Off-season report card: New England Patriots
The Patriots merged triumph and hubris last season on their way to becoming the season's most talked-about franchise. They won their fourth Super Bowl of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, ascending to the ranks of the greatest dynasties in NFL history ... but the Deflategate scandal had already hijacked the off-season before all the confetti had fallen in Glendale. In the end, the victory has been overshadowed by the initial controversy, the Wells Report, and the eventual penalties, which led to Brady's four-game suspension to start the 2015 season. The franchise was also fined $1 million and stripped of its first-round draft pick in 2015 and a fourth-rounder in 2016—a pretty heavy price for a few doctored footballs.
Aside from grooming backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for a month of starting duties, there are other roster issues Belichick will have to address as the new season begins. The Pats lost both their starting cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, to free agency (not to mention cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard), as well as running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, and legendary nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Linebacker Akeem Ayers, an early-season trade acquisition who became a more important player than some expected, also found a new home. Belichick has become legendary for his ability to spackle his way through roster attrition, but between all these departures and the loss of Brady for the first quarter of the season, this may all be too much to recover from.
Best acquisition: Jabaal Sheard, OLB
New England didn't do a lot of splashy things in free agency to recover from its off-season personnel losses, but the signing of Sheard could pay big dividends. Selected by the Browns in the second round of the 2011 draft, Sheard showed a lot of potential as a run-stopping end who could also rush the passer. He got a bit lost in Cleveland's switch to a hybrid front under new coach Mike Pettine, but within a four-man front in Foxboro, Sheard has a great chance to put up numbers he never has before.
Consider the case of Rob Ninkovich, who was a bit player at best with the Saints and Dolphins but developed into a key rotational player in Belichick's system, amassing eight sacks in each of the last three seasons, and ranking eighth among all "endbackers" with 51 total pressures in 2014. Sheard could very well be a more physically talented version of Ninkovich in this defense. Don't be surprised if he improves upon his career high of 8.5 sacks in his rookie season of 2011 and hits double-digits in his new home.
Biggest loss: Darrelle Revis, CB
This is an easy one. Losing four cornerbacks in an off-season is always a blow. But Revis played at or near his usual level of excellence throughout 2014, and he was a major reason Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia were able to call as much man-to-man defense as any defensive staff in the league. Revis signed a five-year, $79 million contract with $39 million guaranteed to return to the Jets, which means that Brady will have to deal with him at least twice this season.
To restock at corner, the Patriots signed former Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher, last seen with burn marks all over his uniform on the way to allowing nine touchdowns and a 107.6 opposing passer rating in 2014. They also signed Robert McClain, formerly of the Falcons, and took Marshall cornerback Daryl Roberts in the seventh round of the draft. Barring a surprise breakout from one of their lightly-regarded replacements, the Patriots secondary will take a major hit that will cost them when it's time to worry about winning games.
Underrated draft pick: Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas (round 4, pick No. 101)
Belichick has always preferred linemen who can play multiple positions, which is why the Flowers pick makes a lot of sense. The second-team All-SEC star finished his NCAA career with 18 sacks, 190 total tackles, an interception and four forced fumbles. He has impressive field speed for his 6'2", 266-pound frame, and he shows good recognition to back off his blocker and get into the open field. He has the potential to break off into short coverage, and he takes quick and decisive angles to the ballcarrier when there's an opening.
On the downside, Flowers tended to disappear on tape at times. He sifts through the line too often without explosive speed or dominant hand moves, and he can be blocked out to the edge pretty easily for his size. He was more reactive than you'd like from a speed-rusher, which is why I compared him to Florida State's Bjoern Werner based on his college tape. The Colts have so far struck out with Werner as a pure speed-rusher, but I'd bet that Belichick has more complex plans for Flowers.
"I feel like things got off to a good start with Flowers; a real productive player at Arkansas," Belichick said to start off his press conference on the final day of the draft. "He played mainly on the edge, a little bit inside. But a young player that I think has got a lot of good football in front of him; a lot of great qualities in terms of leadership, toughness, those kind of things."
Looming question for training camp: Can Jimmy Garoppolo maintain New England's offensive excellence?
With Brady on the sidelines to open the year (unless he gets his suspension reduced on appeal, and good luck with that), it will be Garoppolo, the second-year man from Eastern Illinois, under center for the first four games. It was one thing to break all of Tony Romo's school records, but now Garoppolo has a far more daunting challenge ahead of him in keeping the most complicated passing offense in the NFL running through the first quarter of the season. Garoppolo saw significant time in two games last season: a blowout loss to the Chiefs and the season finale against the Bills, when the Pats had their playoff seed wrapped up. He completed 19-of-27 passes for 182 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
"I think Jimmy’s worked hard," Belichick said last December of his backup's work in practice. "He’s been consistent, he’s improved every week. He’s running different offenses for the scout team and having to keep up with what we’re doing in our installation and our game planning on a weekly basis, but he’s, again, been durable, been healthy, been out there every day, keeps getting better. He’s worked on a lot of things that we’ve identified for him to do. He’s gotten better. He certainly has, I think, a much better understanding of the league; these last three weeks have been good for him and probably a lot of the other rookies, too, just in terms of the second time around.
"So, kind of where we were the first time we played Buffalo to where we are now and sort of the better familiarity that he has, not only with the league, but in this team in particular, since we’ve already been through them once, I think that they can start to see, and as a coach you can see, that there’s a growth of understanding and the ability to process a lot of information."
While Garoppolo will no doubt struggle to meet Brady's standard when it comes to the complexity of the system—the Patriots run a silly number of option routes and route concepts—he does give Belichick something he's never had in a quarterback in New England: the ability to create a moving pocket. Garoppolo can throw on the run very well, and it shows on tape. While Garoppolo is not a great deep thrower, the Pats have been making allowances for Brady's declining arm over the last few seasons. Belichick's optimism about Garoppolo could be blind hope, but if nothing else, his early-season showcase will be very interesting.