SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 25, 2013

Bigger and badder ... but will Pats be better?

But question remains, 'Will 2013 Patriots actually be better?'

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

---- — It has been theorized on these pages more than once this New England Patriots offseason that Bill Belichick will endeavor this season to harken back to his much more balanced, bigger, stronger, more physical past.

Aaron Hernandez’ off-field issues and subsequent release from the team have only hastened that transition, which began with the departure of Wes Welker to Denver and continued with bigger bodies added to the mix.

As camp begins this week, building a receiver corps from scratch for Tom Brady may still be priority one, but the likes of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and maybe even LaGarrette Blount — the running game – grabs much more of the spotlight than we’ve seen here since possibly 2005.

Out of necessity, the New England Patriots will again strive for balance. Clearly, the numbers dictate it when it comes to the playoffs.

Balanced Patriots teams ripped off a 10-1 playoff mark through 2005 with three Super Bowl wins. Pass-happy Pats teams from 2006 on have gone 7-6 in the postseason with no titles.

Hernandez or not, this team is poised for an attitude adjustment.

WHAT’S BRADY GOT LEFT?

Turning 36 next week, Tom Brady remains at the top of the NFL quarterback heap, reliable, dangerous and efficient.

A wide receiver group of Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, rookie top pick Aaron Dobson and host of longshots assures that Brady’s numbers will tumble this season. Of course, Rob Gronkowski’s health issues may add to the problem, making the recovery and addition of Jake Ballard at the tight end a huge acquisition.

The Brady window remains open, but for how long? This has to be a letdown from the likes of Welker and Randy Moss or even the past seasons with Welker and the two tight end sensations (Gronk and Hernandez).

Could this season mark the point at which the ultimate competitor in Brady begins to wind down?

CAN PATS LIVE ON TIGHT ENDS ALONE?

For a guy with 38 catches in what amounts to four professional seasons, Jake Ballard is a name you’ll hear an awful lot in camp this August and potentially right through the year.

The ex-Giant, who sat out all of last season with a knee issue, is the guy Pats fans will latch on to as the man to replace the wayward Hernandez. Ballard is bigger and stronger. A more traditional tight end, he is also slower and less elusive.

Right now, with Gronk out and Michael Hoomanawanui as much a side show as he is a potential receiving threat, Ballard is the guy we’ve been waiting for.

Of course, many newcomers in the passing game, similar to Ballard in their knowledge of the offense, have been rousted and sent packing before the opener in this Belichick/Brady Era.

So camp could determine the lot of all of them (aside from Gronk) as this roster is pieced together.

DEFENSE BETTER ... WILL IT EVER GET GOOD?

New England’s defense during the title years overwhelmed weaker opponents and stymied the best.

You simply can’t say that about a group that in the past three years has finished ranked 25, 31 and 25. At times last year, it appeared that the 15 prime draft picks (rounds 1-3) exhausted on defense by this team since 2008 had begun to pay a return.

Rookies Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones had sharp first halfs. Hit machine Brandon Spikes spent less time preoccupied by Twitter and focused on the field.

And newcomer Aqib Talib added some stability in the secondary.

The rookies slowed to a crawl around Week 9, with Jones nursing a nasty ankle injury. Spikes reconnected with his Iphone and spent much of the final months in a state of wonderment on the field.

And Talib, shockingly, got injured when it counted, leaving this secondary to be carved up in the AFC title game by Joe Flacco and the champion Ravens.

Questions again abound.

Vince Wilfork turns 32 in November, but he and the defensive line should be stout. Newcomer Armond Armstead is the spiffy new toy, cleared with a clean bill of health after a rookie season in Canada.

Spikes will get the most attention of the linebacking corps this summer. Folks expect production, and four years is long enough to wait for it.

Hightower’s emergence as a star – he was a first-round pick, right? – would ease the pressure on these guys.

Jerod Mayo, the old man of the unit, is steady if not unspectacular.

As for the secondary, Belichick spun the wheel by re-signing Talib. If driven and healthy, he’s a shutdown corner.

Alfonso Dennard’s recent post-Hernandez brush with the law in Nebraska will have a nasty taste in Belichick’s mouth for a while.

Corner, safety and slot corner jobs remain up for grabs and will all through the preseason.

CLOSE THE BOOK ON AARON HERNANDEZ A heartfelt Bill Belichick addressed the Aaron Hernandez murder mess yesterday, on the eve of training camp's official opening, clearly to provide some football closure and hopefully allow the players who remain to immerse themselves into the game of football and the playbook. "It was a sad day on so many levels," Belichick said on the murder of Odin Lloyd, for which Hernandez has been charged and is being held. "A young man lost his life. A family suffered a tragic loss, and there is no way to understate that." About Hernandez straying from the track, Belichick expressed some shock and chagrin. "I and the organization were shocked and disappointed," said Belichick, who was in Europe at the time of the murder and the arrest. "After consultation with ownership, we acted swiftly and decisively (in releasing Hernandez). "This does not in any represent how the New England Patriots want to do things." In an era when athletes and arrests have grown almost commonplace -- over 30 NFL players have been arrested since the end of the 2012 season -- Belichick defended his team and its track record. "Overall, I'm proud of the 100s of players who have come through this program," said Belichick. "I'm personally disappointed and hurt in a situation like this." Hernandez, a fourth-round draft pick out of Florida in 2010, played 38 games in three seasons, catching 175 balls for 1,956 yards and 18 TDs. In six playoff games he added 35 more grabs for 360 yards and a pair of scores.