The Update: New England Patriots 2017 Preview

The Update: Buffalo Bills 2017 Preview
June 5, 2017
The Update: Philadelphia Eagles 2017 Preview
June 7, 2017

The Update: New England Patriots 2017 Preview

Justis Mosqueda

In an effort to break the two-paragraph preview trend of national writers, Setting the Edge has dedicated themselves to previewing all 32 teams in the NFL in a series called “The Update”, which will focus on:

  1. Where a team stands from a decision-maker standpoint
  2. Where teams were efficient and inefficient last year by using percentile radar charts
  3. Who the moving parts between the 2016 and 2017 seasons were
  4. Where a team is trending heading into the 2017 regular season

Justis Mosqueda will be writing the team previews while Charles McDonald posts film breakdowns based on the writing. After posts on entire divisions are finished, they will discuss teams on division-specific Setting the Edge podcasts which you can find on SoundCloud and iTunes. Five stars only. Tell a friend.

Head coach Bill Belichick is a one-man show. Since turning in that resignation napkin as the head coach of the New York Jets, Belichick has ran the New England Patriots organization from the top down for 17 seasons. Over that time, the Patriots have won five Super Bowls and have been to six consecutive AFC championship games.

For a decade and a half, the AFC has been a three-headed monster of quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger. That era is coming to an end, but there’s a fairly good chance that Brady and Roethlisberger meet one more time in the AFC championship this season.

Related: Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Preview

Since 2006, only eight teams won double-digit games by multiple scores in a single season. Those teams almost always win over two-thirds of their games the next season, too.

As you should have noticed, three of those eight teams were Patriots squads under Belichick. When you juxtapose Belichick’s Patriots to the rest of the league over that time period, you get a real feel for how absolutely dominant the team has been. Since 2006, the Patriots have won 92 multi-score games and lost just 14 multi-score games in the regular season. That’s 18 more multi-score wins and 11 fewer multi-score losses than any other team since 2006. Multi-score wins are “Big Wins”, and multi-score losses are “Big Losses”, in the chart below:

The Patriots have won 78 more multi-score games than they’ve lost since 2006. Only two other teams league-wide (Packers +46, Steelers +42) have even half as many as the Patriots over that period of time.

The Patriots have been dominant. The Patriots were dominant last season. The Patriots will be dominant this season. New England has finished first in the AFC East in 13 of the last 14 seasons, with the only exception being an 11-5 season in which Brady went down with a knee injury during the opening weekend. It really does seem like nothing short of that will ever hold back the Belichick-Brady duo.

Offense:

Backs: The Patriots finished first in interception percentage, fourth in yards per completion and fifth in completion percentage last season. Even if Brady does take a step back this season, the team has more than a step to give in the passing game.

There’s probably no quarterback in the league who has the job security that Brady does, as he’s only counting as a cap hit of $14 million this season. During his four-game suspension last season, rookie contract quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett split 127 dropbacks. Even if Garoppolo does move on to his next team sooner rather than later, Brissett’s 11.67 yards per completion, and zero interceptions over 61 dropbacks, seem more than fine enough for a developmental project at the position.

The real question last year was in the backfield. The team was fifth in run percentage, likely due to the fact that they were blowing out so many teams. or were playing with backup passers, but they were just 25th in yards per carry despite ranking 11th in tackle for loss percentage. Last year, the team’s top backs were LeGarrette Blount (299 carries, 3.9 yards per carry), Dion Lewis (64 carries, 4.4 yards per carry), and James White (39 carries, 4.3 yards per carry). Blount has since signed with the Philadelphia Eagles on a one-year, $1.25 million contract.

All hope is not lost for the potential of an improved Patriots backfield in 2017, though. They added two backs who ran the ball more than Lewis and White in 2016: Mike Gillislee (101 carries, 5.7 yards per carry) and Rex Burkhead (74 carries, 4.6 yards per carry). Gillislee was stolen from New England’s AFC East “rival” the Buffalo Bills via a restricted free agent situation that led to the Patriots signing Gillislee for two-years, $6.4 million, and  netted the Bills New England’s fifth-round pick. Burkhead was signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Cincinnati Bengals on a one-year, $3.15 million deal.

Surprisingly, the Patriots were just 18th in fumble percentage last year. There’s no bell cow back out of the four names in their backfield at the moment, so my best guess is that whoever fumbles the least will end up being the lead back of the group. Still, Blount’s biggest strength was that his volume was so much better than his efficiency. You figure that four backs splitting carries who were more efficient than Blount can keep up the load that the Patriots demanded last season. There’s certainly room for improvement on the 2016 running game.

Pass-Catchers: Finishing fourth in yards per reception means that your passing offense is doing something right. Of the seven names who caught 20 or more passes last season, six return: receiver Julian Edelman (98 receptions, 11.3 yards per reception), White (60 receptions, 9.2 yards per reception), receiver Chris Hogan (38 reception, 17.9 yards per reception), receiver Malcolm Mitchell (32 receptions, 12.5 yards per reception), tight end Rob Gronkowski (25 receptions, 21.6 yards per reception) and receiver Danny Amendola (23 reception, 10.6 yards per reception).

One player, tight end Martellus Bennett (55 receptions, 12.7 yards per reception), is missing. Bennett signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Green Bay Packers after his one-year stint with the Patriots. While losing Bennett is obviously a negative, the backup plan of Gronkowski returning to full health after missing time due to a back injury is a fine spot to be in. The team also traded for tight end Dwayne Allen (35 receptions, 11.6 yards per reception) to be their new second tight end. On top of that, the Patriots made their biggest splash in years by sending their first-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for Brandin Cooks, a speedy former first-round pick who had 78 receptions, and a 15.0 yards per reception mark, last season.

You heard that right, the Patriots (who ranked fourth in yards per reception last season) might just add onto their offense with a healthy season from a future Hall of Fame tight end, and a 23-year-old former first-round pick with nearly 3,000 receiving yards and 20 receiving touchdowns to his name. Life’s not fair.

Linemen: According to Football Outsiders, five New England Patriots linemen played over 90 percent of the team’s snaps last season: Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason and David Andrews. Every single one of them return this season.

The team finished sixth in sack percentage and 11th in TFL percentage last season, so it was an above average unit to begin with, but the team spent two of their four draft day selections on insurance policies for their line. They drafted Antonio Garcia of Troy in the third round and Conor McDermott of UCLA in the sixth round. For what it’s worth, the numbers suggest that McDermott might be a bit of a steal based on his agility drills.

Defense:

Line of Scrimmage: The New England Patriots’ defense is incredibly consistent, but boring. Their three worst efficiency numbers on that side of the ball were all explosive plays in TFL percentage (28th), sack percentage (18th), and interceptions (28th).

With that in mind, the defensive end room has changed at lot since 2016. Jabaal Sheard, who was moved to a non-starting role halfway through the season, signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. He recorded 13 sacks in his two years in New England.

Chris Long, who was only in New England for one year, signed what amounts to be a two-year, $4.5 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles after a four-sack 2016 season. The team didn’t sign a major free agent to the position, but they traded for Kony Ealy, a 2014 second-round pick who had 14 sacks in three years in Carolina, before the draft.

With a rotation of hybrid lineman Trey Flowers, Ealy, and Rob Ninkovich, the team looked decent at the position going into the draft. They then spent two of their only four draft selections on Derek Rivers of Youngstown State, a true pass-rusher, and Deatrich Wise Jr, more of a Flowers-type lineman. For what it’s worth, the numbers suggest that there’s a very good chance that Rivers develops into a Pro Bowl caliber pass-rusher.

At defensive tackle, the strongholds of Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch return. Lawrence Guy, who signed a four-year, $13.4 million deal after leaving the Baltimore Ravens, is the only significant name added to the group. I’d trade the potential of Sheard and Long for Rivers, Guy, Wise and Ealy. This may not be clear cut for everyone looking on the outside in, but I think their line of scrimmage defenders got better as a unit this season.

Backs: Once Jamie Collins was moved from New England last year, the rotation of the Patriots’ linebackers was set. Dont’a Hightower was the man in the middle while the likes of Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, and Shea McClellin rotated next to him. None of those names are aging, and their talent shaped out fine for New England last season.

The team’s defense finished first in fumble percentage, fifth in run percentage, and eighth in yards per carry last season. What the Patriots lacked in upfront penetration, they made up for by simply suffocating running games, and flying around the ball. There’s no room for concern at linebacker as an overall unit.

The defensive passing game is up there with New England’s running game as their “weakness” on each side of the ball. Even then, “weakness” is too strong of a word. The Patriots finished 13th in yards per completion, 13th in completion percentage, and 18th in interception percentage last season. At worst, you can call that average.

The team lost Logan Ryan on a three-year, $30 million contract to the Tennessee Titans this offseason, but they also signed Stephon Gilmore, one of the best cornerbacks in the league, on a five-year, $65 million deal. Better yet, he came via their AFC East rival Buffalo Bills. Belichick is playing checkers.

2015 Pro Bowler Malcolm Butler, 2015 second-round pick Eric Rowe, and 2016 second-round pick Cyrus Jones round out the cornerback position. They seem to have four cornerbacks who are young with their momentum trending upwards. At worst, this team treads water next season on the back end.

At safety, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung make up one of the notable duos in the league. McCourty is know more as a flexible defensive back, while Chung is a linebacker in a safety’s body. There’s absolutely no room for concern at safety.

2017 Prediction: This Patriots team was dominant last year, and there’s no reason to assume they won’t be in 2017.

  1. They lost running back LeGarrette Blount (3.9 yards per carry) and replaced him with Mike Gillislee (5.7 yards per carry) and Rex Burkhead (4.6 yards per carry).
  2. They lost tight end Martellus Bennett (12.7 yards per reception), but the potential of a healthy Rob Gronkowski (21.6 yards per reception) can negate that by itself. They also brought in tight end Dwayne Allen (11.6 yards per reception) and receiver Brandin Cooks (15.0 yards per reception) as threats in the passing game.
  3. They lost Jabaaal Sheard and Chris Long on the defensive line, but signed Lawrence Guy, traded for Kony Ealy and drafted Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr.
  4. They lost cornerback Logan Ryan, but replaced him with an even better cornerback in Stephon Gilmore.

Is there really even one spot that the Patriots got worse this offseason? We’re so used to the hemorrhaging of talent in the offseason by teams that made deep playoff runs that this actually stands out as impressive. If this team can make it through the year without a disastrous injury at a key position, this might be one of the best teams of all-time.

Video Breakdown: New England’s Defensive Line by Charles McDonald