The 2019 NFL season is just a few weeks away, so Andy Benoit makes a few predictions for each NFL team. Today he analyzes the New England Patriots, who finished 11-5 and first in the AFC East last year.
Tom Brady looks like Tom Brady yet again. Physically, he’s more impressive in his 40s than he was in his 30s. That’s bound to change, but no evidence suggests it will be anytime soon.
Rob Gronkowski’s void is filled by Rex Burkhead … sort of. The seventh-year running back doesn’t assume Gronk’s old tight end duties—veteran Ben Watson and pass-catching ex-Texan Stephen Anderson do. But with neither of those players drawing double-teams, the Patriots, instead of mainly dictating matchups by aligning their tight end all over the formation, employ more two-back sets, forcing defenses into more predictable, manipulatable looks. Tailback Sony Michel is a runner, his counterpart James White a receiver. Burkhead is the fullest-fledged runner-receiver hybrid. When he’s in with another back (including fullback James Develin, who played 36% of the snaps last year in New England’s increasingly potent old-school ground game), the defense must start guessing.
Julian Edelman becomes more crucial. New England’s receiving corps has depth but no other natural slot man. First-round rookie N’Keal Harry played a lot inside at Arizona State, but as a more methodical possession target, he’ll almost certainly play outside in a scheme that has long prioritized quick, shifty interior receivers who can gain the yards after catch that are always available thanks to Brady’s precise timing and accuracy. With no Gronkowski in the middle, Edelman becomes the passing game’s fulcrum.
Defensive back J.C. Jackson shines. Stylistically, the undrafted second-year pro is the consummate Patriots DB: physically strong, adept in man coverage and versatile enough to cover outside receivers or tight ends inside (including the league’s best, Travis Kelce, for much of last year’s AFC championship). With a true No. 1 corner in Stephon Gilmore, Jackson and other versatile corners (second-round rookie Joejuan Williams, Jonathan Jones, veteran technician Jason McCourty), plus versatile safeties (Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty and centerfielder Duron Harmon), the Patriots can do anything and everything in their predominantly man-coverage based scheme.
America appreciates Kyle Van Noy. The sixth-year linebacker should have been the MVP of Super Bowl LIII. His versatility down the stretch defined New England’s increasingly creative five-man rushes, diverse fronts (Van Noy, like Dont’a Hightower, can play on the edge or off the ball) and stalwart run defense.
BOTTOM LINE: With a different style of receiving corps and no stud tight end, the Pats may have to tweak their offensive approach. History says that won’t be a problem.
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