The New England Patriots are one of sports’ greatest current dynasties, adding to their extensive trophy collection with another championship last year. While 5 rings in 17 years is an impressive run, the Patriots don’t seem to be done just yet. The Patriots return virtually their entire core – notably Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Dont’a Hightower, and Malcolm Butler – and add several new, exciting pieces such as Brandin Cooks, Mike Gillislee, Stephon Gilmore, and their draft class. With such incredible roster talent and coaching continuity, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Patriots don’t steamroll the AFC en route to another Lombardi trophy. However there are still a few questions New England needs to answer before the season starts; if they can’t get past these potential roadblocks, talented contenders could unseat them in the AFC.
- How will the new acquisitions impact the team?
New England was unbelievably active in the free agency and trade markets. In free agency, they plucked Mike Gillislee and Stephon Gilmore from the Bills and Rex Burkhead from the Bengals. Brandin Cooks and Dwayne Allen were also acquired via trades. This influx of talent should help the Patriots this season, but there is a distinct possibility that this swarm of new talent will handicap rather than help New England. The Patriots have a notoriously difficult playbook, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see these acquisitions struggle to adapt and contribute. It shouldn’t affect the new defensive players, Gilmore and the Panthers’ Kony Ealy, who should make instant contributions. However offensively, the new players may be more of a hindrance than anticipated.
First, the Patriots added two running backs in Gillislee and Burkhead to an already crowded backfield. Established veterans Dion Lewis and James White are going to get a share of the workload, so distributing the workload four ways won’t give anybody consistent touches, disrupting the rhythm of all four backs. Even if Gillislee or Burkhead emerge as a backfield leader, neither have ever been starting running backs before, and their inexperience in that position may backfire in pressure situations. Moreover, while both have clear strengths, they are flawed backs. Gillislee is not known for his abilities in the passing game, while Burkhead doesn’t have the size or strength to gain extra yards. There’s still time to sort out backfield issues, but it would be surprising if neither of these signings end up being a mistake. Belichick should be able to mix and match running backs as he pleases given Lewis and White have the missing skills.
In the receiving core, Cooks and Allen are veterans who the Patriots believe will add a new dimension to their offense. Allen made sense for the Patriots as a solid backup to Gronkowski, but a 4th round pick seems like too much capital to ship for a guy who provides little more than an extra red zone target. Cooks is the far more intriguing acquisition of the two; he has added game-breaking speed to the Saints offense as a major target for Drew Brees. While Cooks’ talent is undeniable, there are severs concerns that crop up when looking at his role in the Patriots’ offense. Cooks was immediately unseated by a rookie in Michael Thomas who had more targets, catches, and touchdowns than Cooks last year. Willie Snead, the third option, averaged nearly identical targets per game to Cooks as well, but this could be due to the fact that Cooks would draw the most attention from the defense. Cooks has a worse catch percentage than Thomas, Snead, and even rarely used player Brandon Coleman by more than 2 percentage points. As always, it’s very possible Cooks is bolstered by Tom Brady, but Cooks has plenty of red flags attached.
- Will the defense maintain its solid success of the last few years?
The Patriots offense usually draws all the headlines (for obvious reasons), but the defense has been rock-solid the past few seasons as New England has made deep runs. Besides defensive guru Matt Patricia, the Patriots have been buoyed by star players who make an enormous impact on defense. In the secondary, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler has played superbly in 1-on-1 coverage against the NFL’s top receivers, allowing the rest of the secondary to scheme around him. With Devin McCourty and now Stephon Gilmore, plus other capable players, the Patriots secondary is in good shape.
The concern with the defense lies in the front seven. Dont’a Hightower is one of the elite linebackers in the league, but he can only do so much on his own. Hightower, in only 13 games, racked up 65 tackles and 3 sacks from the WLB position, while also providing pass coverage, run spying, and unquestionable intangibles. Outside of Hightower, there is very little to get excited about. The run defense last year placed tenth in rushing yards allowed, but this place isn’t quite as good as it seems. For one, the Patriots led the league in minutes played with the lead, so opposing teams rarely ran the ball late in games, reducing the amount of yards the Patriots could give up. Also, New England added Kony Ealy, a pass rusher, in plane of Chris Long, which will only hurt their run defense. Hopefully, Ealy beefs up a mediocre pass rush at least. New England ranked 21st in the NFL in sacks last year, a stat in which Hightower cannot help as much. Ealy may help, but primary pass rusher Rob Ninkovich is starting to fade past his prime. On the surface, the Patriots appear to be an elite defense, but these flaws must be mitigated before the season gets into full swing.
- Will Tom Brady still be, well, Tom Brady?
It’s hard to know for sure, considering Brady’s age. Brady has proven to be an anomaly among NFL quarterbacks, continuing to play at an elite level, if not improving over the last couple years. Traditional aging curves don’t apply to Brady. He releases the ball so quickly that he hardly gets hit, and his training and dieting regiments might be the strictest in the entire NFL. At 40, it seems like he can suit up and lead the league’s best offense for yet another season. Brady has added to his argument as the GOAT to the point where most people agree he is. It’s almost impossible to bet against the GOAT, especially after he has overcome the odds the last few years.
Then again, nobody has ever done this before. Literally no quarterback has placed top 5 in QBR past his age 39 season, so Brady has an immense amount of history working against him. Recall Peyton Manning, entering his age 39 season, was just two years removed from an NFL-record setting season, and was projected as a top 5 quarterback for the season. Unfortunately, his drop off was so rapid that Manning was benched during the year. Brady likely won’t fade that quickly, but he could regress towards the back end of the top ten in QBR this season. Certainly, Brady would still be immensely valuable as a top ten quarterback in the league with immeasurable intangibles. The Patriots could see an offensive decline if he isn’t as sharp as usual. Brady’s inevitable fall-off is a concern that may plague New England fans all offseason until they get their first look at Brady in-season. Brady may be the GOAT, but all GOATs have their limits.