Of lesser importance, Pats in crisis

BY Peter Schrager • June 26, 2013

With an NFL star accused of murdering a 27-year-old man, it’s awfully difficult to think about two-tight-end sets and the short-term future of an NFL team.

But as the Aaron Hernandez murder trial plays out in the coming months, actual football will arrive again soon, too. And when the Patriots take the field in July, they not only will look a whole lot different than they did when they played in January’s AFC Championship Game, but there will be a new group of people surrounding the team as well: skeptics.

Where’s the line start? Because I may very well be Doubter No. 1.

It’ll soon be July, a month meant for barbecues, swimming pools and NFL predictions. Without much consideration, we’re used to simply writing in the Patriots as the upcoming season’s AFC East champions. For the first time in what feels like decades, there are several question marks surrounding the product Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick plan to trot onto the field this season.

With Hernandez’s arrest and subsequent release from the team, it’s hard not taking a second to consider the mighty Patriots’ offseason thus far. And though many may scoff at the mere thought of a reporter questioning the mighty Belichick and his player personnel decisions — there’s a whole lot to scratch your head over this offseason. Now, add in the loss of the dynamic, multi-purpose target Hernandez (and the hefty salary-cap hit that comes with it), and there’s plenty to be concerned about.

So, after a week of legalese and social commentary, let’s talk some football. And let’s go through the past few months, including some curious roster moves, in Patriots Land:

* Wes Welker, the league’s leading receiver over the past five years? Gone. Over what ended up being more about personalities than finances, Welker — arguably the top slot receiver to ever play the game — will be suiting up for the rival Denver Broncos next season.

At the annual league meetings in Arizona in March, owner Robert Kraft took some not-so-subtle shots at Welker’s agents, Athletes First.

“I really believe in this case, his agents misrepresented, in their mind, what his market value was,” Kraft said. “When you come right down to the bottom line, he accepted a deal in Denver which is less money than what we offered him. In fact, he has a one-year deal in Denver for $6 million. Our last offer, before we would have even gone up and before we thought we were going into free agency, was a $10 million offer with incentives that would have earned him another $6 million if he performed the way he had the previous two years. But in Denver, he’s going to count $4 million against the cap this coming year and $8 million the second year. There is no guarantee that he plays the second year there. He will get $6 million the first year. Our deal, he would have gotten $8 million the first year – our last offer to him."

Kraft concluded, “Wes, I used to speak to him in the locker room and say, ‘You and I have to be smart here to make both sides make it happen.’ The agents are doing their job and trying to do the best job they can. But I just think it was a miscalculation of value here, and playing poker, and unfortunately the player and the team both got hurt.”

* Rob Gronkowski? The All-Pro, always-feared tight end? He has undergone four surgeries in the past 11 months and is currently “TBD” on his return. Though his estimated recovery time is just 12 weeks (per NESN.com), Gronk hasn’t been on a football field since the playoff game in which he was injured. He was expected to be back a lot sooner than this. Timetables, at this point, are nothing more than guesses.

* Deion Branch? Danny Woodhead? Brandon Lloyd? Three reliable Patriots playmakers from the past few seasons? They’re no longer with the team, either.

* And now, Hernandez, the team’s most feared weapon down the stretch last season, no longer is a Patriots player.

Make all the jokes you want, but Tim Tebow — legitimately — is one of the most accomplished offensive players the Patriots brought in this offseason. The rest of the group features a wide receiver who can’t seem to stay healthy (Danny Amendola), a wide receiver who couldn’t crack the lineup in receiver-devoid Minnesota (Michael Jenkins) and a host of unproven veterans (Donnie Jones) and unknown rookies (Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce). Jake Ballard, the tight end the Patriots signed a season ago when the New York Giants waived him, missed all of 2012 with an injury.

Two weeks ago, I went up to Foxborough, Mass., and made the statement that handling the Tebow media “circus” could end up being Belichick’s toughest test yet. Now, looking at the Patriots roster, I think just fielding a team resembling the ones we’ve become so used to over the last decade is a challenge that squashes any of the cameras and press-conference buffoonery Tebow can bring with him.

Can the Patriots, with neither Hernandez nor Gronkowski in the Week 1 lineup, run any of the feared two-tight-end sets they've relied on so frequently the past two years? Are Jake Ballard and rookie Zach Sudfield going to strike fear in the hearts of Ravens or Texans defenders? If the team opts to move away from the two-tight-end focus and go to a three-wideout set — who are those three wideouts going to be?

If you’re looking for rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce to grow up quickly and make an impact in their first years, you haven’t done the research on rookie receivers. In only the rarest of cases — A.J. Green, Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin — do rookie wideouts make big differences. Let me assure you: Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are no A.J. Green, Randy Moss or Anquan Boldin.

Do the Pats go to a ground-and-pound offense, relying on the run as a primary option and the pass as a secondary resource? Doing so would taking a major step back from the progressive offensive sets the team has employed in recent seasons. It also wouldn’t be utilizing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels or quarterback Tom Brady’s greatest strengths.

And, oh yeah, what about that guy? Brady, the 35-year-old quarterback who just re-upped with a new contract, now faces even greater pressure than usual to deliver. Though Patriots Nation (those who haven’t clicked the “X” on this screen yet) and the rest of the national media are likely reticent to acknowledge this, the man’s arm no longer is what it once was. He no longer is throwing 60-yard bombs to Randy Moss.

His game has adapted, and the team has given him the weapons to make the change a smooth one. Brady's now a pinpoint accuracy passer, best suited for 15- and 20-yard darts to tight ends and slot receivers. Without his top three targets in the lineup, are we certain Brady is as effective as he was even a season ago?

I’ve questioned some of the things the New England front office has done in the past couple of years and was even somewhat concerned after their regular-season losses to the Cardinals and Seahawks in 2012. But since Brady and Belichick took the football world by storm and won their first ring in 2001, I’ve never really doubted the Patriots. I've never really considered picking another team out of the AFC East.

But no Gronkowski (for now), no Welker and now no Hernandez? It’s hard not to be at least a little skeptical about the 2013 New England Patriots.

Even with Tim Tebow on the roster.

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