The New England Patriots capped off a season that would have been remarkably successful for pretty much every other team in the NFL, despite a bevy of injuries to their most important players, and got even better with the acquisition of superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis and adding key players like Dominique Easley, Bryan Stork, and Jimmy Garoppolo in the draft. You’d think that the Patriots are in for smooth sailing, heading into another great season. That there are no pressing questions about their success.
But you’d be wrong. Dead wrong! There are questions, plenty of questions, too many questions to count!
Scratch that. There are 20 questions. 20 questions exactly that could determine the Patriots’ success in the 2014 season.
Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Who will replace Logan Mankins the player?…
This is the easier one to answer, though still kinda tricky. Because the Patriots didn’t counter the Mankins trade with a separate move, they’ll look to fill the gap with an already existing piece, even if there isn’t one who can match Mankins’ run-blocking prowess. The immediate solution is to just plug in Josh Kline, who was really impressive in his lone start last season, but is still pretty inexperienced.
Two more interesting solutions: Marcus Cannon has been one of the most overqualified backup offensive linemen in the NFL, but has never really had much time at left guard. There’s no real reason why he couldn’t make the necessary adjustments, but it could make for a bumpy start.
The other, crazier, option (and one that’s circled around the internet a bit) is to put Sebastian Vollmer, one of the best right tackles in the NFL, at left guard, and have Cannon play that spot, where he’s much more comfortable. While not very likely, this option would give the Patriots a helluva left side. My guess is Kline is the likely solution, but it’d be interesting to see how they fit Cannon onto this line.
2. And who will replace Logan Mankins the leader?
And now the trickier part. Sure, Logan Mankins’ play might have dropped of recently. But what hadn’t changed was his leadership in the locker room and that he led by example: by being a mean, mean man on the field. Forget for the moment that the Patriots just don’t have that same nasty element anymore, who will step up as a team leader, especially on an offensive line that for the first time will be without HOF coach Dante Scarnecchia?
There isn’t a clearcut answer here. Nate Solder has been stupendous, but he’s still pretty young (26) and doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being the most outspoken guy. Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly are old Scarnecchia favorites, but their poor play leaves their roster security a bit unsure. Sebastian Vollmer, like Solder, isn’t the most vocal guy, but does have the right combination of performance and experience to step into that role.
3. Who will step up in Brandon Browner’s absence?
Free agent pickup Brandon Browner should have a great year in New England, and is perfectly complimented by Darrelle Revis, whose lockdown skills will allow him to be the more marauding, big-hitting corner that he is best as (eschewing any concerns that teams had about Browner’s performance away from Richard Sherman).
The problem is Browner is suspended for the first four games of the year, meaning that one of the Patriots other four CBs will have to take up the role. With the addition of Revis, Kyle Arrington should never have to be a boundary corner again, and should stick to the slot, where he’s actually quite good. Barring a huge run by UDFA Malcolm Butler, the race would seem to be between Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan. Ryan has the greater upside of the two, but the Patriots might want to ease him in, as he startled to struggle when his role increased last year. Dennard has overcome concerns over his size and his struggles off the field to be a valuable piece of this Pats’ secondary, and prevailing wisdom would be that he plays across from Revis in Week 1. But if Ryan gets the start, it will say a lot about how far the Patriots believe he’s come.
4. Will the Pats be able to count on Revis Island?
I mean, yes. Absolutely. No question. Moving along.
5. Can Tom Brady stay upright?
This is worrisome. Tom Brady got shellacked last year, taking 40 sacks, his most since 2001. And it wasn’t even close, as he was sacked 25.0 times a season from 2009-2012, and 26.2 times a season since 2002. And the problem is, most of the fault for this lies in the interior of the offensive line, a group that the Patriots didn’t upgrade at all.
Tom Brady is 37. While you don’t wince every time he gets touched like you would with Robert Griffin III, he can only take so much punishment before it takes a toll. For Brady to keep this offense up to their normal level, he’s going to need for the offensive line to hold up their end of the bargain.
6. Will Tom Brady settle on a hairstyle?
I don’t care, as long as it’s not this.
I think it’s fair to say that Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Tompkins, in a vacuum, are talented wide receivers. The problem is, when you’re on the Patriots, raw talent don’t mean squat if you can’t get on the same page as Brady. At times last season both rookie wideouts showed flashes, but otherwise their drops and miscommunications with Brady were pretty glaring.
The good news is, while raw talent is hard to improve on, learning how to play with your quarterback can be. It’s not hard to imagine a leap in production from both players, based solely on the fact that they’ll have had more time within the system, while not receiving the same attention as they did in last year’s injury-stricken group. Speaking of which…
8. And will Danny Amendola make his second-year leap?
The above argument can be just as easily attributed to Amendola, who may be entering his 7th season in the NFL, but only his second with Brady. If the diminuitive receiver can stay healthy (admittedly a big if) then he should be a great fit in this Patriots’ offense and improve after last year’s injury-plagued disappointment, especially if reports from training camp of his impressive play are true.
9. Will defenses adjust for Julian Edelman?
If you’d told me this time last year that Julian Edelman would rack up 105 receptions for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns, I would have laughed in your face and gone back to writing my 3,000 word article on why the Patriots should take another chance on Jabar Gaffney.
But, with Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola sidelined, the former college quarterback became Tom Brady’s favorite receiver and then some, using his quickness and impeccable route-running to get open again and again, catching defenses, that, for years before, had never accounted for him, by surprise.
The question is, can Edelman keep it up? By his training camp and preseason performance, there’s no doubt he’s the same dynamic player. And will the return of a healthy Gronkowski and Amendola (knocking on all the possible wood) mean defenses can’t correct their mistake and focus on him? As the Patriots make another title run, Edelman’s performance could be the key to Brady’s offense.
10. Can Rob Gronkowski stay healthy?
I’m legitimately too scared to write anything here. On to a happier question.
11. What will Tim Wright bring to this Patriots team?
Tim Wright was a nice surprise for the Bucs last season, pulling in over 50 catches in a dreadful Tampa Bay offense. He should immediately fill a need for a second athletic tight end that the team couldn’t find in DJ Williams and wouldn’t have to guess on in Jermichael Finley or Dustin Keller.
Now is Tim Wright the second coming of Aaron Hernandez? Lord no. Tim Wright plays like a big wide receiver, and uses his size and speed to get open. But he’s nowhere near as quick or dynamic as Hernandez, and he’s a pretty poor blocker. But what he could be is another big body for Tom Brady to target in the middle of the field. Chances of his becoming a superstar are miniscule, but he should be a very useful piece for this offense.
12. Can the starting linebacking trio stay upright for a whole season?
In my AFC East preview, I argued that the Patriots have the best 4-3 linebacking trio in the NFL, an argument that I stand behind. Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, and Jamie Collins areathletic, smart linebackers who can serve many roles and add flexibility to a defense that was lacking it last year.
The problem? Outside of the starters, the Patriots are unbelievably thin at linebacker. Veteran cover LB James Anderson didn’t stick with the team, and neither did second year players Steve Beuarnharnais or Ja’Gared Davis. UDFA James Morris seems like a fit long term, but injuries will keep him off the field for the season. As of now, the only other linebacker on the depth chart is rookie Darius Fleming, which seems crazy. I don’t see how the Patriots get to Week 1 without picking through the waiver pile for another player, but as of now, if one of the starting three should fall to injury, the defense is in serious trouble.
13. Will Stevan Ridley finally fulfill his potential?
There is no more frustrating player on the Patriots than Stevan Ridley. He is the most dynamic runner on the team by a wide margin, and supplies a flash that’s been missing on the team for years.
But lord, can he not hold onto the ball. His battle with his fumbling issues has been going on his since his rookie season, and every time it seems like he’s improved, he’ll turn the ball over at a terrible time for his team. To be fair, many of the fumbles weren’t his fault, but enough have occurred that he’s been in and out of Belichick’s doghouse constantly, which at best isn’t giving him the opportunity to find some consistency on the field, or, at worst, is devastating his confidence.
With LeGarrette Blount gone from the team and the offensive line in a state of flux, the Patriots will need some help from the running game to allow Tom Brady to work effectively with his receivers. As solid as Shane Vereen and James White could be, neither have the potential of Ridley to be a game changing running back. With his contract expiring at the end of the season, this is the biggest chance that Van Riddles will ever get.
14. Just how much better will Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich be with a smaller workload?
One of the most discussed storylines from last season was just how much the Patriots used Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. Nink and Jones ranked 1 and 2 respectively in snap count at their position, playing over 95% of their team’s snaps, a completely unreasonable workload. Their level of play, luckily, didn’t take too big of a hit, but that’s not something the team can force on them again. With the team perhaps moving towards more looks at a 3-4, and with rookies Dominique Easley and Zach Moore now in the fold, they should get more rest, meaning a bigger and better impact when they are on the field.
15. Will Vince Wilfork return to his old form?
Even if his indidividual stats don’t show it, Vince Wilfork’s absence from the team three games into the season was the biggest reason by far for the team’s run-stopping woes. As solid as Chris Jones and Seaver Siliga were, neither command the same attention that Wilfork does, even based solely on his size alone.
With Wilfork finally back, the Patriots defense looks more than solid again. Even if Wilfork isn’t 100% back (though reports out of preseason have been overwhelmingly positive), he still completely changes the look of the team, and will allow the rest of the defensive line more freedom to make plays. As long as he can stay healthy, the team absolutely made the right decision in bringing the vet back.
16. Who becomes the Patriots’ kick returner?
With LeGarrette Blount, Leon Washington, and Josh Boyce all off the team, the Patriots don’t have an immediate option at kick returner. Julian Edelman has been an exemplary punt returner, but it’s hard to tell how comfortable the team would be putting him at kick returner. Two other possibilities are Matthew Slater (though he’s been really valuable as a blocker on returns) and Shane Vereen, who’s quickness and running style could make for an interesting, if not explosive, fit. Or the team could possibly find a kick returner on the waiver market.
My guess would be Vereen to start, though Boyce, who should land on the practice squad, could find his way back onto the roster and as the primary kick returner, potentially.
17. How soon will the team trade Ryan Mallett?
Confession: I wrote this on Sunday morning and was too lazy to change it after Mallett was actually traded to Houston for a conditional seventh round pick. But here’s as a good a place as ever to talk about it.
While we may be looking at the seventh round pick and thinking “That seems way too low”, there are a few reasons why the return was so low. First, I don’t think anyone was expecting Jimmy Garoppolo to perform as well as he did this preseason, completely overshadowing Mallett in the process. While that’s great for the team overall, the team then did lose a bit of leverage in trading Mallett. Not to mention, Mallett hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire. In fact, it’s been pretty clear that the lack of consistent first team reps may have hurt Mallett’s growth as a prospect: he’s still the guy with the huge arm but little idea how to use it properly.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to think Mallett was a potential cut candidate if they couldn’t find a trade partner. The fact that they got anything (as small as it is) in return is comfort enough.
18. What will James White’s nickname be?
This is important. James White is just steady as a rock, and, based off his preseason snaps, seems like he’ll have a significant role in this offense. He’s not flashy in the slightest, and doesn’t have huge speed. On the spectrum between Vereen and Ridley, he sits firmly in the middle.
I was thinking White Bread or Wonder Bread, but that seems like a bit of an insult. I’m open to any and all suggestions.
19. Who is the second safety on this team?
I’m of the mind that the Patriots have a Top 5 defense in the NFL. And it speaks volumes about the quality of the team that I can think that even though the Patriots still haven’t landed on a safety to pair with Devin McCourty.
As much as I love him, Duron Harmon had the opportunity to take the spot as his own this offseason, but hasn’t impressed. The team has toyed with Logan Ryan or Kyle Arrington, but it’s hard to think that’s a possibility for the whole season.
It would’ve seemed inconceivable not long ago that Patty Chung or Tavon Wilson would be a starter on the 2014 Patriots, but that seems to be where the team currently sits. For the record, I think that Chung, as long as he can freelance in the box and not be counted on too much in coverage, wouldn’t be all that bad a choice. And if Tavon Wilson is finally turning it around (though I haven’t seen much evidence) then you might as well give a full try to the former second round pick.
But the one thing that is certain is that Patriots fans will fret about this for the entire season is someone doesn’t impress right away.
20. Can the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl?
I think it’s pretty clear that, as the roster sits right now, the Patriots one of the top 3 or 4 teams in the NFL. The problem is that the best team in football, as much as I hate to say it, sits in the AFC as well: the Denver Broncos.
The Broncos have their fair share of weaknesses (a less-than-threatening running game, an overreliance on aging players, the growing possibility that Peyton Manning will injure himself filming a Papa John’s commercial), but top to bottom have an unfair amount of talent on both sides of the ball.
But can the Patriots beat the Broncos? Yes. Yes they definitely could. Would I bet my life on it? Eh.
Last year’s Patriots, one ravaged by injuries and hampered by relying on inexperienced players, is now healthy and one year wiser. With the addition of Darrelle Revis and a bevy of talented players looking to take the next step in their development, this year could be a perfect storm for the Patriots’ Super Bowl aspirations.
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