By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots have an entire offseason to second-guess everything that went wrong in their Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
But head coach Bill Belichick hopefully won’t be taking any days off, with some important decisions to make in some key areas.
While the Patriots should continue to be the class of the NFL, and should be in the conversation for another trip to the Super Bowl next season, this offseason is one surrounded in uncertainty on many fronts. Here’s what is at the top of Belichick’s to-do list:
Who’s Staying, Who’s Going?
Belichick has said he expects to be back, and so does Tom Brady (he’ll be 41 when next season starts, with two years left on his contract). Those are two big pieces of the puzzle. After that, well, things get interesting.
Rob Gronkowski wouldn’t commit to his future on Sunday night, which shouldn’t mean too much given it was moments after a disappointing loss. Chances are the tight end will be back, and hinting at retirement may be a way to get a more guaranteed contract out of the team instead the of the incentive-laden one he played under last season. He has two years remaining on his current deal. If he really is considering retirement, likely based on the rash of injuries throughout his career, that would leave a gigantic void on offense.
It’s pretty obvious that Malcolm Butler won’t be back, and it’s hard to blame him for wanting out after his mysterious benching in Super Bowl LII. The Patriots didn’t give Butler an extension last year when he was a restricted free agency, and he’s going to cash in this offseason on the open market. Good for him, he’s earned it. Maybe in a move to stick it to the Patriots, he’ll sign with an AFC East foe so he can face his former team twice a season.
That means that, for right now, Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones are New England’s top two corners heading into the 2018 season. The Patriots likely won’t fork over big bucks for another defensive back after giving Gilmore heaps of cash last offseason, so it could be a position they target in the draft.
But Butler is just one of the many important players on the New England roster who will hit free agency:
Danny Amenodola, WR
Dion Lewis, RB
Rex Burkhead, RB
Nate Solder, LT
Cameron Fleming, OT
LaAdrian Waddle, OT
Jonathan Bademosi, CB
Ricky Jean Francois, DT
James Harrison, LB
Matthew Slater, ST
Nate Ebner, ST
Amendola feels like an irreplaceable part of the offense, and he’s taken pay cuts each of the last three years to help the team. Chances are the Patriots will reach a deal with him, even with Julian Edelman returning from injury and Brandon Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Philip Dorsett all under contract. But there is always the risk of him following one of the two departing coordinators to their new team.
The running backs are a little trickier, especially with Lewis. He’s been a great playmaker for the Patriots, but that may have priced him out of their range this offseason. If/when Josh McDaniels ends up in Indy, one of his first moves may be signing Lewis away from the Pats, giving Andrew Luck the pass-catching running back he’s badly needed. That likely means Burkhead will be back in New England.
Nate Solder had a solid season protecting Brady’s blindside and the Patriots don’t have a replacement in their pipeline. The 29-year-old is coming off a two-year contract that paid him over $20 million. There have been whispers of a possible retirement for Solder, as his young son continues his battle with cancer, but the left tackle certainly looked engaged throughout the season and continues to be a great ambassador for the Patriots off the field. He cannot be franchised, as part of the last contract he signed.
Slater is getting up there (he’ll turn 33 at the start of next season) but he’s New England’s leader on special teams and in the locker room. He isn’t going anywhere.
Find Another Defensive Playmaker
The Patriots didn’t have Dont’a Hightower to make a game-changing play in Super Bowl LII. They had a severe lack of playmakers on defense all season long and it really hurt them on the game’s biggest stage.
Third-round pick Derek Rivers missed the season after tearing his ACL in August, and he should help the New England D get after the quarterback in 2018 if he’s healthy. But that shouldn’t stop the Patriots from trying to find someone else who could make a play on the defensive side of the field, whether it’s via free agency or in the draft.
The Patriots will be looking to bulk up their depth at corner, linebacker, defensive end and running back this offseason.
The Patriots were extremely thin at linebacker even with Hightower healthy, and relied on veteran James Harrison late in the season after they picked him up following his release from Pittsburgh. That can’t happen again in 2018, and they could use some more early round talent at the position.
Draft A Quarterback
Remember when the Patriots had the best quarterback situation in the NFL with Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo? Now they have Brady and Brian Hoyer. Hoyer is fine as a backup, but he’s certainly not the quarterback of the future.
With Brady turning 41 next season, it’d be a shock if the Patriots don’t use one of their picks on a quarterback. They’ll head into the draft with five picks: their own first-, second-, third- and sixth-round picks, plus San Francisco’s second-round pick from the Garoppolo trade.
One of those three picks in the first two rounds will likely go on a quarterback they can mold for the future.
Finding Replacement For Coordinators
Matt Patricia is now in Detroit and Josh McDaniels is going to Indianapolis. That leaves two giants voids on the New England sideline for Bill Belichick to fill, and that’s without those two guys taking any coaches with them, which will likely happen.
Linebackers coach Brian Flores was the early favorite to replace Patricia, but now there are reports that the position might go to Greg Schiano, a longtime buddy of Belichick. Either way, it sounds like the Patriots already have a good idea who will be calling the defense next season.
On offense, there has been a lot of talk that receivers coach Chad O’Shea will take over for McDaniels.
While having replacements already lined up is a good step, there is still loads of work to do to acclimate these guys to their new positions. It’s a process that will really take flight in minicamps, when they start dealing with players on the field.
It took some time for the Patriots to get things sorted out when Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel left a decade ago, so expect some growing pains from Belichick’s next season.