2014 Training Camp Preview: New England Patriots

The New England Patriots head into training camp with a chip on their shoulder after coming up one game short of the Super Bowl. After an offseason where they brought in numerous high profile free agents, the Patriots may have very well added the pieces to get back to the promise land.

Looking back, the Patriots 2013 season was about as miraculous as their neighborly Boston Red Sox. Granted, the Red Sox won the World Series and the Pats lost in the AFC Championship to the Denver Broncos, the likelihood of even getting that far was slim.

After an offseason where they lost key veterans like running back Danny Woodehead, receiver Wes Welker, tight end Aaron Hernandez, and safety Patrick Chung; they had the added misfortune of losing starters Shane Vereen, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Sebastian Vollmer for a combined 33 games.

Vince-Wilfork 350

And that’s just on offense.

The team also lost defensive starters Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo for a combined 33 games of their own.

With a lackluster and inexperienced roster in addition to the widespread injuries, the Patriots eked out win after win. Five of which were decided late in the 4th quarter.

Head coach Bill Belichick won’t be with New England forever and neither will quarterback Tom Brady, who turns 37 this year. Realizing the Patriots window of opportunity is rapidly closing, director of player personnel Nick Caserio made the necessary moves in free agency to put the team, hopefully, in a position to get to the Super Bowl in 2014.

The Pats quickly turned their 18th-ranked pass defense into an elite unit by signing All-Pro Darrelle Revis and Pro Bowler Brandon Browner (though he is suspended for the first four games of the season). The team also brought back a friendly face in Chung, who returns to the team after one forgettable season with the Philadelphia Eagles.

As for their decimated defensive line, they added longtime New Orleans Saint Will Smith. While he could be a valuable situational pass rusher, he too is coming back from injury having missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL.

All in all, the New England Patriots are primed to make it back to the playoffs especially after adding key veterans just a season after locking down the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

Now, with last season in the history books, lets look at the key issues facing the Pats as they get ready to head into training camp less then two weeks from now.

Fumbling Backs

Lead running back Stevan Ridely found himself in the dog house in 2013. Since entering the league as a third-round draft pick in 2011, he has been both great and disastrous. While Ridley has amassed 2,477 yards, averaged 4.5 yards-per carry, and scored 20 touchdowns, he has also fumbled nine times (eight of which were in the past two seasons and six of which were lost).

Photo by Ed Runyon

Ridley’s fellow backfield-mates didn’t help either. LeGarrette Blount fumbled three times (lost two and now with Pittsburgh) and Vereen just once but that was recovered. The lone bright spot was second-year man Brandon Bolden who held on to the ball all year.

With such frequency of fumbling the ball, the team drafted Wisconsin running back James White who is known for holding onto the ball.  He fumbled just three times in three years as a Badger.

Third Receiver

With Gronkowski the lone threat at tight end now, the team has gone back to deploying three-receiver sets as a base alignment. Last year Julian Edelman led the pack in catches (105), yards (1,056), and touchdowns (6). Amendola’s salary all but anoints him a starting position. That leaves just one up for grabs.

Battling for that position will be second-year players Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and newly acquired Brandon LaFell.

LaFell, had four solid but unspectacular seasons with the Carolina Panthers. Thompkins battled his share of injuries but showed plenty of playmaking ability when Brady went his way. The same goes for former second-round selection Dobson. However, Dobson had foot surgery in March and has been questionable in regards to his return in time for training camp.

“It’s doing better, man,” Dobson told the Boston Herald. “It’s getting better every day. Every week it’s getting better, so we’re just going to see where it’s at by the time training camp starts.”

This will surely be one of the most watched training camp battles.

Up The Gut

With the loss of Kelly and Wilfork in the middle of their defensive line teams ran ramped over the Patriots. That landed them the 30th ranked run defense. But good news is on the way.

Both Wilfork and Kelly are set to be back for training camp. How back to form they will be is a separate issue as both are over 30 years of age.

In the absence of the veterans, the team turned to youngsters Chris Jones and Joe Vellano. Both performed admirably but still have a lot to prove. The team also welcomes back Armond Armstead. He was forced to miss all of 2013 after being placed on the reserve/non-football injury list. A dynamic rusher in his lone season in the CFL, Armstead, if healthy, could provide a big spark.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Florida

Another addition is 2014 first-round pick, Dominique Easley. The former-Gator was a dynamic player for Florida providing both pass rush and an ability to stop the run. The only problem was Easley only flashed his ability when healthy and that was rare as he tore each ACL during his college career. If 100%, Easley become a factor Day One for the Patriots. That just happens to be a big “if”.

Safety Solution

The Patriots have maned one safety position steadily since 2011, that is due to the strong play of Devin McCourty. The other safety position however has been a revolving door.

Last season, the team signed veteran Adrian Wilson but he was lost for the season during training camp and then cut this offseason. Former-starter Steve Gregory was also released by the team. A sure tackler in the open field, Gregory was too much of a liability in pass coverage.

Chung, returns to the team and hopes to take over his old position, however he’ll have stiff competition.

Tavon Wilson, was a second-round selection in 2012 and still has yet to live up to the selection. While he has provided impressive special teams and sub duties, he still has something to prove.

Chung’s other challenger will be the team’s second third-round selection from last season, Duron Harmon.

As much of a draft day surprise as Wilson was in ’12, Harmon was an even more shocking selection last season. In fact, he wasn’t even on the team’s radar until they arrived at Rutgers to see other prospects from the school. The team left New Brunswick incredibly impressed with Harmon’s workout.

Playing on special teams, filling in for injury, and earning a few spot starts on his own, Harmon displayed a natural football ability and always seemed to be around the ball. A classic Belichick type of player, Harmon could enter the season as a starter if he has a strong training camp.

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