Burning questions about the state of the Patriots? We’ve got the answers
Another football season is joyfully upon us, so gather round, and let’s take some questions about the upcoming Patriots season. We will also be asking the questions, since I’m the only one here and that “gather round” bit was an artificial linguistic device to sound conversational and folksy.
Oh, OK. Should I leave then?
What? Yes. What are you doing in my living room?
Sorry. I just wanted to know how the Patriots are looking. The Super Bowl still stings. Do you think they can make it back there this year?
Sure. The AFC is weak, the defense should be better, and the Patriots still have Tom Brady.
Any reason to think the Patriots can be challenged in the AFC East?
No. I just said there aren’t any challengers in the conference, much less the division. The Dolphins get Ryan Tannehill back, but they let their most talented players on both sides of the ball — receiver Jarvis Landry and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh — go to other teams.
The Bills have a good secondary but not much else, and the jury is out on when the rookie quarterback they drafted in the first round, Josh Allen, will play. Allen has a big arm but had accuracy issues in college, so he’s probably not going toe-to-toe with Brady no matter what.
The Jets also drafted a quarterback, Sam Darnold, high in the first round, but they still have a poor offensive line and little talent at the skill positions. Perhaps Allen or Darnold will develop into a franchise player who can cause real problems for the Patriot reign, but it’s not happening this year.
Tom Brady is old.
That’s not very nice.
He is, though.
Do you have a question?
Tom Brady is old, right?
Good save. In dog and professional athlete years, yes. A 41-year-old quarterback is the equivalent of a 41-year-old actress, but here’s the good news: The Patriots have Meryl Streep under center. No, not actually, though if she wanted to take on the role, she’d crush it. They have another icon who hasn’t yet slowed down.
Brady may use his experience and near-encyclopedic knowledge of football to his advantage better than anyone else playing football. As far as the physical stuff goes, Brady’s game isn’t exactly built on superb athleticism. The concern is wear and tear. From Weeks 13-17 last season, Brady’s passer rating dropped to 81.6 and he threw 6 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Up to that point his TD-INT ratio was 26-3.
It’s possible that the fatigue and the bumps and bruises piled up, and that Brady doesn’t recover as quickly as he used to. He picked it up in time to throw for 505 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions in the Super Bowl, but having two weeks’ rest could have been a factor in that. The big picture is that he still threw for 4,577 yards last season.
It’s something to monitor, and it’s possible that the stretch at the end of 2017 was an early sign, but the bottom line is that the on-field evidence that Brady is regressing isn’t very strong.
Is this the weakest receiving group Brady has ever worked with? What happens if Chris Hogan goes down early?
Plague! Famine! Pestilence!
I’m not a doctor.
What I can tell you about the receivers is that, yes, the Patriots are thinner at that position than they have grown accustomed to. Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks left via free agency and trade, and Jordan Matthews, Kenny Britt, and Eric Decker didn’t work out.
What’s left is Julian Edelman (though he is suspended for the first four games of the season), Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson as far as players who’ve been in New England long enough to learn the offense.
It’s not an embarrassment of riches, but the Patriots can get by. Ideally, Patterson would mostly play on special teams, but Josh McDaniels can get the ball into his hands in interesting ways early before defenses have tape on him as a Patriot, and that can add something while Edelman is suspended.
The offense, as always, will rely heavily on the tight ends and running backs, some of whom, like James White, are mostly involved in the passing game.
The doomsday scenario, even more than an injury to a receiver in September while Edelman is still gone, is an injury to Rob Gronkowski. Last year, it often seemed the Patriots tried to minimize his exposure, especially to big hits over the middle. They may not have that luxury without the clutch Amendola and productive Cooks on the roster.
In September, when they play tough defenses in the Texans and Jaguars, he’s their only pass-catcher with game-breaking ability.
H ow is the rookie class looking?
Well, dear reader, they’re looking pretty injured. Offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn, a first-round draft pick, tore an Achilles’ tendon and is out for the year. Running back Sony Michel, the other first-rounder, isn’t expected to miss a substantial amount of time but has a knee issue and hasn’t practiced since the beginning of August. Second-round cornerback Duke Dawson is also injured.
It looks like the Patriots may have a gem in fifth-round linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, though. He was a tackling machine in the preseason.
Why didn’t Malcolm Butler play in the Super Bowl?
Hey, Dan, good to see you.
Speaking of the defense, how will it be different since Matt Patricia left to coach the Lions?
Linebackers coach Brian Flores will take over many of Patricia’s old duties, though he doesn’t have the defensive coordinator title. Bill Belichick has always been heavily involved in the defense, so there won’t be wholesale changes. Players have said that, schematically, it may be a bit simpler and that they see Flores as an aggressive play caller, but this is fundamentally the same scheme.
What’s different is the players. The front seven wore terribly thin last season, but reinforcements arrived in the offseason. Danny Shelton should help a run defense that was one of the worst in the league. The return of Dont’a Hightower, plus the addition of Adrian Clayborn, should help the pass rush. It was startling on cut day to think about the significant roles that some of the players who were waived had been asked to play last season.
Which player could have a breakout year?
One is tight end Jacob Hollister, who should see more opportunities given the lack of receiver depth. He was one of Brady’s favorite targets in training camp. It’s evident that there’s trust there.
Another is defensive end Trey Flowers, which is sort of cheating because he’s already one of New England’s best defenders. It’s possible, though, that he could make the leap from very, very good to among the NFL’s best at his position.
Flowers’s 6.5 sacks last season were good, but his 25 quarterback hits were great and would normally translate to a larger sack total. It’s reasonable to think he could have double-digit sacks this year.