Belichick's biggest challenge yet
Can the Patriots turn an offseason to forget into a season to remember?
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots sent out 2013 season tickets this week. Included in them is a ticket for Monday's special training camp practice inside Gillette Stadium. In the middle of the ticket, which has two offensive linemen protecting a quarterback in the act of throwing, is a snapshot of Aaron Hernandez, holding his helmet in his left hand with his mouth open wide as he watches the action in front of him.
As the club attempts to move on from Hernandez, the ticket -- which was obviously printed well in advance of Hernandez's murder charge and release from the club -- is a subtle reminder that history can't simply be erased.
This is the backdrop to which the Patriots open their 2013 training camp. Their first practice is scheduled for Friday at 9 a.m.
It's been a tumultuous offseason, primarily because of what unfolded with Hernandez. In addition, tight end Rob Gronkowski's surgeries on his forearm (4) and back (1) have naturally sparked concern. There was receiver Wes Welker's unexpected departure to Denver, and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard's arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence.
The feel-good story was quarterback Tom Brady extending his contract through 2017 to create salary cap space so the Patriots could surround him with more talent. Yet one of the biggest questions facing the team in camp is at receiver, where the Patriots are in the midst of what Bill Belichick has described as a "redo."
If only they could "redo" the offseason.
But as Bill Belichick said Wednesday, and what his captains echoed Thursday, it is time for the Patriots to attempt to move on.
And so the process begins, the start of training camp representing what the Patriots hope will be a shift from an offseason to forget to a regular season to remember.
Few positions will be watched closer than the receiver spot will be, where free-agent signee Danny Amendola steps into the Wes Welker role as Brady's go-to target. Watching Amendola in spring camps, in which players didn't have numbers on jerseys, one might have mistaken him for Welker based on the sudden changes of direction and fluidness in the slot. Yet Welker's reliability and consistency were remarkable over the last six seasons, which is arguably the biggest knock against the 27-year-old Amendola (12 games played over last two seasons).
Then after Amendola, who emerges?
That is one of the biggest questions facing the club, along with how much Hernandez's absence and Gronkowski's availability will impact an offense that was designed to be built around their unique talents.
When Gronkowski and Hernandez were healthy for most of 2011, the Patriots were known for their lethal two tight end offense, which they used as their primary offensive grouping. Gronkowski played 94.6 percent of the offensive snaps that year (highest among New England skill-position players), while Hernandez logged 77.1 percent (third highest).
A T-shirt sold at a local shop at Super Bowl XLVI dubbed the duo "Shake and Quake," and for some, the nickname "Boston TE party" caught on. The Patriots' success with multiple tight ends led other teams, such as the Dallas Cowboys, to attempt to model their offense in a similar way. Yet last year, when both Gronkowski and Hernandez missed significant time with injuries, the Patriots' usage of the two-tight end package was reduced significantly (about 50 percent). There was more reliance on a third receiver over a second tight end, which could once again be the case in 2013.
Those are the big questions on offense, where the soon-to-be 36-year-old Brady now says he feels good enough that he wants to play past the age of 40, the entire offensive line returns intact and the running-back corps looks as deep as it has been in recent memory (but will they miss Danny Woodhead?).
On defense, which some could say remains the team's most pressing issue, the Patriots' desire to become a more dominating unit may ultimately be determined by the development of 2012 first-round draft choices Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Belichick often makes the point that a player's most significant jump is between his first and second year, so will Jones become a feared pass-rusher off the edge? And can Hightower make the jump from two-down linebacker (51.6 percent of defensive snaps in 2012) to a three-down stud?
The return of free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib was considered crucial, as his midseason arrival in 2012 made a big difference both on the field and in the meeting room. And veteran safety Adrian Wilson, nicknamed "The Incredible Hulk" by teammates because of his chiseled physique (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), could add an intimidating presence in a secondary that has struggled at times in recent years.
Then there is one overarching scheme question: With more hybrid defenders between 250 and 270 pounds, might the Patriots experiment with some new looks on D that help generate a more consistent pass rush?
Perhaps some answers will be revealed on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.
At last for the Patriots, the focus turns to football after a tumultuous offseason.