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What To Do?

Patriots Face A Preseason Of Questions

After a 12-win season, the New England Patriots faced a pivotal offseason. Wes Welker was embarking on free agency, Rob Gronkowski was trying to recover from injuries and management was trying to figure out a way to win its first Super Bowl since 2004.

Welker wound up leaving and Gronkowski had surgery. The biggest football move of the summer involved the addition of quarterback/lightning rod Tim Tebow.

But everything changed last month. Aaron Hernandez was charged with first-degree murder and suddenly the Patriots’ football decisions seemed moot. Hernandez, a budding star, is gone and the Patriots are left to deal with the impact of the story, both on the entire structure of the franchise and on the football team.

It’s like no other season in franchise history and it’s certainly the most unique season in Bill Belichick’s tenure in Foxborough. As the Patriots began training camp Friday, here are pivotal questions facing the team:

1) Can the Patriots minimize distractions?

They’ve dealt with off-the-field static before, most notably Spygate in 2007 — they were unbeaten in the regular season. But what they’re facing this season is unprecedented. Hernandez was a significant player and he’s sitting in jail on a murder charge, so the questions and media attention are unavoidable.

So far, the organization has taken the right steps to control the story. Owner Robert Kraft spoke about the issue and coach Bill Belichick held a press conference two days before camps officially began. When the team rolls into practice mode, it’s likely the national media attention will subside.

And remember, we thought the addition of Tebow would cause a media firestorm. As it turned out, Tebow’s presence is now a secondary story and probably won’t have much traction as the season approached.

2) Who catches the passes?

This is where the Hernandez story impacts the football team. With Gronkowski injured and Welker off to Denver via free agency, Hernandez was slated to play a major role in the offense.

But he’s gone and Tom Brady will need to find other options. There’s pressure on Danny Amendola, signed as a free agent to replace Welker as the slot receiver/Brady’s favorite target. Amendola is 27 and could be primed for a big season if he stays healthy — he missed five games last season and 15 games in 2011. Of course, he caught 85 passes when he played all 16 games in 2010, so he can be productive.

If not Amendola, then who? Julian Edelman is also hurt and the team didn’t re-sign Brandon Lloyd, who was second on the roster with 74 catches last season. So the team has an inexperienced group of receivers, including highly regarded rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce.

Former Giants tight end Jake Ballard has been cleared to play after missing all of last season with an ACL injury. He had 38 receptions in 2011.

3) Is this a run first offense?

For all the losses the Patriots experienced on offense, they still have a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. And while Brady will be 36 next month, he remains a prolific passer and he’s led the team to titles with lesser receivers.

But there may be less of a need for Brady to post record-setting numbers. The Patriots have Stevan Ridley back after a season in which he gained 1,263 yards on 290 carries. Ridley can be a workhorse back, yet the Patriots have other options in the backfield — even after losing Danny Woodhead to free agency.

Shane Vereen can be a third-down pass catcher out of the backfield and veteran Leon Washington is in the fold for depth and as a kick returner.

The Patriots could have their best running game since Corey Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards nine years ago, if that’s the direction they want to move.

4) Can the defense win games?

When Belichick built the Patriots into a Super Bowl team a decade ago, he had playmakers and game-changers on defense. But the defense has been in transition the past few years as veteran mainstays have left and the team has plugged holes with young players.

With questions on offense, there’s a need for the defense to improve and control the tempo of games. The talent seems to be there, with young, potential stars Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower showing signs of being impact players.

The Patriots still have veterans Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich to anchor the defense, but they need the youngster to make strides.

And in the defensive backfield, the Patriots have added veteran Adrian Wilson and they retained Aqib Talib. Devin McCourty is also back to form an experienced group, but are they good enough to be elite? They may need that level of play this season.

5) Can anyone in the AFC east catch the depleted Pats?

Most NFL pundits say the Patriots won’t be as good as they’ve been, simply because they’ve lost too much talent. Yet those same experts are still picking the Patriots to win the AFC East.

Because while New England may be vulnerable, there just doesn’t seem to be a team in the division ready to seize the title away from Brady & Belichick. The Miami Dolphins are best positioned to make a run after adding receiver Mike Wallace and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and drafting defensive end Dion Jordan.

But are the Dolphins ready to take the next step? That remains to be seen, and the Jets and Bills don’t seem to have the talent to challenge the Patriots.

So even a weakened Patriots team is favored to win its 10th division title in 11 years.