The State Of The Franchise series continues as we turn our focus to a team that is a well-oiled machine in the NFL, the New England Patriots.
The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70s. The San Francisco 49ers of the 80s. The Dallas Cowboys of the 90s. When it comes to the New England Patriots, their timetable of reign spans across the last 16 seasons. The Patriots are now NFL champions for the fifth time in franchise history. This latest championship came as a result of an historic comeback over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. This championship not only came in unprecedented fashion but it also came on the heels of the “Deflategate” investigation. Which may have provided the emotional springboard for the team as they went 14-2 in 2016.
So let’s place the Super Bowl champion Patriots under the microscope and examine their current state of affairs.
His perception varies greatly. Some view his as a genius, a guru, and the best of all-time. Others envision head coach Bill Belichick as cheater. Yet, Belichick continues to win and win mightily. Now entering his 17th season as Patriots head coach, Belichick has a staff of young and seasoned assistant coaches that are constantly in head coaching rumors season after season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels showed in 2016 why he is constantly a potential head coaching hire. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia proved solid despite the unit trading away two prime assets before and in the early stages of the season. Belichick has a considerable coaching tree and this particular staff is unheralded but polished thanks to his expertise.
The season started with backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo leading the team thanks to a four-game suspension for quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots went 3-1 during those four games without Brady. Once the ageless Brady returned, the Pats steamrolled to an 11-1 regular season. Brady accumulated an absurd 28 touchdowns and two interceptions during those 12 games and firmly placed himself into MVP discussions. Receiver Julian Edelman did not skip a beat also despite the quarterbacking circumstances. A career-high 1,106 yards for Edelman was vivid evidence. Now Edelman is joined by receiver Brandin Cooks, who the team acquired via trade in free agency. Having Cooks onboard gives a solid Patriots offense a deep threat offense that can make them even more dangerous.
If the team can get tight end Rob Gronkowski completely healthy, his presence will make things worse for opposing defenses. The run game has been a plug-and-play element for the Patriots during the Belichick era and it will continue in 2017. LeGarrette Blount is expected to move on from the team in free agency. However, the carousel has a few replacements in Dion Lewis, James White, and a probable late draft pick of some sort. For an offense that produced in 2016, things may get cranked up a notch in 2017.
The Patriots also improved on the defensive side of the ball thanks to a pair of acquisitions made recently. Signing CB Stephon Gilmore to a five-year deal in free agency gives the team a young, athletic corner with great potential. Gilmore, along with safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, and corners Malcolm Butler and Eric Rowe, provides a skilled secondary. Butler led the team in interceptions (4) and pass deflections (16) this past season and has been connected in trade rumors recently. If he is kept, New England will be fine in the secondary.
There is a distinct likelihood that the Patriots will let linebacker Dont’a Hightower depart in free agency. His return will help stabilize the decent linebacker corps. A trade made with the Carolina Panthers brought defensive end Kony Ealy to the Patriots. The young pass rusher recorded three sacks in Super Bowl L and will now be asked to be the primary pass rusher in New England.
With a Super Bowl title in tow, the Patriots are entering the 2017 season as the favorites to hoist the trophy again. Adding Cooks to a Patriots offense that already has it’s fair share of playmakers puts the Pats clearly on top of the AFC if not the entire NFL. It also seems that soon-to-be-40 year old Brady has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down. So it is easy to see the Patriots match their 2016 14-2 record.
It doesn’t often occur that Super Bowl champions construct an aggressive offseason to improve. That is not the case with Belichick and the Patriots so far. Gaining the likes of Cooks, Ealy, Gilmore, and tight end Dwayne Allen shows obvious signs that the Patriots mean business.
There may not be any glaring weaknesses for the Patriots at all. Massive expectations exist in New England and the Patriots have built themselves to withstand any hurdles in their way. It’s tough to overlook how good New England was 2016 and how much better they will likely be in 2017. Things are without a doubt looking up for the defending Super Bowl champions.