For a Patriots team that had just completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, complacency did not set in. Not even a little bit.
If anything, the Pats and coach Bill Belichick ratcheted up the offseason intensity with a flurry of moves — both in trades and free agency — that only heightened their status as the favorites to win their third Super Bowl in four years. As evidenced by a draft that saw the Pats select only four players, most of whom will likely only be depth pieces at first, the Pats are built to win now and win big.
The question then becomes: What exactly can derail this runaway train? Are conference foes such as the Raiders, Texans, Steelers or Chiefs ready to take the next step? Can the Broncos recover from a disappointing 2016?
One thing is for certain: The Patriots set the pace. A significant push will be necessary to knock them off their perch and keep them from making it to Minnesota for Super Bowl LII.
The stirring MVP performance that Tom Brady gave in the Super Bowl win over the Falcons tells you everything you need to know about his lasting ability to play the position even as he begins the 2017 season at 40 years old. He won’t go on forever, but that’s why the team retained backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo despite reportedly receiving repeated overtures from the Browns to trade him away. In so doing, the Patriots will be starting an all-time great at the most important position on the field while having an insurance policy who they believe can carry them to the promised land if Brady gets hurt.
On top of that, the Pats significantly upgraded Brady’s wide receiving corps when they dealt the No. 32 pick in the draft for ex-Saint Brandin Cooks. With the speedy Cooks in the fold, the Pats add the valuable element of a deep threat to an already potent unit. Cooks can also line up in the slot and be effective in traffic, something he will do more in New England than he did in New Orleans.
Look for last year’s breakout rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell to have an increased role. When factoring in the rest of the group — Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola — you aren’t going to see many double-teams, and safety help over the top will be difficult to spread around. This will create the type of matchups Brady can feast on.
There is some uncertainty around the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski will be coming off back surgery, and the increasingly injury-prone star is becoming less and less reliable in terms of his availability. The Pats acquired Dwayne Allen to fill the void left by Martellus Bennett, who left for the Packers in free agency, but Allen has his own injury history.
The questions surrounding the running back position are of a different nature. The team swiped restricted free agent Mike Gillislee from the Buffalo Bills, and he could be the lead back in a deep rotation. But Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis also can be effective in multiple facets, and third-down back James White seems like he will hold down that spot after receiving a contract extension in April. Rather than settle on a consistent rotation, the Patriots could use the backs based on game-plan need and leave opponents guessing as to which one they’ll have to worry about from week to week. That kind of personnel flexibility is something Belichick likes.
The line is relatively stable. Tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon both performed at a high level last season. Although the interior line is still young, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason have shown steady improvement. Left guard Joe Thuney should do the same.
Overall, this is an offense that — barring injury — should eclipse last year’s production.
As opposed to last year, the Patriots will be facing a much tougher group of quarterbacks on the schedule now that the AFC West and NFC South rotate onto the slate. The team responded by doubling down on top players in the secondary and at edge rusher. Time will tell if the response is effective, but at this stage it appears Belichick made the right moves again.
Although Malcolm Butler was the team’s No. 1 corner for the past two seasons, the Pats appears to have co-No. 1s after they grabbed Stephon Gilmore and paid him $13 million per year. Butler is likely to leave in free agency after the 2017 season, but for at least the time being, the Pats have an ideal pairing. With Eric Rowe as a taller option who is more suited to play on the outside, look for Butler to get snaps against slot receivers and become an occasional blitzer off the edge as well.
The safety unit is stable with Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon all entrenched as a communicative and talented group. Overall, if teams beat the Pats through the air, they will have earned it.
The front seven has a few more question marks, starting with the linebackers. The Pats re-signed Dont’a Hightower, but he has dealt with injury woes that could worsen down the line. Veteran David Harris was signed as a free agent after he was cut by the rival Jets, but there really isn’t a great coverage linebacker on the team, which often leaves the Patriots vulnerable to intermediate passing routes.
Still, the Pats will be stout against the run. The defensive line replenished its stock and has both depth and versatility. Trey Flowers is an emerging star at defensive end, and the addition of Kony Ealy via trade with the Panthers injects another youthful pass rusher into the mix. The team also drafted two defensive ends, which means the Pats are looking for more competition at that spot heading into training camp.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch had his best season as a Patriot in 2016 and will again be counted on to hold up at the point of attack. Entering his third year, fellow tackle Malcom Brown has been steady if unspectacular. The Pats hope he can become even more disruptive as his career unfolds. The team added former Raven Lawrence Guy into the mix, and his ability to play both tackle and end adds value.
The defense topped the league last season in points allowed, but against a weaker schedule. Look for it to be better this year, but the improved opponents may hurt the numbers by comparison. Either way, the Pats have a strong base from which to work.
By his standards, placekicker Stephen Gostkowski had a down year in 2016, including a missed extra point in the Super Bowl. His performance is worth monitoring. Ideally, second-year cornerback Cyrus Jones would grab hold of the spots on the return units, but his persistent fumbling problems have prevented him from doing that. Belichick will likely give him another shot at it, but the coach’s patience has worn thin. Jones was a healthy scratch by the end of the season.
The Patriots are among the Super Bowl favorites nearly every year, but this season it appears they are more likely than usual to add another Lombardi Trophy to the collection. There is veteran leadership, young talent and the elite coaching that most teams aspire to.
That said, the roadblocks along the way can’t be easily dismissed. As mentioned, the schedule is tougher, and the Dolphins appear to be on the precipice of becoming a worthy divisional foil. The Texans are a quarterback away from being a legitimate contender, and if they found him in Deshaun Watson, look out. The Raiders still have one of the best young rosters in the league, as do the Chiefs, and the Broncos, like the Texans, are a quarterback away from getting right back to where they want to be. Of course, if the Steelers can stay healthy, they are also a true threat.
But those teams all have major “ifs” to combat. As of now, we know exactly what the Patriots are: The favorites to win Super Bowl LII — no ifs, ands or buts about it.