The advent of the Patriots’ offseason initially seemed to prolong the disappointment of the Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles. Nate Solder, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, and Danny Amendola – all popular and accomplished players – took lucrative deals elsewhere in free agency.
Rob Gronkowski and even Tom Brady seemed to waver on their love for football – or at least the Patriots’ brand of football – for the first time. It felt like everyone was rushing to the epilogue when fans weren’t even to close to ready for the story to end.
Lately, it’s been better. Brady’s introspection, so stark in the final episode of Tom vs. Time, doesn’t seem to indicate that he’s giving legitimate consideration to walking away now. Gronk is working out in Foxborough, an encouraging sign that he’s moved on from last year and sticking around for this one. And the Patriots have brought in some welcome reinforcements, including cornerback Jason McCourty, the twin brother of one of the most reliable Patriots, Devin McCourty. There could be more fulfilling chapters ahead after all.
With the 2018 Patriots starting to take shape, it feels like a good time to take stock of what has happened since that certain cold February day in Minneapolis. Here, then, are a few superlatives from the offseason so far …
Most glaring area of need
It’s easy to appreciate the Patriots’ recent lineage at quarterback, where Drew Bledsoe and then Tom Brady have led the offense with only brief hiatuses since 1993. The continuity at kicker, with godsend Adam Vinatieri arriving in 1996 and Stephen Gostkowski replacing him after his departure to Indianapolis in 2006, is also often saluted.
But how about their impressive history at left tackle over the last 35-plus years?
In 1981, the Patriots took Brian Holloway out of Stanford. He made three Pro Bowls as a Patriot before first-round pick Bruce Armstrong replaced him in 1987. Armstrong, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, had Bledsoe’s back through the 2000 season. Matt Light took over the job as a rookie during the magical and transformative 2001 season, making three Pro Bowls along the way before retiring after the 2011 season.
Fortunately, the Patriots had prepared for his departure by choosing massive Nate Solder in the first round in ’11 and letting him serve as the understudy for a year. Solder never made a Pro Bowl in his seven seasons as a Patriot, but he was a trustworthy protector of Brady’s blindside. That the Giants gave him the richest contract ever awarded to a tackle tells you the importance of his job, and the high level of competence and skill those around the league see in him.
The math is impressive: Over the past 37 seasons, the Patriots have spent three first-round picks and a second-rounder on four primary left tackles, who combined to make 12 Pro Bowls, one All-Pro team, and win five championships.
Somewhat jarringly, the Patriots appear to have no obvious successions plan in place. But you know they must – this stuff simply does not sneak up on them or catch them off guard. Which tells me one thing. The Patriots, like they did in ’81, ’87, and ’11, would be wise to spend their first-round pick on a tackle.
Most intriguing acquisition
He’s not the biggest name the Patriots have picked up, though he does have the longest name. But Cordarrelle Patterson is a fascinating addition for a couple of reasons, foremost that we have no idea what to expect.
He’s an absolute burner, probably faster than Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett, the latter another underachieving first-round pick elsewhere whose breakaway ability will keep getting him chances until he slows down to the speed of mere mortals. He’s an extraordinary kick returner – why am I suddenly thinking of Bethel Johnson? – at a time when that role is greatly devalued. And he’s a special teams gunner extraordinaire, but I’m not certain the Patriots need that with Matthew Slater having signed on for two more years.
Patterson could be a huge asset to the 2018 Patriots, and he could be cut unceremoniously in August. I do know this for certain now, though: Belichick’s 2013 trade that sent the 29th pick in the draft to the Vikings was one of Belichick The GM’s underrated heists.
The Vikings took Patterson with the pick, and if I recall, the deal commenced a lot of caterwauling from the “Why does Belichick always trade down!?” crowd. The Patriots ended up with picks that turned into Jamie Collins and Logan Ryan, plus another pick that was sent to the Buccaneers in the deal for LeGarrette Blount. In a way, Patterson has already helped the Patriots.
Most surprising admission upon departure
Dion Lewis, telling the Tennessee media that he finally feels wanted. I understand that the confirmation is finally in his back account – he got a four-year deal with a bonus and guarantees of more than $10 million. That’s a satisfying and deserved culmination of a long road to becoming a top NFL running back.
But I was surprised at the insinuation that he didn’t feel wanted here. The Patriots recognized something in him when they signed him to a futures contract late in the 2014 season after the Colts and lousy Browns had dismissed him.
The credit for seizing the opportunity belongs to him. But if the Patriots didn’t want him, they never would have given him the opportunity in the first place.
Most welcome return
There seemed to be a consensus of surprise among Patriots fans when special-teamer extraordinaire Matthew Slater took a visit with the Steelers. I’m actually mildly — and pleasantly – surprised that he’s back with the Patriots on a two-year deal.
Slater is a quintessential Do Your Job Patriot – he’s made seven Pro Bowls and could make the Hall of Fame if Steve Tasker ever kicks down the door for special teams players – but you know how this works. No one gets to stay forever, and sometimes Belichick decides they need to go before they’re ready.
Nostalgia is non-existent. In the seconds after they beat the Rams in XXXVI, Belichick hugged his daughter, Amanda, and Lawyer Milloy at the same time. He kept only one of them forever. Slater turns 33 in September and has missed 10 games the last two years. Willie McGinest was a Brown, you know?
So in the end, I suppose it is a tribute to his continued high-level of competence at a reasonable pay rate that the Patriots did keep him. Because it’s pretty much the only measuring stick Belichick uses.