Tom Brady and the Patriots are looking for another long run in 2014. (USA TODAY Images)
With Training Camp only about 10 days away, the New England Patriots have re-tooled the roster and are now on a short break before the pre-season begins and the competition at many positions commences in earnest.
What a difference a year makes. On the opening day of camp in 2013, coach Bill Belichick had to answer questions about the arrest of Aaron Hernandez, quarterback Tim Tebow and seemingly endless questions about the availability of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The team has made some splashes on the free agency front as well as the draft. Did they do enough to put themselves over the top this season? We have five questions concerning the team heading into training camp and the 2014 season.
The Patriots are looking for a safety to play opposite Devin McCourty. (USA TODAY Images)
5. Who Steps Up Next To Devin McCourty At Safety?
While the team released veteran safety and starter Steve Gregory in the spring, the job appears to be Duron Harmon’s to lose at the outset of training camp. But there is a long way to go before the team suits up to take on the Miami Dolphins in September.
Harmon impressed the coaches at times during his rookie campaign and played in about 36 percent of the team’s snaps on defense. And in the June mini-camp, Harmon was indeed getting the most reps next to McCourty, but there are others vying for playing time as well.
Veteran Pat Chung who started his career in New England re-signed with the team this spring and is well versed in the Patriots system. If Harmon falters, Chung would be a known commodity for the coaching staff.
Others in the mix include Nate Ebner, Tavon Wilson and Shamiel Gary. The team has reportedly tossed around the idea of using cornerback Logan Ryan at safety, which still may happen at some point but not until the suspension of Brandon Browner is completed.
The sleeper in this group to watch in training camp is rookie Jemea Thomas, who is versatile and can play safety or cornerback. Thomas is instinctive, competitive and plays bigger than his size (5’10, 195) and will compete for reps.
A healthy Vince Wilfork is vital for a Patriots defense to rebound in 2014. (USA TODAY Images)
4. Defensive Line Health, Will Wilfork, Kelly and Easley Be Ready To Go?
In 2013 the Patriots interior of the their defensive line took two big blows in back-to-back weeks, losing Vince Wilfork and then Tommy Kelly to season-ending injuries. In their absence, rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano stepped up and started and performed fairly well. Sealver Siliga was brought in mid-season and played well down the stretch.
The team drafted Dominique Easley with their first pick (29th overall) in the 2014 NFL Draft. Easley was projected to be a possible Top 10 pick but he suffered a torn ACL last season, which allowed the Patriots to grab him late in the first round. Now Wilfork and Kelly are back and were participants during the recent June mini-camps, as was Easley on the final day back on June 19th.
It can’t be overstated how important the three of these players are to the interior of the Patriots defensive line. Wilfork has always been a space-eating, two-gap presence in the middle that helped shut down opposing team’s running games. Kelly provides that as well, and is a penetrating disruptor in the passing game. Easley is perhaps the most intriguing of the three.
The Patriots have always favored the big, physical two-gap read and react interior defensive linemen. Easley is a far cry from that. He's a slightly undersized penetrator who has explosive quickness and is versatile enough to play over the nose, or over the guard and tackle. His versatility is something that Belichick will likely be tinkering with as the team looks to become much more aggressive on defense. With the additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at the corners, this is something that has been in the works for a long time. Now the pieces are in place.
With a healthy Wilfork, Kelly and Easley and to a lesser extent Will Smith at defensive end, this gives the Patriots a strong, rotational group that can get after the quarterback and keep fresh legs on the field and could vault this unit into one of the top defenses in the league.
The Pats need a healthy and resurgent Logan Mankins at right guard. (USA TODAY Images)
3. Can the Offensive Line Rebound and Keep Tom Brady Upright?
It is no secret that the Patriots offensive line struggled at times in 2013 after Tom Brady was sacked 40 times. Guards Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly and center Ryan Wendell all suffered from subpar seasons. Mankins and Connolly both battled health problems as well. The Patriots were at times overpowered up the middle and it showed, especially in the AFC Championship Game in Denver.
To make matters worse, long-time Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired after the 2013 season. His propensity for taking unheralded players and molding them into a cohesive unit will be missed, but fortunately the team has a talented replacement in Dave DeGuglielmo to take his place.
Mankins and Connolly are healthy in 2014 and Wendell is looking to rebound back into his 2012 form. But the team took no chances after dipping into the NFL Draft three times to look for a needed injection of youth and physicality along the offensive line.
Center Bryan Stork should push Wendell for starting reps in camp this season. He’s an experienced starter that was the anchor for the national champion Florida State offense for the past four years.
Jon Halapio is a tough guard who played all of 2013 with a torn pectoral muscle at Florida. He and 2nd year player Josh Kline will battle Connolly for reps and a roster spot in training camp. The team also selected offensive tackle Cameron Fleming from Stanford in the draft this spring. Fleming and Marcus Cannon will vie for backup duties at swing tackle in camp and provide depth behind starters Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer.
A big second year jump is vital for Aaron Dobson and the New England offense. (USA TODAY Images)
2. Can the Wide Receivers Become Difference Makers in the Offense?
The Patriots wide receivers in 2013 were facing an uphill battle from the outset as a completely revamped core who was expected to replace production of 338 receptions, 3984 yards and 30 touchdowns missing from the year prior.
Rookies Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce all battled to find a comfort zone in the playbook and each dealt with injuries as well. Danny Amendola was signed to replace Wes Welker and after a hot start in camp was injured in the opener and struggled to regain his chemistry with Brady.
As a result, Brady’s numbers were down from what has traditionally been a norm for him and the Patriots offense struggled to find its rhythm especially in the red-zone. The Patriots receivers weren’t difference makers in the offense in 2013. Fortunately, Brady was the guy they needed to lead the way.
That’s not to say that they didn’t produce at times nor that they have the potential. Julian Edelman turned in a career year in 2013 with over 100 catches and 1000 yards but overall the position was one where they didn’t have anyone that could carry a team on his back.
With a new year comes new opportunities. All three rookies now have playing experience and a year in the books. Dobson is recovering from foot surgery in April and one he's healthy is expected to provide a vertical and horizontal threat to stretch the field.
Both Thompkins and Boyce had solid springs and look like a more confident crew that took the field last September. Amendola is healthy and the team brought in big target Brandon LaFell during free agency. LaFell, 6’2 is expected to provide a bigger target for Brady to move the sticks and in the red-zone. The team drafted the diminutive but very productive Jeremy Gallon during the draft as well. Look for all of these players to make some noise during camp.
Can Rob Gronkowski stay healthy for the season and into the playoffs? . (USA TODAY Images)
1.Can Rob Gronkowski Be Ready to go and Stay Healthy in 2014?
The Patriots 2013 season on offense can be broken down into three parts, prior to Gronkowski returning, while he was on the field and after he was lost for the season.
It is no surprise that the Patriots offense struggled in the first and third parts and was on fire during the period that Gronkowski played.
Simply put, when Gronkowski is on the field with Brady, the New England offense is Super Bowl caliber. When he isn’t, they have struggled to move the ball and score points. Gronkowski provides Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. He can stretch the field vertically down the seams and open the short and intermediate routes over the middle for players like Edelman and Amendola to thrive.
After rehabbing his torn ACL this off-season, Gronkowski is reportedly ready for a Week 1 return. A promising sign during the mini-camp was that both he and Matthew Slater didn’t join other rehabbing players in the bubble with the training staff. Instead, they were running wind sprints on the hill at the rear of the Patriots practice fields.
If Gronkowski is ready to go in Week 1, the Patriots offense should return to a Top 5 unit. He and Brady make everyone around them better and will take a lot of pressure off of the second year players.
Stay tuned to PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll bring you daily updates and photo galleries of the day’s events. Be sure to check out the immense stats data base as well as many new features that will be available soon.
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