New England Patriots 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Back in 2013, a 36-year-old Tom Brady had a down year by his standards, completing 60.5% of his passes for an average of 6.92 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. The Patriots still made the AFC Championship, but Brady’s QB rating was his lowest since 2003. The following off-season, the Patriots used a 2nd round pick on Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and it looked like there would be a changing of the guard at quarterback sometime in the near future, with Brady seemingly on the decline in his late 30s.

Except that’s not what happened at all. Instead, Brady led the Patriots to his 4th Super Bowl victory the very next season and went on to have arguably the best 5-year stretch of his career, making 4 of 5 Super Bowls, winning 3 of them to give him a record 6 Super Bowl victories. Over those 5 seasons, he completed 65.5% of his passes for an average of 7.66 YPA, 158 touchdowns, and 37 interceptions, finishing in the top-2 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons and winning his 3rd MVP in 2017. Now going into his age 42 season, Brady looks like he will be the Patriots’ quarterback for the foreseeable future, while Garoppolo was sent to the 49ers for a 2nd round pick before his 4-year rookie contract expired.

Brady is also entering uncharted territory, as the list of quarterbacks who have had success in their age 42 season is basically non-existent. Warren Moon holds the record for passing touchdowns in a season by a quarterback 42 or older, throwing 11 in 1998, and no one else has ever thrown more than 5. This isn’t to say that Brady is about to drop off a cliff, after he completed 65.8% of his passes for an average of 7.64 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions and finished as PFF’s 5th ranked quarterback in 2018, as he keeps himself in incredible shape, but it’s not a guarantee that he continues playing at a high level at this point.

Looking towards the future, the Patriots used a 4th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Stidham was seen as a potential first round pick going into the 2018 season, but a down year with a poor supporting cast sunk his draft stock and allowed the Patriots to take him at 133 overall. There’s certainly no guarantee Stidham ever develops into Brady’s successor, but he was worth a shot in the middle rounds. With experienced veteran Brian Hoyer (83.2 QB rating in 37 career starts) likely locked in as the #2 quarterback, Stidham is unlikely to see the field as a rookie. The Patriots are obviously hoping they don’t have to give either of their backup quarterbacks significant action and that Brady will continue beating Father Time in his 20th season in the league.

Grade: A

Running Backs

With Brady getting up there in age, the Patriots have shifted their offensive strategy to become more run heavy. Tom Brady’s 614 combined drop backs and carries in 2018 were his fewest in a full season since 2010 and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that number drop again in 2019. This shift began when the Patriots used the 31st overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft in Georgia running back Sony Michel. That was a surprising move, as running back was not an obvious need and it was just the 3rd time in 19 drafts under Bill Belichick that the Patriots used a pick in the first or second round on a running back, but Michel proved to be by far their best runner as a rookie and scored the only touchdown in the Super Bowl. He averaged 4.45 yards per carry on 209 carries, scored 6 times, and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked running back.

Injuries are a concern for Michel, as he missed 3 games with knee injury as a rookie, was limited in others, and has knee injuries dating back to his collegiate days, and he’s not much of a pass catcher (7 catches as a rookie), but he has the potential to be one of the best runners in the NFL. If he can stay healthy, he could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league and continue developing into the kind of weapon they can build their offense around. If he can’t stay healthy, the Patriots used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Alabama running back Damien Harris as insurance. He’ll likely be a pure backup as long as Michel stays on the field, but he gives them needed depth.

Harris’ addition could be bad news for Rex Burkhead’s roster chances. After playing sparingly on offense in the first 4 years of his career in Cincinnati, Burkhead showed promise in his first season in New England in 2017, averaging 4.13 yards per carry on 64 carries, adding 30 catches for 254 yards, and scoring 8 total touchdowns, but in 2018 he averaged just 3.26 yards per carry on 57 carries, added just 14 catches for 131 yards, and scored just once. Burkhead has also had a lot of trouble staying healthy, playing just 18 of 32 games in two seasons in New England. The Patriots like his versatility and ability to play special teams, but they brought back pure special teamer Brandon Bolden this off-season and could opt to keep him over Burkhead, whose 2 million dollar non-guaranteed salary could be cost prohibitive for a player who isn’t expected to have much of a role on offense.

James White remains as the passing down back. White doesn’t carry the ball much, with a 4.14 career YPC average on 207 carries in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s totaled 60, 56, and 87 catches in the past 3 seasons respectively. At one point in 2018, he actually led the entire AFC in catches, despite being a running back. The Patriots are hoping for more out of their receiving corps in 2019, so they won’t have to rely on checking down to White as often, but he’s still a very valuable weapon for this offense. He’s finished in the top-13 in receiving grade on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including a 7th place finish in 2018.

The Patriots also use a fullback almost as much as anyone in the league, with James Develin finishing 2nd in snaps played among fullbacks last season with 265. Along with San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk, Develin was just one of two fullbacks in the league who played more than 150 snaps last season. Fullbacks may be a dying breed in the NFL, but Develin is still a part of this offense. Not only is he a solid lead blocker, but he also had 8 yards and 4 touchdowns on 6 carries as a goal line back and he caught 12 passes for 61 yards as well. He’ll have a similar role in 2019. This is a very deep backfield.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Note: This was written before the announcement of Ben Watson’s 4-game suspension. I have included an update in the conclusion.

The Patriots are hoping for more out of their receiving corps, but they have a lot of uncertainty in this unit. The only real certainty is Julian Edelman, who will continue being their primary slot receiver and Brady’s most trusted target. Edelman missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and missed the first 4 games of 2018 with a suspension, but he picked up right where he left off when he returned, putting up a 74/850/6 slash line to lead the team in receiving in just 12 games and ultimately winning Super Bowl MVP in a game in which he caught 10 passes for 141 yards.

Since becoming Brady’s top target in 2013, Edelman has averaged 103 catches for 1117 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns per 16 games. He’s also involved on end arounds, rushing for 107 yards on 9 carries in 2018, and the former collegiate quarterback also occasionally throws a pass on trick plays (2 of 2 for 43 yards in 2018). His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 33 season, but he showed no signs of slowing down last season and his game isn’t overly dependant on athleticism, so he could easily have a couple more seasons left in the tank. The Patriots kept him long-term with a 2-year, 18 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his contract in 2019.

Aside from Edelman, everything else in uncertain in this receiving corps. The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski to an early retirement this off-season and, while he wasn’t the dominant player he was in his prime in 2018, he still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked tight end, putting up a 47/682/3 slash line in 13 games and excelling as a blocker, particularly in the post-season. Gronkowski would only be in his age 30 season in 2019, retiring primarily because of all the injuries he’s sustained in his career, so there are a lot of rumors he could opt to unretire in the middle of the season and rejoin the Patriots for another playoff run.

That’s hardly a guarantee though, so the Patriots will have to proceed with the tight ends they have on their roster. Also releasing blocking tight end Dwayne Allen this off-season, the Patriots are starting fresh at the tight end position, not bringing back a single tight end who played a snap for them in 2018. They didn’t take a tight end in the draft like most expected them to, but they brought in a trio of veterans in free agency to compete for roles, signing ex-Saint Ben Watson, ex-Jaguar Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and ex-Bronco Matt LaCosse. Watson got the biggest contract, set to make 3 million in 2019 with 600K guaranteed, suggesting they view him as the favorite to start, but this will be an open competition.

For Watson, this is a return to New England, where he spent the first 6 years of his career from 2004-2009, before spending 9 seasons with the Browns, Ravens, and Saints. Watson briefly retired this off-season, but was clearly willing to reconsider when the Patriots called. His age is a huge concern, going into his age 39 season, and he wasn’t overly productive last season with the Saints, catching 35 passes for 400 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he’s a solid blocker, a great locker room guy, and won’t be counted on as an every snap player. He played 506 snaps last season and could see an even smaller role in 2019, depending on performance.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins brings more upside, but he’s running out of time to capitalize on it, now going into his age 27 season. A 2nd round pick by the Buccaneers in 2014, Seferian-Jenkins has always had talent, but he struggled with alcohol abuse early in his career, part of why he caught just 55 passes in his first 3 seasons in the league, before getting his act together and posting a 50/357/3 slash line in 2017 as the starting tight end on a very underwhelming Jets offense.

That looked like something he’d be able to improve on when he signed with the Jaguars last off-season, but they ended up having major issues on offense as well and injuries limited him to just 11 catches in 5 games, before going on injured reserve due to season ending hernia surgery. He’ll compete for a role in New England and was well worth the risk on a near minimum deal that guaranteed him just 25K at signing. Like Watson, he’s a capable blocker who fits the run heavier offense the Patriots want to run.

Matt LaCosse is also in the mix for a role, although he’s more of a longshot than Watson or Seferian-Jenkins. An undrafted free agent in 2015, LaCosse barely played in his first 3 seasons in the league and entered the 2018 season buried on the depth chart in Denver, but injuries forced him into the starting lineup down the stretch. He started the last 6 games of the season, but was underwhelming, totaling 14 catches for 122 yards and 1 touchdown and finishing the season with a 24/250/1 slash line on 204 routes run. He’s not a lock for the final roster, but could end up playing a role in a thin tight end group.

The Patriots were never going to replace Rob Gronkowski one-to-one, but they can adjust their offense to be less tight end centric and focus more on running the ball on early downs and then spreading the defense with wide receivers. The Patriots are certainly deep at running back and they’re better than they’ve been in recent years at wide receiver, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty at the wide receiver position.

The Patriots used their first round pick (32nd overall) on Arizona State wide receiver N’Keal Harry, the earliest they’ve ever drafted a wide receiver. Harry doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he’s a perfect fit for this offense because he can make contested catches and break tackles in the open field. He’s a very physical receiver who doesn’t need to get a lot of separation to make plays. There may be some growing pains in his first season in New England and their poor track record of integrating young receivers into this offense can’t be ignored, so he might not have a huge rookie year impact, but he looks like a strong pick for the long-term at the very least. He’ll compete for one of the two outside receiver jobs.

The Patriots are hoping they’ll have Josh Gordon to play one of the outside receiver roles, but his status remains uncertain after yet another indefinite drug suspension. Gordon’s talent is undeniable, as evidenced by the 87/1646/9 slash line he had in 14 games in 2013 to lead the league in receiving in his age 22 season, but he caught just 42 passes in 10 games in the following 4 seasons combined due to multiple suspensions.

Traded from Cleveland to New England early last season, Gordon had a 41/737/4 slash line in 11 games and finished as PFF’s 36th ranked wide receiver, before ultimately getting suspended again and missing the Patriots’ post-season run. Still theoretically in the prime of his career in age 28 season, if Gordon is available this season, he should make a big impact on this team, but his status is impossible to know at this point. It’s very possible the Patriots get Gordon back from suspension and Rob Gronkowski back from retirement mid-season, which would obviously change this offense significantly.

Demaryius Thomas is also an option outside, but he comes with a lot of uncertainty as well, going into his age 32 season and coming off of a torn achilles that he suffered back in December. Thomas had 5 straight 1000+ yard seasons from 2012-2016 and prior to his achilles tear he hadn’t missed a game since 2011, but he was declining even before the injury, posting a 59/677/5 slash line in 15 games last season. He still finished above average on PFF in 2018, suggesting he has something left in the tank if he can get healthy and stay healthy, but achilles tears sometimes take close to a year to return from, so he’s not a guarantee to be ready for the start of the season. His contract is heavily incentivized and he’s guaranteed just 150K at signing, so the Patriots aren’t taking much of a risk by bringing him in.

If neither Thomas nor Gordon are available for the start of the season, the Patriots would turn to either Phillip Dorsett and/or Dontrelle Inman for heavy snaps, along with Harry and Edelman. A first round pick by the Colts in 2015, the Patriots traded promising young backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett to acquire Dorsett before the start of the 2017 season, even though he had shown little in 2 years in the league, and he failed to make an impact in his first season in New England, finishing with just 12 catches. In 2018, he got a bigger opportunity with Edelman out for the first 4 weeks of the season, but managed just 16 catches for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns in those 4 games and didn’t play much the rest of the way, finishing with a 32/290/3 slash line on 399 snaps. Now in his 5th season in the league, Dorsett looks unlikely to ever deliver on his first round upside and is best as a reserve depth receiver.

Inman also comes from Indianapolis, catching 28 catches for 304 yards and 3 touchdowns in 9 games last season. He did have a 58/810/4 slash line in 2016 with the Chargers, but he’s never topped 500 yards in any of his other 6 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 30 season. He’s a versatile player who can play both outside and inside, so he’s a valuable reserve, but he’d be an underwhelming starting option at best. When everyone is available, Dorsett and Inman are their 5th and 6th receivers on the depth chart, which shows the depth and upside the Patriots have at wide receiver, but there’s also a lot of uncertainty here, with a rookie and two players who are no guarantee to be on the active roster week 1. This is a group that could get a lot better as the season goes on, especially if Rob Gronkowski unretires mid-season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Given Brady’s age, pass protection is incredibly important for this team, as they can’t allow Brady to take too many hits. Brady’s quick release makes it easy on his offensive line, but his offensive line also played at a high level in 2018, leading to Brady taking just 21 sacks (3rd fewest among quarterbacks with at least 500 drop backs), 37 additional hits (just two while throwing), and being pressured on just 25.8% of dropbacks (3rd fewest among qualified quarterbacks). In the post-season, they were even better, allowing Brady to be sacked just once in just 3 games.

Offensive line play was actually a big concern for them going into the season, as incumbent left tackle Nate Solder signed a then record deal with the Giants for 62 million over 4 years and his replacement, 2018 1st round pick Isaiah Wynn, tore his achilles in the pre-season and went on injured reserve. Fortunately, unheralded veteran Trent Brown was able to step in, make all 19 starts (including post-season), and stabilize the all important left tackle position. Brown got so much attention for his play that he also got a record contract in free agency this off-season, signing a 4-year, 66 million dollar deal with the Raiders.

Wynn is expected to return healthy for 2019 and he’ll be over a year removed from the injury by week 1, so they have an obvious replacement for Brown. Wynn was a dominant pass protector on the blindside against tough competition in the SEC at the University of Georgia, but concerns about his arm length and athleticism had some teams looking at him as a guard or right tackle during the draft process. The Patriots clearly believe he can stay at left tackle in the NFL and they don’t really have another place for him to play on this line, but he may ultimately end up changing positions in the future.

The Patriots added insurance for Wynn this off-season, using a 3rd round pick on West Virginia’s Yodny Cajuste. He also provides insurance on the right side, where Marcus Cannon is still playing well, but Cannon also missed 17 games with injury over the past 4 seasons and is now going into his age 31 season. Cannon has still earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 26th among offensive tackles, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank, but he may be starting to break down. He’ll still almost definitely be the week 1 starter though.

The Patriots have solid talent at tackle, but the strength of this offensive line is the interior, which is arguably the best interior line in the league. Making their interior even more impressive is the fact that Patriots were able to build that interior very quickly, without using any premium draft picks. Left guard Joe Thuney was a 3rd round pick in 2016, center David Andrews was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015, and right guard Shaq Mason was a 4th round pick in 2015. All three players have started each of the past 3 Super Bowls.

Mason is probably the best of the bunch. Mason entered the league incredibly raw in pass protection, coming from an offense at Georgia Tech that was incredibly run heavy, but he also entered the league as an NFL ready run blocker and has improved his overall game in every season in the league, especially his pass protection. In 2018, he allowed just 1 sack and 6 quarterback hits all season and was PFF’s #1 guard overall, after finishing 7th at his position in 2016 and 4th at his position in 2017.

Very much in the prime of his career, going into his age 26 season, Mason is one of the best interior linemen in the entire NFL. Signed to a 5-year, 45 million dollar extension last off-season, Mason now looks underpaid, as he’s only the 11st highest paid guard in the NFL. With that extension not even started yet, Mason’s deal will only look better as time goes on and more guys sign extensions, provided Mason doesn’t have an unexpected drop off in play.

David Andrews is on an even team friendlier team, extended for just 9 million over 3 years two off-seasons ago. The reason they were able to re-sign the former undrafted free agent so inexpensively is because, even though he exceeded his lack of draft slot to make 27 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league, he was only about a league average starter. In the past 2 seasons, he’s taken a big step forward, finishing 4th among centers on PFF in 2017 and 9th in 2018. He’ll be due a big pay increase when his current contract expires after 2020, but until then he’s arguably the best veteran contract value in the NFL.

Joe Thuney is the only one whose status is uncertain beyond this season. Thuney has made all 48 starts in 3 seasons in the league, struggling as a rookie, before making a leap forward from year 1 to year 2 and finishing 14th among guards in both 2017 and 2018, but he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal without an extension and he might be able to get more money on the open market than the Patriots are willing to give him.

The Patriots used a 4th round pick this off-season on Arkansas guard Hjalte Froholdt as a potential future replacement and, given their track record of developing mid-round offensive linemen, they might prefer to take their chances with him in 2020 and beyond, rather than giving another guard top level money. Isaiah Wynn could also be a long-term option at left guard if it doesn’t work out for him at left tackle. For now, this is a dominant interior on an offensive line that should be able to weather the loss of left tackle Trent Brown.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

Trent Brown was not the Patriots’ only major free agent loss this off-season. As is the case with many Super Bowl winners, there simply isn’t enough cap space to keep all their talent together long-term. They should be able to weather the loss of Brown, but a bigger loss is the loss of defensive end Trey Flowers, who signed with the Lions this off-season for 90 million over 5 years. Flowers has never had a double digit sack season, but he’s still been a dominant defensive lineman. Though he had just 7.5 sacks in 2018, he added 13 hits and 43 hurries on 462 pass rush snaps (13.9% pressure rate), while playing at a high level against the run and lining up both inside and outside in pass rush situations. He finished 2018 as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked edge defender on 732 snaps, so he won’t be easy to replace.

Flowers’ snaps will likely be filled by several players, but the closest one-to-one replacement they have is Michael Bennett, who they acquired from the Eagles for a swap of late round picks and who they gave a new 2-year, 16.5 million dollar contract this off-season. Bennett is a similar player to Flowers. He plays the run well, lines up in different spots on the defensive line, and has been better than his sack total suggests. His 61 sacks over the past 8 seasons are 17th most in the NFL over that time period, but he’s added 118 hits and 511 hurries on 3,849 pass rush snaps in those 8 seasons, giving him a very impressive 17.9% pressure rate.

The only concern with Bennett is his age, going into his age 34 season, but he still played at a high level in 2018, totaling 9 sacks, 22 hits, and 37 hurries on 532 pass rush snaps (12.8%) and finished as PFF’s 28th ranked edge defender. His best days are probably behind him, but unless his play falls off a cliff, he should prove to be a steal for a team that badly needed pass rush help and he’s a great fit for this scheme because of his ability to get to the quarterback from any spot on the line.

The Patriots also have some young defensive ends that can step up. They used a 3rd round pick on Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich, who was a highly productive edge rusher in college and has a good chance to outperform where he was drafted. They used a 3rd round pick a couple years ago on Derek Rivers and, while injuries cost him his whole rookie year and limited him to 78 snaps in 6 games in 2018, he’s still only going into his age 24 season and could show some of that untapped potential. They also used a 4th round pick in that 2017 draft on defensive end Deatrich Wise. He’s been underwhelming on 544 snaps and 431 snaps respectively over the past 2 seasons, but could be better in his 3rd season in the league. Like Bennett, he’s a versatile player who can line up both inside and outside on this defensive line.

In addition, the Patriots have good depth at linebacker and like to rush their linebackers off the edge frequently. Dont’a Hightower (206 pass rush snaps compared to 281 coverage snaps), Kyle Van Noy (290 pass rush snaps compared to 349 coverage snaps), and John Simon (123 pass rush snaps compared to 12 coverage snaps) all played hybrid linebacker/edge rusher roles in 2018. They weren’t all that productive, with Hightower totaling 1 sack, 5 hits, and 24 hurries, Van Noy totaling 3.5 sacks, 7 hits, and 25 hurries, and Simon totaling 2 sacks, 1 hit, and 9 hurries, but they allow this defense to be versatile depending on the situation. The Patriots also brought back Jamie Collins this off-season and he can play in that hybrid role as well. Even without Trey Flowers, the Patriots should get solid play from their edge defenders in 2019.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Patriots also lost a starting interior defender this off-season, with Malcom Brown signing with the Saints on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal, but he’s not nearly as big of a loss as Flowers, as he’s purely a base package run stuffer who played just 456 snaps in 2018. The Patriots primarily rely on their interior defenders to stuff the run, frequently moving their edge defenders inside in obvious passing situations. Lawrence Guy (519 snaps) and Danny Shelton (322 snaps) remain from last season’s team and will continue playing similar roles.

Neither Guy nor Shelton gets to the quarterback, but both were excellent run stuffers, with Lawrence Guy finishing 7th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in run stopping grade. Both players have proven their run stopping ability over several seasons, so I would expect more of the same from both in 2018, though Guy’s age is a minor concern in his age 30 season. The Patriots also have Mike Pennel, who was signed in free agency to replace Brown and he could easily end up being an upgrade over Brown. Pennel only played 358 snaps last season, which were the most he’s ever played in a season in his 5-year career, but he also excelled against the run, finishing 14th on PFF in run stuffing grade among interior defenders. Like Guy and Shelton, Pennel is not going to get to the quarterback frequently.

Adam Butler is their primary interior pass rush specialist and will likely have a significant role again. He played 381 snaps in 2018, rushing the passer on 301 of those snaps, but he only managed 3 sacks, 2 hits, and 13 hurries, an underwhelming 6.0% pressure rate. A 2017 undrafted free agent, Butler has earned below average grades from PFF in both seasons in the league, but remains in his role for lack of a better option. He is the one weak spot on this defensive line. He’ll probably frequently rush from the interior alongside a defensive end who moves inside in passing situations.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As mentioned, the Patriots have a lot of depth at linebacker and have a number of players who can also rush the passer off the edge in obvious passing situations. Kyle Van Noy led Patriot linebackers with 946 snaps played in 2018. He was about a league average starter in the regular season, before playing at a high level in the post-season, but he’s gotten better in each of his five seasons in the league and the Patriots definitely value his versatility. I would expect more of the same from him in 2019.

Dont’a Hightower used to be the leader of this linebacking corps, but injuries have slowed him in recent years. A top-18 off ball linebacker on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2014-2016, the Patriots re-signed him to a 4-year, 35.5 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago, but injuries have started to catch up with him. He hasn’t played all 16 games since 2013, missing 23 games in 5 seasons over that stretch. The 15 games he played last season were his most over that stretch, but he was only about a league average starter. He played 774 snaps, 2nd on the team among linebackers, but could see that number drop in a deeper linebacking corps in 2019. He has bounce back potential, only in his age 29 season, but he seems to be breaking down and his best days could easily be behind him.

Hightower and Jamie Collins used to be one of the better linebacker duos in the NFL, but Collins hasn’t been the same player in recent years either. Collins was PFF’s 6th ranked off ball linebacker in both 2014 and 2015, but the Patriots traded him to Cleveland during the 2016 season, the final year of his rookie deal, and he never lived up to the 4-year, 50 million dollar extension the Browns gave him. He missed 9 games with injury in 2017 and was about a league average starter in both 2016 and 2018, leading to the Browns releasing him this off-season ahead of a 10.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Now going into his age 30 season, Collins probably won’t ever play as well as he did in his first stint in New England and he definitely won’t be an every snap player this time around, but he’s a worthwhile flyer on an incentivized deal with just 250K guaranteed.

John Simon will probably have the smallest role of the Patriots’ hybrid linebackers, if he even makes the final roster, which he might not given how much depth the Patriots have in the front 7. A final cut by the Colts last off-season, Simon played sparingly in his first season in New England in 2018 (185 snaps), but was a solid rotational player on an average of 542 snaps per season in the 3 seasons prior with the Colts and Texans. Even when the Colts released him last off-season, it was more about him not being a good fit for their scheme change than his lack of ability. He’ll provide great depth if he makes the final roster.

The Patriots also have a couple traditional linebackers who don’t rush the passer. Elandon Roberts played 429 snaps as a situational run stuffer in 2018, but the 2016 6th round pick is very limited in coverage and will likely lose snaps to second year linebacker Ja’whaun Bentley, who is returning from a season ending bicep injury. Despite being a mere 5th round rookie, Bentley won a starting job in the pre-season and showed a lot of promise on 138 snaps in 3 games before the injury. He’s still very inexperienced, but he could easily end up being the Patriots’ next late round steal. He’ll likely play close to every down at middle linebacker with Van Noy, Hightower, Collins, and perhaps Simon rotating on the outside. This is a deep linebacking corps with upside, but it lacks a surefire difference maker.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Patriots also frequently use 6 defensive backs in obvious passing situations, dropping safety Patrick Chung closer to the line of scrimmage to essentially function as a linebacker. Chung played 888 snaps in 15 games last season, while fellow starting safety Devin McCourty played all 16 games and all but 39 snaps, but 3rd safety Duron Harmon still played 635 snaps. Harmon has played a similar role for the past 4 seasons, playing all 64 games and averaging 612 snaps per season. He’s earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons and, still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, he should have a similar season in 2019.

McCourty and Chung are both locked in as the starters, but both are getting up there in age, going into their age 32 seasons. Both are coming off of solid seasons, finishing 19th and 48th respectively among safeties on PFF, and both have been reliable contributors for years, but both are probably on the downswing of their careers. McCourty is also going into the final year of his contract, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if this was his final season in New England.

Devin’s twin brother Jason is also on the team, starting 12 of 16 games at cornerback last season, and he’s obviously also going into his age 32 season. Re-signed for 10 million over 2 years this off-season, McCourty was PFF’s 14th ranked cornerback in 2018 and their 33rd ranked cornerback in 2017 and is probably the favorite to keep his #2 cornerback job, but his age is a concern and he has plenty of competition for the job.

Jonathan Jones started last season as the 3rd cornerback, but lost his job to rookie undrafted free agent JC Jackson midway through the season and played just 220 snaps in their final 10 games. Jones wasn’t bad and has been a capable player on 1020 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, but Jackson was a clear upgrade and a big part of why their defense got better down the stretch, finishing as PFF’s 28th ranked cornerback on 395 regular season snaps and continuing his strong play into the post-season. He’s still relatively unproven and the fact that the whole league let him go undrafted a year ago can’t be ignored, but he could easily end up as the Patriots’ next Malcolm Butler. He’ll be very much in the mix for a role in 2019.

The Patriots also have last year’s 2nd round pick Duke Dawson and this year’s 2nd round pick JoeJuan Williams in the mix. Dawson missed his entire rookie season with injury, but he’s expected to be healthy in 2019 and could have a role. Williams, meanwhile, comes into the league pretty raw and is probably more of a long-term successor at either cornerback or safety than an immediate option, but his size (6-4 211) and versatility could allow him to have a role against certain opponents. Jones could also still stick on the roster, even as the 6th cornerback, because he’s a strong special teamer as well, but barring a rash of injuries he’s unlikely to have much of a defensive role in a deep cornerback group.

Top cornerback Stephon Gilmore is the only one locked into a role. It was a surprise when the Patriots signed him to a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, for a couple reasons. Not only was he the first major outside free agent signing for the Patriots in several years, but he was signed at a time when Malcolm Butler was the #1 cornerback and was going into the final year of his rookie deal looking for a similar contract.

Gilmore struggled in his first few games in New England, struggling to adjust to the system, but he figured it out and has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league since then, finishing as PFF’s 25th ranked cornerback in 2017 and their 1st ranked cornerback in a dominant 2018 season. He ranked 2nd in the NFL in completion percentage allowed at 46.7% and led the NFL with 18 pass breakups, 5 more than any other defensive back. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and clearly comfortable in this scheme, Gilmore could easily have another dominant season. He’s arguably the top cornerback in the NFL. He leads a deep secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Patriots had some key losses this off-season, losing tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive end Trey Flowers, and left tackle Trent Brown, but they still have one of the best rosters in the NFL and should compete for a Super Bowl again as long as Tom Brady continues playing at a high level. They may start slow like they have in recent years, especially with the uncertainty in their receiving corps, but they should be in the mix for a first round bye in the AFC once again. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Update: Ben Watson is reportedly being suspended for the first 4 games of the season for a banned substance he took when he believed he was retiring. The Patriots were aware of the situation when they signed him. It’s not a huge loss for the Patriots, but it’s another reason why their receiving corps could start slow.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC East

Team Score: 77.94*

Offensive Score: 80.52

Defensive Score: 75.35

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams: Super Bowl LIII Pick

New England Patriots (13-5) vs. Los Angeles Rams (15-3) in Super Bowl LIII

By their standards, the Patriots had a down season. They finished with fewer than 12 wins for the first time since 2009 and were legitimately blown out in a few games. They lost as many games by double digits (3) as they had in the previous 3 seasons combined and their 34-10 loss to the Titans was their biggest loss since 2014. They also didn’t go on one of their typical late season runs, actually winning more games in their first 8 games (6) than their final 8 games (5). From week 9 to 15, they went just 2-3, starting with that loss to the Titans in week 10, which was their latest loss by that many points since back in 2000 before Brady became a starter.

They also showed stretches of dominance though, especially at home, where they went a perfect 8-0, with 6 of 8 wins by double digits. Their only home wins that were within double digits came against division winners in the Chiefs and Texans and they would have had the ball with a 14 point lead late in the 4th quarter against the Texans if not for a muffed punt that led to a late Houston touchdown.

They weren’t nearly as good on the road, but picked up another two double digit wins on the road against the Jets and Bills, giving them 8 double digit wins in the regular season, tied with the Saints for most in the NFL. They won in Chicago, where the Bears otherwise won all of their regular season home games en route to a 12-4 record. All in all, the Patriots went 4-0 against playoff qualifiers, the only playoff qualifier to have a perfect record against fellow playoff qualifiers.

The Patriots played down to their level of competition some this season, particularly away from home, but they’ve always brought their best for big games in the Brady/Belichick era, going a ridiculous 39-13 against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including an unfathomable 15-1 since 2010. That’s not even skewed by early season matchups where records don’t mean as much, as they are 17-5 against teams with a better record than them in week 11 or later, including 8-2 in the post-season. For comparison, the league average winning percentage against a team with a better record is 38.3%.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that they were able to beat the Chargers and Chiefs, who both finished 12-4, to advance to the Super Bowl, where they now face the 3-loss Rams. Granted, their win over the Chiefs was close to a 50/50 game that could have gone either way, but their game against the Chargers was over by halftime. They showed their top level for much of the season and securing a first round bye allowed key veterans like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to get healthy for another playoff run. Now with another week off, I wouldn’t want to bet against them right now, especially only getting 2.5 points. The Patriots have been close to an auto-bet with Brady under center as underdogs or favorites of less than 3, going 52-24 ATS and 47-29 straight up.

The Rams will present a tough test though. Their offense hasn’t been the same since Cooper Kupp went down with a torn ACL, as they had a first down rate of 46.09% in the 8 games he played, as opposed to 39.60% in the 10 games he missed, but that’s still an impressive rate and they should have a healthier Todd Gurley after a week off, giving them a one-two punch at running back of Gurley and talented replacement CJ Anderson. They’ve also been much better defensively with cornerback Aqib Talib on the field, allowing a 33.10% first down rate in the 10 games he played, as opposed to 43.29% in the 8 games he missed.

Both teams have plenty of standout players, with Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, and Andrew Whitworth among those I haven’t mentioned yet for the Rams and Julian Edelman, Trey Flowers, and Stephon Gilmore among those I haven’t mentioned yet for the Patriots. You could argue these are the two best coached teams in the league, with Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels on one sideline, facing off with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips on the other. Ultimately, it’s just going to come down to execution, which I know isn’t much of an analysis, but the talent gap between these two teams isn’t much. I’m going with the Patriots because I trust their experience over the experience of the Rams, who are in just their 4th playoff game with Jared Goff and McVay. I probably wouldn’t bet this on a normal week, but it’s the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots 31 Los Angeles Rams 24

Pick against the spread: New England -2.5

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 AFC Championship Pick

New England Patriots (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

The Patriots won in convincing fashion at home over a strong Chargers team last week, wrapping up an undefeated 9-0 home record, but now they have to go on the road (where they are 3-5) and travel to Kansas City for the AFC Championship game. The common narrative seems to be that they will continue to struggle on the road and, as a result, they are underdogs in a game started by Tom Brady for the first time since week 13 of the 2014 season.

The statistical difference between the Patriots at home and on the road has been very significant this season, beyond even what the records show. At home, 7 of those 9 wins came by double digits, with the only exceptions coming against the Texans and the Chiefs, a pair of AFC division winners. They have a first down rate differential of +9.65% at home. For comparison, the Bears finished 1st in first down rate differential on the season at +6.64%. On the road, however, they have a first down rate differential of -5.29%. For comparison, that would have ranked 29th in the NFL over the course of the season, most comparable to the Washington Redskins.

Fortunately for them, home/road differentials tend to be random more than anything. Over the past 30 seasons, teams with a home winning percentage of more than 90% and a road winning percentage under 50% are 40-36 straight up on the road in week 11 or later and are 21-12 ATS as road underdogs. The Patriots have been incredible at home since 2001, going 141-26 straight up, but they are also 99-49 on the road, including 24-15 ATS and 20-19 straight up as road underdogs. Any time you’re getting points with the Patriots, even against the most dominant of teams, they are worth a bet, as they tend to rise to the occasion against tough opponents, going a ridiculous 38-13 straight up against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including 7-2 in the post-season.

The Chiefs have been a dominant team on offense this season, finishing the regular season by far #1 in first down rate at 45.18% (Rams are 2nd at 43.05%), but they’ve been far from dominant on defense. They finished the season ranked 24th in points per game allowed at 26.3 and were even worse in first down rate allowed at 42.20%, worst in the NFL. Against playoff qualifiers, their defensive numbers were downright ugly, as they allowed 36.0 points per game and a ridiculous 46.54% first down rate in 6 regular season games against playoff qualifiers (2-4).

The strength of this defense is its pass rush, which led the league in sacks, led by edge rushers Dee Ford (13 sacks) and Justin Houston (9 sacks) and interior rusher Chris Jones (15.5 sacks). Combined with their explosive offense, their pass rush has allowed them to dominant weaker opponents. They go up big early with their offense, forcing their opponents to pass more than they’d like (most pass attempts against in the league), which allows their pass rushers to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. That same formula hasn’t worked as well against tougher opponents, who have been able to exploit their weaknesses against running games and quick passing games. The Patriots both rode of those to victory last week, so it’s not hard to imagine them following a similar formula this week in Kansas City.

The big exception to the Chiefs’ defensive struggles this season came against the Colts last week, in a game in which the Chiefs held the Colts to a 30.19% first down rate in a blowout 31-13 win. However, when you look at their whole season, last week’s performance looks like a fluke, especially when you consider there wasn’t any personnel change that was made between last week’s game and a month ago, when they allowed 67 points combined in a 2-game stretch against the Chargers and Seahawks.

The one player who could boost this defense is Eric Berry, who is expected to play through a heel injury this week, after sitting out the previous 2 games, but he’s played just 99 snaps since week 1 of 2017, so it’s unclear how much having him active will benefit the Chiefs. Unless the Chiefs suddenly became a different defense overnight or Eric Berry can somehow return to Pro Bowl form by Sunday, I like the Patriots’ chances of pulling the upset and they’re a great bet if you can get the full field goal.

New England Patriots 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: New England +3

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots: 2018 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (13-4) at New England Patriots (11-5)

I’ve been high on the Chargers all year and, with the Bears eliminated, the Chargers now rank 1st among remaining playoff teams on the season in first down rate differential at +5.24%. Since week 10, they rank 3rd at +6.04%. Making this even more impressive is the fact that they have next to no homefield advantage in Los Angeles, where they struggle to attract home fans, even when playing well. Outside of Los Angeles, they are a perfect 9-0, covering the spread in 8 of 9 games and winning by an average of 9.11 points per game. That is a trend that actually dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 37-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have been pretty underwhelming statistically for a playoff team. They have a +2.67% first down rate differential on the season, 2nd worst among remaining playoff teams, and they didn’t go on their normal late season run this year either, with a +2.68% first down rate differential since week 10, 4th worst among remaining playoff teams. That being said, I’m hesitant to bet too heavily against the Patriots, who are not a team I want to underestimate in the playoffs, even with them giving 4 points to a Chargers team that has been statistically better almost across the board this season.

This is still a talented Patriots roster, one that has underachieved for stretches of the season, but also has shown signs of dominance, with 8 double digit wins and a 4-0 record against playoff qualifiers. If Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski can be healthier off of a bye, this is still a very scary team, especially at home, where they are undefeated this season with an average margin of victory of 16.25 points per game.

Normally home/road disparities are random more than anything (for example the Patriots were 14-1 on the road in 2016-17 before going 3-5 this season), but the Patriots have been dominant at home for close to two decades, going 140-26 since 2001, including 112-18 against the AFC. On top of that, they are a ridiculous 36-12 against teams with a better record than them with Tom Brady under center and they should be more than up to the challenge of taking on an elite Chargers team. Four points isn’t a huge cushion, but I do want to put a small bet on the Chargers, even though I do ultimately expect the Patriots to pull out the victory.

New England Patriots 24 Los Angeles Chargers 23

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +4

Confidence: Medium

New York Jets at New England Patriots: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

New York Jets (4-11) at New England Patriots (10-5)

I bet on the Patriots as 13-point favorites last week at home against the Bills. They nearly covered, holding a 24-6 lead with 2 minutes left in the game before allowing the backdoor cover, but I never really felt comfortable with that bet during the game. Both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski seem to be playing at less than 100% and part of the reason the Patriots didn’t cover is because Brady was pulled with 7 minutes left in the game, an unusual move by Bill Belichick. Gronkowski also played less than his normal snaps and was frequently subbed for on run plays for blocking tight end Dwayne Allen.

The Patriots are in a similar spot this week, as 13-point home favorites, about to go into a first round bye if they can take care of business, a much needed first down bye for a team that can still be dangerous if healthy. They’re not healthy right now though, so I’m hesitant to take them, but the Jets are not the Bills, who have a legitimately good pass defense, which contributed to the Patriots’ passing game struggles. The Jets’ offense has been better in recent weeks, since Sam Darnold returned from injury, but the same could be said of the Bills with Josh Allen before last week.

Unlike the Bills, the Jets’ defense has gone in the other direction since Darnold’s return. They rank 31st in the NFL in first down rate allowed over the past 4 weeks at 41.38% and the obvious culprit is the absence of linebacker Darron Lee, who was suspended for the final 4 games of the season. Lee helped hold Patriots running back James White to 1 catch on 5 targets in the previous meeting between these two teams and also helped on Rob Gronkowski, who was limited to 3 catches.

The Jets did beat the Bills in Buffalo a few weeks ago without Lee, but the Bills won the first down rate battle in that game by 2.66% and had one of their better offensive weeks of the season. On the season, the Jets rank 31st in the NFL in first down rate differential at -6.09%, only ahead of the Cardinals. We’re getting some line value with the Patriots, so they should be the right side this week, but I’m hesitant to bet on them because they could pull Brady late and allow the backdoor cover again.

New England Patriots 27 New York Jets 10

Pick against the spread: New England -13

Confidence: Low

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (5-9) at New England Patriots (9-5)

The Patriots have lost back-to-back games for the second time this season, but that’s been a very rare occurrence for them in recent years. In fact, this is just the 8th time the Patriots have done so in the past 15 seasons. Even rarer is the Patriots losing 3 in a row, as that hasn’t happened since 2002. The Patriots need to do more than just win here to cover as 13-point home favorites, but history suggests they should be able to do that as well. Not only have they won their last 9 games after back-to-back losses, but they’ve also covered in 8 of those 9 games. All in all, the Patriots are 49-26 ATS off of a loss in the Bill Belichick era.

The Patriots have also been a lot better at home than on the road this season. Home/road disparities tend to be random more than anything, but the Patriots have been dominant at home for two decades (138-26 since 2001 with a +10.93 points per game margin) and they’ve played noticeably better overall this season than they’ve shown in their last two road games, so they’re a little undervalued right now at New England -13. The Bills have played significantly better offensively since getting quarterback Josh Allen back from injury a few weeks ago, but their defense is not as good as it was a couple weeks ago, with stud every down linebacker Matt Milano and talented slot cornerback Taron Johnson now out for the season.

With those two players out, I have this line calculated at New England -17. That might seem high, but the Patriots have won 4 of their 6 home games by at least two touchdowns, with the only exceptions being the Texans and Chiefs, who are currently the top-2 teams in the AFC. The Bills are obviously not on that level and even that Texans game could have been a two touchdown win if not for a 4th quarter muffed punt when the Patriots were set to get the ball back up by 14.

The Bills will give their best effort this week in a game they may be viewing as their Super Bowl, but the Patriots should be fully focused as well, off of back-to-back losses, with only an easy home game against the Jets on deck. Favorites of 7+ are 58-36 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 7+ again, as superior teams tend to take care of business without upcoming distractions. I expect that to be the case in this one, though I’m keeping this at a medium confidence pick because of the Josh Gordon suspension.

New England Patriots 30 Buffalo Bills 13

Pick against the spread: New England -13

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1)

For the second straight year, the Patriots have lost in Miami the week before a critical late season matchup with the Steelers. Unlike last year, when the Patriots were outplayed pretty much from start to finish in Miami, this year they played well enough to win, losing on arguably the craziest walk off touchdown in recent memory. The Patriots bounced back in Pittsburgh last year and I expect the same from them this year. That’s typically what they do after a loss anyway, going 49-25 ATS in the Bill Belichick era after a loss, with just 5 instances of back-to-back losses in the past 10 seasons. That record is 27-5 ATS as underdogs or favorites of less than 3 and they are 62-31 ATS as underdogs or favorites of less than 3 overall since 2000.

The Patriots have not played well on the road this season, but home/road disparities tend to be random more than anything. For example, prior to this season, the Patriots were 14-1 in their previous 2 seasons on the road, only losing last year in Miami. Pittsburgh is a place where the Patriots have had a lot of success all-time anyway and the Steelers have not played as well in recent weeks. Running back James Conner could return this week, but even if he does both he and Ben Roethlisberger will be playing hurt. I have this line calculated at -3 and this is a situation where the Patriots usually thrive, so they’re a strong bet if you can get them at less than 3. Even at -3, they have a good chance to at worst push.

New England Patriots 34 Pittsburgh Steelers 27

Pick against the spread: New England -2.5

Confidence: High