During the 2012 season, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed 401 of 637 pass attempts for 4,827 yards with 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Seven players on the 2012 Patriots were targeted at least 20 times by Brady, but through free agent moves, offseason surgeries and an ongoing homicide investigation, six of those players may not be available to Brady at the start of the 2013 season.
Two players are definitely gone. The Patriots and wide receiver Wes Welker, the team's all-time leader in receptions, parted ways rather acrimoniously, with the five-time Pro Bowler spurning the team's latest offer to sign a two-year, $12 million contract with the Denver Broncos. Running back Danny Woodhead, a versatile weapon who caught 40 passes in 2012, also headed to the AFC West, signing a two-year, $3.5 million contract with the San Diego Chargers.
New England decided to not pick up an option bonus on Brandon Lloyd, who was second on the 2012 Patriots with 130 targets, 74 receptions and 911 receiving yards. Lloyd remains available, but his signing with the Patriots was already somewhat controversial — due to his agent Tom Condon's frosty relationship with New England's front office — and it would be a minor surprise if he's brought back. The Patriots also have not re-signed wide receiver Deion Branch, who had 16 receptions in 10 games with the team. Branch, who turns 34 on July 18, remains a free agent, but even if the Patriots re-signed him this summer, he'd probably be released at the end of camp to avoiding having his base salary fully guaranteed.
Then, of course, there are the tight ends. Rob Gronkowski missed five of the last six regular season games with a fractured forearm, but still managed to catch 55 passes for 790 yards with a team-high 11 touchdown receptions. Gronkowski has undergone three surgeries on his forearm since January and underwent successful back surgery last week in Los Angeles. Gronkowski's timetable for recovery is around 12 weeks, which jeopardizes his availability for the start of the regular season. Aaron Hernandez fought through a high ankle sprain to produce 51 receptions for 483 yards and five touchdowns last season, but has emerged as a central figure in a murder investigation and might not be available to the Patriots this season, or ever again.
With each of those targets possibly unavailable to Brady, who will the Patriots be looking to for production in the passing game in 2013?
The first option appears to be Danny Amendola, who the team signed to a five-year, $28.5 million contract on March 14. Like Welker, Amendola was an undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech who bounced between a few clubs before sticking with a team (the St. Louis Rams). Amendola has struggled to stay on the field, having not played a full 16-game season since 2010. Amendola is expected to start at one receiver position and, if healthy, could be a 100-catch receiver, but who starts opposite him is anyone's guess.
The Patriots re-signed Julian Edelman, who had 21 receptions for 235 yards and three touchdowns in 2012 before a broken foot ended his season. Edelman's one-year deal with the Patriots included no guaranteed money and includes incentives based on his production. Given Edelman's familiarity with Brady and the offense, he is a safe bet to make the 53-man roster, but the former seventh-round pick out of Kent State has just 13 career starts, and just three over the last two seasons. Michael Jenkins, 31, was signed to a veteran minimum contract on March 29 and could be a big-bodied (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) option opposite Amendola. However, Jenkins has only been a part-time starter the last four seasons and his productivity has slightly, but steadily declined. The starting receiver competition also includes Donald Jones, a restricted free cast-off from the Buffalo Bills who received a three-year, $3.41 million contract (but with no guaranteed money) from the Patriots on March 15, and 2013 draft picks Aaron Dobson, a second-round pick, and Josh Boyce, who was selected in the fourth-round.
At tight end, the team's decision to claim an injured Jake Ballard off waivers from the New York Giants last offseason could pay off. The Patriots stashed Ballard on the physically unable to perform list last season and his contract was tolled to 2013. The 6-foot-6, 256-pound Ballard caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns for the 2011 Giants, production that had him ranked seventh among tight ends in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric that season, ahead of Hernandez, who ranked 11th. If healthy and back to his old self, two things that are far from guarantees, Ballard could be a reliable target for Brady and alleviate the potential absences of Gronkowski and Hernandez.
The Patriots did not draft a tight end, but made Nevada tight end Zach Sudfeld a "priority free agent" signing after the draft. Sudfeld battled injuries in his first few seasons in college and had just two career receptions entering 2012, his sixth and final year of eligibility. The 6-foot-6, 253-pound Sudfeld caught 45 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns last season. While that was not enough to warrant a draft pick, Sudfeld signed a three-year deal with the Patriots that included $17,000 in guaranteed money, comprised of a $12,000 signing bonus and $5,000 base salary guarantee for the 2013 season.
Out of the backfield, Woodhead's productivity could be replaced by Shane Vereen, a 2011 second-round pick who caught 74 passes for 674 yards and two touchdowns during his college career at Cal. The Patriots also have veteran running back Leon Washington, whose value lies primarily on kick and punt returns, but caught 47 passes in 2008 when he was a member of the New York Jets. Washington ranked 14th among running backs in Football Outsiders' receiving DYAR that season.