2017 NFL season preview – New England Patriots

2016 Record: 14-2; 1st AFC East; Won Super Bowl LI 34-28 OT v Atlanta
Head coach: Bill Belichick (Patriots W/L: 226-80, Career W/L: 263-125)
General manager: None

Key ins: TE Dwayne Allen Colts; RB Rex Burkhead Bengals; WR Brandin Cooks Saints; DE Kony Ealy Panthers; RB Mike Gillislee Bills; CB Stephon Gilmore Bills; TE James O’Shaughnessy Chiefs
Key outs: TE Martellus Bennett; RB LeGarrette Blount; DE Chris Long; CB Logan Ryan; DE/LB Jabaal Sheard; T Sebastian Vollmer

Draftees: R3 (83) DE Derek Rivers, Youngstown State; R3 (85) T Antonio Garcia, Troy; R4 (131) DE Deatrich Wise Jr, Arkansas; R6 (211) T Conor McDermott, UCLA

Ah the age-old question – what do you buy the man who has everything? The 2017 NFL season version is simple: a big, physical cover corner from a division rival, a power back from said division rival, a deep threat, a utility back/special teamer, a promising defensive end with 14 sacks in 15 starts and an AFC East battle-hardened middle linebacker.

That was Bill Belichick’s haul in the offseason. The man who has been to more and won more Super Bowls than any other coach, is the winningest active coach in the NFL and orchestrated the most incredible Super Bowl comeback the game has ever seen just five months ago. He has a passionate, trusting owner, a coaching staff that turns down approaches for head coaching roles to stay put and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time (I’m in the Joe Montana first, Tom Brady second camp, FYI).

That quarterback, however transcendent he may have been in carving up the Falcons in Houston, turns 40 in August, so Belichick’s moves since February have all been about maximising the Tommy Time left.

QB 40 GraphicSource: www.pro-football-reference.com

There’s continuity in play calling duties – they will remain in the hands of coordinator Josh McDaniels for the sixth straight season after he withdrew himself from the running for the 49ers’ top job. Then there’s TB12. It’s hard to find something new and insightful about Tommy Terrific (pro-football-reference.com assures me that’s an actual nickname). At this point in the season cycle, opponents have two small crumbs of comfort. One is his age, the other is he won’t have a Roger Goodell-sized chip on his shoulder to take out on the rest of the league.

After missing the first four games to the belated Deflategate suspension (in which reserves Jimmy Garappolo and Jacoby Brissett went interception-free compiling a 3-1 record), Brady punished Cleveland with a 28-of-40, 406-yard and three touchdown release of frustration. Then he kept going, tossing 28 scores to just a pair of interceptions (setting a record for fewest team picks), leading a ridiculous Super Bowl comeback and becoming the winningest starting QB in NFL history (208 regular and postseason).

His rating at year end was second only to his career best in the Patriots historic undefeated 2007 season (112.2 to 117.2), when Wes Welker and Randy Moss were reeling in passes in the blue, red and white.

And while Mosses (Mossi?) come along once a generation, the weapons at TB12’s disposal in 2017 may be of higher quality across the board than that unit, they’re certainly more diverse. Three-TD Super Bowl hero James White returns in the backfield, albeit minus his running mate and defender-hurdler supreme LeGarrette Blount (who I will always love for the below (whatever happened to Josh Freeman?)) and his 18 TDs.

Joining the running back stable are the physical Mike Gillislee, stolen away from Buffalo, who scored eight times on the ground in 2016 and utility back Rex Burkhead from the Bengals. When Brady isn’t spreading it around to his backs (including Dion Lewis, who should be fit again after injuring a hamstring in the Super Bowl), his receiving corps has also been enhanced.

Paced by the lion-hearted Julian Edelman, who had 98 catches in 2016, plus five for 87 in Houston, there’s an enviable set of targets this season. Rob Gronkowski, who looked back at full pace in minicamp after his third back surgery, needs to stay healthy or could find himself victim to Belichick’s ruthlessness before he sees the last two years of his newly restructured contract.

1 Tom Brady (2016 RANKING 2)
23 Rob Gronkowski (2016 RANKING 9)
71 Julian Edelman (2016 RANKING 87)
80 LeGarrette Blount (2016 RANKING NR)
94 Dont’a Hightower (2016 RANKING NR)
99 Malcolm Butler (2016 RANKING NR)

Big plays were supplied by Chris Hogan last season, as another import from Buffalo paid dividends. Partnered with new speedy Patriot Brandin Cooks, he could be even more dangerous on the perimeter, opening up the slot for Edelman and the seam for Gronk. Departed red zone target Marcellus Bennett (7 TDs) will be replaced by Dwayne Allen, shipped in from Indianapolis.

There is youth on the interior of the New England line, with guard Joe Thuney, who started 16 games as a rookie, centre David Andrews and Shaq Mason. Right tackle Marcus Cannon had his best season to date in 2016 and Nate “Over The” Solder “Boulder Holder” continues to tend Brady’s blind side.

New England usually sit out free agency so the addition of Stephon Gilmore was a surprising move. He’ll team with Malcolm Butler, who could be forgiven for having the hump about his lack of long-term deal, to offset the loss of the promising Logan Ryan (now a Titan). Filling out the defensive backfield will be Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, the no2 and no3 tacklers on the team last year.

Talking of surprises, the Week 9 trade of Jamie Collins to Cleveland was a jaw-dropper but it meant the team was freed up to extend the savvy Dont’a Hightower to a four-year deal. He’ll be joined by former Jets ironman middle linebacker David Harris – of whom Belichick has long been an admirer. The 11-year veteran’s signing means Hightower will return to outside linebacker where wrought havoc in the second half of the season (Matt Ryan may remember him too).

Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown command the middle of the defensive line and on the end, Trey Flowers bloomed (see what I’ve done there) in the second half of 2016 with seven sacks. Kony Ealy will be looking for a productive season with the world champions in what is the final year of his rookie contract.

1 Tom Brady (2015 RANKING 14)
25 Malcolm Butler (2015 RANKING NR)
29 Devin McCourty (2015 RANKING 94)
59 Nate Solder (2015 RANKING NR)
61 Marcus Cannon (2015 RANKING NR)

As with everything else Brand Belichick, the special teams unit is filled with overachieving non-superstars. Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner are among the best coverage guys in the game. Edelman and Amendola handle return duties and will be joined by Lewis at times in 2017.

Did Super Bowl LI represent the peak of Patriot powers (Peter Piper ponders)? Was that comeback one miracle too far or can New England become the first team since, er New England in 2003/2004 to repeat as Super Bowl champs? At this point, and injury permitting, you have to say it’s highly likely.




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