The New England Patriots are fresh off a 14-2 season in 2016 culminating in the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl victory. Amazingly, the team was able to win their fifth Super Bowls despite a season of turmoil on both sides of the ball.
The team’s ability to overcome adversity was what stood out as they plowed through a number of issues to come out on top. Suspensions, injuries, trades and more highlighted the 2016 season and toughened the Patriots and built up their resolve to be able to come back from 28-3 third quarter deficit in Super Bowl 51.
Bill Belichick has seemingly taken every step possible this offseason to protect his team from the same problems from 2016. While no team is injury-proof, the Patriots’ front office has taken advantage of an overabundance of cap space and an already deep roster to make a unit that is able to withstand whatever the 2017 NFL season throws at them.
As good as the Patriots were last season, they were blessed with a schedule which could be termed as “soft”. New England faced the NFC West--which had a down season with Arizona, Los Angeles, and San Francisco less than .500. In the AFC North, Cincinnati and Baltimore had down years and Cleveland was...Cleveland. Within their own division, the Jets and Bills were down and Miami had not gelled in week two and had lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill for week 17.
This season the Patriots have a much more difficult schedule heading into the season: They play six teams which made the playoffs in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Houston, Atlanta and Miami; In addition, 2015 NFC champions Carolina and 2015 Super Bowl champion Denver and an up-and-coming squad in Tampa Bay; Add in the dangerous offenses of Drew Brees and the Saints and Philip Rivers and the Chargers and New England looks to have more challenges in front of them in 2017.
To combat this, the Patriots have loaded up and head into 2017 as the prohibitive favorite to return to the Super Bowl. Heading into 2017 there are four issues which could potentially derail the team: a quarterback issue, another Rob Gronkowski injury, issues at linebacker, and interior offensive line depth.
The 2016 season started with quarterback Tom Brady serving his ridiculous four-game “deflategate” suspension. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo rebounded from an up-and-down game one to light-up the Dolphins in week two throwing for 232 yards and three touchdowns in less than two quarters. However, a shoulder injury sidelined him for the next two games and New England went 1-1 with third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett under center.
Tom Brady returns to New England for another season and will turn 40 before the season begins. Last season, in just 12 games, he passed for 3,554 yards with a 67.4% completion rate, 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions in the regular season (all stats from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted). Although Brady seemingly turned back the clock yet another year, head coach Bill Belichick has hedged his bets in 2017.
Rather than trading Garoppolo this offseason, Belichick has him to caddy Brady for at least another season. Belichick knew that Brett Favre went from 107.2 QB rating in 2009 at age 40 to 69.9 at 41 and into retirement. Warren Moon had a career resurgence at age 41 for the Seahawks in 1997 before the wheels came off he next season. Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl at age 39 in 2015 but only after being benched during the season and throwing 17 interceptions and just nine touchdowns in the regular season.
Garoppolo gives New England the best chance to win in case injury or age limits Brady this season. He proved he is capable of running the offense with little drop-off behind Brady. The biggest issue with Garoppolo has to be his durability.
Getting being knocked out of the game with a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder in week two was unavoidable. The fact he could not play in a week three Thursday night game just four days later is excusable. However, not going out in week four knowing it could be his last chance to play quarterback in 2016 seemed to be a bad call by Garoppolo.
Maybe the shoulder was too sore for Garoppolo to play through in week four against Buffalo. Maybe it was the team doctor who made the decision that Garoppolo was unable to play. Either way, fairly or unfairly it raised doubt whether Garoppolo is tough enough to fight through the nagging injuries an NFL quarterback like Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers have repeatedly done.
Clearly Bill Belichick and the Patriots are not comfortable having second-year quarterback Jacoby Brissett as the lone back-up to Brady. Not turning Garoppolo into a slew of draft picks showed his lack of confidence in Brissett with Brady turning 40 before the season. Brissett will likely get a long look again in the preseason to see if his growth is on track for a role in 2018.
New England may have missed an opportunity to improve in the future by not trading Garoppolo for draft picks this offseason, but they did keep the best back-up quarterback in the NFL today behind the league’s best quarterback.
Last season the Patriots finally found a second tight end to team with All Pro Rob Gronkowski when they stole Martellus Bennett from the Chicago Bears for a late-round draft pick. Bennett finished with 55 catches for 701 yards and seven touchdowns and played a big role in the playoffs with blocking and some timely receptions (and pass-interference drawn in overtime in the Super Bowl).
Unfortunately, Bennett chose to step out of Gronkowski’s shadow and signed in Green Bay. The Patriots--after years of ineffective back-ups at tight end--clearly realized the need for a quality depth player behind Gronkowski. They moved quickly to grab a replacement by swapping a couple of draft picks to get Dwayne Allen.
Allen has had an up-and-down career in Indianapolis since being a third-round draft pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Allen has had Coby Fleener and Jack Doyle taking playing time from him with the Colts but his role as second tight end is clear in New England.
Allen is a solid run and pass blocker. He is only 27 years old and is still a capable target in the red zone. Allen will not be the receiver that Bennett was in his season in New England, but he has soft hands and may thrive with less attention in New England. At worst, he is a viable back-up should Gronkowski be injured.
The Patriots also made sure that Gronkowski has plenty of motivation to stay healthy and on the field: $5.5 million reasons. On the books for just $5.25 million this season, the Patriots used some of their excess cap space to up his salary if he stays on the field and produces. In a win-win for both sides, Gronkowski can more than double his salary by producing a typical, healthy Rob Gronkowski season.
New England also added blocking tight end James O’Shaughnessy from the Kansas City Chiefs on draft day for a late round draft pick. The Patriots still have project Matt Lengel back and added undrafted free agents Jacob Hollister and Sam Cotton.
An injury to Rob Gronkowski was always a sign that a Super Bowl win was not possible. However, with good planning and depth at the tight end position it can be overcome.
Locked in at Linebacker:
A key offseason move by the Patriots was being able to retain inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower. After trading Jamie Collins during the season the linebacker group was paper-thin and the Patriots were a Hightower injury away from disaster.
The Patriots’ front uses outside linebackers and defensive ends in shifting roles which can change week-to-week or even play-to-play. In most cases the Patriots would have four down linemen (two interior space-eaters and two edge rushers who are responsible for setting the edge), two inside linebackers and five defensive backs (either three cornerbacks and two safeties or the big nickel alignment with two cornerbacks and three safeties).
While the Patriots traded for edge rusher Kony Ealy, signed Lawrence Guy, and drafted Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers for the defensive line, they made minimal moves at linebacker. One reason is the return of Jonathan Freeny who spent most of 2016 on injured reserve. A veteran who contributes on special teams, Freeny is an important depth piece.
New England returns two key players at linebacker as well. Kyle Van Noy missed the benefits of the offseason and training camp with the Patriots after being scooped up from Detroit during the season. Van Noy is athletic and talented and could take a big step forward in 2017.
He is joined by Elandon Roberts, who flashed speed, athleticism and raw talent in limited action. Roberts will benefit from the offseason strength and conditioning program and repetitions in training camp. Finally, veteran Shea McClellin can contribute inside or outside and undrafted free agent Harvey Langi looks to be loaded with potential.
A healthy Hightower, an improving Roberts, a fully integrated Van Noy, and depth with McClellin and Freeny (and possibly Langi) makes for a linebacker position full of potential. However, the defense’s ability to slow running games, cover tight ends, and get off the field on third down will be dependent on the growth of players like Van Noy, Roberts and Langi.
Interior Offensive Line:
The axiom for beating the New England Patriots (especially in the playoffs) has been to bring pressure on Tom Brady without blitzing. With strong offensive tackles on each side, the formula has called for penetrating pass rushers to exploit the interior offensive line of the Patriots.
In Super Bowl 51, the Atlanta Falcons used a powerful inside pass rush to disrupt the Patriots and leap out to what seemed to be an insurmountable lead. Currently, the Patriots have a young core inside with center David Andrews, who is turning 25 in training camp, left guard Joe Thuney, turning 25 during the season, and right guard Shaquille Mason, who turns 24 in the preseason.
Mason is a devastating run blocker with lateral quickness and unexpected agility for a 300 lb offensive lineman. Thuney was a surprise starter who started strong but had some difficulties in the playoffs likely after hitting the rookie wall. Andrews, recently signed to a contract extension, has gone from undrafted free agent camp body to consistent contributor. Andrews lacks ideal size but makes up for it with a strong lower body and impressive technique.
The question mark on the interior offensive line is not the improving young trio of starters, but the depth behind them in case of an injury. Ted Karras is the only back-up at center and the 2016 sixth round draft pick is solid if not unspectacular. At guard, there is no proven depth after the release of 2014 fourth round draft pick Tre Jackson this offseason.
New England is heading into the season counting on a pair of 2016 practice squad guards to add depth on the offensive line. Chase Farris and Jamil Douglas may have showed the coaching staff something in practice situations last year but they have no experience. Behind them are undrafted free agents James Ferentz and Jason King.
If there is one position still vulnerable to injury and lacking depth, it is the interior offensive line. New England is putting a lot of pressure on offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia to get a bunch of young players ready to contribute in a pinch if need be in 2017.