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So far, '14 Patriots an upgrade over '13
The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed on the PFW Blog represent those of individual authors, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions or policies of the New England Patriots organization, front office staff, coaches and executives. Authors' views are formulated independently from any inside knowledge and/or conversations with Patriots officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.
With the conclusion of OTAs and mini-camp, we've had our first, brief glimpse of how the 2014 Patriots roster will begin the new season. Sure, there'll be more transactions on the horizon — many more, in fact — but very little of that movement, in all likelihood, will be at the top of the depth chart, barring some unforeseen catastrophe.
So, essentially, following free agency and the draft and the aforementioned spring practice sessions, most of the players who'll wind up on the 53-man active roster in September are already among the players now under contract.
On paper, compared to the end of last season, the Patriots have made significant improvements at some positions, while leaving us wanting at others.
New England retained its starting five by re-signing free agent center Ryan Wendell. It was also good to see right tackle Sebastian Vollmer back on the practice field this spring as he continues to come back from a broken right leg. But the Patriots also added several talented young players in the draft who could push for playing time sooner rather than later. The biggest loss, however, won't be on the field. It will be a mammoth challenge for new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo to replace retired legend Dante Scarnecchia. Be that as it may, New England's offensive line is in better shape now than it was in January.
Will Smith, an aging, injured veteran, and Dominique Easley, a young, injured rookie, were the two biggest offseason additions to this group. Which seems only appropriate, given that nearly everyone on the defensive line — most notably Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly — is coming off a serious injury. Thankfully, ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are still standing strong, and there's hope that Michael Buchanan can make a "year-two" jump. Still, I remain concerned about the long-term effectiveness of the entire defensive line as it's currently constituted.
It all comes down to Gronk. If Rob Gronkowski can return fully from his disastrous past two seasons of injuries, the Patriots offense will be explosive. Michael Hoomanawanui has developed into a solid, versatile backup, and it's good that he remains on the roster. Perhaps a youngster like Justin Jones or Asa Watson can make an impression, but as we saw last year (remember Zach Sudfeld?), spring and summer studs can turn into autumn duds quickly. New England may still need to add a veteran like Dustin Keller to this mix to maintain its productivity.
Losing LeGarrette Blount to Pittsburgh will hurt. He unexpectedly became the Patriots most reliable playmaker at running back down the stretch last season. For better or worse, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will share the burden, with serious competition for the third spot expected among several younger newcomers.
Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen are a very capable kicker-punter combo. Who will snap to them this year remains a question mark, however, since the Patriots have already brought in a couple of long snappers to compete with incumbent Danny Aiken. Of the two newcomers, Harvard's Tyler Ott has stuck so far, meaning there may be a snap-off in training camp.
This article originially appeared in the June 25, 2014 edition of Patriots Football Weekly. To subscribe to the official newspaper of the New England Patriots, click here.