Questions About The Patriots As They Start Practice...
The New England Patriots have opened training camp in Foxboro for the 2013 season. Their first exhibition game is a week from Friday, in Pennsylvania, against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Pats have had a wild offseason, and unfortunately rank among the lower graded teams for their February-July efforts. Few other teams, for example, allowed their best healthy pass catcher to walk, and it goes without saying that no other team had anyone high-profile catch a murder rap. The Pats, who were an Aqib Talib injury away from playing in the Super Bowl against a near-rookie quarterback, blew up the team.
We can debate the merits of, say Wes Welker for Danny Amendola all day. Despite the fact that I'm writing this column and you're reading it, I'm probably not that far ahead of my average reader as to how much football we know... I'm sure many of you know a lot more football than I do. What I can do is to ask questions and guess at answers. I don't run the team, and no harm is done if I hold a particularly stupid opinion on something.
Anyhow, here's what the Cape Cod Sports Desk is watching for during the Pats training camp:
- Who Is Going To Catch The Damned Ball?
We can bicker over the rankings some, but it's safe to say that the team's best pass catchers last season were, in order of importance, Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Donte Stallworth and Shane Vereen. Of that impressive group, we now have only career backups Vereen and Edelman. Gronkowski had, I think, 90 surgeries this offseason. He is quickly approaching the status where we hang a nickname like "Delicate" Rob Gronkowski on him. Hernandez is caged for the good of society, and may be a serial killer. Lloyd wasn't asked back after one weak season. Branch is 99% retired. Welker was allowed to go to our division's chief rival for no compensation.
In their place, we drafted unhealded Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, signed fragile slot receiver Danny Amendola (if we throw a Hail Mary, we'll have a guy with "Amen" in his name trying to catch it), and picked up Michael Jenkins, since-cut Donald Jones, LaVelle Hawkins, and someone named Kembrell Something.
We could end up importing someone at this position, maybe a late-season cut from a team stocked at the position. A wild guess from yours truly would be Tennessee problem child Kenny Britt or San Diego flop signing Robert Meachem. We also chatted with former Cowboy Laurent Robinson.
Tom Brady has worked wonders with lesser-known receivers before, but he's late in his career and it would have been nice to load the table for him somehow. Giselle Buncheden may have been right... it might be necessary for Tom to both throw and catch the ball. Unless Dobson tears the NFL apart as a rookie, WR is a team liability for the the first time in about a decade.
- Whither Tebow?
Tim Tebow was probably our most high profile aqcuisition, which is funny because he probably won't play much if he even makes the team. The Pats have carried only two QBs recently, and they have a promising young backup in Ryan Mallett. There has been talk of using Tebow as a fullback, a tight end, and a scout team QB for when we play a RGIII-type mobile QB.
Tebow has been working exclusively as a QB, which sort of spoils my theory that an attention-starved Tebow framed Aaron Hernandez so as to assume his roster spot. I had the bare bones of the ensuing book on this postulate already on Word somewhere, and would have gone to Random House with it the moment they changed Tebow's jersey number. It's always entertaining when a religious type cracks, and Tebow's explosion would have been NYT-bestseller worthy if he killed to frame his old college chum in order to maintain a platform from which to push his religious beliefs.
Tebow is about a 25% bet to make the roster, and it would actually be to his (and my) benefit if he picked up a second or third position. He can be immortal that way, if he pioneered a position on a roster for former college QBs who are somewhat burly and can run well enough to play 3-7 positions. Shoot, he should pick up long-snapping.
- We're Thin On The Fat Guys
An under-the-radar move by the Pats was bringing in Tommy Kelly to play DL next to Vin Wilfork. Kelly was a force once for Oakland, and merited a huge contract. He sort of fell in with the rest of the Raider malaise, and ended up falling into New England's lap. He's a huge upgrade over anyone we had next to Wilfork last season.
However, he hardly offsets the talent drain we've had at that position, ranging from Ron Brace to Brandon Deaderick to Kyle Love. We imported Armond Armstead from Canada, but he is unproven. After that, the drop-off is immense. An injury to Wilfork would sink the whole defense.
Do not be shocked if we pounce on other team's later cuts at this position.
- Safety Dance
New England had trouble with the safety position recently. Patrick Chung was allowed to walk away, which ended our strategic planning for this position. We brought in Arizona safety Adrian Wilson, who is more of a run-stopper than a coverage guy. Still, he's a 230 pound beast, and, with Talib, is the new backbone of our secondary.
He is offset somewhat by the move to safety of former cornerback Devin McCourty. DMC was vulnerable at corner, but could actually be a fine deep cover guy of we get lucky for once.
Recent draft picks like Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner and Tayvon Wilson are more special-teamers at this point. Steve Gregory is the principal backup, assuming Wilson beats him out for the starting job.
The safety position is vital, as we may lose starting cornerback Alfonso Dennard to an OUI violation of his previous punching-a-cop-in-the-face probation.
- Running Back Depth
Stevan Ridley had a breakout season last year, and is now a top-15 pick in fantasy football. He may be in for a tougher season with the passing game difficulties, as teams will be able to game-plan for him. He's also fumble-prone and now has a concussion history, having coughed up the ball on a bell-ringer in a vital playoff game last winter. A 1300 yard, 12 TD season from the Riddler may be the key to overcoming the damage suffered by the WR corps.
However, we should also note that the team won Super Bowls when Brady was the game-manager QB of a run-centric attack rather than the mad bomber of the Randy Moss/Gronkowski offenses. Corey Dillon has a title ring from his time with us, while Wes Welker doesn't.
Behind the Riddler, we have Shane Vereen as the third-down pass catcher back, filling the role held last year by Danny Woodhead. He is poised for a big year. LaGarrette Blount is the goal-line back, while Leon Washington looks to play a big role running back kicks.
Big names like Michael Turner and Cedric Benson are out there, but would most likely just get in the way at this point. Turner could be an upgrade over Blount, but only if he plays for peanuts.
Strength Of Schedule
We get off the hook somewhat easily with the schedule man this year. We get the NFC South. We took a beating from the NFC West last year, absorbing losses to Seattle, San Francisco, and patsy Arizona. We look pretty good when stacked up against Tampa Bay and Carolina this year, although Atlanta and New Orleans go into my betting as Ls until some trend that leads me to believe otherwise becomes prevalent.
Giving us 2-2 against the NFC South, we then look pretty good. The AFC East is weak, and us running the table there looks likely. I'll give us one upset loss to Buffy, the Jets, or the Fish, and call it 5-1 for the division year. That leads us to the AFC North, where we will most likely beat Cleveland, lose to Baltimore, and maybe- to be safe- split the winnable Pittsburgh/Cincy games. That puts us at a very conservative 9-5, with games against contenders Houston and Denver rounding out the season. 10-6 or 11-5 would guarantee us a division title and a playoff spot, IMHO. We could go a few games better, but 10 wins seems like a safe bet. Even 9-7 should get us in the playoffs.
Houston, Baltimore and Denver look to be our big rivals for a first-round playoff bye, short of an implosion of someone. A lot of the guys who smacked us around in the AFC title game are no longer in Baltimore. We humiliated Houston the last time we played them. Denver looks to be a very tough pill to swallow, and are my AFC favorites at the moment.
- In Conclusion
My great hope is that the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick system is enough to win a Super Bowl. My great fear is that the defense is not strong enough to offset the damage done to the offense this offseason. We'll find out soon enough.
The exhibition schedule....
Fri, Aug 9
Fri, Aug 16
vs Tampa Bay
8:00 PM FOX
Thu, Aug 22
Thu, Aug 29
vs New York