2013 NFL season preview: New England Patriots

The New England Patriots will not go away. The last time the Patriots have not had a winning season was in 2002. What has kept them going all these years? You know this one… It’s pretty simple, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. When you have the best quarterback-coach combination in the league, you’re going to compete year in and year out.

The Pats have been majorly successful in years past, but they haven’t captured a Super Bowl title since 2004. The Patriots have even lost two Super Bowls to the Giants in 2007 and 2011.

This is the New England Patriots, they won’t have a problem getting back to the playoffs and winning their division. It’s a relatively weak division and a weak conference.

Quarterbacks:

Tom Brady being the starter obviously highlights this group. The Patriots recently picked up Tim Tebow. Certainly, he won’t get many reps at QB, but Belichick will put together some interesting schemes for Tebow. It’ll be interesting to see how the Patriots continue to handle the “Tebow spotlight.” I’m sure they’ll handle it better than the Jets.

Ryan Mallett will definitely be the no.2 QB, while Tebow will be placed at no.3. The Patriots obviously have a decent amount of confidence in Mallett. They haven’t signed any other QBs besides Tebow. If Brady goes down Mallett is the go to guy.

Grade: A+

Running Backs:

Stevan Ridley broke out in a big way in 2012. He rushed for nearly 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns. Ridley showed off his power in a big way last year. He’s very impressive running through the tackles. He can move lineman with his power. Ridley racked up over 700 yards rushing after contact last season. 2013 is going to be very important for Stevan Ridley.

Who will be the true no.2 HB on this Patriots team? Brandon Bolden, Leon Washington, and Shane Vereen are all in the mix. I believe Vereen and Bolden have an edge over Washington. The Patriots have a good cast of running backs.

Grade: B+

Receivers:

I have no clue what’s going to happen with Aaron Hernandez. That story gets crazier every day. My grade here will include Hernandez.

Gronkowski and Hernandez together on the field is a nightmare for defenses. Of course, it’d be nice if they get on the field and stay there in 2013. Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end the NFL has to offer. Aaron Hernandez is like a big wide receiver.

Life without Wes Welker will not be easy for the Patriots. Danny Amendola and Julien Edleman will be looked at to take over Welker’s reign. The Patriots also drafted Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Donald Jones will also be in the wide receiver mix.

I see Amendola and Jones taking those two starting wide receiver positions. Donald Jones has some big potential and upside to him. Amendola is going to become Brady’s no.1 guy. He has great hands, plus his route running skills are phenomenal.

The tight ends are revered, but the wide receivers are very underrated.

Grade: A

Offensive Line:

Center Ryan Wendell was a pleasant surprise on this offensive line in 2012. Wendell established himself as a excellent run blocker. He played every single offensive snap of the entire year. He needs to work on this pass blocking, but he sure is this team’s future.

Dan Conolly is the weakest spot on this offensive line, but he’s not a slouch. He may be nearing the end of his days, but he still proves to be a serviceable player.

Guard Logan Mankins is still in the top 10 of his position. I think he took a step back in 2012. But if he’s fully healthy this season, he could be back in the top 5 of all guards.

Left tackle Nate Solder is entering his 3rd year in the league. He’s become a good left tackle, but he’s just shy of being great. He needs to become a better pass protector. Solder let too much pressure into the pocket last season. Although, he is for sure an exceptionally good run blocker for a left tackle.

Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is one of the very best in the game. He has good run and pass blocking skills. He can take on speedy and strong pass rushers. Hopefully he can stay healthy in 2013.

Grade: A

Defensive Line:

It looks like Tommy Kelly will join Vince Wilfork as a starting defensive tackle. Kelly is not as good as he once was, but he’s still very solid. He also brings versatility to the table.

Vince Wilfork is obviously the big name on this defensive line. Wilfork made it to the first team All-Pro for the first time in his career last season. Wilfork is going to keep doing what he does in 2013. He’s a great run stopper, and will continue to be effective.

Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones will be manning down the two defensive end positions.

Ninkovich is really nothing special, and if he goes down, it’d be really bad for the Patriots. The depth is not very good behind him or Jones. Ninkovich isn’t that strong, and he really should be playing outside linebacker. He can make plays, but he’s not consistent at all.

Chandler Jones showed signs in his rookie year that point to him becoming a great player. He possesses all the physical tools to be a great pass rusher. Jones put together a 6 sack season, 5 of them coming in the first 6 games. He’ll need to work on his run defending, that’s one of his biggest flaws.

Grade: C+

Linebackers:

Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower are the best combination of 4-3 OLBs.

Hightower exceeded everyone’s expectations in his rookie year. He showed off good run defense and pass rushing in 2012. He can shed blockers on the edge easily. Hightower uses his hands very well, and comes equipped with good lower-body strength. He came away with 4 sacks in 2012.

Jerod Mayo is one of the very best 4-3 outside linebackers the game has to offer. Mayo complied 87 solo tackles in 2012. He tracks the ball better than most. He is the anchor of this Patriots defense. Mayo can play inside and outside linebacker, he’s a very valuable commodity.

Brandon Spikes is exceptionally great against the run. He’s not quick but he can make an impact in pass rushing situations. He’s average at best in coverage situations. Spikes has become one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL.

Depth behind this group could be an issue, but the starting three are fantastic.

Grade: A

Secondary:

The move to make Devin McCourty a free safety made this secondary a lot better. McCourty is obviously so much more comfortable at free safety. He makes good jumps on the ball and can help in run defense. He’s going to have to become a better tackler, that’s one of his biggest flaws.

Tavon Wilson and Adrian Wilson will compete for the starting strong safety job. Both are primed to be very solid.

Aqib Talib gave up a 66% completion percentage against opposing quarterbacks in 2012. Quarterbacks also averaged a rating of over 100 against Talib. A lot of those struggles can be fixed in 2013 for Talib. He was terrible in the flat, and wasn’t great when lending a receiver over to a safety. I expect a better 2013 season from Talib.

The Patriots got a steal in last year’s draft in Alfonzo Dennard. New England selected him in the 7th round, and now he’s become a quality starter. Dennard only gave up 50% of the passes thrown his way completed. He’s shown that he has great awareness, and that QBs are not successful that much when they are consistently picking on him.

Kyle Arrington also put together a good season in 2012. Arrington did a good job of keeping receivers from breaking off long gains. He was also great against the run. The Patriots have a solid group in terms of their top 3 CBs.

Grade: C

Special Teams:

Stephen Gostkowski went 29-35 on field goal tries in 2012. Gostkowski sends the ball in the back of the endzone quite a lot during kickoffs. Zoltan Mesko was inconsistent last season, and I wouldn’t expect him to be much better. Leon Washington is likely to be the kick returner, while Julian Edleman will field punts.

Grade: B

Final Thoughts:

The Patriots should have no problem winning another AFC East title. Forget the whole Aaron Hernandez distraction, Bill Belichick is going to have his team ready to play.

Overall Grade: B

Projected Finish in Division – 1st

Projected Record – 12-4