With the offseason well underway everywhere else, the Super Bowl contenders have some catching up to do. Here’s what to look for
HOUSTON — There was defiance not just in the way Bill Belichick said what he said at Monday morning’s Super Bowl coach/MVP press conference, but in the timing of it. There’s a good chance at least a few of his players were still reveling in the Patriots’ dramatic Super Bowl 51 win. And hadn’t even gone to bed yet.
“As of today, as great as today feels and as great as today is, in all honesty we’re five weeks behind in the 2017 season to most teams in the league,” Belichick said. “In a couple weeks we’re going to be looking at the combine, obviously the draft. All-star games have already occurred. And in a month we’re into free agency, not to mention all of the internal Patriots players whose contracts are up that we’re going to have to work with in some form or fashion like every team in the league does.”
Cold, cutting—and correct.
The offseason starts now for the Falcons and Patriots, and their long playoff runs have meant that coaches haven’t yet joined up in the draft process or started evaluating internal or external free agents, which does indeed put them behind the rest of the league. Both clubs figure to look significantly different in 2017.
For the Falcons, the changes will start with the coaching staff. For the Patriots, the changes are more likely to come on the roster. So here are key questions each team is facing, as they try to catch up with teams that have had as much as a five-week head start on them.
What’s next after Kyle Shanahan? Shanahan’s rough finish shouldn’t overshadow the massive impact he had as the NFL’s best assistant coach in 2016: He took Matt Ryan and company to another level. Additionally, Mike McDaniel, who helped coordinate the run game, may be going with Shanahan to San Francisco and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur is being courted to become offensive coordinator in Los Angeles. So there’s a lot to take care of here.
Who will be New England’s franchise player? Dont’a Hightower would, on paper, be the most worthy candidate. The problem is he’s got an injury history, and the Patriots saw similar nagging issues derail the career of his de facto predecessor, Jerod Mayo. And the tag number at that position is so high (it projects close to $15 million next season) that it could poison talks on a long-term deal. That’s why franchising Martellus Bennett—at a more affordable price (around $10 million) and at an age (30 next month) where a long-term would be risky—might make sense as an insurance policy for a returning Rob Gronkowski.
How does Atlanta get past this? Last year the Panthers had a similarly tight-knit dynamic to the Falcons, a young core, and an MVP quarterback, which made it seem like a Super Bowl rebound was close to a sure thing. Until it wasn’t. And safe to say Carolina wasn’t dealing with quite the same psychological damage that Atlanta will be. Now, Dan Quinn’s greatest strength has always been his ability to reach players. That strength will be tested, starting at the outset of the offseason program.
What becomes of Jimmy Garoppolo? Do the Patriots like Tom Brady’s backup? Of course they do. Does Garoppolo enjoy playing in New England? I have no reason to think he doesn’t. But with Tom Brady having just played the final game of his 30s like a 20-something, there’s no way of telling when Garoppolo will ever get the chance to actually play—and you can bet your mortgage he wants to play somewhere. So there’s no motivation for him to commit to the Patriots, and the fact that he’s got a year left on his rookie deal and started games just five months ago means his trade value may be at its peak now. So whether it’s Cleveland or Chicago or San Francisco or Houston or New Orleans (who could keep him on his rookie deal for a year, then tag him in 2018), there figures to be enough of a market for Garoppolo for New England to get a good return.
How do the Falcons spend? Atlanta figures to have close to $30 million under the cap—and no significantly costly free agents to take care of internally. So where do the Falcons spend? They’ve drafted well of late, so there will be the opportunity to lock up pieces of their young core. Star corner Desmond Trufant, hurt this year and a free agent after next year, is one building block they could take care of. Left tackle Jake Matthews is eligible for a long-term deal for the first time, and it may make sense to get out in front of that one. Devonta Freeman had a big Super Bowl and wasn’t shy about his desire to cash in, and Taylor Gabriel is a restricted free agent. It also might make sense to redo Matt Ryan’s deal now, since doing it two years ahead of time could save the team some dough.
How do the Patriots spend? New England will have more than $60 million to spend, and that’s good because the Patriots also have a ton of free agents. Hightower and Bennett are two. Veterans Chris Long and LeGarrette Blount are up. Young defensive backs Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon are set to hit the market. And Jabaal Sheard will be looking to score a third NFL contract at age 27. The Patriots have been very good at developing young players to give the team the flexibility to let vets go— James White was inactive on Super Bowl Sunday two years ago, and Ryan and Malcolm Butler were the fourth and fifth corners on that team, respectively. But this time around they’ll have to pay a few of them. The question is who, with an RFA like Butler also a part of the equation here.
Can Atlanta’s defense take the next step? The Super Bowl displayed both the athletic potential and the youth of the Atlanta defense. The goal next season will be to make sure the latter is more of an asset than a liability. With Trufant coming back, Robert Alford entrenched, and 2016 sophomores Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett, and rookies Keanu Neal, De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones developing, there’s no reason Quinn’s unit shouldn’t take a major step forward in 2017. It felt like that was actually happening for the first three quarters of the Super Bowl. And yet, while they weren’t put in the best position by having to play as many snaps as they did, the fourth quarter and overtime should show the young Falcons how far they really have to go.
What notable vets will be jumping on the Pats’ gravy train? This year it was Chris Long. Two years ago it was Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Inevitably there’ll be some veteran in his 30s who’ll take less to try and get some of the ice the Patriots have earned over the last decade-and-a-half. So who could the candidates be this time around? I still think pass rush has to be a priority, and so guys like DeMarcus Ware or Julius Peppers could be in play.
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