New England Patriots 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At the end of the 2013 season, it looked like the Tom Brady era in New England was going into its twilight years. The Patriots won 12 games and made the AFC Championship the season before, but 7 of those wins came by a touchdown or fewer and they were no match for the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship. Brady also completed just 60.5% of his passes for an average of 6.92 YPA, both of which were his lowest since 2003. With Brady going into his age 37 season and stuck on 3 Super Bowls, the Patriots prepared for the future by using their 2nd round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

When things went from bad to worse with the Patriots the following season, after a 41-14 week 4 loss in Kansas City, their biggest loss since the 2003 season, there were actually calls for the Patriots to bench Brady in favor of Garoppolo. Coach Bill Belichick scoffed at the notion and then a funny thing happened. The Patriots would lose just one meaningful game the rest of the way en route to their 4th Super Bowl championship. That Super Bowl victory would be dogged by allegations of playing with underinflated footballs and Brady would eventually miss the first 4 games of the 2016 season with suspension, but then he returned to lead the Patriots to their 2nd Super Bowl in 3 seasons.

Even though they didn’t win the Super Bowl in 2015, they did win 12 games and make the AFC Championship, despite the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury in the NFL. All in all, the Patriots have won 12+ games in 7 straight seasons, the longest streak in NFL history, and have made the AFC Championship in 6 straight seasons, also the longest streak in NFL history. Seemingly on the decline after the 2013 season, Brady has actually improved his YPA, completion percentage, TD/INT ratio, and QB rating in each of the past 3 seasons. Last season was arguably the best of his career, as he completed 67.4% of his passes for an average of 8.23 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in 12 games, while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked quarterback on the season by a wide margin. At an age where most quarterbacks are done playing, Brady is seemingly getting better.

Garoppolo got a shot last season when Brady was suspended, although he only made it about 6 quarters before getting injured and getting replaced with 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Still, for the short time he was out there, he was very impressive, leading the Patriots to victory against the Cardinals in Arizona and then giving the Patriots a big lead at home against the Dolphins before getting hurt. He’s only thrown 94 career passes, but he’s completed 67.0% of them for an average of 7.34 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. He’s also apparently impressed the Patriots in practice because they did not plug the trigger on any offer to trade him this off-season, despite being offered multiple high picks.

Garoppolo is going into the final year of his rookie deal and his age 26 season and the conventional wisdom seems to be that he wants to test the free agency market next off-season to become a highly paid starting quarterback somewhere. Brady, meanwhile, seems to show no signs of stopping and Garoppolo’s trade value is never going to be higher. Of course, the Patriots are not known for their conventional wisdom. They know things can change in an instant with a quarterback going into his age 40 season like Brady and they believe Garappolo can be a franchise quarterback someday.

There’s also talk that the Patriots could convince Garoppolo to re-sign next off-season and stay as Brady’s backup for another couple seasons before taking over as the Patriots’ starting quarterback. It would certainly be an unconventional move, but it’s possible Garoppolo would rather be the Patriots’ quarterback in 2020 than the Jets’ quarterback in 2018 and may be willing to return at the right price. The Patriots will also have the option to franchise tag him and trade him next off-season, like they did with Matt Cassel in 2009, though Garoppolo’s trade value in a year would likely be significantly less because whoever acquires him will have to give him a huge contract immediately.

Keeping Garoppolo keeps their options open and they clearly see that as more valuable than a couple high picks, even with the team in win now mode. Garoppolo could also prove to be handy if Brady gets hurt and misses some time mid-season. He’s never missed any time with injury outside of when he tore his ACL in 2008, but injuries are always a risk, especially for a player in his 40s. If Brady misses 4-6 games and Garoppolo wins them a game or two that Jacoby Brissett wouldn’t have, that’s more valuable than anyone they could have gotten in the first round of this year’s draft, especially for a team in win now mode. They don’t have other pressing needs, with one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, and they possibly have two legitimate franchise quarterbacks on the roster, when many teams are struggling to find one,

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The biggest indication that the Patriots were in win now mode was when they sent their 1st and 3rd round picks to the Saints for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a 4th round pick. The Patriots have never traded away a first round pick to acquire a veteran player and they have also never used a first round pick on a wide receiver, but they seem to have made an exception to their rules for Cooks. With Brady getting up there in age, it makes sense why they’d make a move like this now and Cooks is no ordinary veteran player.

Even though the 2014 1st round pick has topped 1,100 yards in each of the past 2 seasons, he’s still only going into his age 24 season. The pick New England sent to New Orleans was #32. The next five wide receivers off the board after pick #32 were Zay Jones, Juju Smith-Schuster, Cooper Kupp, Taywan Taylor, and Ardarius Stewart. Cooks is 18 months older than Jones, 38 months older than Smith-Schuster, 3 months YOUNGER than Kupp, 20 months older than Taylor, and 3 months older than Stewart. The Patriots will have to give Cooks a lot of money at some point to stay, but he’s under contract for the next 2 seasons for a combined 10 million.

It’s not often that a player like Cooks gets moved in a trade, but the Saints have two other talented wide receivers in Michael Thomas and Willie Snead and had needs on other parts of the field. Cooks is a great fit in New England because he has experience playing on offenses with a lot of other options. Even though Cooks ranks 8th in the NFL over the past 2 seasons in receiving yards with 2,311, he ranks just 18th in targets with 246, a very impressive 9.39 yards per target.

Part of that is because he had Drew Brees throwing to him, but a lot of that was Cooks himself and now he goes from Brees to Brady at quarterback, which is arguably an upgrade. Brady is used to throwing to undersized, unathletic slot types like Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Julian Edelman, so getting someone like Cooks is a change of pace for him. He could be arguably the 3rd most talented offensive weapon Brady has ever played with behind Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski.

Speaking of Rob Gronkowski, he returns from the back injury that ended his 2016 season. Gronk also essentially missed 4 games with a hamstring injury to start the season, but produced at a ridiculous rate in the 5 games he was healthy, catching 24 passes for 529 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Patriots moved the chains at a 43.35% rate in those 5 games, but that fell to 36.68% over the final 7 games of the regular season when he was hurt. His absence hurt this offense, though they were obviously able to win the Super Bowl even without him.

Gronkowski averaged 22.04 yards per catch, 14.70 yards per target (both best in the NFL among players with at least 20 catches), and his per game averages would have translated to a 77/1697/10 slash line over a full 16 game season. Those numbers are probably unrealistic for him, but he’s caught at least 70 passes for 1100 yards and 11 touchdowns in each of his last 3 healthy seasons. Despite missing 24 games with injury over the past 6 seasons, he’s been a top-3 tight end on Pro Football Focus in all 6 of them, excelling as both a pass catcher and a run blocker.

Injuries have always been his achilles heel, as he’s had 3 back surgeries, 5 arm surgeries, and 1 knee surgery just since college, but he’s still only going into his age 28 season and reportedly looks good this off-season. Along with Houston’s JJ Watt, Gronkowski is one of the early favorites for Comeback Player of the Year. If he’s healthy, it’ll be like Brady is adding two top weapons to his arsenal, which should be a scary thought to opposing defenses. If both are healthy, Cooks and Gronk could easily both top 1000 yards.

Julian Edelman topped 1000 yards last season, but will play more of a secondary role this season with Gronkowski returning and Cooks coming in, after a career high 158 targets last season (3rd in the NFL behind Odell Beckham and Mike Evans). Edelman has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 15th in 2015 and 21st in 2016, but is going into his age 31 season and could be best as a complementary player. Most teams would kill to have a 3rd option in the passing game like him though and that’s what he could be if Gronkowski is healthy. He’s going into the final year of a bargain 4-year, 17 million dollar deal, but reportedly is willing to take less money than he could get elsewhere to return to New England and continue winning with Tom Brady. Unlike his predecessor Wes Welker, Edelman seems to realize New England is the best place for him.

Chris Hogan was the #2 receiver last season and flashed as a deep threat, catching 38 passes for 680 yards (17.9 yards per catch) and 4 touchdowns on just 57 targets. However, he still graded out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, his 3rd straight below average season. With Cooks coming in, he’ll be no better than the 3rd receiver and he’ll face competition from 2nd player Malcolm Mitchell for that role. A 2016 4th round pick, Mitchell played 538 snaps last season and showed some promise. Despite being a rookie, he caught 32 passes for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns and has more long-term upside than Hogan. Hogan might not be much more than a situational deep threat in 2017. The Patriots also have two accomplished veteran slot receivers in Danny Amendola and Andrew Hawkins, who are competing for the final roster spot at wide receiver, so they have plenty of depth even if injury strikes.

In addition, the Patriots acquired ex-Colt Dwayne Allen in a trade this off-season to replace free agent departure Martellus Bennett, so they have good depth at the tight end position too. Allen isn’t as good as Bennett, but, assuming Gronk is healthy, he’ll play a smaller role than Bennett, who played 868 snaps and had 73 targets (3rd on the team) in the regular season in 2016. Allen was a 2nd round pick in 2012 and was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked tight end on 905 snaps in 16 games as a rookie, but he has missed 23 games with injury in 4 seasons since.

He still graded out 9th in 2014, but injuries seem to have taken a toll on him, as he’s finished below average in each of the past 2 seasons, including 41st out of 63 eligible in 2016. He’s still only going into his age 27 season, so there’s some bounce back potential with him, but the Patriots aren’t counting on him to play a huge role in the passing game. The 6-3 265 pounder is a better run blocker than receiver and is also a threat around the goal line (19 touchdowns on 126 career catches). He’s part of a loaded receiving corps, one of the best Tom Brady has ever had.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Patriots also have a good group of running backs. They lost LeGarrette Blount in free agency and he had 299 carries last season, but they signed Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, two younger backs, to replace him and they also still have passing down backs James White and Dion Lewis. All 4 running backs will likely see action. Blount rushed for 18 touchdowns last season, but averaged just 3.88 yards per carry, so Gillislee and Burkhead could be an improvement for a team that finished just 25th in yards per carry last season with 3.89 yards per carry.

Gillislee is the favorite to lead the team in carries. He was given a 2-year, 6.4 million dollar deal by the Patriots as a restricted free agent this off-season and the Bills declined to match, taking New England’s 5th round pick as compensation instead. Buffalo’s loss could be New England’s gain as Gillislee was one of the best backup running backs in the league last season, playing behind LeSean McCoy in Buffalo. A 2013 5th round pick, Gillislee has just 154 career carries, but has averaged 5.62 yards per carry and is coming off of a season in which he rushed for 577 yards and 8 touchdowns on 101 carries, a 5.71 YPC average. That was the highest YPC average in the league last season of any back with more than 100 carries and he finished 14th among running backs on Pro Football Focus on 285 snaps. At 5-11 219, Gillislee will also likely be the Patriots’ primary goal line back. It’s unclear how he’ll translate to a larger role, but 150+ carries and 8+ rushing touchdowns is a safe bet from him in 2017.  

Gillislee doesn’t do much on passing downs, but he won’t play much in passing situations. James White will and he has 113 catches in his last 26 games overall, including a whopping 14 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Falcons. The 2014 4th round pick isn’t a threat to run the ball and has averaged just 3.71 yards per carry on 70 career carries, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in pass catching grade in 2015 and their 2nd ranked running back in pass catching grade in 2016. The Patriots re-signed him to a 3-year, 12 million dollar extension ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal this off-season and he’s a good bet for another 50-60 catches, even with all of the other options Brady has to throw to. White can catch passes both out of the backfield and lined up in the slot as a receiver.

Dion Lewis is also a good receiver out of the backfield and in the slot and can also provide a change of pace to Gillislee as a speed back at 5-8 190. A torn ACL has limited him to just 7 regular season games in each of the past 2 seasons, but he has 113 carries for 517 yards (4.58 YPC), 53 catches for 482 yards (9.09 yards per catch), and 4 total touchdowns over that time period. Injuries have always been the problem for the diminutive running back, as he’s played in just 38 of a possible 96 regular season games since entering the league as a 5th round pick in 2011. Even if healthy, he won’t see as many touches per game as he has over the past 2 seasons in a more crowded backfield, but he should still be in the mix for touches because of his versatility and his ability to make guys miss in the open field.

Rex Burkhead’s role is a little bit more uncertain, but they paid him 3.15 million on a one-year deal, so they clearly have a plan for him. He was signed before Gillislee and the addition of Gillislee makes it unlikely that Burkhead will have a huge role on early downs, but he’s a good pass protector and pass catcher and can line up at running back, receiver, and fullback, in addition to playing special teams. The 2013 6th round pick also has a career 4.31 yards per carry average on 87 career carries in 4 seasons in the league, with 74 of those carries coming last season, and can handle goalline work at 5-10 210. He could still have about 100 touches between catches and carries. The Patriots don’t have an elite back, but they have plenty of guys to mix and match. Expect Bill Belichick and the coaching staff to use them correctly. They could easily have a more productive running game in 2017, which makes this offense even more dangerous.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Patriots dealt with way more than injuries in 2015 than 2016, even with Gronkowski dealing with injuries throughout last season. Their biggest absence in 2015 might have been left tackle Nate Solder, who missed 11 games with a torn biceps. Pass protection was a major problem for the Patriots’ offense down the stretch in 2015. In 2016, Solder stabilized the left tackle position in a big way, finishing 19th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and making all 16 starts.

Outside of 2015, Solder has only ever missed 1 game with injury and he has graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2013, when he finished 9th among offensive tackles. The 2011 1st round pick has 81 career starts, but is still only going into his age 29 season, so he should continue playing well in 2017. He’s going into the final year of his contract and the Patriots may have drafted his long-term replacement in the 3rd round, when they took Troy’s Antonio Garcia, but Garcia is no threat to his job this season.

Not only did Solder’s return upgrade the left tackle position, but it also upgraded the right tackle position, as 2015 fill-in left tackle Marcus Cannon made 14 starts at right tackle in 2016 and finished 3rd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, highest ranked among right tackles. That was a massive improvement over 2015, when he finished 58th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles. Cannon is the definition of a one-year wonder though, as he graded out below average in 3 straight seasons prior to 2016 (18 combined starts).

The 2011 5th round pick is also already going into his age 29 season, so he’s already in the tail end of his prime. He could prove to be a bit of a fluke this season, but it’s clear he’s much more comfortable at right tackle and having legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia back after a 2-year retirement helped him immensely. The Patriots seem confident in him keeping this up, giving him a 5-year, 32.41 million dollar extension during the season. He’s the 6th highest paid right tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary.

Right guard Shaq Mason also had the best season of his career in 2016, albeit in just his 2nd season in the league. A 2015 4th round pick out of Georgia Tech, Mason was a solid run blocker in 10 starts as a rookie, but struggled mightily in pass protection, no surprise, considering he rarely had to pass protect in Georgia Tech’s run heavy wishbone offense. In 2016, his pass protection was much better and he finished 15th among guards on Pro Football Focus. He’s still just a one-year wonder, but he’s also just going into his age 24 season, so his best football could still be ahead of him. He’s very athletic for an offensive lineman.

The Patriots got subpar play at both left guard and center last season, from Joe Thuney and David Andrews respectively. Neither player was bad though, so both are probably locked into starting jobs again. Thuney made 16 starts as a 3rd round rookie in 2016, but finished 46th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league though. Andrews, meanwhile, finished 22nd out of 38 eligible centers in 2016, after finishing 21st out of 39 eligible as an undrafted rookie in 2015. Andrews is an unspectacular starter, but has made 27 starts over the past 2 seasons and does a decent job. The Patriots locked him up on a reasonable 3-year, 9 million dollar extension this off-season. The Patriots return all 5 from a solid offensive line in 2016 and have better depth with Garcia being added in the draft, but it’s unclear if Cannon can have as good of a season on the right side as he did last season.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Patriots didn’t have many needs this off-season, but the defensive line was a bit of a concern because defensive tackle Alan Branch (625 snaps) and defensive ends Chris Long (677 snaps) and Jabaal Sheard (580 snaps) were set to hit free agency. The Patriots lost Long and Sheard to the Eagles and Colts respectively, but they kept Branch on a 2-year, 8.45 million dollar deal. They also signed ex-Raven Lawrence Guy to a 4-year, 13.4 million dollar deal. Guy, Branch, and Malcom Brown will rotate snaps at defensive tackle.

Branch led Patriot defensive tackles in snaps played last season and finished 14th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The mammoth 6-6 350 pounder is primarily a base package player who doesn’t get any pass rush, but he finished 6th at his position in pure run stopping grade last season. He’s graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons and has finished in the top-7 at his position in pure run stuffing grade in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2016. He was a solid re-signing, even going into his age 33 season.

Guy is also a better run stuffer than pass rusher at 6-4 305 and played a career high 487 snaps last season in a purely base package role with the Ravens. He’s graded out well below average as a pass rusher in each of the last 2 seasons, but he’s also graded out well above average as a run stopper in both seasons, including 11th among 3-4 defensive ends in pure run stuffing grade in 2016. A 2011 7th round pick, Guy was a late bloomer and didn’t start seeing regular playing time until 2015, but is still only going into his age 27 season and could have a solid season for the Patriots in a situational role. He could play some defensive end in base packages, with Brown and Branch working as the primary base package defensive tackles.

Brown has the highest upside of the trio, as he was a first round pick in 2015 and is still just going into his age 23 season. He struggled on 555 snaps as a rookie, but was much improved in his 2nd season in the league in 2016, finishing 19th among defensive tackles on 596 snaps. Brown was better as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher in 2016, though he too is a much better run stuffer than pass rusher at 6-2 320. He finished last season 10th among defensive tackles in run stuffing grade, but finished below average as a pass rusher. He could be a better pass rusher in his 3rd season in the league in 2017 and could set a new career high in snaps, but both Branch and Guy are purely base package players.

That’s not a big deal because the Patriots often lined up defensive ends Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard inside in sub packages last season and they figure to do the same thing this season with Flowers and Kony Ealy, who replaces the departed Sheard. Flowers and Ealy are bigger ends at 6-2 265 and 6-4 275 respectively. This limits snaps for Branch, Guy, and Brown, but allows the Patriots to get their best four pass rushers on the field in passing situations. Veteran Rob Ninkovich and 3rd round rookie Derek Rivers will be their primary edge rushers in sub packages. Rivers is more or less a replacement for the departed Chris Long, though with the versatility to play some linebacker.

Long and Sheard might have played more snaps than Flowers did last season, but Flowers was the best of the three and saw the most playing time down the stretch. He finished the season 17th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus on 563 snaps. Flowers is a complete one-year wonder, after being limited to just 4 defensive snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2015, but could easily develop into a future starter. He’ll likely have a bigger role this season with Long and Sheard gone and could lead this defensive line in snaps played.

Ealy, meanwhile, comes over in a trade from the Panthers, in which the Patriots moved down 8 spots from 64 to 72 in the draft. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Ealy has always had athletic talent, but he graded out below average in all 3 seasons with the Panthers and the Panthers gave up on him this off-season, with 3 well-paid, veteran defensive ends locked in ahead of him on the depth chart. Ealy played a career high 624 snaps last season, but finished 78th among 109 eligible edge defenders. The Panthers never really tried him inside in passing situations, but he has the size to do it and it could really help him, considering he managed just 14 sacks in 3 seasons with the Panthers. He could have a big role for the Patriots as a hybrid defensive lineman and could have his best season to date, even if that’s not saying much.

Ninkovich is the veteran of the defensive end group and is coming off of the worst season, finishing last season 86th among 109 eligible edge defenders. He also played just 461 snaps, down significantly from 891 in 2015. Ninkovich is going into his age 33 season and has graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, so he shouldn’t play much larger of a role than he did last season. Going into the final year of his contract, this could easily be Ninkovich’s final season with New England and his final season in the league. In his prime, he graded out above average in 5 straight seasons from 2009-2013.

Because of Ninkovich’s age, rookie Derek Rivers will have to play a significant rookie year role in sub packages. Despite coming from Youngstown State, Rivers is an NFL ready edge rusher and also has experience playing linebacker. The 6-4 248 pounder may struggle against the run as a rookie, but the Patriots will work to his strengths and probably won’t play him on the defensive line on many run snaps. Ninkovich also has some experience as an outside linebacker, so it’s possible both him and Rivers see some action at the outside linebacker positions in base packages, as the Patriots like their front 7 players to be able to play multiple spots.

Likewise, outside linebackers Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy could also see some time as edge rushers in obvious passing situations. McClellin rushed on 30% of his 382 snaps last season, while Van Noy rushed on 16% of his 250 snaps (in 7 games after spending the first 7 games of the season with the Lions). McClellin and Van Noy were both high picks, going in the first round in 2012 and the second round in 2014 respectively, but neither has ever graded out above average in a season in their career. It’s hard to call either player anything other than a bust, but the Patriots like them in situational roles because of their versatility. The Patriots have a lot of versatile defensive linemen and should be able to mix and match their way to an effective defensive line. Flowers is probably their best defensive lineman, but I don’t see any defensive lineman playing more than 700 snaps this season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Patriots made a shocking trade during their bye week last week, sending outside linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns for their 3rd round compensatory pick. Collins was going into the final year of his rookie deal and was expected to leave after the season anyway, but he was a top-3 player at his position on Pro Football Focus the previous 2 seasons and was on his way to another similar season. Besides, they would have gotten a 3rd round compensatory pick in 2018 if they had just let him walk for nothing at the end of the season, so they basically gave him up for nothing. On top of that, they were 7-1 and chasing a Super Bowl and it was hard to imagine the Patriots would be better defensively without Collins, who had been one of their best defensive players in recent years.

However, statistically, that is exactly what happened. After allowing opponents to move the chains at a 34.54% rate in the first 8 games of the season, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a mere 29.54% rate in the final 8 games of the season. The numbers don’t give the full context, as 6 of their final 8 games were against offenses that finished 26th or worse in first down rate and the other two were against Miami, who was starting a backup quarterback, and Seattle, who won. However, they also only allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 32.96% rate in 3 post-season games, even though they faced a pair of tough offenses in Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Even if they weren’t a better defense without Collins, they didn’t seem to miss him.

Collins was replaced with a combination of base package players like Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, and Elandon Roberts as well as safety Patrick Chung dropping down and playing as the 2nd linebacker in sub packages. As I already mentioned, McClellin and Van Noy are underwhelming players, while Roberts graded out below average on 270 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2016, but all three players are capable run stuffers and the Patriots don’t count on any of them for big roles. They didn’t add anything significant to their linebacking corps this season, so those 3 will compete for base package outside linebacker snaps with potentially Ninkovich and Rivers. In sub packages, the Patriots will continue using Chung as a linebacker and the recently re-signed Dont’a Hightower returns as their only true every down linebacker.

Also a pending free agent like Collins was, Hightower was allowed to hit the open market by the Patriots, but ended up returning on a 4-year, 35.5 million dollar deal, a whopping 14.5 million dollars less than Collins got on the same length deal from the Browns. Hightower isn’t as athletic as Collins, but he’s a great run stuffer and moves well for his size at 6-3 265. He’s capable of stopping the run, dropping into coverage, and blitzing. A 2012 1st round pick, Hightower has finished in the top-12 at his position in all 5 seasons, including 4 straight seasons in the top-8. Injuries are a bit of a concern for him, as he’s missed 11 games in the past 3 seasons combined, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season, so that should be money well-spent for a team that needed to keep at least one of their talented young linebackers.

Chung, meanwhile, has spent most of his 8-year career at safety, but had arguably the worst season of his career last season, 83rd out of 90 eligible safeties, and did a little bit better after they moved him to linebacker in sub packages and started using him as a hybrid player. Chung had graded out above average in 6 of the prior 7 seasons before last season, including 6th among safeties in 2015, but he’s going into his age 30 season and he’s always been better closer to the line of scrimmage at 5-11 215, so moving to linebacker in sub packages could be good for his career. Even though he’s coming off a down year, he could easily be a useful player for them for another couple seasons in his new role. Even without Collins, this is a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

Another reason why continuing to drop Chung to linebacker in sub packages makes sense for the Patriots is they have good depth at safety. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, who comes in when Chung moves to linebacker in sub packages, are both significantly better deep cover guys than Chung. McCourty is actually one of the best safeties in the league and should continue to play at a high level in an every down role for them. An adequate cornerback early in his career, McCourty has spent the last 4 seasons at safety, where he has really excelled, finishing in the top-8 among safeties in all 4 seasons, including a #4 rank in 2016. Going into his age 30 season, his best days could be behind him, but he should continue playing at a high level for another couple seasons at least. He’s also only missed 5 games with injury in his career.

Harmon, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and was re-signed to a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal this off-season. Harmon actually finished last season slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, but finished above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including a 2015 season in which finished 31st among safeties on a career high 603 snaps. He only has 12 career starts and isn’t anything more than a part-time player, but the Patriots don’t need him to be much more than that. He’s a nice piece in the secondary and the Patriots were smart to re-sign him on a reasonable deal.

Along with the trade for Cooks, the biggest indication that the Patriots were in win now mode this off-season was when they signed ex-Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal. Like using first round picks on receivers or trading high picks for veterans, spending big money on other teams’ free agents was just simply something the Patriots have never done, as they have always opted to build through the draft and used their money to re-sign their own players, if anything. Gilmore is by far the most expensive outside free agent signing they have made in the Belichick/Brady era.

Gilmore is actually coming off of a down year in which he was burned deep in coverage more than usual, finishing 60th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. The Patriots obviously don’t seem concerned though. The 2012 1st round pick finished above average in both 2014 and 2015, with his best career season coming in 2015, when he finished 8th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level cornerback like that, but he’s at the very least a capable starter with upside for more. He’s made 66 starts in 5 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 27 season, so he’s right in the prime of his career. He’ll replace free agent departure Logan Ryan, who finished last season 16th among cornerbacks and signed with the Titans on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal this off-season.

Gilmore’s addition all but guaranteed that fellow starting cornerback Malcolm Butler is going into his final year in New England, as he’s set to hit free agency next off-season and the Patriots already gave the money he wanted to Gilmore instead. With the Patriots in win now mode for 2017, that’s not a huge deal and the Patriots will have one of the better cornerback duos in the league in the meantime. A 2014 undrafted free agent, Butler has gotten significantly better in all 3 seasons in the league, playing just 187 regular season snaps as a rookie, but making all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and finishing 24th and 7th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in those 2 seasons. He might be a better cornerback than Gilmore, but he could also prove to be largely a system cornerback and the Patriots seem to prefer the bigger Gilmore (6-1 195 vs 5-11 195) over him long-term.

Eric Rowe was their 3rd cornerback last season and he was solid on 452 snaps, but Gilmore replacing Ryan complicates matters for Rowe. Rowe’s best attribute is his size and ability to match up with bigger receivers at 6-1 205, but Gilmore is also perfectly capable of defending bigger receivers. Also, while Ryan played the slot in sub packages, Gilmore is not a good fit on the slot and neither is Rowe. If Rowe wins the #3 cornerback job, that would likely mean that Butler would be tasked with slot duties in sub packages and he has very little experience in the slot. A 2015 2nd round pick who showed promise in his first season in New England after being traded from the Eagles for a conditional 2018 mid-round round pick, Rowe will still see playing time in certain games against teams with bigger receivers because the Patriots like to be matchup specific with their cornerbacks, but might not be any higher than 4th on the depth chart officially.

That leaves 2nd year players Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones to compete for the slot cornerback job between Butler and Gilmore. At 5-10 200 and 5-10 190 respectively, both are more natural fits on the slot. Cyrus Jones was a 2nd round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, so he’s probably the favorite, but he only played 147 nondescript snaps as a rookie, so he’s still very unproven. Jonathan Jones, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2016 and only played 64 defensive snaps as a rookie, but the Patriots have been much more impressed with him on special teams than Cyrus Jones and he reportedly has a chance to beat out the higher drafted Jones for a job in at cornerback. If he does, it’ll probably say more about Cyrus’ lack of development than anything positive about Jonathan. If Gilmore can play at his highest level and Cyrus Jones shows more in his 2nd year in the league, this secondary could be improved even over last year’s strong group, but the pieces don’t fit together as well as they did last season with Ryan signing in Tennessee.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Patriots were the best team in the league last season and they got even better this off-season, particularly with Brandin Cooks coming over from New Orleans and Rob Gronkowski set to return from injury. They have no glaring holes on either side of the ball. The one concern with them is that Tom Brady is going into his age 40 season, but he’s coming off of arguably the best season of his career and has arguably the best overall supporting cast of his career. If Brady plays like we’re used to, this team has a good chance to repeat as Super Bowl champs. 

Prediction: 13-3, 1st in AFC East

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