While Tom Brady remains the focal point of the New England Patriots franchise, an argument can be made that New England also has two of the most important players in the league on their respective sides of the ball in 2014.
Rob Gronkowski not only has the weight of returning from a torn ACL to overcome this summer and fall, but the former All-Pro tight end is clearly the difference between the Patriots’ undermanned offense being considered elite or simply run of the mill.
On the other side of the ball, first-year Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis is expected to transform a New England pass defense that’s been, at best, a work in progress for years.
The Patriots are scheduled to report Wednesday for the start of preseason workouts.
Gronkowski’s value is obvious, both anecdotally and statistically. He is the lone Patriots pass-catcher with a proven history of playmaking, a guy that defenses must not only account for but try almost helplessly to stop on every snap.
A year ago after returning in Week 7 from a broken arm, subsequent infections and a back surgery — and before going down with a torn ACL on Dec. 8 against the Browns — Gronkowski caught 39 passes for 592 yards (15.2 average) with four touchdowns in just more than six games played.
During that stretch, the Patriots averaged 32.8 points per game and Brady had three of his four highest-rated games of the season.
In the 10 games Gronkowski missed to injury, New England averaged 25.7 points a game, slightly more than a touchdown less than when the star tight end was in the lineup.
According to the NFL Network, the Patriots are planning on having Gronkowski on the field for their Week 1 game in Miami. It’s a plan that’s likely applauded loudly not only by Brady but also other complementary members of the passing attack like Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and Shane Vereen, whose jobs become infinitely more doable with Gronkowski drawing the attention of the defense on every snap.
New England is hoping for similar transformational impact from Revis in his first year in the back end of the team’s defense. Not only will he be expected to pick up where free-agent departure Aqib Talib left off as a man coverage corner capable of matching up with the opponents’ top target each week, but he’s expected to make those around him that much better.
The idea is that Revis’ shutdown coverage will make someone like free safety Devin McCourty better, that much more capable of making plays himself and that it will give the pass rush more time to work, giving Chandler Jones a chance to make an even greater jump in production coming off his team-high 11.5 sacks as a sophomore last fall.
Revis is two years removed from a torn ACL. He played all 16 games for Tampa Bay last year, but should be better this fall given the extra time to recover.
Revis recently told ESPN that his knee is totally healthy and he can do things now he couldn’t last season even though played 16 games.
While Brady may not be the best quarterback in the game at this point — a topic of much internet-driven debate this spring — it’s quite easy to make the argument that Gronkowski is the best tight end in football when healthy and Revis the top corner when on top of his game.
Those two players, as much as Brady or maybe even more so, could decide just how far the Patriots are built to go in 2014. For a team that’s been to three straight AFC title games, but hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 2004 the target is easy to figure out yet difficult to accomplish — February in Glendale, Ariz., for Super Bowl XLIX.