New England Patriots Season Preview
Expect another deep run from the Pats
The Patriots will again start the season as the team to beat in the AFC despite the four-game suspension of Tom Brady. Outside of the Martellus Bennett signing and the Chandler Jones trade, the Patriots did what they so often do in the off-season and laid low and making a few changes to tinker their core, which should take them deep into another NFL season.
Beginning at the QB position. The Patriots will have Brady for 12 of their 16 regular season games, and I think worst case scenario is he takes over from Jimmy Garoppolo at 2–2. Knowing what to expect from Garoppolo is anyone’s guess and with the subpar OL facing three big tests in with the Cardinals, Texans, and Bills, Garoppolo could be in for a baptism of fire start to his NFL career. However, as Pats fans do year in and year out we will put our trust in the “next man up” motto in New England knowing Bill Belichick will have a plan up his sleeve. Remember week 14 last year when everyone thought JJ Watt was going to have a field day in Houston and fast forward 60-minutes and JJ Watt hadn’t even laid a finger on Brady and the Pats cruised to a 27–6 victory.
The Patriots led the league in TDs in 2015 but were tied for 6th — with three other teams — in yards per pass play at 7.7 yards. The offensive juggernaut in New England is built on momentum and hurry up offense with short 5 to 10-yard completions. This type of system will make it easier for Garoppolo to slide into, especially one that had an upgrade in the receiving core.
The Bennett signing adds another big body to the receiving core and he brings an added bonus of the ability to catch the ball, something Brandon LaFell couldn’t quite master in 2015. With an extra giant running down the field expect Rob Gronkowski to get more single-man coverage. He is set up to have another monster season. The deep ball threat will come from Chris Hogan, the former Buffalo Bills wide receiver. Hogan’s potential production should not be underestimated. He is coming off back-to-back 400+ yard seasons on a Bills team that was 30th out of 32 in passing yards, and with the core around him, he could be the deep threat the Patriots have lacked in the last few years.
The biggest setback for the Patriots going into the season for me is not the Brady suspension, but the injury to Dion Lewis at running back. Lewis was a beast last year, he was Brady’s go-to man on third down and provided variation in the backfield that made the offense the most dynamic in the league. When Lewis was on the field, the Patriots average a whole 2 yards more per play. With Lewis gone, the next man up is James White.
White is in his third season and has, at times, shown glimpses he can be more than capable to fill the void of the Lewis injury. White looked solid in preseason, catching a 14-yard TD pass in the pre season win against the Bears.
LeGarrette Blount will partner White as the one-two punch at RB, and we can expect the same from Blount, a tough runner who will be used on short yardage downs and who can hold onto the ball.
Holding onto the ball is something Brandon Bolden has struggled with in his career in New England, and I think there’s a good chance he loses the third RB battle to Tyler Gaffney. Gaffney was selected in the sixth round of the 2014 draft by the Panthers and has struggled with knee injuries the last two season. However, Gaffney looks to be healthy and has seen a lot of play in the preseason, getting 27 carries without turning the ball over, something Bolden did in week two. We have seen how ruthless BB has been on RB’s who turn the ball over.
The Pats will again go into the season with a fragile offensive line. However, one quick thing I will say is with the Bennett signing I expect both the two tight ends to do more than their fair share of blocking and I think the signing of Bennett was in part to help the OL.
The Patriots defense was underrated in 2015, ranking in the top 10 in most categories giving up 19.7 points per game, just 0.1 more than the much maligned NY Jets defense.
The Patriots signed former St Louis Ram Chris Long in the offseason. Long, who missed 14 games over the past two seasons has shown glimpses he can be a top tier defensive end, and with Rob Ninkovich dealing with niggling injuries and a less than productive 2015, Long will be an important part of the Pats front seven.
In trading Chandler Jones, the Pats lost a solid every-down back but the strength of the defense will come further back, beginning with Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower who form a formidable linebacker/pass rusher combo. In last year’s AFC Championship game loss in Denver, it was Collins who kept the Pats in the game and wasn’t far behind Von Miller in his performance. His athleticism and Hightower’s physical presence will be an integral part of the blitzing game for the Pats.
In the backfield, Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler continues to muld into an elite cornerback and along with Logan Ryan they will provide headaches for opposing wide receivers. The secondary is rounded out with Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung who both ranked in the top 10 at their position in 2015.
The Pats first pick in the 2016 draft was Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones. It is looking likely that Jones will spend most of his time on special teams as the punt returner. In the Pats preseason game against the Panthers, Jones had three returns for 85 yards, which included a 60-yard return. With Edelman and Amendola both having injury concerns it will be nice to see them on the sideline during kick returns.
Expect Stephen Gostkowski to make every important kick asked of him.
I see the Pats going 12–4 in the regular season, which with each division in the AFC shaping up as tight races should result in a first round bye, I am going with the second seed.
I think they probably travel to Pittsburg to battle for the AFC title.
Other bold (ish) predictions this year are the Cardinals regressing fast, maybe to a 7 or 8 win team and the Giants winning 10 or 11 games in the NFC East.