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.
This is the most obvious and the most dramatic improvement from 2013. The Patriots could have been in dire straits at this position when they lost Aqib Talib, but New England actually upgraded by signing the best corner in the league, Darrelle Revis. The club also brought in intriguing if enigmatic Brandon Browner, whose size is unlike anything the Patriots have had at corner, but whose looming September suspension means he won't have an immediate impact. However, what was once the team's most vulnerable weakness is now one of its greatest strengths.
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.
Great news … Tom Brady is still a Patriot. Age may slowly be creeping up on the soon-to-be 37-year-old, but he remains one of the best passers in the NFL. And now, with the selection of Jimmy Garoppolo, New England has two backups instead of one, but more importantly, a potential bona fide replacement for Brady. It's still far too early to know if Garoppolo can make the huge leap from I-AA-level football to the NFL, but even if he can only give Ryan Mallett a run for his backup money, Garoppolo makes the Patriots stronger at QB.
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.
Slot specialist Julian Edelman was re-signed and big-bodied Brandon LaFell was added in veteran free agency, but the draft yielded nothing in terms of a legitimate outside threat. Aaron Dobson might still be that kind of player, but his development is being hampered by a nagging left foot injury. New England can't afford to keep relying on short, underneath routes. The Patriots need a deep threat, and if all works out as planned, LaFell and Dobson could be formidable bookends, but I'm not prepared to anoint them yet.
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.
The return of Patrick Chung does little to allay my concerns about this position, other than to give New England experienced depth and knowledge of the system. I'm not yet convinced that Duron Harmon can be a playmaker next to Devin McCourty, but if it's going to happen, we'll find out sooner rather than later as Harmon enters his second season.
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.
Jamie Collins could become the star of this group, more so than higher drafted teammates Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower. Again, though, it's too soon to say. Losing Brandon Spikes to Buffalo affects New England's depth at linebacker, as does Dane Fletcher's jumping ship to Tampa Bay. Veteran James Anderson provides needed backup support, and one of the undrafted rookies could easily win a job based on numbers alone.
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.