New England Patriots 2013 Season Preview
By Jesse Pantuosco, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Patriots' offseason was ... hmm, what's the word?
Complicated? Messy? Tumultuous?
Probably a little of all that. But first, let's discuss last season.
For the most part, 2012 was a good year for the Pats.
Tom Brady, the greatest living American as SportsCenter's John Anderson often quips, was sensational. He served up 34 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions. Eleven of those touchdown throws went to Rob Gronkowski while slot wizard Wes Welker hauled in six more for the blue and silver.
New England's rushing attack was just as relentless. The Pats ate up 2,184 yards on the ground, their most since 2008. Stevan Ridley led the charge with 1,263 yards on 290 carries. He found the end zone 12 times.
The Patriots' D bled yards last season but at least they were stingy near the goal line. Overall, they allowed just 331 points, ninth-fewest in football, despite giving up the eighth-most yards.
When the Ravens took out Denver it looked like the Patriots would have a cakewalk to the Super Bowl. Instead, a lackluster effort in the title game ended with Baltimore celebrating on the Patriots' home field.
Things only got worse from there. In March, Wes Welker left to go play with Peyton Manning, leaving the Pats without their best pass catcher. His replacement, Danny Amendola, has only played a full 16-game slate once in four NFL seasons.
Meanwhile, Aaron Hernandez is in a Massachusetts state prison awaiting his murder trial and Rob Gronkowski remains without a timetable after undergoing offseason back surgery.
All signs point to New England taking a step back in 2013 but remember, eventual Hall of Famer Bill Belichick is still the coach and golden boy Tom Terrific is still under center. Will those two be enough to catapult New England to its fifth consecutive AFC East title?
2012 RECORD: 12-4
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to Baltimore in AFC Championship
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Bill Belichick (14th season with Patriots)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Josh McDaniels (fifth season with Patriots)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Matt Patricia (second season with Patriots)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Danny Amendola (from Rams), RB LeGarrette Blount (from Buccaneers), WR Aaron Dobson (second-round Marshall), DT Tommy Kelly (from Raiders), TE Zach Sudfield (undrafted, Nevada), QB Tim Tebow (from Jets), WR Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted, Cincinnati), RB/KR Leon Washington (from Seahawks)
KEY DEPARTURES: S Patrick Chung (to Eagles), TE Aaron Hernandez (released), WR Brandon Lloyd (released), WR Wes Welker (to Broncos), RB Danny Woodhead (to Chargers)
QB: In the Pats' preseason opener against the Eagles, Brady picked up right where he left off last season. After going the entire first series without throwing a pass, Brady's next drive was textbook stuff. Ten plays, eight passes, seven completions, 65 yards and zero resistance.
Never the fleetest of foot, the Michigan product has had to make a living off his right arm. Turns out, the guy's got a cannon. Brady's 334 career TD strikes ranks fifth all-time and he's less than 2,000 yards behind Vinny Testaverde for seventh in career yards.
More importantly, No. 12 is a winner. Brady has come out on top 136 times in his career and owns the highest winning percentage of any quarterback in league history.
The 36-year-old says his confidence is at an all-time high. If you're one of the thirteen teams that has to play against the Pats this season, that can't be too comforting.
RB: The Patriots haven't had a running game this potent since ... well, maybe ever. Ridley ran for 1,200 yards last season and he did it as a two-down back. If Ridley had played even a handful of third downs he could have been a top-five rusher.
But that won't happen because the Pats have Shane Vereen, a shifty back who would probably be a starter on most other teams. Vereen won't see as many carries as Ridley but his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield makes him equally dangerous. Vereen should get some work in as a wide receiver, especially with rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins still learning the ropes.
And then there's LeGarrette Blount, a 250-pound bowling ball who rushed for 1,000 yards with the Buccaneers back in 2010. The Oregon standout was lethal in the preseason opener with 102 yards on 11 rushes. If he can play the Mike Tolbert role and bang in a few touchdowns from close range, the Pats' running game is going to be almost impossible to stop.
WR: Well, there's no Welker anymore. But they do have Amendola and he might be the next best thing. Heck, these two are so similar they even went to the same college (Texas Tech).
Brandon Lloyd, who was cut in the offseason, is another receiver the Pats will have to replace. Rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins are both candidates to fill Lloyd's role.
Julian Edelman has been a jack of all trades for the Patriots, logging snaps at receiver, cornerback and punt returner. This year he'll be asked to play wideout a bit more than he has in the past. Edelman has had some success in that role (69 catches, 714 receiving yards in four seasons) but it remains to be seen whether or not he can be a game changer.
All in all, this is probably one of the weaker receiving groups Belichick has assembled during his tenure in New England but that doesn't mean it won't work.
Keep in mind, this team won multiple Super Bowls with David Patten and Troy Brown starting at wideout.
TE: Huge mitts, giant strides, a nose for the end zone: these are just a few of the things that make Gronkowski one of the most dangerous tight ends in football.
Of course, none of these apply when Gronkowski is on the sidelines, which will probably be the case for at least the first handful of games in 2013.
With Hernandez no longer an option, that leaves Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and rookie Zach Sudfield to pick up the pieces.
Yikes. The good news is Gronkowski hasn't been placed on IR yet, which leaves the possibility that he could be back sometime before Week 6. If that's the case, the Pats will still be getting at least ten weeks of Gronk.
Going by last year's stats, that equates to around 700 yards and ten touchdowns. That wouldn't be so bad, would it?
OL: The Patriots' offensive line has a lot of big humans on it. Both starting tackles are 6-foot-8/320 while the inside guys average 6-foot-3/307.
The key is experience and these guys have a lot of it. With the exception of left tackle Nate Solder, all of the Patriots' starters have been with the team for at least five seasons.
Everyone on New England's front line is talented but left guard Logan Mankins is definitely the ringleader. Tom Brady's personal bodyguard has been selected to five Pro Bowls since 2007.
The Pats have allowed fewer than 30 sacks three out of the last four seasons and if all goes according to plan, they should be able to make it four out of five.
DL: Second year Syracuse product Chandler Jones (45 tackles, three forced fumbles as a rookie) has the look of a perennial Pro Bowler. His linemate Vince Wilfork already is one (four consecutive invites).
While not as heralded as Wilfork or Jones, defensive end Rob Ninkovich is still plenty valuable. Ninkovich showed that he can be a playmaker by leading the team in sacks (eight) and forced fumbles (five) a season ago. Outside of Jones, he's probably New England's top pass rusher.
The wild card will be newcomer Tommy Kelly. The 6-foot-6, 325-pounder has been remarkably durable throughout his career (hasn't missed a game since '07). But at age 32, is Kelly still nimble enough to bother opposing quarterbacks? Last year he wasn't (just one sack) but perhaps a change of scenery after nine years in Oakland will lead to a rebound season in 2013.
LB: You won't find many linebacking units as solid as the one defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has constructed here in New England.
It starts with two-time Pro Bowler Jerod Mayo, a tackling machine who covers as much ground as any weakside linebacker in the game. Last year, he finished with 147 tackles, three sacks, four forced fumbles and a pick. It was the second time in three seasons Mayo has finished among the NFL's top four tacklers.
Dread-locked middle linebacker Brandon Spikes may not be as talented as Mayo but he's just as fierce. The Florida alum came away with 92 tackles last season, easily his most as a professional. Spikes tied left end Rob Ninkovich for the team lead in forced fumbles (five each).
2012 first-round pick Dont'a Hightower had a monster rookie year with 60 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles. It's scary to think of what Hightower might become when he finally maximizes his enormous potential.
There really isn't a weak link in this linebacking corps.
DB: The Patriots nabbed Aqib Talib at the trade deadline and were fortunate enough to re-sign him this past offseason. Talib is a gambler but more often than not, he guesses right. He's already recorded 19 interceptions in his first five seasons.
Devin McCourty made a seamless transition from cornerback to free safety last season. He led all Patriots defensive backs with 82 tackles and five interceptions.
Talib and McCourty are the anchors of what has become a very deep secondary. Alfonzo Dennard had a sensational rookie season and should be even better this year if he can walk the straight and narrow (he's been arrested twice since 2012). Steve Gregory is the father figure of the group with 97 games of NFL experience. The three picks he had last year were a career-high.
Kyle Arrington has slipped behind Dennard on New England's cornerback depth chart but remember, he's only two years removed from an epic 66-tackle, seven- interception year in 2011.
The Patriots were fifth in the league in interceptions last season (20) and should be hovering around the top-five again in 2013.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Stephen Gostkowski has a strong resume (170-for-202 in seven seasons) but has looked shaky this preseason (3-of-6 with a long of 39 yards). If that keeps up, the kicking game could be an adventure.
Pats fans shouldn't be all in on punter Zoltan Mesko, either. His punt average (43.1 yards) was 28th in the league last season.
Luckily, New England's return men, Edelman and Leon Washington, are top-notch and special teams captain Matt Slater might be the best gunner in football (13 tackles last season).
At the end of the day, the Pats should be just fine on special teams.
COACH: Ten division titles, five AFC championships, three Super Bowl rings, 187 victories, two cutoff sleeves and zero shame. Year after year, regardless of who's on the roster, the Patriots are always in contention. And it all starts with Belichick.
Originally a defensive specialist, Belichick has transformed the Patriots into one of the league's premier offenses. They've finished in the top eight in scoring every season since 2006.
Sure Belichick can be a daredevil, going for it on fourth down and occasionally using linebackers at tight end. But usually, the buttons he's pressing are the right ones. At this point, how can you possibly bet against him?
THE SKINNY: The Patriots lost a ton of big names this offseason. But they've done this before. Many times, actually.
Here's a sampling of some of the big names who have left Foxboro in recent years: Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Adam Vinatieri, Ty Warren, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Asante Samuel.
Those are huge losses. Yet here they are, favorites to win their fifth straight division title.
Even with all the departures, New England still has one of the most talent- filled rosters in all of football. When all is said and done, they should be right there with Denver and Houston at the top of the AFC standings.
08/27 13:14:09 ET