- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- We’ve made the point that the New England Patriots' hopes for a Super Bowl championship are most tied to defense. So what about the offense? Have they done enough to surround quarterback Tom Brady with quality weapons?
Those questions are pertinent as well, and as the team hits the field for its first training camp practices, there is no shortage of offensive storylines.
Most of the faces are the same, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering the Patriots averaged more than 70 plays per game last season (only the Broncos had more), ranked second in total first downs, and third in points scored.
But the struggles, as we remember, came in critical situations that often decide games -- third down (16th) and in the red zone (15th, 36 touchdowns in 65 trips).
So why might 2014 be different?
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is a good place to start, and the Patriots already received good news this week as he has been cleared to play by doctors. It is no longer a medical decision with Gronkowski, but instead a pure football one and it will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick brings him along in camp.
It’s easy to forget that Gronkowski was one of the Patriots’ most durable players in his first two seasons (2010-2011), never missing a practice as a rookie and playing in every game. The past two years haven’t been as kind to him (18 of 32 games played because of knee and arm injuries) and the complexion of the Patriots’ offense changes dramatically with his presence -- especially in the red zone.
This stat says it all: When Gronkowski was playing last season (weeks 7-14), the Patriots had a 69-percent efficiency rate in the red zone. When Gronkowski wasn’t playing -- from weeks 1-6 and 15-17 -- it was 43.5 percent.
So if Gronkowski can turn back the clock to his first two years in the NFL, look out.
But relying on that comes with risk, and it’s why some have rightfully asked if the Patriots are better equipped to play without Gronkowski in 2014 than they were in 2013 when they also weren’t expecting to be without tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Fair question, and also fair to have doubts at this time that they are.
Outside of Gronkowski, there are no other tight ends on the roster that put stress on an opposing defense.
The receivers are the same as last season, with one notable addition: Free-agent Brandon LaFell of the Carolina Panthers, a bigger target at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds who lines up all over the formation and probably would best be described as a No. 3-4 type of option with potential added value in the red zone. Thus, the Patriots are banking on the development of their second-year receivers Aaron Dobson (active/PUP list, recovering from March foot surgery), Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, as well as the health of Danny Amendola.
The running back group is also mostly the same. What the Patriots have essentially done is redistribute things a bit more evenly between their bigger power backs (Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden) and passing backs (Shane Vereen, rookie James White), with big bruiser LeGarrette Blount departing in free agency to Pittsburgh. The selection of White in the fourth round now gives them a second shiftier back adept in pass protection in the event Vereen (26 of a possible 48 games played over three seasons) isn’t available because of injury.
We have talked plenty about elite status and the quarterback spot this offseason, which leads us to the final area that could ultimately determine if the Patriots’ offense will soar in 2014: The up-and-down offensive line. All five starters return, but some of the best competitions in camp are expected at center and right guard with incumbents Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly looking to hold off a hungry group of youngsters. There is also the significant change on the coaching staff with Dante Scarnecchia retiring and local guy Dave DeGuglielmo taking over.
The offensive line is usually in the far corner at training camp, the greatest distance away from where spectators and media members watch, which makes this a good year to upgrade the binoculars.
We did just that, most interested to see how this offense looks when it comes into sharper focus.