- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The AFC East blog continues its series this week on pre-training camp grades in the division. On Tuesday, we conclude with a look at the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots.
New England has one of the most dangerous and dynamic passing attacks in the NFL. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady still is playing at an elite level and has a bevy of weapons at receiver (Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney) and tight end (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez). The status of Pro Bowl guards Logan Mankins (knee surgery) and Brian Waters (possible retirement) are up in the air for the start of the season, but the Patriots have depth up front and should be fine. The real question is the running backs. New England will rely on inexperienced second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to carry the load, while veterans Joseph Addai and Danny Woodhead compete to provide support on third down.
The defense was atrocious in 2011, finishing 31st in the NFL. If not for New England's aggressive offseason additions, this grade would be worse. The Patriots made a lot of moves to improve their pass rush and front seven. Top draft picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, for example, should immediately help New England's front seven. The big question is how much will the secondary improve. The struggling cornerbacks are pretty much the same. New England added safeties in the draft and free agency but no impact players.
What more can you say about Patriots head coach Bill Belichick? He built a dynasty in New England by winning three Super Bowls. Belichick also has dominated the AFC East nine of the past 11 years. He’s arguably the top coach in the NFL and one of the best of all time. His surly public persona and ultra-secretive ways may not be media friendly, but Patriots fans could care less as long as New England annually remains in contention.
You never hear of locker-room issues in New England. This team has great leadership and it starts at the top with Belichick and Brady. Everyone knows to fall in line or get out in New England. That is why the Patriots are not afraid to take a few chances. Some work (Randy Moss) and some do not (Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth), but it rarely hurts the team in the long run.
New England enters the year as one of the Super Bowl favorites -- and deservedly so. There are not many holes on the team outside of the defense. But the offense should be so good that the Patriots should only need marginal improvement defensively. No team in the AFC East can match New England in coaching or personnel. It was be a major upset if the Patriots do not repeat as division champs, which should pave the way for another postseason run. The only thing I can see derailing the Patriots from being a contender is significant injuries.