It’s been a long time since you could look at New England’s group of receivers and feel confident in what they have, but the 2013 group should have most fans feeling a little better than in past seasons.

Granted, watching Rob Gronkowski roll off the field, it was hard not to wonder if the Patriots’ chances for postseason success rolled off with him. However, as we know the Patriots have been in this position before and it’s hard not to finally feel a little better about their overall number of options in terms of passing targets compared to years past.


The infusion of youth from both Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins has been a massive improvement for the Patriots’ offense this season.
(USA TODAY Images)

Previously the weight of the offense fell on Wes Welker’s shoulders, and there wasn’t much else in terms of options for Brady. At the time the only other real receiving options lining up with him were a lesser Julian Edelman along with additional veterans who lacked the speed and quickness that they needed in critical situations.

After losing Welker New England did the right thing in at least signing Danny Amendola and addressing that position during the draft by taking Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, as well as later signing Kenbrell Thompkins. That infusion of youth, and their commitment to sticking with them this season despite some rough moments, is going to pay dividends both down the road and this season. Between Edelman’s improvement this year and the growth we’ve already seen, this is a group that has a ton of potential and certainly should give most fans a reason to feel optimistic as the Patriots begin their stretch run. Austin Collie is another player who could be a factor, and is also an upgrade over past veterans who have been in this line-up.

The problem Brady faced in past seasons was the fact that after a long season, most of their veteran players behind Welker wore down and had a tough time creating space and getting open, as well as not being able to stretch the field. In the postseason that killed them because defenses tightened up and Brady couldn’t find anyone open both across the middle or out on the perimeter, and the results saw them come up short. However, both Dobson and Thompkins possess that ability and have been able to keep them honest, and it’s created quite a few opportunities that they haven’t had in recent years.

Losing Gronkowski obviously hurts them, but it’s tough not to feel a little better about their chances with this current group. With the recent emergence of Boyce along with the fact Edelman continues to play well and Amendola seems to be healthy, there’s enough there to help them finish what they’ve started. We’ll see against Miami how they adjust, and hopefully these final three games help them to work out the kinks just enough to be effective when the postseason begins.

DESPITE LOSS OF GRONKOWSKI, BRUSCHI BACKS BROWNS’ WARD

As a former defensive player Tedy Bruschi understands what’s going on in the league these days when it comes to the limitations on where defensive players are able to make contact with opposing players. In a conference for the National Football Foundations annual awards, Bruschi talked about the injury to Gronkowski but feels T.J. Ward didn’t have a lot of options in taking him down.

“I hate to see Rob Gronkowski go down,” Bruschi told the New York Daily News. “He went to the University of Arizona (where Bruschi also went). I know the guy. Do I think it was (a) dirty (hit)? I don’t. Because what choice does he have — to make an effort when the efforts aren’t even being recognized? They’re still being called (penalties). So to not hurt your team and not get fined, there’s only one place to go- and that’s low.

“Seeing a player that is making an effort to take his head out of the hitting equation and hit with the shoulder in the proper area but it’s being called a penalty and you’re still being fined — I can understand where a player thinks to himself, ‘Well they told me to do this and I still just got fined so what’s my only resort?’”

SPIKES UNHAPPY ABOUT THE PRO BOWL:

I happened to be online yesterday afternoon with Twitter open and noticed that Brandon Spikes doesn’t seem to be happy about the lack of consideration on his part about the Pro Bowl.

The linebacker released a series of Tweets yesterday and felt that players who do interviews and have a better relationship with the media seem to be the ones who get the most consideration.

Here’s what he had to say:

Spikes, who is in the final year of his contract, has had an up and down season but has had his moments. As his final Tweet says, if he helps this team win a championship and is able to make a few plays along the way, hopefully he’ll get the respect – and probably the contract – he’s looking for.

SOLDER MIC’D UP AGAINST BROWNS, CALLED IN TO BLOCK FINAL FG:

Watching “Inside the NFL” last night on Showtime Patriots left tackle Nate Solder was Mic’d up during Sunday’s game against the Browns, and in the segments shown there was no indication showing any potential injury. In fact, he was actually called in on the Browns final play of the game in the center to help attempt to block the 58-yard attempt by Billy Cundiff, that ultimately fell short.

Solder apparently didn’t see exactly how it was missed, with the veteran tackle asking someone as he walked off if the kick was short. He seemed fine, but despite being in the spotlight there was no indication of where exactly the injury occurred.

COLTS BRING IN DEION BRANCH FOR A TRYOUT:

According to ProFootballTalk.com, former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch was in Indianapolis on Tuesday for a tryout, citing a league source. Branch has yet to be signed, but one of the apparent reasons behind their interest in him is his leadership ability, which was lost when the Colts lost Reggie Wayne during the team’s win over Denver and they haven’t been the same since.

Branch last played during last year’s campaign and finished with 16 receptions for 145-yards in 10 regular season games. He also caught two receptions during the postseason for 16 yards.

STADIUM IMPROVEMENTS COMING:

It appears there could be some additional improvements coming at Gillette Stadium thanks to this Tweet yesterday from NFL Network’s Albert Breer:

According to the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, the improvements coming appear to be a plan to add a stretch of office space longer than a football field to Gillette Stadium.

This will reportedly include a proposed 25,000-square-foot addition to the east side of the stadium, which will not affect traffic, parking, lighting, utilities, access or many other planning issues.

The newspaper points out that the plans are to unify football-related ‘core’ operations to a single floor, including scouting and video operations which are currently located on upper levels.

As far as the fans are concerned there are also plans to improve access for those who have disabilities, with the Kraft group reportedly having filed for building permits for two external elevators, which will be in addition to the 10 they already have.

ON TO THIS MORNING’S LINKS:

BOSTON GLOBE:

Without Rob Gronkowski, Patriots are finished – Adak Kaufman – Kaufman has a column this morning on the fact he feels that this season is over now that Gronkowski is lost for the rest of the season.

Dont’a Hightower coming off impressive performance – Shalise Manza Young – Manza Young looks at what was a much better week for the linebacker against Cleveland on Sunday.

DJ Williams hopes to stay longer this time – Michael Whitmer – Whitmer files his notebook this morning, which leads off with the fact that after learning a lot about the Patriots’ offense, D.J. Williams is hoping to put that knowledge to good use.

BOSTON HERALD:

Patriots Notebook: Josh Boyce gets involved – Jeff Howe – Howe files his notebook this morning, which leads off with Boyce’s steady improvement that’s lead to more playing time recently, as well as Belichick and Brady talking about moving on now that Gronkowski is gone.

Never-say-die attitude keeps Patriots afloat – Karen Guregian – Guregian has comments from Tom Brady, who said that the experience they’ve had in coming back has given his team confidence that they can pull it off when they’re in those situations.

ESPN BOSTON:

Groupings: Changes after Gronk injury – Mike Reiss - Reiss looks at the changes in personnel groupings following Gronkowski’s injury, which knocked them out of two groupings.

Penalty watch: Patriots vs. Dolphins – Mike Reiss – Reiss has his weekly penalty comparison post, looking at their total and how they fare compared to Miami and other teams in the league.

Reiss’ P.A.T. with Danny Amendola – Mike Reiss – Reiss has a video interview with Danny Amendola, who will likely have a bigger role in the weeks to come.

Source: Patriots work out DE Cordarro Law – Field Yates

NESN:

Nate Solder Misses Patriots Practice With Concussion, Tom Brady Limited on Wednesday With Right Shoulder Injury – Doug Kyed – Kyed has the practice report from yesterday, which saw Solder sidelined with a concussion.

Shane Vereen Is Key to Patriots’ Offense Without Rob Gronkowski – Luke Hughes – Hughes has his thoughts on Vereen’s value to the offense, as well as some additional thoughts.

WEEI:

As postseason looms, banged-up Patriots can draw inspiration from 2010 Packers - Christopher Price – Price writes that after losing Gronkoski, the Patriots have taken another blow on the injury front. However, he points out that the 2010 Packers still finished as Super Bowl Champs.

WORCESTER TELEGRAM:

Gronkowski out, DJ Williams answers Patriots’ callback – Rich Garven – Garven has an article on Williams, who after being cut on December 4th went home to Arkansas to visit his mom and wanted to be back in New England to watch the game, but an ice storm delayed his flight and caused him to miss being able to be their live.

Patriots rookie Josh Boyce responds when number called – Rich Garven – Garven has an article on Boyce, who after not missing a game during his three seasons at TCU has been mostly relegated to the role of specatotor during his rookie season before his recent success.

ENTERPRISE NEWS:

PATRIOTS NOTEBOOK: Belichick impressed by Dolphins’ Clay – Glen Farley – Farley files his notebook this morning which leads off with comments from Belichick about Dolphins tight end Charles Clay, who he feels is a playmaker for Miami.