Darrelle Revis and the Patriots have plenty of reasons to smile. (AP Photo)
The Patriots were ravaged by injuries last season, losing three core defensive starters (Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly), a Pro Bowl right tackle (Sebastian Vollmer) and one of the league’s most lethal weapons (Rob Gronkowski). They responded with a (ho hum) third-straight conference title appearance. Everyone is back and healthy (even Danny Amendola, for now) except for Gronkowski, who is aiming for a Week 1 return. And the Patriots have added all-world Darrelle Revis and former Seahawks standout Brandon Browner at the cornerback spots. Yes, confidence is rightfully high in Foxboro, as the Patriots may have their most talented team since going 18-1 in 2007.
One vivid memory from watching practice
In the joint practice against the Eagles, Patrick Chung spent much of the session starting at strong safety opposite Devin McCourty. This is the same Chung who the Patriots took in the second round in 2009, then banished him to the bench in 2012 before making no effort to re-sign him as a free agent that offseason. It is also the same Chung who signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Eagles in 2013 to play for former college coach Chip Kelly, and then was benched before being released after one season. There’s still a ways to go in a battle with Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson, but it was amazing to see Chung starting both for and against teams that had benched him and discarded him the past two seasons. It’s also amazing that the Patriots are still so weak at the position that Chung, who is decent against the run but struggles mightily in coverage and being assignment sure, might be the best option.
How this team can go 12–4
By showing up for 16 games. With showdowns against the Bengals, Bears and Broncos at home, the only game the Patriots could be underdogs for would be the Nov. 30 game at Green Bay (and that’s definitely not a given). The baseline for this team, if Tom Brady starts all 16 games, is 12-4. That was their record last season with all the injuries and without Darrelle Revis. Expect this team to be in the 14-2 range.
How this team can go 4–12
If Bill Belichick is abducted. If he’s coaching, even without Brady the team would go at least .500 (see, 2008 Patriots).
Now, from fantasyland …
The Gronk of old? Not quite yet. (Elise Amendola/AP)
1. When players come back from ACL/MCL surgery (just seven months ago) like TE Rob Gronkowski is, there are going to be days of gains, and some not-so-good days. Maybe I caught Gronk on a bad day, but the player I saw running routes seemed far from a lock to play Week 1 against the Dolphins. He was favoring his right knee, and ran with a decent but not terrible limp. Still, 75% Gronk is better than most tight ends, especially in the red zone, so he should still be way up on your list of tight ends.
2. Barring injury, I see no slow down coming from WR Julian Edelman, who had 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns last season. He’s still as elusive as ever, and he did all that damage despite being one of the few viable weapons for Tom Brady to use.
3. The running back situation is always muddy with the Patriots, and this year is no exception. The thing to keep in mind is New England basically has a running back and a passing back. Who gets what snaps and touches depends on the week’s game plan. I think fourth-round pick James White is more of a threat to Shane Vereen’s playing time than Steven Ridley, who is still the bellcow at the runner spot with Brandon Bolden behind him. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots look to acquire another big back (like they did with LeGarrette Blount) to supplant Bolden.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
Aaron Dobson/Brandon LaFell
Dan Connolly/Ryan Wendell/Bryan Stork
Dan Connolly/Josh Kline
Brandon Browner/Alfonzo Dennard
Alfonzo Dennard/Kyle Arrington/Logan Ryan
Patrick Chung/Duron Harmon/Tavon Wilson
There has to be a lot of frustration that Aaron Dobson, a second-round pick in 2013, is still working his way back from a foot injury that happened last season. The Patriots really need his body type (6-3, 200 pounds with leaping ability) on the field to give them a boundary presence. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are very good when healthy, but they don’t threaten the outside … The Patriots were probably hoping fourth-round pick Bryan Stork would grab the center position away from Ryan Wendell, but an injury to Stork has caused a shuffling with RG Dan Connolly at center for now (which weakens RG) … LB Jamie Collins is a far better player in his second season. He oozes confidence on the practice field. Look for the Patriots to put him in a playmaking role, and he also covers very well … Strong safety is still a huge hole on this team. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots platoon Patrick Chung (base) and Duron Harmon (nickel).
Best new player in camp
Darrelle Revis, cornerback. Duh. He’s the best cornerback in the game because his feet and balance are so good. Patriots fans were so starved for even mediocre cornerback play that they thought Aqib Talib was a mixture of Deion Sanders and Willie Brown. Wait until they get a load of Revis, who is far better than Talib and much more durable.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Even after his four-game suspension is up, Brandon Browner is no sure thing at cornerback opposite Revis. Alfonzo Dennard has proven capable in the past, and undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler has opened eyes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots match up their cornerbacks depending on the opponent, with Browner sitting against teams with a smaller receiving corp but matching up with big vertical receivers. Unlike Revis, Browner is the type of cornerback who will be adversely affected by the renewed emphasis on downfield contact; that’s how he plays defense. And he’s a 30-year-old big corner. Those types of players start their downward slides at this stage of their careers. The Seahawks thought it started last season with leg injuries and didn’t want him back. The Patriots are betting otherwise.
Something I’ve never seen before
The Patriots have an offensive tackle dance going on, and it’s a bit disconcerting. From one play to the next, you weren’t sure who was going to line up where between Nate Solder (usual starting left tackle), Sebastian Vollmer (usual starter on the right side) and Marcus Cannon (usually a right tackle who’s probably a better guard). Something is going on with Solder. He’s struggled in this camp, including the preseason opener. It could be an unknown injury (this is the Patriots, after all), or his confidence could be shaken. In the past, you could comfortably say the Patriots will get it figured out because they had one of the best offensive line coaches in the league in Dante Scarnecchia. He’s now retired, and replaced by veteran coach Dave DeGuglielmo, who is no slouch in the coaching department. The spotlight will burn very bright on DeGuglielmo if the line gets off to a bad start.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
The Patriots are going to the Super Bowl, if not winning it. There are some questions on the offensive line after the retirement of coach Dante Scarnecchia, and strong safety could be a disaster (again). But if things go right for this team, especially with injuries (hello Gronk), the Patriots are stacked on both sides of the ball. Given what they did last season with half a team, they are primed to capture that elusive title a decade after their last.