The New England Patriots have been the most dominant NFL franchise of the 21st century. Since 2001, the Patriots have appeared in 10 AFC Championship Games (including the last 5 in a row) and gone to the Super Bowl 6 times (winning 4 of them). It is clear that Head Coach Bill Belichick has managed to create a dynasty in Foxborough in the salary cap era that has required an ever-shifting emphasis on Offense and a revolving door policy in New England with the only permanent fixtures being Belichick and his Quarterback Tom Brady. Yet Belichick will face a unique situation in 2016 as he will be without his star Quarterback for the first 4 games of the regular season as a result of the ‘deflate gate’ scandal.
Let us take a look at the first of 3 AFC teams that we will preview in the Super Bowl 51 Contender Series.
In the past fifteen years, when New England have boasted a top 5 scoring Offence they have made the AFC Championship game. The only exception to this was in 2003 where New England’s Offence was 12th in scoring (however, it played alongside a Defence that gave up the least amount of points in the NFL) and in 2010 where despite having the Leagues top scoring Offence they went out in the divisional round to the New York Jets (no one is still quite sure how this happened, especially when you consider the Jets had rookie Mark Sanchez at Quarterback).
The Patriots also need to boast at least the 6th stingiest Defence in order for them to make the Super Bowl. This has generally be the rule of thumb with the only exception being 2006 where the Patriots ranked 2nd in points allowed yet lost in the AFC Championship game to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots also went to the Super Bowl in 2011 where they ranked 15th in points allowed, yet the Defense outperformed itself in the Post-season allowing only 10 points in the divisional round and 20 in the AFC Championship game. Clearly if New England is to make the Super Bowl in 2016 it does not matter whether they have a top 10 passing or rushing attack but only that their offence is a top 5 scoring unit that has the ability to put up points.
In recent seasons the Patriots have relied on a mixture of offensive weapons, however, the triplet of offensive superstars has always been the winning formula. First it was Brady, RB Antowain Smith and WR Deion Branch. Then it went to Brady RB Corey Dilon and WR Deion Branch. In 2007 it was Brady with Faulk returning at RB, however, the Patriots relied heavily on the passing game and utilised both Randy Moss and Wes Welker. In 2011 the Patriots used Brady with WR Wes Welker and TE Rob Gronkowsi and changed to Running Back by committee with BenJarvus Green Ellis, Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead. Finally in 2014 it was Brady with another Running Back by Committee (the thumper LeGarrette Blount alongside backs Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray) with WR Julian Edelman and TE Rob Gronkowski.
Yet in 2016 Head Coach Bill Belichick appears to be going back to his winning formula from 2010 to 2012 where the Patriots had the highest scoring offence in 2010, 3rd highest in 2011 and highest scoring offence once again in 2012. The Patriots teamed up two strong Tight Ends in Rob Gronkowsi and Aaron Hernandez with a smaller Wide Receiver Wes Welker and a Running Back by committee with different styles all complimenting the Patriots rushing attack. The Patriots 2016 roster on offence is much deeper, stronger and deadly than any New England has previously boasted. Despite Tom Brady missing the first 4 games of the season, he is expected to suit up for the rest of 2016 and the post-season (anything other than this would a truly cataclysmic shock).
Not much needs to be said about Tom Brady. He is a top-3 Quarterback in the League who makes all those around him better and is truly the ultimate competitor. He has a Cinderella story and despite not being the most gifted athlete has the mental tools and arm ability to make all the throws on the football field and is an Offensive Co-ordinator playing Quarterback.
Yet New England will be without Brady for the first four games of the season and will instead rely on the inexperienced Jimmy Garoppolo for the first quarter of the season. Garoppolo is widely believed to be Tom Brady’s heir apparent yet has struggled during his minimal playing time in the NFL. We have previously reviewed Garoppolo’s performance in week 1 of the 2016 pre-season and this can be viewed by pressing here.
Jimmy Garoppolo only needs to split the four games he will feature in in 2016 to leave New England and Tom Brady in a position from which they can challenge for home field advantage all the way throughout the playoffs.
The Patriots have a thumper in LeGarrette Blount alongside the speedy and elusive backs Dion Lewis and James White. Lewis and White are both extremely dangerous catching balls out of the backfield and possess the breakaway speed to take runs all the way to the house. New England also signed veteran and former 1st round pick Donald Brown who will also bring a new dynamic in 2016.
The Patriots could use a mixture of ‘thunder and lightning’ in 2016 as they have incredible depth at Running Back. Both Dion Lewis and James White are electric with the ball in their hands and can make defenders miss with their quick feet and ability to one cut. The Patriots will then use LeGarrette Blount who is a bruiser and a punishing Running Back who will wear down opposing Defenses. Donald Brown is an intriguing acquisition who has struggled in his 7 years in the NFL and never gone over 700 yards. Yet Bill Belichick seems to have a knack for taking players who other teams have wrote off and turning them into contributing pieces and Pro-Bowlers. Donald Brown will be an interesting one to keep an eye out for in 2016, however, even if he does not contribute in 2016 the Patriots still have 3 dangerous and different running backs who they can rely on for the upcoming season.
The addition of Martellus Bennett via a trade this offseason could prove to be a masterstroke by Belichick. Bennett struggled for 4 years in Dallas and then a season in New York; however, became a top 5 Tight End in Chicago and earned his first Pro-Bowl nod in 2014. Despite never going over 1,000 yards in a season, Bennett is an extremely tall Tight End at 6 foot 7 and an excellent pass-catcher as well as run blocker. Since 2012 (1 year with the Giants, 3 with Chicago) he has been treated as a no.1 Tight End and in this period totalled 263 receptions, 2,740 yards and 19 touchdowns in 59 games. This may not seem overwhelming, but it is the fourth most receptions among Tight Ends in this period with only Jason Witten, Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen catching more passes. Alongside Rob Gronkowski who is the biggest mismatch in football, the New England Patriots could have a two-headed monster heading into 2016. The dynamic duo will be red zone threats and difficult to line up against given their huge size combined with their excellent route running. The Patriots will also capitalise on these two powerful Tight Ends in the running game as lining up both Gronkowski and Bennett along the line of scrimmage is essentially the same as playing with 7 Offensive Linemen due to their great run blocking. With Blount in the backfield, the Patriots could pound the ball and wear down opposing teams creating separation for their smaller Receivers and Tight Ends, as Safeties and Linebackers would tire from playing the run.
The Patriots utilise smaller Wide Receivers in the slot on zags, slants and other underneath routes which alongside their dangerous Tight Ends makes it near impossible for opposing Defenses to cover. Julian Edelman has filled the ‘Wes Welker role’ perfectly in New England and alongside Danny Amendola gives Tom Brady two safe pair of hands who can both use their footwork and agility to beat soft coverage underneath. The Patriots also added Nate Washington and Chad Hogan in a receiving corps that is both deep and impressive. Washington is an 11-year veteran who can line up in either the X or Z role on the outside and allow the smaller receivers and the two Tight Ends to go to work in the middle. While Hogan found fame on HBO’s Hard Knocks earning the nickname ‘7/11’ due to his ability to always get open. He has been somewhat of a journeyman since then, yet if anyone is able to get the most out of Hogan then it is Belichick who transformed the career of Wes Welker from a fringe receiver and return specialist to a potentially future Hall of Famer.
It is clear that New England have plenty of talent at Wide Receiver and a two-headed monster at Tight End who should help Jimmy Garoppolo in the first four games win just enough games to keep New England challenging for home field advantage all the way throughout the playoffs. This is by far the most talented group Tom Brady has had to work with and you should expect the Patriots to be a top 3 Offence in the NFL in 2016.
The Offensive Line
Many New England Patriot fans will just be getting over the nightmare that was last seasons AFC Championship game as the Broncos Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and DeMarcus Ware wreaked havoc in the Patriots back field. Miller had an impressive 2.5 sacks on the day and repeatedly got home turning Patriots Tackles like a carousel. Brady was harassed all day and was hit 20 times leaving him banged up and bruised after the game. The Patriots line finished 2015 ranked 25th in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, yet after the trade for Guard Jonathon Cooper and with Veterans coming back from injury, will enter 2016 ranked 15th. Pro Football Focus predicts a starting line of LT Nate Solder, LG Josh Kline, C Bryan Stork, RG Shaq Mason and RT Sebastian Vollmer. I agree with the Tackles yet I believe that newly acquired Jonathon Cooper (the 7th overall pick for Arizona in 2012 and the highest drafted Guard in 20 years) will start at RG and sophomore will start at Center following his impressive rookie campaign. for New England. Cooper struggled in Arizona with sloppy technique and injury yet at times showcased his athleticism. He is an intriguing prospect and the Patriots will hope to get the most out of this raw but talented Guard in 2016. Both tackles are seasoned veterans and solid in both pass-block and run-block. Left Guard Josh Kline is young and talented and last year proved he is a beast in the run-block game as he can bully opposing Linemen. Bryan Stork is an able Center yet struggled with concussions and neck injuries in 2015 and will compete with sophomore David Andrews who impressed in 2015 when he filled in for Stork.
The Patriots have an incredibly talented and deep roster on offence, however, 2016 could end up hinging on how well Jimmy Grappolo plays in his four starts. If he goes 0-4 then the Patriots will be playing catch up the rest of the year and could miss out on the playoffs if they throw away a few silly games. Yet this is Bill Belichick, arguably the best coach in the NFL and he should be able to game plan for Grappolo and keep it simple for the young Quarterback and allow his talented receivers to go to work and rack up yards after the catch. The Patriots will most likely have a running back by committee in 2016 and the contrasting styles of Blount, White and Lewis will be intriguing to watch. Tom Brady is still a top-3 Quarterback in the League and it is clear that this will be an offence of juggernaut status for three quarters of the season and should fire New England into the AFC Championship game in 2016, something that has been the bench mark in years gone bye for New England. With the dynamic duo of Brady and Belichick, we have come to learn that you can never write off the New England Patriots and no matter how many injuries the team may suffer, they have a knack of finding a winning formula and being there or thereabouts every year.
Check back tomorrow where we will preview the Defence, Special Teams, the Patriots schedule and give you the ‘skinny’.
– Tom Like