Figuring out how to approach the end of a legendary quarterback’s career is a tough task. Some teams have lucked out and had clear replacements ready to go at the right time. The Packers had Aaron Rodgers fall to them at 24th overall in the 2005 NFL Draft and had no concerns about going to him when Favre retired after the 2007 season, even letting Favre go when he decided later in the off-season he wanted to return. The 49ers had Steve Young as a backup behind Joe Montana and he played so well when Montana was injured that they were comfortable trading Montana to the Chiefs. The Colts had to endure a 2-14 season while Peyton Manning was out with a neck injury, but, as a result, they got the #1 pick in the draft with the most obvious #1 pick (Andrew Luck) since Manning went #1 himself 14 years earlier.
Some teams have tried to have clear replacements ready to go, only to see that replacement struggle. The Broncos drafted Brock Osweiler in the 2nd round in 2012 as a future replacement for Manning after they signed him following his release by the Colts, but Osweiler struggled in his first career action in 2015 when Manning was out with a foot injury and the Broncos subsequently let him sign with the Texans as a free agent the following off-season, despite Manning’s retirement.
Not re-signing Osweiler proved to be wise because he struggled in Houston and eventually found his way back to Denver on a much cheaper contract, but the Broncos had to endure 2 years of horrible quarterback play before signing veteran Case Keenum to a big contract in free agency this off-season and even he isn’t a sure thing, after just one good season in Minnesota. The Broncos also had a similar issue when John Elway retired, as Brian Griese, drafted in the 3rd round a year before Elway’s retirement, never developed into the long-term franchise quarterback they were expecting him to be. The same thing happened with the Bills, who turned to 1995 2nd round pick Todd Collins in 1997, following the retirement of Jim Kelly. Collins lasted one season as the Bills’ starter.
Some teams did basically nothing to prepare for the future. After the Dan Marino retired, the Dolphins had to turn to career backup Jay Fiedler. When Steve Young suffered a career ending concussion, the 49ers had to turn to Jeff Garcia, recently signed from the CFL. The Cowboys had to turn to 2nd round rookie Quincy Carter following the retirement of Troy Aikman. There isn’t one blueprint for what to do when your Hall of Fame quarterback is in the late stages of his career.
The Patriots have chosen to invest resources in quarterbacks despite having Tom Brady. In fact, since 2008, they’ve drafted four quarterbacks in the first 3 rounds of the draft (Ryan Mallett, Kevin O’Connell, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jacoby Brissett). Only the Browns have drafted more quarterbacks in the first 3 rounds since then. Despite that, they could still end up with a tough quarterback situation after Tom Brady retires.
The issue wasn’t that they were unable to find a good long-term replacement. Jimmy Garoppolo was more than ready to be the Patriots’ next quarterback and could have easily been their Steve Young/Aaron Rodgers/Andrew Luck. The issue, if you can even call it that, is that Tom Brady is still playing at an MVP level at age 40 and has outlasted the rookie contracts of his backups. Garoppolo, by far the most promising, was sent to the 49ers for a second round pick at the deadline last off-season, the Patriots’ last chance to trade him before his rookie contract expired, and he looked like a franchise quarterback down the stretch for the 49ers.
The Patriots’ trade of Garoppolo became even more interesting when it was reported that Bill Belichick did not want to trade Garoppolo, but his hand was forced by owner Robert Kraft, who wanted Tom Brady to remain a Patriot for life and not have to look over his shoulder at a talented young backup. Whether or not that report was true, the idea that Belichick at least considered keeping Garoppolo this off-season and moving on from Brady is not all that crazy. Belichick saw Garoppolo in practice for four years and knew what he had in him. Brady probably still gave the Patriots a better chance to win over the next couple years, but Garoppolo could have been a franchise quarterback for the next 10 years and the forward thinking Belichick might have prefered that if forced to pick between the two.
Belichick also knows how tough it is to find a quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo. In any given draft, there are usually only 1-3 true franchise caliber quarterbacks, if there are any at all, and they usually go in the top-10, a spot where the Patriots don’t normally select. The Patriots found Garoppolo in the 2nd round and famously found Tom Brady in the 6th round, but, as good as the Patriots are at finding talent, they’ve also used day 2 draft picks on quarterbacks like Kevin O’Connell and Ryan Mallett, who never even developed into capable backups.
There was a lot of speculation that the Patriots would try to find the next Jimmy Garoppolo in this draft and they certainly had opportunities to take a quarterback, but Belichick and company were clearly not sold on most of the quarterbacks in this draft class. With 4 picks in the first 2 rounds, the Patriots reportedly wanted to move up to select Baker Mayfield, but that became an impossibility when the Browns decided to select him #1 overall.
After missing out of Mayfield, the Patriots sat back and addressed other needs, only using a 7th round pick on LSU’s Danny Etling. The Patriots clearly saw something in him and he may prove to be a capable backup or a Brian Hoyer/Matt Cassel caliber spot starter, but I don’t think anyone expects him to actually be their quarterback of the future. If the Patriots thought he had that kind of potential, they would not have waited until the 7th round to grab him.
The Patriots did make several trades down to acquire an extra 2nd and 3rd round pick in next year’s draft, so they may try to trade up for a quarterback they like in next year’s draft, but next year’s quarterback draft is considered to be much weaker than this year’s. With Tom Brady going into his age 41 season, it could be very tough for the Patriots to get the timing right and have a clear replacement ready to go when Brady is ready to hang them up or when he is physically unable to perform at a high level anymore.
The Patriots are obviously hoping that doesn’t happen for a few years, but, at his age, Brady is year-to-year and nothing can be taken for granted. He showed last season he can still play at a high level, completing 66.3% of his passes for an average of 7.88 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while quarterbacking the league’s #1 ranked offense in terms of first down rate (40.84%) and picking up his 3rd MVP award. He’s finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked quarterback in each of the last 2 seasons.
At an age where most quarterbacks are finished, Brady is seemingly getting better. He’s kept himself in tremendous physical shape and every mental aspect of the game is beyond second nature at this point in his career. However, as we’ve seen with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in recent years, quarterbacks can lose it overnight and never get it back. As long as Brady continues playing at a high level, this team is a Super Bowl contender once again, but that’s no longer a guarantee.
Unless they want to turn to Danny Etling, the Patriots’ only option if Brady gets injured or declines significantly is veteran backup Brian Hoyer. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Patriots in 2009, Hoyer spent 3 seasons in New England and then made 37 starts with 5 different teams (Cardinals, Texans, Browns, Bears, 49ers) from 2012-2017, before returning to New England mid-season last season when the 49ers cut him to make room for Garoppolo. His career numbers are underwhelming, 59.4% percent completion, 7.02 YPA, 48 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions, so, while he’s well exceeded his draft slot (or lack there of), he’s not someone the Patriots want to have to turn to.
Brady is not the only high profile Patriot who is year-to-year at this point, as tight end Rob Gronkowski reportedly considered retirement this off-season and may decide to hang them up in the next year or two. Unlike Brady, Gronkowski is still relatively young, only going into his age 29 season, but he’s financially set, has opportunities to do other things like acting and wrestling, and he’s dealt with a lot of injuries thus far in his career. He’s had 3 back surgeries, 5 arm surgeries, and one knee surgery in his career, while missing 26 games in the past 6 seasons.
Despite that, Gronkowski has remained one of the most dominant offensive players in the NFL when healthy. He’s averaged a 80/1234/12 slash line per 16 games since his 2nd season in the league in 2011 and he’s an excellent blocker as well. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked tight end in each of the past 4 seasons in which he’s played more than 14 games (including 2017) and he’s finished in the top-6 at his position in all 8 seasons in the league, despite some injury plagued seasons. The Patriots managed to win the Super Bowl without him in 2016, but Brady’s passing numbers have been significantly better with Gronkowski on the field than without.
He was relatively healthy in 2017, missing one regular season game with a quad injury, missing another with a one-game suspension for a personal foul, and then missing the second half of the AFC championship with a concussion. He finished with a 69/1084/8 slash line in 14 games, the 4th healthy season in a row in which he’s topped 1000 yards receiving. However, all the injuries he’s suffered seem to be taking a toll on him mentally. He’s committed to 2018 and should remain one of the top tight ends in the NFL as long as he’s healthy, but his commitment beyond this season is a major question mark. Perhaps he continues playing until Brady retires and then follows him out the door.
Gronkowski was not the Patriots’ only 1000+ yard receiver in 2017, as wideout Brandin Cooks put up a 65/1082/7 slash line. Acquired last off-season with a 4th round pick in a trade that sent a first and third round pick to the Saints, Cooks was not quite as good as his numbers suggested in his one season in New England, finishing just about average on PFF, and was subsequently traded to the Rams for the 23rd pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
The Patriots came close to getting the same value in draft picks that they gave up for him (the difference was a 6th round pick per the draft trade value chart), so they were basically able to rent him for one-year for a mere 1.563 million dollar salary and a 6th round pick. The Patriots also lost their 2nd leading wide receiver from 2017, Danny Amendola. Amendola had a reasonable 61/659/2 slash line in 2017 and earned a positive grade from PFF on 568 snaps, but was not worth the 6 million annually he received from the Dolphins as a free agent, going into his age 33 season.
Even after losing Cooks and Amendola, the Patriots are still deep at wide receiver. Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan were their top-2 receivers in 2016, but Edelman missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and Hogan was limited to 591 snaps in 9 games by a shoulder injury. Both should be healthier in 2018. Edelman has been their #1 wide receiver in recent years when healthy, averaging a 104/1113/6 slash line per 16 games since 2013, but, like Gronkowski, he’s had trouble staying on the field.
He played in all 16 games in 2013 and 2016 and played in 14 games in 2014, but he missed 7 games with a broken foot in 2015 and then missed all of last season. In fact, he and Gronkowski have played in just 17 games together over the past 3 seasons, making what Brady has done in recent years all the more impressive. Edelman’s return will have to wait until week 5, as he’s expected to be suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs and his age is becoming a concern, as he heads into his age 32 season, but his return should be a boost for this offense. The first 4 games of the season are far from the most important 4 games in a typical Patriots season, so his absence shouldn’t hurt them too much. If Edelman and Gronkowski can stay healthy, that will give Brady two targets that he’s had a lot of success with in the past.
Hogan hasn’t had the same success in the past. He was on pace for a 66/876/10 slash line through 8 games last season, but that was mostly because of who was throwing him the football. In 5 seasons in the league, he’s never earned a positive grade from PFF and now he’s going into his age 30 season. He wasn’t a bad signing on a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal as a restricted free agent two off-seasons ago, but he’s not locked into a starting job.
His primary competition for the starting job will be free agent addition Jordan Matthews. Matthews is also coming off of an injury plagued season, which is why he had to settle for a 1-year deal worth up to 1.7 million with incentives (just 1 million base salary and 170K guaranteed), but he could prove to be a huge steal if he’s healthy, after off-season knee and ankle surgeries. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Matthews was about a league average starting receiver in his first 3 seasons in the league, averaging a 75/891/6 slash line and hauling in 64.5% of his targets, despite shaky quarterback play. Perhaps most importantly, he only missed 2 games with injury in those 3 seasons combined. Still only going into his age 26 season, Matthews is a perfect fit as a possession receiver in New England’s offense and has big statistical upside, especially with Edelman missing the first 4 games.
Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, and Phillip Dorsett are also in the mix for roles. Mitchell is coming off of an injury plagued season, as a knee injury kept him out all year, but the 2016 4th round pick flashed on 538 snaps as a rookie (32/401/4) and has the talent to develop into a long-term contributor if he can stay healthy. The Patriots are also hoping for a return to 2016 form from Kenny Britt, as he topped 1000 yards on a terrible offense with Jeff Fisher’s Rams that year (68/1002/5).
Britt was cut mid-season by the Browns last season after 9 underwhelming games (18/233/2 on 37 targets), despite getting 10.5 million guaranteed on a 4-year, 32.5 million dollar deal the previous off-season, and he’s had issues with his coaches in the past. However, when he’s motivated he’s a good receiver and he’s still somehow only going into his age 30 season, despite 9 seasons in the league. It’s possible he’s never the same receiver again, but he was worth a flier on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal. None of his salary is guaranteed for 2018, so he’ll need to impress this off-season to stay on the roster.
Phillip Dorsett is likely also fighting for a roster spot, but he has the upside to be more if he can ever live up to his upside. A surprise first round pick by the Colts in 2015, Dorsett was disappointing in 2 seasons in Indianapolis (51 catches for 753 yards and 3 touchdowns on 99 targets) and was traded to the Patriots for backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett before the start of last season. Dorsett struggled to fit in after arriving so late in the off-season and had just 12 catches on 378 snaps, but he could be better with a full off-season in the system and he’s still only going into his age 25 season. He’s undersized at 5-10 185, but has great deep speed and a 15.0 career yards per catch average. Even without Cooks and Amendola and with Edelman missing 4 games with suspension, the Patriots have plenty of depth at wide receiver.
The Patriots also have good depth behind Rob Gronkowski as Dwayne Allen remains on the roster despite a non-guaranteed 5 million dollar salary. He could still be cut later in the off-season, but the Patriots wouldn’t have much need for the cap space at that point and wouldn’t be able to find a good replacement. His receiving numbers don’t seem to justify that salary, as he caught just 10 of 19 targets for 86 yards and 1 touchdown, with 4 drops, but he’s also one of the better blocking tight ends in the league.
He finished last season as PFF’s 3rd ranked run blocking tight end and earned a positive grade overall as a result. He won’t have a big role in the passing game even if Gronk gets hurt (he had 2 catches for 10 yards on 5 targets in the two games Gronk missed last season), but the Patriots clearly value his ability to essentially be a 6th offensive lineman on running plays. He’s never topped his rookie year receiving numbers (45/521/6) and might not come close to those numbers in 2018, but he’s still a useful player and he played all 16 games last season for the first time since his rookie year in 2012. Even with him being a liability in the passing game, Tom Brady still has plenty of options to throw to, especially once Edelman returns. How playing time and targets are split up might be a week-to-week decision based on matchups.
The Patriots also throw to their running backs a lot. Last season, they had 126 catches by running backs, 32.5% of their total. James White (56/429/3), Dion Lewis (32/214/3), and Rex Burkhead (30/254/3) led the way. Lewis also led the team in carries with 180 and was very impressive, averaging 4.98 yards per carry, rushing for 6 touchdowns, and finishing 3rd among running backs on Pro Football Focus. However, the Patriots lost him this off-season when he signed a 4-year, 19.8 million dollar deal with the Titans.
Despite that, the Patriots are still really deep at running back, especially after using the 31st overall pick on Georgia’s Sony Michel. The 5-11 214 pound Michel was one of the most explosive backs in the draft and could have an immediate impact. Rex Burkhead also figures to have a bigger role and will likely be Michel’s biggest competition for carries. He only had 94 touches last season, but that was because he missed 6 games with injury. If he’s healthy, he should push for double digit touches weekly. At 5-10 210, he’s a jack of all trades back that can play all 3 downs and special teams. He has the versatility to play receiver (35 of 112 pass routes were on the slot or out wide, 31.0%) and also has a career 4.23 YPC average.
The Patriots also signed ex-Bengal Jeremy Hill in free agency. He’s likely competing with Mike Gillislee for one roster spot. Both are bigger backs at 6-1 230 and 5-11 219 respectively. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Hill burst onto the scene with 222 carries for 1124 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie (5.06 YPC), but he’s totaled just 482 carries for 1749 yards and 20 touchdowns (3.63 YPC) in 3 seasons since and signed for just 1.5 million with only 150K guaranteed this off-season. Gillislee makes more money (2.4 million non-guaranteed), but Hill will need a strong off-season to take his roster spot.
The Patriots acquired Gillislee as a restricted free agent last off-season, after he averaged 5.70 yards per carry on 148 carries in 2 seasons as the backup in Buffalo. His YPC average plummeted to 3.69 on 104 carries in his first season in New England, but he did a good job picking up positive gains and keeping the offense on schedule. He led the NFL with a 58% carry success rate. He fell out of the rotation down the stretch as other backs were playing at a higher level, but he still earned a positive running grade from PFF. Assuming he makes the roster, he should have a limited role as a short yardage back and he doesn’t do much in the passing game, but he’s good insurance in case another back gets injured.
The reason Hill and Gillislee are fighting for one roster spot is because James White is locked into his role. More of a hybrid than a true running back at 5-10 205, White lined up on the slot or out wide on 89 of 293 pass routes (30.4%). The 2014 4th round pick has a career YPC average of 3.81 on just 113 carries, but the 56 catches he had last season were actually a decrease from 2016 when he had 60. In 2017, he played fewer snaps (382 vs. 425) in a more crowded backfield, but he was still able to put up a big catch number. He should have 50-60 catches again in 2018. He’s a trusty 3rd down option that can line up anywhere and keep you at least a little bit honest on the ground. This is still a very deep backfield.
While the Patriots’ running backs were good last season, a big part of why they were so effective on the ground was their supporting cast, especially their run blocking. They were Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked team in run blocking grade. The same is unfortunately not true of their pass protection. Brady was only sacked 35 times (13th fewest in the NFL), but he was also hit another 40 times, more than any quarterback in the NFL. Given Brady’s age, pass protection is incredibly important to this team, so they’ll need to be better in 2018.
Making matters even worse, the Patriots lost left tackle Nate Solder to the Giants on a record 4-year, 62 million dollar deal this off-season and, because of a weak offensive tackle free agency class, were unable to replace him in free agency. They lost also swing tackle Cameron Fleming, who flashed in 20 career starts in 4 seasons with the Patriots, including 6 games last season at right tackle in place of an injured Marcus Cannon.
Fortunately, they were able to address this position during the draft, using the 23rd pick (acquired for Brandin Cooks) on Georgia left tackle Isaiah Wynn and then trading their 3rd round pick (95th overall) to the 49ers for right tackle Trent Brown and a 5th round pick (143rd overall). Wynn was arguably the best left tackle in college football last year, despite facing NFL caliber talent on a weekly basis in the SEC. Lack of height and arm length (6-3 313, 33 3/8 inch arms) might mean he’s moving to guard as a professional and he certainly doesn’t fit the profile of a typical big, long armed Bill Belichick offensive tackle, but the Patriots may give him a shot at left tackle just based on his dominant college tape.
Trent Brown fits the Belichick offensive tackle profile much better, as the 6-8 355 pounder has massive 36 inch arms. He doesn’t have the foot speed of a typical left tackle, but his arms are long enough to compensate. Despite his size, he was actually a better pass protector than run blocker last season with the 49ers. In 10 starts, he allowed just 1 sack, 6 hits, and 9 hurries. He played right tackle last season and he’s a one year wonder and he’s coming off of shoulder surgery and might miss until training camp, but ultimately I think he’s the favorite for the week 1 starting job.
Whoever wins the job, the Patriots could easily have better left tackle play than last season. Nate Solder did a great job run blocking, but he was part of the problem in pass protection. He only allowed 4 sacks and 6 hits, but he also allowed 41 hurries and committed 9 penalties. The Patriots were wise to not get into a bidding war for him, even with a thin offensive tackle class in free agency.
The Patriots also get Marcus Cannon back from injury. Another big offensive tackle (6-6 335), Cannon was PFF’s 11th ranked offensive tackle in 2016 and was on his way to another solid season in 2017 before missing the final 9 games of the season with an ankle injury. Backup Cameron Fleming wasn’t bad in his absence and Cannon has an inconsistent history, but having him back healthy should be a boost for this team. Even if he’s not healthy, the Patriots have insurance because either Brown or Wynn could slide to right tackle.
If Wynn plays left guard, he would take the job of 3rd year player Joe Thuney. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Thuney has made all 32 starts in 2 seasons in the league and has developed into a good run blocker, but he’s struggled in pass protection. He’s allowed 5 sacks and 10 hits in each of his first 2 seasons in the league and has also committed 13 penalties. He was responsible for a quarter of the hits allowed on Tom Brady last season.
Right guard Shaq Mason was responsible for another quarter, but he only allowed 1 sack, committed just 1 penalty, and was PFF’s 9th ranked run blocking guard. A 2015 4th round pick, Mason has made 31 starts over the past 2 seasons and has finished in the top-16 at his position in both seasons. He should be locked into his starting job, though it’s unclear if the Patriots will extend him beyond the final year of his rookie deal in 2018 if he doesn’t improve as a pass protector. It’s possible he does improve, as he came into the league very raw in pass protection, after playing on a run heavy Georgia Tech team in college.
Center David Andrews rounds out this offensive line. Despite going undrafted in 2015, Andrews has made 41 starts over the past 3 seasons. He was re-signed to a 3-year, 9 million extension last off-season, which proved to be a smart decision, as he’s gotten better in every season in the league and finished last season as PFF’s 4th ranked center. He’s only a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level player, but he could easily have another strong season again in 2018. Even after off-season losses, the Patriots still have a solid offensive line and they are deeper and more versatile than they were last season.
While the Patriots were great offensively in 2017, they were not nearly as good defensively. They finished 20th in first down rate allowed at 34.74%. Despite that, they only spent one pick in the first four rounds on the defense, opting to use their two first round picks to replace players they lost in free agency on offense and then making multiple trades down to pick up additional draft picks in 2019. They did not use a single draft pick on the defensive line, despite it being a major weakness in 2017.
They did make two major additions to their defensive line before the draft though, signing ex-Falcon defensive end Adrian Clayborn and acquiring defensive tackle Danny Shelton in a trade with the Browns for a swap of draft picks. Both were smart additions. Clayborn gives them a much needed pass rusher opposite Trey Flowers and he comes at a reasonable price, signing for 10 million over 2 years. He finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end.
Most of that is because of one game where he abused the Cowboys’ backup left tackles for 6 sacks, but he had a solid season even without that game. A 2011 1st round pick, injuries plagued Clayborn early in his career, as he missed 28 games in his first 4 seasons in the league, but he’s been relatively healthy for 3 straight seasons and was about a league average starter in 2015 and 2016 as well. Even if he regresses a little bit in his age 30 season, Clayborn should be a capable starter at the very least. He fills a major need for them.
Clayborn also has the size at 6-3 280 to line up inside in passing situations. The same is true of the Patriots other top-2 defensive ends, Trey Flowers (6-2 265) and Deatrich Wise (6-5 271). Flowers lined up inside on 192 of 465 pass snaps in 2017 (41.3%), while Wise lined up inside on 111 of 412 pass snaps (27.0%). Flowers finished 18th among 4-3 defensive ends last season and played 802 snaps, 7th at his position. He finished 11th at his position in 2016 as well, but did so on 564 snaps. He has just 13.5 sacks over the past 2 seasons, but has added 27 quarterback hits and has played well against the run.
With more depth at defensive end, the Patriots might prefer that he be closer to his 2016 total in terms of snap count, in order to keep him fresher. It’ll also help that he has another pass rusher opposite him to create disruption. Deatrich Wise finished 2nd on the team in snaps by a defensive end with 543 last season, despite being a mere 4th round rookie, and he played like a 4th round rookie, finishing 63rd among 64 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but, either way, the Patriots prefer him in a reserve role.
Danny Shelton, meanwhile, fills a hole at defensive tackle in place of Alan Branch, who is no longer with the team. Branch only played 274 snaps last season, as he struggled for most of the season, but Shelton has the ability to play a larger role. He should start inside in base packages with Malcom Brown. The 12th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Shelton only managed 1.5 sacks and 3 hits in 3 seasons with the Browns and was not a good fit for the Browns’ new defensive scheme, but he fits what Bill Belichick looks for in a defensive tackle. He has great size at 6-2 335 and has finished in the top-13 among defensive tackles in run stopping grade in each of the past 2 seasons. He should continue that strong base package play in New England.
Malcom Brown is a similar player, also going in the first round in 2015, though the 32nd overall pick is a little bit better pass rusher. The 6-2 320 pounder has 8.5 sacks and 8 hits in 3 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-11 among defensive tackles in run stuffing grade in 2 straight seasons. Both Shelton and Brown are still young, going into their age 25 and age 24 seasons respectively, so they could both improve as pass rushers and prove they are capable of staying on the field for more passing downs, but that’s not a guarantee.
Lawrence Guy is another run stuffing defensive tackle, though he’s not as big at 6-4 305. He played 582 snaps in 2017, but he is not as good as Shelton or Brown, so he should be the 3rd defensive tackle in base packages this season and play much fewer snaps. He’s earned a positive run stuffing grade from PFF in each of the past 3 seasons, but he’s earned a negative grade as a pass rusher in 3 straight seasons. He’s not a bad player, but he’s one-dimensional and the Patriots have better run stuffers.
The Patriots’ top-3 defensive tackles all being run stuffers is a big part of the reason why they like lining up their defensive ends inside in passing situations. Adam Butler also lined up inside in passing situations frequently last season, with 342 of his 473 snaps coming in passing situations. The 2017 undrafted free agent was pretty underwhelming though. The Patriots also have 2017 3rd round pick Derek Rivers in the mix. He missed his entire rookie year with a torn ACL, but he should have a role as a sub package edge rusher in 2018. The Patriots will frequently have three or even all four of their top defensive ends on the field in passing situations (Adrian Clayborn, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers). This deep defensive line is also well equipped to stop the run. They should be a lot better upfront in 2018.
The Patriots should also be a lot better at linebacker in 2018, although that won’t be hard, as they had one of the worst linebacking corps in the NFL last season. The biggest reason for their struggles was Dont’a Hightower having an injury plagued season and he should be healthier in 2018, which should be a big boost to this linebacking corps. He missed weeks 2 and 3 with a knee injury and then missed the final 9 games and the post-season with a torn pectoral. Even when he did play, he struggled. That’s in part because he was in limited by the knee injury, but he also played out of position a lot of the time, often lining up as an edge rusher in passing situations.
With the Patriots deeper at defensive end, he should play more traditional linebacker this season and, assuming he’s healthy, he has obvious bounce back potential. He earned a negative grade from Pro Football Focus last season, but that was the first negative grade of his career. The 2012 1st round pick finished in the top-21 among non-rush linebackers on PFF in each of his first 5 seasons in the league, maxing out at #3 in 2014 and finished 14th in 2016. He’s also still only going into his age 28 season, though he has a concerning injury history. He hasn’t played more than 13 games in a season since 2013. Even with his injury history, the Patriots are still very likely to get a lot more out of him this season than they did last season, which was derailed by injuries from the start.
Hightower’s return should lead to a smaller role for Kyle Van Noy, who was overwhelmed in the first every down action of his career. He was a jack of all trades for the Patriots with 187 pass rush snaps, 279 coverage snaps, and 244 run defense snaps, but earned negative grades in all 3 aspects from PFF and finished 31st among 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. With Hightower back and more depth at defensive end, Van Noy should be more of a two-down player focusing on stuffing the run in base packages.
Elandon Roberts is also a base package linebacker. More than half of his 558 snaps came on run plays (281) last season. The 2016 6th round pick showed promise against the run on 271 snaps as a rookie, but failed to translate to a larger role. The Patriots also used a 5th and 6th round pick on linebackers, taking JaWhaun Bentley and Christian Sam. They’ll likely focus on special teams immediately, but could earn playing time on defense later in the year in a thin linebacking corps. They also have special teamer and coverage specialist Marquis Flowers. Hightower is their only above average starter, but simply having him back makes this a much more passable linebacking corps.
Safety Patrick Chung also plays some linebacker in passing situations. The 5-11 215 pounder plays better closer to the line of scrimmage and the Patriots have plenty of depth in the secondary. Chung’s age is a bit of a concern, going into his age 31 season, but moving to more of a hybrid role in his 2nd stint with the Patriots has done wonders for his career. Originally brought back to New England on a 1-year, 1.07 million dollar deal after a terrible season in Philadelphia in 2013, Chung has earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons with the Patriots, including 2017.
Devin McCourty is the other starting safety. Age is also becoming a bit of a concern for him, going into his age 31 season as well, and he is coming off of a down year by his standards. He still finished with a positive grade, but after 5 straight seasons in the top-14 among safeties he fell to 31st at his position in 2017. He should still have a couple solid seasons left in the tank at least and he’s missed just 5 games with injury in 8 seasons in the league, but it’s very possible his best days are behind him.
Duron Harmon is their 3rd safety, but he still played 700 snaps last season. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Hurmon has topped 500 snaps in 3 straight seasons and has earned a positive grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league. He’s good enough to be an every down safety for a lot of teams and plays close to every down snaps with the Patriots, despite being a 3rd safety. Even the Patriots’ 4th safety Jordan Richards played 273 snaps last season. Also a high pick, a 2nd rounder in 2015, Richards has held his own in limited snaps on defense and is also a key special teamer. The Patriots safeties all are versatile, which allows them to frequently line up 3 or 4 safeties on the field at the same time with a safety filling in for a linebacker and/or a slot cornerback.
At cornerback, Stephon Gilmore is locked in as the #1 guy. The Patriots shockingly signed him away from the Bills last off-season on a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal. He’s the 8th highest paid cornerback in the league in terms of average annual salary and he’s by far the highest paid free agent the Patriots have signed in the Bill Belichick era. He struggled in his first 5 games and then missed 3 games with a concussion, but was one of the best cornerbacks in the league once he got more comfortable in the system. From week 10 on, he was PFF’s 5th ranked cornerback and finished the season 31st overall at his position, despite the terrible start. The 2012 1st round pick was also a top-25 cornerback in 2014 and 2015 as well, though he had a down 2016 season. He’s been a bit inconsistent in the past, but, still only going into his age 28 season, he’s still in the prime of his career and could easily continue playing at a high level.
The Patriots essentially choose Gilmore over re-signing Malcolm Butler, who was going into the final year of his rookie deal when Gilmore was signed last off-season. After the Gilmore signing, it became clear that Butler was not going to get an extension to his liking from the Patriots. He eventually signed with the Titans on a 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal this off-season. Aside from his still inexplicable benching in the Patriots’ most recent Super Bowl, Butler had a successful tenure in New England, especially considering he arrived as an undrafted free agent. He earned positive grades from PFF in each of the last 3 seasons, maxing out at 5th in 2016, though he did finish 48th in 2017 and was benched for the Super Bowl at least in part for performance reasons.
Between Butler’s down year in 2017 and the Patriots depth at cornerback, he might not be missed that much. Veteran Jason McCourty was acquired via trade and he’s likely the favorite to start opposite Gilmore. McCourty’s age is a bit of a concern, as he is going into his age 31 season (along with his twin brother Devin), but he’s coming off of one of the better seasons of his career. McCourty earned positive coverage grades from PFF from 2011-2013 and finished 25th and 18th respectively at his position in coverage grade in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but he earned below average coverage grades from PFF from 2014-2016 (while missing 14 games due to injury), leading to his release from Tennessee.
He rebounded in his one season in Cleveland. He finished 32nd in coverage grade and remained useful in run support, finishing 17th at his position in overall grade. He also was relatively healthy, missing just 2 games with injury. Despite that, the Browns were inexplicably going to cut McCourty to save his 3 million non-guaranteed salary before the Patriots jumped in at the last second and acquired a starting caliber cornerback with a reasonable salary for a swap of late round picks. He fits New England’s scheme well and should have the inside track at the #2 cornerback job, though the Patriots do have other options.
They used a 2nd round pick on Florida’s Duke Dawson, the only defensive player they drafted in the first 4 rounds of the draft. He’ll compete for a starting job and could also see action on the slot, although, given all of the Patriots’ depth at safety, there are not a lot of slot snaps available for cornerbacks. The Patriots also have Eric Rowe returning from an injury plagued season. He played just 260 snaps in 8 games last season, but he was their 3rd cornerback when healthy. He was underwhelming when on the field though, especially struggling on the slot. The 6-1 205 pounder is not a natural fit on the slot, but played 135 of 175 coverage snaps there. In 2016, when he played just 35 of 289 coverage snaps on the slot, he was about a league average starter on about half of the snaps. He’ll likely enter 2018 as their top reserve outside cornerback, assuming he makes the final roster.
Jonathan Jones is the opposite of Rowe. The 5-11 190 pounder is a natural fit on the slot and earned a positive grade last season in the first significant action of the 2016 undrafted free agent’s career. He played 438 snaps total and lined up on the slot for 269 of 341 coverage snaps. He could be competing for one roster spot with 2016 2nd round pick Cyrus Jones. Jones was drafted to be a slot specialist and return man, but he played just 147 snaps as a rookie and missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL. He also struggled as a return man as a rookie. He still has upside, only going into his age 25 season, which should help him stay on the roster, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Patriots have a deep secondary and there may just not be a role for him.
The Patriots aren’t the sure thing they’ve been in recent years because of Tom Brady’s age, but as long as he keeps doing what he’s been doing the Patriots should remain at the top of a weak AFC. Much was made of their big off-seasons losses, but they quietly did a good job of reloading talent, with additions like Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, Jason McCourty, Danny Shelton, Adrian Clayborn, Duke Dawson, Trent Brown, and Jordan Matthews and they get Dont’a Hightower and Julian Edelman back from injury. With a lot of new players, the Patriots may take a few weeks to stride their stride, especially with Edelman suspended for 4 games, but I would expect them to be the AFC favorite by mid-season barring a major decline at the quarterback position. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.
Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC East