The Patriots started the season on the deflategate revenge tour. They opened the season 10-0 and weren’t really challenged much in those first ten games. Brady was looking unstoppable and was right with Cam Newton as the MVP favorite. It all kind of started to go down hill however when they were banged up by the Denver Broncos in their first loss of the year. The season, along with that game brought a plethora of injuries to the offensive line, but also Rob Gronkowski. From that game they lost at home to the lowly Eagles, by far their worst loss. They pulled off a two game winning streak, before walking back into the playoffs with a 2-4 finish to their season.
I mean, do we have to get into it? Aside from kind of outthinking himself in the AFC Championship is there any coach you would rather have? With his extensive preparation comes one of the best coached team including its coordinators. Matt Patricia has been an ace for Belichick for years and the two just see defense the same way. Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady see things on the same page and McDaniels has become a hot name in head coaching talks for the past few years. It leaves Belichick comfortable to manage the roster and let them call their plays and it is a perfect storm.
With the success of Belichick has been the Tom and Bill show going on year fifteen together. You want to eventually suspect age will catch up to Brady, but at 38 he just keeps trucking. It is because he doesn’t test his arm with deep balls anymore. He is the dink and dunk master and has established that role for about three years. Jimmy Garoppolo is basically just hanging out in the background and is still a complete mystery at this point.
During the Patriots rise in the first ten weeks was seven great weeks out of Dion Lewis. Lewis was targeted 50 times and caught 36 balls to start the season and fit perfectly with Brady and his short passes. He was also able to average 10.8 yards per catch which is great for a running back. It was tough for the Patriots to recover from losing Lewis, and while it may take away the beginning of the season for him to come back from a devastating knee injury, they at least have Jams White on the roster who is kind of a poor man’s Lewis. The team will need to find some type of power running game however, and it is clear it won’t be ignited by Legarrette Blount. He couldn’t beat out guys like Brandon Bolden, Joey Iosefa, and the almost retired Steven Jackson for carries and while none of those four should be options either, they should draft a power back late.
Two weeks after Lewis went down, Brady’s true safety blanket, Julian Edelman went down. It starts to become understandable how they fell off a bit as those two combined for 138 targets in sixteen games combined. Edelman was able to play in the playoffs however, so he is much less of a concern than Lewis. They also have Danny Amendola who is a poor man’s Edelman, and can fill in as a third receiver. As for the second receiver, they have in house Brandon Lafell, Keshawn Martin and Aaron Dobson and may let them compete, but that is pretty lackluster, and while running back may still be more pressing, a big wide out wouldn’t hurt.
Fortunately, Rob Gronkowski takes a lot of snaps as their big outside receiver. He also lines up in the slot, and obviously on the line as a tight end. Gronkowski is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and is hands down the best receiving tight end in the league. He is about as rare as they come, and the Patriots were competitive last year essentially playing with Brady, Gronkowski and the bottom of the roster.
The injuries started when left tackle Nate Solder went down for the year in week four. To get him back may alone change the play of the Pats below average offensive line of 2015. They also had three rookies combined for 30 starts and that certainly wasn’t in the plan preseason. It is good though, for Shaq Mason as he will be the starting left guard moving forward. David Andrews can use his time as a learning lesson in backing up Bryan Stork who only started in six games, and the Pats should have Josh Kline and rookie Tre Jackson compete for a right guard spot next year. Sebastian Vollmer had to move from right to left tackle last year, and will move back to right this year. On paper, there can be a lot to like about this line, but none of them are coming off a year in which they started every game.
On the interior, the Pats may have really found something. Their last two first round picks went to Dom Easley and Malcolm Brown, and late into the year both sort of started to figure things out and they started to become a strength for the team. There is a to like with two young players building together, and with a veteran behind them like Alan Branch and talent on the ends this Pats defense will be scary.
Chandler Jones is the scariest player on the Pats defense after posting 12.5 sacks last year and establishing himself as an elite pass rusher. Jones has one year on his deal and should extended, given that the Patriots are okay with his one off field incident. To add to him is Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard who combined for 14.5 sacks which kind of pushes pass rush, and the line as a whole down the list of needs.
The Pats are set at two of their current linebacker positions, but with news of Jerod Mayo, but after playing 20 games in three seasons it shouldn’t be a shock. They will need to start by resigning Dont’a Hightower, so that between him and Jamie Collins they have two of the positions set. Then they will want to attack the middle. They have Jonathan Freeny and Jon Bostic who filled in for last year, but I think they can do better. They don’t have a first round pick which makes things tough, but Collins was a second round pick and he is the Pats best linebacker,and that may be where the Pats add a guy to line up next to Collins.
Along with middle linebacker there are some spots on the secondary that could be touched up. Bilchick however, has had an awful time of drafting for the secondary and his two best hits right now are Devin McCourty, their safety he drafted to play corner, and Malcolm Butler, an undrafted free agent. Patrick Chung isn’t bad, but at some point will need to be replaced, and Tarell Brown is a free agent. Logan Ryan isn’t bad in the slot, but the Pats best strategy this year was actually putting Butler on the number two guy in man coverage and double teaming the number one, which points to corner being the biggest need in the secondary, and they may even look to free agency to spend and fill this void.
Where do they go?
It is kind of incredible the Patriots could go through all of these injuries and still be right there in the AFC. Their defense was mostly healthy, and is kind of underrated as a whole unit. On offense, the hope is that health is coming, on defense there is some touching up to do, but it should mostly be via the draft.