Suddenly, the Patriots’ roster turnover doesn’t look so bad — at least not compared with what their AFC East rivals are dealing with at the end of training camp.
The Patriots, who have now had more than a month to prepare to play a handful of games without Rob Gronkowski and the entire season without Aaron Hernandez, are dealing with only a few minor injuries as Week 1 approaches.
The rest of their division, though, is getting decimated by injuries at a time when the teams should be ramping up for the regular season.
The Patriots’ first two opponents this season — Buffalo and the New York Jets — both have serious quarterback problems after the events of this past weekend’s exhibition games.
Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel is already questionable for the regular-season opener at home against the Patriots after undergoing minor knee surgery Aug. 18. The Bills were ready to turn to veteran Kevin Kolb as their Week 1 starter, but Kolb suffered a concussion Saturday against the Redskins that could ultimately end his career. Kolb, 29, dealt with several concussions during the 2010 and 2012 seasons.
As of now, the Bills’ Week 1 starter will be Jeff Tuel — an undrafted rookie out of Washington State who spent a little time with the Patriots before April’s NFL draft. Tuel would become the first undrafted rookie to start in Week 1 since the modern era of the draft, which dates to 1967. But the Bills are still holding out hope that Manuel, their first-round pick, will be ready to play against the Patriots.
The Bills were also forced to scramble to find quarterback help this week, signing free agent Matt Leinart off the street and making a trade with the Lions for fourth-stringer Thaddeus Lewis.
Patriots defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said he’s been keeping tabs on the Bills’ quarterback situation, but doesn’t believe that facing an undrafted rookie in the first game will give New England an advantage.
“You’re always aware of it — you watch TV — but I’ve played games against third-string quarterbacks and lost, so it don’t matter,” he said. “I’ll be licking my chops if EJ Manuel was in there, Kevin Kolb, or whoever is in there. I just want to get [the quarterback], period.”
The news got worse for the Bills on Monday, as they will also be without their No. 1 cornerback — second-year pro Stephon Gilmore, last year’s first-round pick — for at least six weeks with a fractured left wrist.
And the Bills aren’t the only divisional opponent dealing with quarterback woes. The Jets, who come to Foxborough for a Thursday night game in Week 2, may have to start rookie second-round pick Geno Smith after presumed starter Mark Sanchez suffered a right shoulder injury in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s exhibition game against the Giants.
The Jets are officially calling Sanchez “day to day,” and may have to go with Smith, who looked bad while throwing three interceptions against the Giants and taking a safety after unknowingly running out of the back of the end zone during a pass attempt.
“You never want to lose anyone, especially your quarterback,” Patriots guard Logan Mankins said Monday. “He’s the leader of your offense and every play goes through him.”
While new Jets general manager John Idzik might be in favor of Smith getting the start to help get his career going, coach Rex Ryan, squarely on the hot seat this season after two straight seasons without making the playoffs, likely would rather play the veteran Sanchez to give his team a better chance of winning immediately.
And while the Dolphins aren’t dealing with quarterback issues, they also lost a crucial piece of their offense last week. Tight end Dustin Keller, who was signed to open up the field for receiver Mike Wallace and be a faster, more athletic upgrade over Anthony Fasano, suffered a devastating knee injury against Houston that could possibly end his career.
The Patriots are still a little banged up — Danny Amendola and Alfonzo Dennard aren’t quite 100 percent, and Gronkowski is still a month or so away from returning — but their injuries are quite minor compared with the rest of the division.
Coach Bill Belichick, though, isn’t taking the Bills lightly and said his staff is already starting to game plan for the Sept. 8 opener.
“Yeah, we definitely have people on our staff that break down those films as they come in,” he said. “The offensive coaches, defensive coaches, special teams, myself, as we get to some of those games, we get to it. Obviously we don’t have to have a schedule for them just yet but there are some things we can get a jump on.”
Belichick said that game planning for the Bills could be tough, given that they have a brand new head coach in Doug Marrone, who came from the college ranks. And game planning for Week 1 is tough in general, Belichick said, because he might have too much or too little history with a team and a coach.
“Opening Day is always a hard game to prepare for, no matter who it is because you either don’t have any history or you have a lot of history, more than you need,” he said. “You have to try to figure out what that balance is.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.