FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots have a quarterback, tight end and wide receiver who are among the best at their positions in the NFL.
Add Brandon Lloyd to that rich mix, and the passing game should be even better than the one that took them to the Super Bowl last season.
“We’ll see,” Lloyd said.
In the preseason, the Patriots’ new deep threat displayed little of what he can do, catching just one pass for 12 yards. That was one more reception than Wes Welker, who led the league with 122 last season. And Rob Gronkowski caught only five passes in those games.
Of course, the stars often play sparingly in August. Tom Brady sat out two of the four games, in fact, and played only two series in another.
So even though history strongly suggests another outstanding passing attack — especially with Lloyd signing as a free agent — the first real test comes Sunday in the season opener at Tennessee.
“I’m excited to see how we all come together and are able to make plays,” Lloyd said Wednesday. “By me saying, ‘we’ll see,’ it’s a fair statement because we all haven’t been out getting live action yet.”
They should make quite a few plays with Brady starting his 13th NFL season.
He threw for 5,235 yards in 2011, the second most in league history. In 2010, he was the NFL’s most valuable player and in 2009, he was the comeback player of the year. But what about the unknown portion of this group, and the chemistry — or lack thereof — because of the light preseason regimen?
“You don’t know, but you have confidence that you can do it when it matters,” Brady said. “Everything needs to be proven. It’s not like the predictions you make on Wednesday all come true.”
Welker may not reach his 122-catch total of last season. Gronkowski might fall short of his 90. And tight end Aaron Hernandez could end up with fewer than his 79.
“When a guy like Wes has 122 catches, a lot of times the coverage dictated that the ball go to Wes,” Brady said. “Now if they choose to tighten the coverage on Wes, then the ball goes somewhere else. So it’s just a matter of trying to evaluate what they’re trying to do defensively and try to make a good decision at quarterback in order to get the ball to the guy that should get it.”
During preseason, nine wide receivers, four tight ends and six running backs caught passes. Of those 19 players, only eight are still on the roster.
The time is past when the Patriots try out some plays and give an opportunity to players to show whether they deserve a roster spot. Now, everything counts and the regulars play most of the game.
“It’s for real. It’s go time,” Gronkowski said. “Everyone’s out there. There’s no messing around. (There’s) not someone just trying to try out the play or anything. It’s all go. Every play counts.”
Even coach Bill Belichick is wondering how those plays will work out, despite watching his players during training camp with a careful eye.
“I don’t think you know anything right now,” he said. “It just hasn’t been tested under fire. Things you think are going to be good may not be that great. Things that you’re worried about, might be OK. I think that’s what opening day, that’s really what that’s about. Preseason, teams aren’t gameplanning for you, you don’t see the matchups. It’s just not the same.”
The Patriots were 1-3 and scored only six touchdowns. The Titans were 3-1 and scored 10. Neither team, of course, showed everything it can do during those games. And at the same time, they did some things they won’t do on Sunday. That only complicates the opponent’s preparation.
“You have to deal with what you’ve seen because that’s what they’re working on,” Brady said, “and you have to deal with things that could come up because you understand that they’re probably holding some things back.”
He might have been more comfortable if the Patriots hadn’t cut three players he had worked very closely with for years. Wide receiver Deion Branch, center Dan Koppen and quarterback Brian Hoyer were released last Friday when teams trimmed down to the regular-season limit of 53 players.
“In some ways, you become a bit desensitized to it,” Brady said. “It’s not my decision, so I can’t really think about it too much other than supporting your friends and what they’re going through. But it’s not like I can go in and lobby for guys.”
He learned that early in his career.
“I think you realize at a young age that you really don’t know what you don’t know. So you see guys in the springtime that have great spring camps,” he said. “I remember my second year, we had a receiver, Aaron Bailey, that was pretty good. I thought, ‘Man, this guy is really good,’ and then we released him and I couldn’t believe it. ‘Man, we released that guy. He’s the one that made all the plays.’
“That’s just what happens. You see a lot of players come and go and you just learn to deal with it.”
On Sunday, he’ll do it in in his 11th straight season-opening start.
“You can make a bunch of predictions, but it really doesn’t matter because you have to go out there and prove it,” Brady said. “You say, ‘How prepared are we?’ or ‘How prepared are we to this point?’ Well, we’ll know Sunday afternoon at about 4:00. We’ll see if all the work that we put in is really going to pay off.”