that the Pats used Aaron Hernandez in.
On defense, cornerback Logan Ryan should be thrown immediately into the fire as the nickelback given the injuries that have added up in training camp. Jamie Collins is immediately one of the Patriots most athletic linebackers and should see plenty of snaps on passing downs, both in coverage and rushing the passer.
Lastly, Duron Harmon has been up and down in the preseason, but given the situation at safety, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect him to see some game action sooner rather than later.
The Tight Ends
If you had told Patriots fans a year ago that neither Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez would be starting the season opener in 2013, they wouldn't have believed you. But that's indeed the case after a tumultuous offseason at the position.
The Pats already jettisoned Daniel Fells, an insurance option from last year, along with Jake Ballard who still has a ways to go in his recovery.
This leaves Michael Hoomanawanui and undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld as the only healthy tight ends on the roster, but it bodes well for Gronk's prognosis.
Expect him back before the end of September.
Fresh Faces on Offense
Nowhere will you find more change than at the wide receiver position, where the Patriots parted ways with Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch, losing over 60 percent of last year's receivers. Add in Aaron Hernandez's release and Rob Gronkowski still recovering from multiple offseason surgeries, and Tom Brady will have almost an entirely new set of targets to throw the ball to.
The most key acquisition? Veteran free agent Danny Amendola, who has looked electric in the preseason, including a long touchdown catch against the Buccaneers.
Joining Amendola are a collection of rookies, including second-round pick Aaron Dobson, fourth-round pick Josh Boyce and undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins. All the rookies have flashed at some point. It will be a work in progress with all of them, but the future looks bright at this point.
Amazingly it has been Thompkins who has stood out the most ever since arriving in Foxboro. He looks polished and comfortable in the offense and racked up eight catches for 116 yards against the Lions in Week 3 of the preseason.
No other area is more novel to this year's Patriots, and no other area will be more closely watched.