Some analysts even think the Pats are poised to take a huge step back offensively this season.
There's a reasonable argument for regression from New England's passing offense, which ranked fourth in the NFL in total yards in 2012. After all, they're without most of their mainstay receivers from last season, thanks to roster turnover and health issues.
They also lost a key interior lineman in G Donald Thomas, though offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can be trusted to take the next man up (be it veteran G Dan Connolly or the young Marcus Cannon) and ensure they're ready to protect QB Tom Brady from inside rushers.
Still, it seems all the firepower (minus Aaron Hernandez) has been doused from a Pats offense that reigned from 2007-2012. Perhaps this signals the end of Brady's Patriot reign? All good things must come to an end, right?
Right. But I say the Pats, and the soon-to-be-35-year-old Brady, do not go gentle into that good night.
In fact, I don't expect much of a regression from their passing game at all—only as much as can be normally expected from a team that led the NFL in scoring by 76 points.
To you, this might reek of fanboyism from a resident New England columnist. Perhaps, but let me explain why I think the Patriots will have no trouble passing the ball next year.
Yes, Welker and Lloyd were immensely productive receivers—especially Welker, who tallied 672 catches and 7,459 yards in his time as a Patriot. There is nobody on the roster (or perhaps the NFL) who can be expected to replicate that level of individual production.
But as a unit, the Pats offense may be better off spreading the ball around to a number of viable weapons than fixating on one target, reliable as that target may be.
The first of these new toys is Danny Amendola, signed from the Rams to fill the Pats' hole at slot receiver. Amendola is a taller, bigger and faster receiver than Welker, with the ability to run many of Welker's routes with the same effectiveness and efficiency.
More importantly, he has already received rave reviews from Brady for his ability to recognize necessary route adjustments and make corrections on the field. As Brady and Amendola's chemistry continues to improve, the likelihood of the young slot receiver being able to produce in this system only increases.
But Amendola's skill-set is very similar to Welker's. So what do I mean when I say "more dynamic"?
I mean that—despite their relative unfamiliarity with Brady—this year's Pats' weapons have skills that Brady hasn't enjoyed from his pass-catchers since Randy Moss returned to the Vikings.
Lloyd, while productive, turned out to be a sideline workman on intermediate routes. That's a valuable player, but not someone who draws safety help or pressures the defense at a different level than the slot or TEs.
The Pats released Lloyd this offseason, and they've replaced him along the outside with a group of receivers with more uncertainty but greater upside.
That includes rookie Aaron Dobson, a big receiver with an ability to make catches in traffic. Dobson has the potential to be a taller, faster Anquan Boldin—a safety net for Brady to trust in jump-ball situations. Though he doesn't play as fast as his 4.43 40 time, Dobson has the skills to be the first Pats WR deep threat since Moss.
The Pats also drafted Josh Boyce, a blazing (4.38 40) Z receiver who can line up in the slot and use his quickness against slot corners, safeties and linebackers, or split wide and try to stretch the field.
Dobson and Boyce allow the Pats to put more speed on the field than they have in years. That's hugely valuable in a league that increasingly requires teams to have multiple threats on the field if they hope to score consistently.
With Amendola and Hernandez running smash concepts underneath, Boyce exploiting second-level matchups, Dobson as the outside receiver for jump balls and a hopefully-healthy Gronkowski working the seams, the Pats are better equipped to pressure every level of the defense in 2013 than they have been in years.
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