BOSTON (CBS) — Kickoff for the 2013 Patriots season is oh-so-close, but it comes with many questions.
While most expectations call for the Patriots to at least win their weak division, this season is unlike most others in recent memory. Two superstars in Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are gone from that fast-paced, high-scoring offense, replaced by unproven (and undrafted) rookies. Some of them have shown all the promise in the world during the preseason, while others have looked like, well, rookies.
That’s just one of the questions facing the Patriots as the season begins, so before it does, let’s run through the 10 biggest questions about this year’s team.
Can Gronk Be Gronk?
Aside from Tom Brady, there may be no player more important to the offensive than No. 87. The fact that he’s back at practice and progressing toward being game-ready is a great sign for the Patriots, but how effective he’ll be once he gets on the field remains an unknown.
There is no offensive force in football quite like Rob Gronkowski. He’s huge, he’s powerful, he’s extraordinarily athletic and he has some of the best hands you could ever see in a receiver. His size is obviously a major asset, but the way he can haul in any pass — over the middle while getting hit, at the sideline while falling out of bounds — is such a vital part of every Patriots drive. Surely, most people are expecting to see the same Gronkowski out there when he finally begins his season (best guess: Week 3 vs. the Buccaneers), but until he shows he’s the same guy, it’s fair to wonder what kind of impact all those surgeries will have on his body.
How Often Will They Run?
The departure of Welker (to Denver) and Hernandez (to Bristol County Jail) might mean a bit of a more reliance on the running game. Are Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen up to the task?
They should be. Both players are entering their third year, and both have improved in each of their first two seasons with the Patriots. Ridley actually finished seventh in the NFL in rushing yards last year, despite having fewer carries than all but one of the running backs ahead of him. He was also third in rushing touchdowns with 12, so it’s not as if he can’t handle the workload of being a No. 1 back.
From a team perspective, the Patriots had the second-most rushing attempts in the whole NFL, behind only Seattle. That might be surprising, considering the quarterback gets all the attention, but it’s an indication of how balanced the New England attack can be. (They were also fourth in passing attempts, an indicator of just how many plays they ran in that no-huddle offense, which ran 31 more plays than any other team.)
The question this year is will the balance shift even more toward the ground game? They attempted 641 passes and ran the ball 523 times. In order to keep Tom Brady healthy, and in order to free up the passing game, are we in for a change in play-calling?
Will The Secondary Be Any Better? Will It Be Worse?
If there’s been one constant with the Patriots in the past few years, it’s a weak secondary. They’ve ranked 25th or worse in yards allowed the past three seasons, and last year they ranked 28th in yards allowed per pass attempt. Once Aqib Talib joined the team, the unit was instantly made better, but when he left the AFC Championship Game due to injury, things got a bit ugly.
The problem with the secondary this year is that the Patriots didn’t do a whole lot to address it outside of the draft. Veteran safety Adrian Wilson did not work out and ended up on IR, leaving Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory as the starting safeties again. Alfonzo Dennard should be a stable corner, provided injuries and the Nebraska legal system doesn’t keep him off the field. Ras-I Dowling is finally gone after spending two seasons on IR, leaving Kyle Arrington and rookie Logan Ryan as the guys left with the bulk of the remaining work at corner.
Is there any reason to feel more confident about the secondary? Ryan looked good in the preseason, but it’s a whole different world in the real season.
How Good Can Kenbrell Thompkins Be?
Anyone who watched the preseason with a close eye knows that Kenbrell Thompkins appears to be a very good receiver, one who is in tune with Tom Brady and one who knows which route to run and how to run it.
In the process, he leap-frogged drafted receivers Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson in Tom Brady’s unofficial reliability depth chart, and he looks like he’ll be the unlikeliest member to play a key role in the offense since Danny Woodhead’s arrival in 2010 as a Jets cast-off.
There’s no doubting his ability or potential, it’s just a matter of how good he can be. The answer may go a long way toward winning football games.
Will We Notice The Change At Punter?
The second-biggest story of the final day of cuts, behind Tim Tebow, was the Patriots’ decision to go with Ryan Allen at punter over Zoltan Mesko. It’s not often that a decision at punter generates that much attention, but it did in this case not just because of Mesko’s punting prowess, but also his involvement in the community and his unique personality.
The Patriots saved about a million dollars by going with Allen, which isn’t a huge factor considering they were already well under the cap. That means it was about believing Allen can do the same job as Mesko this season and that he’ll develop into an equally reliable punter for the length of his rookie contract.
A happy punter is the unnoticed punter, the one who does his job, doesn’t screw up, and gets a ball inside the 10-yard line every now and again. If you’re still hearing Ryan Allen’s name after a few weeks, that’s not a great sign.
Will Stephen Gostkowski Be A Problem?
To be clear, Stephen Gostkowski was not bad last year. Overall, he hit 82.9 percent of his kicks, just slightly below his career average of 84.2 percent. He made 29 field goals, which is the second-most in his career, and he tied a career-high by drilling a 53-yarder.
However, if you look a little bit deeper, you can find why there wasn’t always overwhelming confidence every time Gostkowski took the field to attempt a field goal. While he was as good as ever from 40-49 yards, where he hit 82 percent of his kicks, he missed two kicks from the 30-39 yard range. He hadn’t missed two kicks from that distance in a season since his rookie year in 2006, and he was 47-for-51 (92 percent) from 30-39 yards in the five seasons that followed.
Add in the high-profile miss of a 42-yarder that would have won a game against the Cardinals early in the season but instead resulted in a loss, and there is at least the smidgen of doubt about a kick that comes in a crucial spot of a tight game. Hitting a big kick or two early in the year would go a long way toward eliminating that.
Can Zach Sudfeld Be Half As Good As Gronk?
We were all impressed by Zach Sudfeld’s training camp and preseason, to the point where some people got a little too excited and said he might be able to be a worthy fill-in for Rob Gronkowski early in the year. That is going overboard, and it’s asking a little too much out of an undrafted rookie who really only played one year of football at Nevada due to injuries of his own.
Considering Sudfeld is actually about a month older than Gronk, who’s entering his fourth season, it’s hard to place real expectations on the 6-foot-7 rookie. Considering Gronkowski, as a 21-year-old rookie in 2010, caught 42 passes for for 546 yards and 10 touchdowns, what are fair expectations for Sudfeld, who’s similarly built and has shown great hands? Maybe something similar in terms of receptions and yards, but five or six touchdowns would be appropriate. That would certainly be a pretty solid contribution from a tight end who went undrafted in April.
(Unrelated, he also looks like a really big version of Eddie Vedder. That’s not a question. That one’s already been answered.)
Will Another Defensive Star Be Born?
Vince Wilfork is the MVP of the defense. He is known around the league as one of the best defensive players in the game. This much is known.
If you look behind Wilfork in terms of importance and Pro Bowl-caliber play on defense, Jerod Mayo would be next. The two men at the middle of the defense are bona fide stars — ableit at different stratospheres. But Wilfork debuted in 2004, and Mayo in 2008, and it might be time for that next guy to step up and elevate his play to an All-Pro level. Devin McCourty? Brandon Spikes? Chandler Jones or Dont’a Hightower?
It might be too early for those latter two players, but the Patriots aren’t lacking for candidates.
Which Team Will Surprisingly Beat The Patriots?
Everyone always looks at the schedule at the start of the year and starts to map out a win-loss pattern. Some games look like they’ll be close, while others look like blowouts in which the Pats should roll to victory. Yet for the past few years, at least one team has spoiled all of those preseason predictions with a highly improbable victory. Last year, it was the Cardinals in Week 2. The year before, it was the Bills in Week 3. In 2010, it was the Browns — the Browns! — who beat the Patriots 34-14 in Week 9. The combined record of those three teams was 16-32, while the Patriots went 39-9. The biggest contrast was in 2010, when the Pats went 14-2 and the Browns went 5-11.
This year, we obviously can’t predict the surprise, otherwise it wouldn’t be a surprise. But look out in Week 3 vs. Tampa Bay, Week 11 vs. Carolina and Week 14 against the vaunted Cleveland Browns. You never know when these things happen, but lately, they’ve been unavoidable.
Is Danny Amendola The Real Deal?
This may be the question burning the strongest for most Patriots fans, especially after seeing Wes Welker serve as a steady, reliable receiver for Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the Thursday night season opener. While it’s unfair to place expectations on any player to “replace” a different person, the comparisons are going to be unavoidable for Amendola this season. Any fans who wanted Welker back are going to judge Amendola based on how he performs in comparison.
While his injury history is well-publicized, it’s not entirely accurate to refer to Amendola as “injury-prone.” A broken clavicle and a dislocated elbow aren’t exactly like nagging hammy and quad muscles. Barring the freak, catastrophic injury, Amendola should be healthy, and he should produce. But in the case of Amendola, who signed a five-year deal for $31 million but has played in just 12 games combined over the past two seasons, the pressure is on to be “the man” in New England.