With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
If you were to catch Bill Belichick in a rare unguarded moment, he’d probably tell you that he’d like a complete do-over on this offseason. The New England Patriots, a pillar of stability in the NFL through the new millennium, fairly fell apart in the first part of 2013. Even after the Spygate scandal broke during the 2007 season, the Pats came within a couple completed passes of a perfect campaign, and compiled an 11-5 record without Tom Brady the next year.
But the Aaron Hernandez story, the biggest criminal scandal in sports since O.J. Simpson drove down the 405 in 1994, leaves this team in the lurch in more ways than at any other time in the Bill Belichick era. Not only is Hernandez out of football, but also fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski is dealing with injury issues that may put him out for a good part of the season. Add in New England’s decision to lowball Wes Welker, which sent Welker to Denver to be Peyton Manning’s new best buddy, and the standard roster churn down the depth chart, and Brady could start the 2013 season minus 83 percent of his targets from 2012.
The short answer is that the Patriot Way and Tom Brady will overcome all -- it’s certainly happened before. But this is a lot to ask of even Brady, and with other issues along the roster, it’s worth wondering if this great era is on the verge of atrophy.
• Biggest storyline: Obviously, it’s how the Patriots will replace all those targets.
If Gronkowski is out for long, New England completely loses what makes its current offense work -- a schematic philosophy centered on a two-tight end attack, with Welker moving to catch short passes across the middle. The Patriots replaced Welker with former St. Louis Rams receiver Danny Amendola, who is a reasonably effective player when healthy, and that isn’t often. Amendola has started just nine games in the last two seasons, though the Rams have wanted him to be a primary target. Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will try to replace the Gronkowski/Hernandez juggernaut with guys like Daniel Fells and Jake Ballard -- decent players, but defensive coordinators don’t exactly have to cram more tape to figure out how to stop them.
Even if all the new kids show up at their best, New England’s offense requires time and repetition to work, because few NFL systems have as many option routes as the Patriots. Brady and his targets must develop an instant, unspoken communication off the snap based on coverage, and if McDaniels has to simplify that to accommodate all the changes, much of the complexity is lost.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Strong safety.
The Patriots picked up longtime Arizona Cardinals stalwart Adrian Wilson to add veteran presence to a young and developing defense. Wilson isn’t the rangy safety he used to be, but he can still play reps in the box. Steve Gregory, who started 12 games last season, is battling with Tavon Wilson for the main stage on passing downs. If teams playing the Patriots counter New England’s no-huddle, high-scoring attack with the same plan, it will be interesting to see if Gregory and the two Wilsons are put in uncomfortable situations.
• New face, new place: Well, there’s that Tim Tebow guy. Aren’t you impressed that we went this long without mentioning him?
The Patriots have used Tebow in running back and receiver drills, which would seem to indicate that they’re open to using him as an H-back or goal-line runner. Such a move would make sense -- after all, Tebow scored as many NCAA rushing touchdowns as did Marshall Faulk. Whether he ever sees the field in another meaningful game at the quarterback position is open to conjecture, but he does allow New England’s number-one defense to deal with a mobile quarterback in practice. Tebow isn’t RGIII or anything, but he’s certainly more mobile than Ryan Mallett, the other backup behind Brady.
• Impact rookie: WR Aaron Dobson.
Dobson, the speedster from Marshall who the Pats took in the second round, impressed me at Senior Bowl practices with his ability to get vertical at the sideline and in the end zone. He plays taller than his 6-foot-2 frame, and his route awareness makes him an early potential breakout candidate in an offense starving for new targets. Reports indicate that Dobson has taken advantage of his quick graduation to the first team in camp by establishing a notable connection with Brady, especially on deep passes.
• Looking at the schedule: It’s tougher than it seems, and it seems pretty tough.
Per Football Outsiders’ metrics, the Patriots have the 13th-toughest projected opponent schedule in 2013. There also could be an unexpected challenger in the AFC East. Most expect the Miami Dolphins to present a serious divisional challenge if quarterback Ryan Tannehill improves, but watch out for Buffalo as well. The Bills have a lot of interesting pieces on both sides of the ball and could be a beast if new head coach Doug Marrone can put it all together. New England travels for four hazardous road games: the Atlanta Falcons (Week 4), Cincinnati Bengals (Week 5), Houston Texans (Week 13) and Baltimore Ravens (Week 16). The Pats will also host the New Orleans Saints right after the Atlanta and Cincy games, welcome the Steelers to Gillette Stadium in Week 9 and take on the Denver Broncos in Foxboro in Week 12. Not a lot of margin for error, outside of the two games with the New York Jets, and those are both out of the way by the halfway mark.