The Patriots won on Sunday. They’ve won seven of eight since getting bludgeoned in Detroit on Sept. 23. They’re 8-3, with wins over the only team above them in the AFC standings (Kansas City) and the one tied with them (Houston). They’re positioned to get a first-round bye for a ninth straight year, which would put them a single playoff win away from their eighth consecutive AFC Championship Game.
So why does something seem … off?
New England wobbled through the first half against a Jets team that hasn’t won a game in a month-and-a-half, only taking the lead for good with 1:52 left in the third quarter. And if you watched, most of the action had the look of a proud old prizefighter simply letting a young underdog punch himself out, just waiting to throw a couple victory-delivering haymakers.
The Patriots did land those, by the way. Julian Edelman forced his way into the end zone on a 21-yard touchdown catch to make it 20-13, and then the offense put it rivals away with a 10-play, 80-yard march that sliced nearly five minutes off the fourth quarter clock. If nothing else, the performance was a show, again, of the power of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and how the two are the team’s margin for error.
“Those guys are amazing,” said one NFC exec. “It’s a machine. As long as they have those two guys, it’s like it doesn’t matter.”
Maybe, but a crossroads looms. Just as the 2018 Patriots fight the same championship fight this storied dynasty has for the last 18 years, the 2019 Patriots will almost assuredly look significantly different.
Which raises the question: Is this gritty, aging rendition of an old powerhouse getting its last, best shot at extending the greatest run of dominance in NFL history?
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to give you a couple players to keep an eye on over college football’s conference championship weekend, and a handful to watch through the NFL’s Week 13 slate, and then we will, as always, get to all your mail.
But we’re starting in Foxboro, and with a focus well beyond what might or might not happen this Sunday against the Vikings, or through the rest of this season. Because what sits on the other side of February is fraught with uncertainty. And to do that, it makes sense to start with the current roster, which has its problems.
So I asked four execs who’ve studied New England this year about the Patriots’ talent base. Here’s what came back:
AFC exec 1: “Aging roster in key positions on offense, and they haven’t replenished them. Brady is obviously getting older, but he’s not the problem. He’s still elite. The protection up front isn’t as good because of their tackles. Biggest issue on offense is that Brady doesn’t have the matchup guys like he had before. Gronk looks old, banged up and slow. Edelman’s not the same, getting older and doesn’t have the same explosive quickness right now. [Josh] Gordon has helped them, but he’s a Band-Aid, and he’s not same guy either. [James] White is the only matchup guy in the pass game they have who is actually in his prime.
“The defense is very average. Really don’t have an identity — lack pass rushers, LBs can’t run, and secondary is average. Take Brady off that roster and they are a .500 team. Maybe get to 9-7 because of Belichick just outcoaching teams.”
AFC exec 2: “They’re at a crossroads because of the Jimmy [Garoppolo] trade, their drafts, and now the left tackle situation. You look at last year’s draft as a building block with the players they took, but the Georgia left tackle [Isaiah Wynn] tore his Achilles. And the [age of the] quarterback clouds their future. That would’ve been taken care of. … Historically, [Danny] Amendola, [Wes] Welker, a lot of those guys, got to that 30 threshold and took pay cuts for a year or two to stay, then left to get a last payday. They have not been sentimental in past with people like Devin [McCourty]. And the other thing you see with a guy like [Nate] Solder, when they let guys go, it’s usually a good decision. The guys they let go are later in their careers.
“The problem now is the core has aged. And at some of those positions, you don’t see guys coming up behind them on the roster. I think you have to look at the health and decline in play, or the less consistency of Gronk. He’s still capable, but with the injuries, it hasn’t been week-to-week this year. I’d say they’re still above average [roster-wise] and extremely well coached. They get everything out of everyone. They coach smart, they play players to their strengths, and have smart, reliable people on both sides of the ball. But it’s not [Richard] Seymour, [Vince] Wilfork, [Rodney] Harrison, Ty Law—it’s a long way from that.”
NFC executive: “There are no stars on defense, but they play well together as a group, they play well in critical areas, they don’t make mistakes. People kill their defense, but it’s in the same place. The secondary’s solid—[Jason] McCourty was a good get, [Devin] McCourty’s still playing well. Up front, Tre Flowers can do a little bit of everything. Teams have run on them, but they’ve always been bend but don’t break. It’s not much different than what they’ve always done. [Dont’a] Hightower can’t run, but went to a 3-4 last week to alleviate the space. Gronk’s not running well, he’s not as dominant a receiver, but he’s still a dominant blocker, he’s a lot of guy to throw at you. Edelman and Chris Hogan are still OK.
“Is it as explosive as a couple years ago? Probably not. They’ve taken a step back at tackle with [Trent] Brown and [Marcus Cannon]. But they don’t make mistakes, very few penalties. … I don’t know if [Brady] is taking as many chances—he’s not as aggressive—but there’s no major fall-off. It’s hard to watch the tape and say there’s been a decline. He still can make every throw, makes great decisions, doesn’t turn it over.”
Then, a third AFC exec answered my question about the state of the Patriots roster with three words: “12’s pretty good.” He added: “The roster’s not great, but it’s never been great. They’re always extremely well-coached.”
Maybe that’ll be enough this January. Bigger questions surround what comes next.
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The uncertainty on the horizon, of course, wasn’t totally unavoidable. And it’s not hard to see where this of type of trouble has been brewing.
Age on their books. Five core Patriot veterans—Brady, Hightower, Gronkowski, Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore—are coming at a collective cap charge of $63.03 million for 2018, which occupies 36 percent of this year’s spending limit. Next year the cap numbers for those five bulge to $77.65 million, which would almost certainly be more than 40 percent of the 2019 cap.
On Opening Day 2019 all five of those guys will be 29 or older, with two thirty-somethings and, of course, a 40-something in that mix.
The sixth-highest cap number for next year belongs to right tackle Marcus Cannon, who’ll be 31 next September. The seventh highest cap figure belongs to Gronk’s backup, Dwayne Allen, who’ll be 29 next September. Add those two to the five aforementioned players, and you get a total cap charge of $72.68 million for this year that becomes $92.60 million next year, which would be almost half the ’19 cap.
Again, all seven players are 29 or older. Some will be gone. Others will be asked to take a pay cut. But just taking a look at the list shows where the team is invested.
The price of draft misses. So how would you make up for that issue? Ideally, with third- and fourth-year pros, guys sitting on rookie deals but playing like vets. Thing is, that’s also an issue for the Patriots. Next year’s third- and fourth-year players are from the 2016 and ’17 draft classes. Those were the years in which, because of Deflategate and the Brandin Cooks trade, New England didn’t have a first-rounder, and the team didn’t exactly set the world on fire elsewhere in those drafts.
MOCK DRAFT 2.0:Bosa goes No. 1, QBs to Tampa and Denver
Only three of the nine picks from 2016 are still on the roster—starting guard Joe Thuney, rotational linebacker Elandon Roberts and reserve guard Ted Karras. And just two of four picks from 2017—defensive ends Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers— remain. Against the Jets on Sunday, Thuney played all 70 offensive snaps. The other four combined to play a total of 59 snaps, with Rivers a healthy scratch.
Who gets paid? Then there’s a class of unrestricted free agents fronted by Flowers, Hogan, Brown, receiver Philip Dorsett and defensive tackle Danny Shelton, as well as kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Ryan Allen. Oh, and Gordon’s an RFA.
Edelman is in a contract year in 2019, and he’s the only established receiver the team has signed for next year. Gronkowski will be in a contract year too, if he’s still around. Adam Butler is the only pure defensive tackle under contract. Cannon is the only pure offensive tackle under contract.
So what does it all mean? Well, as of right now, the Patriots have an aging roster without very many promising young veterans on it, and a quarterback who’ll be 42. Brady has said he plans to keep playing. But what if New England doesn’t extend his contract (he’s up after 2019 too), and the team around him is overhauled in March?
Of course, having guys from the 2018 draft class—like Wynn, Sony Michel, Duke Dawson and Ja’Whaun Bentley—become major players would help. And the team is expecting to wind up with six picks in the first three rounds (the Patriots have two 2s now, and are expecting to get comp 3s for Solder and Malcolm Butler) of next year’s draft, so they have some capital to work with.
For now, it can all wait. You’ve still got the team that rolled out there on Sunday against the Jets, a prideful group that’s impeccably coached and has all the fight that you’d expect out of a grizzled champion. You saw that, in all its glory, toward the end of that game, with the last few swings it took to knock out their three-win opponents.
They played like Belichick would want them to, with a focus on today that gave no regard to tomorrow. That’s good too—because if you look at the totality of their situation, tomorrow isn’t bringing many promises with it.
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Five players in the spotlight for NFL Week 13:
Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence: Let’s begin with Thursday night. The franchise-tagged edge-rusher talked a bunch of you-know-what this week. And it was all along the lines of Mike Tyson’s old saying—“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Can Lawrence beat one of the NFL’s best offensive lines to get some shots in on Drew Brees tonight? The answer to that will help determine Dallas’ chances of pulling the upset.
Steelers RT Matt Feiler: Feiler is coming back from a pec injury, and barring an unlikely return this week from Marcus Gilbert, he’ll be facing Chargers star Joey Bosa. That’s the same Bosa, by the way, who basically got Cardinals right tackle Andre Smith fired last week.
Vikings S Harrison Smith: Patriots coach Bill Belichick compared Smith to Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu this week, in terms of his ability to disguise intentions. The Pats used to routinely bait Polamalu into mistakes, but had huge issues getting a bead on Reed. So which guy will Smith be on Sunday?
Browns QB Baker Mayfield: Eleven games into his NFL career, the No. 1 overall pick is must-see TV. And this week against the Texans he’ll be staring down football’s most imposing front seven. I can’t wait to see what Romeo Crennel has cooked up for Mayfield, and what Mayfield comes back with.
Falcons LB Deion Jones: Atlanta’s star middle linebacker was back with the first team at Wednesday’s practice after missing nearly three months with a broken foot. Getting him on the game field this week would be pretty nice, considering how his sideline-to-sideline speed could help in dealing with Ravens QB Lamar Jackson.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
A pair of draft prospects to keep an eye on this weekend:
Georgia QB Jake Fromm (vs. Alabama, SEC Championship, CBS, 4 p.m. ET): Fromm caught the eyes of NFL scouts as a true freshman starter, and he’s been statistically better as a sophomore—completing 69 percent of this throws for 2,236 yards, 24 touchdowns and five picks through 12 games—while holding off this year’s freshman phenom, Justin Fields. And now comes the real test, with the Tide’s star-studded defense on deck. “He battled their ass to the end last year [in the national title game],” said one AFC college scouting director. “So this is a chance for him to do it again, and see if he can lift his team above.” Another AFC evaluator added that in Fromm he sees a “highly accurate, highly intelligent quarterback, and a good, solid leader.” Indeed, Fromm has a lot of NFL traits, but, like the other quarterback in this game, Tua Tagovailoa, is lacking a little in height. Scouts who’ve eyeballed him believe the true sophomore is just a little over six feet, though he’s got a squat build that’s made him durable and reliable.
Texas WR Collin Johnson (vs. Oklahoma, Big 12 Championship, Noon ET): The true junior has a massive frame—listed at 6’6” and 220 pounds—and has been a consistent matchup problem for opponents, finishing the regular season with 57 catches for 768 yards and six touchdowns. And he was a factor against the Sooners during the rivals’ October clash, finishing up with six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. This, obviously, would be a good time for Johnson to allay some concerns, particularly with his decision looming on whether or not to declare for the draft. “He’s really tall with good ball skills, and his speed is pretty good for his size,” said an AFC college scouting director. “But he’s physically weak—we’re not sure he can beat the press [in the NFL].”
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From John Appleton (@jaa0109): I believe the Colts have a load of cap space next year. With the Jaguars having the opposite problem, do you expect the Colts to overhaul their defense? Possibly even add Le’Veon Bell?
Yes, John, they have a lot of cap room—the number is in nine figures. And with GM Chris Ballard’s draft picks still a couple years away from getting paid, there’s a ton of flexibility to get impact players. But I’d be surprised, based on what I know, if Bell is the guy they target.
My feeling is that getting an impact receiver and pass rusher would top the list for Indianapolis. The free-agent receiver class is thin—Devin Funchess, Kelvin Benjamin, Golden Tate, Hogan, John Brown, Randall Cobb. So I’d look for the Colts to make their splash with an edge-rusher group that includes Lawrence, Flowers, Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, Ziggy Ansah, Frank Clark and Dante Fowler.
And from there, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ballard and company go after a corner from a group that has a few names with high-end potential, like Bradley Roby and the now-injured Ronald Darby.
From Panda87 (@LenskyMenachem): What do evaluators in NFL think of Tua [Tagovailoa] for next year’s draft? No. 1 overall, top 10, first round?
The truth is, Panda, since he’s not draft-eligible, there are very few scouts that have actually studied the Alabama quarterback. And that’s the first thing they’ve told me when I’ve asked about him. But plenty of them have been in Alabama’s building this fall, and the quarterback’s name will come up naturally as they talk with the Tide staff, and I can tell the coaches there are not shy about their affection for him.
How highly do they regard Tua? Well, I’ve heard some scouts have been told that the coaches there see him as a left-handed Drew Brees. High praise, sure, and maybe it’s based on his height. But the kid can play, and I don’t think his wait will be long on a certain Thursday night in April 2020.
From Jimi Verduin (@JimiV_87): Do you think the Seahawks are finally starting to piece it together on offense and defense after finishing strong against Carolina and GB?
My only question, Jimi, is why you’re saying “finally.” Seattle has lost a handful of cornerstones since the end of last season, and what Pete Carroll and John Schneider have done in the time since is nothing short of remarkable. It started with Carroll making staff changes, and some hires that weren’t necessarily popular at the time (Brian Schottenheimer, Mike Solari, Ken Norton). Those have worked out.
And then, on the field, the coach and GM have re-established a lot of what the team was built on back in 2010, ’11 and ’12. The Seahawks have the NFL’s best ground game, and Russell Wilson is playing his best ball behind an impossibly improved offensive line, and a reworked defense has come along around a mix of steady vets (Bobby Wagner) and young finds (Tre Flowers).
Carroll doesn’t like calling what they went through the last 12 months a rebuild. But it sort of was one. And rebuilds usually aren’t this smooth.
From Yossi Saacks (@YossiSaacks): Todd Bowles doesn’t seem to be a part of the Jets’ future as more and more owners are searching for offensive-minded coaches. So why have him finish the year trying to get wins? Typical Jets, every year win two of their last three games to hurt their draft position.
I think there are three reasons why an in-season change for the Jets isn’t in the cards. First, Bowles is a pretty level guy, so this isn’t going to become a circus. Second, there isn’t a natural interim coach on his staff. And third, I think Christopher Johnson, running the show as owner Woody Johnson serves his ambassadorship in the UK, is determined not to be as reactionary as his brother has been in the past.
I also believe there’s a benefit to waiting. The Jets could be in competition for a candidate or two, like maybe a John Harbaugh. And if you’re vying for a guy who has options, it behooves you to look like the kind of place where a coach would want to work. Doing right by the fired staff in its waning days would help you in that regard.
From RigbyV (@thatkidsrikar): With Matt Patricia struggling in Detroit and his insistence on inculcating the “Patriot Way” there, will front offices/owners be wary of hiring from the Belichick tree, since there’s only one true mastermind of the “Patriot Way”? The track record is not great so far.
You’re right, Rigby. The track record overall isn’t great. But I always try to look at these things globally—what exactly is the hit rate of all hires? Consider the 2016 coaching class. Seven coaches were hired. Three are left, and Dirk Koetter’s expected firing would drop that number to two (Adam Gase, Doug Pederson). So three years later, 71 percent of hires would be confirmed failures.
It’s hard to get these calls right, especially with guys who haven’t been head coaches before, because those jobs are so different from coordinator positions. And as for guys who have been head coaches before, it’s interesting to note that all three coaches to win multiple Super Bowls over the last couple decades (Mike Shanahan, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin) were second-chance guys who were fired on their first shot.
So yes, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is viable for this coming round of openings, and I believe de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores will in the mix as well, and I wouldn’t discount either based on what Matt Patricia has done, particularly because Patricia still has plenty of time to get it right in Detroit.
From Danny (@BigLope85): Assuming Mike McCarthy departs GB, do you think he’ll achieve success elsewhere, somewhat similar to Andy Reid?
Love the question, Danny, and we’ll wrap it here. It feels to me a little like McCarthy is, yes, Reid in Phillly in 2012. No one thought Reid forgot how to coach. But after going through the Dream Team debacle of 2011, and then all the Chip Kelly speculation through 2012, it gradually became clear that everyone needed a change of scenery. And in the six years since, that’s been proven correct.
Will McCarthy use a job change to radicalize his offense like Reid did? Who knows? What I do feel comfortable saying is that McCarthy, like Reid in 2012, is still a quality offensive mind and strong head coach. I’d bet that shows itself wherever he lands next. And maybe the Packers wind up with a McDaniels or John DeFilippo coming in to help Aaron Rodgers find another gear as he approaches his late 30s .
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