FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Heading into training camp the New England Patriots were a perceived Super Bowl contender with questions at tight end behind Rob Gronkowski, along the interior offensive line and the starting strong safety.
With a month-plus of summer practice and four preseason games in the books, coach Bill Belichick’s team still has those questions remaining as New England prepares an opening day battle at Miami with the AFC East-rival Dolphins at 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7 in Miami.
There was plenty to like from August action in Foxborough. Cornerback Darrelle Revis brings a key strength to the secondary. The front seven presents a solid cast of versatile, athletic potential playmakers. Quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Julian Edelman look poised to pick up where they did a year ago as a productive tandem.
But after Gronkowski sat out the preseason, and didn’t take part in 11-on-11 practice action until late in the summer practice while rehabbing from ACL surgery last December, it is uncertain what the Pro Bowl tight end will be able to bring early in the season.
The questions on offense are compounded by the late-summer trade of Pro Bowl left guard and locker room leader Logan Mankins, which leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the line. There were already questions whether first-year line coach Dave DeGuglielmo might shake up the starting lineup at center and right guard. Now the left guard spot is uncertain in front of Brady, who reportedly was not happy about the trade.
After all, when Brady took a cut himself, it was believed to be a way to help the team use the money to sign other deserving veterans. Instead, when Mankins refused a pay cut, he was traded.
Also, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have done little to settle on the strong safety. Several players rotated through the spot throughout the summer — Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard — as the variety of players and skills sets were given a chance to shine.
Still, as with most seasons the team has been coached by Belichick, the Patriots enter 2014 as a the presumed AFC East champion and likely contenders for the AFC title game, a spot they landed the last three seasons.
The line between contending for a Super Bowl and actually taking home that fourth Lombardi Trophy is a fine one. The core, led by the backbone trio of All Pros in Brady, Gronkowski and Revis, is there for another championship shot. But those key questions still remain with the fate of the team resting on if and how they are answered.
The Patriots ended the preseason Thursday night in a 16-13 loss at MetLife Stadium when the Giants’ Josh Brown hit his third field goal of the game, a 37-yarder with 38 seconds remaining in the game. Brown also was good from 45 yards out earlier in the fourth quarter.
Rookie QB Jimmy Garoppolo went the distance for the Patriots and completed 22 of 42 passes including a touchdown strike to Aaron Dobson. Eli Manning got the start for the Giants and went 1-for-4 in limited action.
NOTES: TE Michael Hoomanawanui (knee) missed all preseason games, although he has returned to practice on a limited basis. His status for the opener remains uncertain. … LB Dont’a Hightower missed the last two preseason games for unknown reasons.