By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The 2016 season will be a truly unique one for the New England Patriots, one that offers a level of intrigue that hasn’t surrounded the team in some time.
The Patriots are always an intriguing team because they’re always among the short list of favorites to lift the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season. That hasn’t changed in 2016, but the path they would have to take is much, much different this time around.
So as we count down the hours to the new season, here are some big questions that face the squad over the next four (hopefully five) months:
How Will A Month Of Jimmy G. Go?
Tom Brady is sitting in a cell somewhere in the basement of the NFL offices, withering away on a diet of gruel with a ball and chain fastened around his ankle for the next month. At least that’s what we’re picturing based on Julian Edelman’s comments, so we’ll just have to take his word for it.
That leaves Jimmy Garoppolo under center for the Patriots for the first four games of the regular season. If someone tells you they know they know how he’ll do over the first month, ask them for the winning lottery numbers as well. We may have an idea of what to expect based on Garoppolo’s performances in the past and throughout the preseason, but no one knows how the third-year QB will handle his starting duties against the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans and Bills.
That cloud of uncertainty is rare air for the Patriots. While every team deals with their share of question marks heading into a new year, the Patriots haven’t had to worry about the quarterback position for the last 15 years. Now, the job is being turned over to a third-year quarterback with no NFL starts.
Mistakes will be made, but Garoppolo should be fine if he can keep those mistakes from costing New England games. Sure, the organization would love for him to light the world on fire and boost his trade value, but if he helps them win three or four games in 2016, that is all that really matters at the moment.
The pressure is certainly there for Garoppolo, but he doesn’t need to put together a Hall of Fame career over these four weeks. He just needs to bring what he’s learned on the practice field onto the playing field, hit the open receiver and keep the ball away from the defense. Don’t try to do too much, and just take what is given to him.
Will Anyone Stop Brady?
Tom is one pissed off fella right now. He has to stay away from the stadium he helped build for a month, has to sit back and watch as a young quarterback takes over for the first four games, and he can’t practice or have any contact with his teammates or coaches. As a fierce competitor, it has to be killing Brady to have to sit back in his newest pair of Uggs and be a spectator for the first four weeks of the season.
So will the rest of the NFL be ready when a highly motivated Brady is released from his chains and finally takes the field on October 9 against the Cleveland Browns? Could he win the MVP after playing in just 12 games?
Brady always has a kind of crazy look in his eyes, but he’s going to be a man possessed this season. Think of any revenge movie you’ve seen and triple the main character’s drive — that’s going to be Tom Brady. He’ll be Beatrix Kiddo with a helmet, ready to punch his way out of underground prison.
That motivation is either going to be a great thing, adding even more fuel to his drive for a ring for his thumb, or the revenge tour could amp him up too much and he becomes blind with rage. Whatever is the case, an extremely angry Brady is going to be unleashed on the NFL on October 3. The rest of the league needs to look out.
Can Offensive Line Keep Quarterbacks Alive?
The last image (or should we say, images) of the Patriots’ 2015 season is Brady hitting the deck after the Denver Broncos pass-rush had blown by the New England offensive line with ease.
Protecting the quarterback was an issue for the 2015 New England Patriots. Brady was sacked 38 times during the season, and was hit 17 times in that AFC Championship Game loss.
There was one big upgrade to the offensive line during the offseason, with Dante Scarnecchia back on the sideline to lead the group. But Sebastian Vollmer is on IR and may not play this season, leaving Marcus Cannon at right tackle. Nate Solder is in charge of blocking Garoppolo and Brady’s blind side, but he’s coming off a torn biceps that ended his 2015 campaign early. David Andrews is back at center, but there’s no security net there following the trade/re-acquisition/release of Bryan Stork.
Belichick picked up some depth in acquiring Jonathan Cooper from the Cardinals in the Chandler Jones trade and drafting guard Joe Thuney and Alex Karras. While Tuney has received stellar reviews throughout camp and the preseason, likely earning a starting guard spot, Cooper spent most of the preseason injured. The guard is a giant question mark, with Shaq Mason dealing with a broken hand, and the position got a little lighter earlier this week, when the Pats traded/re-acquired/released Josh Kline.
There are four tight ends and a fullback on the depth chart, and Cameron Fleming is back to be the occasional eligible receiver/extra blocker, so all of that should help. But there are a lot of concerns along the line, a group that is already thin before even taking the field for Week 1.
Will the return of Scar mean a better performance out of the players? The Patriots sure hope so, because they’ve done little else to alleviate the concerns.
Too Thin At Receiver?
Speaking of being thin on the depth chart, the Patriots have just four true receivers currently on the roster. Matthew Slater is listed as a fifth, but the special teams captain won’t be running many routes this season. If he does, then the Pats are in trouble.
Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola make up half of New England’s receiving corps, and you need no reminder about their recent injury history. Chris Hogan is a nice addition to the group, and appears to have caught on in the system unlike past veteran signings. But after those three, it’s just rookie Malcolm Mitchell, whose elbow bent the wrong way back in the first preseason game and we haven’t seen him in game action since. He looked very promising until that contortion act on the field, but it’s unclear what he’ll be able to bring to the table early in the season. Usually it’s not wise to count on a rookie receiver in the Patriots offense, but in just a small sample, Mitchell seems to be bucking that trend. We’ll see if he gets that opportunity.
Having the best tight end in the world, and another talented running mate for him, alleviates New England’s lack of depth at receiver, but it’s something that could catch up to them if the group suffers an injury or two, which is extremely likely throughout the rigorous 16-game schedule.
How Hurt Is Gronk?
It’s safe to say that Rob Gronkowski has never been 100 percent during his Patriots career. A back injury scared some teams away from drafting him in 2010, and he’s battled some kind of bump or bruise nearly every season leading up to now.
This year, he enters the regular season trying to escape a nagging hamstring injury that he suffered early in training camp, one that has led to some doubt about him suiting up Sunday night in Arizona. And if he does play, what percentage of Gronk will actually take the field? Granted, 85% of Gronk is still better than most of the tight ends in the league, but it’s never fun to hear about him nursing an injury.
It could be nothing, but the concern is there with Gronkowski, as it always seems to be. It’s imperative for him to be there in the end, so we’ll have to see how the Patriots handle the situation in the season’s opening weeks.
Will Bennett Catch On?
There is always concern with a newcomer finding their way in the Patriots complicated offense. Scott Chandler was last year’s entry to a long list of veterans who failed to figure things out.
The expectations are high for Martellus Bennett, who is coming off a disappointing season with the Chicago Bears. He should have plenty of open/easy looks with Gronk (hopefully) drawing most of the defensive attention, but an uninspiring preseason has led to some concerns about Bennett’s ability to contribute.
He’s been a beast most of his career, but he does have a track record of disappearing. Hopefully Bennett, in a contract year, can break the trend of veteran pass-catchers who have struggled to catch on in the New England offense.
Will They Get Enough From Running Backs?
For yet another question mark on the offensive side of the ball, we head to the backfield. Dion Lewis is starting the year on PUP and there’s a chance he misses the entire campaign, meaning LeGarrette Blount is back as the likely starter. He’s had success in New England, though we’ve seen that he’s most effective when the temperature drops below 30 and teams have no desire to try to bring down his six-foot, 250-pound frame.
As for pass-catching backs, there is James White and D.J. Foster on the depth chart. This will be White’s time to shine, again, though it still remains unknown if he can become the third-down, playmaking back the Patriots have been known for. Foster showed promise in camp and the preseason, but that’s a lot to ask from an undrafted rookie.
With Garoppolo in there the first month of the season, it will be important for the Patriots to establish a run game early on. That could prove to be a tough task.
How Good Can The Defense Really Be?
Enough with the negativity on the offensive side, which is such a rarity with the Patriots. Now we can look to the giant positive, which is a defensive unit that could be downright dominating this season.
The New England defense could (nay, should) be among the best in the league. Malcolm Butler proved last season that he can cover top receivers, with Logan Ryan holding his own on the other side of the field. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower are both ridiculously talented in their own rights, and they share the field together. Add Jonathan Freeny, the versatile Shea McClellin and a little Barkevious Mingo fever, and sweet fancy Moses that linebacker group is terrifying. The defensive line will now be anchored by Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, with Jabaal Sheard (playing for a contract) and Chris Long coming off the edge. Rob Ninkovich will join the pass-rush when he returns from his four-game ban.
The defense does have their share of question marks. After Butler and Ryan, it remains to be seen if rookie Cyrus Jones can handle covering the slot. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are solid vets, but after there are some depth issues at the safety position. The linebackers are terrifying, but they are also one injury away from being a thin group.
The New England defense has evolved from that bend-don’t-break unit three years ago and now looks like one of those feared groups of the early 2000s, when the defense was winning games for the Patriots. Can this unit do the same if the offense struggles, especially over the first four weeks? We’ll find out very, very soon.
But going into the season, you have to feel confident in the defense the Pats will trot out every week.
Any Competition In AFC East?
Each year, we wonder if the Jets, Bills or Dolphins will be able to knock the Patriots off the top of the AFC East. Without Brady for a month, this season would appear to be their prime opportunity.
But don’t count on it. That doesn’t mean their six divisional matchups won’t be hard-fought games, and likely result in a loss or two. No matter what division you play in, those divisional games are always tough. But in the end, the Dolphins are still the Dolphins. The Bills are focused more on winning the offseason and the early months of the regular season. And just when it appears the Jets are ready to take that next step, they continue to be the Jets. Look no further than than the end of last season, when all they had to do was beat the Bills in Week 17 to make the playoffs. They lost, and watched the playoffs at home.
The Bills and Jets again look poised to at least make a run at a wild card spot, and like last season one of them could be in sniffing distance of the division come the closing weeks. But the division is the Patriots to lose once again, and with an angry Brady for the final 12 weeks and a defense that could be their best unit in years, New England should be kings of the AFC East for the eighth straight season.
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