Six months ago, Peyton Manning was better than Tom Brady in a championship game. That certainly eats at Patriots fans.
Most recognize, however, that much like in the early portion of the storied rivalry between the two all-time great quarterbacks – Manning had more talent to work with. While Manning was throwing to the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker in the 2013 AFC title game, Brady was trying to whistle balls into the arms of Austin Collie and Matthew Mulligan.
Brady did have Julian Edelman, a banged-up Aaron Dobson, a banged-up Danny Amendola and a banged-up Shane Vereen to throw to in that game, but the absence of Rob Gronkowski – who shredded the ACL and MCL in his right knee in Week 14 against Cleveland – was more than glaring.
The Patriots didn’t exactly wow anyone with free agent acquisitions at wide receiver, tight end and running back this offseason, but there is optimism that Brady will have a bit more to work with in 2014 than he did in 2013.
A look at the status of Brady’s top targets as training camp gets underway this week.
Rob Gronkowski, TE
2013 stats: 39 rec., 592 yards, 4 TD in seven games played
Gronkowski gave Pats fans reason to be optimistic last Friday when he told ESPN’s Mike Reiss that he plans on playing the entire 2014 slate. That's encouraging, though remember that the bruising tight end didn’t step onto the field for the Pats until Week 7 last year against the Jets after a frustrating stretch of “will-he or won’t-he” to begin the season.
Gronkowski’s lengthy injury history is scary, no doubt. But the glass-half full crowd can point to the fact that “Gronk” played the full 16 games in each of his first two NFL seasons, and that he’s just 25-years-old. His reckless play is always in question in regard to potential injury, but remember this play in 2011:
Gronk was fine after landing on his neck that Monday night against the Chiefs. Luck, good or bad, always comes into play with these things.
Danny Amendola, WR
2013 stats: 54 rec., 633 yards, 2 TD
Gronkowski’s injury history is treated by most as something of a Polish tragedy. Meanwhile, Amendola’s injury history is looked at by most with skeptical eyes and raised eyebrows. The double standard isn't fair, but it’s real. There have been whispers this offseason that the Pats could opt to cut Amendola later this summer if he doesn’t impress in camp. No doubt, these next few weeks are crucial for the slot receiver.
Julian Edelman, WR
2013 stats: 105 rec., 1,056 yards, 6 TD
Edelman certainly earned his four-year, $17 million contract the old fashioned way. The former college quarterback at Kent State had four 100-plus yard receiving days in 2013 and the Pats went 3-1 in those games.
Brandon LaFell, WR
2013 stats: 49 rec., 627 yards, 5 TD
Consider LaFell as the Mike Napoli of the Patriots. Napoli killed the Red Sox for years head-to-head, so the Sox signed him. LaFell had, arguably, his best game as a pro against the Pats on Monday Night Football last November as he had a career-high seven catches in one game. LaFell also had an early touchdown grab in the game.
LaFell inked a three-year, $9 million deal with the Pats in March and the front office hopes he can do what Brandon Lloyd and Chad Ochocinco could not do – become a reliable downfield threat for Brady over a number of years.
Kenbrell Thompkins, WR
2013 stats: 32 rec., 466 yards, 4 TD
Thompkins had multi-catch games in his first seven games last season but struggled mightily down the stretch.
Josh Boyce, WR
2013 stats: 9 rec., 121 yards, 0 TD
Boyce and Thompkins will likely be battling it out for a roster spot during camp in one of the marquee position battles of the summer in Foxboro.
Other targets to watch in camp: Matthew Slater (WR), Tyler McDonald (WR), Jeremy Gallon (WR), Derrick Johnson (WR), Michael Hoomanawanui (TE), Nate Byham (TE), D.J. Williams (TE), Justin Jones (TE), Asa Watson (TE)
Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter: @BurkeMetroBOS