Nearly two months have passed since the Patriots suffered a heart-breaking Super Bowl loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, and there has been a lot of change in Foxborough since. Gary Beeson reflects on what the offseason has brought so far for the Patriots, and some unresolved dilemmas that need to be resolved before the 2018 season begins.
The Fallout from Minnesota
Throughout the Super Bowl, the shortcomings of the Patriots roster & coaching staff were remarkably evident. The formidable ‘Goliath’ of the NFL, was reduced to a spineless, toothless, shell of its former self. In the most part, the offense stood strong, but the defense and special teams were shambolic. Matt Patricia’s usually adaptive & pragmatic defensive approach became oddly rigid and completely incapable of adjusting to the Eagles fast paced, and sometimes unorthodox offensive strategy. The players on defense seemed equally as incapable of change, the absence of starting cornerback Malcolm Butler was harmful, as perennial special teamers were tasked with replacing him, and thrusted into the limelight on the biggest stage in sports. In the linebacker position, Kyle Van Noy was left on an island, partnered by a struggling Elandon Roberts, and oddly ineffectual Marquis Flowers. To cap it off, the defensive line could not stop the run, or generate any pressure on the faultless Nick Foles. Simply put, a change was needed.
Free Agency certainly did not start as positively as Patriots fans would have hoped. To kick things off, Malcolm Butler quickly departed from the team that he had won a Super Bowl for just a few years earlier. Tennessee opted to give the undrafted rookie free agent a well-deserved pay day. The high-powered offense was also hindered somewhat, with dynamic running back Dion Lewis, and the dependable Danny Amendola joining the Titans and Dolphins, respectively. Gone also, was starting left tackle Nate Solder, as he decided to head to New York, to no-doubt significantly improve the Giants’ offensive line.
Some other low-profile departures also included Martellus Bennetts second stint with the Patriots coming to a quiet end, and injury hampered Shea McClellin was also released from his contract, after spending most of the last two seasons battling lingering concussions. Despite strong rumours, and an apparent agreement in place, the Pats were able to hold onto offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. However, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has now joined the Detroit Lions as their head coach, and a replacement is yet to be determined.
Smart Moves in Free Agency
One excellent addition the Patriots have made since the Super Bowl loss was the acquisition of Jason McCourty from the Cleveland Browns. This trade is excellent for several reasons. McCourty was due to be released, before the Patriots swooped in with a trade offer that the Browns were happy to accept. McCourty had a great year in a rather poor Browns side, having 3 interceptions and a couple of forced fumbles. If released, I am certain he would have been in line to receive some very high-priced offers, in a rather shallow cornerback market, so the fact the Pats were able to trade for him, and maintain his current Browns contract, was superb business. Throughout his time in the NFL, McCourty has been described as an ideal teammate and a consummate professional, his natural ability and willingness to learn will make him an excellent addition to a set of defensive backs that already has the excellent Stephon Gilmore and improving Eric Rowe.
Rex Burkhead, who had a great debut season in New England, was re-signed to a multi-year deal. Burkhead and James White will look to continue their fine form as the receiving backs that are famously so successful in New England. Team Captain, and special team stand out Matthew Slater was also signed to a 2-year deal. Slater’s on field achievements on Special Teams are always evident, but his leadership in the locker room is a key reason why him remaining at the Patriots is great business. He will be helped on Special Teams by Cordarelle Patterson, who will hopefully take over Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman’s punt & kick return duties. This was another smart move by the Patriots, Patterson will remain on a relatively cheap contract, will certainly improve the kick-return game and also help protect the more skilled players from consuming both offensive & special team snaps, reducing the chances of injuries.
An issue that really needed addressing was the pass-rush. The addition of former Falcons defensive end, Adrian Clayborn, will certainly help. Clayborn is a solid, dependable player, who rarely misses time with injuries, and consistently delivered respectable numbers when in Atlanta. Clayborn, partnered with young talents such as Deatrich Wise Jr and Trey Flowers, will hopefully result in higher sack numbers & a vastly improved run-stopping unit. Clayborn has joined Danny Shelton, who was traded from the Cleveland Browns. Shelton, who is a former first round pick, will add significant stability to the interior of the defensive line, and will be a complimentary partner for Malcom Brown.
Finding the Next Quarterback
Either through the draft, via trades or free agency, issues on the roster need to be addressed. First, the search for the ‘Quarterback of the future’ needs to begin. It seemed like this had already been achieved when Jimmy Garoppolo was drafted a few years ago. However, with a large contract looming, and Tom Brady continuing to play at an elite level, the Patriots were unable to keep hold of their prized asset.
Following Garoppolo’s departure, former Patriots back-up Brian Hoyer was brought back to New England. This cannot continue to be the case moving forwards. This offseason has been filled with whispers that Brady’s playing days are numbered. Despite proclaiming he would like to play until he was 45, it seems family-ties, injury concerns and frustration at another Super Bowl loss have been cited as possible reasons for Brady considering his future. For what it’s worth, I think that Brady wants one more ring before he feels he can walk away, of course, it is easier said than done. But if he continues to play at this level, it is definitely achievable.
Either way, Brady will not be around forever, and Brian Hoyer is definitely not the long-term answer. Recent reports have suggested that Johnny Manziel has had meetings with Patriots representatives — could Johnny Football be taking his talents to New England? He has seemingly improved his health and behaviour in the last few months, has always been open about his respect and adoration of the Patriots set up. During his college career he showed he has raw football talent that could be moulded into a starting QB in the NFL. Never count out the Patriots to make such outlandish moves, they have happened before.
Mitigating the Damage
Other issues that need to be addressed are depth at both linebacker, and on the offensive line. When star Line backer Dont’a Hightower went down with a season ending injury last year, the Patriots linebacking corps looked incredibly ordinary. Kyle Van Noy, who was an outcast for the Lions several years ago, became the leader of the linebackers. He then missed a lot of the season with injuries, which made a bad situation even worse. The linebackers, in my opinion, were a large reason why the Patriots defense struggled in the Superbowl. The run game was constantly effective for the Eagles, and coverage of Tight Ends was abysmal. Patriots will likely need to look at the draft as a great opportunity to bring some youth and depth to the team.
The loss of Nate Solder on the offensive line cannot be overlooked. Solder was a key reason for Brady’s success over the last few seasons. Sure, Solder was not a star, but he was dependable, and a trustworthy left tackle in the NFL is essential in building a solid run game, and successful pass protection unit. The re-signing of LaAdrian Waddle is a good sign, but I am unsure he will be as effective as Solder was. The Patriots need to try and look to add depth on the offensive line during the draft.
Overall, a topsy-turvy start to free agency for the AFC Champions as they look to avoid the dreaded ‘Superbowl Hangover’. Losing some key pieces on defense & a few dependable on bodies on offense could have been rather destructive, but it seems the Patriots were able to make smart moves that mitigated the potential damage. With free agency drying up, and most big names choosing their new homes already, we must now look to draft to see how the Patriots can gear up for another run at their sixth Lombardi Trophy.