- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Biggest reason for hope: improved defense
It is easy to point out the future Hall of Fame pair of quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick in this spot. But they get the credit every year for keeping New England in the title hunt. What will get New England over the hump to end its nine-year title drought will be improved play by the defense. The Patriots’ offense has been a well-oiled machine for years, but it hasn’t resulted in a championship. New England was at its best during the dynasty years in 2001-2004 because the defense was one of the best in the NFL. New England was ranked 25th in total defense last year, including 29th against the pass. Belichick put a lot of work into strengthening that side of the football this offseason. The Patriots re-signed No. 1 corner Aqib Talib, in addition to adding former Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson and veterans such as defensive lineman Tommy Kelly. Second-year players like defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower are also expected to make the jump. If New England’s defense can get stops in big games, that will make a major difference.
Biggest reason for concern: wide receiver
The Patriots had the NFL’s top-rated offense and the highest-scoring offense in 2012. The offense certainly wasn’t broken, which makes it baffling why New England would make so many changes at wide receiver. The Patriots got rid of 2012 starters Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and replaced them with a relatively unknown cast of receivers. Danny Amendola, who’s had a lot of injury concerns, will fill one stop. But the No. 2 and No. 3 receiver positions are wide open. Players like Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins, Julian Edelman and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce will all compete for playing time. The best two or three receivers will get roles in New England’s offense. Brady has worked with questionable receivers before and made them better. The Patriots need Brady to repeat that feat again this upcoming season. If Brady and the passing game takes a step back, New England will not be as good as last season.