The New England Patriots have completed two preseason games so far, and with the roster being cut to 75 on Aug. 26, the team is beginning to take form. Both the offense and defense had strong outings in last week’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, but they showed signs of struggle in the preseason opener against the Washington Redskins. All considered, the Patriots are once again expected to be one of the best teams in the AFC with many early projections suggesting New England will be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl. The strengths for the Patriots are clear, but weaknesses are the difference between winning a championship and falling short.
In the case of the Patriots, falling short in another Super Bowl could leave a big black mark on their legacy.
Heading into Week 1, the two biggest concerns I have with the Patriots are the tight ends and defensive tackle. The tight end position would not be worrisome if Rob Gronkowski‘s health was guaranteed, but as we already know this is not the case. Gronkowski has still not been cleared for contact, and although he and the team are publicly optimistic, there is no telling what is going on behind closed doors. There has been speculation that Gronkowski himself is reluctant to take contact, fearing he is not quite ready, while Bill Belichick and the team would like to clear him.
Michael Hoomanawanui is another tight end of questionable health. He had missed 12 consecutive practices before returning to training camp yesterday, only to leave after stretches to participate in conditioning on an other field. Both he and Gronkowski could bury all of these concerns by being ready for opening weekend, but until the status of their health is made fully clear, this remains an area of concern.
The defensive tackle is concerning simply because of the ages of the top players. Tom Kelly is 33 years old, while Vince Wilfork is 32 and coming back from last year’s season ending Achilles injury. For a player of his size, bouncing back from any injury is not necessarily an easy feat, but throwing his age into the mix makes things doubly difficult. Wilfork’s determination, leadership and of course his raw talent lead me to believe that he will be nearly good as new once the season begins, but it is wise to consider that bouncing back from a serious injury may not be as cut and dry as it would be for a younger, lighter player.
Although both Kelly and Wilfork have proven their talent, the rest of the defensive tackles cannot say the same. Before roster cuts, the average age of defensive tackles on the Patriots is 24 years old — which comes out to be, on average, a sophomore season. While the defense has been strong, the younger atmosphere here could show late in the season, especially around playoffs and especially if any of the veteran players suffer any injuries. While young, agile players are typically a positive, the lack of experience can be detrimental to a team come the postseason.
In a perfect world, Gronkowski would be healthy and Wilfork would be right back to his old self. But the NFL is unpredictable, and Gronkowski is especially injury-prone. If the Patriots hope to live up to the hype, Belichick will have to carefully structure these two areas. Picking the wrong players could prove disastrous late in the season if the injured cannot compete at their highest level.