BOSTON — The New England Patriots took a low-key approach to adding veterans while their AFC East rivals made headline-grabbing moves.
All that may help the New York Jets or the Miami Dolphins end New England’s dominance of the division. Or the Patriots may be fired up by media forecasts of their demise.
“I don’t care what you guys think,” quarterback Tom Brady told reporters in training camp. “I know what we think and what we think we can accomplish.”
The Patriots went 10-6 last season, winning their division for the sixth time in seven years. But they were dominated in the first round of the playoffs by the Baltimore Ravens, losing 33-14.
The Jets, who barely made the playoffs at 9-7, reached the AFC title game, where they lost to the Indianapolis Colts. Then they stocked up on accomplished veterans: cornerback Antonio Cromartie, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, linebacker Jason Taylor and running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
The Miami Dolphins were 7-9 but traded for Brandon Marshall as a target for improving quarterback Chad Henne.
The Patriots’ additions were less dramatic: tight end Alge Crumpler and defensive linemen Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis. But they appear to have done well in the draft with cornerback Devin McCourty, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. All have been impressive during training camp.
Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is excited about Spikes, a second-round pick out of Florida.
“He’s every bit the person I thought he was,” Wilfork said. “Looking at the guy playing in college, he’s playing with that same mentality on this defense. He’s a hard-nosed, tough player who loves football. That’s exactly what he’s brought. That’s exactly what we need.”
McCourty, a first-round pick, made a quick impression in the exhibition opener with kickoff returns of 50 and 52 yards in a 27-24 win over the New Orleans Saints.
But coach Bill Belichick wants to see more of how the youngsters take what they learned in meetings and practices into games.
“That’s part of the evaluation,” he said. “Sometimes as a team or as a unit, you either do it well or don’t do it well and that gives you an indication as a coach as to what kind of problem that is going to be moving forward.”
The defense, with third-year linebacker Jerod Mayo and fourth-year safety Brandon Meriweather, is more settled than it was heading into last season without four key veterans — linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, safety Rodney Harrison and defensive end Richard Seymour. They retired or were traded.
The Patriots did lose defensive end Ty Warren for this season with a hip injury early in camp, but Gerard Warren and Lewis provide veteran depth.
“Changes happen all the time around sports, not just football,” Wilfork said. “We’ve started from rock bottom. We’ve started this whole thing over. It’s been a work in progress. But, at the same time, we’ve been going in the right direction. So as long as we keep going in this right direction, I think we’ll be OK.”
On offense, the two most productive players are healthier. Brady, who played much of last season with hand and rib problems, said he’s fine. And wide receiver Wes Welker has made a speedy recovery from knee surgery and saw his first action last week, catching two passes in a 28-10 win at Atlanta.
But the offensive line, a model of stability for many years, is in flux.
Left guard Logan Mankins is a restricted free agent who wants to be traded and hasn’t reported to camp. Nick Kaczur, who shifted from right tackle to Mankins’ spot, could miss the season with a back injury. Dan Connolly, who played 14 games in three seasons with the Patriots, is next in line.
“The more we’re out here (practicing), the better guys are going to get,” said left tackle Matt Light, a starter since being drafted by the Patriots in 2001. “Even some of the new guys we brought in have really stepped up. … We’re pretty much trained pigs. You just point us in the right direction and let us roll.”
The Patriots showed a balanced attack in the exhibition win over the Falcons. But the running game hasn’t been a source of strength for several years with 2006 first-round pick Laurence Maroney failing to emerge as a dominant ball carrier.
“I feel like I ran the ball harder than I ever ran it last year,” he said. “It’s just basically taking what I did last year and bringing it to this year and improving on it.”
New England’s pass rush also was a concern. The return of Derrick Burgess, who missed the start of training camp, should help. The other starting outside linebacker, Tully Banta-Cain, led the Patriots with a career-high 10 sacks last year.
But what about the pundits who say putting more pressure on the quarterback remains a major challenge?
“I’ve answered that question a million times,” Banta-Cain said Monday. “All we can do is play and, hopefully, the pundits will be ceased.”