by Rob Joyce
The NFL pre-season is entering its third week, and already the AFC East looks to be a race for second place. Coming off a 12-4 regular season last year, the New England Patriots look poised to win their 11th division title in 12 years. To make that happen, they will need to answer these five key questions:
1) How healthy is Rob Gronkowski?
After undergoing knee surgery, Gronkowski is just now starting to participate fully in practice. Even at 80 percent he is better than most NFL tight ends, but the Patriots could get over the hump with Gronk playing injury-free. But after playing just 18 games the past two seasons, and having a laundry list of injuries dating back to college, a cloud might permanently hover over the otherwise immensely talented Gronkowski. If limited, look for Michael Hoomanawanui to get more touches.
2) Who will emerge alongside Julian Edelman at wide receiver?
Edelman is primed for another 1000-yard season as Tom Brady’s most reliable wideout. Given Brady’s history of making subpar talent look like Pro Bowlers (see: David Givens and Reche Caldwell), a number of players could emerge as the number two option. The oft-injured Danny Amendola has the skills, but can’t stay on the field. Newly acquired Brandon LaFell has never been a reliable top-two option. It seems the team really wants second-year man Aaron Dobson to take a step forward, but it hasn’t happened yet. Kenbrell Thompkins, meanwhile, could be a big-play threat.
3) What will the secondary look like?
Darrelle Revis is in as the most talented cornerback New England has seen since Ty Law. If he can revert back to his playing days with the Jets, he is a top shutdown guy. Opposite him, Brandon Browner is suspended the first four games of the season. Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard and nickel back Kyle Arrington will vie for playing time. There are also questions at safety, with Patrick Chung returning to compete with Duron Harmon. The combo of Revis-Browner will lock down opponents’ passing attack, but the rush defense (30th in the NFL last year) could be a problem once again.
4) Does this team have enough depth?
There are a lot of positions in which the starters are high-quality. But as the season wears and injuries pile up, often times the team in a Super Bowl hunt in January is the one with the most depth. Tom Brady’s backup is a toss-up between Ryan Mallett and rookie Jimmy Garoppolo, neither of whom have any significant NFL experience. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is healthy again, but a slew of players are behind him. At defensive end, if Chandler Jones or Rob Ninkovich were to go down, former Saint Will Smith and a list of no-names are the replacements. The same goes for the linebacking corps behind Jerod Mayo, Don’t’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Health matters in the NFL. If the Pats are affected, how will they respond in December and January?
5) How does this team get over the hump?
It by no means can be called a championship drought. But going on a decade since their last Super Bowl title, time is ticking before Tom Brady calls it a career. In the last three years, the Pats have lost the Super Bowl (2011) and a pair of AFC Championship games (2012 & 2013). How do they climb that extra mountain? By staying healthy. Brady will put up his usual numbers, and if the key players on the roster are in the lineup, there may be no one better in the AFC than New England.