As we get ready to (finally!) start the 2014 season in earnest, I thought I'd take a minute to look at some of the more unheralded keys to success for the Patriots this year. There has already been a lot of talk about what exactly the Patriots need to do to make a serious Super Bowl run, but for the most part all of that talk has been pretty basic. Yes, we all know that we need Gronk to stay healthy. Yes, ensuring that the offensive line gels to protect Tommy B is crucial. Yes, it would be great if Stevan Ridley would hold onto the ball. And yes, we're all looking for a strong second year leap from the young receivers. None of this is particularly ground-breaking news. There are several other factors that are going to have to come into play if the Patriots are going to get Tom Brady that elusive fourth ring. So what I thought I'd do today is examine some of the storylines that, while not getting all that much media attention, are going to have a huge role in how successful the Patriots are this year.
Surviving the first quarter of the year. It's easy to look at New England's first four opponents - Miami, Minnesota, Oakland, and Kansas City - and see a fairly easy slate of games to start the season. However, when you factor in the fact that three of those four games are on the road, everything becomes a lot less clear. Miami, Minnesota, and Kansas City are not easy places to play, and this team's mental toughness is going to get tested right out of the gate. The Dolphins are likely to come out of the gate foaming at the mouth to get a home win over the Patriots to start the season, and Kansas City at Arrowhead on Monday Night is going to be absolute chaos. To come out of the first fourth of the season with a 3-1 record would do wonders to set the Patriots up for their more manageable travel schedule for the rest of the year.
Linebacker health. Obviously it's important for everyone to stay healthy and remain on the field (looking your way, Gronk), but it's especially important for this linebacking corps to avoid any long-term injury. Not only are the Patriots woefully thin at this position with very little depth behind the starters, but linebacker has always been the most important position in a Bill Belichick-run defense. Guys like Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, and Willie McGinest were exactly the kind of smart, versatile, tough ‘backers that made the early 00's Patriots so effective; the trio of Mayo, Collins, and Hightower has the potential to be one of the strongest linebacker units this team has seen in a while, but if even one of them goes down, there isn't a whole lot behind them to step in.
Slot cornerback play. We know that Darrelle Revis will be one starter on the outside. We also know that Brandon Browner, when he returns from suspension, will be the other. What's less clear is who will be spending the most time in the slot. Kyle Arrington is a very solid slot corner who struggles to defend the sidelines. Alfonzo Dennard was extremely serviceable last season playing all over the field. Logan Ryan showed a tremendous amount of potential and a penchant for jumping routes at just the right time as a rookie. Who will be asked to defend the slot? What will nickel and dime packages look like? It's a good problem to have, in a lot of ways, but with Revis taking away teams' #1 receivers, quarterbacks are going to be looking to the second and third options, which means that the slot corners are going to have their work cut out for them.
James Develin. Hear me out here; first off, how many true fullbacks are there left in the NFL? And among those fullbacks, how many represent even the slightest receiving threat out of the backfield? Develin represents one of the more unique players in the league in that he's an absolute beast of a man at 6'3", 251 lbs who can block even the larger linebackers well, but he can also motion out and provide some nice catch-and-run ability if needed. If the Patriots are looking to get back to their roots of having a stout, intimidating defense coupled with an efficient offense, then the running game is going to play a huge part in their success. Having a fullback that can both block and run the occasional hitch route makes for a highly underrated weapon.