The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Continuing the series, we stay in the AFC East and take a look at the New England Patriots — a Super Bowl contender starting the season without their future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
New England Patriots 2016 Preview
2015 record: 12-4 (first in the AFC East, lost conference championship game)
Head coach: Bill Belichick (17th year)
Key arrivals: DE Chris Long, WR Nate Washington, RB Donald Brown, G Jonathan Cooper, TE Martellus Bennett
Key departures: DE Chandler Jones, WR Brandon LaFell, S Tavon Wilson, DT Dominique Easley
1. Can the team tread water without Tom Brady?
This is actually the biggest question in the NFL heading into the season. Now that Brady has given up his appeal and will sit the first four games of the year, the defending AFC East champs will turn to third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for the first quarter of the season.
It’s not necessarily a bad situation for the team to be in. While it would love to have Brady for a full 16-game stretch, seeing what Garoppolo brings to the table will help the squad long term. After all, Brady himself won’t be playing forever.
Instead, it’s all about earning that Lombardi trophy. In this, any early hiccups could set the Pats back big time.
In the seasons in which New England has gone to the Super Bowl, it boasts a 16-2 playoff record. It’s not a coincidence that the team has only played two road games in those six playoff appearances. On the other hand, Brady is 6-7 in the playoffs when the squad doesn’t make it to the big game.
This means home-field advantage is huge for Brady and Co. Struggles early on will place the team behind the proverbial eight-ball.
2. Finding a running game?
At this point, LeGarrette Blount isn’t even guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster. Such is the nature of the beast playing for a ruthless organization. Outside of that, the Patriots have very little to rely on.
Dion Lewis was having a spectacular 2015 campaign before tearing up his knee in an early November game against Washington. Meanwhile, New England signed veteran backup Donald Brown during the spring.
One of these three players is going to have to step up, especially with Brady out for the first four games of the season. Overall, New England boasts a 19-3 record when it rushes for 100-plus yards over the past three seasons. For comparison’s sake, it’s just 17-9 when that doesn’t happen.
3. Who will step up from a pass-rush standpoint?
Now that Chandler Jones is in Arizona, the Patriots are missing someone that can consistently get to the quarterback. It’s not as huge of a deal in the team’s hybrid defensive front, but it sure would make the job of the secondary that much easier if the Pats had a reliable pass rush.
New England is likely banking on soon-to-be free agent Jabaal Sheard to step his game up after he racked up eight sacks a season ago.
With a ton to prove, the former Cleveland Browns second-round pick becomes an important part of the equation in New England this year.
Chris Hogan, wide receiver
When given an opportunity throughout his four-year career, Hogan has proven his worth. He caught 36 passes for 450 yards and two scores for the Miami Dolphins last season.
The former un-drafted free agent of the San Francisco 49ers has also caught 64 percent of the passes thrown in his direction throughout his career.
After signing the then restricted free agent to a three-year, $12 million deal during the spring, it’s readily apparent New England is relying on him. Without anyone of real substance to act as an outside target for the Pats this season, the 6-foot-1 Hogan could end up being that guy.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
These are the New England Patriots. They have earned a trip to the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, making it to the Super Bowl six times during that span.
We can write the Patriots off again. It’s something this one scribe has done multiple times in the past. As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are married in New England, this team cannot be taken lightly. That’s the crux of the situation, and that’s also what the rest of the AFC East is up against this season.
REASON FOR PANIC
It’s not as much panic as it is cautious understanding. There comes a point in every great run when a team takes that step back.
Some figured it was going to be early in the 2014 campaign when the team struggled to a 2-2 start. Heck, Brady himself was benched during a blowout loss to the Chiefs that September.
After New England dropped four of its final six regular season games last year, some figured the team would bow out early in the playoffs. That didn’t happen.
Looking ahead to the 2016 campaign, the panic that we could potentially see might very well come directly from Garoppolo’s eyes. Should he lead the Patriots to a 1-3 or 0-4 record in the first four games, they could very well end up missing the playoffs altogether.
This is the great unknown in New England. Brady has started 112 consecutive games for the team. In fact, he’s started 16 games in 13 of the past 14 seasons. The only time he didn’t, the Patriots missed the playoffs.
Prediction: 11-5, first place in the AFC East