Will the reigning champs feel the heat in the AFC East
The Patriots have been a part of the NFL’s ruling class for the better part of the last 14 seasons, winning 12 AFC East titles, six conference titles and four Super Bowls. The AFC has long taken aim at Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co., and it appeared the Patriots were on the ropes last season at 2–2 after a 41–14 dismantling in Kansas City. Brady looked old, Rob Gronkowski wasn’t 100 percent, the offensive line was in disarray and the defense was below average.
But New England rose from the dead, won its sixth straight division title and captured its fourth Super Bowl title in thrilling fashion against the Seahawks. The Patriots remain an upper-echelon team, but free agency took a serious toll on the defense. And perennial Pro Bowlers Ndamukong Suh (Dolphins), LeSean McCoy (Bills), Brandon Marshall (Jets) and Darrelle Revis (Jets) all joined division rivals in the offseason. The Pats are AFC East favorites, but the gap is narrowing.
Brady, the three-time Super Bowl MVP, will turn 38 in the preseason. His dedication to fitness has allowed him to maintain his elite level of production and has even improved his one major weakness — mobility. Brady picked up 11 first downs on the ground in 2014, his second-highest total of the last six seasons, and he was more willing to scramble than in previous years.
With Brady's four-game suspension upheld by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the Patriots should at least prepare for the likelihood that Jimmy Garoppolo, the team’s second-round pick in 2014 who threw 27 passes as a rookie, will start the season. Another possible option could be veteran Matt Flynn, who was signed in June.
If Brady is the No. 1 piece to the Patriots offense, Gronkowski stands firmly at 1A. The big tight end from the University of Arizona has had an enormous effect on the team — when healthy. The best illustration of his impact may have been last fall. Gronkowski played less than half the snaps in the first four games of the season as he continued to recover from knee surgery, and he sat out the season finale against Buffalo when the Patriots had wrapped up the No. 1 seed. In those five games, the Patriots averaged 17.8 points and went 2–3. In their other 14 games, including the playoffs, the Patriots averaged 34.8 points and went 13–1.
The threat of Gronkowski makes the receiving corps of Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola much more dangerous than it would otherwise be, as defenses dedicate multiple linebackers and/or safeties to him. The Patriots added another receiving tight end in the offseason, signing Scott Chandler from Buffalo. Tim Wright (released in June) never emerged as the second receiving tight end Belichick likes to feature after the Pats traded Logan Mankins for him, so look for Chandler to get that chance.
The offensive line will have to replace one starter, as Dan Connolly, who started at guard but also saw time at center, has decided to retire. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer and center Bryan Stork are all plus-players at their positions. Guard play is a bit of an issue.
At running back, the Patriots lost Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in free agency. Vereen emerged as a critical piece of the offensive arsenal, outgrowing his third-down role and becoming an every-down contributor. He played three times the snaps of any other running back on the team in the regular season and 50 of the 74 snaps in the Super Bowl, according to ESPNBoston. James White is the early candidate to be the pass-catching, third-down back, while LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden will handle the work between the tackles.
Three key starters departed in free agency, leaving some significant questions as the season approaches. Revis (Jets) and fellow cornerback Brandon Browner (Saints) will need to be replaced, and the defensive philosophy the Patriots employed the last three seasons will likely be altered as well. With Revis last season and Aqib Talib in 2012 and ’13, the Patriots had a lockdown corner who allowed them to play man-to-man on the opponent’s best receiver and let the rest of the secondary handle the remainder of the field. Logan Ryan and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler are not in the class of Revis or Talib, so expect much more zone. The Patriots did invest in safety Devin McCourty with a five-year contract, and fellow safety Patrick Chung was also re-signed, but the cornerback situation bears watching.
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is the third starter who needs to be replaced after he departed for Houston after a highly successful 11-year run in New England that included five Pro Bowls. The 325-pounder bounced back from a ruptured Achilles in 2013 and played 74 percent of the defensive snaps, far and away New England’s leader along the line. First-round draft pick Malcom Brown will be given an opportunity to step right in and compete with veterans Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch. Second-year pro Dominique Easley will be expected to take a larger role at the other defensive tackle spot. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are back at defensive end, two players who have had their moments but can also disappear for stretches.
The Patriots’ starting linebacker corps is loaded after Jerod Mayo decided to restructure his deal and return to the team after the second of his two injury-shortened seasons. With Mayo, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots have one of the finest starting trios in the NFL. Hightower was tremendous after Mayo went down after six games, and the athletic Collins continues to improve all aspects of his game and appears on his way to a Pro Bowl very soon.
The Patriots are in very good shape in all aspects of their special teams. Stephen Gostkowski has been incredibly accurate the past two seasons, connecting on 73-of-78 field goals (including 6-of-7 from beyond 50). Edelman is the NFL’s active leader in punt return average at 12.3 yards per return, and Amendola proved to be a serviceable kickoff return man when he took over halfway through last season (24.9-yard average). The Patriots were 11th in net punting with left-footed Ryan Allen at the controls.
On paper, the Patriots do not appear to be as good as last season’s Super Bowl champions, but no AFC team can safely be called an overwhelming favorite. Brady has shown no signs of slowing down, and his top receiving targets will all be back except for Vereen. Expect the offense, with a healthy Gronkowski, to continue to produce at a high level. The question is whether the defense can be championship-quality. After ranking 25th or worse in total defense every year from 2010-13, the Patriots improved to 13th last season with the addition of Revis. Will they regress without him, or will a strong linebacking corps continue the improvement? It will be Belichick’s challenge to try to win without a shutdown corner. The goal for the Patriots should be to secure a first-round bye for the sixth straight year and be in the mix for a return trip to the Super Bowl.