Friday, May 24, 2024

New England Patriots Season Preview

On February 3rd, 2019 the New England Patriots took part in their fourth Super Bowl in the last five seasons; winning their third during that streak. Unlike the previous three appearances where the Patriots scored an average of 31.7 points per game, they were only able to put up 13 against the Los Angles Rams. However, a win is a win and I’m sure Tom Brady couldn’t care less about how the score looks. With Brady’s sixth Super Bowl ring in the books, the argument for greatest quarterback of all time is pretty much over. In a season that had more drama and mistakes than usual, the Patriots still came out on top, winning it’s sixth Super Bowl in franchise history.

Last offseason many fans questioned if Bill Belichick had lost his mind, letting long time left tackle Nate Solder sign with the New York Giants and former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler sign with the Tennessee Titans. However, both plays struggled with their new teams and the Patriots got two third-round compensatory picks in return.

The Giants and Titans paid Solder and Butler a combined $16 million dollars against the cap this year while the trio of players the Patriots used to replace them cost just over $3 million dollars against the cap. Year in and year out the Patriots find a way to take unknown players and turn them into contributors while avoid having to overpay for players that struggle outside of the Patriots’ locker room.

It’s even more impressive when you realise the Patriots picked up another Super Bowl win last year as well.

When you win the Super Bowl, there isn’t much that could have gone wrong with you season. However, there are three things that Patriot fans should be a little worried about. One, Brady’s age and the signs of it. Compared to his 2018 MVP season, Brady’s stats were mostly on par. However, he threw the most interceptions in a season since 2013 and had his worse winning percentage as the starter since 2009. Now neither of these is a reason to sound the alarm, but Brady had several moments this season where he did not look like his old self. Father time is undefeated and the time has come for the Patriots to focus on Brady’s replacement, not to take over next year as the starter but potentially in 2020.

Two, Rob Gronkowski has retired.

Finally, the Patriots struggled against the weaker competition this year. The Patriots were 4-0 against playoff teams but were just 7-5 against non-playoff teams, including losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins. Usually, the Patriots destroy weaker opponents but a 7-5 record against non-playoff teams this year is a red flag. In addition, Belichick put Gronkowski out on the field for the final play in the loss to the Dolphins to protect for a Hail Mary pass attempt. The only problem was the Dolphins were 69 yards away from the end zone.

The Dolphins ran a lateral play instead and Gronkowski was unable to make the game-saving tackle (understandably so for a 6’6” tight end trying to play safety). Belichick’s mishandling of the situation cost the Patriots home-field advantage in the playoffs and forced them on the road for the AFC Championship game. When they defeated the Chiefs, it was the first road playoff win for the Patriots since 2006 but the act that leads them to that game in the first place is oddly something that the media never picked up on.

While the 2018 season had its ups and downs, a Super Bowl victory makes the season a complete success. If you do not consider the Patriots to have had a successful season in 2018 then there isn’t any such thing as success in the NFL.

Looking ahead to 2019, all three phases of the game have some interesting talking points.

While Brady will miss the productivity of the retired tight end Rob Gronkowski, he will not be devoid of talented rushers and pass-catchers. Running backs Sony Michel and James White should anchor a deep rushing attack. While some have speculated that the wide receiving corps might be a problem area, the addition of rookie N’Keal Harry and free agent Maurice Harris should lend some assistance to incumbent Julian Edelman. Demaryius Thomas is likely to re-sign, while Josh Gordon’s return has been confirmed outright. The team could find refuge in the hands of undrafted free agent wideout Jakobi Meyers, who has impressed the masses in training camp. Ultimately, the success of the Patriots offence might be on the shoulders of the offensive line. Despite losing tackle Trent Brown via free agency, Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon will do an admirable job protecting Brady and Company, under the tutelage of O-Line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

For those who believe defensive football to be a thing of the past, Super Bowl LIII proved that defence still wins championships. The Pats bolstered an already-stout defense with the acquisitions of linebacker Jamie Collins, defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Mike Pennel. Returning defensive stalwarts such as Dont’a Hightower, Stephon Gilmore, Kyle Van Noy and Devin McCourty provide stability and continuity. Bennett’s addition should help to lessen the impact of losing pass rusher Trey Flowers to Detroit. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, who had shown promise in 2018 before suffering a season-ending injury, will provide some additional pop at the position. The Pats secondary, both at corner and at safety, might be the deepest it has been in quite some time.

Special Teams: 
Patriots special teams’ captain Matthew Slater is among the very best at his position. The leadership of both Slater, and special teams coach, Joe Judge, consistently keep the Pats among the league leaders in this area. Stephen Gostkowski continues to maintain the kicking duties, while rookie Jake Bailey has walked his way to the starting punting role.

Departing Staff:

Brian Flores
After just one season as the de-facto Defensive Coordinator of the New England Patriots, Brian Flores was hired away to Miami to take on the Head Coach position. Flo had been with the organization since 2004, working his way up through the scouting department and handling Special Teams, Safeties, even a year assisting with the offense before settling in as the Linebacker coach, which was his official title as of last season. Flores and his creative, aggressive style of play-calling will be missed.

Chad O’Shea
The Wide Receivers coach since 2009, O’Shea follows Brian Flores to the Dolphins, where he will get a well-deserved shot as Offensive Coordinator. A Wide Receivers coach in name but more, in reality, O’Shea was the expected heir to play-calling duties had Josh McDaniels left New England and followed through with his commitments.

Jerry Schlupinksi
Offensive Assistant since 2013 and Assistant Quarterbacks Coach since 2016, Schlupinski has taken on a similar role in Miami. He’s well thought of in New England, to see a lateral move within the same division in football is becoming a rarity.

Josh Boyer
Having started as a Defensive Assistant in 2006 and after acting as Defensive Backs and Cornerbacks coach over the last 7 seasons, Josh Boyer moves on to a position of “Defensive Pass Game Coordinator” with the Dolphins. I know almost nothing about Boyer, to pass comment on his big of a loss he is, is a tough task.

Brendan Daly
Daly has found mixed success in New England has been both a top 5 and a bottom 5 defensive line coach during his time with the Patriots. His new role sees him take up a similar role for the Kansas City Chiefs.

New Hires:

Jerod Mayo
Former All-Pro linebacker Jerod Mayo has signed on with the team as the Inside Linebackers Coach. This is Mayo’s first coaching position and while he was a fantastic player with a great mind for the game, whether that can translate into effective coaching skills is anybody’s guess.

Free Agent Losses

Trey Flowers is a huge loss. He has been the best Patriot defensive lineman since Chandler Jones (but more versatile) and a personal favourite of mine ever since he began to flourish in the latter half of 2016. Proving both a stubborn run stuffer and an accomplished, dangerous pass rusher Flowers plays each and every technique on the defensive line at a high level. This year we saw him: bull rush outside 1; win outside with finesse 2; win inside with finesse 3; read and react up the middle 4; pass rush from the nose 5; hold point, block shed and finish 6; clog lanes using opposing, would-be blockers 7; tackle elusive opponents alone 8; read and react in the screen game 9 and beat tough opponents in huge moments 10 I rave at even more length about Trey here if you’re interested, I just need to stop now because knowing he’s no longer a Patriot makes me sad

Trent Brown is a literal huge loss as well as another figurative one. A mid-draft trade acquisition last year, Brown stepped in immediately to the Left Tackle position and performing very well this season. A great big wall of a man, Brown shut down plenty of dangerous pass rushers this year and demonstrated a level of success in the run game that we had not seen from him before. Occasionally streaky, there was still far more hot than cold this year and the team greatly appreciated the smooth LT transition he provided in the wake of Nate Solder’s departure and Isaiah Wynn’s Achilles tear. He’s left us for a well-deserved sack of money and with some large shoes to fill

Malcom Brown, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, departs for New Orleans after the team decided not to pick up his 5th-year option. He provided a reliable rotational presence on the interior of the defensive line, primarily against the run

Cordarrelle Patterson was a key contributor on special teams coverage, in the return game and as an interesting option at RB this season. Other than his RB debut, this is who he has always been in the NFL and I have no doubt he’ll continue to do so for Chicago

Dwayne Allen was a dedicated blocking TE for the past two seasons. Not a flashy name but his loss means the only continuity in the TE group is Jacob Hollister literally nobody.

Chris Hogan leaves for Carolina following a disappointing finals season concluding an admirable tenure with New England. Before struggling with injuries in 2017 and failing to produce much of note in 2018, Hogan provided a reliable deep threat and was a massive contributor in the 2016 postseason.

Free Agent Signings

Mike Pennell comes in from the Jets to bolster the interior DL. A stout and disruptive interior player, he will have every opportunity to seize a significant role. Pennell is my early pick for the unsexy FA add who will have the biggest team impact

Benjamin Watson returns to New England after a 9-year odyssey. A top-tier character guy, savvy veteran and respectable all-around TE, Watson is a long-time Patriot favourite who will always be fondly remembered for running down Champ Bailey in the 2005 Divisional round to force a touchback! save a touchdown. He’s facing a 4 game suspension and is 38 years old, but is a welcome addition in a sparse TE group

Demaryius Thomas is coming off of his second Achilles tear and is currently on the PuP list for camp. If he can prove himself healthy he would be a very welcome addition to a middling and unproven Wide Receiver group. His status will be one of the biggest storylines to monitor as camp progresses. He was recently cut although all reports suggest the Patriots are looking to re-sign him.

Jamie Collins returns to the team that drafted him after a 2.5-year stint in Cleveland. A former All-Pro with New England, Collins joins an LB group that is suddenly quite deep and flexible, with the hope being that he performs closer to his 2013-2015 self than his 2016-2018 self. We’ll have to see how that goes, but at least I can wear that jersey I held on to

Draft Moves

N’Keal Harry is the first WR the Patriots have drafted in the first round since Terry Glenn back in 1996. Not to mince words, I was over the moon about this pick, as Harry was my 1a preferred Wide Receiver from this draft class. He was my 1a because his skill set presents what I consider a perfect marriage with the New England offence (over AJ Brown 1b). Harry is a big, strong receiver 1, 2 tough to tackle 3, 4 with excellent ball skills and body control, 5, 6 7, 8, 9, 10 underrated route running ability 11, 12 and arguably has the best RAC ability in terms of combined vision and elusiveness in the draft class 13, 14. With Brady’s ball placement and the ability of the offence to get Wide Receivers the ball in space, Harry’s strengths should go a very long way toward a productive season. The primary criticisms he received from draft pundits as a prospect were a lack of top-end speed (4.53 40 time at the combine) and a lack of separation on certain routes, particularly downfield. Arizona State’s offence did not ask Harry to go downfield very often, and it remains to be seen whether he will be able to succeed in the deep third of the field at the NFL level. In watching his film I also noticed a willingness to let the ball hit him when I’d rather see consistently strong hands catching the ball away from his body. Despite the question marks, Harry should play a huge role in this offence in the short-intermediate areas and have a shot to return kicks 15, 16 as well. Not that breaking into the current WR group is a difficult task, but Harry has been working with the 1s in camp and has seen heavy activity particularly in red-zone work. Suffice it to say I’m optimistic that Harry will be the one to buck the trend of disappointing WRs drafted to the Patriots and that he will play a large role right out of the gate

Joejuan Williams is the most recent in a very long line of 2nd round Patriots DBs and while the track record with those DBs is more or less abysmal, I find myself optimistic yet again that this trade up is finally the one that pays off. Williams is huge. He absolutely suffocates receivers in short areas with his reach 1, 2 and while his 40 time is awful for the position he shows on the tape that he knows how to leverage his length and better-than-his-drills speed to play strong coverage 3. He’s a physical defender in the run game who displays willingness and discipline to set the edge, sure tackling ability and strength to shed blockers 4 5. His apparent drawbacks include the relative slowness in the 40 and some issues with stiff hips and maintaining consistent balance (as seen in .gif 1, his lower body does not fluidly follow the route but he makes up for it with length). Williams walks into a very deep and very strong Cornerback room and should have little to no pressure on him to perform immediately, though I would expect him to see the field in red zone packages initially as he works his way into the defense

Chase Winovich, the other Michigan DE, steps into a wide-open situation after being very disruptive as a pass rusher and disruptive run defender, plus a hell of a motor and 3-cone and shuttle drill measurements that would be respectable for a wide receiver. He’s fairly raw and a little undersized for the position, so you see him get pushed around sometimes, but he also shows great use of hands to shed blocks and relentless pursuit. He’s far more stout against the run than you might expect and he has the speed to run down backs from behind at times. I don’t think any cutup of highlights relays his game better than just this video alone, where you just see time and time and time again how slippery he is off blocks, how quickly he reacts, his closing speed in tight space and what feels like a bottomless well of tenacity. With the Patriot EDGE group looking pretty thin, Winovich has the potential to earn significant time early on and I’m very bullish on his chances to take a high percentage the EDGE snaps even as a rookie

Damien Harris, the other ‘Bama back, was a surprise pick to many in the 3rd round after the Patriots took Sony Michel 31 overall in 2018, but is someone who fits in well with what the Patriots love to do in the RB room. Sony was a very good rookie contributor last year, and 3rd down stalwart James White is one of the best receiving RBs in the league, but the limitations of each of those players meant that in 2018, Sony Michel’s mere presence on the field was a >80% accurate indicator that the offence was about to run the ball, while White’s presence was a >70% accurate indicator that the offense was going to pass. While this is not a major issue in situations that slant heavily one direction (e.g. leading by a couple of scores in the second half or running hurry up to try and close a deficit), the coaching staff still loves to have players who are dangerous in both areas. Enter Harris. Physically there is nothing about him that jumps out, he’s of average size, strength and speed, a bit stocky and he lacks the lateral agility to make people miss consistently, but he plays an all-around solid game and is a capable receiver with, perhaps most importantly, excellent pass protection qualities. If he can pick up the offence quickly, he will have a role in this backfield

Yodny Cajuste is a big, long, strong man with technique issues, reminding me very much of a slightly smaller Marcus Cannon in that way. He’s a raw tackle prospect who struggles with some heavy, slow feet and who showed some ability as a people mover in the run game, albeit limited by displaying poor leverage at times. Cajuste played his first snaps of football as a high school senior, so this rawness is to be expected, and the hope is that the legendary Dante Scarnecchia can do with Yodny what he did with Cannon. Voch Lombardi does a deep (and entertaining) breakdown of Yodny’s strengths and weaknesses here. Our OT position outside of Marcus Cannon is currently very unsettled, and the current expectation is that Cajuste will be able to win the swing tackle role fairly easily

Hjalte Froholdt, pronounced “yell-duh,” is a solid interior OL prospect who shows us a great mover in the pulling game and at the second level as well as an impressive football IQ that shows in his alertness in blitz and stunt pickup. His teammates and coaches rave about his leadership in the locker room and he’s played significant time at both Guard and Center. The Interior OL is a huge area of strength for the Patriots, one of the best IOL groups in the league, and Froholdt projects as purely a backup/reserve player for his rookie season, where he should be able to push Ted Karras for the position. With Joe Thuney in the final year of his rookie contract and due to a significant payday, however, Froholdt should see more opportunity in the next couple of years

Jarrett Stidham becomes the 6th Patriot QB drafted in the first 4 rounds since 2001 after a very up and down college career. He’s shown a pro-calibre arm, good touch and an ability to extend plays and throw on the run, but he has struggled to go through his read progressions, identify blitzes, throw accurately and keep his eyes downfield under pressure. He’s streaky at times and has not been well prepared for the pro level by the Auburn offense, but he’s undeniably got the physical tools to play the position at the NFL level and with some refinement, he could push the milquetoast Brian Hoyer for the backup position

Byron Cowart, once the #1 overall recruit as he was entering college, struggled to make an impact at Auburn and left the school following a marijuana-related arrest and an emergency appendectomy in the middle of his 2016 season. After some time at community college, Cowart moved to Maryland where he made an immediate impact on the field. He’s all potential at this point, and while 5th rounders and later are typically not very likely to make final rosters, the weakness of the New England DT position has me thinking he could stick. If Cowart can show consistency and dedication and ever comes close to delivering on the massive potential he once showed, he could be a steal. As a rookie, I’m just hoping he sticks on the roster and serves as a rotational depth player. He could be a prime candidate for the “Foxboro Flu”

Jake Bailey is a right-footed punter who can kick the ball from Mexico to Canada, His foot his huge and his placement is very strong for a rookie. I expected Bailey to win the punting job and he’s duly delivered on that front.

Ken Webster is a stocky and strong Corner with limitations in coverage that had some draft pundits suggesting he might be better off bulking up and transitioning to a box safety role or even a linebacker role in dime packages. He’s facing an extremely steep uphill climb and will have to prove himself invaluable in a specific role and as a special teamer if he hopes to stick on the roster

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