STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Patriots turned in their second straight 12-4 record last season, continuing a remarkable and consistent run that began in 2001, engineered largely by the duo of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. While other franchises have endured the typical ups and downs of the salary cap era, the Patriots haven't won fewer than 12 games since going 10-6 in 2009 and currently boast a streak of 11 straight campaigns with double-digit wins.
Though the 2013 edition of the Patriots were defeated in the AFC Championship Game by the Broncos, to get there was quite an achievement, considering the rash of notable injuries the team dealt with as the season progressed. Headlining the list of key players who sustained season-ending injuries were tight end Rob Gronkowski, linebacker Jerod Mayo, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Gronkowski's Week 14 knee injury was especially damaging to the team's offense, given the lift that he provided to the attack when he returned to action from previous injuries in Week 7.
Following an offseason in which the team bid adieu to prolific slot man Wes Welker, much was expected out of newcomer Danny Amendola, but his season was slowed by a nagging groin issue. Fortunately, Julian Edelman emerged as a key contributor, bolstered by the presence of rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. In the wake of Gronkowski's continuing injury woes, the team's run game was counted on to help pick up the slack and collectively LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden were largely up to the task.
After leading the league with 34.8 points per game in 2012, the Patriots' output fell off some, but they still ended up tied for second in the league with 27.8 points per game. Though Blount is no longer around to pound the ball on the ground, the Patriots hope that things click for the duo of Ridley and Vereen in the final years of their rookie contracts. Moreover, the addition of wideout Brandon LaFell, coupled with healthier versions of Amendola and Dobson, could help fortify a passing game that must avoid overly relying on Gronkowski, who at press time was still rehabbing his ACL injury.
On the other side of the ball, the 2013 Patriots gave up a respectable average of 21.1 points per game, but only two teams were more giving on the ground than the Patriots, who were run on to the tune of 134.1 yards per game. A return to health of Wilfork would provide a boost in that area, while the team's additions of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner should more than offset the departure of cover stalwart Aqib Talib.
Darrelle Revis – CB, Buccaneers
Now further removed from the ACL injury that ended his 2012 season, the shutdown corner fills the void created by the departure of Aqib Talib.
Brandon Browner – CB, Seahawks
Must serve a four-game suspension to start the season, but provides the team with a physical cornerback to complement Revis.
Brandon LaFell – WR, Panthers
Adds size and experience to the wideout corps, but has plenty of competition for targets.
Dominique Easley – DT, Florida (Round 1, 29th Overall)
Has a history of knee woes, but he'll provide some much-needed interior line depth and a disruptive presence when healthy.
Jimmy Garoppolo – QB, Eastern Illinois (Round 2, 62nd Overall)
Tom Brady's potential successor is destined for third-string duties as long as Ryan Mallett remains on the team.
James White – RB, Wisconsin (Round 4, 130th Overall)
A depth back for now, but Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are all eligible for free agency next year.
Aqib Talib – CB, Broncos
Earned a big contract with Denver, but the addition of Revis fills the void.
LeGarrette Blount – RB, Steelers
Entered the 2013 season as an unheralded offseason pickup and ended it as the Patriots' lead back after Stevan Ridley struggled to hold on to the ball.
THE GROUND GAME
After rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, Stevan Ridley appeared poised to secure a grip on the Patriots' top rushing job. Ball-security issues plagued him last season, however, and his production dropped to 773 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. Things bottomed out for him when he was made a healthy inactive in Week 13 after three straight games with lost fumbles. As a result, the bruising LeGarrette Blount shouldered a larger role than expected, racking up 772 rushing yards and seven TDs of his own. He parlayed the effort into a two-year contract with the Steelers. His departure opens the door for Ridley to make a case to re-emerge as the Patriots' lead back, but versatile backfield weapon Shane Vereen is still around and should also carve out a significant role in the offense. After breaking his wrist in Week 1, and missing the next eight games, Vereen ended up rushing for 208 yards on 44 attempts, while also catching 47 passes for 427 yards, adding four total touchdowns. This season, it's not hard to imagine an effective one-two punch of Ridley as the power back and Vereen as the change-of-pace/pass-catching complement. Brandon Bolden returns to provide depth and a power alternative, should Ridley's fumbling become an issue again. With the three aforementioned backs all eligible for free agency next year, the Patriots drafted James White, a player whose skill-set largely mirrors Vereen's, in the fourth round of May's draft.
Though the 2013 Patriots weathered the departure of Wes Welker, the player expected to fill the void, Danny Amendola, suffered a Week 1 groin injury, which quickly hampered those intentions. The unheralded Julian Edeleman thus emerged as quarterback Tom Brady's go-to receiving target and finished up with 105 catches (on 151 targets) for 1,056 yards and six TDs. If Amendola can stay healthy this season, which is a big if, he's a candidate to gobble up targets out of the slot and emerge as a viable PPR option. In such a scenario, Edelman's numbers could take a hit. Apart from that duo, slotting in the Patriots' wideout depth chart looks wide open heading into training camp. If Aaron Dobson bounces back well from foot surgery, he's the upside play, given his blend of size (6-3, 200 pounds) and speed. Veteran Brandon LaFell wasn't a flashy free agent signing, but he brings size (6-2, 210 pounds) and experience to the table. While the job security of the above quartet seems secure, and Matthew Slater figures to stick thanks to his special teams role, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce and seventh-rounder Jeremy Gallon could end up fighting for the team's final wideout slot.
Rising: Danny Amendola has PPR upside if he can stay healthy after only seeing 83 targets in his first season with New England.
Declining: Though he's dominant when healthy, Rob Gronkowski has put together an injury portfolio that is becoming worrisome.
Sleeper: Assuming he bounces back from offseason foot surgery, Aaron Dobson has the size/speed combo to effectively complement the team's smaller wideouts.
Supersleeper: James White works behind a player who has been known to fumble (Stevan Ridley) and another (Shane Vereen) who has had durability issues.
Jerod Mayo - LB
Limited to six games last season by a torn pectoral muscle, but a prolific tackler when healthy.
Chandler Jones - DE
Racked up 79 tackles and a team-high 11.5 sacks in his second NFL season.
Rob Ninkovich - DE
An underrated IDP contributor thanks to his combo of 91 tackles, eight sacks and two forced fumbles.
RotoWire Rank: 11