Amid change, Patriots remain team to beat.
The New England Patriots enter the 2018 season as the favorite to win the AFC. The competition in the AFC is weak and the competition level in the AFC East is almost non-existent. The Patriots have won the division nine straight years and 16 out of the 17 years that Tom Brady has been the starting quarterback. The Super Bowl might have provided the greatest contrast in NFL history. Never before had an offense played so well with a defense playing so poorly in the Super Bowl. Brady passed for 505 yards, the offense gained 618 yards yet the defense gave up 538 yards.
After the Super Bowl, it would be reasonable to think that the Patriots only needed to worry about the defense. Then came a dysfunctional offseason where some thought Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski might walk away - taking the offense back into the dark ages. The Patriots finally convinced their two stars to return and in training camp added incentives to each of their contracts.
Brady can earn up to $20 million if he plays well (still far below the $30 million per year that Matt Ryan receives or the $33 million per year that Aaron Rodgers receives). Gronkowski can earn $13 million per year if he hits all the incentives, which would make him the highest paid tight end in football.
It was also a disappointing offseason at receiver. The Patriots lost two receivers, Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, who had a combined 162 catches in the regular season and playoffs. Amendola was a star in the playoffs with 26 catches. The Patriots clearly were not going to pay Cooks, which is why they traded him to the Los Angeles Rams in the offseason. His contract was up at the end of the 2018 season. The thought was to get something for Cooks - rather than lose him for nothing in this upcoming offseason. Cooks received a deal from the Rams that guaranteed him about $50 million. Letting Amendola go was more of a head scratcher given that he only signed a two-year deal in Miami that the Patriots easily could have matched.
This year's receiving core might be the weakest of the Bill Belichick era since 2006 when they had Doug Gabriel, Chad Jackson, Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney. Julian Edelman is suspended the first four games of the 2018 season because of performing enhancing drugs. Thus, the Patriots will likely have only three active receivers in the first four games: Cordarrelle Patterson (who the Patriots acquired from the Raiders in the offseason), Phillip Dorsett, and Chris Hogan. Hogan is average, Patterson while fast must show that he can transition from an excellent kickoff returner to a receiver and Dorsett, who had only 12 catches a year ago, must improve his route running and understanding of the offense.
At running back, there is reason to be optimistic given that James White has become an excellent all-purpose running back. White has shown great versatility with his ability to catch out of the backfield. The Patriots drafted Sony Michel in the first round and he has been hurt for most of training camp.
The Patriots lost stalwart left tackle Nate Solder to the New York Giants in the offseason. Solder had protected Brady's blind side for seven years and Brady was seen hugging Solder before the Patriots final preseason game against the New York Giants. Brady clearly misses Solder. The Patriots traded for Trent Brown, 6-6 380 pounds, who is mammoth but his athleticism is a question mark. First-round pick Isaiah Wynn is out for the year with an ACL injury. They must rely on Brown and Marcus Cannon, who has been hurt most of training camp as their tackles. LaAdrian Waddle will be their swing tackle if either Brown or Cannon cannot play.
Now, the question is whether the defense has improved. The only bright spot in the Super Bowl was cornerback Stephon Gilmore who took away the Eagles best wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey. The decision to bench Malcolm Butler backfired as the Patriots had no reliable second corner and the Eagles receivers were wide open. There was no pass rush, as Eagles quarterback Nick Foles had ample time to survey the field. The Patriots have likely improved their pass rush in the offseason. They signed Adrian Clayborn from Atlanta and Derek Rivers, their 2017 third-round pick who tore his ACL last year, will finally play. Having Clayborn, who had 9.5 sacks with Atlanta in 2017, should help improve the defense. Rivers also has shown a nice burst during training camp.
Another question is whether the Patriots can expect production from their linebackers. Rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley has shown flashes of an ability to play middle linebacker and make the calls in the middle of the defense. Kyle Van Noy is serviceable and Elandon Roberts needs to improve his coverage skills. The secondary with Gilmore, Eric Rowe, rookie Duke Dawson, Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon, J.C. Jackson (a rookie free agent who made the team), Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty should be one of the best units on the team. However, Rowe must show that he can be an adequate replacement for Butler at the No. 2 corner spot. Butler, a free agent, signed a big contract with the Tennessee Titans in the offseason.
SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 9-1. The Patriots open up against Houston, which offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said feels like a division opponent given how often the teams have played. Houston's head coach Bill O'Brien was once the offensive coordinator in New England and Romeo Crennel, the Texans defensive coordinator, was the Patriots coordinator when they won three Super Bowls between 2001-2004. Since O'Brien became coach the Patriots are 4-0 against the Texans including a 34-16 playoff victory in 2017.
--Tom Brady, 41, enters his 19th season and there are no other players in the league left from his 2000 draft class aside from K Sebastian Janikowski. Brady has played in eight Super Bowls (won five of them). The next closest quarterback is John Elway who played in five Super Bowls (won two of them).
--Of the 26 modern-era quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, only Brett Favre, who played 20 seasons, has played in the NFL longer than Tom Brady.
--Rob Gronkowski, 29, enters his ninth season and already has 474 catches. Yet he still needs 851 catches to tie Tony Gonzalez who has the most catches of any tight end in NFL history.
--Proof that the NFL is a young man's game: Tom Brady, Stephen Gostkowski, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Brian Hoyer, Patrick Chung, Julian Edelman (suspended) and Matthew Slater are the only players over 30 on the roster as of opening day 2018.
--Proof that the NFL has a declining middle class. Only Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower and Stephon Gilmore are earning more than $5 million per season in 2018. Most of the players are earning at or near the NFL minimum for players at their experience level.
--The Patriots best defensive linemen, Trey Flowers, will be a free agent at the end of the year. If the Patriots want to keep Flowers they must make a serious offer or risk losing him.
--Tom Brady is poised for another fantastic year and should lead the Patriots back to the Super Bowl. Brady is poised to show Bill Belichick that he can still play at the highest level.
TEAM ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
--LB Ja'Whaun Bentley. Bentley has had a strong training camp and his intelligence should allow him to have an impact in the middle of the Patriots defense making the defensive calls. Bentley should be effective against the run.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
GAME PLAN: If the Patriots are to prevail in the opener against the Texans they must be creative offensively - given their limitations at wide receiver. Expect the Patriots to move Rob Gronkowski around a lot so the Texans cannot double team him easily. Look for the Patriots to go hurry up to counter any blitz packages the Texans might have and expect a lot of screen passes to James White. The Patriots must handle the pressure from the Texans who have two of the best defensive players in the league in Jadaveon Clowney and J.J. Watt. Linebacker Whitney Mercilus is also a challenging player to game plan against given his versatility. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph has also given the Patriots trouble in the past.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore must limit Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots defense, particularly the linebackers, handles the scrambling ability of QB Deshaun Watson. Finally, if Trent Brown lines up against Clowney, it will be a great test for the young left tackle.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Tom Brady. Backups - Brian Hoyer
Brady enters his 19th season with five Super Bowl rings and eight Super Bowl appearances. It is anybody's guess what motivates Brady at this point. Brady has been to the AFC Championship Game every year since 2011 (seven straight years) and has been to 12 AFC championship games in his career. Given that he passed for 505 yards in the Super Bowl, there is no sign that Brady is slowing down. Brady's wife, international supermodel Gisele Bundchen, has wanted her husband to retire years ago, but Brady states he wants to play for a long time. Hoyer, a journeyman who started his career with the Patriots before he bounced around the league with six different teams and has now returned to the Patriots, has issues with mobility and arm strength. The Patriots like him because he knows their system well.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - James White, Rex Burkhead. Backups - Jeremy Hill, FB James Develin, Sony Michel.
White has emerged as one of the better backs in the league with his versatility to run and catch. Don't forget it was White who had the game-winning run in the Patriots last Super Bowl victory against Atlanta. White came into training camp in great shape. Burkhead and Hill will provide power out of the backfield. Rookie first-round pick Michel missed most of training camp so he might start slow, but he offers something to get excited about given his strong college career at Georgia.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Rob Gronkowski. Backups - Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister, Ryan Izzo (IR/could return later in season).
Gronkowski is the best tight end in football. He contemplated retirement in the offseason given the amount of hits his body has taken in eight seasons in the NFL. The Patriots gave him an extra $4.3 million in incentives to keep him happy. Given the Patriots lack of talent at wide receiver, Gronkowski will need to have a big year. Allen is a blocker who contributes little in the passing game and Hollister should give the Patriots an extra option to catch passes.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Julian Edelman (SUS), Chris Hogan. Backups -- Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett, Riley McCarron, Chad Hansen.
The starters and backups are interchangeable given the lack of stability at receiver. When the Patriots go three wide receivers in the first four games, Hogan, Patterson and Dorsett will be out there. The Patriots just signed Darboh and Hansen - both players are in their second year and had limited production last year. The odds are likely low at this point that the Patriots will sign Dez Bryant - even though he remains the best free-agent wide receiver on the open market.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Trent Brown, LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, RT Marcus Cannon. Backups - G Ted Karras, T LaAdrian Waddle, G Brian Schwenke
The big question is whether Brown can adequately protect Brady's blind side. The Patriots let Nate Solder depart in free agency, and he had protected Tom Brady's blind side for seven years and before that it was Matt Light for 11 years. The Patriots gave Mason a big contract in training camp and the interior of the line is strong. At right tackle, if Cannon is hurt Waddle should be an adequate replacement.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DE Trey Flowers, DT Danny Shelton, DT Lawrence Guy, DE Adrian Clayborn. Backups - DT Malcom Brown, DT Adam Butler, DE Deatrich Wise, DE Keionta Davis, DE Geneo Grissom, DE Derek Rivers.
The best player in this group is clearly Flowers who should be ready for Week 1. Flowers has a strong burst and should have a good year putting pressure on the quarterback. Shelton has been a strong addition and has clearly surpassed Brown to be a starter. It will be tough to run against the Patriots with Shelton and Guy inside. Clayborn should provide some additional pressure on the outside. Rivers, who is coming off an ACL tear causing him to miss his rookie year, should be a good pass rusher.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- LB Dont'a Hightower, LB Kyle Van Noy, Backups -- LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB Elandon Roberts, LB Nicholas Grigsby.
No need to distinguish between inside and outside linebackers because the Patriots only have two linebackers on the field most of the time - given that their base defense has become nickel defense (five defensive backs). If Hightower stays healthy, this group could be respectable. Hightower played only five games last year and has had nagging injuries throughout his career. Bentley, a rookie, has shown promise and could be a good inside linebacker. Roberts must improve his coverage skills.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Eric Rowe, CB Jonathan Jones, S Devin McCourty, S Patrick Chung. Backups - CB Jason McCourty, CB Keion Crossen, CB J.C. Jackson, S Duron Harmon, S Brandon King, S Nate Ebner, CB Duke Dawson (IR/could return later in the season).
This group might be the best on the team and it should be motivated after a bad Super Bowl performance against the Eagles. Gilmore is a top corner who should be able to cover the other team's best wide receiver. Rowe is reliable and Jones has improved. Devin McCourty, who had one interception a year ago, is a strong leader/reliable at tackling but must be more of playmaker. No indication yet on how Dawson, a rookie second-round pick, will play. Chung's strength is his ability to cover the tight end and he can play down in the box at the line of scrimmage. Harmon, who had four interceptions last year, had a strong training camp and should maintain his consistency as a smart player who generally avoids mistakes.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, KR/PR Cordarrelle Patterson, LS Joe Cardona.
Nothing to worry about in the kicking game with Gostkowski who has one of the strongest legs in the game and Ryan Allen is a very good punter. With Edelman unable to return kick or punts for the first four games, this unit will need to adjust. Patterson, though, has returned five kickoffs for touchdowns in his career.
PRACTICE SQUAD: T/G Cole Croston, QB Danny Etling, C James Ferentz, DE Trent Harris, TE Stephen Anderson, DT Vincent Valentine, RB Ralph Webb, WR Jace Billingsley, CB Jomal Wiltz.