It was a tumultuous off-season to be sure. Wes Welker wasn't re-signed. Rob Gronkowski needed further surgery which put his status for the start of the season in jeopardy. Tim Tebow, and the circus that accompanies him, came to town for a couple of months. One player was arrested for drunk driving and another player was arrested for a far more serious offense.
Head coach Bill Belichick will breathe a sigh of relief when his players take the field Sunday for their opener in Buffalo. On the field has always been where Belichick has felt most comfortable.
No matter how bad things get, Patriots fans can always take comfort knowing future Hall of Famers Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are still at the helm. But this is a far different team than we have seen in the recent past. Here's my look at what to expect in 2013 and, hopefully, beyond:
Tom Brady is the reason you can always pencil the Patriots in for at least ten wins at the start of every season. The 36-year-old will be tested more than any season since 2006, however. He doesn't have that "go-to" guy. To start the season there will be no Troy Brown, Randy Moss, Gronkowski, or Wes Welker. Early in his career, it was common to hear that "Brady's favorite receiver is the open receiver." He spread the ball around. He made stars of mediocre receivers like David Givens, David Patten, Jabar Gaffney, and Reche Caldwell. Even defensive player Mike Vrabel caught touchdown passes back then.
In recent years, it has become more difficult to earn Brady's trust. Drop a pass, run a wrong route, make a bad read, and Brady might not look in your direction for the next two weeks. Wide receivers like Taylor Price, Chad Jackson, Chad Johnson, and Julian Edelman can attest to that. Brady will need to find a couple of receivers out of a group of unknowns that he can trust immediately.
Danny Amendola would be the obvious choice to gain Brady's trust right out of the chute. Amendola will slide into Welker's role. Will he be able to withstand the pounding of being targeted fifteen times per game like Welker? Welker's toughness was an understated quality during his time with the Patriots. Fans will grow to appreciate that once Amendola gets sidelined for a few games.
Once Amendola goes down, and he will, who will Brady turn to? Kenbrell Thompkins has been a revelation this preseason. Thompkins, who went undrafted, is the likeliest of the Patriots rookie receivers to have the biggest impact early in the season. To me, when he has his mouthpiece in, Thompkins reminds me a lot of Michael Irvin. Hopefully he'll be as good as Irvin someday, minus all the off-field stuff (an issue Thompkins also has had).
Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce were the two receivers the Patriots actually drafted this year. Dobson, their second-round pick, appears to be behind Thompkins and Boyce right now, but has the biggest upside. You have to love those Marshall receivers.
Boyce, New England's fourth-round pick, reminds me a bit of Troy Brown. He could have an impact running the bubble screens the Patriots are famous for. I'd also like to see the Patriots utilize his speed by using him as a kickoff returner.
Julian Edelman may be the forgotten one here, but he may emerge as their most reliable receiver come midseason. He has the most experience with Brady and is good insurance for when Amendola goes down.
Might we be looking at a change in philosophy for the Patriots offense? Probably not, but if the Patriots did choose to go to more of a run-orientated offense, they have the weapons.
Stevan Ridley may have had one of the most understated 1,200-yard rushing season in Patriots history. His history of fumbling has been well-chronicled. I don't consider fumbling four times in nearly 300 touches that big of a problem. How is that that much different than Brady throwing eight interceptions in 600 pass attempts last year?
Shane Vereen could be the Danny Woodhead of this team. He has surprised me with his ability to catch the ball, especially on fades down the sidelines. It's ironic because when they were drafted, I tend to remember Vereen was expected to be the feature back and Ridley was expected to be the third-down, pass-catching back. Durability is always a concern with Vereen.
I really like LeGarrette Blount. I've always liked that battering ram-type running back, a la Marion Butts in his prime, and it's something the Patriots have lacked since the days of Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Blount could be that fourth quarter punishing running back the Patriots use to close out victories.
Depending on who you want to believe, Gronkowski may be back in two or six weeks. He wasn't put on the PUP list so that's an indication the Patriots expect him back sooner than later. Nobody on the Patriots roster, nor any other team's, can block and catch like Gronk. Zach Sudfeld opened a lot of eyes in preseason with his pass catching abilities. It remains to be seen if that translates to the regular season.
Analyzing offensive linemen can be boring, so I will just say this: "In Dante Scarnecchia we trust." There's a reason he has been with the Patriots since 1982, despite all the head coaching changes. Nate Solder is on the verge of superstardom. Depth is a concern.
Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly will make it impossible for teams to run inside against the Patriots. Chandler Jones looked like a star-in-the-making early in the 2012 season, but faded. He needs to become that pass-rushing force again. Depth is also a concern here along the defensive line. Signing a Dwight Freeney or John Abraham in the offseason may have helped both the pass rush and their depth.
This is the strength of the Patriots. They have a young nucleus of Jerod Mayo (27), Brandon Spikes (25), Dont'a Hightower (23), and Jamie Collins (23) which I would stack up against anyone else. I just wish Belichick would unleash the dogs more. Blitz!!! Please?
The Patriots didn't make any big changes to an area where many, myself included, believe has been this team's Achilles' heel ever since the days of Ty Law and Asante Samuel. They did re-sign Aqib Talib. Talib proved to be a shutdown corner at times last year. The other corner position is a question mark. Alfonzo Dennard has legal issues he needs to take care of. Marquice Cole opened some eyes late last year. Rookie Logan Ryan may emerge as a starter. Kyle Arrington needs to remain as a slot cornerback.
Hopefully, Devin McCourty's days as a cornerback are done. His speed and ball-hawking ability is best utilized as a free safety. Strong safety is the quarterback of the defense. The demise of the Patriots defense can be traced back to their inability to develop a strong safety in the mold of Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison.
In a surprise move, Ryan Allen beat out Zoltan Mesko at the punter position. I say, "Don't mess with the Zoltan!" Also, "Don't mess with the punter!" A reliable punter is underrated. If you never notice a punter, that's a good thing, and I can't recall complaining about Mesko once.
I have a bad, bad feeling about Stephen Gostkowski going into this season. I have always supported Gostkowski during some of his down times in the last couple of years. This year, I am worried.
Leon Washington was brought in to return kicks. Then he was cut. Then he was re-signed. I'd like to see Washington and Boyce returning kickoffs with Edelman returning punts. Seems pretty formidable to me.
When predicting how many wins the Patriots will have this year, we can start with six-- the six games the Patriots play within their division against the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins. The Bills and Jets, in particular, are a mess. That leaves ten other games and I think it is safe to say the Patriots can go, at least, 6-4 in those. That would make them 12-4. Possible losses would be at Atlanta (9/29), New Orleans (10/13), Denver (11/24), at Houston (12/1), and at Baltimore (12/22).
Belichick's teams always play better in December so ignore what you may see in September. I see an AFC Championship game scenario with the Patriots playing in Denver. The Patriots would be hard-pressed to beat Welker and Peyton Manning in Denver... but Manning does hate the cold weather.