By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Heading into the 2018 NFL season, things feel a little different surrounding the New England Patriots.READ MORE: Moderna Says Its COVID-19 Vaccine For Kids 6-11 Has 'Strong Immune Response'
When they kick the season off Sunday afternoon against the Houston Texans, they’ll once again do so on the short list of favorites to win the whole dang thing this year. With Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots should always be in the conversation for another Lombardi Trophy.
On that front, a lot will be the same. The Patriots should easily win their 10th straight AFC East title (and 16th in the last 18 years), and it’s pretty safe to pencil in a football at Gillette Stadium for mid-January. A seat in the AFC title game is no sure thing, but chances are the Patriots will probably be playing in that game for an unprecedented eighth straight season. Brady will be in the MVP conversation, fans will complain about a defense that gives up too many yards, and Belichick will give us five months of snorts, grunts, and other flem-clearing methods as reporters try their best to pry a usable quote from the coach.
But after an offseason spent shaking off the disappointment of February’s Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, mixed with endless chatter of ongoing drama in Foxboro, the potential road to glory will be a little bumpier this season. Only seven Super Bowl losers have bounced back to return to the big game the following season, and only two of them actually won it. Brady is entering murky waters as a 41-year-old quarterback, and he has a receiving corps that is thinner than his supermodel wife. The defense has its own set of question marks, not to mention a new leader on the sideline. Heck, even special teams has a gigantic question mark hanging over Belichick’s favorites phase of the game.
In the end, the Patriots will still win a dozen or so games and head into the playoffs as one of the AFC’s top seeds. If 90 percent of the teams in the conference continue to be their own worst enemy, the Patriots will probably be taking yet another trip to the Super Bowl. But there is a lot of football to be played between now and then, and a whole lot of intriguing aspects of the 2018 New England Patriots to follow and over-analyze along the way. Here’s what we’ll be keeping an eye on throughout the season, as we wait patiently for our dream of another Patriots-Jaguars AFC Championship Game:
The 41-Year-Old Quarterback
Tom Brady did some incredible things last season as a 40-year-old quarterback last season, winning the third MVP award of his career. As you likely heard (or figured out with your basic math skills), Brady is now a 41-year-old quarterback, which has been a rough age for passers throughout NFL history. The good news there is Brady doesn’t really have to do too much to become the greatest 41-year-old quarterback in NFL history, so he’s got that going for him.
But with an alarming lack of options at receiver, Brady’s going to have to do a lot for the Patriots to be successful. He’ll be without his security blanket for a tough first month of the season, and two of his three receivers have had very little experience catching passes from him. It’s not an ideal situation (he is, after all, 41).
But Brady has done more with less before, so why start doubting him now?
The last time Julian Edelman caught a meaningful pass from Tom Brady, it was in overtime of Super Bowl LI. That was 19 months ago. The 32-year-old is eager and ready to haul in some more Brady bullets after a torn ACL caused him to miss all of last season.
But we have to wait another month for Edelman to get back on the field, as he’s currently serving a four-game suspension and banishment from the team for a PED violation. The good news is he looked like his normal self during the preseason, so he should slide right back in as Brady’s favorite target upon his return. He’ll also have four fewer games of wear and tear on his body when the playoffs roll around in January.
The only question is, can New England’s other receivers pick up the slack in his absence?
Receivers (Or Lack Thereof)
Until Edelman returns, Brady will have a receiving corps of Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson, with a few no-names sprinkled in to fill the depth chart. None of those players are a No. 1 receiver, and other than Hogan, they don’t have much experience with Brady.
Hogan is a solid second or third option, but he’s going to have to up his game in September. There are some high hopes for Dorsett after a promising camp and preseason, but he’s kind of been a bust since Indianapolis drafted him 29th overall in 2015 (if there is any cure for bustitis, it’s Tom Brady). Patterson is better known for his unreal return skills, but he’ll be called upon to catch some passes with Edelman out. He too showed some promise in the preseason, but if that doesn’t carry over when games count, the New England offense could be in some trouble.
Brady still has a vast array of options, like the best tight end in the game and the talented pass-catching abilities of James White. But he’s going to have one of the thinnest receiving corps of his career, even when Edelman returns. That leaves the door open for a trade, a potential free agent addition, or Deion Branch coming out of retirement for the 32nd time.
Brady has had worse receiving corps in his career, and he nearly brought the abysmal group of 2006 to the Super Bowl. He has over a decade of experience (and dominance) to draw from now, so he should still have the New England offense scoring lots of points. But it would just be nice if the 41-year-old had a little more options from the receiver position.
It took a while, but Rob Gronkowski got the re-worked contract he was hoping for. Now he has to go out and earn that extra money he sought.
To do so, Gronk just has to go a tick above his production from last year. He can earn any three of these four $1.1 million incentives: play 80 percent (or more) of New England’s snaps; haul in 70 or more receptions; finish the year with 1,085 or more receiving yards; catch nine or more touchdowns.
In 14 games last year, Gronkowski had 69 catches (no joke), 1,084 receiving yards, eight touchdowns, and played 79.3 percent of New England’s snaps.
Barring Gronk acting like a doofus and getting suspended for body slamming an opposing defensive back, or that pesky injury history he’s battled his entire career, he should get his bonuses. But it could make for some drama (not that again!) if the Patriots are in great shape come Week 17 and opt to rest the tight end, as they did last season.READ MORE: Brockton High School Adds Metal Detectors, Bag Searches To Updated Safety Precautions
New Anchor On O-Line
We spent much of training camp and preseason in awe of the massive size of Trent Brown. Now we get to see the big fella put his 6-foot-8, 380-pound build to work, tasked with protecting Brady’s blind side. No pressure.
Brian Flores’ Defense
Matt Patricia has his own team now in Detroit (the Pats will pay them a visit in Week 3), leaving Brian Flores to unofficially take over the defensive duties in Foxboro. If what we saw in the preseason was any indication how the New England defense will play this season, then they’re going to play fast and loose.
Players have been praising Flores for simplifying the playbook and letting them do their thing during the preseason, so we’ll see how that translates to the field when games matter. The defense should be better than the one we saw take the field in Minnesota in February, but it may take them some time to find their footing under their new coach.
A Stronger Pass Rush As Flowers Continues To Blossom
One thing we can expect from the Patriots’ defense is they’re going to get after the quarterback, so Trey Flowers should continue his steady rise as one of the league’s best defensive players. And if Flores is giving his edge guys the green light to attack the quarterback, Flowers should hit the double-digit sack mark for the first time in his career (he had 6.5 sacks last season).
Flowers should have plenty of opportunities, with veteran Adrian Clayborn to help in his quest to get to the quarterback along with youngsters Deatrich Wise Jr. and Derek Rivers (back after missing all of his rookie season). And with those players commanding attention, Patriots linebackers should get their share of opportunities to send some quarterbacks to the ground as well.
Dont’a Hightower is back, but the big question with him is how long he can stay healthy. Because of that, New England’s depth at linebacker will always be a concern. Hightower is the quarterback on defense, and without him, the unit goes from pretty good to just meh.
That’s why Belichick drafted Ja’Whaun Bentley out of Purdue in the fifth round, giving the group a much-needed injection of youth. He’s no lock to be great as a later-round pick, but he showed in the preseason that he’s worlds better than Elandon Roberts. He was aggressive and made plays throughout the exhibition schedule, and even earned green-dot duties in preseason game No. 3. It’s clear the Patriots are very high on this young man, and he will receive plenty of opportunities to make plays throughout his rookie season.
Corners Not Named Gilmore
Stephon Gilmore was the Patriots’ best defensive players to end the season, and should do just fine as their No. 1 corner this year. After him, things get a little murkier on the cornerback depth chart.
Eric Rowe has turned into a solid No. 2 option, and will likely see the bulk of the action opposite Gilmore, while Jonathan Jones will handle slot duties (especially with rookie Duke Dawson landing on IR Thursday). Rookies J.C. Jackson and Keion Crossen round out the depth chart, and either could shoot up the ranks if they continue to impress. Fans are eager for the “next Malcolm Butler,” and either of those two rooks could fit the bill.
And then there is Jason McCourty, who held on to his roster spot for dear life during the last few months. The veteran corner didn’t play much during camp and struggled when he did, so the team tried him out at safety, a position he had never played before. He was even out there in the final preseason tilt, again as a safety. The move had mixed results, but McCourty is still on the team, so they’re going to use him in some capacity in the secondary.
The New England secondary is a pretty solid and deep group, but how it shakes out over the next 17-plus weeks will be both interesting and occasionally frustrating.
Who Fields Punts?
For a guy who loooooooooves himself some special teams, Belichick is leaving his squad a little short when it comes to viable options for returning punts.
“Death Wish” Danny Amendola is in Miami. Edelman is a darn good punt returner, but he’s 32, coming off a lost season, and also won’t be around for the first month. Given that he’s also the Patriots’ No. 1 receiver, it’s probably a good idea to keep Jules out of the mix. But because of their lack of other options, he may be the only real option for the Patriots.
Patrick Chung, Rex Burkhead and Patterson are all possibilities, but collectively, that group has returned four punts during their NFL careers. Three of them belonging to Chung. Patterson is realy only in the mix because he’s so dynamic on kickoff returns.
That brings us to a transaction late Thursday afternoon, when the Patriots signed Riley McCarron from the practice squad. The rookie receiver returned 19 punts during his four years at Iowa, taking one back for a touchdown last year. Given his promotion, it appears he’s the man, at least for Week 1.MORE NEWS: Rain Returns, Heavy Tuesday With Threat Of Flooding And Damaging Winds
Tune in to Patriots-Texans Sunday afternoon on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots! Pregame coverage begins at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay, and after the game catch Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s press conferences LIVE on Patriots 5th Quarter!