They have been a staple on top of the AFC for many years. Ever since 2001, there hasn’t been a year that has gone by that the New England Patriots weren’t talked about as Super Bowl contenders. They have missed the playoffs only twice during the time period, despite still having a winning record both of those years. The Patriots are the best example on how an NFL franchise should be built and run. They will always have that moniker, but the tide has turned on them.

After their devastating loss to the Ravens last season, the New England fan base has grown impatient in their beloved team. They haven’t won the Super Bowl since 2005, which still surprises me. Then a trend was recognized for them constantly losing in big games whether it was in the Super Bowl or in the AFC championship game year after year. It seemed to be a Super Bowl or bust year coming up for New England, until a number of moves changed the landscape of their once prolific offense.

It all began when Wes Welker left to join the Broncos, who were already being considered the favorite in the AFC. When they added Welker, it made Denver’s offense look far superior to New England’s offense. They tried to replace him with a clone of Welker in Danny Amendola. He may be five years younger, but his injury issues may prove this move to be more risky than rewarding.

Out of the four seasons he has played in the NFL, he has only managed to make it through one full season. Nobody has ever questioned Amendola’s toughness; it comes down to his style of play where his body simply can’t handle the physicality. He doesn’t shy away from contact and plays with a reckless abandon from diving to get extra yards or going for a catch. He needs to play with a smarter mindset and learn to take fewer hits.

The wide receiver depth is very concerning with not much proven play-making ability out of their entire core. Aaron Hernandez was always molded into a wide receiver, despite being labeled as a tight end. Now that he’s out of the picture, it has left a dent in the Patriots’ receiving corps. They have the likes of Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins, who are mostly castaways at this point.

 

The hope for their offense is that second round pick Aaron Dobson can be the deep threat that they need. After Brandon Lloyd was a major disappointment last season, the Patriots were once again on the hunt for a deep threat at wide receiver. He isn’t as fast as fellow rookie Josh Boyce, but he’s more polished and bigger. They need to do all they can to develop him because they’ll need some sort of vertical threat if they want to move the ball more efficiently.

Nobody can doubt Tom Brady’s ability to get the best out of average players. He did it years ago with the likes of David Patten and David Givens. The issue is that the league has become a passing league and teams are stacking up on cornerbacks to defend the pass. It’ll be on the running game to pick up the slack because the Patriots won’t be anywhere near what they once were if their receivers can’t get separation.

Steven Ridley was very productive last year, while Shane Vereen showed flashes of explosiveness last season. Bill Belichick could very well make Leon Washington his new Kevin Faulk with how many different roles Leon can play. They have the running back system that can be a top ten rushing team in the league. I’m not sure if Belichick is ready to make this into more a balanced offense. He’ll need to do that especially if his star tight end isn’t on the field.

Rob Gronkowski continues to deal with injuries after having off-season surgery on his left forearm and back. He could end up on the PUP list, which would mean he would miss at least the first six games. That would be a huge blow to their offense, considering how he’s their most dynamic playmaker. Amendola is a solid reliable player, but he doesn’t create mismatches the way Gronkowski does.

He is the only player left that has great chemistry with Brady and is someone that Brady has leaned on in the past. The only thing holding him back is his body and he needs to do all he can to be ready on opening day. If he were to miss the first six weeks, he would be severely missed in key games against the Falcons, Bengals, and Saints.

 

With all the talk of the Patriots offense going through massive changes, there may be a possibility that the defense can step up. I don’t see them holding teams to below 20 points a game, which is what they would have to do to step up. The defense still seems relatively average and doesn’t hold a candle to the New England defenses’ of 2004 to 2006. Belichick may believe in his system too much when it comes to the defense. Why the Patriots haven’t spent money on a big name defensive free agent is beyond me. They could have benefited from getting a Michael Bennett or Keenan Lewis.

The secondary is still a question mark, where the pass defense was fourth worst in the league. Alonzo Dennard has had issues with the law, while Aqib Talib has been inconsistent for the past two seasons. Adrian Wilson was a nice pickup and will add to the much needed safety depth. The defense lacks playmakers and they won’t be aided by the explosive Patriots’ offense anymore. The front seven is looking promising with young talent like Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.

 

This won't be the demise of the New England Patriots. As long as Tom Brady is healthy, they will still be able to win at least nine games. They have a running game to lean on, which wasn’t the case between 2008-2011. The downside is that they aren’t feared anymore offensively and will have to learn to win games without scoring 30 points a game. It’s a daunting task, especially with leaning on so many young players. You look at their roster and they don’t have many leaders left.

The luxury of playing in the AFC East will benefit them since Miami is the only team that can truly challenge them. Hopefully New England fans have realistic expectations, which should be for them to make the playoffs and win possibly one playoff game. It may be a tough pill to swallow, but the Patriots don’t have enough to contend for a championship. That is something that hasn’t been said in almost a decade. It only takes one off-season to change the expectations for a franchise. That could happen in 2014, especially if Tom Brady continues to play at an elite level.

 

You can follow me on twitter @Allen_Strk or contact me through e-mail at AStrk19@gmail.com