By Jack Spencer

Fans of the New England Patriots believe head coach Bill Belichick does things differently than every other coach in the NFL. Fans call it “The Patriot Way.” It’s difficult to argue with the success the team has seen over the years. Belichick is 151-57 overall with New England, 17-7 in the post-season, five trips to the Super Bowl and three titles to show for his work. Love them or hate them, it’s hard to argue the success they’ve had on the gridiron.

As events continue to unfold around the Patriots and TE Aaron Hernandez as well as Rob Gronkowski, one could speculate that this just might be the most difficult offseason that New England and Belichick has had to face since joining the team in 2000.

Gronkowski has contributed 38 scores in just three seasons for the Patriots but has undergone a series of offseason surgeries, most recently a back procedure which gives him an estimated time table to return, according to most accounts, of at least 12 weeks, which will be after the start of the regular season.

It is too soon to speculate the outcome of the current on going saga surrounding Aaron Hernandez, but on the surface, it doesn’t look good. Gronkowski will return at some point, but Hernandez’s future appears cloudy at best, after according to reports, he was turned away from the team’s facility yesterday.

The contributions by Gronkowski and Hernandez on the field will remain to be seen as the process moves forward, but one thing is certain, this will be a very different Patriots team in 2013. Perhaps Bill Belichick’s biggest coaching challenge yet. Even looming larger than losing Tom Brady in the first half of the first game of the season in 2008.

Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez as well as Danny Woodhead were the top five leading receivers for the Patriots in 2012. They accounted for 338 of Tom Brady’s 402 completions last season and three of those players will not be returning in 2013 while the tight end position remains a serious issue of concern.

Wes Welker- 118 receptions/174 targets 1,354 yards 6td

Brandon Lloyd- 74 receptions/130 targets 911 yards 4 td

Rob Gronkowski- 55 receptions/79 targets 790 yards 11 td

Aaron Hernandez- 51 receptions/84 targets 483 yards 5 td

Danny Woodhead- 40 receptions/55 targets 446 yards 3td in addition to 301 rushing yards and 4 scores.

These five players accounted for 4,285 yards and 35 touchdowns last season.

Patriots fans have become accustomed to the “plug and play” approach that New England has had over the years. No player is larger than the team and veteran leave while being replaced with veterans the next season while the offense never seems to skip a beat. This year might be different.

Wes Welker, a receiver that accounted for 672 receptions in New England over 6 seasons is gone. The Patriots signed Danny Amendola, but one has to examine his injury history.  He has only played a complete season once in his four-year career. He was a risky play by the Patriots despite his ability to play in the slot.

TE Jake Ballard appears to be gaining some fantasy interest with the news surrounding the Patriots tight end situation. He is coming off an ACL injury and his progress won’t be seen until training camp opens while his acquisition is looking like a very smart move by New England last season.

Looking at the current roster at the wide receiver position though, this team looks thin with talent and once again a legitimate deep threat, something which doomed the Patriots last season in the playoffs. There has been some buzz about undrafted free agent WR Kenbrell Thompkins out of the University of Cincinnati in OTA’s this month, but he is a rookie receiver. While he was projected by some to possess the outside speed to be a deep threat, several reports suggest that he’d make a much better inside pass catcher.

Forget the rumors, I doubt NFL fans will start seeing Tim Tebow lining up on a regular basis as a tight end. It simply isn’t going to happen. Maybe for a few plays here and there, or as a blocking back, but he was not brought on board to the Patriots to be a tight end. Personally, I think he’d have difficulty beating out Daniel Fells as a tight end at this point in his career.

This is certainly the offseason that Bill Belichick didn’t envision. 2013 will likely be his biggest challenge since assuming the role of Patriots head coach. Based on their schedule, New England should still win at least 10 games and likely capture their 11th division title in the last 13 years. But at this point, the Patriots look as if they are going to be a team with some serious deficiencies heading into the regular season.










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