Patriots’ defensive overhaul a top development to watch this season
File-This Aug. 19, 2013, file photo shows New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady looking to pass during NFL football practice in Foxborough, Mass. Imagine how great Brady would be if he had a consistent deep threat. In 13 seasons as a starter, he's had just one, Randy Moss from 2007 until being traded in 2010. Wes Welker caught 672 passes over six seasons, but most were short throws. The only veteran addition is Brandon LaFell, who had a career-high in catches last year with Carolina, just 49. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
File-This June 17, 2014, file photo shows New England Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis reaching for a pass during NFL football minicamp in Foxborough, Mass. Revis, while with the New York Jets in 2012, called Belichick a "jerk." Now, it seems, they've made up. "We had a conversation about it and it's in the past," Revis said after joining the Patriots. Since then, he's seen a more positive side of Belichick. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
File-This May 30, 2014, file photo shows New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski running while stretching during an organized team activity at the NFL football team's facility in Foxborough, Mass. When will Gronkowski play a full regular season? He missed five games in 2012 with a broken forearm and nine in 2013 while recovering from forearm and back surgery before tearing ligaments in his right knee. He participated on a limited basis in minicamp but ran hard on the sideline. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The Patriots’ defense struggled for much of last season. And that was before it faced the NFL’s best offense in the AFC championship game.
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos won, 26-16, and piled up 507 yards, the most New England allowed in Bill Belichick’s 14 years as coach.
So the Patriots stocked up on players to fix that.
Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner lead the group of defensive newcomers that includes linebacker James Anderson, end Will Smith and lineman Dominique Easley, their first-round draft choice. Three key defenders – linebacker Jerod Mayo and tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly – return from injuries that sidelined them for most of 2013.
All that should improve a defense that gave up the seventh-most yards overall and third-most yards rushing in the league on a team that still managed to go 12-4.
“This year is going to be a little special just because of what I’ve been through and how far I came along” from a torn Achilles tendon, said Wilfork, who starts his 11th training camp with the Patriots on Wednesday.
Young linebackers Dont’a Hightower, entering his third year, and Jamie Collins, starting his second, improved as the 2013 season progressed.
“He’s blossomed a lot sooner than anybody (expected),” Hightower said of Collins. “He was a lot more mature his first year than some people are in their third year.”
Revis is one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. Browner is one of the biggest, but must miss the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. They also have cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, a starter last season.
How good can the secondary be?
“The sky’s the limit,” Revis said after minicamp last month. “When we get back in training camp we have to be ready to go. We need much improvement. We do. That includes everyone, including me.”
Some things to watch as the Patriots begin camp:
HAPPY TOGETHER?: Revis, while with the New York Jets in 2012, called Belichick a “jerk.” Now, it seems, they’ve made up.
“We had a conversation about it and it’s in the past,” Revis said after joining the Patriots.
Since then, he’s seen a more positive side of Belichick.
“I think that’s the biggest thing people don’t understand about Bill,” Revis said. “He’ll ask questions. He’ll try to get other people’s insights, especially veterans, to see if we have any insight from playing for so many years. Yeah, he’ll sit down and have a conversation with you. I think that’s why he’s so genius at what he does.”
BRADY’S TARGETS: Imagine how great Tom Brady would be if he had a consistent deep threat. In 13 seasons as a starter, he’s had just one – Randy Moss from 2007 until being traded in 2010. Wes Welker caught 672 passes over six seasons, but most were short throws. The only veteran addition is Brandon LaFell, who had a career-high in catches last year with Carolina, just 49.
Wide receivers Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce are back after last year’s rookie season.
“You’re only a young player for a certain amount of time in the NFL and at that point people are just waiting for you to produce,” Brady said.
WAITING FOR GRONK: When will tight end Rob Gronkowski play a full regular season? He missed five games in 2012 with a broken forearm and nine in 2013 while recovering from forearm and back surgery before tearing ligaments in his right knee. He participated on a limited basis in minicamp but ran hard on the sideline.
Backup Michael Hoomanawanui is primarily a blocker. Fullback James Develin could see time at the position.
“I love being out here with him,” Brady said of Develin. “Whatever role we’ve asked of him he’s done it to the best he could possibly do it.”
DIVISIONAL DOMINANCE: An 11th AFC East title in 12 years seems likely. The Dolphins added running back Knowshon Moreno, the Jets signed wide receiver Eric Decker and running back Chris Johnson, and the Bills hired defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and chose wide receiver Sammy Watkins with the fourth draft pick. But the Patriots remain the class of the division.
QUIET TIME: Unlike last year, the Patriots start camp without serious distractions. The signing of quarterback Tim Tebow and the arrest of tight end Aaron Hernandez, both last June, took the focus from the field. Tebow is out of football now. Hernandez is charged in three killings in two different cases.