The drama of last season ended in bitter disappointment for the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in Denver, a loss that hit the team as hard as any in recent years. Now, as the Patriots prepare to take the next step and chase the organization’s fifth Super Bowl title, controversy again surrounds the team with Tom Brady staring down a four-game suspension from the league due to his role in Deflategate.
There is always the chance that Brady has his suspension overturned, but the Pats are looking at beginning their season against the Arizona Cardinals on the road with third-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback.
Bill Belichick and Co. made some interesting offseason moves — both in bringing players in and letting others go — but the core of the team remains intact. Despite its flaws and Brady’s early absence, this should again be a Super Bowl contender.
Garoppolo’s been primed for this opportunity. Before the Deflategate penalties were overturned last year, Garoppolo was preparing to begin the 2015 season as the starter. The former second-round pick from Eastern Illinois has made solid strides each year he’s been in the league and is ready for his turn.
When Brady does come back, don’t expect him to need too much time to return to form. The offense around him should be even more talented than it was last season, and Brady hasn’t shown any signs of aging.
Overall, look for the offense to revolve heavily around the play of its tight ends. With a healthy Rob Gronkowski and the addition of Martellus Bennett, the Pats will feature plenty of two-tight end sets to challenge teams over the middle and in the red zone.
As usual, Julian Edelman will be the primary weapon at wide receiver. He is especially adept at going over the middle on crossing routes, but it will be important for the Pats to make sure the big hits to Edelman’s head remain limited. When he is out of the lineup, the offense takes a clear step back. He missed seven games last season with a foot injury. He underwent surgery in November, but was able to return for the playoffs. He had a second procedure done in the offseason but is expected to be ready for the start of training camp.
The rest of the wide receiver corps should be solid, as Danny Amendola has proven his worth since the end of the 2014 season. He caught 65 passes a year ago, the most since he had 85 in his second season in the league with the Rams. The Pats hope new addition Chris Hogan can complement the rest of the group as an outside weapon. Still, the roster lacks a true deep threat.
Keep a close eye on how the running game develops. When Dion Lewis, the team’s latest revelation at tailback, went down with a knee injury last season the running game suffered dramatically. Lewis’ ability to catch the ball out of the backfield added another dimension to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ arsenal. A healthy Lewis is critical to the Pats gaining the type of balance they enjoyed early last season.
However, the main point of concern remains the offensive line, as was so clearly shown in the loss to the Broncos in January. If left tackle Nate Solder can remain healthy, the team will be in better shape. The interior line is still young, even with the addition of guard Jonathan Cooper in a trade with Arizona.
This side of the ball made important strides in 2015, and the trend will need to continue for the Pats to take the next step.
One of the main strengths of the team has become its secondary. The emergence of Malcolm Butler as a true No. 1 corner has given defensive coordinator Matt Patricia the ability to play aggressive press man coverage, at which Butler thrives. With Logan Ryan also developing as a solid contributor on the other side, the Pats can man up against top receiver duos and bring pressure from the front seven.
Behind those two is a versatile group of safeties. Devin McCourty remains one of the steadiest center fielders in the game, and Patrick Chung continues to be underrated. Chung’s versatility — he can drop down in the box almost like an extra linebacker, fall back into coverage or lock up in man — is critical to the defense’s success.
The Pats will also boast one of the best linebacker tandems in football. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins both bring different skills to the table, but together they can blitz, stop the run and provide pass coverage in a way that every offense has to account for on each play.
Depth at linebacker has been spotty at times, and with Collins and Hightower both missing time last year, the Pats needed to address that in the offseason. They believe they did so with the acquisition of free agent Shea McClellin, but look for Jonathan Freeny to hold on to his spot as the third linebacker when the team is in a base 4-3 set.
The defensive line is the area in which the Pats saw the most upheaval over the offseason. Defensive end Chandler Jones, the team’s leader in sacks last season, was traded to the Cardinals for Cooper, and gone also are defensive tackles Akiem Hicks and Dominique Easley. Jones is the biggest loss, but former Rams end Chris Long could slide into his spot. Expect Jabaal Sheard to take on the mantle of the team’s top pass rusher.
Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point miss against the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game was a massive disappointment, but overall he remains one of the best kickers in the game. Punter Ryan Allen also does his job well. He consistently gets good hang time on his kicks and places them accurately.
Where the situation gets a little cloudier is on returns. On punts, the Pats have had success with Edelman, but with the drafting of Alabama’s Cyrus Jones in the second round, they may have found a successor. Amendola might be the most logical choice to return either punts or kicks, but again, the addition of Jones could shake up the depth chart there.
Several things have to break the Patriots’ way if they want to get back to the Super Bowl and win it for the second time in three years. Garoppolo must successfully navigate the team through that Brady-less stretch, which features a Week 1 trip to Arizona followed by home games against Miami, Houston and Buffalo. Bennett must become a reliable option in the passing game to complement Gronkowski. Edelman and Lewis must stay on the field to give Brady the type of weapons he needs to succeed. Solder must remain healthy, and the offensive line in general needs to give a better performance than it did a year ago. Hightower and Collins can’t miss as much time as they did in 2015. Finally, Sheard and Co. must overcome the loss of Jones to make sure the pass rush remains a strength.
Overall, the Patriots possess a Super Bowl roster that only needs to come together to reach its goals. Unless injuries get in the way, the Pats will be the favorites to represent the AFC in Houston.