AFC East: Brandon Lloyd

What next at wide receiver for Patriots?

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
8:30
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Where do the New England Patriots go from here at wide receiver?

[+] EnlargeAaron Dobson
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAaron Dobson was targeted 10 times Thursday night but finished with only three catches.
That has been a popular question after Thursday night's win over the Jets -- one of the more inept performances for the team’s passing game since Tom Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001.

Too many drops. Too much miscommunication and too many fundamental breakdowns. Too much frustration for Brady.

So now, many who panned veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd during the 2012 season are wondering if a comeback might be possible. Others are asking if Deion Branch might be an upgrade. Or Donte' Stallworth.

Maybe Bill Belichick ultimately decides that’s the way to go. Maybe he saw how uncomfortable Brady looked early on Thursday, considers that Danny Amendola is currently sidelined with a groin injury and determines there is value in bringing back a veteran with knowledge of the system, even if the initial intention was to move on from them.

Still, I’d be surprised if he does that at this point.

As ugly as it was on Thursday night, and no one is saying otherwise, the feeling here is that this is no time to abort the team’s "re-do" with youthful receivers. Instead, the smarter play is to invest further in youth and realize that almost all of the mistakes made Thursday are correctable – the numerous drops, the failure of Aaron Dobson to get his head around at the top of his route and Kenbrell Thompkins not getting enough depth on his routes among them.

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No one said this would be seamless. We all knew there would be growing pains, even if the ones we’ve seen the first two games have been a bit more extreme than anticipated. Brady previously said he’s had to be more of a teacher this year, which requires more patience because this might be the greatest challenge of his career, breaking in the young guys.

As for the topic that lit up some parts of Boston sports radio on Friday -- whether the Patriots have done enough to surround a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback with potent weapons -- it seems fair to ask the question.

But here’s another thought: Perhaps those who are thinking along those lines have lost some perspective of how the Patriots used to win games in their championship days. Those days weren’t always filled with offensive fireworks, as former Patriot and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi brought up on “NFL Live” Friday.

“Tom Brady is holding them to a standard that they can’t maintain, and that’s Tom Brady’s standard. He expects them to be perfect because at times he rarely makes mistakes,” Bruschi said. “He has to lower his standards for these receivers right now. The defense is good and will buy him some time.

“I remember back in 2001, we had a quality defense and we had to pick up our weight a little bit more, pick up the slack, because we had a young quarterback by the name of Tom Brady. We had to wait for him. Now he has to wait for them.”

[+] EnlargeKenbrell Thompkins
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesKenbrell Thompkins couldn't hold on to a pass in the end zone just before halftime.
Belichick does, too.

Part of grooming and cultivating young talent is enduring some early struggles. It’s a different sport, but I often wonder how the course of Dustin Pedroia’s Boston Red Sox career might be different had manager Terry Francona not stuck with him in 2007 when Pedroia was batting .172 with no home runs and two RBIs after a month in his first full season in the big leagues. It’s laughable to think back now and remember that some were calling for Pedroia to be sent down to Pawtucket in favor of Alex Cora.

There is a fine line here, and as Patriots captain Logan Mankins said Thursday night, “This is the NFL, you can’t be too patient for too long. You have to produce. You can’t wait forever.”

Two games in five days isn’t forever.

If the 2-0 Patriots are in the same spot two weeks from now, a quarter of the way into the season, maybe then it’ll be time to start thinking about reinforcements at wide receiver.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Facing arguably the greatest challenge of his 14-year NFL career, stripped of his go-to receiver Wes Welker and then some, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrived at training camp hoping to do more.

Never before has the team had such a youthful look at the position, where there have been more struggles than successes in drafting and developing talent. The Patriots opened training camp with 12 receivers on the roster, six of whom are rookies.

Three of those young pups -- second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson, fourth-rounder Josh Boyce and free-agent Kenbrell Thompkins -- have taken more repetitions with Brady through the first three days of training camp than most could have imagined. One reason the results have looked fairly sharp is the extra work that was put in thanks to Brady's early arrival (rookies reported the day before Brady).

It is almost as if Brady is more than just the team's quarterback now; he's part coach, too. Unlike his record-breaking 2007 season, when there was an immediate connection with veterans Randy Moss, Welker and Jabar Gaffney, there is a certain teacher-student dynamic in play now. Brady, a stickler for detail, can be tough to please.

"He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game, so he’s definitely demanding,” said the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Dobson, a smooth-strider from Marshall who the Patriots hope will fill the outside role that Chad Johnson (2011) and Brandon Lloyd (2012) filled the past two years. “[He’s] definitely tough to play for.”

Some used to say the same thing about Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino, and there is a connection in play between Marino and what Brady currently faces. Because Marino had played for so long in Miami (1983 to '99), the offense grew so much each season that it was difficult in Marino’s later years for any young or new receiver to handle. So when go-to receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper were no longer in the mix -- they had grown with Marino in the offense -- it was a challenge to find anyone capable of stepping in.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has acknowledged that’s a similar dynamic to what his team is currently navigating. This is Brady’s 14th year in the Patriots’ offense, which has evolved in many layers since his first year in 2000, and there is a lot there for any receiver to handle, let alone a rookie.

That is a big reason why the Patriots were drawn to Dobson and Boyce in the draft, and why Thompkins -- an older rookie at 25 who went undrafted after two years at Cincinnati -- has been an under-the-radar surprise to this point. All have a high football IQ. And so does free-agent signee Danny Amendola, who has developed a quick rapport with Brady that stands out.

Still, the Patriots might have to “trim the fat” in some areas of the playbook, according to Belichick. There will also be times when patience will be tested.

But watching Brady through the first three days of camp, part of it seems to have invigorated him. Those close to him say he is more committed than ever before; he turns 36 on Aug. 3, craves another Super Bowl championship, and knows that if all the receiver changes are going to produce the desired results -- especially with the rookies -- it is going to take extra work.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Distractions from tight end Aaron Hernandez.

In an unprecedented move, Belichick called a news conference two days before the team’s training camp practice to address Hernandez’s murder charge and its impact on the franchise. Then Brady spoke to reporters the following day. The goal was to balance the fine line between showing empathy and perspective to something bigger than football, but also position the club to move forward.

Because of that proactive approach, Hernandez wasn’t much of a topic of discussion from a media perspective by the second day of training camp. But will that change as new developments come to light in the case against Hernandez?

As one would expect, Belichick addressed players about the situation in a team meeting at the start of camp.

“He had comments, but that’s between him and the team. If he wants to share it, that’s fine,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins, one of the team’s captains. (No surprise, but Belichick hasn’t been in the sharing mood.)

Mankins, the third-longest tenured player on the team (nine years) after Brady (14) and Wilfork (10), touched on how players are attempting to move on.

“At the time, you kind of reflect, but now it’s football season and everything goes in a drawer; no matter how you feel about it, it’s put away,” he said. “It’s football, it’s straightforward, and that’s all you can concentrate on or you’ll fall behind. Bill puts so much pressure on everyone and demands so much work and focus that if you’re not just focusing on football, then you’re in trouble.”

2. Void at top of tight end depth chart.

By the time the Patriots had blazed a trail through the NFL in 2011 with their innovative two-tight end offense, Rob Gronkowski had played almost 95 percent of the offensive snaps and Hernandez about 77 percent. The results were impressive, and others around the league considered plans to attempt to duplicate it.

That’s also when the Patriots extended the contracts of both players -- Gronkowski through 2019 and Hernandez 2018 -- with the idea of building their offense around them (over Welker).

The plans obviously haven’t worked out as desired, and if Gronkowski isn’t ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 at Buffalo after a surgery-filled offseason, it sparks the questions: Who fills the void, and how does it impact plans to play with multiple tight ends?

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Patriots may lean heavily on former New York Giants TE Jake Ballard early in the season as Rob Gronkowski rehabs from injury.
Former New York Giant Jake Ballard (6-6, 260) and returning veterans Daniel Fells (6-4, 260) and Michael Hoomanawanui (6-4, 260) are the top candidates, while rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld (6-7, 260) is a potential sleeper.

“I don’t want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story … it’s there if they can do it,” Belichick said.

Still, it would be a surprise if the Patriots run as many multiple-tight end sets as they did in 2011. The numbers were down to about 50 percent last year when Gronkowski and Hernandez missed significant time with injuries.

3. Tim Tebow’s role.

On a scale of 1-10 in terms of importance to the team’s success, No. 3 quarterback Tim Tebow is closer to the “1” than the “10.” Yet there is intrigue.

Tebow hasn’t been consistent as a drop-back passer in practices and appears to be at his best on the move or as a runner. That explains why he has been the only quarterback in the drill in which ball carriers run with the football in a confined space after making a catch, and then the defenders execute proper tackling technique.

Do the Patriots see enough value in him, possibly as a scout-team quarterback, to reserve a coveted spot on the 53-man roster? That’s a hot-button topic that has generated passionate response from both circles.

“He’s a good guy first, a super-nice guy and a good guy to talk to,” Mankins said of Tebow. “He works his butt off, so we’ll see if he can find a role.”

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Since Brady is the quarterback, Belichick is the coach, and the team is playing in the AFC East, what’s not to like? And we’ve made it to this point with nary a mention of the team’s defense, which should be improved when factoring in that 10 of 11 starters return and the addition of a few complementary pieces, such as veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who brings size (6-3, 230) and an intimidating presence.

Last year, the Patriots traded up in the first round for defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and they could be difference-makers. Jones was hobbled by an ankle injury for most of the second half of last year and said one of his primary goals this offseason was to improve his upper-body strength. Hightower played 51 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012 but looks primed to possibly become more of a three-down option this year.

Furthermore, cornerback Aqib Talib had a significant impact -- both on the field and in the meeting room -- after he was acquired in November. Having him for a full year, in theory, should help the defense improve.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There has been too much turbulence this offseason, including starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence. Dennard is due in court in Lincoln, Neb., on Aug. 27 to determine if he violated his probation and could potentially face an NFL suspension.

Uncertainty with Dennard, the unknown in the passing game, Gronkowski’s health questions, and layers of the roster that appear thin on depth (interior DL) mean that the margin for error the Patriots traditionally have doesn’t seem as big as before.
Finally, the departed Welker was known for his consistency and durability. The Patriots are hoping Amendola can fill the void -- and the early returns are positive -- but there are questions about whether he can play a full 16-game season based on his injury history.

OBSERVATION DECK

• The Patriots’ coaching staff returns intact from 2012, marking only the second time in Belichick’s 14-year tenure that has happened. Former Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who joined the Patriots in January, has the title of “offensive assistant.” At times in practice, he’s worked closely with Tebow.

Devin McCourty, the 2010 first-round draft choice who made the Pro Bowl as a cornerback in his first season, appears to be settling into the safety position nicely. McCourty first moved to safety in the middle of last season, and his command of the defense, along with strong communication and sideline-to-sideline skills, make him a solid fit at the new position.

• Teammates call Wilson “The Incredible Hulk” because of his chiseled physique. Wilson and fellow veteran Steve Gregory are the top candidates vying for a starting role next to McCourty at safety.

[+] EnlargeTommy Kelly
Mike Reiss/ESPNDT Tommy Kelly should add some punch to the middle of the Patriots' defense, forming a strong 1-2 duo with Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork.
• Former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (6-6, 310) projects as a starter next to Vince Wilfork; defensive end Rob Ninkovich called Kelly an under-the-radar player who is making a mark. Mankins said: “He’s been impressive so far, very athletic for his size. He’s quick for an inside guy. I like his work ethic. He’s been giving great effort, and if he gives us that kind of effort all season, I think he’ll have a good season.”

• Running back Stevan Ridley lost two fumbles in the team’s third practice, with Belichick sending him to run two punishment laps. Ridley led all Patriots running backs in playing 45 percent of the snaps last season, and the projection is that he should match that number this year. But if he struggles to hold on to the ball, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount and second-year man Brandon Bolden are the top candidates to step in to that bigger back role. Blount was 2-for-2 in a goal-line running drill on Sunday. Shane Vereen looks primed to fill the void created by Danny Woodhead’s defection to the Chargers to serve as the team’s “passing back.” On Sunday, he was featured as a pass-catcher when the team worked on the screen game.

• The entire offensive line returns intact, although there could be a competition at right guard, where third-year player Marcus Cannon (6-5, 335) has been working with the top unit while incumbent Dan Connolly (shoulder) works his way back.

• Top draft choice Jamie Collins, the linebacker/defensive end from Southern Mississippi (52nd overall), has received his initial work at linebacker. He’s the first linebacker to rotate into 11-on-11 drills, often replacing middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has been more of a two-down player.

• Former Canadian Football League defensive lineman Armond Armstead opened training camp on the non-football illness list. Belichick said the illness is different from the heart condition that led him to leave Southern Cal in 2011 and land in the CFL, and there is no indication when/if Armstead might join the team at practice. In addition, receiver Julian Edelman and Gronkowski opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Leon Washington, who signed with the Patriots after three seasons with the Seahawks, has served as the primary kickoff returner, where the Patriots are banking on improved results after ranking 25th in the NFL last season (21.2-yard average).

• Ballard, who said he played at 278 pounds in New York, is down to 260. The hope is that it doesn’t affect him at the line of scrimmage as a blocker, but makes him faster and takes pressure off his knee.

• Incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko, who is entering the final year of his contract, is joined on the roster by rookie Ryan Allen, the two-time Ray Guy Award winner from Louisiana Tech. Both are lefty punters; Belichick has employed a left-footed punter in each of his 14 seasons as coach.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC East team as training camps get underway.

Buffalo Bills: Buffalo is one of two AFC East teams with a high-profile quarterback battle. Veteran Kevin Kolb will attempt to beat out rookie first-round pick EJ Manuel in training camp. Kolb is the early favorite because of experience. He signed a two-year contract with the Bills after stops with the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles. Manuel was the only quarterback drafted in the first round this year and is an intriguing prospect. He has good size, mobility and a solid arm. However, Manuel never put it all together at Florida State. The Bills and new head coach Doug Marrone believe they can coach up Manuel and make him a complete quarterback. But it will take time.

Miami Dolphins: An interesting and unexpected position battle has developed at defensive end between first-round pick Dion Jordan and 2012 third-round pick Olivier Vernon. Jordan is Miami’s No. 3 overall pick who is expected to make an immediate impact. However, major shoulder surgery in February caused him to miss practice time up until Wednesday, the third day of training camp. In the meantime, Vernon took advantage of the opportunity to play with the starting defense in the spring and summer and has been a force. He looks much improved from his rookie year and has been disruptive in the first week of camp. Jordan eventually is expected to be a cornerstone of Miami's defense. But Vernon is making a strong case to start in Week 1 after holding the position all during organized team activities, minicamp and the first week of training camp.

New England Patriots: The Patriots are searching for a starting receiver. Free-agent pickup Danny Amendola will replace former starter Wes Welker. However, the spot Brandon Lloyd left behind is wide open. Will it be a veteran like Michael Jenkins or Lavelle Hawkins? What about a rookie like Aaron Dobson or an unknown like Kamar Aiken? Your guess is as good as anyone’s at this stage. The Patriots have a lot of questions about their passing game. Pretty much the only sign of stability right now is future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, who has a tall task of keeping the offense at the top of NFL with limited weapons.

New York Jets: New York is the second division team with a significant quarterback competition. Veteran Mark Sanchez, the starter since 2009, will attempt to hold off rookie second-round pick Geno Smith. It’s been a lukewarm competition in organized team activities and minicamp, but both players are very confident that they will win the job in training camp. Sanchez has led the NFL in turnovers the past two seasons and is down to his last shot to prove he’s a franchise quarterback. Smith has some good physical ability but didn’t play in a pro-style offense at West Virginia. He needs time to adjust to the pro game, and that could factor into a close race.

Training camp preview: Patriots

July, 25, 2013
7/25/13
2:30
PM ET
After a rough offseason, the New England Patriots will begin their 2013 season Friday with the start of training camp.

New England remains the preseason favorite to win the AFC East. But this team is weaker than previous years due to several offseason circumstances.

Here are three things to watch in Patriots camp:

1. Can New England block out distractions?

Analysis: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did a smart thing Wednesday. He faced the Aaron Hernandez situation head-on before training camp, because questions were coming either way. Belichick relieved some of the media pressure surrounding Hernandez's arrest on murder and other charges and the team's subsequent release of the star tight end. But this story will follow the Patriots to some degree all summer and beyond. The players must prove they can overcome the loss on the field as well as answer Hernandez questions off it. New England is a team which despises distractions, but this will be a challenge.

2. Will wide receivers step up?

Analysis: It’s been a question all offseason. Now, it’s time for some answers. Which receivers will step up in New England’s offense? Danny Amendola, if he stays healthy, is a proven commodity. But the rest of the Patriots’ receivers have plenty of question marks. New England lost a ton of production by not bringing back 2012 starters Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. This year’s group includes veterans Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins, Kamar Aiken and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady is good at raising the level of his supporting cast -- but it is asking a lot of Brady to try to lead this group to another Super Bowl title.

3. How much better is the defense?

Analysis: One of the bright spots for the Patriots this offseason has been the additions on defense. New England spent resources in free agency and the draft to improve this side of the football. The Patriots signed veteran free-agent safety Adrian Wilson and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly to toughen up the defense. They also drafted three defenders in the first three rounds to infuse some youth and energy. If other young defenders such as Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower take their games to another level, the Patriots defense could make good strides in 2013.
Most NFL observers agree that the New England Patriots' Super Bowl window is closing fast. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady turns 36 in August and head coach Bill Belichick, 61, isn’t expected to stick around much longer once Brady is gone.

Brady
Some would even make the case that New England's door is already shut after a tulmultuous offseason. Former star tight end Aaron Hernandez was released after being charged for murder and facing five additional gun charges. The Patriots lost both starting receivers: Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. And Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski is questionable for Week 1 after multiple back and arm surgeries. New England already has plenty of adversity to overcome before it takes its first snap in training camp.

But Brady remains optimistic about winning a fourth Super Bowl. He told Peter King of Sports Illustrated that his two Super Bowl losses following the 2008 and 2011 seasons were missed opportunities, but the Patriots still have a shot this year.

Here is the full quote from Brady:
“We’ve had our chances. Twice. More than twice, actually. I still have plenty of chances to do it. What I’ve learned is it’s really, really hard to win the Super Bowl. I didn’t get that perspective early, winning three out of the first four years I played. What I like about this franchise is we’ve got a shot every year. I love the fact we were in the AFC title game last year, the Super Bowl the year before that, and 14-2 the year before that. Can we win this year? It’ll be determined by our level of commitment, the mental toughness. We’ll find it out before the season. How committed are we?”

I don’t see the Patriots winning it all this year. The 2013 New England team is weaker than the group we saw the past two years -- and those teams came up short. It's doubtful that this year’s team surpasses that and wins a championship.

Still, New England remains a good team and the preseason favorite in the AFC East. Winning the division would at least put the Patriots in the playoffs to see if they can get hot at the right time.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the one move each team in the AFC East needed to make but didn't:

Buffalo Bills: The Bills used the draft and free agency to address needs at wide receiver and linebacker. However, one position that was glossed over that could come back to haunt Buffalo is cornerback. Former 2012 first-round pick Stephon Gilmore could be a stud in the making. He's aggressive and consistent around the football, which is evident by his team-high 16 pass defenses last season. No other Bills player had more than eight deflections. But the Bills have uncertainty at corner after Gilmore. Former first-round draft bust Leodis McKelvin is competing with corners Justin Rogers and Crezdon Butler for a starting role. Former cornerback Aaron Williams is being moved to safety, which further weakens Buffalo's cornerback depth. With Gilmore coming into his own, look for opponents to attack Buffalo's other weak spots at corner this season.

Miami Dolphins: If you're a regular reader of the AFC East blog, you know by now that I think Miami is taking a risk by not adding a left tackle this offseason. The Dolphins let four-time Pro Bowler Jake Long walk in free agency, but Miami didn’t draft a starting left tackle or sign one in free agency. The Dolphins are going with 2012 second-round pick Jonathan Martin at left tackle instead. Martin did a serviceable job at right tackle during his rookie campaign but looked shaky in December when he switched to the left side for the injured Long. To his credit, Martin did a lot of work in the weight room to improve his size and strength, which are needed. But unless Martin makes significant strides in Year 2, left tackle could be a position of weakness in 2013.

New England Patriots: The Patriots took hit after hit in the passing game this offseason. They lost both starting wide receivers -- Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd -- in addition to tight end Aaron Hernandez after he was charged with murder and faces five additional gun charges. New England could have done more to help at wide receiver. The Patriots signed average veterans Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins and Donald Jones. They also drafted unproven rookies Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson. Even the talented Danny Amendola has major injury questions. He has played just 12 games the past two seasons. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has the potential to make his receivers look better than they are, but this is really a mediocre group, especially if Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski misses time this season.

New York Jets: The Jets could use more talent in a lot of areas. But similar to the Patriots, their biggest regret could be not spending money to sign a veteran receiver. New York has questions at quarterback with Mark Sanchez and rookie Geno Smith. But whoever is under center needs quality weapons around him. The Jets did a smart thing to sign former Pro Bowler Kellen Winslow to solidify their tight end position. New York would be smart to do something similar at wide receiver. The good news is it's not too late for the Jets. Some options still available in free agency include veteran receiver Lloyd and former Jet Braylon Edwards.

After losing 2012 starting wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, the New England Patriots must rely heavily on tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the passing game. But can the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady count on Gronkowski to have another Pro Bowl season in 2013?

Gronkowski is slated for back surgery Tuesday and is expected to miss a portion of training camp. The main goal is to have Gronkowski ready for New England's Week 1 AFC East battle against the Buffalo Bills.

But how effective with Gronkowski be when he returns?

“He will be Gronk-ish, I’ll say, but I don’t know if he will be the same explosive, strong, physical Gronkowski," ESPN NFL analyst Jason Taylor said. "It’s tough to come back from four surgeries on your forearm, and now a fifth surgery on your back.”

Taylor also mentioned all of the offseason work in the weight room and strength training that Gronkowski is missing. It will take time to regain his full strength and flexibility.

I’ve said several times to expect New England’s passing attack to take a step back this year. The receivers aren’t as good and the tight end position has plenty of health concerns. If Gronkowski isn’t the “Gronk” of old in 2013, New England needs others step up and stay healthy for a full season.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the AFC East as summer break looms.

Buffalo Bills: By all accounts, the Bills had a productive minicamp. But a huge question remains about the future of Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd. He was a no-show this week in a clear display of displeasure over receiving the franchise tag. Byrd also skipped all organized team activities and has yet to sign the tag. Because of his refusal to sign, the Bills could not fine him for skipping mandatory minicamp. The Bills have plenty of cap room and Byrd is one of their core players entering his prime, so it makes sense for both sides to reach an agreement. However, time is running out, as training camp is coming up at the end of July.

Miami Dolphins: I’ve spent a lot of time at Miami’s practice facility for the past month during minicamp and OTAs. The Dolphins met my expectations in improving their passing game and defensive playmaking, but here is a question I didn’t get answered: Is the running game better in 2013? Miami lost tailback Reggie Bush in free agency, and I thought I would see more big plays from running backs Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas and rookie Mike Gillislee. However, they were rather pedestrian this week. That being said, Miami’s run defense is stout and players aren’t practicing in pads, so it’s hard to gauge fully the progress of the running game until there’s live hitting in training camp.

New England Patriots: The wide receiver position is still a work in progress. Outside of free-agent pickup Danny Amendola, New England still hasn’t figured out its No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. These are important positions for the Patriots, who led the NFL in total offense in 2012 but lost Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker and veteran Brandon Lloyd. Unproven veterans, such as receivers Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins, are competing with rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. It will take a full training camp to pick the best two or three options from this group. Also, the Patriots need Amendola to play all 16 games this season, which is a risky proposition. I fully expect New England’s passing game to take a step backward in 2013. The receivers aren’t as talented, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have injury concerns.

New York Jets: Can the Jets win this season with Mark Sanchez as the starter? It’s early, but it appears New York is heading in that direction. Sanchez relied on his experience to win the quarterback battle this week in minicamp over rookie second-round pick Geno Smith. Heading into training camp, Sanchez is the favorite to win the starting job in Week 1. New York already is discussing whether to implement a read-option offense for Smith, which would get him involved in the game even if he’s not the starter. All in all, there are not a lot of reasons to be confident in New York’s offense this season. Sanchez is winning a lukewarm quarterback battle but must improve from the last two seasons.
The offensively deprived New York Jets are already thin at wide receiver.

This week alone, receivers Santonio Holmes (foot), Stephen Hill (knee), Jeremy Kerley (hamstring), and Clyde Gates (hamstring) all missed practice time with injuries. Holmes, in particular, is in danger of landing on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), which would require him to miss the first six games of the regular season.

Should the Jets add a veteran wide receiver in free agency? New general manager John Idzik cleared enough cap room this offseason for the Jets to add help at receiver.

Here are some big names at receiver who are available:
There is a lot of proven talent still on the market. Most importantly, there are healthy free agents who can get valuable practice reps in the Jets’ new West Coast offense.

Quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith need all the assistance they can get. Adding a veteran receiver should definitely be an option for the Jets this summer.
Rob GronkowskiAP Photo/Elise AmendolaRob Gronkowski is to have back surgery in June, and he has had four forearm surgeries since November.
In June 2012, the New England Patriots signed Rob Gronkowski to a six-year, $53 million extension. The move made sense at the time for the former AFC champs, because Gronkowski was coming off a record-setting year with 90 receptions, 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Therefore, the Patriots didn't hesitate to sign him to the richest contract for a tight end in NFL history.

But just one year later, it's time to question whether the Patriots eventually will have buyer's remorse. There no denying his Hall of Fame talent, but Gronkowski also comes with durability issues.

How long will he last with the Patriots? Can Gronkowski be the same effective player in New England for five more seasons?

Gronkowski's injury history is no surprise. It started when he missed his senior year in college after major back surgery. As a result, the Patriots were able to get a first-round talent in the second round. But Gronkowski is going in for another back surgery in June, and it will mark his sixth surgery since February 2012. He has had four surgeries alone on his broken forearm since November.

Gronkowski has become a human pin cushion before his 25th birthday and has earned the dreaded label of injury-prone player. According to ESPN NFL analyst Matt Williamson, Gronkowski's growing list of injures "has to be a concern now."

"You hope that it's manageable," Williamson said. "The Patriots' doctors must have approved [Gronkowski's health]. There's no way you give him a six-year extension if they didn't think they were on top of the situation. But where we are sitting right now, it looks bad, doesn't it?"

Gronkowski's back surgery is described as minor by agent Drew Rosenhaus. However, former offensive lineman and NFL analyst Mark Schlereth provided chilling commentary from his experience with back surgery on ESPN's "NFL Live" this week.

Schlereth is an expert on going under the knife. He had 29 surgeries in his 12-year career, and he says recovering from a bad back is the worst of the group.

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How many more years will Rob Gronkowski play in the NFL?

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“Robert Watkins, the doctor who will perform [Gronkowski’s] surgery, is also the doctor who performed my back surgery. One thing you have to understand about back surgery, that area is so fine back there and scar tissue is a real issue and can irritate those nerve roots,” Schlereth said. “You sneeze and it’s over. Your back will just lock up on you. It’s one of those things that’s a really hard injury to have. And I’ve always said this: I’ve had 20 knee surgeries during the course of my career, and I would take another 20 knee surgeries to get the one back surgery back if I could get rid of it, because it bothers me every single day of my life.”

Gronkowski will miss a portion of training camp recovering from back and arm surgeries, and any setback could push his recovery into the regular season. He was in and out of the lineup all last season. He missed five regular-season games and the AFC Championship Game, which New England lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens 28-13.

Can the Patriots win a Super Bowl this season without a healthy Gronkowski? Statistics show New England's chances are slim without its most effective pass-catcher.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's Total Quarterback Rating is 77.3 since 2011 with Gronkowski on the field and 63.5 without Gronkowski. In addition, Brady averaged 10.5 yards per attempt over that same span throwing to Gronkowski, along with 31 touchdowns and four interceptions. Brady averages just 7.8 yards per attempt with 22 interceptions throwing to other receivers and tight ends. Gronkowski’s impact in New England is simply unmatched.

The Patriots need Gronkowski more than ever this season. They let go of 2012 starting receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who accounted for 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. New England completely remade the receiving corps with less-proven veterans Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, Lavelle Hawkins and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce.

"It would be a huge blow, no doubt about it," Williamson said if Gronkowski misses time this season. "Even if Amendola makes up for Welker, which I have some doubts about, you got to think they will be weaker at receiver. I love the offensive line, and I think the running game is strong. [Tight end Aaron] Hernandez also is a good player. But Gronk is a difference-maker."

Contractually, the Patriots have a major decision to make with Gronkowski in 2015. New England has a $10 million option bonus that must be picked up by the final day of the 2015 league year. If the Patriots decide not to do that, the contract would be voided.

Gronkowski could be the best tight end of this generation if he ever finds a way to avoid injuries. But at this point it could be a challenge for Gronkowski, 24, to remain healthy and productive in the NFL at age 30.

"He could be the best tight end ever," Williamson said of Gronkowski's potential. "What he’s done in a short amount of time is unprecedented. He’s the best red zone threat in the league. He’s by far the best tight end in the league. He’s an elite blocker. He can run every route and is extremely physical after the catch. He can go up and get the ball in traffic.

"He has no flaws, except for durability."
The New England Patriots need help at wide receiver after the departures of 2012 starters Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd.

[+] EnlargeAaron Dobson
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesAaron Dobson was not highly-recruited out of high school but ended up a second-round pick in the NFL draft.
Patriots second-round pick Aaron Dobson will be one of those key players competing for a starting role with the reigning AFC East champions. Dobson comes to New England with a spectacular highlight reel at the University of Marshall.

The AFC East blog caught up with Dobson during a community event in this week's NFLPA’s Rookie Premiere in Los Angeles to discuss a variety of topics.

Aaron, how good is it to spend time with NFL rookies this week who are going through the same adjustment?

Aaron Dobson: It’s definitely fun, just out here in LA. We’ve all known each other just going through this [draft] process, and now we’re getting to know each other even more and giving back to the kids.

Marshall was the only college to offer you a scholarship and now you’re a second-round pick for the Patriots. Were you a late bloomer?

Dobson: I really just think it was where I was playing high school football. West Virginia is not a highly-recruited state. I think it was more me being from there. But I got the opportunity at Marshall and I made the best of it. Now I’m in a position I wanted to be in my whole life. So I wouldn’t take it back for anything.

What’s your thoughts on catching passes from future Hall of Famer Tom Brady and learning New England's offense?

Dobson: It’s just great to be in the league and catching passes from any quarterback. But it being Tom just makes it icing on the cake. It’s great and I’m exciting to be a New England Patriot. The offense is definitely something I have to learn. I have to put my mind to it and be focused. I’m taking it day-by-day to learn it and get comfortable with it.

How did you make so many one-handed catches at Marshall?

Dobson: It’s all instinct. I’m just going for the ball and I attack the ball very well. That’s how it happens. I can bring them in with one hand and I can catch with two hands. It’s just being focused, really.

Congrats on the graduation. How important was getting a degree before leaving school?

Dobson: Thank you. It was real important. I got out in three and a half years. I graduated in December, so it was great. My mom is real happy. She’s glad I got my degree and an NFL contract. So it’s just a blessing.
BradyElsa/Getty ImagesThe path to a fourth title for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, left, will be considerably tougher in 2013.

The championship window for the New England Patriots will not be open forever. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are entering the tail ends of their respective careers -- meaning that the time for this Hall of Fame pair to win a fourth championship together is now.

New England was one game away from reaching the Super Bowl last season, suffering an upset at Gillette Stadium at the hands of the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens.

Can the 2013 Patriots win it all? Here are five reasons why this season's Patriots are neither better than nor as dangerous as last season's:

Reason No. 1: Too many changes at receiver

Analysis: New England had the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 4 passing game in 2012. If it's not broken, why did the Patriots make so many changes? New England opted to let go of starting receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who combined for an astounding 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Rest assured, the Patriots will not get that kind of production from their 2013 replacements. Danny Amendola will start in place of Welker. Amendola doesn’t have anywhere near the same production and durability as Welker -- he missed more games (20) the past two seasons with the St. Louis Rams than he played (12). The Patriots desperately need their new No. 1 receiver to play 16 games, which is a risky proposition. After Amendola, who will be New England's No. 2 and No. 3 receivers is unknown. There will be competition among Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins and rookies Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson to fill those roles. New England's receivers won't strike fear into opposing defenses this year. Look for the Patriots' passing game to take a step back in 2013, particularly on the outside at wide receiver.

Reason No. 2: Too many injury concerns

Analysis: The Patriots are entering the 2013 season with major injury questions. With so many changes at wide receiver, they expect to lean heavily on their two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. But should they? Gronkowski is headed for his fourth surgery on his previously broken right arm, and it’s questionable if he’s going to be ready for the start of the regular season. It's also uncertain if Gronkowski's arm will ever be the same and whether this will be a recurring issue. Hernandez also has been out after major shoulder surgery this offseason and aims to return for August training camp. Backup receiver Julian Edelman, meanwhile, just had another procedure on the same foot to which he suffered a season-ending injury in 2012. Edelman hasn’t been able to stay healthy throughout his career.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsTight end Rob Gronkowski might not be ready for the regular season -- and his durability is a major concern for New England whenever he returns.
Reason No. 3: Tom Brady is a year older

Analysis: Patriots fans have become spoiled by the consistent greatness of Brady. He is expected to put up Hall of Fame numbers every year for New England to be successful. But I’ve seen a major problem with New England for the past few seasons. The Patriots rely on Brady too much and too often, and eventually that will start catching up with the team. Brady, who will be 36 in August, is a year older with a year of more wear and tear. Can he match his 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns of 2012? He’s playing with all new receivers and his two tight ends are recovering from injuries. If Brady cannot match his 2012 numbers, that will be another step back for New England. There is also already talk of Brady “seeing ghosts” in the pocket as he reaches the tail end of his career. The older he gets, the less Brady wants to get hit. Brady was sacked 59 times the past two seasons, which is the highest two-year total since 2002-03.

Reason No. 4: Tougher schedule

Analysis: For the past several years, New England has taken advantage of one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. It won't get that chance this season. The Patriots are going from the 32nd-ranked strength of schedule in 2012 to the 14th-ranked strength of schedule in 2013. The Denver Broncos, Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers are on New England’s 2013 slate. It will be harder for the Patriots to surpass last year’s 12-4 record.

Reason No. 5: The AFC East is stronger

Analysis: New England hasn't had much in the way of solid competition in the AFC East lately. No division team beside the Patriots finished with a winning record in 2011 or 2012. That should change this season. Both the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are improved and will push the Patriots harder than they have in the past. Miami, in particular, has made closing the gap with New England its primary offseason objective. The Dolphins added dynamic receiver Mike Wallace, receiving tight end Dustin Keller, former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes and starting linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Miami added plenty of talent in the draft, led by No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill also is expected to make the jump in his sophomore season to compete with Brady. The Bills could make waves, too, if they get solid quarterback play from Kevin Kolb or rookie EJ Manuel this year. Overall, the AFC East won’t be the same cupcake division for the Patriots it has been in recent seasons. The Patriots remain the favorites in the AFC East. But one or two additional division losses could make a difference for New England when it comes to trying to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Final prediction: Health permitting, this year’s Patriots will still make the postseason. But they will not be a favorite to win a Super Bowl like last season. Denver, Houston, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are stronger, while the Patriots have taken a step or two backward. New England’s defense is improved, but it’s still not good enough to dominate games alone. The Patriots’ success, as usual, will depend on the offense’s ability to match or surpass last year’s production, when New England led the NFL in total offense -- and that won’t happen in 2013. Last year’s Patriots missed a golden opportunity -- playing at home in the AFC title game -- to win another Super Bowl, and the 2013 season will end without New England taking home the Lombardi Trophy.
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC East: Morning take: Will the Dolphins pull off a trade like I did in the blogger mock draft? Miami might not move up that high or trade that many picks. But it’s pretty clear the Dolphins will be looking for a left tackle.
Morning take: The Jets would be willing to part ways with a late draft pick for Ivory, who could add depth to New York's backfield. But if the Saints are asking for too much, it’s not a necessity for the Jets.
Morning take: According to the Bills fans I come across, many would be happy if the team took Nassib at No. 8 overall Thursday. I think it would be a mistake to take Nassib that high. But he does have the familiarity with Buffalo's coaching staff.
Morning take: Wide receiver is the biggest need after the Patriots lost two starters -- Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd -- from last season. Danny Amendola takes Welker's spot. But can Donald Jones or Michael Jenkins fill in for Lloyd?
The New England Patriots' game plan at wide receiver is coming into focus this week.

Earlier on Wednesday, New England presented an offer sheet to Pittsburgh Steelers restricted free-agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Less than two hours later, the Patriots re-signed Julian Edelman, according to USA TODAY.

It's becoming clear that New England is looking to replace lost 2012 starters Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd with a committee of wide receivers.

Edelman, Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and potentially Sanders are not household names. But New England is building as much depth and competition as possible at receiver and will let the position sort itself out during training camp and the regular season.

Edelman briefly flirted with the New York Giants before re-joining the Patriots. Edelman knows the system well, and he was once considered the heir apparent to Welker in the slot before suffering a season-ending foot injury last year.

Outside of Edelman, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will have a lot of new receivers to throw to. Quickly developing chemistry will be key for the Patriots' offense to remain dominant this upcoming season.
The New England Patriots patiently waited for the right time to strike with Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. On Wednesday, the reigning AFC East champs determined the time is now.

New England presented a one-year offer sheet to Sanders, who is a restricted free agent. Pittsburgh has five days to match the offer, or it can accept New England's 2013 third-round draft pick.

This is clearly a win-win scenario for the Patriots.

New England set a price it is willing to pay for Sanders, who is more proven than any receiver whom the Patriots could land in the third round of this draft. At the same time it pressures the Steelers, an AFC rival, into paying more than they wanted to keep Sanders on their roster. If Pittsburgh doesn't match, the Patriots add quality depth to their thin receiver position.

The Steelers might have no choice but to match the Patriots' offer. Losing Sanders would be a second blow to Pittsburgh's passing game. The Steelers already lost their best deep threat -- Mike Wallace -- in free agency to the Miami Dolphins. Losing Sanders would mean the Steelers have lost two of their top three receivers for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh still has receivers Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress on its roster.

New England is searching for ways to replace the immense production lost by the departures of Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker and starter Brandon Lloyd this offseason. The Patriots added receivers Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones in free agency. But is that enough for a team that wants to contend for a Super Bowl?

Sanders, who had 44 receptions for 626 yards and one touchdown last season, would be a nice addition to New England's receiving corps. But we won't know which team Sanders will play for in 2013 until the Steelers make a decision over the next five days.

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