It’s that time of year again. Training camp opened up last week for the New England Patriots. Already there has been a somewhat surprising retirement and maybe some insight into a future surprise cut. But for now, the team has 90 players in camp, so let’s get right to it. The first roster projection of the year, right here:
Locks: Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett
Way Out: None
Comments: Jimmy Football will be the starting QB by the opening of the 2019 season. Yup, probably not a stretch here. Brady will be 42 before that season starts. And as much as he is on his special training regimen at his TB12 facilities, with his questionable trainer in Alex Guerrero and his range of products such as the concussion water (which apparently does not actually work, if you ask Giselle) and all that….the fact remains is that age 42 is age 42. You simply do not see many athletes performing at a high level at that age…in any sport. Brady did play at a high level at age 39 last season still, but as we have seen with guys like Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, the end can come quick. People often forget that Brady had a 4 game “vacation” at the beginning of last year. He won’t have that this year.
This analysis isn’t to bash the legend, though I admit after I re-read it, it sure sounds like it. My apologies. Brady will be the unquestioned starter this season. And I expect it to be a pretty good season still for him, without a doubt. The point really to be made here is that although we have seen greatness for quite some time at this position, it could change in an instant. Of course we could say this about any football player at any position…any athlete in any sport actually. But I think the locals truly believe Brady when he says he can play until his mid-to-late 40s. I’m just here to drive the expectations of that crowd down. So is Bill Belichick. He clearly could have gotten top dollar for Jimmy G around the NFL draft in the spring but chose to keep him. Does Bill think he is the real deal and the franchise going forward? Perhaps. Maybe he just wants good QB insurance for this (presumably) long upcoming season. And then pulls a Matt Cassel and franchise tags Jimmy and then trades him before next season. I think Bill would have to be convinced that Brissett is the next big thing also and ready to step in when Tom eventually fades for that to happen. I don’t see it, but you never know…
Can’t forget about the old Madden curse either…with Brady on the cover this season. Just sayin’…
Locks: Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, James White, Dion Lewis
In: James Develin
Out: Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster, Glenn Gronkowski
Way Out: LeShun Daniels
Comments: Last year I had Brandon Bolden as only one of two locks, simply because of his special teams value. He had also managed to not kill the team when they played him on offense as well. So that didn’t hurt. But he was brutal on offense last year, they have 63 guys that can play special teams this year, the team signed Gillislee and Burkhead to decent sized contracts to replace the departed Hall of Famer (according to some fans) LeGarrette Blount, among other things. Oh, and when Bolden was free to sign with anyone in the spring, no one really wanted him. So he’s out this year, but can easily be re-signed if needed, since again, no one really wants him. I can’t believe I just wrote that much about Brandon Bolden.
People want to make Lewis a surprise cut this year, but I am not sure that will happen. He undoubtedly will give them all he has for a half a season or so and then get hurt again. So things will take care of themselves there eventually. Gillislee and Burkhead will hopefully be more productive than Blount. I still don’t love James White. But he signed an extension as well and ideally will springboard off his fantastic Super Bowl performance. We shall see. Bill loves Develin. Maybe better use of that roster spot elsewhere, but I see them keeping the fullback. Foster is going to be on the fringe this year. The “other” Gronk is depth and expendable. And I don’t even know who Daniels is.
Speaking of Blount, I love how the team slapped that “May 9th tender” on him when they officially knew that they weren’t bringing him back. The tender allowed the Pats to count Blount as part of the compensatory draft pick formula when he signed elsewhere. And if he didn’t sign elsewhere after a certain date in July, he could only play for the Pats. No one has ever heard of this tender before. Probably people working in the league likely included. But the Pats are ALL business. Ask pretty much every veteran they let go of over the years when they had their replacements ready. Troy Brown was maybe the one exception, as they let him hang around for a year longer than they should have. But Troy spent most of that year on the PUP list. ALL business. Just be ready when that business involves Brady.
Locks: Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell
In: Danny Amendola
Out: Austin Carr, Devin Lucien
Way Out: Cody Hollister, K.J. Maye, Tony Washington
Comments: Pretty much set in stone. The problem is that the team usually likes its backup receivers to play special teams. Mitchell and Amendola really don’t, other than Danny on returns. But hard to see them ditching Danny after he took yet another pay cut…and is pretty damn clutch. I believe they paid Carr and Hollister more dough than rookie free agents get, but there is simply no room. They may find their way onto the practice squad, along with Lucien. Maye and Washington just signed in the last few days. Should get plenty of time with Brissett in the early preseason games and they can tell their kids they played with the Patriots in their careers.
Locks: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen
Out: Matt Lengel, James O’Shaughnessy
Way Out: Jacob Hollister, Sam Cotton
Comments: The Pats gave Gronk some more money when they didn’t have to, so hopefully he is happy. And of course healthy. Those close to the team are also pointing at Allen as a surprise cut. I don’t see it…yet. But it also wouldn’t shock me if Belichick cut him and kept both Lengel and O’Shaughnessy. Let’s see how camp goes. My guess is they actually start the year with 3 TE’s, but play some roster shenanigans at the final cutdown to give themselves a better chance at keeping some kids elsewhere. Then they can bring back at least one of Lengel or O’Shaughnessy a couple of days after final cuts. If that even matters to you…
Locks: Nate Solder (LT), Joe Thuney (LG), David Andrews (C), Shaq Mason (RG), Marcus Cannon (RT), Antonio Garcia (T)
In: Ted Karras (G/C), Conor McDermott (T), Jamil Douglas (G)
Out: Cameron Fleming (T), LaAdrian Waddle (T), James Ferentz (C)
Way Out: Cole Croston (T), Andrew Jelks (T), Jason King (G), Max Rich (T)
Comments: A little more settled than the beginning of last year. The Pats were a disaster on the line at the end of 2015 and seemed to be throwing numerous bodies at the problem during last years’ camp. Almost no jobs were set in stone. Dante Scarnecchia was returning to coaching. Not the case this year. The starters are locked in. Although this does not mean it is a dominant line, at least it’s a start.
Seems to me that Garcia was taken in the 3rd round of this past draft to eventually slide into Solder’s spot once his contract runs out at the end of this season. Did you realize Solder has the second highest cap hit on the team this year behind Brady? Me neither. Anyway, Nate may get PAID next offseason. Garcia may take his place as a result. (Another reason to make a switch to a more mobile Garoppolo, by the way). In any event, he is locked in.
I feel like they will hang on to McDermott to start and then hopefully slide him onto the practice squad shortly after final cuts. A supposed project, he seems to have the physical characteristics they’d like to have at tackle. And took him in the 6th round as one of their mere four draft picks. Karras was a backup in the middle last year and I imagine he will fill the same role this year. Another backup guard seemed to be in order, so I took Douglas over King. Since Douglas spent some time on the practice squad last year I believe. That may be a spot for a veteran upgrade at some point.
There seems to be no room in this scenario for Fleming and Waddle, who were on the team all of last year. But as referenced with Bolden and the TE’s above, they may slide through unclaimed and be available for pickup at a moments notice. If not, I am sure no one really cares. Kind of like the last five guys on the outside looking in. Though a handful of those guys are sure to end up on the practice squad at some point.
Next: Defense and specialists
NFL free agency begins Thursday afternoon at 4:00 pm. Of course there is some sort of “legal tampering” period that starts Tuesday. But let’s ignore that for now. The following is one man’s thoughts on what’s going on with the players that ended the 2016 season on the Patriots’ roster, by position.
Players under contract: Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Devin Lucien, Malcolm Mitchell
Free agents: Michael Floyd
What I would do: There’s a good chance I wouldn’t do anything to the group that ended the year on the team. The top 4 of the group (Edelman, Hogan, Mitchell and Amendola) have earned the complete trust of Tom Brady. This alone is huge. They run the right routes, make the right reads, have decent hands, make the tough catches and are completely comfortable in the system. And all that. Amendola gets banged up a lot and that would most likely necessitate carrying a 5th receiver (please no Matthew Slater here). But these four seem to be a reliable crew in general. Amendola would have to adjust his almost 8 million cap hit…and all indications are that he is amenable to that. The other 3 have salaries that the team could live with.
That 5th receiver could be Floyd. I’d be ok with that. He likely will have to take one of those 1 year “prove it” deals that people love to talk about…and the Patriots like to give out. At probably cheap money too. Why not take a chance? He’s got talent…and a head start in the system already. There have been some rumors that the Pats have interest in New Orleans’ Brandin Cooks. Wouldn’t argue with that either. Not sure why he is even on the market, but that’s their problem I guess. Lucien, a 7th rounder from last year, would not seem to be able to crack this group. Maybe sticks on the practice squad again.
No reason to go too crazy finding other receivers to fit in here right at the start of free agency for sure.
What I think will happen: Belichick doesn’t love dressing 5 receivers for games, unless they make an impact on regular special teams units. Edelman and Amendola do returns, but none of the other guys above are a factor there. But if Amendola takes that pay cut and returns, I think Bill adds either Floyd or another “traditional” receiver. That also could come through the draft though. Maybe they eventually make a trade for a Cooks or the like. But this is another position that will be low priority in free agency for the team.
Players under contract: Rob Gronkowski, Rob Housler,
Free agents: Martellus Bennett, Matt Lengel (exclusive rights), Greg Scruggs, Michael Williams (?)
What I would do: Bennett was a good soldier this year. Kept his attitude in line. You know he played hurt for a great deal of the season. It’s a crime he and Gronk were not together, healthy, for a 16 game season. That would have been fun to watch. Bennett has his ring now and wants big money in free agency. He will probably get it too. If the dough is out of hand, I’d let him go. I’d let him go regardless actually. Because he is the type of guy that if he signs here for less than he believe he deserves, and he already has a ring, he could revert to his past ways where he is kind of a headache. No thanks.
That being said, having a TE of Bennett’s caliber is something I think the team should pursue. Gronk is Gronk. But with another back surgery in the books. The Pats should chase another TE that is in the upper tier. Maybe buy low on someone like they did with Martellus last year. Housler, Lengel, Scruggs and Williams don’t fit that bill. I don’t even know if Williams is still here. He spent all of last year on injured reserve and is still listed on their roster. But not on the salary cap page from what I can see. But that really doesn’t matter I suppose. Anyway, maybe that upper tier TE comes in the draft. But I’d look hard for one in free agency.
What I think will happen: Bennett walks. The team signs a couple of backup TE’s in the mold of a Clay Harbor or something. A veteran with seemingly more to offer than the 4 “other” TE’s above, but not as good as Bennett. Then work on getting another quality TE in the draft…which is supposed to be TE-rich.
Players under contract: David Andrews (C), Chris Barker (G), Marcus Cannon (T), Jamil Douglas (C), Chase Farris (T), Tre’ Jackson (G), Ted Karras (G), Shaq Mason (G), Nate Solder (T), Joe Thuney (G), LaAdrian Waddle (T)
Free agents: Cameron Fleming (T) (restricted)
What I would do: The line was exposed a bit in the playoffs. Maybe it’s because the middle is full of young guys. Maybe it’s because Cannon isn’t actually as good as he apparently played this year. Maybe it’s because Nate Solder isn’t as good as people think he is, period. Maybe it’s because it was Dante Scarnecchia’s first year back in the saddle and he is still working on some things with the unit.
The line seemingly played pretty well this year before the playoffs, so maybe the weaknesses showing up there can be fixed in the offseason…plus with more experience for the interior guys. I’d work on getting better depth in free agency for one thing. The team carried only 8 guys for most of the year…with Waddle mostly inactive and Fleming playing a lot of tight end when injuries hit. I haven’t done any research, but I would say Belichick usually has 10 or so guys on the active roster. Maybe he felt he didn’t need that this year with the line staying intact for most of the year. And also with Douglas, Farris and Barker on the practice squad for most of the year too.
Even with Jackson returning from injury, none of the backup guys seem to inspire confidence. I’d spend some time in free agency finding a better veteran backup swing tackle and a better veteran backup interior guy that can play both guard and center. I’d also restructure Solder’s gruesome 11 mil cap hit. The Pats will have plenty of cap space to do what they want. But that number (currently second on the team overall) just doesn’t look right.
What I think will happen: Nothing. Maybe Solder gets an extension to shrink his cap number. But I think these are most of the characters you see next year. Certainly the starters. Solder and Cannon, with his fat extension signed during last season, will be the tackles. Thuney was a third rounder from last year that they love and he played something like all but 4 snaps the entire season. He’s going nowhere. Andrews seems entrenched. If anything, maybe Mason gets pushed. But by Jackson or Barker (since he can’t spend an 18th consecutive year on the practice squad I would bet), not by a vet they have signed. They will probably bring in some big bodies at the middle to end of the draft. But I doubt they sign any veterans. Not in the first wave of free agency anyway. I can tell you that Sebastian Vollmer ain’t coming back either. So long Sea Bass!!
Next: Onto the defense.
Jamie Collins is gone.
Chandler Jones has been gone for a while.
Jabaal Sheard, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan have regressed from last year. To the point of Sheard now getting benched for some reason. Perhaps regression can describe Malcom Brown and Patrick Chung as well?
Chris Long has been pretty invisible.
As has Rob Ninkovich. But I guess that’s what happens when you can’t juice anymore.
Throw in the fact they gave away Dominique Easley for nothing if you wish. I’m ok with even saying they let Akiem Hicks get away over short money. Hicks played pretty well after being acquired from the Saints last year.
And that’s just the defense.
Should we be worried? In the whole scheme of things, probably not. There are a bunch of cream puffs on the schedule going forward and the offense alone should beat all of them. But in reality, the whole thing is concerning.
Throw all the departures and regression from above and add in the high draft picks in recent years that have contributed very little on defense (Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom, Vincent Valentine, and probably still including Trey Flowers). Not to mention in-season acquisitions that have added zero (Barkevious Mingo, Kyle Van Noy and Eric Rowe…contributing negatively in Rowe’s case actually). So where is the talent now…and the depth?
The positive I suppose is that the Pats are actually 6th in NFL in points allowed with 163, only 11 behind league leading Minnesota’s 152. But this is kind of a bogus positive. The schedule has had plenty of cream puffs on it already.
The Patriots should once again cruise to the division title and still actually host the AFC Championship Game. But that is more of an indictment on the rest of the AFC really. The East is putrid and the South ain’t much better. The West has some teams with good records, but is anyone really afraid of Oakland or Kansas City? Denver, maybe. But their offense has taken several steps back. And I don’t know what is wrong with Pittsburgh at this point.
But it just doesn’t feel right. I don’t know what the game plan was against Seattle. That game was all lined up for a win. Seattle was on a short week. Travelling across the country. Their defense had spent a ton of time on the field in recent weeks and were missing Michael Bennett. Russell Wilson is a little banged up and doesn’t run as much now. The Seahawks running game was lacking. The Patriots were coming off a bye and were at home. And on and on. Seattle will always play everyone tough despite whatever odds. But it still should have been a win.
For years a lot of us have questioned the Patriots’ defensive methods. Defensive backs never turn their heads in coverage. They don’t blitz often. Years of “bend, but don’t break” mentality. Par for the course this year, but seemingly worse. How ’bout for once we try something different? Unleash Mingo or something…tell him to just make a beeline for the QB on every snap? Maybe play a little more man and not have opponents’ wide receivers running free all through the secondary? Stop carrying 85 special teamers and have some of those guys actually play a position capably. Stop giving away talent. Yeah, not likely. I’m not a defensive coordinator. But there has to be a better way. Very rarely should anyone question Belichick. But again, things just don’t feel right. Even if they are 7-2.
Sadly, I am a little worried about Colin Kaepernick looking like Joe Montana later today…
We’ve focused on the defense, but the offense isn’t necessarily as stout as it can be either. Sure, the first 4 games were helmed by backup quarterbacks. But that side of the ball doesn’t feel right now either.
Julian Edelman isn’t the same. They don’t seem to play Danny Amendola a whole lot for reasons unknown. Maybe they are managing an injury there too. Now Chris Hogan is banged up. Malcolm Mitchell has been hurt some as well.
Now Gronk is out…and who knows for how long? Martellus Bennett has been pretty good. But he isn’t 100%. I don’t know if AJ Derby can play in the NFL. But Denver thinks he can. And they gave him away to the Broncos.
The running game? LeGarrette Blount has been better than expected. But he is still…LeGarrette Blount. Dion Lewis is back. But let’s hold up on going crazy on that for now. Still not a fan of James White. And the offensive line doesn’t exactly open up a lot of holes…or give Brady a ton of time for that matter.
Tons of negativity here, I know. But 7-2 never felt so bad. This season was supposed to be a cakewalk to at least a Super Bowl appearance. And it may very well be still. After all, the NFL as a whole kinda stinks this year. But the decisions of the team and the head coach appear to be making it hard to see that now. It’s hard for me to see how the team gets better down the stretch, even if guys get healthy. The competition should be weak, so what kind of test will any of the games be for the team? Actually, with all of the above, maybe the games WILL be tests. And that is pretty scary. Because they shouldn’t be.
So watch Kaepernick be…Kaepernick later today and the Pats win something like 45-7. After posting this, I’m pretty much counting on it now. This is pretty much the first time in the Belichick era that I have had some doubts. Prove me wrong Bill…as always…