The New England Patriots finish their first week of training camp and the storylines around the team are in stark contrast to 2013. Last year, the Aaron Hernandez saga was in full swing with the tight end’s shocking arrest, release and non-stop news all summer. Add in a dose of Tebow-mania as the most talked about third-string quarterback dominated the non-Hernandez related drama.
Finally, last year the focus was squarely on who was going to catch passes from quarterback Tom Brady. At the wide receiver position Wes Welker relocated to the Rocky Mountains and the Patriots had a plethora of rookies, unknowns, unproven players and Danny Amendola trying to fill his shoes in training camp. At tight end, Hernandez was in jail and Rob Gronkowski was out following offseason back surgery and multiple arm surgeries after twice breaking his forearm in 2012. The offense looked like a mess in training camp with all these moving parts.
In 2014 the most promising part of training camp is seeing tight end Rob Gronkowski on the practice field catching passes from Brady. Despite knee surgery and rehabilitation this offseason, Gronkowski is moving well and as he said: “I’m gonna keep smashing and dashing everything I do.” The Patriots’ offense is so dependent upon Gronkowski as the centerpiece of the attack to create mismatches downfield, power the running game with his blocking ability and even as a decoy to give the wide receivers space to operate.
At wide receiver the Patriots no longer have the question marks of 2013, where the majority of the receivers had never played in the Josh McDaniels offense. Julian Edelman returns following a season that saw him top 100 receptions and 1,000 yards. Danny Amendola—if he stays healthy—provides depth and a dual-slot receiver threat next to or opposite Edelman in the offense. Amendola has been quiet and hard at work this offseason spending time in California training with Edelman and catching passes from Brady.
Amendola looked like a perfect fit in Week 1 last year, coming back on the field with a torn groin muscle to help New England gut out a 23-21 win over Buffalo. After missing three games, he came back and almost immediately was hurt again, as he suffered a concussion in his second game back against New Orleans in Week 6 and missed another game. When he came back he was replaced by Edelman and Gronkowski as the top option and struggled to earn the trust of Brady. His only other standout game was Week 15 versus Miami where he caught 10 passes for 131 yards but is remembered negatively as he dropped the potential game winning touchdown with 27 seconds to play in the game.
Last year’s rookies return with Kenbrell Thompkins establishing himself as the starter outside early in training camp while 2013 second-round draft pick Aaron Dobson recovers from offseason foot surgery. Dobson and Thompkins both had big moments last season with plays that highlighted their potential in the New England offense. For Thompkins, his game winning 17-yard touchdown catch on the last play of the game against New Orleans in Week 6 gave the Patriots a 30-27 win and their highlight reel play of the season. Dobson had his best game in Week 9 versus Pittsburgh, pulling in five passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. He injured his foot two weeks later and was a non-factor when he returned.
Fourth-round draft pick Josh Boyce is back as well and after missing much of 2013 has to use training camp to carve out a role. The Patriots brought in Carolina receiver Brandon LaFell as a free agent this offseason as well to add to the wide receivers in camp. LaFell is an intriguing option as he brings solid size to the position, but has experience in the slot and outside. Before last season, he spent a lot of time playing in the slot for Carolina and could fill an Aaron Hernandez type role potentially in the passing game.
Finally, with no Tim Tebow distraction, the focus at backup quarterback is between rookie second-round draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo and Ryan Mallett. Mallett was the discussion of much trade talk all offseason, but he ultimately was never moved. In the last year of his contract, he is all but assured of being with a new team in 2015, competing for a starting role. For now he provides the team a young, veteran backup with a deep knowledge of the offense.
For Garoppolo he does not have the pressure or scrutiny that came with Tebow. He is basically assured of a redshirt season to learn the offense, make mistakes in the preseason, follow Brady around like a puppy dog and bury his nose in the playbook and game tape. Garoppolo is assured of a roster spot (and inactive third-quarterback role on Sunday) as a second-round draft pick. With Garoppolo coming from FCS (formerly Division 1-AA) at Eastern Illinois, he needs time to soak up the NFL. Unlike Tebow, he should have time to do so in the background at Foxborough.
With a settled quarterback position without ESPN and the national media following around a backup, no national media and news programs looking for reaction to an arrested star player and a receiving corps that at least has some experience catching balls in the offense—even just catching passes in the NFL—should make a big difference for the Patriots on offense in 2014.
What a difference a year makes.
Follow Hal Bent at @halbent01
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