AFC Champion: New England Patriots
By now we know the ‘Patriot Way.’ I’m not just referring to the way players are taught to behave when on the Patriots. I’m talking about the way Bill Belichick runs the team.
Belichick is quick to let key players go who are searching for more cash. He has no tolerance for distractions via holdout or other media-leaked pieces. He simply passes on re-signing these players, letting them enter free agency. Or he trades them while replacing them mid-round draft picks and hungry veterans. He rarely signs big-name free agents, or partakes in blockbuster trades– with 2007 an exception in both categories– but this offseason was strikingly different.
Belichick’s draft strategy usually deals with trading back multiple times to harvest a multitude of second and third-round picks. This year, the Patriots’ coach and de-facto general manager pushed all of his chips to the center of the table with an uncharacteristically headliner trade with the New Orleans Saints for Brandin Cooks.
The Cooks trade comes at a good time. Julian Edelman, Brady’s most trusted weapon, is gone for the season with a Torn ACL, meaning others will have to step up in his place. Cooks, Chris Hogan and the newly-acquired Phillip Dorsett give the Patriots the most explosive barrage of deep threats Brady has ever had.
Throw in the splash signing of cornerback Stephen Gilmore (five years, $65 million) trades for defensive end Kony Ealy and tight end Dwayne Allen, and a few timely contract modifications (i.e. Julian Edelman) and things become clearer with New England’s approach.
The Patriots are gearing up for the final stretch of their norm-defying dominant run through the 21st century NFL.
40-year-old Tom Brady just finished the best three-year stretch of his seemingly eternal career, and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Telling everyone that 45 is the age where he’ll consider retirement, but we all know Father Time eventually prevails, even with Brady. The Patriots have taken steps to maximize Brady’s final seasons, mostly locking up and extraordinary set of offensive weapons through Brady’s current deal with the club, which runs through the 2019 season.
Take a look at this:
QB Tom Brady (signed through 2019)
RB James White (Super Bowl LI hero was extended through 2020 this offseason)
WR Julian Edelman (recently extended through 2019)
WR Brandin Cooks (Exercised player option, making him signed through 2018)
TE Rob Gronkowski (signed through 2019)
TE Dwayne Allen (signed through 2019)
That’s a healthy core that excludes Mike Gilleslie, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Malcom Mitchell and others who are locked up for at least the next season or two. The Patriots have done this, all the while perfectly constructing their team amidst the salary cap. I could use the word ‘circumventing’ the cap, but that would assume the Patriots had found a loophole. There’s no secret here.
After the 2015 season, the Patriots knew they were eventually going to have to make a decision, with enough cap space to comfortably retain just two of Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, and Donta’ Hightower. Well Belichick dealt both Jones and Collins in 2016, electing to pay Hightower. The team is still figuring out what to do with Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, who looks as if he’ll play this season at a bargain price ($3.9 million).
Now, the Patriots enter 2017 with the best preseason Super Bowl-winning odds in recent memory according to various Vegas sites, as well as ESPN’s FPI (Football Power Index).
The offense, which set a multitude of Super Bowl records, will welcome back Gronkowski to terrorize defenders as a matchup nightmare. But what’s most interesting is how Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will utilize Cooks, who can play in the slot and on the outside, despite his smaller stature (5-foot-10, 185 pounds). According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks lined up on the outside 63 percent of the time last season.
The former Saints pass catcher is virtually a tough, speed demon, with superb quickness and very good hands. His agility, and running-after-the-catch skills are exactly why the Patriots nabbed him. They usually prefer that type of receiver as opposed to an outside-only, bigger threat, Randy Moss aside.
Initially, it would seem Cooks would be just enough to keep 31-year-old Edelman fresh enough for the litany of targets he’ll get in the postseason. But with Edelman gone, Cooks clearly becomes the Patriots go-to receiver, with Hogan possibly challenging him for that role.
Replacing LeGarrette Blount with Mike Gilleslie could prove to be an upgrade. Gillislie was among the top rushers in the game on a yards-per-carry basis last year, and is younger and faster through the hole, while still packing a punch when it comes to contact with defensive backs, and even linebackers.
But everything will once again run through the team’s two best players.
If Brady once again refuses to look his age, playing 90 percent as well as he has the past three seasons, then this offense will be fine. They could be all-time good, if their second most valuable cog, Gronkowski, can mimic his 2011 or 2014 campaigns. The only thing that stopped him in other seasons has been injuries. Each time, Gronk comes back just as good as he has before. If he can do that again, and stay on the field, this offense may be the most efficient of all-time. Volume-wise, I don’t think they’ll replicate the 2007 Patriots or 2013 Broncos, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be the best.
With the addition of Gilmore to compliment Butler, Devin McCourty Donta’ Hightower, Trey Flowers and others, the defense has a sturdy core of veterans infused with young talent. They’ll be far from the weak link.
Per usual, all dreams in Foxboro run through Brady. And with this stacked, balanced team, 19-0 is certainly in the cards, but that chance is still roughly one in 53. A first-round bye, and a shot at their second dynasty of the 21st century (three Super Bowls in four years) is plausible, though.
Projected record: 13-3
NFC Champion: Seattle Seahawks
The NFC is usually a crapshoot. As it is, the defending champion Atlanta Falcons are still just as young and talented as last season. The Green Bay Packers, led by Aaron Rodgers, the conference’s best quarterback, uncharacteristically spent some money in the offseason. While the Carolina Panthers added some talent, looking to re-tool back to their 2015 peak.
But the conference’s best team since 2012 remains in the fold, ready to re-ascend to the top.
Even amid the Richard Sherman trade rumors, the Legion of Boom remains well intact with Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas rounding out the veteran trio.
Using criticism as fuel, this group of defensive backs have the talent and attitude for another breakthrough season.
On offense, Tyler Lockett and CJ Prosise are game breakers, while Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin should remain reliable targets.
Everything rides on Wilson, and the offensive line that has steeply declined since Seattle made back-to-back Super Bowls a few seasons ago.
The Seahawks are closest to the Patriots in terms of consistency in the 2010s, and I expect them to to take a step back up the ladder of the NFL’s elite, as the Seahawks prove doubters wrong and return to the Super Bowl for the third time in five seasons.
Projected Record: 13-3
Super Bowl LII