Pats add key players, hope for Super Bowl return
Bill Belichick and his players weren't ecstatic when they got their AFC championship rings.
Receiving their consolation prize last month was ''bittersweet,'' he said. ''Whatever it was last year, it was. It's time to move on.''
And so the New England Patriots have, making significant additions at positions where they needed help and adding depth at those where they already were strong.
Need a deep threat? Sign Brandon Lloyd.
Add stability to the secondary? Bring in potential starting safety Steve Gregory.
Upgrade the defense that allowed the second most yards in the NFL? Draft versatile Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower in the first two rounds.
The Patriots also have two of their top four draft picks from 2011 ready to step in as starters - Nate Solder for retired left tackle Matt Light and Stevan Ridley for departed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, now with Cincinnati.
Oh, and the Patriots also have an easy schedule with only four games against teams that had winning records last year - Tennessee, Baltimore, Houston and San Francisco.
So they're starting training camp with a club set up to make a second straight Super Bowl run after losing to the New York Giants 21-17 on a last-minute touchdown in last year's title game.
Unlike the rings they received in June, this season's bauble could be bigger and gaudier.
The next phase of that quest starts Thursday when camp opens with Tom Brady still throwing and Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski still catching. But having three of the best players at their positions means little if the rest of the team struggles.
''We all need the work, man,'' wide receiver Deion Branch said after last month's minicamp. ''When you think you're that good (you could) shut it down, discontinue training. We're not that good. We're not where we want to be. We need to work.''
The receiving corps is much deeper with the addition of Lloyd and former Patriots Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth. Chad Ochocinco (now Chad Johnson again), who struggled to learn the system, was released in June and signed with Miami.
Lloyd is the most intriguing newcomer. He had 77 catches with Denver in 2010 and 70 with Denver and St. Louis in 2011. He's familiar with new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' system, having played under him in both cities.
''We haven't had anyone quite like him, so just to understand where he likes the ball placed and how he gets open (is important),'' said Brady, who became the third player in NFL history to throw for more than 5,000 yards last season.
''He's a very good player, so we've got a lot of work ahead in training camp and we're going to have to use every single practice and every rep really wisely, because he can be a big part of this offense if we can really get up to speed.''
Lloyd's ability to stretch the field should make the short passing game, featuring Welker and tight ends Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, even more potent. The trio combined for 291 catches, 3,806 yards receiving and more than half the team's touchdowns (33 of 61).
Welker is playing under a $9.5 million franchise tender after he and the team failed to agree on a multiyear deal. The colorful Gronkowski received a six-year, $54 million contract extension, the largest ever given to an NFL tight end, for his receiving and blocking prowess.
The Patriots averaged 32.1 points (third in the NFL), 317.8 yards passing (second) but just 110.2 yards rushing (20th). Green-Ellis was sure-handed and dependable, but not a breakaway threat as the team's longest run covered just 33 yards; only the Jets were worse with a 31-yard long gain. Stevan Ridley figures to get most of the carries after showing power, speed and shiftiness in a backup role.
On defense, injuries and inconsistency led to the Patriots allowing 411.1 yards per game, fewer than only Green Bay. Their 32 sacks were tied for 22nd and Mark Anderson, now with Buffalo, and Andre Carter, now a free agent, had 10 each.
The Patriots defense weakness was most glaring in the Super Bowl when Eli Manning drove the New York Giants 88 yards for the winning touchdown with 57 seconds left.
That ended a 10-game winning streak that began after they fell to 5-3 with a 24-20 regular-season loss to the Giants
But the immediate disappointment didn't linger. The shock, the Patriots say, has worn off.
''You start back from where you started before, from zero. That's where I'm at now,'' defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. ''You really can't dwell over spoiled milk. Last year was last year. That's how you have to look at it and keep rolling. You have to be a professional.''
Moments after the loss, Brady, who turns 35 in August, said, ''I'll keep coming to this game and keep trying.''
And at last month's minicamp, he said, ''At this point, we try to move on and you try to look forward to what this season is going to be about. It's a different group of players, different coaches, a little different system. You're trying to put together a team here that can go out and compete every single week.''
On the first week of the season, the Patriots visit the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 9. On the last, the opponents are the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 30 in Foxborough.
The Patriots plan to keep playing after that.
''The more good players you have,'' Brady said, ''the better team you're going to be.''