We held a round-table discussion with our three Patriots reporters — Jim McBride, Nora Princiotti, and Ben Volin — to answer a variety of questions ahead of the season opener Sunday. We got into whether the dynamic among Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, and Tom Brady would ever affect on-field performance, what challenges the 2018 schedule presents, strengths and weaknesses of the team, what fans don’t know about covering the team, and more. Editors Rachel G. Bowers and Gary Dzen moderated.
Bowers: Do you think we will ever see whatever the behind-the-scenes relationship dynamics between Belichick, Kraft, and Brady manifest in a way that affects the team’s performance?
McBride: Simply put, no. I think when it comes to football, they are always focused on one thing, and that’s winning. I liken it to family. I’m sure there’s disagreements, but when it comes to the on-the-field mission, these guys always are united.
Volin: I don’t want to say no outright, because who knows how things play out this year with Brady’s business partner and trainer Alex Guerrero, how they deal with adversity, etc. I suppose it’s possible that things get so frosty that Belichick and Brady stop meeting twice a week, etc. But the last couple of years sounded pretty bad, and it didn’t prevent them from reaching two Super Bowls, and it didn’t drive any of them away from the organization. So I think they still maintain a professional relationship.
And I don’t think it will affect the Patriots on the field. They may lose some games this year, but I doubt it’s because Brady and Belichick can’t work together anymore.
Princiotti: I agree that the basic answer is no. They just don’t have that tall a task during the regular season because the division is weak. Once they reach the playoffs, the prize at the end is great enough to unify everyone behind that common goal.
Bowers: Brady had a very different offseason this year and spoke about it in the epilogue for “Tom vs. Time.” That being said, does anything feel different around Foxborough this year? And is the Alex Guerrero stuff a big deal among those inside the organization?
Volin: I thought training camp had a real different feel this year, and not just because they dialed it back and didn’t have any joint practices. I didn’t feel much competitive fire this year: Brady wasn’t barking at cornerbacks, Malcolm Butler (now with the Titans) wasn’t scrapping it up, tight end Rob Gronkowski wasn’t high-stepping or hamming it up, Brady and backup Brian Hoyer weren’t holding little competitions after practice. Just felt a bit lifeless.
McBride: There was a different feel at camp this year — it didn’t seem as intense as years past, but I don’t think it had anything to do with Brady missing OTAs. That being said, several players I talked to said camp was still the same old grind.
This might sound naive, but I think the weather — it was ungodly hot and steamy pretty much every day — was a reason practice was throttled back a little. I think the Guerrero stuff isn’t even a blip on the screen of most players.
Volin: You could sense the frustration. Brady took the ball and punted it away after one incompletion.
Princiotti: I think the Guerrero stuff is a big deal to Brady and Belichick and maybe a few other players, like younger wide receivers who might feel pressure to train at TB12 to gain the quarterback’s trust. Otherwise, this is an instance where football teams are big, and internal strife or whatever you want to call it plays out differently than it would on, say, an NBA team where everyone really has to deal with each other on a daily basis. I think most players barely think about it.
Volin: I don’t know, Jim, just the fact that so many of the guys go to see Guerrero, I’m sure they’re talking about what’s allowed, what’s taboo, where they are allowed to work with him, etc.
McBride: No doubt, Ben, just don’t think it affects their performance on the field.
Princiotti: I think there are definitely some players who feel pulled in two directions by the coaching staff and training staff and Brady and Guerrero. Just not sure that’s a huge group. I think there’s a chunk of guys who do see Guerrero and still aren’t really in the middle of the conflict
Volin: The injury thing will be interesting to monitor again this year. The Patriots are constantly trying to find ways to avoid them.
Princiotti: If you guys had to guess, how many games does Gronk play this year?
McBride: I’ll go with 14 like last year. One for injury and takes the finale off because playoff position is set. No suspensions this season.
Volin: I wish I could predict whether or not he’ll suffer an ACL tear. But I don’t see his back or forearm being an issue right now. He played in 14 last year, so why can’t he do it again?
Princiotti: As long as he doesn’t take a bite out of a Tide pod, 14 seems reasonable.
McBride: That made me laugh out loud.
Volin: And we don’t give him credit for playoff games. He really played in 17 last year, though he had the concussion in the AFC Championship game.
Bowers: Which opponents on the schedule are poised to be the biggest challenge to the Patriots, and why?
Volin: I don’t get where this “Patriots have an easy schedule” stuff is coming from. You figure they’ll go 4-2 or 5-1 in the division. 6-0 is pretty tough.
Princiotti: I say they sweep the division, but I think that Week 2 Jaguars game on the road is tough, especially without Julian Edelman.
Volin: The AFC South is tough. Week 1 vs. Texans? Who knows? Week 2 at Jaguars is going to be a beast — really hot and humid, place rocking, great Jaguars defense, no Edelman. At Tennessee in Week 10 is going to be a tough game. Only gimme is the Colts game on Thursday night in Week 5.
McBride: I think right out of the chute there are challenges. Five games in 4½ weeks is tough, especially with Edelman out for the first four. Last season, the schedule was backloaded. This year, it’s heavy up front.
Princiotti: They also have the NFC North on the schedule, which looks like one of the best divisions in the NFL.
Volin: NFC North is tough. Week 3 at Detroit — what tricks does coach Matt Patricia have up his sleeve? Getting Green Bay and Minnesota both at Gillette is a break, but both teams could absolutely beat the Patriots. Even at Chicago could be a tricky game — road game, could be a windy day, bad weather, stout defense.
Volin: Then they host the Chiefs, who blew them out at Foxborough last year, and at Pittsburgh, which is a big challenge.
Princiotti: I still picked them to go 13-3, though, because I genuinely think they should win every division game.
Volin: I have 11-5, but I think this schedule is tough.
Princiotti: I’m shorting the Steelers.
McBride: I think the NFC North has questions. First year for Matty P.; Bears offense is grisly not grizzly; sophomore slump for Vikings; this ain’t your father’s Packers.
Bowers: To Jim’s point, do y’all think it’s a bigger challenge to have the schedule frontloaded or backloaded?
Princiotti: As far as the schedule goes, I think backloaded is harder. Brady really tailed off toward the end of last year.
Dzen: One-word answers from each of you: What do you see as the team’s biggest strength? Weakness?
Volin: Strength: Continuity.
McBride: Strength: Belichick.
Princiotti: Strength: Brady.
McBride: Weakness: Receivers.
Volin: Weakness: Linebackers.
Princiotti: Ditto, receivers.
Dzen: Receivers seems like the obvious choice; why do you think the linebacking corps will struggle?
Volin: I don’t have confidence in any of them to cover running backs and tight ends. Kyle Van Noy is still a converted pass rusher who doesn’t have the best coverage instincts. Dont’a Hightower is too big and slow to be in coverage now, and is mostly used as a pass rusher. Elandon Roberts has zero coverage instincts and is a big-time guesser, which results in a lot of whiffs. They are basically counting on this rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley, who can run like crazy but hasn’t played an NFL snap yet.
Princiotti: The linebacker concern is very valid. I think this is where the “big nickel” package with three safeties often comes in, because Patrick Chung is great against running backs and tight ends. But whereas the depth at pass rusher I think is much better this year than parts of last year, it gets thin quickly at linebacker.
McBride: Linebacker is a concern. I wonder how much Bentley plays. Kid was instinctive as hell in the preseason, but now the games are real. Can he be that effective now that teams are scheming?
Bowers: Who are the under-the-radar players who you believe will make a big difference? Let’s do an offensive player, defensive player, and a special teams contributor.
McBride: Offense: Tackle Trent Brown. Defense: Defensive lineman Keionta Davis.
Volin: Offense: Tight end Dwayne Allen.
Princiotti: Tight end Jacob Hollister was one of Brady’s most-targeted teammates in training camp and there are catches to be had given the state of the receiving corps.
Volin: Defense: Cornerback Jonathan Jones.
McBride: Special teams: Running back Jeremy Hill.
Princiotti: Love that Hill pick.
Volin: Special teams: Patrick Chung (punt returner?).
Princiotti: For a true under-the-radar guy, I’d go with cornerback J.C. Jackson, but one of my predictions for this year is that Trey Flowers has double-digit sacks and goes from one of the better players in this defense to a true star around the league.
McBride: Good point, Nora. How is Flowers not a captain yet?
Bowers: What’s something fans don’t know about covering the team?
McBride: There’s a lot of genuinely great guys in that locker room. Devin McCourty and Teddy Karras are two of the nicest people I’ve ever met in any walk of life.
Volin: The Patriots’ brass read every word written about the team.
Princiotti: Like Ben said, everyone reads! And that includes the players, too. Maybe not every word, but a lot of words.
Bowers: What’s something you learned about this year’s team during training camp that you didn’t know beforehand?
Volin: I’m suddenly worried about the offensive line. Losing Isaiah Wynn really hurts. Trent Brown has barely played a regular-season snap at left tackle. Marcus Cannon got banged up again this camp, and didn’t play a snap in the preseason. They had all of these veterans in camp, and pretty much every one of them got cut or injured. The OL is solid up the middle, but I’m worried about both tackle spots.
McBride: Belichick often runs the hills before practice. Maybe he’s done this for years, but this is the first time I’ve noticed.
Princiotti: Something learned in camp is that there’s a chance the Patriots have yet again found a good left tackle in Trent Brown. If he works out in Foxborough, that’s three in a row.