Bill Belichick and the Patriots have their sights set on getting back to the Super Bowl
While the Patriots were among the NFL’s elite in 2013 with a 12–4 record and No. 2 seed in the AFC, they were clearly a notch below the Seahawks, Broncos and 49ers. Have they done enough in the offseason to get back into the Super Bowl title discussion that they were clearly in the middle of from 2010-12?
Adding Darrelle Revis after Aqib Talib departed qualifies as an upgrade at the all-important cornerback position. The other major “additions” are really just Pro Bowl-quality players getting healthy. The Pats did not have Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork or Rob Gronkowski for their playoff run. Should all three be 100 percent, and if Tom Brady continues to win his battle with Father Time (he will be 37 on opening day), the Super Bowl will once again be a realistic goal.
The Patriots have plenty of certainties on offense — Brady at quarterback, five starters returning on the offensive line, Julian Edelman heading the wide receiver corps — but there is one rather large unknown: the health of Gronkowski. The tight end tore his ACL against Cleveland in Week 14 and underwent surgery on Jan. 9. Gronkowski could be active by the time the Patriots open the season at Miami, but given the $53 million investment the team made in the former second-round pick, look for him and the team to be extra cautious. After playing in every game his first two years, Gronkowski has played in just 18 due to wrist, back and knee issues since signing his big deal in 2012. When he plays, the Patriots’ offense thrives, with No. 87 racking up 42 TDs in 50 regular-season games. When he is out, Brady loses a major weapon. New England added Tampa Bay tight end Tim Wright on Aug. 26 in a trade that sent long-time starting left guard and six-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers. The Patriots also received the Bucs' fourth-round pick next year for Mankins, who was New England's first-round choice back in 2005.
Not that Brady isn’t used to making do with what’s available. Gronkowski, pass-catching running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Danny Amendola all missed chunks of time due to injury last season. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez also departed in the offseason (for very different reasons). So how did the Pats do? Brady had his lowest passer rating (87.3) since 2003 and fewest touchdowns (25) since 2006. However, the Pats still managed to finish third in the NFL in scoring at 27.8 points per game.
The Patriots enjoyed unexpected production out of LeGarrette Blount, who led the team in rushing nine times, including an electrifying 166-yard, four-touchdown effort in a playoff win over the Colts. Blount signed with Pittsburgh in the offseason, leaving the Pats with familiar faces Steven Ridley and Vereen as the main running backs. Ridley’s fumble troubles sent him to the sidelines for portions of last season, but many believe he is the most talented back on the roster and should be able to ring up over 1,000 yards like he did in 2012. Vereen racked up 54 catches (including postseason) despite missing eight games with a broken wrist.
Is Brady losing a step? Perhaps, but he has proven time and again that he can produce when given suitable weapons at the skill positions. If his prime targets remain healthy in 2014, don’t be surprised if he is in the discussion for a third MVP trophy.
The biggest storyline in the offseason was the acquisition of Revis days after Talib signed with Denver. Talib was a critical piece of the Patriots’ defense for one-and-a-half seasons, but it can be argued that the Pats upgraded at the position with Revis. Despite still recovering from a torn ACL early in 2013, Revis started all 16 games with the Bucs and reached his fifth Pro Bowl. Revis, only 29, is one of the best corners in the game and should give coach Bill Belichick the same options Talib did in terms of taking away an opponent’s top receiver.
The Patriots also signed Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner, who will miss the first four games due to a drug suspension. Browner is a physical corner who will be a candidate to start opposite Revis or even possibly slide over to play some safety. The added depth will only help a back line that ranked ninth in opposing QB rating in 2013.
The front seven will welcome back two cornerstones in Mayo (linebacker) and Wilfork (defensive tackle). Mayo missed the final 12 games (including playoffs) with a torn pectoral muscle, while Wilfork missed the final 14 after tearing his Achilles. Both should be 100 percent, though at age 32, there is concern whether Wilfork will be able to regain the form that earned him Pro Bowl invites from 2009-12. The Pats spent their first-round draft pick on interior lineman Dominique Easley, who missed most of his final year at Florida with a torn ACL.
Up front, the Patriots traded for former Packer Jerel Worthy during training camp. Green Bay's second-round pick in 2012, the hope is that Worthy can serve as a third rusher to spell Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.
Two second-year players will be taking on critical roles on the Patriots defense. Jamie Collins could potentially be a three-down linebacker after coming on strong toward the end of his rookie season. Collins was brought along slowly last year, but his athleticism really showed in the playoff win over the Colts when he had six tackles, a sack and an interception. Collins, Mayo and Dont’a Hightower will form a top-flight linebacking corps.
At strong safety, Duron Harmon is slated to replace Steve Gregory. Harmon backed up Gregory in 2013 and saw starter’s minutes during a three-game stretch in which there was no noticeable drop-off. With Devin McCourty at the other safety and Revis and Alfonzo Dennard or Browner at the corners, Harmon’s contributions could mean the difference between an elite secondary and an above-average secondary.
Stephen Gostkowski connected on a career-best 93 percent of his field goals in 2013 and led the league with 38 successful attempts. He is 19-of-21 in playoff games. Second-year punter Ryan Allen had a nondescript rookie season (16th in net punting, 10th in balls inside the 20). Edelman is the NFL’s active leader in yards per punt return (12.3) and has averaged over 10 yards per return in all five seasons in the league. Josh Boyce is the leading candidate to return kickoffs.
Have the Patriots improved enough to pass the Broncos and represent the AFC in the Super Bowl? With the return of Mayo and Wilfork, plus the additions of Revis and Browner, the defense looks much improved. As far as the offense goes, Gronkowski’s health will be a big factor, as well as Ridley’s ability to hold on to the ball. The Patriots will not be as explosive as they were in the Randy Moss/Welker days, but with Brady at the helm, you can count on a top-10 offense. With Brady signed through 2017, the expectation is that the Brady/Belichick era has four years remaining. Pressure is mounting to win that fourth Super Bowl trophy and first since 2004. The regular-season success of the past decade has been remarkable, but disappointing finishes in the playoffs have taken some shine off this run.