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2013 preview: New England Patriots
The 2013 NFL regular season is right around the corner. With that being said, it's time to launch our team previews. FOXSports.com contributor Taylor Jones will answer important questions for every franchise.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
2012 Record: 12-4. Lost in the AFC Championship to Baltimore
Which player is under the most pressure?
It’s not like the wide receiver position has been a point of stability for the Patriots, but this year will be the biggest reload for Tom Brady as Julian Edelman is the only carry over from last season. He lost Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and may be without Rob Gronkowski.
Danny Amendola is the Patriots answer to all of these missing receptions, but in his four-year career he has yet to start more than eight games and only once averaged more than 10 yards per reception. Compare that to Welker, who missed just three games in his six years with New England and only once finished a season with an average below 10 yards per catch.
Welker actually caught nearly 90 percent of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, while only 80 percent of Amendola’s were within the first 10 yards, yet Welker had the better per catch average. His ability to turn short gains into home run plays will be the hardest thing for the Patriots to reproduce.
In all, the Patriots will be trying to replace 301 of the 402 total team receptions last season and that is 48 more than any other team in the history of the NFL. Of the remaining 101 catches, Gronkowski accounted for 55 of them but after five offseason surgeries, he is far from a sure thing. Brady and the Patriots were the No. 1 offense in both yards and scoring in 2012, but if they want to even crack the top 10 this season, Amendola will need to set career highs in receptions, yards and average.
Which rookie stands the best chance to succeed?
The Patriots drafted a total of seven players in the 2013 NFL Draft, but you won’t find Zach Sudfeld’s name on that list. The tight end out of Nevada stand 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, can run a 4.7 40-yard dash and has been the primary receiving tight end for the Patriots so far. He stands to get the majority of the targets until the return of a completely healthy Gronkowski. But staying healthy isn’t only a problem for Gronk, Sudfield has a pretty impressive medical history as well that includes leg and ankle fractures, knee surgeries and multiple shoulder injuries. That medical history is probably why Sudfeld went undrafted in the a draft that included the selection of 16 tight ends.
Either way, if he is on the field, he is going to produce, and that could very likely be in the same role that Hernandez played in this offense as a complement to Gronkowski. That role produced 175 receptions in three years. Fantasy football players’ ears just perked up.
What is the team's biggest obstacle?
Bill Bellichick is known for his ability to trade back in the NFL Draft and turn those mid-to-late round picks into great value moving forward. Well, that hasn’t been the case in recent years.
The problem being that most of these players have either dropped out of the first round because of injury concerns or questionable character. Character issues dropped Hernandez all the way into the fourth round. Injury concerns pushed Gronkowski 10 picks into the second round. And more recently, we saw Ras-I Dowling drop into the second round of the 2011 draft due to a whole host of injury concerns. Well the Patriots have just parted ways with Dowling because he could never stay healthy and leaves a pass defense that finished 29th in the league very thin and vulnerable in the defensive secondary.
Without Dowling, that leaves the Patriots with Alfonzo Dennard, a seventh-round pick in 2012, and Kyle Arrington, a college free-agent in 2009 to fight it out for the starting spot. Even with an upgrade at safety this season, it will be another bad year the Patriots pass defense.
What is the team's biggest addition/loss from the previous season?
It was a much more under the radar move than the signing of Danny Amendola, but Tommy Kelly is going to have a significant impact on this defense.
Kelly will be able to provide another presence on the inside other than Vince Wilfork and force the offensive line to block the Patriots straight up rather than double teaming Wilfork on an every play basis.
Additionally, the easiest way to get more production out of your rush ends is to push the pocket from the inside and force the quarterback off his spot. Just like Kelly will free up Wilfork on the inside, the pair of talented defensive tackles will allow Chandler Jones more one-on-one options to rush from the edge.
Teams will have to decide to keep a tight end at the line of scrimmage or chip a running back off the edge in order to slow down Jones, in doing so, give up an option in the passing game.
Where do you predict the team will finish in the division?
The Patriots have won the division in four straight seasons and the competition from other teams in the AFC East is at an all-time low. This will be the easiest division championship the Patriots have ever won, but I’m not sure they make it past the first round of the playoffs.