New England Patriots 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After more than 500 days and seemingly endless headlines and litigation, deflategate officially came to an end this off-season. Brady’s initial suspension was struck down in federal court last off-season, allowing him to play the entire 2015 season, but the NFL won in appeals court this off-season and, after Brady was denied the opportunity to have the case heard by a larger panel of judges, Brady’s and his legal team dropped the case and accepted a 4 game suspension to start the 2016 season.

He could have taken the case to the Supreme Court and would likely have been granted at least a stay by the country’s highest court, but fears that he could miss playoff games if the court made an unfavorable decision late in the season caused Brady to abandon the case. The NFL players association is expected to appeal to the Supreme Court on Brady’s behalf, but the outcome of that case will purely be for precedent’s sake. While debates will continue about whether or not the suspension was warranted and whether or not the most recent collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association gives the commissioner too much power to hand down suspensions arbitrarily, this particular case is over. Brady will miss the first 4 games of the season and 3rd year player Jimmy Garoppolo will start.

How Garoppolo will perform in those 4 games is still very much a mystery though. All the reports this off-season have been favorable, but those can often be exaggerated and not translate to regular season success. Because Brady has made all 37 starts for the Patriots in Garoppolo’s 2 years in the league, Garoppolo has been limited to 31 pass attempts in mop-up duty thus far in his career, which doesn’t give us a lot of insight as to how he’ll play in his first 4 starts of the season. He figures to be an obvious downgrade from Brady, but just how much of a downgrade remains to be seen.

What also remains to be seen is how Brady’s suspension will throw off his rhythm and the rhythm of this offense in general. That’ll be a concern when he returns. The other major concern when he returns his age, as he’ll turn 39 before the season starts. With rival Peyton Manning retiring this off-season, Brady is now the league’s oldest starter, excluding kickers and punters. Brady was still Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked quarterback last season, the 6th time in his last 8 healthy seasons (excluding 2008) he’s finished in the top-4 at his position, but it’s fair to question how long he can keep this up.

We’ve seen quarterbacks like Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Carson Palmer all play at high levels in their late 30s in recent years, but both Favre and Manning showed how quickly you can lose it in the NFL, while Brees and Palmer are both still younger than Brady. Brady is the same age as Manning was last season when he turned from a Pro Bowler to a scrub overnight. Brady’s relative lack of injury history and his commitment to physical fitness give him a better chance than most to play at a high level in his late 30s and early 40s, but Father Time is still undefeated.

Given his age, it’s concerning that Brady’s production fell off significantly late last season. The Patriots won their first 10 games of last season in a row, as Brady’s completed 66.3% of his passes for an average of 8.12 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions over that stretch, but won just 2 of their final 6 regular season games and ended up losing the #1 seed to the Broncos and losing the AFC Championship in Denver by 2. In the final 6 games of the regular season, Brady completed just 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.74 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. Even if Brady’s abilities don’t fall off a cliff like Manning’s did last season, it’s fair to expect him to decline somewhat.

Garoppolo, who has just one season left on his rookie deal after this season, might be auditioning to be a starting quarterback somewhere else this season, and figures to be available through trade next off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, if Brady is still playing at a high level, but the Patriots may have drafted their future at quarterback in this past draft, taking North Carolina State’s Jacoby Brissett in the 3rd round. Brissett is raw and was not expected to be drafted that high, but the team really likes him and he should have plenty of time to get used to the NFL sitting behind Brady for likely at least a couple years. It’s a good group of quarterbacks in a league where you can never have enough depth at the position, but Brady’s suspension and age are both obvious concerns.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Brady definitely doesn’t deserve all the blame for this offense sputtering down the stretch though, as the Patriots’ supporting cast around him fell apart because of injuries. Top wide receiver Julian Edelman was the biggest injury, as he broke his foot early in the Patriots’ 9th game of the season and missed the rest of the regular season. He was on a career best 114/1278/14 pace through 8 games and the Patriots moved the chains at a 80.56% rate in their first 8 games (8-0), as opposed to a 66.53% rate in their final 8 games (4-4).

In addition to Edelman’s injury, running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, wide receiver Danny Amendola, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler, guard Josh Kline, and offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer missed a combined 33 games over the Patriots’ final 8 regular season games, so Edelman’s injury wasn’t the only factor involved and Brady isn’t blameless either, but, any way you look at it, the Patriots’ offense should benefit from better health this season, after having the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury on offense last season.

Edelman returned for the playoffs last season and appeared to be at least close to 100%, a big boost for this offense, even though they came up just short on the road against a great Denver defense in the AFC Championship. He had another cleanup procedure this off-season and the Patriots are being very careful with him and holding him out of off-season work, but there’s no reason to believe he’ll miss the start of the season. However, his injury history (25 missed games in 7 years in the league) and age (going into his age 30 season) are worth mentioning and he’s unlikely to be as good in 2016 as he was to start 2015.

Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked wide receiver in 2015, Edelman was a solid starting receiver in both 2013 and 2014, but never finished higher than 34th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Much of his production over the past 3 seasons has been the result of playing with Tom Brady, with whom he has impeccable timing, so it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with Garoppolo in the lineup. On average, going the 4th round of fantasy drafts right now, Edelman seems to be getting overdrafted.

One player who figures to continue to put up numbers regardless of who is under center is tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk seems to have shaken off early season injury issues that threatened to derail a potentially Hall of Fame career, missing just 1 game with injury over the past 2 seasons, after 7 surgeries on his knee, arm, and back in a 14 month span from November 2012 to January 2014 and 14 games missed due to injury from 2012-2013. A 2010 2nd round pick, Gronkowski has been a top-3 tight end overall on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons, despite all of the injuries, and finished last season as their top ranked tight end by a wide margin.

All the time he missed with injury proved his worth, as Brady has completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions over the past 5 seasons when Gronk’s been healthy, including playoffs, but when Gronk doesn’t play, over that stretch of time, Brady completes just 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end.

Over those 5 seasons, he’s caught 338 passes for 5009 yards and 55 touchdowns in 65 games. As good as Brady as, Gronkowski has been making him look better for years and he can do the same for Garoppolo. A terrific run blocker in addition to a matchup nightmare in the passing game, Gronkowski might be more valuable to the Patriots’ offense than any other non-quarterback in the league is to their offense. Only going into his age 27 season still, Gronkowski should be a dominant player for at least another 2-3 years, if he can continue to stay healthy.

After Edelman and Gronkowski, things are up in the air in the passing game, in terms of who the targets will go to. After having to rely on the fringe roster types like Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper in key situations down the stretch last year, the Patriots put an emphasis on adding wide receiver depth this off-season, signing veterans Chris Hogan and Nate Washington and using a 4th round draft pick on Georgia’s Michael Mitchell. Washington ended up getting cut, ahead of his age 33 season, but both Hogan and Mitchell are competing for roles this season.

The Patriots also upgraded #2 tight end Scott Chandler by trading for ex-Bear Martellus Bennett this off-season and figure to use more two-tight end sets as a result. Bennett has finished in the top-21 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons, including 6th in 2012 and 6th in 2014, but was available this off-season for the price of a swap of late round picks and a reasonable 5.185 million dollar salary because of issues with the coaching staff in Chicago and an injury plagued 2015 season (5 games missed). An above average run blocker in all 8 years of his career at 6-6 275, Bennett is not Aaron Hernandez and will line up inline as a true tight end, but he’s also graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 4 seasons. Only going into his age 29 season, Bennett figures to have a bounce back year in the final year of his contract. He and Gronkowski are easily the best tight end duo in the NFL.

Brandon LaFell actually led the team in snaps played by a wide receiver with 659 last season, but he was one of the worst wide receivers in the league, finishing 118th out of 121 eligible on Pro Football Focus. The Patriots released him this off-season, addition by subtraction. Danny Amendola finished 2nd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver with 576 last season, but he’s coming off of off-season knee and ankle surgery and could miss the start of the season. Injury problems are nothing new for him, as he’s missed 26 games in the last 5 seasons with injury, though just 2 in the last 2 seasons.

Amendola hasn’t been worth the 28.5 million over 5 years he was given by the Patriots in free agency four off-seasons ago and has had to take significant pay cuts in each of the last two off-seasons to stay on the roster. His 1.6 million dollar salary for 2016 is guaranteed and very reasonable for him, but he’s no lock to remain as a starter when he returns from injury, in his age 31 season in 2016, even after finishing last season 29th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2015, the 2nd time in 3 seasons in New England in which he’s graded out above average.

Hogan is his primary competition, after the Patriots signed the ex-Bill to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal as a restricted free agent this off-season. The Bills had the option to match the deal and, even with a thin receiving corps, declined to do so, normally not a good sign. At first glance, it seems like an overpay for a player who has just 87 catches in 3 years in the league and has graded out significantly below average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 years, the only 2 years of his career in which he’s seen significant action.

Perhaps the Patriots see something in him that the rest of the league doesn’t (that certainly wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened), but he’s probably best off as a 4th wide receiver, maybe a 3rd receiver at best. Fourth round rookie Michael Mitchell is also in the mix, though it’s hard to trust rookie receivers, especially ones that weren’t highly drafted. Gronkowski and Edelman figure to dominate targets, with possibly Martellus Bennett operating as the 3rd option in the passing game. Danny Amendola also figures to see a good amount of playing time and targets. Whoever is under center will have plenty of good options.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Though the Patriots figure to be healthier this season by default, they still have injury issues going into the season. Passing down running back Dion Lewis is expected to miss at least the first 6 games of the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, after having cleanup surgery on his knee in August, following an ACL tear suffered during the Patriots’ 7th game of the season last season. A dynamic playmaker through the first 7 games of last season for the Patriots, he was missed last season and will continue to be missed this season.

A 2011 5th round pick with 39 career touches coming into the 2015 season, who hadn’t played a regular season snap in 2 seasons thanks largely to injuries, Lewis came out of nowhere to carve out a role as a speed/pass catching back in New England’s thin backfield and thrived early on in the season in New England’s offense. Through 6 games, Lewis was on pace for 120 carries, 587 rushing yards, 85 catches, 931 receiving yards, and 11 total touchdowns as a slipperier, more explosive version of ex-Patriot Shane Vereen. The Patriots took notice early and locked him up on a still shrewd 2-year, 3.1 million dollar extension a few games into the regular season.

However, he’s a one-year wonder (if you can even call him that) with just 124 career touches and a very tough injury history, playing just 31 games in 5 years in the league and suffering multiple significant lower leg injuries, including this past ACL tear. Expectations should be tempered for him even when he returns from injury, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and fits this offense like a glove. Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked running back before going down last season, he’s got a good chance to put up solid numbers upon his return if he can stay healthy.

LeGarrette Blount also went down for the year with injury last season, albeit later in the year in week 14. Between injury and suspension, Blount only played 12 games last season, but he played well when on the field, rushing for 703 yards and 6 touchdowns on 165 carries, an average of 4.26 YPC. Not much of a pass catcher with 39 catches in 84 career games, Blount is purely a two-down back, but he has a career 4.56 YPC average and has graded out above average as a runner on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons in the league.

It’s still a little surprising the Patriots didn’t add another back as insurance this off-season. Down the stretch last season, they completely abandoned their running game for long stretches with Blount and Lewis out. The Patriots’ offense was far too one-dimensional to win on the road against a stacked Denver defense in the AFC Championship game last year. James White is the 3rd running back and he did his best Lewis impression last season, catching 39 passes for 436 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 9 games including the post-season last season, finishing 3rd among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pass catching grade.

White will be the passing down back to open the season, serving as a nice complement to Blount, but couldn’t carry the load if Blount were to go down. He had just 56 rushing yards on 22 carries last season and has rushed for just 94 yards on 31 carries in 2 years in the league since the Patriots drafted him in the 4th round in the 2014 NFL Draft. They’re thin on ball carriers after Blount and figure to use their short passing game as a run game substitute a lot next season, even though doing so produced mixed results last season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Another player coming off of a significant injury is left tackle Nate Solder. Before missing the rest of the season with a torn pectoral, Solder didn’t play that well in 4 games last season and actually hasn’t graded out above average since 2013, but has still graded out above average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league and is only going into his age 28 season. Even though he finished below average in 2014, his last healthy season, he wasn’t bad that season and he has bounce back potential in 2016 if he’s healthy. He’s missed just 1 other game with injury in his career and will be a welcome re-addition, as the Patriots struggled mightily at the position without him last season.

The Patriots used a 3rd round pick on Joe Thuney, who played well on the blindside at NC State last season, earning a 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus, and he could provide depth at the left tackle position that they didn’t have last season. However, he’s expected to start his career at guard, another position he played in college, and likely will be the week 1 starter on the left side. That leaves Josh Kline to compete with off-season acquisition Jonathan Cooper on the right side.

Josh Kline is probably the heavy favorite, after grading out above average as a first-time starter in 2015. The 2013 undrafted free agent has just 18 career starts, but has graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league and has generally always played well when given the opportunity. Cooper, meanwhile, was acquired as a throw-in in the Chandler Jones trade (more on that later). Injuries and ineffectiveness have limited the 2013 7th overall pick to 11 starts in 28 games in 3 years in the league and is already dealing with a foot injury early in training camp. Cooper was okay in limited action last season (638 snaps) and is not a bad dart throw in a throw-in in a trade, but I don’t expect him to open the season as the starter.

At center, Bryan Stork has made 17 starts over the past 2 seasons and played decent, but was traded to Washington this off-season for a conditional late round pick, failed a physical, and was ultimately sent back to the Patriots and released. Instead, David Andrews, a 2015 undrafted free agent, will be the starter. He wasn’t bad either last season, actually finishing one spot higher than Stork on Pro Football Focus (20th vs. 21st), but it’s tough to trust a player who went undrafted a year ago. Stork would have been the better option if healthy, but it doesn’t sound like he was.

The Patriots also lost right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to injury, as he’s expected to miss the entire season with a hip injury. Injuries have always been an issue for him, as he’s only once made all 16 starts in 7 years in the league and has missed a combined 24 games over that stretch. However, he was always a solid player when healthy and, even going into his age 32 season, he’ll be missed. He’s graded out above average in all 7 seasons of his career, though he fell to a career worst 42nd in 2015.

Marcus Cannon and/or LaAdrian Waddle will see action in his absence. Cannon struggled mightily last season, finishing 58th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles, and has graded out below average in each of the past 3 seasons, making 18 starts over that time period. Waddle, meanwhile, was a waiver claim late last season after being cut by the Lions. The Patriots re-signed for 2.35 million over 2 years this off-season, suggesting they like him more than Detroit did.

Waddle was awful in 2015 with the Lions, finishing dead last among 77 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 6 starts, but made 18 starts in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2013-2014 and graded out above average in both of them. The 2013 undrafted free agent’s career seems to have been derailed a little bit by a torn ACL he suffered late in the 2014 season, but he has bounce back potential another year removed from the injury. Cannon could begin the year as the starter, but Waddle could surpass him by the end of the season. It’s still a weak offensive line on an otherwise strong offense.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Patriots made the surprising decision this off-season to send standout defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals for a 2nd round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper. It’s a weird decision by a team that’s built to win now with an aging Hall of Fame quarterback, but it does make some sense. Jones was one of a number of Patriots with expiring contracts, including fellow defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich, linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and tight end Martellus Bennett.

As much as it might seem to make sense to go all-in on 2016 and keep Jones, with Brady aging and so many pending free agents, the Patriots still always have one eye on the long-term. Both Hightower and Collins are franchise tag candidates and Jones would have likely cost upwards of 17 million annually on the open market. Instead of only getting a 3rd round compensation pick in 2 years when Jones leaves next off-season, the Patriots got an extra 2nd rounder in this year’s draft (much needed after Goodell took away their first rounder as part of Deflategate) and a potential starter at guard. Jones had 12.5 sacks last season, but was not as good as that suggests, finishing “just” 35th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus.

Even with Jones gone, the Patriots still have solid depth at the position, especially after signing veteran Chris Long to a one-year deal in free agency this off-season. Long was let go by the Rams this off-season because he was owed 11.75 million non-guaranteed and is a declining player going into his age 31 season. However, he could still have another couple solid seasons left in the tank and he was a nice value for the Patriots on 1-year, 2.375 million dollar deal, about 20% of what he was originally going to make with the Rams.

A top-7 pass rusher among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus from 2010-2013, injuries have limited Long to 18 ineffective games over the past 2 seasons. His best days are likely behind him, but, if he can stay healthy, he could be a valuable pass rusher off the edge. Even though he’s older, he’s not completely over the hill yet. He’s never been good against the run, but will see primarily sub package snaps in the Patriots’ defensive end rotation, which will minimize the amount of run snaps he plays.

Like Long, Ninkovich is also a declining veteran, going into his age 32 season, off of back-to-back below average seasons on Pro Football Focus. He finished above average in 5 straight years from 2009-2013 in the prime of his career, but that seems to be behind him. He’s also dealing with a triceps injury and is suspended for the first 4 games of the season anyway after failing a drug test, so his season won’t start until week 5. Even when he returns, he could see a much smaller role this season than last season, when he led the defensive line in snaps played with 891. Jones was 2nd with 863, so, even with Long coming in, there are snaps up for grabs, especially early in the season. Second year defensive end Trey Flowers, a 2014 4th round pick, figures to see a bigger role this season, after being limited 4 snaps as a rookie.

Even though Sheard played fewer snaps than Jones and Ninkovich last season (558 snaps) and even though he didn’t have Jones’ gaudy sack numbers, Sheard was actually the best of the trio, finishing 5th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, splitting time between defensive end and defensive tackle and often wreaking havoc as an interior pass rusher in sub packages at 6-3 265. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing as well as he did last season, but he’s graded out above average in 3 straight seasons and was a great value on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal last off-season. Still only going into his age 27 season, he’ll likely have a bigger role this season and figures to cost a lot more to keep next off-season that it did to originally sign him.

Along with Sheard, Dominique Easley got good pass rush from the interior in sub packages last season, albeit in limited action as injuries limited him to 545 snaps in 22 games. However, the Patriots made the surprising decision to cut Easley this off-season, just two years after using a first round pick on him, ahead of what would have only been his age 24 season. Easley’s two-year tenure in New England was injury filled, but there’s undoubtedly more to the story that we don’t know. His presence will be missed, especially in sub packages.

The Patriots used a 3rd round pick on a defensive tackle to replace Easley, taking the University of Nebraska’s Vincent Valentine, but he’s raw and figures to open the season as a reserve behind Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch. He’s also a different kind of player than Easley. Easley was a leaner pass rusher at 6-2 290, while Valentine is a bigger run stuffer at 6-4 329. Brown and Branch are also bigger guys at 6-2 320 and 6-6 350 respectively. Sheard still remains as an interior pass rusher, but they don’t have another good sub package option.

Malcolm Brown was drafted in the 1st round by the Patriots in 2015, which likely means they see him as an every down player long-term, and he could definitely get an opportunity to do that this season, after seeing just 555 snaps as a rookie. However, he noticeably struggled as a pass rusher as a rookie, leading him to finish below average overall on the season. He still has upside though and the Patriots could really use a breakout year from him having suffered several losses on the defensive line this off-season. In addition to Jones and Easley, the Patriots also lost Akiem Hicks, who quietly played well on 301 snaps for the Patriots last season, after they acquired him mid-season in a trade with the Saints.

Branch, meanwhile, moves well for his size and has graded out above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, but is purely a two-down player, especially going into his age 32 season. He was a dominant run stuffer from 2011-2013, finishing in the top-7 at his position against the run in all 3 seasons, but has been limited to 595 snaps over the past 2 seasons and appears to be on the decline. He’s only starting by default and shouldn’t see more than half the snaps upfront, with Sheard moving inside and sending Branch to the bench in sub packages. It’s a weakened defensive line.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

With Jones gone, the focus shifts to keeping linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower long-term. The Patriots’ defense has gotten a lot better over the past couple years, but they can’t afford to lose both Jones and one or both of Hightower and Collins. Hightower’s cap number is already at 7.751 million for 2016 and could even be lowered by a big extension, depending on how it’s structured, so it makes sense to lock him up now and then deal with Collins next off-season, when they have the franchise tag available for him. Arguably the best linebacker duo in the NFL, neither would be an overpay if they were to become the highest paid non-rush linebacker in the NFL. Luke Kuechly’s 5-year, 61.8 million dollar deal currently leads the way in average annual salary.

Collins is the more athletic of the two, but still has great size at 6-4 250, while Hightower is bigger at 6-3 265, but moves well for his size. A 2013 2nd round pick, Collins flashed on 302 snaps as a backup as a rookie and then finished 3rd among middle linebackers in his first year as a starter in 2014 and backed that up by finishing 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers again in 2015. Hightower, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2012 and has been a starter since day one. After finishing 8th and 12th respectively among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012 and 2013, Hightower moved inside in 2014 and has really broken out there, finishing 2nd among middle linebackers in 2014 and 3rd among middle linebackers in 2015. Both can play both inside and outside and both are huge parts of the reason why this defense finished 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2015. It’s very important both be re-signed long-term in the next calendar year.

Off-season additions Shea McClellin and Barkevious Mingo will compete for the 3rd linebacker job. It’s only a base package job, as teams swap out their 3rd linebacker for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but both players are hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end types who could rush the passer off the edge in sub packages, especially early in the season with Rob Ninkovich out. Sheard rushes the passer from the interior usually, so they need another primary edge rusher opposite Long.

McClellin is probably the favorite, given the 3-year, 8.95 million dollar deal the Patriots gave him this off-season. He’s never been that good of a player though, as he’s largely been a bust through 4 years in the league, after the Bears used the 20th overall pick on him in 2012. He’s played a lot and has seen time at defensive end, outside linebacker, and middle linebacker, but he’s graded out below average in each of those 4 seasons, including a 2015 season in which he finished 84th out of 97 eligible linebackers.

Mingo is also a former first round pick, going 6th overall in that dreadful 2013 draft (the same one in which right guard Jonathan Cooper went 7th). He disappointed in 3 seasons in Cleveland, hence why the Patriots could acquire him for a mere 5th round pick this off-season. Mingo showed potential in 2014, when he finished 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, showing well both in coverage and against the run, but barely played in 2015 (256 snaps) and overall finished below average in 3 of 4 seasons. He’s never been a great pass rusher, but he’s a nice dart throw, only going into his age 26 season, with unreal athletic ability. He definitely has a higher upside than McClellin, but could start the season behind him, especially since he just arrived in mid-August. It’s a loaded linebacking corps though.

Grade: A

Secondary

Starting cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are two other players that the Patriots have to make long-term decisions on in the next calendar year, as both are heading into the final year of their contract. Butler is only going into his 3rd year in the league, so he’d be a restricted free agent, which means the Patriots could keep him fairly inexpensively in 2017, but he raised concerns about his contract this off-season and may become a full blown holdout next off-season without a long-term extension.

With only 2 years under his belt, the Patriots were wise not to give Butler an extension this off-season. Butler has had a monumental rise from undrafted free agent to Super Bowl hero to starting cornerback, but he’s a one-year wonder, so it’s fair for the Patriots to ask him to do it again before they make a long-term commitment. Even though he made the deciding play in the Super Bowl, Butler saw just 187 regular season snaps and 33 post-season snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014, before stepping into the lineup in 2015, making 16 starts, and finishing 24th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Ryan actually finished a couple spots better on the other side, finishing 22nd at his position, and he’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next off-season, going into the final year of his 4-year rookie deal. The 2013 3rd round pick didn’t become a full-time starter until last season, but has 27 career starts in 48 career regular season games (none missed to injury) and has graded out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons. WIth another solid year like last year, he could get a good amount on the open market as a free agent. The addition of Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft suggests they are willing to let him test the open market.

Neither Butler nor Ryan were Darrelle Revis last season, but the Patriots’ starting cornerbacks in 2015 still might have been better than they were in 2014, as Brandon Browner, the other starter in 2014, was a liability. With Revis declining in the first year of a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal with the Jets last season, the Patriots seem to have made the correct choice letting him walk. They also made the correct choice keeping safety Devin McCourty on a 5-year 47.5 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season, even though it’s obviously a lot of money for a safety (4th highest paid safety in the NFL in terms of average annual salary).

After an up and down tenure at cornerback for the first 2 ½ years of his career, McCourty, a 2010 1st round pick, moved to safety in the middle of the 2012 season and hasn’t looked back in the 3 ½ years since, finishing in the top-8 among safeties on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, including 7th in 2015. With the Patriots having more depth at safety than cornerback, McCourty frequently covered the slot in sub packages in 2015, with 3rd safety Duron Harmon coming onto the field as the 5th defensive back, but it’s unclear if that will continue with Jones coming in. Jones is a natural fit on the slot at 5-10 198 and may be ready to contribute as a rookie. Wherever he plays, McCourty should play well, only going into his age 29 season.

Patrick Chung, the other starting safety, actually finished higher than McCourty last season, finishing the year 6th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. That’s pretty remarkable considering the Patriots were able to sign him for 1.07 million on a one year deal just two off-seasons ago. Chung has always been a talented player, but injuries threatened to derail his career, as he missed 16 games with injury from 2011-2013 and struggled mightily with the Eagles in 2013. Chung has missed just 1 game in the past 2 seasons though and has graded out 12th and 6th in 2014 and 2015 respectively. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons in his career and, if he can stay healthy, he should have another strong year in 2016, still only going into his age 29 season. The Patriots’ version of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, McCourty and Chung are one of the best safety duos in the NFL.

Add in Duron Harmon, who finished 31st among safeties on 603 snaps as the 3rd safety last year, and the Patriots might have the best group of safeties in the whole league. Harmon has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league since the Patriots drafted him in the 3rd round in 2013, though last year was a career high in snaps and he has just 8 career starts. On top of that, the Patriots oddly used a 2nd round pick on Stanford’s Jordan Richards in 2015 and he couldn’t even get on the field as the 4th safety as a rookie, finishing above average on 239 snaps last season. With Cyrus Jones coming in, it’s a deep and abundantly talented secondary. This is a very balanced New England team and one that could be carried by its defense early in the year with Brady suspended.

Grade: A

Conclusion

Injuries derailed a promising season for the Patriots in 2015, costing them another trip to the Super Bowl. With Brady getting up there in age, it’s tough to lose golden opportunities like that. In an AFC that’s overall weaker than the NFC, the Patriots have another good opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl in 2016, but injuries have already started to pile up again and Tom Brady will miss the first 4 games of the season. They should still have better health than last season though and they have a great supporting cast around Brady, so this team is once again on the Super Bowl shortlist going into the season. Favored in 3 of their first 4 games, the Patriots could easily be 3-1 when Brady returns, which puts them in position to win 11-12 games, as they always do.

Prediction: 11-5 1st in AFC East

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