by Greg DePalma, Ourlads.com contributor
New England Patriots
2016 (14-2)…The New England Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three years.
Chairman/CEO Robert Kraft…The former Patriots season-ticket holder purchased the franchise in 1994. Since then, the Patriots have made the post-season 18 times with 16 division titles, eight SB appearances and five world championships.
Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio…10th-year; this will be his 17th-year with the organization; graduated from the same Jesuit college as OC Josh McDaniels (John Carroll).
HC/GM Bill Belichick…18th-year; won five SBs with the Patriots as HC and two SBs with the NY Giants as DC; spent five seasons in Cleveland as their HC and went to the post-season there just once; Wesleyan Grad.
OC Josh McDaniels…6th-year; won five SBs with the Patriots including the last two as OC; spent two seasons in Denver as HC; previously coached here for eight seasons under several titles prior to landing the coaching job in Denver; following Denver he spent one season in St. Louis as OC; John Carroll Grad.
DC Matt Patricia…6th-year; has been with the Patriots for 14 seasons now; won three SBs as an assistant here including the last two as DC; this is the only pro team he has ever worked for; Rensselaer Polytechnic Grad.
RB Rex Burkhead
RB Mike Gillislee
TE Dwayne Allen
TE James O’Shaughnessy
WR Brandin Cooks
OT Antonio Garcia
DE Kony Ealy
DE Lawrence Guy
DE Derek Rivers
DE Deatrich Wise Jr.
LB David Harris
CB Stephon Gilmore
RB LeGarrette Blount
TE Martellus Bennett
OT Sebastian Vollmer
DE Chris Long
DE Rob Ninkovich
DE Jabaal Sheard
CB Logan Ryan
QB…What is else there to say about one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game? The only potential obstacle Tom Brady has to deal with is staying away from injuries. Then it’s just a matter of counting more rings. The real question here is whether Belichick will receive a good enough compensation package to trade Jimmy Garoppolo after the season or try and sign him long-term. The franchise-tag option sounds silly to me. We also have no idea if Garoppolo is worth it. Remember Matt Cassel? Only Belichick knows how good he might be and his ultimate decision will answer these questions. Jacoby Brissett is next in line after Garoppolo, but after what I witnessed from his two starts last season, he still has a long way to go and I doubt he’s ever going to get there.
RB…With LeGarrette Blount and his 18 TDs from last season gone to Philadelphia, who will be called upon to get those short-yardage gains now? Even though he’s not a similar bullish-type contact player, the Patriots did sign Rex Burkhead from Cincinnati. Burkhead might still be the team’s best between-the-tackles runner right now and his ability to become a factor in the passing game – something Blount was unable and not required to do – could end up offsetting Blount’s departure. Dion Lewis was all the rage in 2015 as a vital part of the Patriots passing game, but after a knee injury delayed his return last season, it was evident the Patriots decided to go in another direction and do what they always do. They improvised. They adapted. They overcame. Sound familiar? It also didn’t help Lewis that James White was on the roster. White is a similar player who did a great job in the receiving role last season with 60-receptions, 551-yards and five-TDs. Mike Gillislee was also added to the roster from Buffalo and provides good depth, so much so that it’s really time to move on from Brandon Bolden. To tell you the truth I’m not even sure Bolden would make half the rosters in the league if he was cut. If there was ever a player who was a product of the Patriots winning system it’s Bolden. A matter of fact, look for DJ Foster to work his way past him on the depth chart real soon. Fullback Joe Develin is an above-average one-dimensional run-blocker.
TE…Rob Gronkowski is elite as they come for the position and he’s so important to their attack that it took a miracle comeback win in the Super Bowl for us to forget just how much they missed him following his season-ending back injury. Martellus Bennett performed well in Gronk’s absence, but he’s off to Green Bay which is why the Patriots acquired both Dwayne Allen from the Colts and James O’Shaughnessy from the Chiefs in separate deals. Allen’s been a disappointment after getting outplayed in Indianapolis by unheralded Jack Doyle. That’s why I’d wager on either O’Shaughnessy or undrafted rookie Jacob Hollister to pass him on the depth chart this season even though they only combine for eight career pro receptions. Then again, having Tom Brady as your quarterback is a great way to resurrect your career.
WR…Belichick finally provided Brady with a true downfield pass-threat when he acquired Brandin Cooks from New Orleans in March. Brady hasn’t had a toy like this since the Randy Moss days and I fully expect he’ll use him. Expect Cooks to open even wider passing lanes for everyone including Julian Edelman. With 532 targets the past four seasons combined, Edelman’s been Brady’s favorite chain-moving receiver. Many thought when the Pats added Danny Amendola in 2013 he was going to be Brady’s go-to man, not Edelman. But even though his value is not quite on par with Edelman’s, Amendola has still proven to be a key contributor for this offense over his time here. Chris Hogan is coming off a career-season with 680-yards on 38-receptions while averaging second only to Gronk in yards-per reception (17.9). Malcolm Mitchell was solid as a rookie and should only continue to grow. The sleeper to watch here is undrafted Austin Carr from Northwestern. Carr is your proto-typical Patriots possession receiver who broke the Wildcats season-record for yards with 1,247. In a few years we could be talking about him in the same way we do with Edelman. Of course, that’s only if Brady’s still around.
OL…Anytime you have a Hall of Fame quarterback under center like Brady or Peyton Manning, it’s much harder to evaluate this unit. But it’s evident that Belichick has done a nice job since 2011 in transforming the starters from an average group to an above-average one, thanks to tackle’s Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon and right guard Shaquille Mason. Mason was the second guard chosen (Tre’ Jackson) in the fourth-round of the 2015 draft, but a knee injury to Jackson (which led to his release) and the emergence of Mason goes to show you, you just never know about the unpredictability of the draft. Center David Andrews is one of those undrafted players who’s fortunate to have found work with a player like Brady, but he’s cheap and doesn’t hurt the team. Left guard Joe Thuney has talent, but he needs to get better and there’s no reason to think that he won’t. Besides reserve tackle Cameron Fleming, the depth on the bench is not adequate, which is why Belichick used two picks here on Antonio Garcia and Conor McDermott.
DL…The Patriots have to replace 38% of their sacks from last season with Ninkovich retiring and with Long and Sheard departing via free agency. It didn’t help that their top-overall pick, Derek Rivers injured his knee recently and appears to be lost for the season. Matters are so unnerving at defensive end that Geneo Grissom, whom Belichick cut last season before he returned to the practice squad and then back the regular roster, lined-up as the top left-defensive end on the first day of camp. Kony Ealy, who registered three sacks in Super Bowl 50, was acquired from Carolina to help, but he’s very inconsistent and there’s no telling how he’ll perform. The top three players to watch right now are Trey Flowers, Lawrence Guy and rookie fourth-round pick, Deatrich Wise. Flowers had a breakout-season and performed well in every aspect including notching the first seven-sacks of his career. He might be the team’s top edge player right now. Wise was a nice bargain for Belichick in that he played four years at the same SEC school as Flowers (Arkansas) with even better measurables. Wise is performing well at camp and should end up getting extensive playing time from the start. Guy was an underrated free agent pick-up from Baltimore. He’s a good rotation player and sound run-defender. Unlike the outside of the line, the inside is completely set with 32-year-old Alan Branch and 2015 first-round pick, Malcom Brown. Both players do an excellent job against the run. Also keep an eye on second-year nose tackle, Vincent Valentine. If all goes well with his development, Belichick would like to see him take over for Branch by 2019 the latest.
LB…Dont’a Hightower produced one of the key plays for New England in last year’s Super Bowl win and is easily the team’s top linebacker. His re-signing was key. By adding another interior linebacker in David Harris to the mix, Belichick will have options on where to line-up both players. Harris has been a very durable and reliable player over his career, which includes 708 tackles during his 10-seasons with the Jets. Former Bear Shea McClellin was solid when called upon last season and should see his role expand further thanks to his versatility. It’s time for Kyle Van Noy to take that next step after a coming over from Detroit last season. After a great career at BYU, the former second-round pick with the Lions didn’t take-off as planned, but he couldn’t have ended up at a better place to learn his trade and fulfill his promise. Last year’s sixth-round pick Elandon Roberts did a good job in the run game and will provide depth on early downs.
DB…The Patriots have a top pair of corners in Malcolm Butler and newly acquired Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore was brought in to become the team’s future No. 1 and that future begins now. Most analysts and fans expected that Butler was going to be traded before the draft, but with his impending unrestricted free agency coming next March, this is now looking like his last season in New England. Another former second-round pick to make his way over here is the third corner on the depth chart, Eric Rowe, who was traded from Philadelphia last offseason. Rowe played well as a starter last season, but for now he’ll backup both Butler and Gilmore. Rowe does possess some versatility too, so expect Belichick to get him on the field a lot. The next corner on the depth chart is last year’s second-round pick, Cyrus Jones. Jones played like a rookie when called upon and still needs time to develop. In the deep patrol, where the Patriots incorporate a good percentage of three-safety packages, Devin McCourty continues to play at a high level, Patrick Chung gives Belichick an important chess piece and Duron Harman is as solid as they come. Nate Ebner and Brandon King are major special team performers with Ebner counted on as the primary backup. Meanwhile, it’s time for 2015 second-round pick, Jordan Richards, to start making an impact or his time here might soon be coming to an end.
Stephen Gostkowski has been an elite place-kicker for years now, but after missing three extra-points for the first time since he missed one during rookie season and then missing five field-goal’s including two from inside 40-yards, he’s going to need to keep his coach from getting more concerned. Don’t forget that future Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri was let go to make room for Gostkowski. Because in Belichick’s world, no one is safe.
Bill Belichick knows that Tom Brady can’t play forever, which is why he made several deals to mortgage the future including acquiring Brandin Cooks for their first-round pick. Belichick and Brady are going to try and win as many world championship’s as they can over the next several seasons, because they understand that one day, this dynasty will have to come to an end.