Seventh Heaven? Brady, Belichick make attempt at record seventh title

This week marks the beginning of yet another season for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the once-again defending Super Bowl champions. Few could have predicted their still-dominant place in the league at this time just five years ago, after the team was steamrolled on a Monday night in Kansas City. Yet, the Patriots remain at the top of the league, with more success since that Fall night in 2014 than perhaps any five-year stretch of their greatest-of-all-time dynasty.

Per usual, the team has gotten a makeover consisting of several wrinkles — some are smaller (Patriots shifting to more two and three-man fronts along the defensive line) and some are larger (Rob Gronkowski’s retirement)  — that will help shape their 2019 season and it’s end result.

The two constants — Brady and Belichick — can be addressed without too much of a deep dive. Belichick returns for his 20th season as the Patriots head coach, implementing new trends and defensive schemes to help keep his team at the top.

Brady returns for his 19th season as the franchise’s key player and leader. After signing a two-year extension masked as a one-year deal, it’s officially fair to assume Brady is now on a year-by-year basis despite insisting that he’d still like to play until the age of 45. Can he play that long at a fairly-high level? Almost certainly. Will he? Especially if New England does indeed pull ahead as the only franchise to win Super Bowl titles in 2019? That’s a question to be addressed six months from now.

Brady has certainly reached uncharted territory — as has 40-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees  — but anyone doubting him would be a fool to do so, and there are many doubters.

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It’s well-known that New England’s offense (and defense) adjust on the fly better than any other franchise over the better part of the last two decades. In 2019, the team will likely retain their chameleon approach to their opponents, which is something that has been more prominent in recent seasons with Josh McDaniels’ offenses.

“We were adaptable” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on NFL Network’s ‘Do Your Job Part 3’ special. “You know, Tom [Brady}, if he’s supposed to hand it off 37 times and win that way, then he’ll do it. If we need him to throw it 52 times, then he’ll do that too. It’s the same way Bill [Belichick] is. Bill doesn’t care if we win 43-40 or 13-10. The willingness to be able to do that is a special trait.”

Last December and January, the Patriots relied heavily on a power-running game featuring rookie rusher Sony Michel and lead-blocking fullback James Develin. Expect that to carry over into the 2019 season as a staple of the offense with Rex Burkhead and rookie Damien Harris spelling Michel.

But with the subtraction of the game’s all-time greatest tight end, New England will have to rely on either Broncos castoff Matt LaCosse or 2018 seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo — and later Benjamin Watson — to provide support in the running game.

Neither of these players is Gronkowski, who is perhaps the greatest receiving threat and blocking threat at his position in the history of the sport. With a lackluster group at tight end, expect the position to be deemphasized in the passing game. To make up for the absence of Gronkowski, the Patriots will turn to an array of larger-bodied receivers to assist Brady. The newest Belichick trend has brought in former Broncos All-Pro Demaryius Thomas (6-foot-3, 229 pounds) and rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) to join the team’s top option on the permitter, Josh Gordon (6-foot-3, 225 pounds).

Gordon projects to be the on-the-line ‘X’-type wide receiver, while Thomas and veteran Phillip Dorsett will likely split time at the ‘Z’ receiver. The Patriots placed Harry on injured reserve with a designation to return earlier in the week, which opened up the door for Thomas to return. Later in the season, Harry may snatch away snaps from Thomas and Dorsett to become a starter in three-receiver sets (’11’ personnel). But for this entire season, Brady will likely rely on Gordon as the team’s stalwart on the outside with any consistent success coming from Harry, Thomas, Dorsett or undrafted rookie Jacoby Meyers being a treat.

This means the GOAT will rely heavily on old friends Julian Edelman and James White.

At age 33,  Edelman is now two years removed from his brutal ACL injury, but is also pressing up against Father Time, like his quarterback. Still, the tenacious Super Bowl LIII MVP projects to have the most targets of any pass catcher on the Patriots roster, working in the middle of the field in three-receiver sets, and as the flanker (‘Z’) with the option of going in motion in two-receiver sets with Gordon.

White returns as perhaps the NFL’s best pure situational scatback. Last season, he hauled in 55 receptions in the team’s first eight games before the team turned to Michel and the running game in the Winter months. Still, White caught 15 passes in the team’s AFC Divisional Playoff smackdown over the Chargers, and made several crucial catches in the AFC Championship Game win in Kansas City.

Every player in the Patriots’ projected Week 1 ’11’ personnel for the passing game brings something different to the table. Thomas has excelled in wide receiver screens, while Dorsett is speedy enough to be an occasional deep threat. Gordon is a physical specimen who excels at slants, jump balls and posts, while Edelman and White can run a variety of option routes from anywhere along the line of scrimmage, or in the backfield. In undrafted rookies Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, the team hs a flaker/slot hybrid and a slot receiver and punt returner capable of being groomed behind Edelman. When Harry hits the field, Brady will have a jump ball specialist who can line up on the outside and as a ‘big slot’ receiver capable of replacing Gronkowski as a seam-route runner operating out of the slot in shotgun situations.

But knowing the Patriots, they’ll change their offensive philosophy and strategy depending on the opponent. But sometime during the stretch run of the season, the team will likely look to employ a power-running game as their base offense. Last year, the team alternated between two-tight end sets with Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, I-formation sets with Gronkowski or James Develin, or sometimes an I-formation with Develin and both tight ends.

“Our strengths this year will be different than some of our strengths last year” McDaniels said. 

With their uneventful tight end group at the moment, expect Develin to see the field more often, and possibly even as a H-back or blocking tight end at times. One of the last few full-tine lead-blocking full backs, Develin is an integral part of the Patriots offense.

Sony Michel vs Chargers
Sony Michel is set up for a monster sophomore campaign. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

He’ll pave the way for Sony Michel’s potential breakout sophomore season. After a slow start to his rookie campaign, Michel cruised for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games. A projected stat line of 15 touchdowns and over 1,100 yards is not out the question. But expect Michel to be spelled by rookie Damien Harris and do-it-all back Rex Burkhead as rushers that may seem time carrying the ball between the tackles. White will also spend time as a feature back depending on the opponent.

Still, all facets of the offense won’t have much success if the Patriots can’t keep up their own pace as one of the game’s best offensive lines. Dante Scarnecchia is unquestionably the greatest offensive line coach of all-time. His teaching skills will be put to the test once more as New England will work with a change at left tackle for the third straight year, and the season-long absence of team captain and starting center David Andrews.

2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn should fill in nicely as Trent Brown’s replacement. Although smaller for an NFL tackle (6-foot-2, 311 pounds), Wynn has much more potential than Brown. Plus, Wynn was the best blocker for Sony Michel while the two played at the University of Georgia. In Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, the Patriots likely have the bets combo of guards in the AFC, if not the NFL. Thuney, a solid all-around lineman, is due for a big pay day this offseason when his rookie contract expires. Mason, who already received his payday last offseason, is arguably the best run-blocking guard in football. The Georgia Tech product came from a run-heavy triple-option offense in college. But it was his improvement as a pass-blocking guard in 2018 that vaulted him into the top-five discussion. Mason worked vigorously to improve at that aspect after allowing Eagles rusher Brandon Graham to run past him and cause the game-changing turnover in Super Bowl LII. On the right side of the line sits former All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon, who still has some juice left.

With Andrews out, New England will rely on veteran Ted Karras, the team’s top backup interior offensive lineman, to fill in as a quality starting center. Karras will be monitored closely. If Karras proves incapable, James Ferentz, who recently re-joined the team after Russell Bodine was released, may get a chance to shine.

In all, the Patriots will likely mix-and-match, shifting the identity of their offense to match their personnel, as well as their opponent’s defensive personnel and schemes. While many will be worried about the absences of Gronkowski and Andrews, as well as the turnover at left tackle and center, the Patriots should find a way to do what they always do on offense — score enough points to win 12 games en-route to at least the AFC Championship Game.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Sony Michel 

‘X’ WR — Josh Gordon 

Slot WR — Julian Edelman

‘Z’ WR — Demaryius Thomas (Phillip Dorsett will likely split time with Thomas here) 

TE — Matt LaCosse (Ben Watson will replace LaCosse after serving his four-game suspension) 

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — Ted Karras 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

WR4 — Phillip Dorsett 

WR5 — Jakobi Meyers 

RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead 

RB3 — Damien Harris 

Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo 

Swing Tackle — Korey Cunningham 

 

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If Brady, the power running game and New England’s offense is good enough for a routine trip to the AFC Championship Game, it’ll be Bill Belichick and the defense that finishes the job.

On a Monday night contest in Los Angeles last November, the Chiefs and Rams, the two highest-scoring teams of last season, combined for 105 points in a 54-51 Rams victory. With the exception of Patrick Mahomes’ fourth quarter outburst in the AFC title game, the Patriots allowed just 10 total points in seven quarters to those two clubs, in the two biggest games of the 2018 NFL season.

To win Super Bowl LIV, New England may very well see the Chiefs again, in the NFL’s version of the final four, followed by a prolific NFC offense like the Rams, Saints or Eagles in the big game in Miami.

Luckily for New England, Belichick has readied a unique and versatile defensive roster capable of carrying out complex schemes that Belichick seems set to employ in 2019.

A ‘base’ defense is a relative term in 2019, seeing as base usually pertains to a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, and not a nickel defense, which is the personnel teams usually use the most in today’s pass-heavy NFL. But a seven-man front is still sometimes used on early downs. And this season, the Patriots will shift for more of a 3-4 approach, moving away from their four-man fronts of last season.

In that front, Danny Shelton is slotted as the run-stuffing nose tackle, with Lawrence Guy and rookie fifith-round pick Byron Cowart projecting to be the team’s big-bodied, 3-4 defensive ends. Guy’s versatility as both a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle is what Belichick values in his defensive lineman. He was the best defensive lineman outside of Trey Flowers in 2018, and should play up to that level this season. Cowart, a former top recruit of out high school, has the potential to thrive under Belichick’s tutelage.

But New England should spend most of their time with five or more defensive backs on the field. In doing this, the Patriots will go to more exotic fronts with just one or two defensive lineman. This is where they’ll turn to their prize offseason acquisition and best defensive lineman, Michael Bennett.

Bennett, who will turn 34 in November, quietly had a productive campaign (9.5 sacks) with the Eagles last season before being shipped to New England, along with a seventh-round draft pick, for a fifth-round draft choice. Like his brother Martellus in 2016 (and briefly in 2017), Bennett is slated to make an immediate impact as a possible replacement for Flowers, who joined Matt Patricia and the Lions on a mega-deal.

Of course, Bennett and Flowers are different players. Both are versatile, but Flowers serves as a more complete player across the board in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, where as Bennett’s versatility stems from his ability to rush the passer both from the edge and the interior. Bennett is still productive as a run stuffer, but not as well as Flowers at this stage of his career. But despite his veteran status, Bennett will be a much better pass rusher than Flowers, especially in Belichick’s schemes.

Michael Bennett - Patriots Training Camp
Michael Bennett will bring his versatile pass-rushing skills to a defensive front that should up their sack total in 2019. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

At one point in NFL Network’s original ‘Do Your Job’ special, Patriots director of research Ernie Adams mentions how Bennett disrupted New England’s entire offensive game plan in Super Bowl XLIX versus the Seahawks. Before Cliff Avril left in concussion protocol, Bennett had gotten to Brady on numerous occasions. But the absence of Avril allowed New England to key on Bennett via double teams. Expect Bennett to disrupt many opponents’ game plans in favor of the Patriots this season.

In two-man fronts, Bennett will mostly be joined by Guy along the interior, as he’s their next best defensive lineman. On obvious passing downs, Guy may be subbed out for Adam Butler, who is purely a sub-package rusher.

The edge should be occupied by a mix of Bennett and a few of the Patriots’ stacked linebacking core. John Simon and rookie Chase Winovich project as stand-up edge rushers in a 3-4 scheme. In New England’s third preseason contest, which is usually the week of dress rehearsals for the regular season, Winovich started along the edge. He’s a diminutive, Tasmanian Devil on the outside, capable of wrecking havoc on tasing downs. The third-round pick out of Michigan is a sleeper pick for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Don’ta Hightower and Kyle Van Noy return as two of New England’s most important players. Their versatility has already been showcased in the preseason, as they’ve been moved all around the defense. Despite slimming down this offseason, Hightower still projects as more of an off-the-ball linebacker, despite the initial notion that he may move to the edge full-time. Although Van Noy will be moved around the formation, it appears he’s due for a new role as a 3-4 outside linebacker or stand-up edge rusher in most cases. This seems like the perfect fit for Van Noy, who may be in for a career year.

Then there’s the return of Jamie Collins. A second-round pick by the Patriots in 2013, Collins blossomed as one of the league’s most athletic players before his rookie contract timed out, and he was shipped to Cleveland midway through the 2016 season. After making some money in Cleveland for two-and-a-half years of uneventful football, Collins returns and he’ll project as linebacker that will spend time as an edge rusher, as well as off the ball. Like Hightower and Van Noy, Collins’ versatility is what makes him valuable. But he’s also much more athletic than those two defensive cogs, even though he’s been burned often in man coverage by tight ends (Owen Daniels in the 2015 AFC Championship Game) and running backs (Marshawn Lych in Super Bowl XLIX). If Collins can keep his freelancing in zone coverage to a minimum, he should make it more difficult for opponents’ quarterbacks to dump the ball off to their own version of a James White.

Recently-named team captain Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley will battle for the role of the ‘thumper’ linebacker, which is a bigger inside linebacker who is mostly in to stop the run on early downs. They should each see time next to Hightower as inside linebackers in the Patriots’ 3-4 formations.

In the secondary, New England trots out perhaps the deepest group of cornerbacks in the league, led by the NFL’s very best at the position in Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore is perhaps the best in man coverage since Darrelle Revis’ heyday and figures to follow opposing team’s No. 1 receiver in most situations. But Belichick often likes to matchup his top cover player one-on-one with an opposing team’s No. 2 receiver, if that player is enough of a threat. This leaves another cornerback covering a team’s No. 1, with help over the top from safety Devin McCourty.

J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty will battle it out for snaps as the team’s No. 2 guy, but both should see significant playing time. Jon Jones projects to start as a slot cornerback who can also see time at safety, a position he started and played most of the game at in Super Bowl LIII. To revisit Belichick’s scheme of putting Gilmore on a team’s secondary pass catcher, the Patriots employed Gilmore on Watkins, Kansas City’s No. 2 receiver and No. 3 pass catcher, but best traditional receiver, in the AFC title game. They did this because of Tyreek Hill’s speed and downfield ability. New England then stuck it’s fastest player, Jon Jones, on Hill with Devin McCourty shading overtop. J.C. Jackson’s ability as a bigger press-man cover corner made him a suitable match for the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, a psuedo receiver disguised as a top-tier tight end. Expect Belichick to employ different strategies against different offenses.

The Patriots’ deep group of cornerbacks ends with rookie Joejuan Williams. The second-round pick is a cornerback with massive size (6-foot-4, 208 pounds) capable of playing press man coverage on tight ends and bigger wide receivers. Williams will fight Jackson and Jason McCourty for playing time, but he projects as more of a situational matchup piece in his rookie season, while being groomed to be the team’s No. 2 cornerback of the future, or even as a replacement for Patrick Chung as a Kam Chancellor-type at strong safety.

With Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung, the Patriots will employ an aging-yet-affective trio of safeties capable of playin in three-safety sets, like they’ve done often over the past few seasons. In two-safety sets, Devin McCourty plays his usually role of free safety while Chung plays in the box. On clear-passing downs with all three on the field, Chung serves as a presss man coverage option on tight ends, while McCourty tends to play all over the field, leaving Duron Harmon as the free safety, or center fielder, on third-and-long situations. This could be the last season for both Chung and the McCourty brothers, but they still have enough left in the tank for a very good season.

Like the Patriots’ offense, Belichick will have a different game plan for each opponent. But the team’s deep group of cornerbacks and seemingly revitalized group of pass rushers have fans excited for what could be an exceptional season on this side of the ball.

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior — Michael Bennett 

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE/LB — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE/LB — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

‘Thumper’ ILB — Elandon Roberts 

CB1 — Stephon Gilmore

CB2 — J.C. Jackson 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

SS/Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

3-4 Nose Tackle — Danny Shelton 

3-4 DE  — Bryan Cowart

‘Thumper’ ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

EDGE/LB — Chase Winovich 

EDGE/LB — John Simon 

S (FS in ‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Duron Harmon

CB3 — Jason McCourty

CB4 (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

 

Projected record: 12-4 (AFC’s No. 1 seed)

The Patriots should revert to their knack for producing 12-plus win seasons after an 11-5 campaign in 2018. Their schedule is pretty easy throughout, but there is a potential murderer’s row from weeks 8-to-14, as the team will face Browns out home before visiting the Ravens and Eagles before returning home to face the Cowboys, playing the Texans in Houston , then ending with a home bout with the Chiefs.

With Andrew Luck’s retirement, and Derwin James’ injury the Chiefs serve as the only real threat at this point, with the Steelers, Jaguars and Browns looming as just potential threats before they prove otherwise. New England will fend off the upstarts and experienced teams to beat the Chiefs at home in the AFC Title Game. Their home-field advantage will be won when they beat the Chiefs in Week 14.

Then in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, the Patriots will break a tie with the Steelers by winning their seventh Super Bowl, while exacting revenge on the Eagles in the process.

At least for one more year, the NFL will belong to Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots.

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