How much do Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have left?
The drama from Super Bowl 52 did not end once the confetti fell on the Philadelphia Eagles after a thrilling 41-33 win over the Patriots.
Whether it was the public disagreements over benching cornerback Malcolm Butler, the flurry of defections to other teams either by trade or free agency, or the very public discord between some of the central pieces of the Patriots dynasty, the soap opera hijinks continue to provide a dichotomy with their consistency between the lines.
At the end of the day, the principle figures remain in place, and no team is better at blocking out distractions than this one. Tom Brady is still the quarterback and Bill Belichick is still the head coach. Until further notice, that means the Patriots will still be in the mix to reach the Super Bowl once again.
Brady is still the leader of an offense that has the versatility and firepower to be one of the top units in the league. The 41-year-old QB will benefit from the return of wide receiver Julian Edelman, whose slipperiness in the slot and after-the-catch ability bring an element that no one else on the roster can replicate. For as dynamic as tight end Rob Gronkowski is, it’s Edelman who is the top option in the passing game, and his return from an ACL injury will be a major boost. That return could be delayed, however, as Edelman has been suspended the first four games of the season for a violation of the league's policy on the use of PEDs.
Gronkowski’s future was up in the air after the Super Bowl, but he has publicly stated he will return, so Brady has his most dangerous red zone weapon. And even with the loss of Brandin Cooks, whom the Pats traded to the Rams, Brady will have plenty of speed on the outside with weapons like Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett. Look for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to get creative with Patterson by using him on jet sweeps and quick screens.
The run game will still look mostly the same, even with Dion Lewis off to the Tennessee Titans. Rookie Sony Michel has the same blend of skills but is bigger and more durable. The beginning of the season may be a little more of an adjustment as he picks up the blocking schemes, but his downfield style with an ability to cut forcefully in the open field and accelerate can be a threat on all three downs, although James White will still likely be the man on third down for now.
The offensive line lost its longtime left tackle when Nate Solder took a deal with the Giants in free agency, and the Patriots were aggressive both drafting potential replacements and acquiring them through free agency. Overall, the strength of this unit is at center and right guard with David Andrews and Shaq Mason, respectively, although first-round pick Isaiah Wynn should step in somewhere and provide immediate help. Whether that’s at guard or tackle is still up in the air.
Although the Patriots found themselves limiting opponents to low point totals for most of last season, it turned into a mirage in the Super Bowl, as the Eagles moved the ball up and down the field at will. The problems went deeper than just the curious and controversial benching of Butler, as the pass rush was nonexistent, the linebackers consistently missed assignments and the secondary -- like the whole unit -- covered and tackled poorly.
The central culprit in all these struggles, aside from the uncharacteristic mental mistakes at the second level, has to do with an overall lack of speed and athleticism. More than anything, when comparing the Patriots to some of the top defenses in the league, the others simply look a step faster and more explosive.
The Patriots will still likely be stout at the point of attack, and the return of Dont’a Hightower from injury will add some force to the edge. There’s a possibility that the back seven, or, as the case may be, eight, could feature a little more speed. Seventh-round pick Keion Crossen might be the fastest cornerback on the team, and the acquisition of Devin McCourty’s twin brother, Jason, offers a versatile number of corner options to add some competition to pair with Stephon Gilmore, who is the best pure man cover guy.
The safeties are a solid and versatile group, but the Patriots use them in such a wide variety of ways that there’s not really a set formula as to who will be on the field and who won’t. They sometimes employ four-safety sets, but look for rookie Duke Dawson to play in the box to provide run support or just be a rover-type who roams around and provides help with crossing routes. That has been Patrick Chung’s role, and he might still hold onto that starting job; he is one of the best tacklers on the team in space. However, the Patriots invested a second-round pick on Dawson and may envision him as the eventual replacement.
Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon still provide one of the steadiest deep safety tandems in the league, so the defense should be able to limit the big plays, provided the two stay healthy and the unit’s coverage ability improves. However, limiting big plays should remain a big point of emphasis, because teams that spread the field on the Patriots had a tremendous amount of success.
The trio of Stephen Gostkowski at kicker, Ryan Allen at punter and holder, and Joe Cardona at long snapper should be secure through camp. When Jonathan Jones suffered a knee injury, the Patriots lost one of their top gunners on the punt coverage unit. So a healthy Matthew Slater at the other side is also important, although Crossen could be a monster in that role both with his speed and open-field tackling ability.
Players such as Brandon King, Nate Ebner (coming off an injury), Brandon Bolden and other core special teamers provide a solid base. If they make the team, rookie linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam could also provide help there.
This offseason seemed to have the most drama, off-the-field madness and media -- social, print, television, blog, whatever -- frenzy of any before it. Or was if the Deflategate one? Or the Spygate one? Or the “Patriots are going to go 19-0” one? Really, the amount of off-the-field friction -- perceived, real, all of the above -- is basically this organization’s normal by now. So for as much panic as resides in New England over the Super Bowl loss and the breakdown in chemistry, the Patriots still suffered just a one-score loss to the Eagles because the defense simply couldn’t make a stop.
If any of the deficiencies on that side of the ball can be cleaned up, this should again be one of the best teams in the AFC and a Super Bowl contender. The division appears to have an emerging threat in Buffalo, which made the playoffs last year, but so did the Dolphins the prior year before fizzling out. There isn’t a real challenger until someone else wins the division, and that hasn’t happened in nearly a decade.
So we should see another strong season from the Patriots, provided Brady stays healthy. Between the lines, Belichick and his staff still have enough talent on hand to continue their dynasty and earn the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl championship.
Most of the contenders seem to be emanating from the South, as the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans all have good young cores with the type of talent to make things interesting. The Steelers, Chiefs and Chargers should also be threats, and if Baltimore can solve its issues on offense, they’re in that mix, too.
So, of course, the Patriots aren’t a slam dunk to make it back to the AFC Championship Game, but do you really want to put your money down that they won’t? Didn’t think so.