By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL season is right around the corner. Sort of. OK, not really.
But you know what? It’s late May, the sun is shining, and for whatever reason, instead of getting amped for vacations to lakes or beaches with cookouts and fireworks, everyone in America seems to be getting super excited for the fall. I know, I don’t get it either.
Nevertheless, as of today, there’s 100 days until the start of the NFL season. The Twitter accounts are ABUZZ.
You can feel that buzz all the way up here. Tone down that buzz, guys!
Anyway. The Patriots are coming off a Super Bowl loss. It feels like it happened five years ago, but it was only about four months back. Time sure does go slow coming off a Super Bowl loss.
But the team is going to go ahead and move forward with trying to play and actually win in the 2018 season. But it won’t be a season without questions. And here to celebrate this humongously important day in America, here are 100 questions about what the near future holds for New England’s football team.
1. When will Tom Brady show up to offseason practice?
The whole Tom Brady saga is well overdone at this point, but didn’t you kind of get the feel from Brady’s Instagram feed that his trip to Monaco to work with his big-money sponsors was the end of The Summer Of Tom? Regardless of what else is going on, the dude loves playing football. And with three OTA practices this week in Foxboro, the time seems right for Brady to end his silent protest and go back to doing what he was put on the earth to do: sling the ol’ pigskin.
2. How well will Julian Edelman perform in his return from injury?
Forget all the off-field drama. This is probably the most important aspect of the 2018 Patriots. People around the country may forget, but Julian Edelman is a truly dynamic offensive threat. In the slot or out wide, in 1-on-1 coverage, he cannot be covered. He’s took quick, he’s too precise, and he’s too freaking tenacious to be held in check by any one defensive back. And he’s too smart and experienced to get confused or thrown off by any coverage. He’s also in lockstep with the quarterback, as the two share a sort of kinetic connection that is invaluable.
Edelman’s obviously coming off a serious knee injury, but by the time the season kicks off, it’ll be more than a full year since he suffered it. At 32 years old, can be he be the uncoverable monster that he was from 2013-16? Knowing the type of person and player he is, you probably shouldn’t bet against it.
3. Can Gronkowski stay healthy again?
The yin to the Edelman yang, it really would be something to see these two guys stay healthy for a whole season together. It hasn’t happened since 2014. Uncoincidentally, the Patriots won the Super Bowl that year. The duo of Edelman and Gronkowski combined for 15 catches, 177 yards, and two touchdowns in that win over Seattle.
And everything said about Edelman being impossible to cover with one man applies to Gronkowski. And while he has a reputation for suffering serious injuries, he did stay healthy in back-to-back years in 2014 and 2015. If he can do it again in 2017 and 2018, and if the Patriots can be full Voltron with No. 87 and No. 11, then there’s every reason to believe they’ll have the best offense in football.
4. Will Jason McCourty be perfect for the defense?
Malcolm Butler is gone (more on him later, as questions 76 through 84 will all be different variations of WHY DIDN’T MALCOLM BUTLER PLAY IN THE SUPER BOWL?!?!?!?!), but Jason McCourty is in. Might the Patriots’ defense actually benefit from that swap?
It’s possible. For one, there’s no reason to expect McCourty to have communication issues similar to what Stephon Gilmore experienced at the start of last year, because when your identical twin is behind you at safety, you can rely on super-secret ESP-level communication with him. (Classic Belichick, outsmarting the system yet again.) McCourty isn’t a flashy, super-hyped corner, but he’s a solid veteran who can handle himself against all types of receivers. He could end up being the most important pickup of the offseason.
5. Can Sony Michel continue the trend of rookie running backs whooping butt?
I don’t know if you noticed, but rookie running backs were all the rage last year. Kareem Hunt (out of Toledo!!) led the NFL in rushing yards. Alvin Kamara led all NFL running backs in receiving yards. Kamara was tied for second among NFL running backs in receiving touchdowns, along with fellow rookie Christian McCaffrey. Leonard Fournette carried the Jacksonville offense. Dalvin Cook averaged nearly 5 yards per carry. Tarik Cohen was electric.
These guys play all different styles, but the point is this: Expectations should be plenty high for Michel, who amassed over 4,000 yards in 47 games at Georgia, and who was drafted higher than all of those guys from last year except for Fournette and McCaffrey.
6. Is Malcolm Mitchell healthy?
The poor guy. You can’t help but feel badly for him. He worked through knee injuries in college and was a pleasant surprise for the Patriots in his rookie season of 2016. He was arguably the most reliable receiver in the historic fourth-quarter comeback against Atlanta in the Super Bowl. But then a knee injury delayed the start of his sophomore season. And then his rehab seemed to be taking forever. And then in the postseason, when the Patriots probably could have used him and he was out on the practice field, he still wasn’t healthy enough to join the team.
Now it’s late May, and Mitchell practiced last Monday but missed the Tuesday session. Jeff Howe says the knee is still receiving attention. You have to hope, just from a human standpoint, that injuries don’t interfere with this young man’s career. Mitchell is a perfect picture of perseverance for many reasons, though, so perhaps this is just another hurdle that he intends on clearing.
7. How good can Isaiah Wynn be?
Talking offensive line play is not always the sexiest choice, but the Patriots do kind of need their top pick from the draft to step in and be a player right away. Maybe that’s at left tackle, maybe it’s at guard, but wherever it is, expectations should be high.
8. Can Dont’a Hightower stay healthy?
Gronkowski gets all the health questions, but Hightower has certainly earned them too. The man plays a bruising style of football, and the human body is not always receptive to such activity. Perhaps last year’s torn pectoral muscle (OUCH!) leads to a slight change in mind-set or technique or something, because the man is too valuable to the Pats’ defense for him to be suffering season-ending injuries during Week 7 blowouts.
9. What if Derek Rivers is an impact player?
Folks, let me tell you one thing: Derek Rivers is a humongous man. Very large. Not at all small. He’s listed at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, which isn’t quite Richard Seymour-esque, but is still pretty darn big.
Putting aside size, Rivers is probably flying under the radar because he missed his entire rookie season with a torn up knee. But this is a fella who recorded 14 sacks in his senior season at Youngstown State and 27 sacks over 39 games in his final three collegiate seasons. He didn’t get to play last year, but he learned the system and should be ready for a pretty big year. He could be a vital cornerstone of this year’s defense.
10. Why aren’t you overly excited about Trey Flowers?!
Speaking of impact defensive linemen, you should be more excited about Trey Flowers in his fourth NFL season. “Oh, but I am excited about Trey Flowers,” you may say. “Poppycock!” I quickly reply. Short of throwing a parade for this man down Main St. every morning, you’re probably not excited enough.
I’m just going to say it: Trey Flowers is the most underrated defensive player in football. Don’t check me on this. Just accept it.
11. Can the Patriots overcome the mean words said by Cassius Marsh?
This is the question everyone’s too afraid to ask. But it must be. Are the Pats doomed now? I mean, Cassius Marsh said he almost quit football because his time in Foxboro was so sad and painful. He didn’t get to have any fun! Do you people realize that we came this close to living in a world where Cassius Marsh wasn’t playing football anymore?!
Pats are doomed, man. Doomed.
12. PUNTER COMPETITION?
Oh, nothing gets the juices flowing like a good old-fashioned punter competition. And folks, it looks like we have one brewing in New England.
Ryan Allen has been, legitimately, pretty awesome at his job for five seasons. But he’s got a few things working against him. One, he’s probably going to earn some real punter money soon. Secondly, he’s got a pretty boring name.
Do you know who doesn’t have a boring name? Corey Bojorquez! And do you know who will probably punt in the NFL for pennies? Corey Bojorquez!
Remember, Allen got his job in a similar way. Everyone in New England loved Zoltan Mesko, because his name was Zoltan Mesko and he was a bit eccentric. So when Belichick tabbed Allen for the job and cut Mesko, the almost-universal reaction was “WOW! BELICHICK IS CHEAPING OUT AGAIN! WAY TO GO BILL!” In actuality, Belichick picked the better punter — Allen is a two-time Special Teams Player of the Week, while poor Mesko only booted 34 more punts before washing out of the league. So Allen knows what’s at stake this summer. The guy needs to punt like he’s never punted before if he doesn’t want to lose his job to a young whippersnapper whose name is fun to say.
13. Can Stephen Gostkowski cool it with some of the missed kicks in big games?
Stephen Gostkowski is, statistically, one of the best kickers of all time. He ranks third all time in career field goal percentage (87.63%), and he’s climbed into the top 20 on the all-time list of successful field goals. He’s been better than a lot of people want to give him credit for being … but he also has developed a habit of missing some kicks in some big games.
Starting in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, when he missed a PAT in a game the Patriots ended up losing in the final seconds with a failed two-point conversion, and rolling right through Super Bowl LII, it’s been a problem. He missed a PAT in the 2016 AFC Championship Game vs. Pittsburgh and then missed his lone PAT attempt in the Super Bowl vs. Atlanta, in an indoor stadium. He seemed to be locked in during the 2017 playoffs, only missing a 53-yard prayer before halftime in the divisional round, but the Super Bowl was not great. Gostkowski gets a pass (or at least 99 percent of a pass) for his missed field goal, which clanged off the upright after a bad snap by Joe Cardona, but his missed PAT? That thing was brutal. Never had a chance. Don’t watch this video. You will puke real vomit.
Again, Gostkowski is great. His kickoff skills are incredibly valuable, and he’s been reliable for 12 years after seamlessly taking over for a future Hall of Famer in Adam Vinatieri. But those big-game misses? They need to go away. They are not good.
14. How will Patriots take advantage of new kickoff rules?
The NFL changed the touchback rule a couple of years ago, and always the opportunist, Belichick exploited the rule change. It’ll be fun to see how he attacks the new changes to the kickoff rules.
Frankly, the changes are too boring to explain in-depth. You can look at this picture if you want. But the bottom line is that the Patriots have been excellent at sending sky-high kicks to the opponent’s 5-yard line and then swarming the return man inside the 20. Now with some tweaks, keep an eye (especially in the preseason) on the Patriots’ approach to kickoffs this year. Could be fun.
Speaking of fun …
15. Will Cordarrelle Patterson restore some excitement to the return game?
Given that the kickoff rules were coming down the pike, one can’t help but wonder if Belichick made this acquisition with the plan of wreaking havoc on kick returns. Frankly, the Patriots haven’t really had a dynamic kick returner since Ellis Hobbs, and Bethel Johnson before him. Patterson has five return touchdowns and an average of 30.2 yards per return. It’ll be interesting to see how he impacts the Patriots in a subtly important aspect of the game.
16. Is Trent Brown the largest human being on earth?
I suppose this one could be answered with a quick gander at the Guinness Book Of World Records, but that’s no fun. So for now we’ll just have to leave it as an open-ended question: Is Trent Brown — all 6 feet, 8 inches, and 355 pounds of him — the largest human being on earth? Nobody can say for sure.
17. Can Marcus Cannon return to form?
Among the unlikeliest developments out of Foxboro in recent years was the emergence of Marcus Cannon as the best right tackle in football in 2016. Prior to that season, Cannon’s Patriots tenure would have been described as “up-and-down at best,” but his work in 2016 at right tackle was outstanding. He only played seven games last year, due to ankle and foot injuries, but the Patriots absolutely need the 2016 version of Cannon to return.
It’s likely they’ll keep him at right tackle and let Brown and Wynn and maybe even Cole Croston or Ulrick John figure it out on the left side. Forget about the question of who replaces Solder. The better question is can 2018 Cannon replicate 2016 Cannon?
18. Does Mike Gillislee get a look at all this year?
Poor Mike Gillislee. He was probably jumping for joy when the Patriots signed him away from the Bills as a restricted free agent. Like Chris Hogan and Wes Welker before him, now was the time for Gillislee to be the next under-utilized AFC East player to become a star in New England. And when Gillislee scored three touchdowns in Week 1, the world was his oyster. He scored another touchdown and ran for 69 yards on 18 carries the next week, too. He was a big part of the offense!
But he was handed the ball just 71 more times that season. Dion Lewis was dominant, and Rex Burkhead and James White had the receiver-out-of-the-backfield role locked up, so Gillislee fell to fourth on the depth chart. He was inactive more often than not, and he had to watch the Super Bowl as a spectator.
When Lewis signed a big money free-agent deal with Tennessee, Gillislee probably felt great about his chances of regaining a role in the offense. But then the Patriots signed Jeremy Hill. And drafted Sony Michel.
The outlook doesn’t look great for Gillislee, who might end up having a Cassius Marsh-type of feeling toward the Patriots by summer’s end. But nobody’s role is ever guaranteed, so it warrants watching to see how Gillislee responds to a roster battle with Hill.
19. Can Jeremy Hill pick up the offense?
The follow-up to a Gillislee question would have to be a Hill question. The signing of Hill has the potential to be significant, as he rushed for 29 touchdowns with a yards-per-carry above 4 during his first three NFL seasons. Last year was not great, and he suffered an injury, which kind of makes him a prime candidate to be that perfect Belichick addition.
That’s all dependent on how quickly and how well he learns the Patriots’ playbook. One has to imagine that it’s slightly more complicated than Cincinnati’s.
20. Will Cyrus Jones make the team?
This is an interesting one. The Patriots used their top pick in the 2016 draft on Jones, who hurt the team more than he helped it as a rookie and the missed 2017 due to injury. While the Patriots generally give first- and second-round picks more leeway before cutting ties, the presence of Patterson seems to limit one major area where Jones could be valuable. The Patriots also spent a second-round pick on Duke Dawson, adding to the uncertainty for Jones.
If Jones doesn’t have a good offseason and camp, he could find himself joining an ignominious list that includes Dominique Easley, Ras-I Dowling, Jermaine Cunningham, Chad Jackson, and others as high draft picks who did not last long with the Patriots.
21. How will Jordan Richards respond to Super Bowl struggles?
Speaking of high-draft picks who have not exactly panned out, Jordan Richards is on the Patriots. Oh man, did this guy ever have himself a rough Super Bowl. It was real rough. No player was rougher than the one where he took a bad angle at Corey Clement, failed to make any contact with Corey Clement, allowed Corey Clement to get behind him to catch a pass, and then fell to the turf while failing to make a tackle on Corey Clement, who turned it into a 55-yard gain to set up the famous trick play touchdown before halftime. Yuck City.
It was bad and everybody knows it. The question now is this: What kind of player does Jordan Richards want to become after such a showing? He’s still just 25 years old. He can either let that night define his career or work hard enough to the point where such a showing becomes one part of a much larger story.
22. WHY DIDN’T MALCOLM BUTLER PLAY IN THE SUPER BOWL?
23. SERIOUSLY, WHY?
24. HE WAS VERY GOOD AT PLAYING CORNERBACK, YOU KNOW?
25. HE PLAYED 100 PERCENT OF THE DEFENSIVE SNAPS IN THE PLAYOFFS PRIOR TO THE SUPER BOWL — DID YOU KNOW THAT?
26. IF HE COULD HAVE JUST MADE ONE PLAY ON A THIRD DOWN TO FORCE A PUNT, THE PATRIOTS WOULD HAVE WON THE SUPER BOWL. QUESTION MARK.
27. WILL WE EVER KNOW WHAT THE MAN DID TO WARRANT GETTING BENCHED FOR 60 FULL MINUTES IN THE FREAKING SUPER BOWL?
28. HOW IS THERE NOBODY ON THE PATRIOTS’ COACHING STAFF WHO HAS ENOUGH CHUTZPAH TO WALK UP TO BELICHICK DURING THAT GAME AND INFORM THE HEAD COACH THAT HE’S BEING INSANE?
29. WHAT IF THE PATRIOTS NEVER GET BACK TO THE SUPER BOWL WITH BELICHICK AND BRADY? WHAT IF THIS IS THE FINAL SUPER BOWL MEMORY OF THE BELICHICK-BRADY ERA? WON’T THAT TOTALLY STINK?
30. LASTLY, WHY DIDN’T MALCOLM BUTLER PLAY IN THE SUPER BOWL?????????
There are some lingering questions about the lack of usage of Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII.
31. Can the Patriots break the curse of the Super Bowl loser?
The Patriots are better than most teams and have been for nearly two decades, but they still face a pretty stiff challenge in 2018. That’s because the team that has lost the Super Bowl has not made it back to the Super Bowl since the 1993 Buffalo Bills. Half (roughly) of the Patriots roster wasn’t even alive in 1993. Even old-man Brady was but a young teenage boy for the epic Bills failures of the early ’90s.
Clearly, the impact of losing a Super Bowl is no joke. Whether it’s roster changes, a short offseason, the physical toll of extra football, or some leftover doubts about some major coaching decisions (Peter Carroll and Super Bowl XLIX say hello!), the struggle is real for teams trying to pick themselves off the Super Bowl mat. Many of them end up flopping so badly that they miss the playoffs entirely.
That part is not a real concern for the 2018 Patriots, but still, with expectations for the team to always reach the conference championship game, one must consider that even reaching that game is a rare accomplishment for a Super Bowl loser.
(The Patriots, of course, were the exception to that rule when they reached the AFC title game a year after losing Super Bowl XLVI to the Giants.)
32. What kind of player will Malcolm Butler be in Tennessee?
The least surprising move of the entire offseason was Malcolm Butler leaving New England via free agency. That much was clear going back to last season, when Belichick seemed willing and ready to part with Butler in a trade with New Orleans. That trade never was finalized but Belichick still let Butler’s status kind of float in the ether all offseason. And all of that was before the Super Bowl benching.
But with Butler now in Tennessee, it will be fascinating to see if he can live up to that contract which guarantees him $30 million. He was an A1 corner for a couple of years but notably took a step backward last year. If he goes to Tennessee and ends up being a Pro Bowl or All-Pro type of player in a defensive backfield that already has All-Pro Kevin Byard at safety, he has the potential to be the rare former Patriot who goes on to have great success after the Patriots let him go.
33. Are the Titans going to be for real in the AFC?
The Patriots blew out the Titans in the divisional round last year, but should Tennessee be taken seriously in 2018?
They probably should. Mike Vrabel’s coaching style is not yet known, but look for it to be progressive. Look for the Titans to take some risks. Rashaan Evans seems like a great addition, and Harold Landry could be a great second-round steal. Dion Lewis is a player, and if Marcus Mariota can have a healthy year, the Titans may be legit. But possibly not the best team in their division.
34. How great are the Jaguars?
We know the answer: They are the greatest. Everyone knows that.
Yet while the Patriots are trying to come back from the disappointment of losing a Super Bowl, the Jaguars enter 2018 with the foul taste of having lost a winnable game in New England with a chance to make it to a Super Bowl. The reaction in that Jaguars locker room after the game was not one of a team full of players who were just happy to be there. Those players all knew they could have won that game and all felt they should have won that game. It seems to be a dedicated group. And if Doug Marrone can rally them together, and if the Pats and Jaguars do meet again in the playoffs? Whoa, Nelly. That’ll be one worth watching.
35. Is anybody in the AFC East worth really talking about?
36. Which practice squad player will everybody get way too excited about in August?
Worded differently, which player will win The Zach Sudfeld Memorial Award? Last year it was Austin Carr, who dazzled in the preseason before getting cut, much to many fans’ dismay. The Saints picked him up and he …. played in one game all season and took just three total offensive snaps.
Braxton Berrios has to be the early favorite in Vegas.
37. Will Patriots get off to a slow start again?
One of the best part of following the Patriots has been watching everyone overreact to September. By now, everybody knows that September is just the extended preseason for the Patriots, but most people can’t help but wonder aloud, “IS THIS FINALLY THE END OF THE PATRIOTS’ REIGN ATOP THE NFL?!?!?!!?!?” In fairness to those people, the Patriots sure do know how to look really, really, really, really bad in September. Usually against the Chiefs, too. Funny how that works.
Anyway, the Patriots open this season at home against Houston, on the road at Jacksonville and at Detroit, then home again in Week 4 vs. Miami. The Texans came awfully close to winning in Foxboro last year, and we know the Jags will be very good and very motivated. Really, the possibility of the Patriots starting the season 0-2 is real. It’s not high, per se, but it’s real.
And if that happens? Whoa boy. You’ll get the hottest of hot takes from people who will be eager to point out that “THIS IS ALL BECAUSE BRADY SKIPPED OTAS AND THE PATRIOTS ALL HATE THEIR COACH AND THEY SHOULD HAVE NEVER LET SOLDER GO AND WHY DIDN’T MALCOLM BUTLER PLAY IN THE SUPER BOWL? IT’S TIME TO BLOW IT ALL UP.” That will totally happen. You might as well prepare yourself now, just in case the Patriots get out to one of those 2-2 starts. You just know that they’ll probably figure it out eventually.
38. Can Phillip Dorsett earn a role?
The Patriots don’t lose many trades, but the Jacoby Brissett-for-Phillip Dorsett currently stands as an L. (It’s also one of the most significant trades involving two players whose names end in “-sett” in the history of sports.) That’s not to say that Brissett is a stud QB in the making, but he can clearly play at the NFL, so trading him away should theoretically net the team a player who can actually play and contribute in the NFL.
Dorsett in 2017? Didn’t really contribute. He caught 12 balls for 194 yards. He did not score a touchdown. Granted, he did come up with a very difficult and very important catch on a flea-flicker in the AFC title game, but his overall impact was minimal.
Now there ought to be a pretty fierce competition at the receiver spot. Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan are locks, and newcomer Jordan Matthews should be considered close to a lock as well. Then there’s Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell, and Dorsett battling it out for whatever spots are left (once Patterson and, almost assuredly, Matthew Slater have been accounted for).
Dorsett was the 29th overall pick in 2015, and even if you use the proper Draft Spot Adjustment Calendar that is required for all of Ryan Grigson’s terrible draft picks, the receiver has still underwhelmed in his three seasons. He should at least have the opportunity to change that this summer. What he does with that opportunity will likely determine which way his career goes from here.
39. Does Adrian Clayborn make a difference?
The Patriots signed Adrian Clayborn, and seemingly everybody said “the Patriots added Clayborn to help with the pass rush.” But did they really?
Yes, Clayborn had 9.5 sacks last year. The Patriots’ leader was Trey Flowers, with 6.5. Theoretically, the Patriots’ pass rush is much improved. But six of those Clayborn sacks — six! — came in one single game against a porous Dallas offensive line. And after that six-sack performance, here is how Clayborn explained it: “I only have one move and it worked.”
So, yes, that’s nice. But he only recorded 3.5 sacks in his other 15 games. Which isn’t very great. Will he make a difference in the pass rush?
40. Can Deatrich Wise take a step forward in year two?
Speaking of the pass rush, Deatrich Wise was very, very good in his rookie season after getting drafted in the fourth round out of Arkansas. He recorded five sacks in the regular season and then picked up two sacks vs. Tennessee in the divisional round of the playoffs. But his season ended rather unfortunately. Wise suffered a concussion in the conference championship vs. Jacksonville, and he clearly was not OK during the Super Bowl, during which he played just six snaps. (WHY DID DEATRICH WISE ONLY PLAY SIX SNAPS IN THE SUPER BOWL?!?!?!)
For year two, Wise will be part of a defensive line that clearly has a lot of talent, so he won’t be able to rest on any laurels. That being said, the 23-year-old has the potential to perhaps make a bigger impact than someone like Clayborn in terms of getting to the passer in 2018.
41. You didn’t really think I was going to write 100 questions, did you?
Come on. It’s only May! What are you, nuts? We’re stopping at 41, in honor of Tom Brady’s upcoming 41st birthday. If you feel ripped off, you can add imaginary questions 42 through 100, all of which are, simply, “WHY DIDN’T MALCOLM BUTLER PLAY IN THE SUPER BOWL?!”