When the Patriots' offense takes the field on Sept. 8 at Ralph Wilson Stadium to face the Bills in the 2013 season opener, it's conceivable that quarterback Tom Brady will be without any of his top five receivers from 2012.
Gone are Wes Welker (signed with the Broncos), Brandon Lloyd (released in March, still unsigned) and Danny Woodhead (now with the Chargers). Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez could be sidelined for completely different reasons; the former is recovering from his latest surgery -- this time on his back -- and the latter was arrested Wednesday, charged with murder and released by the team.
The table below shows the impact these five players had on the Patriots' passing game last season.
The trio of Welker, Lloyd and Woodhead accounted for 58 percent of the team's receptions, 56 percent of the receiving yards, 53 percent of receptions of at least 20 yards and 38 percent of the touchdown receptions.
Meanwhile, Gronkowski and Hernandez had 26 percent of the receptions and receiving yards, and almost half the team's touchdown receptions. Combined, the fivesome accounted for more than 80 percent of the passing offense across all categories.
Not even Brady can overcome those losses, right?
New England signed Danny Amendola this offseason, whom many consider a younger, faster version of Welker (although Amendola happens to be more injury-prone). Other additions include: Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, Lavelle Hawkins and second-round pick Aaron Dobson. Disregarding Hawkins -- he played in just seven games -- and Dobson (who was still in college), Amendola, Jones and Jenkins averaged 48 receptions, 519 yards and 3 TDs in 2012. None started more than 10 games.
But Brady has overcome average wideouts before. In 2006, the Patriots finished the regular season with a 12-4 record before losing to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. New England's leading pass-catcher was wide receiver Reche Caldwell (61 catches), followed by tight end Ben Watson (49 catches), running back Kevin Faulk (43) and wide receivers Troy Brown (43) and Doug Gabriel (25).
One difference between the '06 squad and the 2013 version: The Patriots' offense is now built around two of the NFL's best tight ends, whose status remains unknown as training camp approaches. Tight end Jake Ballard, whom the team claimed off waivers from the Giants last offseason, is nearing full health after suffering a serious knee injury in Super Bowl XLVI. Still, he had just 38 receptions for 604 yards and 4 TDs in 2011, all career bests. Behind him on the depth chart: Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells.
Of course, stats don't tell the entire story. There's a lot to be said for familiarity and chemistry. Here's what CBSSports.com's Pat Kirwan wrote last week:
"If the Patriots had to line up right now for a game in their three wide receiver set, it would be Jenkins, Amendola, Dobson and Ballard. None of them have ever caught a pass from Brady in a game. None of them can line up in the backfield like Hernandez has, and none of them can line up like a wing like Hernandez has."
Another difference: The 2006 Patriots defense was a top-10 unit. According to Football Outsiders, New England was No. 7 in defensive efficiency in '06 (sixth against the pass, 10th against the run). Last season, the Pats ranked 15th (23rd against the pass, sixth against the run).
Put another way: Any gains that the '06 defense provided Brady and a punchless passing offense six years ago would be offset in 2013, assuming the 2012 defense doesn't show marked improvement.
Brady is often lauded for his competitiveness. Even with three Lombardi Trophies, he seems to play with a chip on his shoulder, which might have something to do with the fact that he was drafted 199th overall in 2000. But he'll need to summon all his future-Hall of Fame powers to keep the Patriots in their familiar position atop the AFC. That said, although New England won't be anyone's preseason favorites for the Super Bowl, they do have the luxury of playing in the AFC East, where the Jets are the Jets, the Bills could be starting a rookie quarterback (or Kevin Kolb), and the Dolphins pose the only real threat for the division title.
From the perspective of mid-June, the Patriots enter training camp with way more questions than answers. Still, we wouldn't be surprised if this team ekes out 11 wins, prevails in the division and finds a way to win a playoff game or two -- with or without Gronk and Hernandez.
Common sense says otherwise, but history suggests just that. Since 2003, New England has won at least 11 games and made the postseason nine of 10 times. The one time that they didn't -- 2008 -- was when Brady was lost in Week 1 with an ACL injury, and that team went 11-5 with Matt Cassel under center.
Yes, we've seen this movie before.
Follow Ryan Wilson on Google+