The Patriots looked utterly mortal at times last season before closing strong, as they tend to do under coach Bill Belichick, en route to a Super Bowl win, the franchise’s sixth.
However, for as formidable as this team is, there are some transitional factors entering the 2019 campaign that could knock the Pats down a peg. For one, the coaching staff is undergoing a major overhaul. Also, Rob Gronkowski’s retirement leaves a huge void at tight end. And, finally, of course, there is the worry that Father Time will finally catch up to quarterback Tom Brady, who will be 42 years old when the season begins.
That said, this is an organization that consistently finds a way to win in an age when dynasties should not be a regular occurrence.
Someday, this will all come to an end. The rest of the league is hoping that process at least starts this year.
It all begins with Brady, still, and one has to wonder just exactly when his decline will come. Right now, even though his play in 2018 wasn’t necessarily his best (his touchdown-to-interception ratio was his worst since 2013), he is still lethal in the clutch and without peer when it comes to reading defenses.
However, there will be some question marks concerning his weapons. Although slot receiver extraordinaire and reigning Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman still produces at a high level, he is 33 years old, and the talent level around him at the position is thin. That’s why the Patriots targeted Arizona State wideout N’Keal Harry, a yards-after-the-catch monster and red zone weapon, with their first pick in the draft.
Even with Harry, the Patriots will need more out of players like Phillip Dorsett, because they cannot necessarily expect much from veteran Demaryius Thomas, who is coming back from a torn Achilles sustained in late December.
For as promising as Harry is, though, the passing game will no doubt suffer from Gronkowski’s retirement. The tight end position was not addressed early in the draft and although Benjamin Watson decided to forgo retirement to rejoin the Patriots, the 2004 first-round pick will miss the first four games for a violation of the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.
The bottom line: This offense will have to be more creative in the passing game to account for the personnel shift.
The Patriots showed last season that they could transition into a team with a dangerous rushing attack. Heading into his second season, Sony Michel has the potential to be a true lead dog at the position, and the Pats are one of the few teams that still value the fullback position, using James Develin there as a battering ram in the I-formation. Of course, fellow running back James White is about as good a security blanket as there is for Brady as a check-down and screen option. The arrival of Alabama’s Damien Harris could bolster the depth, although most of the action should still center around Michel and White. Michel underwent a knee scope earlier in the offseason and although he is expected to be ready to go for training camp, this could present an opportunity for Harris to impress early.
The offensive line remains a strength, but questions persist about the left tackle position after the departure of Trent Brown in free agency. Although 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn is expected to step in there, he is coming off a torn Achilles. The team added a nice depth piece in the draft in West Virginia’s Yodny Cajuste. The interior of the line, with guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason and center David Andrews, remains stout. Andrews is one of the most consistent players on the team, and Mason is about as punishing a run blocker as you’ll find. Thuney’s growth has been significant, and his ability to anchor against bull rushers has improved immensely.
Overall, you may see this offense continue to lean on Michel more to take some of the pressure off Brady. The short-to-intermediate passing game will still be fine, but the Patriots obviously need to find ways to get explosive plays through the air.
The loss of defensive end Trey Flowers to the Detroit Lions was the big blow here. Not that it was unexpected, as it was no secret that Flowers would get a big payday in free agency, but he was the team’s top pass rusher and a reliable locker room presence. His absence will be significant.
Where the pass rush will come from now is the main question. The Pats tend to start slowly in that respect and find their groove after the midway point, but even Flowers was not prolific by league standards. The Pats should look to be multiple in their strategies to attack the quarterback. Right now, the most logical edge threat would be Michael Bennett, who comes over with good pedigree from the Philadelphia Eagles. Bennett had nine sacks in 2018. Could rookie Chase Winovich step in and make a mark there? Maybe, but Bennett is likely going to be the first man up.
The interior line is in a much better spot. Even with the loss of Malcom Brown to the New Orleans Saints in free agency, the Patriots might have actually upgraded there with the signing of Mike Pennel from the Jets. Pennel is a pocket pusher with great play strength and should pair well with Lawrence Guy, who has done an exceptional job holding up in his time with the Pats.
The linebacking corps took some heat last season, but like the entire squad, played its best when it mattered most, including a dominant effort against the Rams. Kyle Van Noy, a plus blitzer, is probably the best player in that group, with improved skills in coverage. Dont’a Hightower has had issues staying healthy, but his edge presence has become one of the keys to the defense. If Ja’Whaun Bentley can return to the form he began to flash in his rookie season before an injury cut it short, expect the unit to be even better.
The secondary, even with a bit of an aging safety corps, is the strength of this side of the ball. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore is a true No. 1 cover guy, and J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty are solid on the other side. One has to think the Pats have specific plans to place 6'3" rookie Joejuan Williams on bigger receivers and tight ends. With Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, and Patrick Chung manning the safety spots, the Pats can still throw out all three on certain downs and give opposing quarterbacks complex looks.
With the loss of defensive play-caller Brian Flores to the Miami Dolphins, where he took the head coaching position, it remains to be seen what this defense will look like. Will the Pats, as they did under Flores, be more aggressive by bringing extra men to rush the passer? It stands to reason that they should, especially with the loss of Flowers.
With the return of placekicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Ryan Allen, the kicking game remains dependable. Keep an eye on a battle for Allen’s job in camp, though, after the Pats drafted Jake Bailey. The coverage units are still some of the best in football, with perennial All-Pro Matthew Slater and young speedsters such as Jonathan Jones and Keion Crossen emerging as devastating gunners. The return game is a little iffy, as Edelman is the best option on punts, but the Pats might want to limit him there a bit, and there aren’t many obvious choices on kickoff returns.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that this team could take a small step back. But the Patriots still have Belichick as their coach and Brady as their quarterback. For as long as this pairing has been together, the level of consistency has lapped the field.
This organization is still the model for ultra success in the sport, and a few defections in the personnel and coaching departments don’t feel like enough to change that just yet. Like they did last year, the Patriots are likely to figure out whatever issues plague them early this season and rectify them by the time January rolls around.