It’s safe to say that when the New England Patriots made the curious decision to let Wes Welker sign with AFC rival Denver Broncos for only slightly more money than what they had been offering, they were confident that the weapons Tom Brady still had around him would be more than enough to make the passing attack one of the best in the NFL yet again.
Then they learned Gronk had to get back surgery. Then they found out that Aaron Hernandez had been doing a bad Anton Chigurh impression for the past few years. And suddenly, that passing attack that has ranked in the top 5 in the league for three of the past four years was looking very ordinary.
With Welker and Hernandez already out the door and Gronk’s status for the regular season in doubt, the bulk of the targets will go towards Julian Edelman and the newly-signed Danny Amendola, whom the Patriots somehow decided was a better investment than the consistently dynamic Welker. Amendola is undoubtedly a talented and productive receiver when healthy, but the problem is that he hasn’t been healthy in a long time, missing 22 games over the past 4 seasons.
Meanwhile, there’s little doubt that the Patriots’ success hinges on the ability of Tom Brady to stay on the field, a reality that became a little more real last week when he limped off the field with an apparent knee injury and caused the hearts of everyone in New England to momentarily stop for a few seconds. It turned out to be a non-issue, but it was a harsh reminder that with a weaker supporting cast than in years past, the Pats are only going to go as far as Brady will take them.
Ready for the good news? Good, because there’s plenty of it. For starters, Brady has proved time and time again that he only needs marginally competent receivers to execute a deadly passing attack. If you don’t believe me, take a look at how guys like Deion Branch, David Givens, and David Patten performed after leaving town.
The running game should also be even better than it was last year (7th in total yards) with the addition of LeGarrette Blount and Tim Tebow (yes, Tebow will likely be a solid running threat as long as Belichick knows enough to never let him throw) to take some of the load off of Stevan Ridley. And Shane Vereen figures to be the Pats’ version of Randall Cobb or Darren Sproles this year now that Danny Woodhead is in San Diego, as he’s expected to line up all over the field as a kind of super utility man designed to confuse defenses.
The offensive line in front of Brady and the running backs figures to be exceptionally strong once again as well, as Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are only getting better at left and right tackle, respectively, and the interior line of Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, and Ryan Wendell is rock solid.
But the best news for New England fans is that the defense, whose awful performance over the past three years (average overall rank: 27) has chipped away at Bill Belichick’s “defensive genius” reputation, has the potential to be very good once again.
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Bringing back Aqib Talib on an affordable one-year deal was a huge coup, as his acquisition midway through last season shored up what had been a dreadful secondary to that point. And with All-Pro strong safety Adrian Wilson now lining up next to Devin McCourty, the Pats’ secondary might actually be a strength for the first time in a while.
The linebacking corps of Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, and Jerod Mayo is solid if not spectacular, and the pass rush will be formidable with highly-touted second-year defensive end Chandler Jones fully healthy. With Rob Ninkovich lining up on the other end and Jamie Collins providing depth, the Pats will have a solid rotation to bookend run-stuffer extraordinaire Vince Wilfork and whoever wins the right to line up next to him at defensive tackle.
And the best news of all? The Patriots are still playing among the pu-pu platter of teams that make up the rest of the AFC East. Barring another major catastrophe, they’ll be back in the playoffs once again.