Fact or Fiction for the Patriots' Biggest Offseason Question Marks
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is not someone who likes questions, let alone question marks. His terse answers to members of the media are famous for their bite, but some personnel questions dogging his team might have enough teeth to bite as well.
Some potential problem areas have possible solutions lying in wait, while others—tight end for example—might require some extra attention.
Here are five questions Belichick has to chew on this offseason and a discussion about whether their bark is worse than their bite.
There Aren't Enough Pass-Rushers
Pass rush is about more than just the ubiquitous sack statistic. The New England Patriots finished fifth in the NFL with 48 sacks, but few close observers would consider the front seven in 2013 elite pass-rushers.
Rushing the passer is about applying consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback. While New England defenders finished many of their opportunities, there were far too many dry spells in between pressures. For example, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Joe Vellano and Chris Jones combined for nine sacks, but they had only 30 other total pressures on 747 rush snaps.
Help, however, is already on its way. Rookie Dominique Easley as well as returning veterans Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly will give Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich—two consistent performers—support on the interior.
Jamie Collins' emergence as a three-down linebacker may also allow linebacker Dont'a Hightower to rush off the edge as well, something he had success with in college.
If Zach Moore, Jake Bequette or Michael Buchanan can develop as an outside rusher, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's cup will runneth over.
Tom Brady Doesn't Have Enough Weapons
Casual fans—of New England and from around the country—would have you believe that Tom Brady was throwing the ball to practice-squad players and veteran castoffs in 2013.
Instead, he got clutch performances from different players throughout the year.
Julian Edelman caught 105 balls for 1,056 yards and was one of the best "Z" receivers in the league. Danny Amendola battled through a myriad injuries to log 54 catches for 633 yards. Rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins all had their ups and downs, but came through time and time again when they needed to.
And that's just the receivers. Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the majority of the 2013 season, but should be available for Week 1. Shane Vereen snagged 47 catches in just eight games. He is the nightmare matchup out of the backfield and outside the numbers that Aaron Hernandez used to be known for.
If New England can get any contributions in the passing game from rookies James White, Jeremy Gallon or Roy Finch—let alone a possible veteran free agent such as Dustin Keller or Jermichael Finley—Brady will have no lack of targets in 2014.
Rest assured, Patriots fans, Reche Caldwell will not be catching—or dropping—balls this year.
Tight End Depth Is Razor Thin
There is only one Rob Gronkowski. While Michael Hoomanawanui and Gronkowski are expected to be on the field for Week 1, the other tight ends on the roster are a bit of a mystery.
D.J. Williams played only a handful of snaps in 2013, while undrafted rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson have a lot to prove before they will see the field during a meaningful game. In their stead, expect to see the reliable—but wholly unspectacular—James Develin take some reps at tight end in addition to handling his fullback duties.
Linebacker Jamie Collins has even seen some time at tight end this offseason, per Doug Kyed of NESN. While he could be Mike Vrabel reincarnated, I'm sure the New England Patriots want another true option at tight end. Veterans Jermichael Finley and Dustin Keller are in the mix, but things are far from settled until depth is added.
The Interior Offensive Line Needs to Be Overhauled
The overhaul of the interior offensive line has already begun. Whether the remodeling ends up looking good to the current tenants, however, remains to be seen.
Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell performed below expectations in 2013, ranking below the average guards and centers, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The New England Patriots drafted two interior linemen—Bryan Stork and Jon Halapio—in the 2014 NFL draft to jump-start the process.
Logan Mankins is still playing at a high level, but he could be released next year to alleviate some salary-cap concerns. Second-year player Josh Kline showed last year that he is ready to take that job when given the opportunity. A healthy Sebastian Vollmer also will allow Marcus Cannon to have some versatility to swing inside if need be.
Stork and Halapio are no sure things, and the incumbents will surely be relied upon early on account of their experience. This position could be the best battle to watch in training camp.
Verdict: To Be Determined
Can Three Star Linebackers Carry the Group?
Behind the three starting linebackers for the New England Patriots—Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins—and newly signed nickel/special teams linebacker James Anderson, proven depth is hard to find.
The cupboard is hardly bare, however. Second-year player Steve Beauharnais has looked ready to step into a bigger role in 2014. Along the defensive line, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones can both play without their hand in the dirt as outside linebackers if needed. Josh Hull, Chris White and Ja'Gared Davis are all anxious for snaps as well.
Larger defensive backs such as Brandon Browner, Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon could even see some time in linebacker roles on passing downs.
Barring another injury, like the one that sidelined Mayo for the majority of 2013, the Patriots look to be in good hands with their linebackers.
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