By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The start of the Patriots’ 2017 season won’t be as smooth as it could have been, now that Tom Brady and the offense will have to adjust to life without trusted target Julian Edelman. But it’s fair to wonder how much it will matter in the grand scheme of things.
That being said, a slow start for the Pats offense should be expected in the early-going without No. 11 on the field. Edelman transcends the “Next Man Up” mantra. The Patriots can’t just run the exact same offense while plugging someone like Danny Amendola into the same spot. The unit will look different than it does when Edelman is out there moving all around the field.
Based on recent history, the biggest adjustment that Brady and the offense will have to make is on third down.
The best example of a post-Edelman adjustment period is the middle of the 2015 regular season. Brady posted a 111.1 passer rating in the first nine games with a healthy Edelman. In the final nine games after Edelman went on the shelf with a broken foot, Brady’s passer rating was 89.1.
There was a similar drop in third-down efficiency. Although the Pats were up-and-down all season in that department, they went 56-for-115 (48.7 percent) on third downs with Edelman in the lineup, compared to just 32-for-100 without him. They went a solid 7-for-14 on third down in Edelman’s final game of the regular season against the Giants, with Edelman making three of his four catches in that situation; in the first game without Edelman, at home against the Bills, they went 4-for-14.
Brady will likely look to Rob Gronkowski, Amendola, and James White on third downs and spread the ball around more in those situations. But it goes without saying that no single player has earned Brady’s trust like Edelman has in those spots. It’s why Brady will likely hold onto the ball a fraction longer than normal. It’s why a slow start shouldn’t come as a surprise if it happens.
Of course, there are also stark differences in the personnel between the Patriots offense entering 2017 and the team mid-2015. The offensive line has a chance to be intact, although Nate Solder has been slow to get back up to speed. They are better and deeper at running back, with Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead likely taking over for LeGarrette Blount on early downs and both White and Dion Lewis being major assets in the passing game. The remaining receivers are also better, as Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell have a better chance of adapting and producing than Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson, and Chris Harper did in 2015.
Still, just because those players are more talented doesn’t mean they won’t need time to get on the same page with Brady when they’re playing at game speed. As great as Cooks has looked in training camp practices, there’s no guarantee that it will translate to immediate regular season success for the Patriots’ biggest offseason addition. As reliable as Amendola has been at times on third down and other similar situations to Edelman, he’s no lock to stay healthy or consistently produce at Edelman’s level. As good as the offensive line has been since the return of Dante Scarnecchia, Solder’s health will be a question mark entering the season.
It’s more likely that the Patriots offense reaches their full potential later in the season, which has been a hallmark of Bill Belichick’s teams. Early on, it may not quite look as powerful as expected – especially because they have some tough defenses on their early slate. The Chiefs, Texans, and perhaps even the Panthers and Bucs defenses could give them more trouble than you think, perhaps even blindside them with an unexpected loss (don’t act like that hasn’t happened before.)
Still, by the end of the season, the Patriots likely will have asserted themselves as the AFC’s top seed, hurtling toward home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. So what are we even talking about here? If it’s their chances of 19-0, you should have already put that aside. Perhaps we’re talking about 12-4 instead of 13-3. It’s gotten to the point where the question isn’t whether the Patriots will be at home for the AFC Championship Game, but how hard it will be for them to get there.
The Patriots’ road has a good chance of ending up in the same spot, with or without Edelman. But with No. 11 on the shelf, it will be a bumpier ride than expected. Just remember to hold on a little tighter in the beginning.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @Dolloff985 and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.