Philadelphia, Pa (Sports Network) - The New England Patriots arrived in Philadelphia for a series of joint practices with the Eagles in advance on Friday's preseason opener with far more questions than usual.
Anytime Bill Belichick walks onto a football field accompanied by Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork, a certain amount of swagger follows but contrary to some's belief, the AFC East isn't New England's birthright, although it has certainly seemed that way for most of the Belichick/Brady era.
This Pats group remains the clear cut favorites to come out of the AFC East again in 2013 but it's also a team which figures to arrive in Buffalo for Week 1 without it's top five receivers from a year ago.
Aaron Hernandez is in jail, Wes Welker is in Denver, Danny Woodhead is in San Diego, Brandon Lloyd is on the unemployment line and all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski remains sidelined after multiple surgeries on his forearm and back. And as they say, the cavalry isn't coming through the door.
That's 338 of New England's 402 total receptions from a year ago that won't be in western New York next month but does anyone really want to bet against Brady?
Watching "Tom Terrific" during 1-on-1 drills Tuesday was like peering over the shoulder of a brilliant surgeon. Nearly every pass attempt was delivered with pinpoint accuracy and his touch with the football was almost unfair, forcing the expletives to fly from frustrated defenders as they lunged at passes just out of their reach.
You can rest assured the same blue material wasn't being hurled when Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Ryan Mallett or Tim Tebow were taking their reps. As Don Shula once said -- luck means a lot in football and not having a good quarterback is bad luck.
New England hit the Powerball 13 years ago and it continues to pay off all these years later.
The plan this time around is for Gronk to be back at some point but even if the University of Arizona product stops chasing Mark Schlereth's Barry Bonds- like surgery record and returns to his productive self, he will need some help.
"Everybody's working at it," Brady said after practice Tuesday. "I would say we have a long way to go and we're doing some good things and we're doing some things that we need to eliminate."
This might be sacrilegious to the fans in Foxboro but at this stage of the game Danny Amendola could actually be an upgrade over Welker in the slot. He's basically a Welker clone with the quick feet and unbelievable route-running ability, only younger and with better hands. In fact, Amendola is going to put up some monster numbers in this Patriots offense if he can stay healthy.
Of course, that's a big "if" because the former Texas Tech star hasn't exactly been able to stay on the field consistently over the years and you can't help the club in the tub.
"Danny's done a great job," Brady said when talking about his new slot threat. "He's fun to be out there with. He takes practice very seriously. He's an extremely hard worker, wants to do the right thing on every single play and has very high expectations for himself. It's been fun. We're in constant communication. He loves football, so it's a great teammate to have."
Replacing Hernandez on the field is unlikely because the options on hand just don't offer the same kind of athleticism or movement skills but matching Lloyd's production outside the numbers is more than plausible, especially with Brady on hand to help the development of the young receivers.
Like most great signal callers Brady makes just about everyone around him better so don't be surprised if long, athletic rookies Aaron Dobson or Kenbrell Thompkins start showing up on some fantasy football sleeper lists.
"I'm probably a pain in their butt at this point," Brady said when asked about his young Padawans. "I'm always harping on them about something. I don't let off very often."
Dobson, a second-round draft pick out of Marshall this past April, certainly looks the part but his day was cut short on Tuesday when he and veteran Eagles cornerback Cary Williams were ejected for fighting, a rule set by both Belichick and Chip Kelly so things didn't get out of hand.
"He's done great," Brady said when asked about Dobson. "I'm proud of all of those young players for coming in -- we've thrown a lot of stuff at them. I said the other day that it's not like we're backing off because that's not the way our offense is; we've got to keep putting the pressure on everybody. Everyone who is out there is expected to go in there and execute at a pretty high level."
Thompkins, a rookie free agent out of Cincinnati, lacks Dobson's long speed but took advantage of his fellow rookie's absence late in the session on Tuesday by showing off some strong hands as he snatched the ball out of the air on a few occasions.
"Anytime you have new players that you have to incorporate their skill set into what we're trying to do offensively," Brady said. "Everyone's trying to create a role for themselves. It's really up to the individual as to how they do that. Our offense has been our offense for a long time."
So while Brady's bunch may be new in 2013, it's shaping up to be just as dangerous.
"Ever since I got here and different players have come and we've always adapted to the guys that we have and what they're able to do best," the superstar said. "That's what we're going to continue to try to do and hopefully the guys can come in and all create a role for themselves and we can hopefully go out and score a lot of points."