Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2019 power rankings. No. 1 is revealed today, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
Throughout this preview, there will be many reasons presented that will point to the decline of the New England Patriots.
Tom Brady is at an age in which no quarterback has ever had any success. Rob Gronkowski is retired. The receiver depth chart is surprisingly thin. New England lost key free agents. Defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who orchestrated that brilliant Super Bowl game plan against the Rams, left to coach the Dolphins. And the Patriots were very good, though a little short of great, last season. Thanks to the brilliance of Bill Belichick and Brady, they were still good enough to win another championship. It wasn’t a vintage powerhouse Patriots team and they don’t look any stronger on paper this season.
But how many times are we going to have this dance? If you keep predicting this is the year the Patriots fall off, eventually you’ll be right. You’ll just look dumb plenty of times along the way.
New England simply doesn’t follow the normal rules of what the NFL wants its league to be (here’s where you can insert your snarky deflate-gate jokes). The league is set up so every team cycles through the top. For 31 teams, this is their reality. The Panthers or Falcons or whoever burst through with an amazing season and fall right back to the middle. If you’re really lucky, you get a few great years like the Seahawks. That’s what the NFL wants. Your team might stink today, but you’re one huge draft from being a Super Bowl contender. The NFL sells hope infinitely better than Major League Baseball, the NBA, college football or anything else. You don’t need a five-year plan to rebuild, but if your championship window opens it’ll slam shut almost immediately. Unless you’re the Patriots, who are somehow immune to the variance.
You’re sick of hearing about the Patriots by now, but what they’re doing is extraordinary. In a league designed to keep any team from staying on top for long, New England has posted double-digit wins every year since 2003. The Patriots have won 15 of the last 16 AFC East titles, and the only time they didn’t win is when Brady tore his ACL in the season opener. The last time they didn’t make the conference championship round was 2010. They’ve appeared in four of the last five Super Bowls, winning three. This is the greatest American professional sports dynasty.
New England wasn’t truly dominant last season. Had Houston not been defeated on a desperate last-minute drive at Philadelphia late in the season, the Patriots wouldn’t have had a first-round bye. But they did get that first-round bye, blew out the Chargers in the divisional round, got by the Chiefs in the AFC championship (had Dee Ford not lined up offside on a late Brady interception, Kansas City would have made the Super Bowl instead) and then had a great defensive game plan to beat the Rams for a championship. Legions of fans wondered what it would take for someone — anyone, please — to knock out the Patriots.
If you look at the Patriots heading into the 2019 season, you can make a logical argument why this will be the season that happens. While the Patriots obviously have some great players, they also have key questions at perimeter receiver; running back, if Sony Michel’s knee isn’t good to go; left tackle, especially if 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn isn’t fully healthy after a torn Achilles; tight end, after Gronkowski’s retirement; and a few with a defense that was just middle of the pack in many key areas last season.
And yet, none of it seems to matter. Stars have left before, and the Patriots never miss them. Injuries and suspensions haven’t affected them. Get Belichick and Brady into the playoffs — and given how incompetent the rest of the AFC East is on an annual basis, a Patriots division title seems to be the best bet of each NFL season — and it’s hard to beat them in a one-game situation. We saw that against the Chargers, Chiefs and Rams, all of whom arguably had more talent than New England. In any single game the Patriots are hard to beat because Belichick is the greatest coach in NFL history and Brady is the greatest quarterback. Sometimes the math is easy.
So go ahead and predict this will be the season the Patriots fall off. Take Brady’s dip in stats last season and assume that was the start of the end. Look at the personnel losses and some of the no-names in their lineup and make what seems to be a reasonable conclusion that this team can’t possibly repeat.
Just prepare to be wrong.
This exercise makes sense for 31 teams and doesn’t matter at all for the Patriots. Their moves always are the right ones, even if they look wrong. But let’s go through the names anyway. Left tackle Trent Brown had a nice season and the Raiders made him the highest-paid offensive lineman ever. Defensive end Trey Flowers was the most coveted free agent on the market and he landed in Detroit. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown went to New Orleans and excellent return man Cordarrelle Patterson signed with Chicago. Rob Gronkowski retired and while he wasn’t vintage Gronk last season, we saw in the AFC championship game and Super Bowl how he could impact a game with a big play or two. The biggest free agent addition, in terms of average salary per season, was offensive tackle Jared Veldheer and his one-year, $3.5 million deal. Yawn. Veldheer retired almost immediately. New England traded for defensive lineman Michael Bennett, and he can still be a difference-maker. Bringing back linebacker Jamie Collins on a cheap one-year deal is fine. The draft looks like a good one, with receiver N’Keal Harry late in the first round, cornerback Joejuan Williams in the second, and linebacker Chase Winovich, running back Damien Harris and offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste in the third. Overall it looked like a rough offseason that relies heavily on the draft class making an instant impact, but the Patriots are simply smarter than the rest of the league and an inordinate amount of their moves turn out to be the correct ones.
GRADE: D-plus ... and it’ll all work out somehow
The Patriots understand that defending the pass is crucial in today’s NFL, and they do it well. When safety Devin McCourty announced he’d put off retirement another season to return to the Patriots, that meant New England would have all four of its starting defensive backs return. Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty formed an excellent cornerback duo, and Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are versatile safeties. Cornerback J.C Jackson was an undrafted gem in 2018 and 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams can contribute right away. The Patriots allowed the seventh-lowest passer rating in the NFL. Everyone saw what they did to the Rams in the Super Bowl. The secondary is deep, talented and a clear strength.
Tom Brady is great, but a lot of the guys he’ll be throwing to are not. Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman is the sure thing, and even he’ll miss a few weeks of camp with a broken thumb. N’Keal Harry is a talented first-round pick, but still a rookie in a complicated offense. Demaryius Thomas is still coming back from an Achilles injury, and guys like Dontrelle Inman and Phillip Dorsett aren’t scaring anyone. Former Redskin Maurice Harris is impressing in camp, so perhaps he can be part of the solution. At tight end, Ben Watson is 38 and will miss the first four games of the season due to suspension. Matt LaCosse has 27 career catches for 272 yards. The Patriots’ ability to turn random players into productive pass-catchers will be tested this season.
Tom Brady turns 42 on Aug. 3, and there’s practically no history of 42-year-old quarterbacks in the NFL. Only one quarterback has started more than one game in a season at age 42 or beyond: Vinny Testaverde for the 2007 Panthers. Testaverde started six games that season, three right before his 44th (!!) birthday and three after. And Testaverde was bad, posting a 65.8 passer rating. Literally anything positive Brady does this season will be historic for his age. We saw small declines for Brady last season in yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt, completion percentage and passer rating while he had a small increase in interceptions. It’s not like Brady looked like he was at the end, but every small step back is notable at his age. Brady is already the greatest 40- and 41-year-old quarterback of all time, and he’ll be the greatest 42-year-old quarterback of all time, but this is just the annual reminder that at some point he’s going to fall off. We just don’t know when. Brady still plans to sticks by his plan to play until 45.
“I hope I can play that long,” Brady said, according to the Boston Globe. “You have to set goals for yourself, and you have short term and long term, and the reality is that this year is the most important one, and that’s the one that I’m focused on. I hope there’s a lot of football beyond this, but it’s a contact sport. I’ve said that for a long time, too. I don’t think you can take those things for granted.”
Not to belabor the point about the Patriots’ receivers, but Julian Edelman is by far the team’s most reliable receiver. Other than running back James White, who is dynamic as a pass-catcher, who else would it be? That’s why Edelman’s thumb injury early in camp was scary. He’ll probably be fine, but the Patriots got a glimpse of a world without him. They don’t want N’Keal Harry, Phillip Dorsett or Matt LaCosse being Tom Brady’s No. 1 target. Edelman himself has questions. He’s 33 years old. He’s a slot receiver, and a very good one, but not your typical No. 1 receiver. Edelman has never had this much on his plate either; he has only two 1,000-yard seasons, topping out at 1,106 in 2016. Maybe others develop, or Josh Gordon returns, but right now the Patriots’ passing game looks like Edelman, White and a lot of question marks.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “If playoff resumes were all that mattered, Julian Edelman would already have a Hall of Fame ticket punched. It’s his good-not-quite-great resume in the regular season that has me cooled on his fantasy value.
“The Patriots have buckets of vacated targets to pass around this year, and that might benefit Edelman. It’s going to need to, if you want to make back your draft-day cost. Although Edelman has never been better than the WR19 in any season (using cumulative, year-end scoring), he’s currently the WR17 in Yahoo rooms and WR15 in NFFC formats. His lukewarm personal-best fantasy finish partially speaks to durability issues (he’s played 16 games just once in nine years, not even counting a missed 2017 season), but heck, Edelman is already hurt — he busted his thumb earlier this month. He is expected to be ready for the opener, however, and his NFFC ADP hasn't moved over the last week.
“Edelman supporters will suggest he’s more fairly ranked if you consider per-game efficiency; if and when he’s hurt, after all, you are allowed to replace him. But also keep in mind Edelman has never been a major touchdown source. In the 67 games since he became a regular, he has a modest 26 touchdown catches, never scoring more than seven in any season. For as much volume as he generally sees, he’s only topped 1,000 yards twice. And now he’s stepping into an age-33 season, a dangerous pocket for any receiver. I see Edelman about a round too expensive as we get ready for the teeth of draft season.”
The Patriots’ defense was very good at suppressing points — that’s kind of important — even though other stats indicated they weren’t a great defense. New England ranked 21st in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed, which is an odd split. New England was much better against the pass (fifth in yards per pass allowed) than the run (tied for 27th in yards per run allowed). The Patriots’ defense was 16th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric; 13th against the pass and 19th against the run. Over the offseason New England lost Trey Flowers, the only defender who had more than 4.5 sacks, and coordinator Brian Flores. They also lost Flores’ replacement, Greg Schiano, who suddenly stepped down in late March. Bill Belichick said he’ll be “more involved this year defensively than I was in recent years,” according to Boston.com. The Patriots have some good players, especially in the secondary, but this doesn’t project as a top-of-the-line defense.
HOW RUN-HEAVY WILL THE PATRIOTS BE?
In the playoffs last season, the Patriots were balanced on offense: 125 passes and 114 rushes. They also averaged an otherworldly 476.3 yards per game in the postseason. The Patriots were third in the NFL in rushing attempts last regular season, which makes sense because they win a majority of their games and teams with the lead run more, but it looks like New England could lean on the run in all situations this season. Sony Michel had a good rookie season and should be productive again if his knee is sound. He had arthroscopic knee surgery this offseason. Damien Harris was an intriguing third-round pick out of Alabama and he could have a big role if Michel misses any time. James White is a pass-catching specialist, but it’s not like he can’t run the ball. Given how the Patriots’ passing game has some questions, New England could be among the most run-heavy offenses in the NFL, alongside Seattle and Baltimore.
While we can’t totally rule out the Patriots answering all their questions and navigating an easy schedule to a 14-2 type season, it seems last season was the realistic blueprint to another title. The Patriots can win the AFC East, find their way to a top-two seed and a bye (maybe with Rob Gronkowski coming out of retirement?), then simply have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady figure out how to win three playoff games and another Super Bowl. Sean McVay is a very good coach, but check out how he told Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson that he knew he screwed up the Super Bowl game plan as the game was going on. Belichick and his staff simply ate up one of the NFL’s best coaches. Any time the Patriots go into a single-elimination game, they can feel like they should win because Belichick will give them a chance and Brady is an unbelievable big-game player.
It’s really hard to concoct a story in which the Patriots don’t win the AFC East. Perhaps if Sam Darnold turns into a big star in year two (not impossible) then the Jets ... nah. The Patriots will win the division. But there could still be alarming moments within another AFC East championship season, most notably if the offense doesn’t perform well around Tom Brady and he looks like your normal 42-year-old quarterback. It’ll happen one of these years. And it’s not like the Patriots have their Brady replacement lined up, if it comes to that.
This doesn’t look like a powerhouse Patriots roster, though it still is very good. There are just more questions than usual. No matter if you pick the Patriots to win the Super Bowl before the season starts, this is the truth: We’ll get to January, the Patriots will be in the playoffs because they’ve won the AFC East again, and you’ll be scared to death to pick against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They have a knack for figuring out big games that no quarterback-coach combination has ever been able to match. There’s some serious Patriots fatigue among non-Patriots NFL fans, but we all know there’s a good chance we’re spending another Super Bowl Sunday with Tom and Bill.
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