Unless the injury situation for the New England Patriots improves in the next couple of months leading up to the 2013 NFL Season, Tom Brady may be up to face his greatest challenge yet as a quarterback, with a very unimpressive bunch of guys ready to catch his throws, while the elite section of his receiving and tight end core from last season is either gone or injured.
Brady threw for 4827 yards and 34 touchdowns last season, using 14 different receivers. Of the top 7 among those receptions targets, only Shane Vereen, a running back used in various positions across the scrimmage line by Bill Belichick, who caught 8 passes for 149 yards, might be available on opening day.
That doesn’t take into account the new arrivals. Danny Amendola was brought over from the St. Louis Rams, signing a five-year contract worth $31 million. He caught 63 passes for 666 yards last season, but he played in only 11 games, and is looking to be used as the #1 receiver for the team next season. There’s also Aaron Dobson, the second-round draft pick out of Marshall, and fifth-round pick Josh Boyce out of TCU.
But who is Brady missing? Brandon Lloyd was released in mid-March after refusing to take a paycut, taking away his 911 yards and 4 touchdowns from last season. Wes Welker didn’t come to terms with the Pats’ ownership in something that turned a little bit ugly, eventually signing with the Denver Broncos, leaving the Patriots missing 118 receptions and over 1300 yards from last season.
Danny Woodhead, another running back often used in passing situations as a receiver, left the team and signed with the San Diego Chargers. Deion Branch who wasn’t very involved last season (only 145 yards) has turned into a free agent.
And there are the injuries as well, most of them belonging to the surgery king of the NFL at the moment, Rob Gronkowski. On a good day, healthy and untroubled by non-football issues, he might be the best red-zone tight end in the NFL. In 11 games last season he finished with 55 receptions for 790 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns. But now that his back has went through surgery, not to mention his elbow and arm, him playing at all in 2013 would be surprising.
Aaron Hernandez missed six games last season, providing the other missing link in the tight-end scenario. He caught 51 passes for 483 yards, and might not be ready for preseason. Julian Edelman, eventually re-signed after flirting with other teams, is till wearing a boot, which means his projected rise from 235 yards last season is also in doubt.
Who does that leave Brady and the Patriots to work with? These are the names: Donald Jones, Lavelle Hawkins and Michael Jenkins, Jake Ballard and Michale Hoomanawanui at tight end. Hoomanawanui was the top receiver among this group last season, catching 5 passes for 109 yards.
And if this is truly the depth chart Belichick has to be using entering the season and managing through it for more than a week or two, it’s going to be the biggest test to his offensive system and to the ability of Tom Brady, with his critics and fans waiting on the sidelines, waiting to pass verdict on whether or not he’s really an all-time great, capable of making this crew into a successful, 10-win (at least) NFL team, or will the poor quality of targets ends up dragging his name through the mud.