2017 NFL Offseason: New England Patriots

New England Patriots (Last Year: 14-2)

2017 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
RB Mike Gillislee, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Brandin Cooks, WR Andrew Hawkins, TE Dwayne Allen, DE Kony Ealy, DT Lawrence Guy, ILB David Harris, CB Stephon Gilmore.
Early Draft Picks:
DE Derek Rivers, OT Antonio Garcia, DE Deatrick Wise. Patriots Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Michael Floyd, TE Martellus Bennett, OT Sebastian Vollmer, G Tre Jackson, DE Jabaal Shead, DE Chris Long, OLB Barkevious Mingo, CB Logan Ryan.

2017 New England Patriots Offense:
A year ago, many were wondering if the Patriots could survive for four games without Tom Brady in the wake of the Deflate-gate suspension. As it turned out, the suspension helped the Patriots more than it hurt them, as it fueled Brady’s fire, and he put together one of the best performances of his career in the final 12 games of the regular season, maintaining a ridiculous 28:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. New England finished with the best record in the NFL, 14-2, and proceeded to win the Super Bowl, thanks to an unbelievable 28-3 comeback.

Brady turns 40 in August, an age in which has been the point of no return for the rare quarterbacks who have played that long in the pros. However, Brady aspires to be in the league well into his mid-40s, and it would be foolish to doubt him. Brady has a very strict diet and workout regimen, and he works harder than anyone in the NFL. If any quarterback can play on a Pro Bowl level nearing 45, it’ll be Brady.

It also helps that the Patriots bolstered Brady’s offensive arsenal. Brandin Cooks was the big acquisition, as he was obtained from the Saints for the 32nd-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Cooks is a blazing fast receiver who has accumulated at least 1,100 yards in each of the past two seasons with the Saints. He adds a dimension to New England’s offense that the team hasn’t possessed since the Randy Moss days.

Of course, Brady will continue to rely on his favorite targets, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. It’s amazing that the Patriots were able to go 14-2 and win the Super Bowl without Gronkowski. The best tight end in the NFL, Gronkowski’s return will be a huge bonus for the Patriots, who probably didn’t even need it. It’s worth noting that Gronkowski hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2011, which would explain why New England signed Dwayne Allen in the wake of Martellus Bennett’s departure.

Two other new players the Patriots acquired are both running backs. They signed Rex Burkhead, and then stole Mike Gillislee when Buffalo mismanaged his tender. Burkhead is an underrated talent, but Gillislee is expected to lead New England in rushes and touchdowns. Gillislee has gained 5.7 yards per carry over the past two seasons despite running behind a Bills offensive line featuring a massive hole at right tackle. He figures to be an upgrade over LeGarrette Blount. James White, meanwhile, will reprise his role as Brady’s third-down safety valve. Dion Lewis is also in the mix, but he’s not durable enough to be trusted.

As for the offensive line, the starting unit will completely return for 2017. The tackles were exceptional this past season, as Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon formed a terrific tandem. Cannon was certainly a surprise; he was atrocious in 2015, so New England’s coaching staff needs to be commended for helping him evolve into a dominant blocker.

There are a couple of weaknesses in the interior of the blocking unit. Center David Andrews isn’t very good, while guard Joe Thuney struggled a bit as a rookie. However, given Cannon’s evolution, it could be possible that at least one of them becomes a solid complement to solid guard Shaq Mason. Thuney certainly has potential, as he was a third-round pick last April.

2017 New England Patriots Defense:
For all the moves the Patriots made this offseason, one would think that they lost to the Falcons in the Super Bowl. They acquired two big names on defense, and these players will help ensure that New England has the best record in the NFL once again.

The first prominent player was Stephon Gilmore. The former Bill struggled in 2016, but had been a prolific cornerback beforehand. Assuming Bill Belichick can get Gilmore back to pre-2016 form – almost a guarantee, given Belichick’s coaching ability – the Patriots will have two legitimate shutdown cornerbacks in their secondary. Malcolm Butler, the other starter, was rumored to be heading to New Orleans this offseason, but those talks fell apart. New England will stand to benefit in 2017, as it’s going to be very difficult for opponents to throw against them.

If there’s one hole in New England’s secondary, it’s at safety next to Pro Bowl talent Devin McCourty. Patrick Chung was a major liability this past season, though it’s worth noting that he has performed on a high level in Belichick’s system in the past. Chung will turn 30 in August, so he’s not like some old player who was bound for regression, so perhaps he could rebound in 2017. Duron Harmon, meanwhile, will reprise his role as the slot corner, but there’s definitely room for improvement with him.

The other big name the Patriots obtained this spring was via a trade. Kony Ealy was acquired from the Panthers for a swap of second-day selections. Ealy disappointed in 2016, but had an amazing Super Bowl performance versus Denver last February. Ealy has recorded only 10 combined sacks in the past two seasons, but he has major potential as a former second-round pick. New England needs a replacement for Chandler Jones, as the only player who put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year was Trey Flowers (7 sacks). The Patriots also spent a third-round choice on Derek Rivers to hedge against Ealy failing to pan out.

The interior of the defensive line remains largely unchanged, save for Lawrence Guy, who signed in free agency. Guy is a run-plugger, much like Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown. If the Patriots lack one thing, it’s an interior pass-rushing presence. Perhaps fourth-round rookie Deatrich Wise can play inside on passing downs, but he’s obviously a wild card.

Another player New England has failed to replace is Jamie Collins, who was traded to the Browns during the 2016 season. It may not seem like a big deal, given that the Patriots won the Super Bowl without Collins, but perhaps they wouldn’t have been in such an enormous hole with him. As it stands now, New England has just one sure thing at linebacker in the prolific Dont’a Hightower. That said, the Patriots are high on 2016 sixth-rounder Elandon Roberts, who had some nice moments as a rookie. Kyle Van Noy will also be in the mix as a decent coverage player, as will David Harris, who was signed in June. Harris has regressed in recent seasons, but was still a capable defender in 2016. He’s 33, however, so he could continue to decline.

2017 New England Patriots Schedule and Intangibles:
Since 2003, the Patriots are 110-19 at home. They’ve been a near-perfect 34-4 as hosts the past three years, with two losses coming against the Bills without Tom Brady.

Stephen Gostkowski is one of the better kickers in the NFL, but he just had his worst year since 2012. He went 27-of-32 (2-of-4 from 50-plus) and whiffed on three extra points.

Ryan Allen has done a good job of improving in net yardage over the years. He was up to seventh this past season.

New England was about even on special teams last year, outgaining the opposition in punt returns, but losing on kickoffs.

The Patriots battle three elite teams this season (Falcons, Raiders, Steelers). The former is at home; the middle will be in Mexico; and the latter is on the road. Other than that, the schedule isn’t too bad.

2017 New England Patriots Rookies:
Go here for the Patriots Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.

2017 New England Patriots Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2017 New England Patriots Analysis: The Patriots had the best record in the NFL last year, and yet they made some major upgrades on both sides of the ball this offseason. They’re gearing up for another Super Bowl run, and they have to be considered the favorites to win it all right now. Tom Brady could have his sixth ring come February.

Projection: 14-2 (1st in AFC East)

2017 Projection: 12-4. 2016 Actual Result: 14-2.

NFL Draft Team Grade: A Grade

Goals Entering the 2017 NFL Draft: The Patriots once again don’t have a first-round selection. They actually don’t pick until the beginning of the third frame, so it’ll be difficult for them to acquire multiple starters. I imagine they’ll focus on defensive end, linebacker and cornerback (if Malcolm Butler is dealt).

2017 NFL Draft Accomplishments: The Patriots didn’t have many picks to work with – they ended up making just four selections – but they made each of them count. Their grades for the four choices: A, A-, A, B+. Looks pretty good to me!

New England selected two defensive ends, Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise. I thought Rivers had an outside shot of being chosen in the first round, so obtaining him at No. 83 overall was an incredible steal. Wise, meanwhile, was also a great bargain. Rivers, Wise and Kony Ealy will make sure the Patriots put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2017.

The other two picks were offensive tackles. Nate Solder will be a free agent after the 2017 campaign, so it’ll be important to have a replacement for him if he leaves. We know of a team that was targeting Antonio Garcia in the second round before addressing its tackle need elsewhere, so getting him in the third frame was a nice move.

It’s also important to factor in New England’s first- and second-round picks. The team didn’t have them because they used them on Brandin Cooks and Ealy, respectively. The jury is still out on Ealy, but obtaining Cooks for the No. 32 selection was a great move. The Patriots couldn’t have gotten anyone better with the 32nd-overall pick, so that has to boost their already-positive grade.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

83. Derek Rivers, DE, Youngstown State: A Grade
Despite the Patriots trading for Kony Ealy, they needed to add another edge rusher. Derek Rivers was highly productive, albeit at a 1-AA school in Youngstown State. Still, he proved that he belongs when he tested extremely well at the combine, and he fits what the Patriots typically look for in a prospect. I think this is a good match, and Rivers provides value, as he could’ve been chosen in the second round.

85. Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy: A- Grade
We know of a team that was going to consider selecting Antonio Garcia in the second round, but something happened and offensive tackle was suddenly not a need anymore. With that in mind, I like the value the Patriots are once again getting here in the middle of the third frame. Garcia could replace Nate Solder in 2018, as Solder is entering his contract year.

131. Deatrich Wise, DE, Arkansas: A Grade
I had Deatrich Wise going four picks before this, so the range is right. Wise has been very inconsistent throughout his collegiate career because of a poor motor. However, he’s long and athletic, and he possesses upside. He potentially fills a need, as the Patriots needed another defensive end.

211. Conor McDermott, OT, UCLA: B+ Grade
I had the Patriots selecting Conor McDermott with the 183rd-overall pick. He posted a great 3-cone time at the combine, which had to appeal to them. They’ll need tackle depth if Nate Solder departs, so this pick makes sense and also provides solid value.

Season Summary:
If it wasn’t apparent before, Tom Brdy is the greatest quarterback of all time. The first five-time champion quarterback in NFL history.

Offseason Moves:
  • Patriots sign ILB David Harris
  • Patriots sign WR Andrew Hawkins
  • Patriots sign RB Mike Gillislee
  • Patriots re-sign RB Brandon Bolden
  • Patriots re-sign ILB Dont’a Hightower
  • Patriots sign RB Rex Burkhead
  • Patriots sign DT Lawrence Guy
  • Patriots acquire WR Brandin Cooks, 4th-rounder from Saints for 1st- and 3rd-round picks
  • Patriots acquire DE Kony Ealy, 3rd-rounder from Panthers for 2nd-round pick
  • Patriots re-sign S Duron Harmon
  • Patriots re-sign DT Alan Branch
  • Patriots sign CB Stephon Gilmore
  • Patriots acquire TE Dwayne Allen from Colts for late-round pick
  • Patriots re-sign FB James Develin

    Team Needs:
    1. Defensive End: Despite their 14-2 record, the Patriots had a pretty weak pass rush. Trey Flowers was the best at getting to the opposing passer, and he’s more of a run specialist. New England has to find a replacement for Chandler Jones. Fortunately for them, this draft class is stacked at defensive end. Traded for Kony Ealy

    2. Defensive Tackle: Dominique Easley is another player the Patriots parted ways with and never replaced. They’ll have to do so this upcoming offseason, as they need to find an interior disruptor. Re-signed Alan Branch; signed Lawrence Guy

    3. Two Linebackers: Trading Jamie Collins away was a very questionable decision. The Patriots now have a huge hole at one of their linebacker spots, and there will be two massive voids if Dont’a Hightower leaves via free agency. Re-signed Dont’a Hightower; signed David Harris

    4. Guard: Joe Thuney was the team’s weakest link on the offensive line, as he struggled mightily in pass protection. He’s still young, however, so he could improve. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to add competition.

    5. Running Back: LeGarrette Blount is a free agent, while Dion Lewis can’t be counted on to stay healthy. The Patriots might be thinking about getting a better primary runner anyway. Signed Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead

    6. Offensive Tackle Depth: It’s unbelievable that Marcus Cannon has performed so well this year. Depth is needed here, especially because of Sebastian Vollmer’s expired contract.

    7. Tight End: Martellus Bennett did a solid job of filling in for Rob Gronkowski, but he’s now headed for free agency. Traded for Dwayne Allen

    8. Cornerback Depth: If Logan Ryan leaves via free agency, the Patriots will need to find someone to play behind Malcolm Butler and Eric Rowe. Signed Stephon Gilmore

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2017 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Stephon Gilmore, CB, Bills. Age: 26.
      Signed with Patriots

      Stephon Gilmore had been an excellent cornerback heading into 2016, but he struggled last year. It’s unclear why he regressed, but it’s likely that he’ll rebound. He’s only 26, so it’s not like he has a declining skill set, or anything.

    2. David Harris, ILB, Jets. Age: 33.
      Signed with Patriots

      When the Jets traded for Demario Davis, it was assumed that Davis would be the third linebacker behind David Harris and Darron Lee. Apparently not. Harris has been released despite being the top inside linebacker on the team. Harris is a declining player at 33, but he was halfway decent this past season. He can be signed on as a role player for a team needing linebacker depth. Some teams that make sense for him include the Giants, Packers, Raiders, Broncos, Patriots and Colts.

    3. Lawrence Guy, DE/DT, Ravens. Age: 27.
      Signed with Patriots (4 years, $20 million)

      Lawrence Guy has been a solid, two-down run defender for the Ravens the past couple of years. He’s only 27 in March and should continue to serve the same sort of role. Guy will appeal to most teams because he can play both the 4-3 and the 3-4.

    4. Mike Gillislee (RFA), RB, Bills. Age: 26.
      Signed with Patriots

      The Bills thought they were going to miss Karlos Williams, but Mike Gillislee performed well as a backup, averaging about six yards per carry and scoring seven touchdowns in 2016.

    5. Rex Burkhead, RB, Bengals. Age: 27.
      Signed with Patriots

      Rex Burkhead is a solid, pass-catching back who was given a chance to shine when Giovani Bernard was knocked out with an injury. He took full advantage of it, snatching four receptions in some games.

    6. Andrew Hawkins, WR, Browns. Age: 31. — Signed with Patriots

    New England Patriots Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: $61.1 million.
    1. Malcolm Butler (RFA), CB, Patriots. Age: 27.
      Tendered by Patriots (1st)

      Malcolm Butler went from being an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama, to an unknown guy who made a huge play in a Super Bowl, to one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. His transformation has been amazing, and he’s only 27 in March. He deserves a huge contract.

    2. Logan Ryan, CB, Patriots. Age: 26.
      Signed with Titans (3 years, $30 million)

      Logan Ryan struggled to start the 2016 campaign, but bounced back and performed on a very high level once again down the stretch. Ryan has been great the past two years, and he’s only 26 in February, so he should be able to play well for quite a while.

    3. Dont’a Hightower, ILB, Patriots. Age: 27.
      Re-signed with Patriots (4 years, $43.5 million)

      Dont’a Hightower is a terrific linebacker, but he’s getting just 3.5 stars because of his extensive injury history. Hightower has played 16 games only once in his career, as he always seems to be banged up. Still, he’s definitely worth it, as he dominates when he’s on the field.

    4. James Develin, FB, Patriots. Age: 29.
      Re-signed with Patriots

      James Develin doesn’t do much outside of block, but he’s terrific at what he does. He’s one of the top run-blockers in the NFL at his position.

    5. Martellus Bennett, TE, Patriots. Age: 30.
      Signed with Packers

      Martellus Bennett turns 30 in March, but he’s still a very effective player. He caught 55 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns this past season, as he’s had to be the primary tight end with Rob Gronkowski injured. He also blocked well.

    6. Jabaal Sheard, DE, Patriots. Age: 28.
      Signed with Colts (3 years, $25.5 million)

      Jabaal Sheard had an up-and-down season, but he was ultimately New England’s top pass-rusher outside of Trey Flowers. He was also decent in run support.

    7. Alan Branch, DT, Patriots. Age: 30.
      Re-signed with Patriots (2 years)

      Alan Branch just turned 32, but he’s a terrific run-stuffer. He was set to be suspended for violating the substance-abuse policy late in the year, but he won the appeal.

    8. Sebastian Vollmer, OT, Patriots. Age: 33.
      Announced retirement

      Sebastian Vollmer has missed 38 games the past six years, including all of 2016. He’s been great when healthy, but that hasn’t been very often. He’ll also be 33 in July, so his skills are eroding as well.

    9. Michael Floyd, WR, Patriots. Age: 27.
      Signed with Vikings

      Michael Floyd has way more talent than a two-star free agent, but he comes with off-the-field issues and lethargy concerns.

    10. Duron Harmon, S, Patriots. Age: 26.
      Re-signed with Patriots (4 yars, $17 million)

      Duron Harmon, a former third-round pick, plays in the nickel and does a solid job. He’s stuck behind Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, however, so he could start for some other team.

    11. LeGarrette Blount, RB, Patriots. Age: 30.
      Signed with Eagles

      LeGarrette Blount turned 30 in December. His days are nearing the end even though he scored 18 touchdowns in 2016. He didn’t run very well for the most part, averaging only 3.9 yards per carry.

    12. Chris Long, DE, Patriots. Age: 32.
      Signed with Eagles (2 years)

      Chris Long was still an effective player for the Patriots this past season, but he’s clearly not the dominant defender he used to be. Long turns 32 in March, and he probably has one more year as a somewhat decent starter remaining.

    13. Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, Patriots. Age: 26.
      Signed with Colts (1 year, $2.5 million)

      Barkevious Mingo was the sixth-overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, so because of his potential, I’ll give him two stars even though he deserves 1.5. Mingo handles the run well, but he’s been a major bust as a pass-rusher.

    14. Rob Ninkovich, DE, Patriots. Age: 33.
    15. Cameron Fleming (RFA), OT, Patriots. Age: 24. — Tendered by Patriots
    16. Brandon Bolden, RB, Patriots. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Patriots
    17. Brandon King (RFA), S, Patriots. Age: 24.
    18. Greg Scruggs, DT, Patriots. Age: 27.


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