Gronkowski is among several key players returning in 2014. (USA TODAY Images)

Despite an AFC Championship appearance, 2013 managed to carve out its own niche in Patriots history and joins another season that fans will have a hard time forgetting.

There was 2008, which was “the Year Tom Brady Was Injured” and will probably forever be remembered for that reason.  Odds are pretty good that 2013 will be there with it and will likely be remembered as “the Season Everyone Was Injured”.

It was ridiculous.  By the time December hit following Rob Gronkowski’s knee taking a hit against Cleveland that more or less derailed his and the Patriots’ season, 20 injuries had been suffered, with Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald pointing out at the time that it cost players a combined 87 games collectively over that span.

They lost three big key players on the defensive side of the football, with Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly as the key names who were wiped off the roster and strangely enough, each one fell right after the other.  Wilfork went first, (gone in week four down in Alanta), followed by Kelly (injured his knee in Week 5 and was inactive for three games before ending up on IR) and then finally, Mayo (Week 6 against the Saints).

The offensive side of the ball was also a mess.  They suffered a big blow when Danny Amendola re-aggravated his groin in Week 1 against the Bills (which cost him the next three games and he never looked the same) followed by a broken wrist by Shane Vereen (given the short-term injured reserve designation, which sidelined him for 8 games), a concussion to Amendola against the Saints in Week 6 that cost him another game, Sebastian Vollmer’s gruesome broken leg in week eight against the Dolphins that ended his season, followed by the foot injury suffered by Aaron Dobson that cost him three games and was re-aggravated in the season finale and has him now on PUP.

Yet somehow, this team was playing in Denver in January and only needed one more win for a Super Bowl berth.  That in itself is a miracle when looking back on what they endured along the way.  It’s actually hard to believe that game only took place six months ago, yet thankfully, the landscape now feels completely different.

Added over the offseason were some key additions, including experienced defensive backs Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, with Revis as the one who could potentially be on defense what Randy Moss was for the offense in 2007. Sprinkle in some other good acquisitions such as Chris White, James Anderson, and Will Smith, along with their draft picks, and this has the opportunity to be one of the more competitive camps in recent memory.

From there Gronkowski’s back and relatively healthy, having even avoided being placed on PUP.  Wilfork appears to be on track and is expected to be out there, while Tommy Kelly is on PUP but hopefully if all goes well, he’ll get the opportunity to play alongside Wilfork for a full season, which was something he had hoped to do last year.

Now that the injuries are behind them, Rob Ninkovich said on Wednesday that he and the rest of his teammates are looking forward to what he feels should be a better year.

“You look at last year, and you definitely put that to bed as far as like what we did last year,” said Ninkovich.  “But you want to take some of the good things that you did out there and improve on those and then you see the things that you need to improve on. As a whole defense, you want to be better this year, this season. I think that, definitely as a defense, we’re going to be a better defense, but we’ve got to put the work in. So that starts today. Again, I think the things that we did last year well, you want to continue to do those and then also improve in some areas.”

On the offensive side of the football, the health of Gronkowski will be the thing most people will be watching this season.  Between his fractured forearm in 2012 followed by his knee injury in 2013, he’s had a rough patch over the past two years that he’s likely hoping to put behind him.

Also in focus will be the health of Dobson along with Amendola, both of whom are two big keys as they’re each players who will benefit greatly with Gronkowski out there.  Amendola and Gronkowski only played together in just over five games in 2013, with Gronkowski getting knocked out of what would have been their sixth.  Gronkowski sat out the first six games and Amendola was sidelined in week seven with a concussion that he suffered against the Saints.

With Dobson, the number of that trio being together drops even further.  The three only took the field as a group in four contests last season after he missed the game before Gronk’s injury when he suffered his foot injury against Denver.

Bill Belichick said on Wednesday that while Gronkowski’s health is important, he stressed that the health of everyone is critical as the team tries to avoid an injury bug that took down far too many players last year.

“The health of the team is the most important thing that we have,” said Belichick.  “That’s for all 90 players now and 53 players once we have our final roster. We always try to do everything we can to help all the players stay healthy and stay on the field. We do that for everybody; every single guy.

“It’s a consideration for all them. Certainly Rob, but everybody. We don’t single out ‘these players’ and ‘those players’. It’s all the players, all of them.”

Hopefully this time around he’ll have more of them for longer than he did in 2013.