Tom Brady Set Up for Failure in 2013?
Leavin' on a Jet Plane
There is a great deal of change occurring over in Foxborough this offseason. The departures or absenses of a number of players could leave the 2012 first-ranked passing offense in shambles. Beginning with wide receivers and tight ends, let's take a look at the former Patriots and their impact on the 2012 season, then evaluate how the newcomers may perform in 2013.
New England's Wide Receivers: Brandon Lloyd
Brandon Lloyd was, by many accounts, not really a part of the New England Patriots team. Described as a "distraction" with "erratic behavior" by a Patriots source, it was never a surprise that Lloyd could be cut from a normally silent Patriots locker room. However, despite Lloyd failing to live up to Randy Moss' legacy as an outside deep threat, Lloyd was certainly able to contribute.
For example, Lloyd's 74 catches were tied for 22nd in the NFL; several teams weren't even able to produce a receiver with more than 60 catches, including the Cleaveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks, and San Diego Chargers. His 911 yards were good for 28th in the NFL, which was better than those put up by other well-known receivers like Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace, and Torrey Smith. You may say that those stats are inflated by the presences of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick; you wouldn't be wrong. Nonetheless, a look at Lloyd's highlights (including a spectacular diving touchdown reception against the Bills in Week 1) shows a player who can cut a defensive back's coverage and make plays, however inconsistently they may occur.
Wes Welker's departure needs no introduction. News of Welker's move to the Denver Broncos caught the league's attention as Tom Brady's third-down security blanket left the Patriots. There aren't enough stats to solidify Welker's importance in the Patriots lineup; a two-time AFC champion, Welker leads the league in receptions from the six year period of 2007 to 2012, maintaining a pivotal spot on the Patriots roster for the better part of a decade. During his time in New England, he averaged over 1,200 yards every season, missed a 100-reception season only once (86 in 2010), and recorded 37 touchdowns (~6 each year). Though Welker no longer possesses some of his old bursting speed, his amazing route running and stable hands will surely be missed in New England on third-and-longs and crunch time drives.
New England's Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski
When healthy, there are few tight ends more dynamic than Rob Gronkowski. Besides his outstanding blocking abilities, Gronkowski (along with Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints) has established new standards for receiving tight ends. Gronk averages over 12 receiving touchdowns a year, including a whopping 18 overall in 2011. He also averages nearly 900 yards a season with only two recorded fumbles in his three-year career, providing a fantastic target to move the Patriots down the field. However, multiple surgeries on his forearm and back during the offseason threaten Gronkowski's availability for game time; no one seems to really be able to get a timetable on the superstar tight end's return to the Patriots locker room. His absence puts enormous pressure on another tight end to fill the shoes during his recovery...
Edit: Please note that this article was written before the New England Patriots dropped Aaron Hernandez from the team. His legal and NFL futures are unclear.
Aaron Hernandez is facing problems of his own this offseason completely separate from his injury history. In the midst of a high-profile homicide case, there's currently no telling when - and if - Hernandez will return to the New England Patriots. When he's not dealing with injuries, Hernandez has become an efficient receiver alongside Gronkowski, recording 18 touchdowns and almost 2,000 yards during his time in Foxborough. The question marks are certainly there for Hernandez going into 2013; his role in the murder, as well as the fact that he has yet to start for a full 16 game season, will determine the success of the two-tight end Patriots offense.
Newcomers: Danny Amendola
A free agent pickup during the offseason, Amendola was, by far, the best receiver on the St. Louis Rams. When on the field, Danny Amendola possessed soft hands, quickness, and route running on pace with the best receivers in the NFL. But there's the asterisk: when on the field. Since he played a full season in 2010, he's missed 20 games in the past two seasons. Despite the numerous comparisons between Amendola and Wes Welker (small, gifted slot receivers from Texas Tech), the one question Welker was always able to dispel was concerns about his durability. If Amendola stays healthy, he could easily produce a 6 touchdown, 1,200 yard season in his first year as a Patriot, but the injury concerns won't die down until the end of 2013.
New England's 2013 second-round draft pick out of Marshall, Dobson has been heralded by many as the deep threat Patriots fans have been waiting for since the glory days of Randy Moss. Standing 6"3 at 210lbs with long arms and 4.40 speed, Dobson's physical stature provide the possibility of immense upside this year. Though Bill Belichick has been historically inept at drafting receivers, get this: with 92 targets last season, Dobson did not record a single drop. If he can put it all together, Dobson has the potential to make an immediate splash on the Patriots' receiving corp.
Things certainly look bleak now; come Week 1, the only returning starting Patriot from the 2012 season may be Julian Edleman. That's it. But pessimists can relax for now. It's still only June - the arrivals of Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson could quickly make an impact under the tutelage of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. The acquisitions of Michael Jenkins, Jake Ballard, and Donald Jones along with draft pick Josh Boyce have the potential to provide some depth to the Patriots roster. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are both great running backs. If Hernandez and Gronkowski can return quickly and healthy, the Patriots may still possess some of the offensive power they did last year and win the AFC East for the eleventh time in thirteen years.