COMMENTARY | It has been an offseason to remember -- and forget -- for the New England Patriots. But with training camp, exhibition games and the start of the regular season all soon approaching, the game of football itself should serve as a welcomed distraction.
The Patriots have trudged through off-the-field fallouts as well as roster turnover over the last several months. And in turn, head coach Bill Belichick and Co. now find themselves in a world of uncertainty.
Five questions are at the forefront:
1.) How Does the New-Look Wide Receiving Corps Replace the Production of Last Year's Group?
Only three wide receivers remain from New England's 2012 campaign. None of whom are named Wes Welker or Brandon Lloyd.
The list includes slot target Julian Edelman, former practice squad player Kamar Aiken and Pro Bowl special teamer Matthew Slater. Edelman was the only one in that trio to record a reception last season.
From the wideout departures of Welker and Lloyd alone, quarterback Tom Brady will have be without the receiving end of 192 passes, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns from a year ago. Crunching the numbers, that's 47 percent of his completions, 46 percent of his passing yards and 29 percent of his passing scores.
With that void apparent, it is of the utmost importance that a pass-catcher emerges early.
Firstly, there's prized acquisition Danny Amendola, who figures to work the underneath and accumulate yards after the catch. Then there's an assortment of veterans including Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, Lavelle Hawkins, who are all looking for a role. Lastly, there's rookie second-round pick Aaron Dobson, fourth-round pick Josh Boyce, as well as undrafted pickups Kenbrell Thompkins and Mark Harrison.
There are jobs to be won this training camp. And the race is wide open.
2.) Will the Secondary Find Continuity?
The Patriots' defensive backfield ranked No. 23 in pass coverage in 2011 and improved to No. 6 in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus. For that trend to continue, the secondary must find consistency.
Re-signing press-man cornerback Aqib Talib and open-field tackling nickelback Kyle Arrington should help provide the defense with just that. So long as the Patriots have the personnel in place, Devin McCourty can stay at free safety and Arrington can stay in the slot.
Retaining these pieces was critical for New England. But it was clear that the Patriots also needed to add some new muscle to center field. The team did so with the addition of five-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson at strong safety, who is expected to bring an enforcer mentality to the table.
After the peak of free agency, Belichick turned to the draft for more Rutgers University flavor at the cornerback and safety spots. The organization reeled in third-round picks Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, along with undrafted Scarlet Knight Brandon Jones.
The pass defense will be a storyline to monitor regardless. But by keeping integral pieces, adding veterans and bringing in rookie teammates, the third level of the defense has a nucleus.
3.) Can Rob Gronkowski Make a Seamless Recovery from Back and Forearm Surgeries?
Rob Gronkowski has amassed 187 receptions for 2,663 yards and total 39 touchdowns over three seasons with the Patriots. When healthy, he has proven to be a road-grading blocker and an unstoppable passing target on his way to reinventing the "Y" tight end position.
But at just 24 years old, there are some serious concerns regarding the health of New England's 2010 second-round draft choice. After all, he wouldn't have even fallen to the Patriots that April if it weren't for concerns about his back.
From the four surgeries to repair and place new plates in his broken left forearm, to his back surgery last month, Gronkowski's immediate future is far from etched in stone. At the very least, he'll open camp on the physically unable to perform list as he rehabs in Foxborough, Mass., under the guidance of team trainers.
The timetable for his return is rather undetermined. But the last two years have indicated that it's more vital to have the 6'6", 265-pounder at the end of the season than the beginning.
4.) Can Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead Spark New England's Interior Pass Rush?
The defensive tackle spot next to All-Pro Vince Wilfork has seen six different starters since 2010. The one common denominator between all those different pairings has been a lack of pocket pressure.
This year's candidates to bring interior pass rush are 10-year pro Tommy Kelly and 22-year-old ex-Toronto Argonaut Armond Armstead. Both are projected to see work shooting the gaps. If all bodes well, they'll find their way into opposing backfields.
Expectations are high for the 6'6", 310-pound Kelly and the 6'5", 305-pound Armstead. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if they will permeate the line when the pads come on this training camp.
Kelly, a former Oakland Raider, accumulated 14.5 sacks from 2010 to 2011, yet notched only one sack in 2012. Armstead, a former USC Trojan, started contests at both defensive end and defensive tackle, recording 43 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks in 2010, but went undrafted in 2012 due to medical woes.
5.) Will the Ominous Cloud of 'Character Risk' Dissipate?
The Patriots' history of taking chances on talent took a turn for the worse this offseason.
With tight end Aaron Hernandez -- a New England fourth-round pick in 2010 -- arrested, charged with murder and subsequently released by New England, the franchise is now left with broken remnants that go far beyond two-tight end sets.
The Patriot brand has taken a hit. The high-risk, high-reward selection of Hernandez was praised from the onset. Although in hindsight, it has turned into a decision that will echo far beyond the termination of his contract.
Only time will tell how the Patriots move on. But other incidents are making it hard to do so.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.
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