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Can Patriots' offense improve without Tom Brady? Answers might surprise

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Who is starting at QB for the Pats? (1:09)

Mike Tannenbaum sees Jarrett Stidham as the Patriots' starting QB this season, and he explains why he is picking New England as the favorite in the AFC East. (1:09)

Check out the latest NFL Power Rankings from any outlet, including ESPN's most recent one, and the theme surrounding the 2020 version of the New England Patriots is hard to miss.

They're worse.

Few, if any, are buying the Patriots as a clear-cut Super Bowl LV contender, let alone the favorite in the AFC East division they have dominated for most of the past two decades. That's a hard fall for a franchise that is one year removed from winning Super Bowl LIII.

But is it accurate? Let's go deeper with the "better, worse or the same" game -- examining the roster on offense, position by position. We'll do the same on Thursday with defense and special teams.

Quarterback

Additions: Brian Hoyer, J'Mar Smith, Brian Lewerke

Losses: Tom Brady, Cody Kessler

Returners: Jarrett Stidham

Better, worse or the same? Worse

Brady, 42, was still playing at a high level last season, even though it wasn't close to the peak from earlier in his career. The lingering question is how much was Brady's dip a result of his own doing or the limited personnel around him?

Then there's the leadership void his departure creates, which can be viewed through two prisms: 1. Brady was an 18-year captain whose sheer presence lifted up everyone around him; 2. Brady had told NBC's Al Michaels that he was the most miserable 8-0 quarterback at the midpoint of last season, and that created an emotional drain for some around the team.

Now it's a clean slate for the Patriots, which comes with uncertainty.

Stidham, the 2019 fourth-round pick from Auburn, is the favorite to start after coach Bill Belichick chose him over Hoyer for the No. 2 spot after last preseason. Belichick has made the point the Patriots have been in this situation before; they are 13-6 in games without Brady since he became the starter in 2001.

Running back

Additions: J.J. Taylor

Losses: None

Returners: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, Damien Harris

Better, worse or the same? Better

Former Jets and Dolphins general manager Mike Tannenbaum called this the best position group in the NFL during a recent appearance on ESPN's Get Up! program. Some might argue that point in part because Michel, as the No. 1 option, hasn't been a huge factor in the passing game. But the depth from top to bottom is solid, as evidenced by Harris -- a 2019 third-round pick from Alabama who totaled 3,070 yards and set the Crimson Tide record with a 6.4 average per carry -- spending his rookie season primarily as a game-day inactive.

That's why this might be the skill-position group the Patriots ultimately rely on more than any other.

Fullback

Additions: Danny Vitale, Dalton Keene, Jake Burt

Losses: James Develin

Returners: Jakob Johnson

Better, worse or the same? Same

The position is definitely deeper, which is important when factoring how vital it has become to the attack. Last season, when Develin landed on season-ending injured reserve following a Week 2 neck injury that ultimately led him to retire, the Patriots turned to Johnson and then linebacker Elandon Roberts.

This season, they're more equipped to handle a run of injuries, and also appear to be more versatile. Whereas Develin and Johnson were more of the old-school, smashmouth players, Vitale and Keene can fill that role while also adding more of a pass-catching presence.

The Patriots ran 17.4% of their offensive snaps last season with two backs on the field, which ranked eighth in the NFL, according to ESPN's Stats & Information research. That likely would have been even higher if not for injuries.

Offensive line

Additions: C David Andrews (IR), OT Yodny Cajuste (IR), G Hjalte Froholdt (IR), G Michael Onwenu, OT Justin Herron, C Dustin Woodard

Losses: C/G Ted Karras, OT Marshall Newhouse, C James Ferentz

Returners: LT Isaiah Wynn, LG Joe Thuney, RG Shaq Mason, RT Marcus Cannon, G/T Jermaine Eluemunor, OT Korey Cunningham, G Najee Toran

Better, worse or the same? Better

Getting Andrews back as the starting center should immediately upgrade the unit after he spent 2019 on injured reserve because of blood clots in his lungs. Andrews said he has received clearance to play, and assuming there are no setbacks, that might turn out to be the team’s most important "addition" of the offseason.

One of the understated keys to the unit's success will be getting the right side -- Mason and Cannon -- back to playing at their 2018 level. That seems like a reasonable possibility with a better health outlook for both.

The retirement of longtime assistant Dante Scarnecchia is a notable storyline, but Scarnecchia relayed that the unit is in good hands with Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo taking over.

Tight end

Additions: Devin Asiasi, Keene

Losses: Ben Watson

Returners: Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo

Better, worse or same? Better

The Patriots finished last in the NFL in targets to tight ends and receptions by tight ends, according to ESPN's Stats & Information research. That should change in 2020, in part because of the significant investment the team made in trading up in the third round for Asiasi, their top-rated player at the position in the draft. Keene might ultimately factor in more at fullback but has some crossover to this spot, as well, and the Patriots traded up for him late in the third round.

In all, they traded five picks for two players, which is telling in terms of how the Patriots view their upside.

One other factor here: This might be a spot where Brady's departure potentially helps the offense, as there were times he seemed to lose patience working with younger players.

Wide receiver

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0:58

Why Marqise Lee is looking forward to a fresh start with Pats

Mike Reiss gives details behind Marqise Lee's phone call with Patriots management and explains why the receiver is hungry for a fresh start in New England.

Additions: Damiere Byrd, Marqise Lee, Will Hastings, Sean Riley, Isaiah Zuber, Jeff Thomas

Losses: Phillip Dorsett II

Returners: Julian Edelman, N'Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu Sr., Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Devin Ross, Quincy Adeboyejo, Matthew Slater

Better, worse or same? Same

The optimistic view would be that Harry is primed for a second-year jump and Sanu should be more effective with a clean bill of health, but there's also a balance to strike in that go-to-guy Edelman, 33, is coming off shoulder and knee surgeries. Also, the Patriots don't seem to have a dynamic, speedy, home run threat who could possibly help take pressure off Stidham with the ability to score on catch-and-run plays.

A Byrd-for-Dorsett swap could be an upgrade if Byrd shows up in the return game and on Cordarrelle Patterson-type designed run plays. And if Lee returns to health, he could prove to be a shrewd low-risk, high-reward free-agent signing.

The emergence of unproven younger players -- Meyers, Olszewski, Ross, Adeboyejo, Hastings, Riley, Zuber and Thomas -- could significantly alter the current perception of a group that is deep in numbers but comes with plenty of questions.