Five Key Questions On Offense For the Patriots Heading into 2014

Ian Logue
June 18, 2014 at 05:00am ET

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It was a frustrating season for much of 2013 for quarterback Tom Brady. (USA TODAY Images)

Heading into the 2013 season the Patriots found themselves with plenty of questions on the offensive side of the football, many of which simply required the battle of real NFL competition to work out the kinks in hopes of having everything come together.

One year later, not much has changed.

Most of the newer players at least have a year in the system under their belt, and all of them were given a taste of the excitement of the NFL postseason, while also experiencing the agony of coming up short in their ultimate goal. This is a team that is used to winning football games and each year the expectations are such that they expect to be playing football into January, and potentially even longer.

But getting there isn't easy, and there were quite a few new players who had up and down seasons last year. The regular season is still a couple of months away and for the second-straight year, the Patriots are in need of some stronger contributions from a group that overall showed plenty of positive things to build on, but not quite enough for this offense to reach their potential.

This is a key season for a few players to establish themselves as the future of this football team as key assets for Tom Brady over his final few seasons. Here's a look at five of them who have plenty to prove if this team hopes to be playing football in Arizona in February.










1) Aaron Dobson, WR - During the team's annual pre-draft party last year, fans who watched Dobson's collegiate highlight film were buzzing at the idea of seeing him perform those same feats on the receiving end of Tom Brady.  After the team drafted him, the expectations were high for a team that was coming off of a tough finish after the way the previous season had ended, as well as the free agent loss of Wes Welker.

Coming out of college the former Marshall standout was known for having terrific body control and concentration, allowing him to be able to make some unbelievable catches during his collegiate career.  The question was how that would translate over to the professional level, and Dobson finished his rookie season leaving most fans wondering what his sophomore season might bring. Dobson played in 12 games in 2013 and started his season off with a bang after his first career reception in week two against the Jets went for a touchdown following a 39-yard reception.  Overall he finished with 37 receptions for 519 yards and four touchdowns, which was the 8th highest yardage total in the NFL among rookie receivers.  

However, the interesting thing about Dobson is the fact that according to ProFootballFocus.com, he finished ranked fourth in yards per game among NFL rookie receivers with 43.3.  He actually finished 2013 with two of the top three longest receptions of the year for the Patriots, including an 81-yard touchdown reception against the Steelers in week 9, and a 53-yard reception against the Bengals in week 5.

He's an explosive player who was certainly a bright spot for this offense last season, and his physical attributes were a strong reminder why New England took him in the second round last season.  He brings to the table a bigger physical presence at that position, which at 6'3", 200lbs is something that the Patriots certainly need.  Down in the red zone, he was targeted 9 times with 4 receptions, two of which were touchdowns, including an unbelievable back-shoulder reception against the Steelers in Week 9.

Moments like those make you wonder what he could potentially do in his second season, and after undergoing offseason foot surgery, the goal now will likely be to make sure he's ready for training camp. He missed OTA's and will reportedly not participate in the upcoming mandatory mini camp, so the Patriots need to hope that he'll be able to get healthy so that he can hopefully be even more productive this season.









2) Danny Amendola, WR - The talk among fans really hasn't stopped since Amendola was signed and Wes Welker headed off to Denver via free agency last offseason.  He came in with a tough injury history and he certainly didn't help silence his critics after an injury-riddled first season in New England.  As a result, there have been plenty of discussions about Amendola this offseason regarding his salary cap figure and whether or not the Patriots might potentially cut or trade him.

Realistically, the fact of the matter is that the potential he has, if he can remain healthy, outweighs any downside from removing him from the roster.  The early season groin injury he suffered during the preseason and later aggravated in week one in Buffalo cost him the ability to be as explosive as he was early on when he made some big plays during the preseason.  Later in the year we saw glimpses of it, including a 57-yard reception in week 9 during the team's blowout win over the Steelers.

While it wasn't the year many had hoped he'd have, Amendola still quietly made a difference when it came to moving the chains.  He finished with the second highest receiving first down total with 37, trailing just Julian Edelman who had 54 on nearly double the amount of receptions.  He also finished with the second highest number of third down receptions with 14, 13 of which went for first downs.

Amendola wasn't a star but when he was out there he was a solid contributor in this offense.  The problem is New England really needs him to stay healthy and play at a higher level this season. Most signs point to this team having a good defense, which is obviously a prerequisite for having success in the postseason. But going deep into the playoffs and contending for a title also requires having an effective offense, and Amendola will likely end up being a big key this year. Hopefully an offseason of training and rest will serve him better in 2014.









3) Kenbrell Thompkins, WR - Thompkins' fall from grace was one that only trails Zach Sudfeld's in terms of how bad a player can fall.  Both players were tremendous during the preseason, but the rigors of the regular season caused them to fall back down to earth relatively quickly.

Thompkins started off relatively well, catching 21 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns through the first six weeks, which culminated in his game winning touchdown grab against the New Orleans Saints in their come from behind win at home on October 13, 2013.  But from there, he caught just 11 passes for 148 yards over the remaining 10 games, including only one pass for 16 yards during the entire month of December after he was inactive for three out of their final four regular season games.

So far the news has been positive on Thompkins, with reports saying he looks bigger and stronger than he did last season and that he made some noise during the team's recent OTAs. Hopefully this time around he can carry his preseason success all the way through the regular season, and for now it's going to be interesting to see how he bounces back in the months ahead.








4) Stevan Ridley, RB -  After finishing his second season with an impressive 1263 yards rushing, Ridley appeared poised for a terrific third year after establishing himself as an effective leading rusher for the Patriots. He reportedly bulked up and looked stronger to those that saw him during the offseason, and he ran the ball well during the preseason after rushing 22 times for 116 yards including a touchdown.

But from there, things didn't go anywhere near how he likely hoped they would. He started off the season opener well out in Buffalo, carrying 9 times for 46-yards, averaging an impressive 5.1 yards per carry. However, his second quarter fumble with the team knocking on the door at the Bills' 5-yard line set the tone for how the rest of his season would go after he fumbled the ball away. Buffalo recovered and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown, which was the start of what ended up being a frustrating year for Ridley.

The good news is throughout the ordeal he remained positive and his determination to get better will hopefully see things go a little differently this time around. Down the stretch last season LeGarrette Blount established himself as a reliable option at running back, but he's since departed for black and gold in Pittsburgh after signing with the Steelers back on March 28th. As a result, Ridley finds himself in good position to take back the job he seemingly had locked up two years ago.

It's also a contract year for the veteran back, who will be a free agent after this season. According to one report, the Patriots have yet to offer him a contract extension, which isn't surprising since there's obviously still some uncertainty given how things went last year. However, his 2012 season was good enough to make you wonder if 2013 was instead a fluke, not his 1200+ yard performance, as many of his critics seem to believe.

Hopefully that ends up being the case, and he'll bounce back with a performance more like what he did two seasons ago. Should that happen it's great for both sides, since how he fares this season will be a big key not only to his own future, but also to how the season ultimately goes for his team as well.








5) Rob Gronkowski, TE - Rob Gronkowski probably misses the days where he didn't spend his entire offseason trying to recuperate from a tough injury. One year ago he was still recovering from a fractured forearm along with offseason back surgery, while this time around he's still recovering from tearing his ACL in front of the home crowd in Week 12 against the Browns.

Watching Gronkowski get carted off the field started a difficult chain reaction for an offense that clicked on all cylinders while he was out there. Prior to Gronkowski's return, Brady completed just 57% of his passes while throwing eight touchdowns and four interceptions. After his return and over the span of the seven games he did play in, Brady's completion percentage climbed to 64% while throwing 13 touchdowns compared to five interceptions. But after Gronk was gone again, his completion percentage dropped back down to 59% over the final three games with four touchdowns and two interceptions.

Say what you want about his partying ways and some of the crazy things he's done, but he's obviously a difference maker and it's hard not to feel like all of the recent bad luck he's had has to end at some point. So far this offseason, he's been spotted "bursting, planting, and cutting" during OTAs. Obviously at this point it's hard to get too excited, but then again, the fact he's progressed this far is certainly encouraging.

The veteran tight end hasn't been healthy during New England's past playoff runs, but 2014 will hopefully change that. Here's to hoping Gronk will once again be "Gronk" in the months ahead.

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