The folks in Foxborough can’t be fooled by the seven pounds of sterling silver they captured for a sixth time.
The Nobody Believed In Us New England Patriots relished proving naysayers wrong, but a lot had to go right for them to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Counting on a repeat to repeat as Super Bowl champions would be foolhardy, which is why the Patriots’ focus as the ball dropped on the NFL’s new league year Wednesday should be upgrading, not maintaining, a championship team.
The 2018 Patriots squeezed every ounce of ability out of their roster and ingenuity from their coaching staff to win it all. Their margin for error was Kendall Jenner-slim. This was the first Patriots team since 2009 that failed to win 12 games. They won once on the road outside of their division before the AFC Championship game in Kansas City. They reinvented themselves in the playoffs as a run-to-pass offensive team with a disciplined and difficult-to-decipher defense, but they remain the least talented Patriots Super Bowl winner since the first one, in 2001.
Give Bill Belichick some sodium pentothal and he would admit that his team got away with one last year. You can bet the Patriots’ fearless and bloodless leader already has done an objective and unsentimental inventory of his Super Bowl-winning roster. There is nobody better at diagnosing a team’s strengths and weaknesses than the NFL’s original Mr. Big Chest.
You know the drill. Talented Patriots players are going to find their riches elsewhere. Already, defensive end Trey Flowers (Detroit) and left tackle Trent Brown (Oakland) cashed in during the league’s oxymoronic legal tampering period. (The loss of Flowers was softened by a shrewd trade for outspoken Eagles pass rusher Michael Bennett.) It was the same deal last year when Nate Solder, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis, and Malcolm Butler departed.
But never fear, the Patriots will still field a contender. It’s just how great a degree of difficulty they’ll tolerate.
The Patriots’ remarkable sustained success makes them their own worst enemy sometimes. Belichick and Tom Brady have shown the uncanny ability to do more and win more with less, and, thus, the team seems inclined to settle for less talent, assuming Belichick and Brady will make up the difference. This has put the Patriots in undesirable and untenable situations at certain positions.
It’s human nature. If you can get by expending fewer resources to achieve an aim, you will.
The position where the Patriots need to toss out their philosophical playbook is wide receiver. They got away with a pedestrian receiving corps last year, asking Brady to cook a gourmet meal with one desirable ingredient and a bunch of leftovers.
The estimable Julian Edelman, who missed the first four games of the season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, earned Super Bowl LIII MVP honors. If it weren’t for Edelman’s production and Rob Gronkowski’s playoff renaissance, the Patriots’ passing attack would have been anemic.
The Patriots remain on borrowed time with Gronk, and Edelman accounted for 40.7 percent of their postseason receiving yards. The next-best wideout was Phillip Dorsett, who re-upped with the team late Wednesday, with 70 postseason yards and two touchdowns. Dorsett, Chris Hogan, and Cordarrelle Patterson (who departed for a two-year, $10 million deal with the Chicago Bears) combined for 160 receiving yards in three playoff games.
The wide receiver market has moved up and moved on. Patriots target Adam Humphries got a four-year, $36 million deal with $19 million guaranteed from Tennessee. The only receiver in the Belichick era to whom the Patriots have handed a multiyear contract worth more than $9 million per season was Randy Moss. Wes Welker made $9.515 million on the franchise tag in 2012.
Potential free agent options at wide receiver include Golden Tate, Randall Cobb, and Pierre Garcon, all of whom had base salaries last year of more than $6.6 million.
Potential trade targets include Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who’s on a $9.387 million fifth-year option, and Falcons wideout Mohamed Sanu, who has two years and up to $13.25 million left on his deal. However, there’s no indication Atlanta plans to make the Rutgers product available.
The Patriots seem to have a self-imposed cap on the position relative to Edelman’s current contract, which carries an average annual value of $5.5 million. They don’t want to upset the locker room balance by paying a receiver more than they pay Brady’s football soulmate.
This is silly.
Edelman is an all-time Patriot, but he’s also a soon-to-be 33-year-old in the last year of a team-friendly deal. How is basing your entire cost structure at receiver around not upsetting Edelman in the best interests of the team? It takes you out of the running for all but the bargain bin of available pass-catchers. Borderline guys such as DeVante Parker of the Miami Dolphins are getting deals worth at least $5 million per year.
Cynically, I think the Patriots like this Edelman issue being played up because it’s a salary suppressant in negotiations. But if you really don’t want to pay the going rate for receivers, do a better job of identifying them in the draft. The Patriots have a spotty record there, at best.
Last season, Belichick rolled the dice in desperation and traded for the addiction-addled Josh Gordon. The Patriots were tremendously fortunate that a receiver of his caliber fell into their lap at a nominal cost to plug a gaping hole. But the reasons for it are obvious, as he’s once again indefinitely suspended by the NFL.
The Patriots have plans for Gordon’s reinstatement, evidenced by the restricted free agent tender they gave him. But relying on him is most unwise.
So is failing to upgrade this roster where it needs it the most.
A lot of things fell into place for the denizens of Patriot Place last season: old Super Bowl nemesis Nick Foles handing the Houston Texans a loss that paved the path to a bye; the Los Angeles Chargers losing all of their linebackers and common sense; Patriot-killer Kareem Hunt being released by the Chiefs after a video surfaced of him assaulting a woman. You can’t count on a repeat.
The Patriots can’t afford to stand pat. They have to up their talent if they want to up their Super Bowl title count.