Tom Brady and his receiving corps are more comfortable in their second season together.
The star quarterback also may have his biggest target back for the New England Patriots’ opener.
If Rob Gronkowski can stay healthy after two injury-plagued seasons, the NFL’s third-highest scoring team last year should be even more potent. And the Patriots’ prospects of winning their 12th AFC East title in 14 years would become even brighter.
Gronkowski has been making progress after ACL and MCL surgery on his right knee, but hasn’t played in a preseason game while taking limited contact in practice. After playing just 18 regular-season games over the past two seasons, the tight end plans to play all 16.
“The more that he’s able to do and help us, the better we’re going to be,” Brady said. “He’s working his way back, and it’s been great to have him out there for more and more activity, and, hopefully, that continues because he’s a big part of our offense.”
The first time Brady threw a pass to him, Gronkowski caught it for a 1-yard touchdown as a rookie in the 2010 opener. He and Brady have connected on 223 other throws. In 2011, Gronkowski set NFL records for tight ends with 90 receptions, 1,327 yards receiving, 18 total touchdowns and 17 touchdown catches.
Gronkowski missed the first six games last year after forearm and back surgeries, and the last three with the knee injury.
In training camp, he caught passes on the side before taking the next step, catching them on the field.
“It’s definitely huge to get going and be on the same page as the quarterback,” Gronkowski said, “just all on the same page as the offense as a whole. I’ve been working with Tom since I’ve been out here, but we haven’t been doing it versus the defense.
“So it was good to be right out there and boom, just like we’d never missed (a beat).”
Three of Brady’s top four wide receivers last year, when the Patriots (12-4) lost the AFC championship game to the Denver Broncos, were new to the team: veteran Danny Amendola and rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Julian Edelman had 105 catches after having just 69 total in his other four seasons.
“All the guys that came last year, there was a lot that was forced on their plate and they’ve been able to handle it,” Brady said. “There’s not as many things you need to go over, (but) you’re still trying to make improvements.”
Other things to watch from the Patriots:
IMPROVED DEFENSE: Opposing receivers should have a tough time against the new starting cornerbacks. Darrelle Revis is one of the best at that position and Brandon Browner is one of the biggest. Browner must sit out the first four games after being suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. But last year’s starter, Alfonzo Dennard, and Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington are solid replacements. The Patriots have two key defensive players back from injuries that sidelined them most of last season: tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
RUNNING BACKS: Stevan Ridley is the top rusher but has lost six of his eight fumbles the past two seasons. Fourth-round pick James White is a rookie. That leaves Shane Vereen, drafted in 2011 like Ridley, as the most reliable running back. He emerged as a receiving threat last season with 47 catches, three for touchdowns. In last Friday night’s 30-7 preseason win over the Panthers, Vereen caught two touchdown passes. “He’s a very dependable guy,” coach Bill Belichick said.
YOUTH MOVEMENT: Three veterans who built solid careers elsewhere, defensive linemen Tommy Kelly and Will Smith and linebacker James Anderson, were released Monday. First-round pick Dominique Easley and second-year player Michael Buchanan should see playing time along with fellow youngsters Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga on the line. At linebacker, the Patriots have Darius Fleming, who spent his other two seasons on San Francisco’s injured reserve list, and 2013 draftee Steve Beauharnais.
OFFENSIVE LINE SHIFTS: The offensive line needs to improve over last year, when several veterans struggled. Two of them, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly, are competing for the center position. Promising youngsters Jordan Devey, Josh Kline and Bryan Stork could make an impact, but standout guard Logan Mankins was traded to Tampa Bay on Tuesday.
SIMPLE DIVISION: The Patriots figure to start the regular season with a win at Miami and end it with a win over another division opponent, at home against Buffalo. In between, they should pile up enough victories to continue their domination of the AFC East. Only six of the Patriots’ 16 games are against teams with winning records last season.