The departure of Tom Brady has led to celebration throughout the football world as Patriots haters rejoice at the end of the best dynasty in the history of football, maybe overall team sports. The Patriots have done this during the free agency era, which in itself is simply amazing. Regardless, fans across the country have come to hate the Patriots, and this is it- Brady is a Buc and the Patriots are back to being bad. That same narrative is being brought to you by the national media and some of the local media as well. I have news for everyone:
If you think this is over, you couldn’t be more wrong.
The Patriots are NOT done, and they may be in line to set up a dominant team for another decade. Yes, this may sound a bit crazy with Brady exiting for Bucs, Kyle Van Noy taking his talents to South Beach, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton (signed) and Duron Harmon (trade) going to the Lions, and Stephen Gostkowski getting released, but when you take an actual deep dive into the remaining roster, future draft picks, and financial situation, NOBODY is in position to dominate more than the Patriots, even without (maybe, we’ll get into this) a franchise quarterback.
First and foremost, we have to take stock of the roster to get an idea of what the Patriots need to get back to being a dominant team. They may not be as far off as some would predict. Defensively, there will definitely be some changes, but the key parts are still in place. The entire secondary, sans Duron Harmon, is currently under contract. Former Chargers free agent safety Adrian Phillips signed after the Harmon trade, which not only saves the Patriots a little money, it also upgrades the position. Phillips was always known as a special teams star, but he has evolved as a safety and may steal Patrick Chung’s job at strong safety.
The front seven is the area that will see the most change, but sometimes change isn’t a bad thing when depth was already in place. The three aforementioned starters (Collins, Van Noy, Shelton) will need to be replaced. The top candidate on the roster to replace Shelton is Adam Butler, who has been in the Patriots system as a contributing rotation player since 2017. Butler had 26 total tackles (17 solos), eight tackles for loss, six sacks, nine QB hits, and FIVE passes defended. He only started two games, so he was incredibly productive in his rotation role. He’ll get more snaps in 2020, and it is safe to assume that his numbers will only improve as he nears his prime years. Beau Allen, who recently signed after playing for the Bucs, will provide depth, and the Patriots will likely address this area in the draft too.
Lawrence Guy and John Simon both return, as does Deatrich Wise Jr, but Wise is a prime candidate to be cut due to his cap hit and relatively small dead cap hit. Wise struggled mentally last year, picking up penalties regularly and at the worst moments. That is not something that goes unnoticed in Foxborough, so Wise, assuming he makes it to training camp, needs to show that his overall awareness has improved. Chase Winovich had an excellent rookie year and will compete for a starting position and will see a ton of reps in ‘20. In ‘19, Winovich finished with 26 total tackles (17 solos), 5.5 sacks, 10 QB hits, and four tackles for loss. Like Butler, expect to see Winovich’s production go up as his playing time does. Ja’Whaun Bentley will step into one of the starting linebacker roles and likely flourish. In ’19 he only started two games but he still finished with 44 total tackles (29 unassisted). The linebacker position is another area the Patriots will look to add to in the draft with at least one of the 12 picks they currently own.
With key reserves like J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Terence Brooks, Shilique Calhoun, and newly signed Brandon Copeland, the Patriots appear to have possibly the strongest overall secondary depth in the league and front seven players that can do multiple things on defense while also providing a boost on special teams. Again, there are shortages in depth at certain positions, but that is why it is good to have 12 draft picks. The defense allowed 14.1 points per game in 2019; expect to see that go up slightly in 2020 due to the schedule, not the changes in personnel.
On the offensive side of the ball, there are really not a lot of changes, but there is one HUGE change that is obviously the reason everyone assumes the Patriots are done- the departure of Tom Brady. Yes, it is a painful loss that hurts them tremendously on and off the field. Brady is the greatest to ever play the position and he was still effective at the age of 42. I have no doubt that he will be effective still at the age of 43, especially with the passing offense he’ll be in. Regardless, he was slightly better than average in 2019, which was not all his fault, but there are clearly things he can’t do as well anymore, like get outside the pocket, something he added to his game from 2014-2017. That made him much more effective, but the last two years that has been basically gone and he is strictly a pocket passer. Again, it’s a huge loss, but instead of looking at his career work, look at 2018 and 2019, and don’t forget he is 42. Replacing him won’t be easy, but it is possible. There will never be another Tom Brady, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots and Bill Belichick can’t win with another quarterback; they can, and likely will.
The offensive line, which dealt with injuries and inconsistent play, returns what they projected to be the starting group last year. The loss of David Andrews was huge, and his return will make a big difference with a new quarterback under center. Losing offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia hurts, but not nearly as bad when your starting offensive line has the experience this group has. The key is health, which is the reason for the dropoff last season. When Wynn finally settled in at left tackle and now Dolphins starting center Ted Karras finally got comfortable at center, the line started to play like expected. If Andrews wasn’t healthy, there is a good chance the Patriots make more of a push to retain Karras, who did not sign for big money. Andrews was cleared to play by the medical staff yesterday. The Patriots will likely address this area in the draft or in the undrafted free agent pool, you can bet on that.
When it comes to the skill positions (running back, tight end, wide receiver) there are issues, but things are not as bad as they may seem. Now, I will be the first one to tell you how awful the Patriots were last year offensively when it came to making plays, but there was a combination of things that never allowed this offense to reach their potential. Put aside the Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon situations; that was the Patriots trying to fill a void, twice, and it blew up it in their face both times. They also made in-season moves (trade for Sanu) that just didn’t work out as they would have liked. Add in the learning curve for the young receivers and you see what you got in 2019. They need to rebuild the receiving core through the draft, and they are on their way after last year.
When you look at the skill-position area for 2020, it has to start with N’Keal Harry. Harry, the Patriots top pick in 2019, never really got his feet under him as a rookie because he got hurt in preseason and ended up on the PUP list. Harry played seven games, starting in five, but he only showed flashes, nothing was consistent. He finished with 12 catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns. He also showed the ability to run the ball, something the Patriots look for in their receivers. Having a full offseason under his belt is going to help Harry in a big way. It is crucial that he and Jarett Stidham develop strong chemistry to aid each other in their development, assuming Stidham is the man.
Julian Edelman, barring a surprising trade, will be a Patriot in 2020. It would not be surprising at all if he is a captain, and it will make life much easier for Stidham to have a veteran who knows the offense better than anyone. When Brady left for Tampa, most assumed that was the end of Edelman’s days with the Patriots, but people are jumping to conclusions. It may happen at some point, but I don’t foresee that in 2020. Mohamed Sanu, well, that is a different story altogether. Sanu’s cap hit, which is just north of six million, doesn’t carry any dead money. They can cut him and use that money to fill other holes, or possibly just save the money in case they like players that come available after the draft. On the flip side, they traded a second-round pick for him, he is a veteran receiver that has been productive on short money, and having another veteran receiver for Stidham can only help his development. Sanu was hurt in 2019, plain and simple; whatever they decide to do won’t surprise me, but I do expect him to bounce back in 2020.
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Jakobi Meyers was a good find last year as an undrafted free agent, but he has a long way to go in his development. One thing to keep an eye on with Meyers is his chemistry with Stidham; it was off the charts in the ’19 preseason. Some guys just work well together, and if this trend continues in the preseason, the Patriots may have found themselves another steal. There is one new face added to the receiving core- former Arizona Cardinal burner Damiere Byrd was recently signed to add athleticism to the depth chart, and this might end up being one of the steals of free agency. Byrd played in 11 games in 2019, starting just three, but he was still targeted 46 times for 32 catches, 359 yards, and one touchdown.
Some media outlets are trying to make it seem like it is the end of the world for the Patriots receiving group, but it is all just reactionary. I commend this writer for his fantastic statistical manipulation between Byrd and Dorsett (my eyes just rolled out of my head). I also fully expect the Patriots to draft at least one receiver in the draft next month, and this is one of the best classes in recent memory.
Running back is another area where there is depth, but they need health to reach their potential. Sony Michel can play, that is obvious, but he needs his offensive line to work for him or he is useless, like most backs. James White provides so much in the passing game, and Damien Harris, who was not active for a single game in 2019 returns to prove that he wasn’t a wasted pick in the third round. Last year felt like a red-shirt type year for the back, something the Patriots have done in the past. He will be active this year; he needs to be or he truly is a bust. Rex Burkhead is under contract, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he is cut. He would save the Patriots just under three million if they cut him, but it leaves a one million dollar dead cap hit. With all the dead money, it might make sense just to do it now if they believe freeing up that money now can help to re-sign someone or add multiple young players. Brandon Bolden makes less than two million and has shown that his ability on special teams and as the third halfback makes him worth the money. It would be a surprise to see the Patriots add to this area, but if someone they like happens to slip in the draft, they may.
As for the tight end position, well, that is a nightmare at the moment. Matt Lacosse and Ryan Izzo are both third or fourth tight ends on most depth charts, but in New England, they are 1a and 1b. This is a problem, but the draft doesn’t appear to be a route the Patriots can go to fix this issue. This is one of the weakest classes in years and every impact free agent has signed elsewhere. The free agents that are available that could provide a possible impact- Jordan Reed and Delanie Walker- are both going to search high and low for more money before taking what the Patriots would offer if they offered anything at all. The trade market is another area the Patriots may have to go, but they’ll likely draft one or two tight ends and try to develop them. One intriguing prospect- Thaddeus Moss, son of Randy Moss. Thaddeus is a mid-round prospect that has been compared to the aforementioned free agent Jordan Reed. Moss also knows what an NFL player can expect in the meeting, practices, and the overall process of being a pro due to having his dad as a resource. That matters more than people think.
The biggest and most publicized move is at the quarterback position. Tom Brady is a pirate now, so the Patriots have a huge hole to fill, and some wonder if that quarterback may already be on the roster. Jarrett Stidham, the 2019 4th round pick out of Auburn is the best option on the roster, and if reports are accurate, it looks like Stidham will enter the season as the starter. Brian Hoyer, who was traded to the Colts last season, was released by Indy and has returned to New England in likely a backup/mentor role for Stidham. Yes, there have been some reports that Hoyer will be the starter, but it would be a surprise if that were the case. If Stidham struggles, Hoyer is a solid stop-gap solution for a team that still has playoff aspirations.
New England will likely explore the quarterback position during the draft, but the only way they take a top-rated prospect is if one slips and they simply can’t pass up the value. That has happened in the past, and that doesn’t mean the player has to drop to 23. If they see someone dropping into the teens, they have the picks to trade to move up and get who they may want. As far as remaining free agents, the only real impact player available is Cam Newton, who was released by the Panthers. Newton is not a perfect fit in the Patriots offense, but great players make things happen, and New England is creative enough to make it work with a guy like Newton. It likely won’t happen, but it is still something to keep an eye on, especially if Newton has low salary demands.
As far as the release of Stephen Gostkowski, it was simply time. Gostkowski was a very good kicker for a long time, he scored a ton of points and won multiple rings, but with where the Patriots are at from a cap and age standpoint, it makes sense to move on. The most likely scenario is drafting a young kicker to take over, which is exactly what they did with Gostkowski. Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship is considered the top prospect at the position, and with the Patriots owning multiple mid-round picks, it would make sense to not only add a strong kicker but also one that is cost-controlled for four years. Gostkowski was making over four million dollars per year; that is simply way too much for a kicker.
Speaking of money and draft picks, this is another area where the Patriots are in good shape. Their cap situation for ’20 is not good due to the dead money left behind not just by Brady but other free agents that didn’t work out. The Patriots have almost $25 million in dead cap money for this season, but they currently aren’t on the books for any dead money on 2021. At this point, if they want to cut a player and it may cost them some dead money now, they might as well do it and basically “pay the bill” this year instead of going forward. The Patriots currently own 12 picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, so they’ll be able to add cost-controlled players to add depth and potentially a starter or two to the roster.
2021 is a totally different situation when it comes to cap room; the Patriots have over $100 million in cap space with no major free agents to lock up to a big deal. Yes, there will be free agents that the Patriots will lose, but their 13 draft picks in the 2021 draft allow them to replace anyone lost in free agency and continue to get younger. The Patriots are going to go from the oldest team to the youngest in a matter of two years, but they’ll still have strong veteran talent around the young guys, making it easier for them to transition to the pro game. With a large amount of cap space, New England can also be aggressive in free agency if they see a guy headed into his prime that they really like (see Stephon Gilmore) and it won’t put them in cap hell, which, contrary to popular opinion, DOES happen, typically due to bad contracts and dead money.
Overall, New England is in a good position to remain a contender after the loss of Tom Brady. There will be some growing pains to start the year, but assuming Stidham can develop and avoid mistakes, the offensive line stays healthy, and the Patriots can find a viable tight end, this team is still a playoff team and potentially someone teams do not want to face, especially late in the year. Fans should expect to see a heavy dose of running, play action, and aggressive defense, which truly has been the formula for the last two seasons. Defensively, they will continue to make plays, assuming the front seven has enough depth, and the secondary is very talented and deep. It is too early to make any kind of prediction of their overall record, but the Patriots are far from done, and their fans and haters will continue to battle into the next decade.
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