What more can be said about the 2016 New England Patriots season. The season started like the opening of some cliche Hollywood sports film with the team rallying around the loss of star QB Tom Brady for the first four games. Brady himself, likely to be the subject of a future hollywood blockbuster for his entire career since entering the league as an underdog, then went on a revenge tour as the Patriots week-by-week unleashed. havoc on the rest of the league. The final act, Super Bowl 51, saw Brady lead his Patriots team back from the largest deficit in Super Bowl history to snatch immortality with his 5th Super Bowl win.
Sadly for fans of every other team apart from the New England Patriots – this team continues to defy the balanced equilibrium that the NFL Draft and Salary Cap system supposedly implements. The scary thing for the rest of the NFL? The 2017 Patriots look even better than their 2016 counterparts and appear ready to repeat history, aiming to better there 18-1, 2007 incarnation.
Coordinator Josh McDaniels, who oversaw that 2007 offense, will be in his sixth year of devising plays that maximize the talent around star QB Tom Brady. The Patriots offense starts with Tom Brady. He is a generational talent and might just be the best quarterback to ever play the position when its all said and done. Brady is a coordinator playing under center. His vast experience and devotion to the games means it doesn’t matter what formation, alignment or coverage the defense is playing – Brady like knows what the defense is about to do and knows exactly where the soft spots and areas to attack will be. Brady is like a fine wine, appearing to get better with age. If he is forced to sit, either due to injury or a severe drop off in performance in 2017 – the Patriots appear in safe hands with heir-to-the-throne backup Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy G has sat for 3 years and is entering the fourth and final season of his rookie contract. Head Coach Bill Belichick loves Garoppolo and turned down some potentially lucrative trades with QB-needy teams like the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns this past offseason. Like Brady, Garoppolo has an extremely quick release, is very accurate on short-to-mid range throws and is able dissect defenses and thrive in McDaniels’ QB friendly system. Garoppolo is the best back-up QB in the NFL. Behind him on the depth chart the Patriots have 2nd year QB Jacoby Brissett.
The Patriots may have a crowded and talented WR room, but the loss of Julian Edelman for the season will hurt this offense. Edelman and Brady share a common wave-length where they both understand soft spots in coverage and appear to always be insync. Brandin Cooks is the team’s best deep threat since Randy Moss and has the explosiveness to take the lid off NFL defenses. Cooks will force teams to rotate safeties to his side, opening up other receivers with one-on-one matchups and creating space over the middle and outside the numbers for their talented possession receivers and tight ends. Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola are all capable no.3 WRs but the presence of Cooks, Gronkowski and Brady’s greatness should elevate their playing level and turn them into star no.2 receivers.
Rob Gronkowski is a “joker” to borrow a Jon Gruden phrase. In a game all about mismatches, he is his generations biggest. A dual-threat tight end, he can turn into a human snow plough on blocking plays or run up the field and take a football 50+ yards to the house. He is 6ft 6″, 265lbs and can box out smaller DBs if the Patriots choose to play “basketball football”. He also has 4.5 speed and can burn slower linebackers on routes before racking up YAC by bulldozing over corners and safeties. Recently signed TE Dwayne Allen is an excellent pass catching tight end and gives Tom Brady yet another weapon.
The Patriots have three RBs who could legitimately see 15+ touches per game. The starter will likely be either of the two newly signed RBs, Mike Gillislee or Rex Burkehead. Burkehead is a do-it-all back who has the power to run between the tackles but is also great at catching passes out the backfield. Dion Lewis and James White are excellent pass catching backs and these two explosive weapons could look to fill the absence of Edelman if McDaniels decides to line Brady up in the shotgun with one in the backfield and one potentially in the slot. White will likely be the Patriots third-down back and I expect Burkehead to be out their on first and second down. With so few touches but so much talent, Gillislee could be left with just the ‘LeGarrette Blount’ role of short-yardage and goal-line situations. The Patriots certainly have plenty of talented mouths to feed…
Long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will be back, a big plus for this Patriots offense. The departure of long-time RT Sebastian Volmer should not effect this line as Marcus Cannon excelled at RT in 2016. Cannon had a career year last year and was rewarded with a 5-year, $32.5m deal as he excelled in both pass protection and run blocking. Nate Solder will be Tom Brady’s starting Left Tackle for seventh season and is a reliable presence in pass protection and opens holes in the run game. Shaq Mason played well in his 2nd season at RG last year and should continue his development as a solid presence inside. LG Joe Thuney struggled last year and converted tackle La’Adrian Waddle could push him for the starting job. Center David Andrews was a good run blocker in 2016 but was poor in pass protection. Like last season, the weakness on this offense will be pressure applied up the middle which could fluster Brady.
Last off-season I wrote a long think piece about the Patriots 2016 Defense – the culmination of a 5-year re-build (click here to read!). In 2017, the Patriots will need to rely on the intelligence of Head Coach Bill Belichick and disciple/ defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to get production out of a talent-poor front seven with a suspect pass rush. Since 2011, the Patriots base Defense has been a 4-3, but in todays NFL it’s more about nickel/ dime package and who is bringing pressure on the QB. The Patriots, although a base 4-3 team, are more than happy to line up in a 3-4 if they believe it to be a more advantageous front.
On the defensive line, the Patriots have Alan Branch and Malcom Brown in the middle. Both are poor rushing the passer and collapsing the pocket but great run eating up blocks/ gaps and stopping the run – they are what I would call “cloggers”. Branch is 32-years old and in the twilight of his career. This means newly signed Lawrence Guy should see plenty of action in rotation alongside 2015, 32nd overall pick Brown. The retirement of Rob Ninkovich, injury to 3rd round pick Derek Rivers and loss of Chris Long in free agency leaves this D-Line dangerously thin at DE. The Kony Ealy trade never worked out and the current starting DE’s in New England are Trey Flowers (standout performer in 2016) and 2015 3rd round pick Geneo Grissom. He’s never started a game in 2 years and played ONLY 12 snaps all of last year! For back ups, the Patriots have 4th round rookie Deatrich Wise Jr and undrafted rookie Keionta Davis! Keep an eye on this position, as the Patriots will likely sign another teams veteran who failed to make the 53.
Dont’a Hightower returns to call plays in the middle. He’s a great all-rounder who is solid against the run, effective in coverage and can also be used to devastating effect rushing the passer – just ask Matt Ryan… Starting at Weakside should be newly-signed David Harris. Harris spent ten seasons with the New York Jets before signing a team friendly 2-year, $5m contract with Patriots earlier this summer. Harris could be competing with Kyle Van Noy, however, the Patriots currently have Van Noy as 2nd string MLB. On the Strongside will likely be either Shea McCellin or Elandon Roberts. Roberts was a 6th round pick last season and played well against the run but was limited in snaps due to his struggles in coverage. McCellin was the Chicago Bears’ 19th overall pick in 2012 and played well in coverage last season. I expect the Patriots to start Van Noy and Harris at outside linebacker (despite what their current depth chart says) with the ever reliable Hightower commanding the defense from the middle.
The Patriots let go of CB Logan Ryan in free agency and appeared reluctant to commit to Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler. Butler will play this year on a 1-year $3.91m deal after the Patriots assigned a 1st round tender to him. He will line up at cornerback next to Stephon Gilmore. Head Coach/ General Manager Bill Belichick is often reluctant to hand out big contracts but he was more than willing to open up the cheque book and PAY Bills corner Gilmore. He signed a 5-year, $65m deal and despite inconsistent play in Buffalo has all the makings of a lockdown No.1 corner. Gilmore and Butler are an impressive cornerback duo with second year 60th overall pick Cyrus Jones (now out for season with torn ACL!) and 3rd year Eric Rowe as able back-ups. Patrick Chung will return at strong safety and continue to be the thumping presence in the box that stretches back to Rodney Harrison under Belichick. Devin McCourty will return as the centre-fielder free safety. He is a top-5 safety who often gets overlooked around the NFL.
Players to Watch
Stephon Gilmore – Gilmore has all the tools to be a no.1 lock down corner. Bill Belichick clearly believes in him by spending big money to lure him from Buffalo. It will be interesting to watch whether Gilmore outperforms partner Malcolm Butler.
Brandin Cooks – The Patriots gave up a 1st and 3rd round pick for Cooks evidencing Belichick’s belief in the former New Orleans speedster. He’s the best deep threat they’ve had since Randy Moss and it should be fun watching him and Brady link up deep throughout the season.
Tom Brady – At 40 years old will he ever begin to decline? Brady is 100% committed to his diet/ body and aiming to play until he’s 45. Will father time ever catch up the Patriots QB?
W1 vs Chiefs // W2 @ Saints // W3 vs Texans // W4 vs Panthers // W5 @ Bucs // W6 @ Jets // W7 vs Falcons// W8 vs Chargers// W9 BYE
W10 @ Broncos // W11 @ Raiders// W12 vs Dolphins// W13 @ Bills// W13 @ Dolphins// W15 @ Steelers// W16 vs Bills// W17 vs Jets
On to Kansas City!