Your defending champion Patriots take to the field this week in preparation for the 2017 season. It seems like only a few days ago millennials across the nation were pointing cameras at themselves during the Super Bowl to capture incredible joy or angst-ridden disbelief. (Warning: the links are NSFW, especially the latter.)
Don’t tell my DVR this, but New England has moved on from the Greatest Super Bowl Comeback Ever to a bright, shiny new season, full of prospects and possibilities. While expectations should run high, this has the potential to be the most fun year in a long time.
I mean, because of the aforementioned expectations, it won’t be, but it could be.
Let’s dig in to some issues facing the team as they gear up for the upcoming campaign, in entertaining (and effort-reducing) fake Q&A form:
Q: So, like, 19 and 0, right?
Yikes. As someone who lived through the uber-tense, emotional meat grinder that was 2007, current references to an undefeated season amaze me. At the time, our own Bruce Allen summarized the year succinctly with his column on The Most Miserable 18-1 Season In History. It’s worth a re-read, because that year saw a turning point in how the local media covered its NFL franchise. Frankly, reading about the team just wasn’t much fun anymore.
Seriously, 19-0? Who wants that? Do we really need to improve on 17-2? It’s like knowing the world record for holding your breath underwater is 22 minutes, 22 seconds (this is true, by the way) and saying, “It won’t count unless I do 30 minutes!” Hoping – and having a chance – for a championship is more than enough.
Come on, people. Keep in mind how unusual this run of consistent Patriots success is. Live in the moment.
Q: But the Pats are favored in every game!
I am favored in every game of tic-tac-toe against my daughter, but sometimes I lose. Once in a while, I fail to keep focus, or she makes a strong move, or I intentionally take the side space instead of the corner because it’s tic-tac-toe and who cares?
Again, let’s just think about Jacksonville on August 10, enjoy watching the youngsters, hope for good health, and go from there, okay?
Q: What former Patriot player will you miss the most?
LeGarrette Blount. Those Minutemen celebrations will live on in my memory for a long time, as will his helpfulness in aiding several Steelers move toward the end zone in the AFC Championship. Very happy Bill Belichick brought him into the fold.
Should also mention Logan Ryan here. Underrated in a lot of ways. More on that below.
Q: What player will the Patriots miss the most?
Martellus Bennett. This summer I watched the Pats-Bears game from 2014 on YouTube (since removed), a game we remember largely because of Rob Gronkowski swatting away a defender like a June bug and romping to the end zone. I had forgotten that, on a very short list of Bears who did not roll over and play dead that day, Bennett stood at the top. He caught a touchdown pass where he ignored the pass interference of Brandon Browner and snatched the football about an inch off the turf. Watching highlights of that game and looking at the stats (Bennett: six catches, 95 yards, 1 TD; Gronk: nine grabs, 149 yards, three TDs) it’s amazing those two tight ends played for the same team last year.
The Patriots survived without Gronk because of Bennett. Without either one, a big playoff run seems less likely. No offense to Dwayne Allen, but, you know … no offense.
Q: Mike Reiss of ESPN.com recently wrote a column about 2017 rivaling 2001 as the best offseason in the Belichick era. What do you think are the best one-year signings for New England’s Super Bowl winners?
Hey, I was just wondering about that!
Q: Well, I’m you, so –
Anyway. Top five one-year signings for Patriots champions:
1. Darrelle Revis, DB, 2014. The ultimate mercenary who gave the defense flexibility.
2. Ted Washington, NT, 2003. Belichick traded for Washington in August of 2003, and the defensive lineman/geological formation responded by forming a glacier in the middle of every opposing offensive line. New England drafted Vince Wilfork the following spring.
3. Brandon Browner, DB, 2014. While Revis often clamped down on one receiver, Browner shifted around the defensive backfield, picking up larger targets to match their size and strength.
4. Keith Traylor, NT, 2004. Started 10 games during Wilfork’s rookie season, anchoring another great Pats defense.
5. Martellus Bennett, TE, 2017. Had 55 catches for 701 yards (12.7 avg) and seven touchdowns in the regular season, never hesitating to step up as a pass-blocker, and – despite nagging injuries – never missing a game.
The one trait all of these players had in common (and I think 2001 linebacker Bryan Cox deserves honorable mention here) is an ability to settle down their respective teams. Revis and Browner joined a defensive backfield in flux, while Washington and Traylor stabilized a run defense that had grown unreliable in 2002. Bennett did everything well, panicking defenses when both he and Gronk were healthy, and eventually making Gronk’s injury less agonizing than it would have been.
Q: Any of the new free agents make you uneasy? Cooks? Gilmore?
Nothing discomforting about Cooks from a New England point of view, but I can imagine opposing defensive coordinators getting a little fidgety. An added bonus? There’s no great pressure for Cooks to perform with the group of veterans (and second-year surprise Malcolm Mitchell) returning. Now, Gilmore, on the other hand…
Look, we’ve all seen the clip of Gilmore getting burned by Chris Hogan up in Buffalo. Maybe fewer of us have watched the clip of Gilmore failing to knock down a long TD bomb to Brian Tyms in 2014 (starting at the 2:43 mark of this video). Preseason is going to provide a clearer window into what Gilmore can do, and more importantly, where he picks up where Ryan left off.
There’s sizable risk, here, especially considering his contract. A dynamic to keep an eye on.
Q: Hey, seeing as this is a media site, what do you think of the new Boston Sports Journal?
First off, I am extremely happy to see Chris Price covering the Patriots again. Diligence, compassion, and execution should get rewarded, and seeing Mr. Price back on the beat will be a good thing for local coverage. (Plus, more crucial attention should be paid to Pats players’ 3-cone times. Get on it, Price!)
I certainly appreciate the BSJ “About Us” page that promises no contrived opinions. The site is free until July 31. I’ve been checking it out, and I’ll probably end up subscribing. Should be fun to watch it grow and maybe provide some positive peer pressure to other local media.
Q: Hi, Chris. It’s me, The Thoughts You Have When You’re Trying To Sleep.
You! What are you doing here?
Q: Just fine, thanks. So, overall – like, in life – don’t you think you should be doing better?
Thanks a lot, Thoughts. You’re a real pip. Changing topics now.
Q: Running backs. Who you got?
Pretty straightforward, I think. Mike Gillislee is the sledgehammer, James White is the chisel, and Rex Burkhead is the tool kit. Or maybe fullback James Develin is the sledgehammer, so that makes Gillislee the, um … nail gun? Wait, this is getting away from me.
Okay, leaving Develin aside at his own fullback/tight end position, there’s Gillislee, White, and Burkhead. I think they hold on to Dion Lewis, because he’s a) their most dynamic back and b) in a position to share time, play a little less, and thus avoid injury. While Brandon Bolden has great special teams ability and is a strong sub, Burkhead seems to match his role too well to avoid duplicates. And, as much as I enjoy the prospect of D. J. Foster getting time (and absolutely murdering this preseason), I don’t think he makes the September 53.
Ah, remember September 53? Ike? The end of the Korean War? Perry Como? Anyone? (Man, my father loved Perry Como.)
Q: Hey there, Chris. It’s Thoughts again. Speaking of your dad –
Q: – how disappointed in you do you think he’d be?
Why are you asking me this now? I’m not even trying to sleep!
Q: Cool. I’ll be back.
*sigh* I know.
Q: What effect do you think David Harris will have on the defense?
Linebacker remains the most intriguing position in New England’s D. You’d think trading away Jamie Collins last fall for a PB&J sandwich (actually a third-round draft pick) would have had a more negative impact, but the fabric leftover quilt of Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, and rookie Elandon Roberts provided enough versatility and flexibility to complement Dont’a Hightower on their championship run. Harris brings an experienced defensive mind who can start in the middle on early downs and spell Hightower. He has great potential to be another strong one-year signing. I can’t wait to watch him at the tanking Jets on October 6 (suggested Jets season DVD title: “Here’s To 0-17 In 2017: Nothing Is Impossible”).
I think Harris also provides a bridge between this season and the 2018 draft, when the Patriots pick a rookie as a long-term solution to partner with Hightower in the middle. And, yes, that means I don’t see rookie free agents Harvey Langi and Brooks Ellis as long-term solutions. Fun to see them prove me wrong.
Q: Not including Develin, who’s the third tight end after Gronk and Allen?
We need some deduction here. Matt Lengel remains a strong candidate because of his blocking. You can see him on the line vs. the Jets in these highlights (focus on number 82 during rushing TDs) and lined up next to Develin in the backfield on Blount’s TD at Denver (at the 1:09 mark). Out of James O’Shaughnessy and rookies Jacob Hollister and Sam Cotton, Lengel’s the best blocker. As we heard in the Sounds of the Game of that same Jets match-up after Lengel scored his touchdown (at the 2:27 mark), (now former) Pats tight ends coach Brian Daboll told Lengel, “Don’t worry about your touchdown, all right?” and asked him to focus on the run game.
So, the question is, do they keep their blocker or look for a pass-catching, “move” tight end? The Pats traded a fifth-rounder to the Chiefs for O’Shaughnessy and a sixth-rounder (nice rundown of the trade here by Adam Sites of SB Nation). He has caught eight passes for 86 yards in two seasons and has played on special teams. There’s nothing in his pro day numbers out of Illinois State that shows a ton of potential, as a 4.68-second 40 and 7.20-second 3-cone won’t exactly support a Steve-McQueen-in-The-Great-Escape type of breakout.
Hollister has similar pro day numbers (4.64 40, 7.12 3-cone), while his Wyoming highlight reel features Bachman Turner Overdrive and gets my full support. Cotton has the slowest 40 (4.80) but the best 3-cone (6.87). He had an ankle injury last year at Nebraska, yet had his most productive season as a Cornhusker with eight receptions for 87 yards (aka what Gronk would call “a solid game”). The Patriots could use a smaller TE to provide matchup problems, but I don’t think the receiver they seek is in this bunch. I say they go with Lengel, at least until they pick up a free agent later this summer.
It’s a shame, because I was pretty geared up for the Cotton puns. The touch, the fee-eeeel…
Q: Speaking of blocking, how about the interior line?
Yeah, after the incredible ending to the Super Bowl, it’s easy to forget that guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason and center David Andrews spent over three quarters getting absolutely outhoused by Atlanta’s interior D-line (hi there, Grady Jarrett). The Patriots drafted Thuney and Ted Karras last year. They now have James Ferentz out of Iowa, who weighs a dainty 285 pounds, along with Jamil Douglas of Arizona State (308) and free agent rookie Jason King of Purdue (310). Karras has shown the ability to step in at any of the three interior spots, but the Pats have to hope the core three can continue to improve.
Q: Yeah. Does that really answer my question?
Well, to the best of my ability, I guess.
Q: Just, don’t you – don’t you feel like you’re simply parroting what other websites have to say on the topic without providing any new information?
Listen, I try to go as in-depth as I can, but sometimes it’s tough to get relevant info – wait a minute … Thoughts? Is that you?
Q: Ha, HA! How’s it going, Chris old pal?
Q: Ah. Fun. See you tonight, around 11:30, then 5 a.m.?
Do I have a choice?
Q: Of course not! Until then, why not talk about Jimmy Garoppolo, and your love of reporters saying “talk about.”
I think my thoughts on the latter have been well-documented (as I am, regretfully, a former practitioner). On Jimmy G., it sure seems as though the Patriots want him around. It makes sense that most teams have a tough time transitioning from Great Quarterbacks to Other Quarterbacks (the post-Manning Colts and Broncos provide examples, with the post-Montana Niners as the outlier), which has put Belichick and Co. to work plotting out the future of the franchise. Right now, Garoppolo provides the key to the Post-Brady Patriots’ success. (And I swear, if one of you mooks writes anything like “You think Garoppolo is better than BRADY?!?” in the comments section, I’m deleting it. Deleting it, I say!) He’s the best option available, and rather than search around for someone who maybe/kinda could provide an answer, New England will hang on to the one guy they’ve seen in action for three seasons.
Will Garoppolo be better than Brady in two years? No. But in five years? Ten? I think they’ve got to stick with him.
Q: Who’s the undrafted rookie with the best chance to stick around?
Many fingers pointed at linebacker Langi and tight end Hollister due to their high-end rookie free agent contracts, but with the retirement of Andrew Hawkins (nice summary by Reiss here) and the careful handling of Mitchell this preseason, I’m going with undrafted rookie receiver Austin Carr. He was productive at Northwestern and seems like a bit of a smarty pants. Could fit in well as Mitchell or anyone else gets put on the Player Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
If not Carr, I’d also like to stump for two safeties: crazy athlete Jason Thompson out of Utah (he of the 6.57-second 3-cone – you got that, Price?) and potential comeback candidate David Jones of Richmond, who had nine interceptions as a junior in 2015 before getting injured last season. You can read about all of New England’s undrafted rookies in our annual “Who’s the FA? UDFA!” column from May.
Q: Isn’t that, like, three undrafted rookies?
Yup. Hey, this roster is loaded. Lots of talent to discuss.
Q: What are you most looking forward to this year?
Sitting back and having fun. New England has nothing more to prove. They’re on an amazing run and have established themselves as The Team Of The Early Millennium. Out of the 15 seasons Tom Brady has started at quarterback, the team has made it to the Super Bowl seven times. That’s pretty good. Let’s appreciate this.
We’re on to Jacksonville…
Chris Warner misses football so much he’s been watching the Argonauts. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @cwarn89.