Patriots have some lingering questions as season beckons

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass against the Carolina Panthers during an NFL game in Charlotte, N.C. on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018. (Chris Keane/AP Images for Panini)

It’s finally here.

The long off-season, filled with the bitter taste of a Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, plus tons of foolish drama, is over.

The New England Patriots are ready to take on the 2018 regular season, their so-so scheduled which includes eight teams that had a winning record a year ago, and their critics.

Not to mention their past.

The Patriots are always the pick, simply because they have Tom Brady at quarterback. Do they have enough around him this time? Let’s take a look:

OFFENSE

Skill positions

Brady hasn’t looked like he’s lost a single step at quarterback. Tom may not be nimble or quick, and the hope is he won’t have to jump over any candlesticks – or defensive linemen/linebackers. Just throw the ball, but to whom?

Tight end Rob Gronkowski, for one. The talk of retirement and contract is done for another season. Now it’s up to Gronkowski to stay healthy. Backups or if they go two tight ends include veteran Dwayne Allen – kept partly because he took a pay cut and also is a good locker room presence – and Jacob Hollister.

Wide receivers? The Patriots knew there would be some options after cutdown day so they kept just Chris Hogan, Cordarelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett. Dorsett seems to have improved his on-field connectivity with Brady. But then they added Amara Daboh (Seattle) and Chad Hansen (Jets). Between the two they caught 17 passes for 165 yards. In four weeks Julian Edelman returns, it’s just a question of how effective he’ll be a year removed from knee surgery. The guess is for now Dorsett and Hogan are the two primaries.

A lot of this means the backs – most notably James White – will be catching passes. First rounder Sony Michel seems to be practicing, and the hope is Rex Burkhead and Jeremy Hill are healthy enough to carry a lot of the rushing load. White, especially with no more Dion Lewis and Michel iffy, becomes a huge piece. Maybe too huge.

Up front? Trent Brown appears to have been a big offseason pickup. We mean big (6-8, 380). He had a serviceable pre-season at left tackle, protecting Brady’s blind side, to help alleviate fears of losing Nate Solder to free agency. David Andrews (center), the now wealthy Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney (guards) and either Marcus Cannon or LaAdrian Waddle are your right tackles. Waddle for now, until Cannon comes back from injury.

Potent? Against bad teams, sure. Against a team like the Texans? If this offense scores more than 30 against Bill O’Brien and Romeo Crennel, shame on them.

DEFENSE

Here we go. This, fans, is where you should be more concerned, because it is what lost your team the Super Bowl last February. Has it improved? Somewhat.

Up Front

Danny Shelton (interior) and Adrian

Clayborn (end) are two veteran acquisitions that have helped. Malcom Brown is a load. But the key is Trey Flowers, who has been hurt but is expected to be out there against the Texans. He is your best pass rushing lineman. But you hope others, like Dietrich Wise and Derek Rivers can do the job. Hope.

Linebackers

Ugh. The two everyone is most familiar with is Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower. You wonder what the over-under will be set at for the number of games the injury prone Hightower – sorely missed in last year’s Super Bowl – plays. Do the Patriots really want to play Elandon Roberts, who isn’t good in coverage, a lot? The guess is no, but the position lacks dependable depth. But don’t forget about preseason star/rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley.

Secondary

Ah, everyone’s favorite punching bag. Truth is, after a slow start, Eric Roweplayed pretty well as Malcolm Butler’s replacement in the Super Bowl and he’ll start opposite Stephon Gilmore, with reliables Devon McCourty, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung – or, yes, Jason McCourty, in a switch from corner – as the safeties. The nickel group likely includes rookie free agent J.C. Jackson and possibly Duke Dawson. It’s when you get this far that things get murky.

SPECIALISTS

Stephen Gostkowski always causes a panic when he misses an extra point, but he’s still got the strong, accurate leg. Ryan Allen won the punting job again. Now, who returns kicks and punts? You’ve got to think Patterson’s speed for kickoff returns is the reason he was acquired; as for punts, perhaps Chung, for now.

COACHES

Of course every time the Patriots lose a game, Belichick is under the gun, but really? We’d love to know what exactly was said/promised to Josh McDaniels that Tuesday after the Super Bowl to cause him to risk his reputation and turn down an NFL head coaching job. Defacto defensive coordinator Brian Flores (no title) seems to be a tad more aggressive than Matt Patricia, but that was preseason. We’re glad to see our two favorite coaches still around: Running backs coach Ivan Fears and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

SCHEDULE: Well, the AFC East still is pretty easy, but at least Buffalo and the Jets will have new looks. Patriots should go 5-1 here. Tough ones will be the Houston opener, at Pittsburgh, at Tennessee, Minnesota and Green Bay at home.

PREDICTION: 12-4, lose to Pittsburgh in AFC title game.

PLAYOFF TEAMS: AFC divison winners – New England, Pittsburgh, Houston, L.A. Chargers; Wild Cards – Jacksonville, Baltimore.

NFC Division winners – Philadelphia, Green Bay, Atlanta, Los Angeles; Wild Cards are N.Y. Giants (surprise) and Carolina.

SUPER BOWL: Pittsburgh over Green Bay.