Offseason Breakdown: New England Patriots
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
One play. That's how close the Patriots were to being crowned Super Bowl champions last season.
Leading the Giants 17-15 late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI, New England looked ready to put the nail in the coffin as Tom Brady dropped to throw and let fly for a wide-open Wes Welker downfield. Somehow, the sure-handed Welker let the ball fall to the turf. Moments later, the Giants marched in for a touchdown and stole the title crown from the Patriots' heads.
That's seven straight seasons that have ended in heartbreak for New England since the franchise's Super Bowl XXXIX victory. The Patriots have won 10 games or more every year since, including a 16-0 mark, and been back to the championship game twice, only to fall short.
So, the biggest challenges for New England this year might be of the mental and emotional variety. How many more runs does this group have left in the tank?
2011 Record: 13-3 (first in AFC East; lost to Giants in Super Bowl)
Team Strengths: QB, TE, G, DT
Team Weaknesses: RB, CB
Three Things to Watch:
1. How will all the new faces mesh?: The Patriots certainly did not rest on their laurels after capturing the AFC title. This was an offseason of high turnover in New England.
Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth have joined the receiving corps, with Joseph Addai (plus fullbacks Tony Fiametta and Spencer Larsen) jumping into the backfield mix. Defensive end may have a new look, too, with Jonathan Fanene coming over from Cincinnati, Trevor Scott from Oakland, and Chandler Jones earning a first-round draft pick. Fellow first-rounder Dont'a Hightower figures to see big minutes at linebacker; same for second-rounder Tavon Wilson at safety. And the Patriots also brought in Steve Gregory from San Diego to compete at free safety, next to Patrick Chung.
You might need a roster to figure out who's on the field for New England early on, but the key will be how quickly all of this comes together -- especially on defense. Tom Brady will find a way to get production out of his receivers and backs, and with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez around, he has three reliable weapons anyway.
Defensively, the situation is much more urgent after New England allowed the second-most yards in the league last year (6,577). Either Gregory, a steady 13-game starter for San Diego in 2011, or Wilson must step up in the secondary. The Patriots also need Fanene, Jones and Scott to play big, because ...
2. Who's going to pressure the quarterback?: ... Gone off the roster (at least for now) are the 20 regular-season sacks from Mark Anderson and Andre Carter -- Anderson signed with the rival Bills; Carter still sits in free-agent limbo and may wind returning to New England, but he's rehabbing after severely tearing a quad muscle in December.
For the moment, that shifts the focus to Fanene (6.5 sacks with Cincinnati last season) and Scott (seven sacks for Oakland in 2009), though the Patriots figure to use the rookie Jones and returning part-time starter Brandon Deaderick plenty too.
New England finished with 40 sacks last season and, given how badly its secondary struggled, needs to generate at least as much of a pass rush this time around.
3. Can the tight ends dominate again?: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were solid in their 2010 rookie seasons. They were off-the-charts dominant in 2011.
Hernandez reeled in 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns, despite missing time to injury; Gronkowski had 90 grabs for 1,327 yards and led the league with 17 touchdown catches. One of the only teams to figure out how to slow down that duo was, unfortunately for New England, the Giants -- who did so, in part, by dropping safety Deon Grant into tight coverage, and even that effort was helped in the Super Bowl by the fact that Gronkowski could barely walk.
The additions of Lloyd and (to a lesser extent) Gaffney and Stallworth will give Brady more weapons outside. But the Gronkowski-Hernandez duo drove this offense last season, as defenses found it nearly impossible to match up with the versatile tight ends ... especially with Welker darting and diving all over the place.
The 2011 season was a breakthrough for Gronkowski and Hernandez. That type of production is what's expected now.
Outlook: The Patriots' offensive line wasn't exactly stout last season, but it was generally better than most people gave it credit for and should be decent again if Nate Solder can replace Matt Light at left tackle. That means there may be no stopping New England's offense again this season, assuming Gronkowski is fully healthy after offseason ankle surgery and amid lingering back issues.
The worries, again, are on the defensive side of the ball. Even if a healed Carter re-signs and reclaims a defensive end spot, the Patriots still need another playmaker up front. They need at least one or two guys to step up on the back end too, since teams exploited New England through the air throughout the 2011 season -- the Patriots finished 31st in passing yards allowed. Even as Buffalo continues to improve, New England remains the clear favorite in the AFC East. This team also has what it takes, on paper, to get back to the Super Bowl. How motivated the Patriots are and how many stops the defense can make will determine where this season winds up.