New England Patriots’ ‘What Ifs’ Should Be Answered In Much-Improved 2014 Season

Patriots Broncos FootballBefore the New England Patriots’ season even started, “what ifs” started to creep in.

The season began with fans and players wondering what would happen when the whole offense was intact. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was injured to start training camp, and running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Danny Amendola were lost after just one game.

Quarterback Tom Brady even started to play the “what if” game in early October.

“We’ve missed Danny [Amendola] for most of the season. We’ve missed Gronk for most of the season. We missed Shane [Vereen] for most of the season,” Brady said. “So, those are some pretty good players that we depended on going into the season to play a big role. And the fact of the matter is, they haven’t been out there. Those other guys are forced to do more, and they’ve done a great job with it. We need to all get on the same page, and we really haven’t had a practice where we’ve had our whole offense out there yet. We gotta do that first of all and see what we can really do.”

Once defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was placed on season-ending injured reserve after Week 4, any hope that the Patriots would play to their utmost potential was lost. Most teams at least get a few games to see what would have been possible. The Patriots got none.

Wilfork’s injury ended any aspirations for a top-tier defense. When starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was lost after Week 8, there was no more “complete offense” to gain back. In all, the Patriots lost six starters with season-ending injuries (Wilfork, Gronkowski, Vollmer, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, linebacker Jerod Mayo and linebacker Brandon Spikes).

Before the season began, the Patriots’ No. 3 defensive tackle, Armond Armstead, was placed on the PUP list with an infection that required surgery. The first-year player never returned. No. 5 wide receiver Josh Boyce, who was finally starting to come into his own with some opportunities, was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury before the playoffs began.

So, imagine what would have happened if any or all of those players had stayed healthy? It might have been the difference in any of the team’s four losses, which would have given the Patriots the No. 1 seed, and it could have meant a win in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos.

Anything the Patriots did after all those injuries should have been gravy. It appeared for a while that everything the 2013 squad had been through was just strengthening the unit. No one can look at this season as a disappointment, no matter how heartbreaking it all ended.

The Patriots’ run defense would have been better with Wilfork and Mayo, their pass rush would have been improved with Kelly and Armstead, and their entire offense — passing, rushing and blocking — would have been better with Vollmer and Gronkowski. All six of those players are expected to return in 2014, though Wilfork, who’s set to earn $7.5 million, might need to take a pay cut.

Wide receiver Julian Edelman, cornerback Aqib Talib, running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Dane Fletcher and center Ryan Wendell are free agents now with the season over. And that’s the order of importance in re-signing those players. Even if only a handful return, the Patriots will be better.

Most of the Patriots’ players are still improving as well. This team is full of rookies and second- and third-year players. They all will be better in 2014, unless their expected progress stops.

Many of those players, like linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan and wide receivers Aaron DobsonKenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, are either starters or key contributors.

Obviously the team will look to get better, or at least deeper, at certain positions. The Patriots will do their due diligence in free agency, and they’ll draft some new upstarts. But this team’s priority should be to bring back a group that looks a lot like the 2013 squad. A team without six starters made the AFC Championship Game. A fourth ring should be the expectation for a more experienced and healthier team.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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