This seasons continues to be an “up-for-grabs” campaign, with every team in the league now sporting two losses, and the AFC continuing to be a “who-wants-it?” affair, unless you think the Titans (7-0 vs 2020 playoff teams) sans Derrick Henry will not lose again this year.
Every @NFL team has at least two losses through 10 weeks for the first time since 2010.
As much of the league continues to folly through fall, there are a few teams that seem to be moving their way through the cluster, or at least showing signs of that, with Thanksgiving approaching.
We have two breakout performances to tackle in Week 10 before getting to ‘The Better Half’ where we have a dissection of issues plaguing the defending Super Bowl champs and explain why Cam Newton’s return is so important to the Panthers. So let’s get right to it.
The 2021 Patriots look more like an alternate version of the 2001 Patriots each week. And now, they are clearly molding into an AFC contender. Bill Belchick’s record-breaking, offseason spending spree is starting to pay off. So is his 2021 draft class, led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones. I’m not ready to declare him the obvious-best-in-his-class passer of this past spring’s barrage, but it seems pretty clear that the Patriots have the right guy in Jones, who is in the right place, and taking advantage of New England’s world-class internal teaching and mastery of the sport.
I’ve long said that no one will ever be Tom Brady from 2007 to 2017 (and maybe in the back half of 2020 with Tampa Bay). That’s the bread and butter of his career, a cyborg-level, decade-long run of dominance. But before Brady became the GOAT, he was still a special, yet-different type of quarterback. From 2001 to 2006 (and again in 2018) Brady led more of a running-game-centric, heavy-fullback usage, play-action passing offense, and he rose to the occasion as a gunslinger in certain moments (Super Bowl 38, 2004 AFC title game at PIT, 2018 AFC title game at KC) to help lead the Pats to four Super Bowls.
Mac Jones can absolutely be the QB, and leading man of a Super Bowl team in his early years. He’s already shown shades of Brady as a smart, accurate passer with great feel and ability in the pocket.
Jones almost certainly won’t win six Super Bowl wins (although, you never know?), seeing as even those signature early-career Brady moments were all-time special performances from a quarterback that was now obviously going to improve at an exponential pace. Jones, or any QB, won’t ever match that, or even come close, probably.
But even at the risk of being over-hyperbolic, there really is some young Brady in Jones’ play. Sunday’s 45-7 Patriots drubbing over the Browns was Mac’s best outing: 19-for-23, 198 yards, three touchdowns, six-of-seven on third down, 158.3 passer rating (perfect) on throws 10+ yards downfield (PFF).
Mac’s touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne was the best throw of his young NFL career.
Among the other reasons for the Patriots’ recent success:
— Belichick’s rookie draft class, including Jones, defensive tackle Christian Barmore (an interior pass-rushing force who is first in hurries and second in QB pressures among rookies) and running back Rhamondre Stevenson (an athletic bruiser/ball-carrier vision aficionado combo who ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns) is already paying off. Other draftees and finds such as safety/linebacker Kyle Dugger and slot/nickel DB Myles Bryant (undrafted) from the 2020 class are improving at warp speed.
— The shift toward a more “beefy” 3-4 defense with Carl Davis moving into early-down nose tackle, with Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux playing 3-4 defensive end, with Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley (who has been awesome in ’21) at inside linebacker, and Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy as stand-up edge defenders, has helped turn New England into a tougher run-defending unit. In the passing game, Barmore, and of course, Judon, who is playing at an All-Pro level, are giving the Patriots a potential all-time combo (for them) at rushing opposing quarterbacks.
— The emergence of key offensive additions in tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Kendrick Bourney, as well as the improvement of an offensive line that now has a few, solid identifiable combinations for which the Patriots can work with, with monstrous tackle Trent Brown back into the fold. Brown had a 91.3 PFF grade in 25 run-blocking snaps in his return on Sunday.
The Chiefs are back, sort of. I guess this depends on your opinion of the Las Vegas Raiders, who once looked like an AFC upstart with high-level offensive efficiency before the ‘Jon Gruden’ mess, and now have scored 28 total points in two weeks versus the Giants and defensively-challenged Chiefs. But let’s give Kansas City some credit here. They’ve buttoned up some on defense (Melvin Ingram has been a big addition) and in turn, Patrick Mahomes and company finally broke out of a month-plus long slump on offense, as the former league and Super Bowl MVP award winner threw for 406 yards and five touchdowns on 35-of-50 passing. It was an absolute masterpiece of a performance, an “old-school” (haha) or vintage level-dealing by Mahomes.
On Sunday night, Patrick Mahomes registered his third career game with at least 400 passing yards and 5 passing touchdowns.
He's now tied for the most such games in NFL history and is only 26. Seems pretty good IMO.
The most important statline was ‘0,’ which came in the turnover department. Lately, Mahomes had been overly eager to leave the pocket, push the ball downfield, and was pressing, overall, to make up for a lack of a running game and terrible defense. But he took his time, taking what the (albeit bad) Raiders defense gave him, and taking shots when necessary. The Chiefs play the Cowboys at home this Sunday in the marquee late afternoon slot, so we’ll know more then. But they certainly looked great on Sunday.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Tennessee Titans (8-2) (Last week: 1). They held on versus a tough Saints team to move to 8-2. They’re on a league-high six-game winning streak, and have beaten five 2020 playoff teams in a row (7-0 versus ’20 postseason participants overall), and that’s without Derrick Henry and Julio Jones recently.
2. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 6). Between the safety duo of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, and cornerback Jaire Alexander, the Packers may have the best secondary in the NFL. They have a great defense in general. Aaron Rodgers has a solid shot at a second Super Bowl this season. He’s had a few.
3. Dallas Cowboys (7-2) (Last week: 8). If we throw away their hideous, unexplainable home loss to the Broncos last week (every team seems to have two or more inexcusable losses this season), they’re as close to being a consistent force as any team this season.
4. Buffalo Bills (6-3) (Last week: 7). They’ve had a weird season. At times, they’ve just looked disinterested, but that was a big W versus the Jets, forcing four Mike White interceptions. Buffalo’s offense has cooled down some, but the potential is always there with Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and company. It’s the Bills’ league-best defense picking up the slack that makes this team a top-flight Super Bowl contender.
5. Los Angeles Rams (7-3) (Last week: 4). We know about their superstar talent, but losing Robert Woods is tragic, and this team still has some depth and focus issues. Can this NBA superteam-like beast win a Super Bowl? “There’s a difference between talent collecting and team building,” ESPN‘s Louis Riddick said during the MNF broadcast.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) (Last week: 2). Anyone looking to identify what’s wrong with the Buccaneers should start with injuries. Brady’s reliable weapons (Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski) are on the sidelines, as well as basically the entire starting defensive backfield. If they can get healthy, they surely can go on another run.
7. Arizona Cardinals (8-2) (Last week: 3). Injuries are starting to ruin what could have been a run at the NFC’s No. 1 seed for them. They have to avoid another late-season slide like last year. They need Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back on the field.
8. Baltimore Ravens (6-3) (Last week: 5). I gave them excuses throughout the year for comeback wins in sloppy performances, but maybe they’re just good, and not great? Lamar Jackson is great. He’s better than great, and that may be good enough in the AFC, but not if they play the way they did versus the Dolphins last Thursday. Yikes.
9. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week:10). Let’s see how they do versus the Super Bowl-contending Cowboys before we emphatically say “they’re back!” But it certainly does seem like they’ll win the AFC West, at least.
10. New England Patriots (6-4) (Last week: 12). After their Thursday nighter in Atlanta in two days, they’ll play the AFC’s top two teams (vs Titans, at Bills on MNF).
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1) (Last week: 11). They picked up a win and a tie over lesser NFC North opponents (Bears, Lions) while at home in the past week-plus. But other AFC peers fighting for playoff spots have done worse, recently.
12. New Orleans Saints (5-4) (Last week: 13). Even in a loss, the Saints showed why they were complete football team in Tennessee. Trevor Siemian is not terrible, but he’s not good enough to lift a Saints team that probably could be playing an opponent tough on the road in a NFC Divisional matchup in January. They’re handicapped right now.
13. Indianapolis Colts (5-5) (Last week: NR). Despite Carson Wentz, here come the Colts. They field one of the league’s best rosters, and it’s starting to show.
14. Cleveland Browns (5-5) (Last week: 13). Baker Mayfield may not be the long-term answer for this well-built, talented football team. They should be better.
15. San Francisco 49ers (4-5) (Last week: NR). They have the talent to play like they did versus the Rams every week. Although, that is their fifth win in a row versus Sean McVay’s bunch, so maybe they just own that matchup? Either way, they are right back in the thick of the NFC wild card race.
16. Carolina Panthers (5-5) (Last week: NR). When the entire team has hope on offense (welcome back Cam Newton!), they are playoff-worthy in the NFC, because their defense is damn good. That was evident in Arizona on Sunday. Cam should be the starter going forward. What an awesomely surreal reunion.
Next Up: Cincinnati, Minnesota, L.A. Chargers, Las Vegas, Seattle
This has already been a weird season. On Halloween night, things got crazier, as the league tightened even further in Week 8 (especially in the standings), forcing us prognosticators to have more questions, and less answers when it comes to predicting how things will go in January and February.
So, let’s take it to Quick-Hits, and Cover 2.
Saints stun Bucs
The Saints forced three Tom Brady turnovers, including a late, game-sealing pick-six by PJ Williams, and the Saints stunned the Buccaneers in New Orleans, despite losing Jameis Winston to a reported knee/ACL injury that could be season-ending. The crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was rockin’ the entire game, and the Saints’ defense was flying around the field with aggressiveness. When Winston went down, and New Orleans kept things simple for Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Sean Payton has been one of the four or five best head coaches in football for over 15 years now, yet doesn’t seem to get as much credit as he should. He was phenomenal on Sunday. The Saints’ 23-7 lead evaporated at one point, and Tampa bay took a 27-26 lead with just over five minutes to play. But the Saints calmly drove down the field and re-took the lead, even though they had a questionable managing of the clock (they gave Brady too much time). The Saints definitely look like a NFC wild card team, at least, but they probably aren’t catching Tampa Bay without a starting quarterback. Taysom Hill will return to the Saints soon, so you can expect them to use their packages with him at quarterback. If they can get receiver Michael Thomas back, that would make things even easier on Siemian, if he is indeed the starter for the rest of the season. It’s worth wondering if New Orleans would consider Cam Newton? He knows the division well, can run the same packages and plays that Hill runs, and is experienced enough to manage a game for a good team. It’s worth looking into.
A crowded AFC
As more weeks of football go by, the AFC seems like even more of a circus. How many good teams are there in the conference? Will multiple single-digit win teams (9-8, etc.) make the playoffs? Will the Chiefs (3-4) turn things around? Will the Bills (5-2), Titans (6-2) or Ravens (5-2) take advantage of the murkiness, and pseudo-lock up the conference’s top seed shortly after Thanksgiving by upping its play and going on a string of victories?
The conference truly is a mess, but it’s an exciting mess with tons of young, fresh quarterback talent (Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Mac Jones, etc.). Still, all three of the quarterbacks I just named either struggled mightily, suffered an upset loss, or both, on Sunday. With backup quarterback Mike White starting (White was incredible on Sunday, and deserves his due), the Jets (2-6) erased an 11-point deficit late to defeat the Bengals (5-3). The Steelers (4-3) defeated the Browns (4-4), 15-10, in Cleveland, and that, coupled with the Patriots’ (4-4) win over the Chargers (4-3) in LA, and a Broncos (4-4) victory over Washington, make it impossible to predict wild card teams at the moment.
What we do know, is that the Bills and Titans, who started off slow on Sunday, are the conference’s two best teams at the moment, with the Ravens observing, the Chiefs still dormant, and the Raiders (5-2) as a surprise team that now many are talking about, even with the Jon Gruden mess. That’s about all we know, right now, which means we know just about nothing (give me the Bills to make the Super Bowl if I had to guess today).
All hail backup QBs!
A quick note here — give it up for the backup quarterbacks on Sunday. Jets QB Mike White, Saints QB Trevor Siemian and Cowboys QB Cooper Rush all came through for HUGE victories for their respective teams on Sunday. White was the best of the bunch, full game-wise. But all three came through in the clutch for game-winning drives, with White and Rush (former 2019 Cowboys training camp teammates), throwing for game-winning scores late. You couldn’t help but feel great for Rush and his family after seeing his family celebrate in the stands after his game-winning touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. Awesome stuff. This was just another example of “Any Given Sunday.”
SAINTS 36, BUCCANEERS 27
We rightfully gave the Saints’ angle of this victory top billing above. They earned the victory. Still, right from the start it seemed like an off game for Tom Brady. It was the kind of game he’d have from time to time in New England. Famous Boston sports guy Bill Simmons would call these “bad body language” games. Still, Brady fights through these for victories once in awhile. Down 23-7 in the third quarter, Brady rallied the Bucs to a 27-26 lead with five-ish minutes left in the fourth period after a beautiful 50-yard touchdown heave to Cyril Grayson (his first career score) albeit on a blown Saints coverage. Brady (28-of-40, 375 yards, four touchdowns) ended up having a good game on paper, volume-wise, but New Orleans forced three turnovers, including the late pick-six, and sacked Brady three times. This Saints defense has given Brady a rough go this past year and a half. I’ll have to look at the All-22, but it seemed like the Saints played a ton of man coverage. In Cover 1 looks, New Orleans often employed a “robber” in coverage that sits in the middle of the field (think: yellow zone in Madden video games) to cut off crossers (same thing they utilized on the game-sealing interception touchdown). With Antonio Brown not active and Rob Gronkowski knocked out of the game early, Brady had less man coverage-beating pass catchers on the field, and New Orleans played the perfect scheme. The Saints flew around the field aggressively. Only Chris Godwin (eight catches, 140 yards, touchdown) seemed to beat Saints defenders often. After P.J. Williams’ pick-six, the game and moment reminded me of a couple things.
The Bucs’ surprising Halloween loss reminded me of the Steelers’ 34-20 victory over the defending-champion Patriots on Halloween in 2004. Rookie Ben Roethlisberger helped end New England’s still-NFL record 21 straight wins (including playoffs) and with a few key players out (running back Corey Dillon inactive, cornerback Ty Law left with a season-ending injury, etc.) Brady struggled versus an aggressive Pittsburgh defense, which victimized Brady for a pick-six in that game as well. Good news for Brady’s bunch, the Pats avenged the loss in the AFC title game that year, and went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls, something Tampa is striving for. And also after Williams’ pick-six on Sunday, Brady taking off his helmet and walking off the field reminded me of his late interception in the famous 2006 AFC Championship Game, where Brady threw a late pick to Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson, which sealed a comeback win for Peyton Manning. This is all to say that even the most clutch quarterback the league has ever seen sometimes doesn’t come through, just as Michael Jordan missed game-winning shot attempts. This was a big win for New Orleans, and Tampa has some problems that could prevent them from winning another Super Bowl, but still, give me the Bucs to win the NFC South. They’ll be OK.
PATRIOTS 27, CHARGERS 24
New England’s virtual “home” win in Los Angeles (did you see all those Patriots fans?!) was huge for their playoff aspirations, but the Patriots still managed to make the win not feel as good as it should have. They struggled mightily in the red zone, and in Chargers territory in general. They’re still making killer, bonehead mistakes (Kendrick Bourne fumble) and committing back-breaking penalties (a string of holding calls that killed two drives in Chargers’ territory), and the offensive line, which held up OK in pass blocking, but could have been better, is still so-so.
Mac Jones began the game looking sharp, which included his deep heave to Nelson Agholor (45 yards), but then he went through a 2-for-13 stretch that included seven overthrows. He was jumpy/skittish for much of the game, and panicked too often, getting rid of the ball too early and missing his mark on make-able throws. Tis the journey of a rookie quarterback, I suppose.
New England did have success running the football, and they played surprisingly well in pass coverage. Former Charger Adrian Phillips was the player of the game, picking off Chargers QB Justin Herbert twice, including a go-ahead, eventual game-winning pick-six in the fourth-quarter. Matt Judon and rookie Christian Barmore each also sacked Herbert, and just to twist the knife, it was former Chargers tight end Hunter Henry sealing the game by recovering Los Angeles’ late onside kick. New England did play well enough to win, big picture, but they were lucky to play a team of similar fashion, that can’t get out of its own way, even if they are talented (which the Patriots indeed, are).
Basically, the Patriots had a solid game plan that helped key their victory. They ran the ball hard and seemingly played a ton of Cover 2/zone coverage that flummoxed Herbert, according to the QB. It was a classic “Bill Belichick” victory. It was the type of win that people act like they never happened in the Tom Brady era now that it’s over. They happen. But still, New England needed an atrocious performance by the Chargers (Herbert, special teams, penalties, etc.) to win. In a sense, both of these teams look like the Phillip Rivers-era Chargers right now. But it’s the Patriots with the important tiebreaker that may come in handy in January. That’s huge. New England can improve, clean up their act (will they ever?) and use this as a building block.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Los Angeles Rams (7-1) (Last week: 3). Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp is simply unstoppable. Rams host the Titans next week in a huge Super Bowl 34 rematch.
2. Tennessee Titans (6-2) (Last week: 4). Carson Wentz’ blunder helped fuel another Titans comeback win. Still, it’s a good sign Tennessee is winning these kinds of games. They go to Los Angeles next week. Can they take down the Rams? That’s a huge game. (Updated editor’s note: Titans could be without Derrick Henry for the rest of the season due to a foot injury.)
3. Buffalo Bills (5-2) (Last week: 5). The Dolphins predictably played the Bills tough in Buffalo, but Josh Allen and company put the pedal to the metal late.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) (Last week: 1). They have their bye week to rest up and to get healthier. They’ll bounce back.
5. Dallas Cowboys (6-1) (Last week: 7). This Dallas team is having a special season. They do seem a bit “destined,” but they’ve had no luck in the playoffs since their ’90s dynasty years.
6. Green Bay Packers (7-1) (Last week: 6). Big win in Arizona. They should be able to fight for the NFC’s important No. 1 seed, all the way down to the wire.
7. Arizona Cardinals (7-1) (Last week: 2). They had been toying with defeat for awhile. They finally got burned.
8. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 9). The Ravens move up here during their bye week. They were given a gift this weekend when the Bengals were upset by the Jets.
9. New Orleans Saints (5-2) (Last week: 13). Huge win, but what will they do at quarterback? Still, they should be a wild card team, and if they are, Sean Payton should be in the mix for Coach of the Year.
10. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2) (Last week: 12). The Raiders may have had the best week of any AFC team by not playing.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3) (Last week: 8). Most AFC teams have a bad loss or two this year. The Jets beat the Titans a few weeks ago. So we’ll ease up some on the Bengals, but up 31-20 late against a team like this, starting their backup QB, you can’t lose in that fashion (Joe Burrow late INT). The Bengals are no Super Bowl contender. We can settle down now.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) (Last week: 15). Here come the Steelers. They can win a ton of games with their stingy defense and rookie back Najee Harris carrying the offense.
13. Cleveland Browns (4-4) (Last week: 11). Baker Mayfield is banged up and not playing well. The Browns should be a playoff team, but now they are in trouble.
14. Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) (Last week:14). The AFC is such a mess that the Chiefs have ample opportunity to make a run in the conference.
15. New England Patriots (4-4) (Last week: NR). The Patriots are 3-0 on the road, and were in position to beat the Dolphins, Cowboys and defending-champion, Brady-led Bucs at home this season. They’re a solid team that needs to clean up their act.
16. Los Angeles Chargers (4-3) (Last week: 10). The Chargers are talented, but are they actually any good?
Next Up: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Seattle, San Francisco, Carolina
Twenty years ago, Bill Belichick was faced with a tough decision at quarterback.
Taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Tom Brady made it far too difficult for Belichick to return to the New England Patriots’ then-$100 million man in Bledsoe, when the presumed franchise passer was cleared to play.
The tough choice to stick with Brady spawned a two-decade dynasty in Foxboro that totaled six Super Bowl wins, nine Super Bowl appearances, 13 AFC title game berths and 17 AFC East division titles.
Now, looking to pick up the pieces after a rough first season without Brady (who added to his Super Bowl total in Tampa Bay with the Buccaneers), ‘The Hoodie’ was tasked with another conundrum at QB.
Cam Newton versus Mac Jones.
Belichick once again opted for the young, gangly passer over a former No. 1 overall pick when he decided to abruptly extinguish the Cam Newton era, releasing the 2015 NFL MVP before eager Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium ever got the chance to cheer for him in person.
Now, the keys to the New England’s complex offense belong to Mac Jones, the franchise’s lone first-round pick quarterback (No. 15 overall) of the Belichick era, and first since Bledsoe in 1993.
Comparing Jones to Tom Brady outright is a fool’s errand.
Brady will forever be the face of the franchise. He’s the greatest player in NFL history. Even if Mac Jones’ career is everything the Patriots hope for, there will likely be a statue of Brady built outside the stadium in Foxboro midway through Jones’ New England career, which is something that probably won’t happen for the latter.
However, it’s fair to say that Jones is of Brady’s mold. Shared attributes include a super-computer football mind, pocket presence, accuracy, poise, and shared “deficiencies”such as a lack of speed and the inability to make off-schedule plays consistently.
Both have been described as having “adequate” arm strength, despite each displaying deep-shot ability and zip on the ball. (Seriously, go watch this Brady attempt to Randy Moss in Super Bowl 42, or some of his intermediate throws in his 2010 NFL MVP award-winning season.)
“He’s known for being that cerebral, fast-thinking, risk-averse…but at the same time, calculated in terms of the big shots that he takes, type of quarterback. Last time I checked, that’s what wins in the NFL.
…At quarterback, it’s always been about decision making and accuracy. It always will be about that. Everything else is a bonus. There’s a lot of quarterbacks in this draft that make spectacular plays with their legs. What is going to separate them from the rest, and put them in the category of being elite, is: can they make good decisions and be accurate with the football? It’s really that simple. And Mac [Jones] has shown the ability to do that.
What did he do this preseason? He was throwing people open.
His first preseason game, what did they do? They went up-tempo and no-huddle, because things were sluggish for him against Washington. So they go five-empty, and they are just like “zoom, zoom, zoom”. No other rookie quarterback was doing that.”
The decision to go with Jones over Newton came down to Jones being the perfect leader for Josh McDaniels’ offensive schemes and concepts. (As well as having the cap space to build a Super Bowl-winning team around Mac Jones’ four-year, $16 million cheap-as-hell rookie QB contract during Belichick’s presumed final coaching years).
Many believed that New England “catered” their playbook to Newton last season, but really, Newton was asked to run the Patriots’ offense led by Brady in 2018 and 2019, with the only consistent “Cam-specific” addition to the offense being a small package of QB power-type plays utilized by Newton on the goal line and in short-yardage scenarios.
Jones is the perfect fit to run any of New England’s offensive iterations in the Brady era: run-heavy and play-action passing out of I-formation and Singleback under center, quick-passing and timing-based throws out of shotgun empty and spread, and up-tempo attacks with versatile pieces such as New England’s two new tight ends.
Jones is the type of passer who thrives before the snap and goes through his progressions quicker than most after the snap. Often times last year, Newton’s struggled in New England’s play-action reads from under center. He held onto the ball for too long when scanning the field. Sure, a lack of competent pass-catchers certainly had a lot to do with that, but Newton just didn’t seem to fit New England’s offense, and the Patriots didn’t seem willing to change, nor did they have the time to do so with no preseason and a truncated training camp in the Summer of 2020.
Jones is the perfect fit for what the team wants to do. And in 2021, that’s best predicted as an amalgam of their early-dynasty offense from 2001 to 2006 (and again from 2018 to 2020), and their up-tempo, quick-passing, matchup-exploiting scheme from 2010 to 2012 with the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, paired with Brady at the end of his physical peak.
Asking for Jones to be anything close to what Brady was from about 2007 to 2017 is incredibly unfair. It won’t happen. But Jones is absolutely capable of mimicking Brady’s early years, when New England won three Super Bowls with a solid team around him.
Up front, New England has what should be one of the NFL’s four or five best offensive lines. The Patriots have returning starters in left tackle Isaiah Wynn, Center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu, who is moving over from right tackle to left guard, a more natural spot for him after he mostly played tackle last season, and excelled.
The Patriots let their best offensive lineman over the past few seasons, Joe Thuney, walk in free agency for a big deal with AFC rival Kansas City based off the play of Onwenu, who as a rookie, was the eighth-highest-graded tackle (84.3) in the NFL in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus.
Wynn, Onwenu and Mason are incredible run blockers, in particular. The Patriots will go heavy with pulling guards and man-blocking as a power running team once more.
The unit may be the best run-blocking group in the NFL, and should be in the top half of the league in pass-blocking, with the latter being helped out by the last-to-be-named starting offensive lineman: right tackle Trent Brown.
New England kicked off the offseason by trading back for Brown after his two seasons with the Raiders. Brown was an anchoring left tackle for New England in their 2018 Super Bowl run, which helped the 6-foot-8, 380-pound gargantuan earn a contract as massive as his size.
Size is the name of the game with this group of front, as each starter is over 300 pounds, and the entire unit averaging a league-high 330 pounds. This is one of the bigger offensive lines in the league, if not the biggest.
Running behind them often will be Damien Harris, who should be the team’s clear leading rusher now that Super Bowl 53 hero Sony Michel is battling for RB1 duties with the Los Angeles Rams.
The team felt comfortable with Harris leading the charge as a traditional, downhill-running back who makes up for any talent deficiencies with his tough, and smart, ball-carrying style.
But it’s only a matter of time that rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma, and J.J. Taylor, entering Year 2 out of Arizona, become significant parts of the offense.
Taylor should be first up as RB2 as a Dion Lewis/Rex Burkhead hybrid who runs with a surprising amount of power for his size (5-foot-6, 185 pounds).
Stevenson is a bigger back (6-foot, 246 pounds) that initially drew comparisons to LeGarrette Blount, only for many to find out that he is surprisingly agile as a make-you-miss runner who will excel in shotgun, inside-zone attempts, and is probably the second-best receiving back of the group behind James White.
Speaking of White, the eight-year-pro, and longtime Patriots hero, stands the most to gain from the switch from Cam Newton to Mac Jones at quarterback. The Patriots can now turn to its quick-passing attack that historically feeds its pass-catching backs. That wasn’t really Cam’s game. So White, who had less receiving yards (375) and receiving scores (one) than he’s had since his rookie year (where he barely played) should have a resurgence on screens, as well as flat routes and option routes from the backfield on 3rd-and-5-and-under situations.
The reimplementation of White as a factor in the offense is just one of a slew of factors that should help improve won of the most inefficient passing offenses of the 21st century last season.
The team threw a league-worst 10 touchdown passes last season, and ranked 27th in passing in Football Outsiders‘ renowned DVOA stat.
To help combat the issues, Belichick overhauled the tight end position by making headlines with not one, but two free agency splashes at the position in Jonnu Smith (4 years, $50 million, $31.25 million guaranteed) and Hunter Henry (3 years, $37.5 million, $25 million guaranteed).
The offense will be led by rookie Mac Jones, but will revolve around the O-line, running game, and play-action passing to what should be two phenomenal chess pieces in Smith and Henry for McDaniels’ play-calling.
12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) has long been a staple of New England offenses, but with limited personnel post-Gronk, the team has barely used the tight end position. The Patriots ran 12 personnel in just two-percent of offensive snaps (22 snaps) in 2020, according to Sharp Football Stats, a league low, and New England has only three touchdown receptions from tight ends in the last two seasons combined. Quite simply, they’ve ignored the position during games because they’ve had to, due to a lack of talent. Now, they likely will use more two-tight end sets than any team in the league.
In Henry they have more of a traditional ‘Y’ tight end who is capable in-line as a blocker, and can spread out as a pass-catcher in looks such as a shotgun 3×1 setup, where the former Charger would project as a backside ‘X’ receiver a la Travis Kelce in Kansas City.
Smith, a former Tennesee Titan, is more of a rare breed as a Swiss army knife-type player who can line up on the line, in the slot, as an H-back, fullback, or even running back. McDaniels will look to get him matched up on slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs in hopes of utilizing Smith’s incredible yards-after-the-catch ability, in which he has averaged 6.8 YAC for his career, by using a blend of power and finesse as a fully-aware, movement player with supreme ball carrier vision, athleticism and toughness for his position.
"We're completely different players than the guys in the past… we're not trying to be those guys, we're going to be ourselves but this offense has a tradition with two tight ends."
On the surface, it would seem lazy to compare the Henry-Smith combination to the great Gronk-Hernandez tandem from 2010 to 2012, but the archetypes seem similar. Sure, Henry isn’t as powerful as Gronk, and Smith, although a much better blocker than Hernandez, doesn’t quite have the body control of the former troubled Florida Gator product, who made defenders miss after the catch perhaps better than any tight end the game has ever seen.
But, there are similarities. The Patriots should be much better in the red zone with this tight end tandem. Smith, alone, had a career-high eight touchdowns in 2020.
Additionally, look for each to run a myriad of routes out of play-action in I-Form and Singbleback two-tight end sets. In shotgun-spread, Henry will split out wide at times, and Smith should work heavily in the middle of the field, whether it be seam routes, or quick outs from the slot, or option-routes from the backfield.
All of this leans on Jones’ ability to get these guys the ball, of course. The Alabama QB seems to thrive in both spread and under-center, play-action looks, and is accurate when throwing the football. A bigger cause for concern with the tight ends, is the health of Henry, who is coming into Week 1 possibly banged up, and has missed 24 games in four seasons. Henry has also never played a full season of games.
If Henry does miss time, Devin Asiasi, a 2020 third-round pick, stands to fill his place as the Y-tight end, but it’s more likely that New England will then heavily mix in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) and the common 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) to make up for Henry’s absence.
Not yet mentioned, Jakob Johnson is a traditional fullback who lacks the power of James Develin, but is a capable lead-blocker in I-formation, strong, and weak looks. Even with Smith and Henry healthy, Johnson will get his fair share of goal-line and short-yardage snaps.
At wide receiver, the Patriots paid Nelson Agholor (2 years, $26 million, $15 million guaranteed) and Kendrick Bourne (3 years, $22.5 million) to come in and help a wide receiver core that struggled mightily against man coverage in 2020. Last season, the Patriots passing offense was 31st in EPA/play versus man coverage and single-high looks.
Agholor’s contract suggests New England views him as their top receiver. The former Philadelphia Eagle was considered a bit of a first-round bust as a slot receiver, even if he burned the Patriots for a nine-catch, 84-yard performance as an underneath, quick-pass option in Philadephia’s Super Bowl 52 win over New England.
Playing on a prove-it, one-year deal for the Raiders last year, Agholor reinvented himself as a speedy deep-threat and X-receiver, setting a career-high in receiving yards (896) and tying his high in touchdowns (8), all while ranking second in the league in yards per reception (18.7).
Agholor will be tasked as New England’s deep-shot playmaker who also runs intermediate, in-breaking routes such as crossers, from both the perimeter and the slot. There, Agholor can utilize his speed to break away from man-coverage defenders, allowing the rest of the team’s pass-catchers, such as fellow newcomer Kendrick Bourne, to work underneath.
Bourne, coming over from San Francisco, will likely begin the season as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver who comes on the field in 11 personnel and third-down situations. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver is not known for his speed, but rather his quickness, route-running, strength/toughness and ability in the clutch on 3rd-and-7-or-so scenarios. He will be a threat underneath, in the red zone, on third down, and in crunch time. Expect Bourne to be one of the team’s more improved players in the scheme by season’s end. He has the potential, along with James White, to be a third-down security blanket pass catcher for the team’s rookie QB.
Then, there’s Jakobi Meyers. The former North Carolina State QB-turned-receiver continues to defy expectations, blossoming into one of the NFL’s more competent and productive possession receivers. He ranked 10th out of 111 qualifying pass catchers in receiving yards per routes run (2.24) last year, and led the Patriots in receiving yards (776) despite not starting in the team’s first few games of 2020.
He’ll often play in the slot in both shotgun-spread and 11-personnel looks, and as a Z-receiver/flanker option on the outside in 12 personnel. Basically, despite having a bit of a different skill set, Meyers is taking over Edelman’s role in the offense. Meyers is on an early-career, Edelman-like progression track within the offense, too. He should be a focal point in his third year in 2021.
After that, there’s 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry, who will miss the first few games of the season on injured reserve, and look to produce as a moving chess piece on the perimeter, in the slot, and in motion as an athlete-type player at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, who may surprise some in Year 3 after gaining confidence and experience.
Rounding out the group is Gunner Olszewski, an All-Pro punt returner and backup slot option, and newcomer Malcolm Perry, a former Navy quarterback (right up Belichick’s wheelhouse) converted to a slot receiver-running back in Miami under former Patriots coach Brian Flores. Expect him to be a gadget-type player at first who attempts to learn the receiver position, a la Julian Edelman. Perry does have incredible quickness.
The offense will likely get back to its roots under Mac Jones, with McDaniels reverting back to his mix-and-match approach with game plans as Jones becomes more comfortable leading the offense. The team’s chameleon-like approach was renowned in the 2010s, and was a major factor in their success under Tom Brady.
Expect the Patriots to lean heavy on 12 personnel, power-running and play-action passing at first, before eventually leaning more on Jones’ ability to run an up-tempo, spread offense that famously uses versatile players (Jonnu Smith, James White, etc.) to exploit matchups in a timing-based, quick-passing scheme.
For all the talk of the ineffective passing offense from last year, the Patriots defense stumbled down the ladder of the league’s top-ranked defenses, into a unit that resembled nothing of its staunch 2019 form.
The team went from first in DVOA in total defense in 2019 to 26th last season, which included a ranking of dead-last in run defense DVOA. Those are catastrophic numbers for a Belichick-led defense.
The unit struggled mightily last year after losing some of its key players both to free agency (Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton) and opt-outs (Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung), and missing Stephon Gilmore, New England’s current best player, for five games due to injury.
The Patriots’ Spending spree in free agency included an initial wave of players on defense with Van Noy returning from Miami on a two-year, $13.2 million deal. The team also signed cornerback/safety-hybrid Jalen Mills (4 years, $24 million) and plucked nose tackle Davon Godchaux (2 years, $16 million) and defensive end Henry Anderson (2 years, $7 million) from AFC East rivals.
But their biggest offseason addition was the the signing of former Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon to a four-year, $56 million deal ($32 million guaranteed). Judon already looked the part in the preseason as a menacing edge setter.
In addition to finishing last in run defense DVOA last year, the team was also ranked last in off-tackle yards per attempt, showcasing just how bad they were in setting the edge in the run game. Chase Winovich is one of the league’s better edge rushers, but coupled with the likes of John Simon, Shilique Calhoun and Tashawn Bower last year, the team was horrendous in stopping outside runs.
Adding Judon and re-adding Van Noy to set the edge in the run game, along with the additions of Godchaux and Anderson (3rd among interior lineman with a 43 percent run-stop-win rate in 2020) to plug up the interior will transform this front seven, and give the Patriots what they want: a tough, deep depth chart of defensive lineman and linebackers for their 3-4-style (mostly) defense that they’ve shifted too since 2019.
Expect the Patriots to run a boatload of 2-4-5 with Godchaux (6-foot-3, 311 pounds) and the returning Lawrence Guy (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) up front as a versatile lineman who can play both 4-3 defensive tackle an 3-4-style defensive end. Each of these men are excellent two-gapping lineman for this type of defense. The Patriots struggled last year with an endless supply of practice-squad type players and cast-offs rotating around Guy up front, which hurt the defense almost as much their deficiencies on the edge.
This year on the edge, the aforementioned Matt Judon is probably New England’s best football player on the roster with Gilmore sidelined. He’s the strong-side, stand-up EDGE defender that is perfect for this scheme. The “Elephant” role, is what former Patriot Willie McGinest calls this role, according to CLNS Media‘s Evan Lazar.
Judon can use his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame, athleticism and aggressiveness to stop the run, rush the passer and even play a bit of shallow pass coverage.
Van Noy returns on the other side as the opposite EDGE on early downs, with the possibility to move inside as well.
At off-ball linebacker, the return of Dont’a Hightower is one of the more under-the-radar, massively important stories of the entire league. The 10-year-pro is a leader on the defense, and New England missed his football wit, swagger and ferociousness up front.
Depending on the scheme, the Patriots will have Ja’Whaun Bentley, who struggled in Hightower’s role last year, returning to his perfect fit as a “thumper” inside linebacker in 3-4 looks.
New England also loves to employ three safeties, and the Patrick Chung role as a box safety/linebacker hybrid will certainly be utilized in some 2-4-5 looks. Last year, Kyle Dugger played mostly as a strong safety, and Adrian Phillips as a linebacker. This season, there’s a chance their roles switch, as Dugger’s tackling ability and sideline-to-sideline speed fit better in the box, with Phillips impressing many in pass coverage, specifically man coverage on tight ends, in training camp. Although, Phillips was tough up front tackling ball carriers in 2020, even with his smaller frame for the box. But the lack of run-stuffers up front meant more lineman coming downhill and blowing Phillips out of the play. That shouldn’t happen this season.
Rounding out the safeties is Devin McCourty, who enters his 12th season at age 34 as a dependable free safety on early downs, and Cover 1 robber defender to stop crossers (think: yellow zone in Madden) on later downs. The “Duron Harmon” role as the team’s deep safety on clear passing downs (such as 3rd-and-long) is up for grabs, with slot cornerback Jonathan Jones looking like a frontrunner.
The Patriots loved to run a heavy amount of man coverage, with Cover 1 being their speciality. Last year, Cover 1 and Cover 3 were once again their main coverage tendencies, but the split between man coverage and zone was roughly 51 percent to 49 percent last season, according to my film review and charting.
The increase in zone coverage from the previous season probably had a lot to do with the absence of No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore for five games.
The Patriots are vulnerable without Stephon Gilmore, who even at age 31 is arguably the best man-coverage cornerback in football on the perimeter. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year is attempting to return from a torn quad, and will miss at least six weeks since he’s on the PUP (Physically unable to perform) list. Gilmore is also looking for a new contract, as he’s playing on just a $7 million base salary in 2021, much lower than top-of-the-market pay for his position. So his situation is murky, making New England’s cornerback situation a possible Achilles heel on an otherwise superb-looking defense.
With Gilmore out, J.C. Jackson, who is playing on a contract year (he’s playing in 2021 on a cheap restricted free agent tender this season), moves up to No. 1 cornerback, a position in which he struggled some last year, particularly against Bills All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs.
Jackson is possibly the best No. 2 cornerback in football, but stands to improve as a No. 1 option. After gaining some experience in the role last year, expect him to be even better in 2021. He’s one of the best deep-ball defenders in the game on the outside.
Patriots CB J.C. Jackson since entering the league in coverage on deep targets (20+ yards): 🔒Six catches on 57 targets with 12 interceptions, one touchdown 🔒92.1 @PFF coverage grade (first among qualified defenders) 🔒6.4 passer rating (second among qualified defenders)
Jalen Mills, a struggling cornerback-turned-competent-safety with the Eagles is the type of versatile defensive player that the Patriots covet, but it’s worth wondering how he’ll hold up as the No. 2 cornerback on the outside. He best slots in as competition for Jonathan Jones as a slot or nickel-type who plays some safety.
The Patriots should also get a lot out their non-starters, as they look for their best pairings.
In the secondary, Joejuan Williams and newcomer Shaun Wade, Baltimore’s fifth-round pick this past spring out of Ohio State who was once considered a first-round pick prospect, are gangly cornerbacks with safety potential who will get their fare share of playing time with Gilmore out.
At linebacker, Harvey Langi returns to the Patriots to provide depth after a three-year-stint with the rival New York Jets that saw him in a starting role at times in 2020.
On the defensive line, there’s Carl Davis as depth for Godchaux at nose tackle after earning his spot as the lone midseason addition who could stop the run last year. Then there’s newcomer Henry Anderson and the returning Deatrich Wise Jr., a Belichick favorite, will battle it out for snaps alongside Guy and Godchaux as a 3-4 defensive end in base 3-4 looks. Wise Jr. is more of a 4-3-style player but has molded his game over the past two years to fit the 3-4, and is a great locker room presence.
Wise Jr. will also see time as an interior rusher in clear passing situations in the Patriots’ Big Dime 2-3-6 setup, a go-to look for them on third down.
Christian Barmore: PFF's No.1 interior DL in the 2021 NFL Draft
Next to him will be rookie Christian Barmore. New England moved up to get the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Alabama defensive tackle in the second round after he fell out of his projected spot as a back-half-of-the-first-round prospect. Barmore may one day be a starter in 3-4 and 2-4-5 looks on early downs, but he’ll begin his career in the Adam Butler role as perhaps the Patriots’ best interior rusher. He should also be the lone hand-in-the-dirt lineman in Big Dime 1-4-6 looks.
Rounding out the insanely-deep EDGE position is third-round pick Ronnie Perkins, who should get a bit of a redshirt year in a learning role, and the aforementioned Chase Winovich, who will return to his pass-rush specialty position as a third-down rusher and occasional base player.
And last but not least, there’s Josh Uche, one of the team’s most important players this season, along with Dugger at safety, considering the second-year “leap” each player is projected to take.
Uche has the speed and athleticism to take over the 2019 Jamie Collins role as both an early-down EDGE defender and off-ball linebacker in passing situations who often blitzes up the middle. But Uche’s raw talent at rushing the passer, with his speed, quickness and ability to bend past offensive tackles make him a fit as a full-time EDGE, where he may be able to kick Van Noy to the inside. After all, Dont’a Hightower called Uche “little Judon” for his talent and overall ability as a stand-up EDGE defender.
Uche, a 2019 second-round pick, will certainly play often, and the possibilities of mixing and matching these pass-rushing edge rushers on clear passing downs are endless.
Could you imagine a 1-4-6 look on a 3rd-and-10 with Barmore on the line, and four out of five of a group including Judon, Hightower, Van Noy, Winovich and Uche all along the line as stand-up rushers? That’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare.
The Patriots have the ability to go with a bulkier 3-4, a 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles (their usual base), or a Big Dime look (2-3-6, 1-4-6) as their main defense for the majority of a game, depending on the opponent.
They can run three safety-looks, and can also use run-stuffing personnel, pass-rushing personnel and more, all with the perfect amount of player overlap and cycling of players with different skill sets.
This unit has the ability to be a top-five group in both points allowed and efficiency metrics (DVOA, etc.).
Week 1 Projected defense:
Interior/Nose Tackle — Davon Godchaux
Interior— Lawrence Guy
EDGE — Matt Judon
EDGE — Kyle Van Noy
LB — Dont’a Hightower
Box safety/LB— Kyle Dugger
S (‘Big’ Nickel/Dime/three-safety packages) — Adrian Phillips
CB1 — J.C. Jackson
CB2 — Jalen Mills
Slot CB — Jonathan Jones
S — Devin McCourty
Interior/3-4 DE — Deatrich Wise Jr.
Interior/3-4 DE — Henry Anderson
3-4 Nose Tackle — Carl Davis
Interior pass rusher (Big Dime 2-3-6/1-4-6) — Christian Barmore
3-4 ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley
EDGE/LB/3rd-down pass rusher — Josh Uche
EDGE/3rd-down pass rusher — Chase Winovich
EDGE — Ronnie Perkins
CB1 (PUP, out six weeks) — Stephon Gilmore
CB4 (perimeter)/slot — Shaun Wade
CB5/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams
Some criticized the moves, calling some of the contracts “overpays,” but the moves were strategic, as the Patriots were one of just a couple teams with the available cap space in 2020 after the salary cap shrunk in an attempt to make up for lost revenue from a lack of fan attendance during last season.
The salary cap will increase, swiftly and dramatically, I might add, which will make many of these deals closer to market value, or even below the threshold, which means the Patriots will have additional cap space after all, to build a team around rookie Mac Jones.
Yes, it’s Jones who Belichick plucked from good friend Nick Saban’s team in Alabama, in the first round of the draft. It’s Jones, who Belichick has deemed worthy as Brady’s official successor, perhaps thanks to valuable insider info from Saban.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 20 years since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. That season, it was fitting that the New England Patriots banded together as a team, built off a solid defense, top-tier play in the trenches (OL, DL), a tough power-running game, and a young quarterback leading the offense as a clutch, unafraid leader with much to learn. And let’s not forget, great coaching.
The 2021 Patriots are a similar breed, perhaps not as sturdy in the secondary without Stephon Gilmore, but just as deep in the front seven, with a better offensive line, and perhaps, better offensive weapons, with two tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith ready to become a focal point of the offense.
Of course, times have changed, as the game is equipped with new rules today that were not in place in 2001. High-flying offenses and great quarterback play are more important than ever.
So even with all of this, the comparisons to the 2001 Patriots and all, this team is not quite Super Bowl-ready, but they will surprise many, challenging the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East for all 18 weeks of the regular season, before earning a wild-card berth, and winning the franchise’s first playoff game since Super Bowl 53, three seasons ago. (I have them losing in the Divisional round.)
There was a clear opposing of views between Brady and Belichick when it came to team-building philosophies. That was perhaps the main reason for Brady’s split to Tampa Bay during his final years. Brady has his high-flying offense, and now, Belichick’s vision for a more complete team has come to fruition.
When Cam Newton was sacked on 4th down late in New England’s 22-12 loss in Miami on Sunday, the Patriots already-slim playoff chances went down with him.
Technically, the Patriots entered Sunday’s contest with just a three percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, but the NFL community has certainly taken solace in their wicked witch being officially dead.
The mood surrounding Bill Belichick and some of the few remaining Super Bowl heroes was as you’d expect.
“It stinks to lose,” Devin McCourty said after the loss, “but I think the way we have played has been most disappointing. It just really hasn’t developed for us all year. It’s just felt like that throughout the whole season.”
“Obviously it hasn’t been our year,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ longest-tenured player (since 2008). “Obviously we haven’t done enough to be the type of team we thought we would. As to why that’s the case, it’s really hard to put your finger on it.”
Now, the Patriots will play their last two games versus AFC East opponents at home (vs Bills, vs Jets) with them having nothing to lose, and not much to gain.
The New England offense under Cam Newton (5 TD passes, 10 INT, 11 rush TDs, 44.9 Total QBR), and a sub-par pass-catching core, has not only struggled, but they’ve set back the clock on modern offenses. The difference between New England’s pulling-teeth passing game and that of some of the efficient, new-age passing offenses (let alone the Chiefs) is stark.
Soon, NFL talk will shift toward the playoffs, and the deserving teams in the postseason field.
The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. The AFC East-champion Buffalo Bills. Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New England will enter the offseason with many questions needed to be answered, including one at quarterback, which is a topic that will have its time for deep dives in the next few weeks and months.
As expected by many sensible figures before the pandemic-altered season, the Patriots did not have the team to compete, especially with their legendary quarterback of the past two decades now throwing passes in South Florida.
But in taking a big-picture look at the fraction, which side of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady wishbone would you prefer to hold if you’re Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots?
Brady could win a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay and he’s likely going to call it a career in the next year or two (although you can never fully assume so when we’re talking about the GOAT).
Despite some questionable draft day decisions over the last few seasons, and a few blind spots in the entire process (evaluating wide receivers), Bill Belchick is a master team-builder, an innovative and brilliant strategist, and the best coach in the history of football, and maybe, sports.
The married football coach with young children who once stated he wouldn’t be “Marv Levy coaching in his 70s.” But things are different now. Belichick is now a man on a mission — to prove himself by sustaining consistent success without Tom Brady. “The Hoodie” is a revitalized 68-year-old coach with both sons (now adults) on his coaching staff. He’s since divorced but has been in a long-time loving relationship with partner Linda Holliday. Part of Belichick’s summers are spent at Cape Cod with Linda, but most of his life still revolves around football, where a big chunk of his heart undoubtedly resides.
Now, Belichick is tasked with rebuilding the New England Patriots.
The Pats are sufficient in a few important areas already (offensive line, defensive secondary), making the rebuild seem more like one of Bill’s classic “retools” (2005-2007, 2009-2010, etc.) as opposed to a full-on rebuild — if the quarterback position was more ingrained and not Brady-less.
But aside from QB — the obvious position that will be much-talked about in the northeast this offseason — New England obviously fields a skill-position arsenal (WR, TE) that simply must be addressed. Their defensive front seven also needs some offseason attention, as a team like the Dolphins, who came into the game ranked last in yards per carry (3.6), ran for 250 yards on 42 carries (6.0 YPC) versus the Patriots behind running backs Salvon Ahmed and Matt Brieda.
But despite a nightmare season congruent with the year 2020, there is reason for optimism in 2021.
The Patriots are projected to have at least $70-ish million in cap space, depending on the league’s cap number this Spring. They’ll also field a pick in the top half of the draft for just the second time since 2003, giving them a shot at a blue-chip player.
Then, there’s the small group of young players showing promise. Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Jakobi Meyers, Michael Onwenu.
As long as there are hard-working, young talents in the building reflecting with quotes such as Chase Winovich’s in the tweet below after Sunday’s loss in Miami, the “Patriot Way” is still in tact.
Yes, New England’s young core is not that exciting on paper, but with Belchick, and an arsenal of offseason tools (cap space, draft) to reshape this team, it’s at least exciting to see which way Belichick goes.
They most certainly will address their receivers and defensive front seven.
At QB, do they re-sign Newton? Re-sign Newton and draft a rookie on Day 1 or Day 2 of the draft? Do they hope former Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo is released outright by the 49ers? Everything is on the table, and until they figure it out at QB, the rest may not matter, that’s evident, but everyone from Foxboro to Portland, Maine knows Bill, Nick Caserio and the Patriots front office are already planning.
This was a year of poor play and bad luck for the Patriots. But as a new year turns, New England’s hopes are that of American citizens dreaming of a post-Pandemic world. Change is coming.
“Teams that don’t make the playoffs change,” said Devin McCourty. “The 2020 Patriots — it won’t be the same in 2021.”
There’s a void… a cavity waiting to be filled with more Patriots success. Belichick and the Patriots are just getting started.
NFL MVP RACE
The only change here is Josh Allen jumping into the top five. After a so-so midseason stretch, the third-year QB is revisiting his red-hot start to the season at just the right time. Still, he’s more in line with Russell Wilson than a true contender for the award. Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers are essentially in a two-man race with two weeks to go.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) (Last week: 1). We, as a collective non-Kansas City NFL community needed a Saints win over the Chiefs to prove that Kansas City can be beaten. It didn’t happen. The Chiefs are a collective cyborg. They are a well-oiled machine and Patrick Mahomes is a football god.
2. Buffalo Bills (11-3) (Last week: 2). With their scorching-hot play as of late, and their first AFC East title since 1995, the Bills have emerged as perhaps the most obvious challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC.
3. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 3). It seems the Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers takes them, but that’s really not the case. Rodgers is solid, and will remain so. It’s up to his supporting cast. Is their defense ready?
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) (Last week: 4). The Steelers should win tonight in Cincinnati, but it’s pretty clear a once-clear contender is floundering a bit in December. Injuries on defense are certainly mounting, too. Still, you wouldn’t want to see this proud franchise in January.
5. New Orleans Saints (10-4) (Last week: 5). Defensively, the Saints beat up Mahomes at times. They had a swagger and look of a Super Bowl contender that would not play afraid. Still, they lost. Drew Brees played fairly well down the stretch but it’s still pretty clear that these are his last days. Can he do enough for one last Super Bowl run?
6. Tennessee Titans (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Titans are the ultimate dark horse in the AFC, a spot in which they filled admirably last season. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown are players you just don’t want to see in an outdoor playoff game. Their defense, and lack of a pass rush, may make it too tough to repeat their playoff run from last season, though.
7. Indianapolis Colts (10-4) (Last week: 9). The Colts again survived Deshaun Watson and the Texans via a Houston goal-line fumble late in the game. That’s the second such occurrence in two weeks. But any division wins are welcome.
8. Seattle Seahawks (10-4) (Last week: 10). The Seahawks are slowly working their way back into contender status in the NFC. They have a big one on Sunday versus the Rams (9-5). If they win, they clinch the NFC West. The playoffs essentially start now for Russell Wilson’s bunch.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) (Last week: 11). Ho hum, another 17-point comeback for Tom Brady. And against Matt Ryan’s Falcons, no less. TB12 looked like a product of his method on Sunday, zinging the ball around to complete the come-from-behind win. In all, Brady threw for 320 yards in the second half on Sunday, the most of any QB in the second half this season.
10. Los Angeles Rams (9-5) (Last week: 6). They were rolling before this home loss to the all-time inept New York Jets (1-13). What the hell happened?
11. Baltimore Ravens (9-5) (Last week: 13). Their cake-walk of a closing schedule should put them at 11-5 and in one of the AFC’s wild card spots, but there’s much to like about Lamar Jackson and this Ravens team that is surging at the right time, albeit against lesser competition. They’ll be a tough out in January.
12. Cleveland Browns (10-4) (Last week: 7). Their Sunday night win over the Giants in New York was a solid, hard-earned win after their taxing loss to the Ravens last week.
13. Miami Dolphins (9-5) (Last week: 12). They did what they had to do to survive the Patriots (6-8) at home with a decimated pass-catching core. If the Dolphins make the playoffs, Brian Flores really may win the Coach of the Year award, leapfrogging Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, who had the lead on the award for most of the year.
14. Arizona Cardinals (8-6) (Last week: 15). That was a mighty fun game in Philadelphia, with Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts battling it out. The Cardinals should be able to hold on to the NFC’s No. 7 spot.
15. Washington (6-8) (Last week: 14). We’ll leave Washington on the list for keeping it close with Seattle, and because of the ineptitude of everyone below them here.
16. Chicago Bears (7-7) (Last week: 16). I guess the Bears go here? It feels wrong to have them in the rankings, but they earned it in Minnesota. Or at least, they earned this spot.
Next up: Minnesota, New England, Las Vegas, L.A. Chargers, Dallas
Week 7 gave us perhaps the most exciting weekend of this NFL season to date. From fantastic finishes to a battle of the undefeated clubs and an exciting NFC West showdown. Plus, I think there may have been a controversial pickup that everyone is talking about? And what about Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Cam Newton and the New England quarterback storyline?
So that’s why I’m using my piece to tackle multiple storylines over the weekend, starting with the Sunday night NFC West showdown in Arizona.
Kyler Murray, Cardinals down Seahawks in nail-biting NFC West contest
After Zane Gonzalez missed what should have been a 41-yard, game-winning field goal well into overtime on Sunday night, it appeared we all were witness to a similar story.
An upstart division team playing the consistent division rival juggernaut to the end, scratching and clawing, fighting, just one play away from victory, before the wheels on the engine that could came off, partly due to self-inflicted harm (like Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury icing his own kicker).
But just a few plays later, NFL MVP leader Russell Wilson throws his third interception of the night, Cardinals mighty-mouse QB Kyler Murray scoots Arizona back into field goal range, and Gonzalez redeems himself on a game-clinching 48-yarder with seconds to play in overtime.
Arizona 37, Seattle 34. And just like that, the NFC West is that much tighter.
“Don’t ever be conservative again,” Murray said he told his coach after the game. “I got you.”
Sure, the conservative approach to the missed field goal almost downed Arizona’s NFC West title hopes, but the Cardinals rallied through adversity. And we all know, there’s at least been nothing conservative about the aggressively successful way Arizona has become a threat to the league in just short time.
What Kingsbury and GM Steve Keim have done with this Arizona team in just a season and a half is honorable. Just two years removed from a dismal 3-13 year, partly with rookie first-round QB Josh Rosen, the team hired Kingsburgy in 2019, used the No. 1 overall pick to select another QB, Murray, and now have the look of at least a wild card team (maybe more) in the NFC in Year 2 of this process.
Kingsbury has fielded a unique offense that spreads out defenses across the field by using four-wide receivers sets more than any other club. With those looks, they get the ball to DeAndre Hopkins (a great pickup via a trade with the Texans), Larry Fitzgerald and other play-making receivers, while running up the gut with shifty running backs, or even Murray, when the defense spreads thin to cover the pass catchers.
And that’s just what Arizona did in their win on Sunday. Murray threw 48 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for another score on 14 carries for 67 yards on the ground.
Predictably, the game turned into a wonky shootout, a Seattle Seahawks special, with Russell Wilson and Tyler Locket connecting for three scores, and the Seattle QB phenom throwing the ball 50 times, with three key interceptions, but still fielding a pretty good 74.7 Total QBR, which usually signals enough for a win.
Wilson made the best throw of the day (a beautiful deep bomb TD to Lockett) and some of the worst, including his last interception. It’s clear Seattle has major issues on defense, and on a night where Wilson was still superb, but far from perfect, Arizona was able to take advantage behind a daring effort by Murray, which included a 10-point 4th-quarter comeback reminiscent of some of Wilson’s herculean efforts over the past almost-decade.
Arizona has some defensive problems of their own. They allowed 572 total yards and failed to stop Wilson on a key 4th-down touchdown pass late that almost put the game away. But defensive coordinator Vance Joseph designed a few key zone blitzes that befuddled Wilson late, which is a rarity. Quite simply, after that aforementioned 4th-down, 4th-quarter score by Wilson to Lockett, Murray played better than his Seattle contemporary, and the Cardinals outscored Seattle 13-0 the rest of the way.
“These are the games you honestly dream about growing up, watching Sunday night football, last week playing on Monday [night] — these are the type of games you want to be a part of,” said Murray after the game. “To be a part of these games you’ve got to win and keep winning. I’m super proud of the team, the way we fought, not giving up. No matter the circumstances, just keep battling and keep battling.”
The Cardinals are probably a couple defensive pieces away from being a true contender with the likes of Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Green Bay and Seattle in the NFC in 2020, but they’ll certainly be a tough out.
With Murray, and Kingsbury, they’re certainly trending upwards.
The New England QB carousel takes center stage
Just one year ago, the battle of the the 49ers and Patriots in New England in 2020 would seemingly revolve around Jimmy Garoppolo returning to Foxboro to battle Tom Brady, the man many thought he’d succeed as the Patriots quarterback, before he wasn’t.
Since then, we know what has happened. Brady in Tampa. Cam Newton in New England. Blah, blah. We don’t need to regurgitate, but we do need to re-assess what we now think of the Patriots’ current QB situation, just weeks after it looked like both Brady and the Patriots were going to win with their respective cases.
That can no longer be said about the Patriots. At least not right now.
Cam Newton (9-of-15, 98 yards, three interceptions) was abysmal for the second straight week, this time posting a laughable 3.5 Total QBR as the Patriots dropped their third straight game for the first time since 2002, 33-6 to Garoppolo’s 49ers.
Jimmy was solid, going 20-fof-25 and efficiently leading San Francisco’s unique, spread-you-thin-with-pre-snap-motion offense, save for a bad interception in the first quarter.
Still, when we talk about winning with their decision, we’re talking about New England signing Cam Newton, and trotting out their once-again, slow and not-with-the-times offense of 2019 once more, just with a different QB.
The decision by Belichick to trade Garoppolo to San Francisco for a second-round pick in 2017 is still a sound one. They were’t going to be able to keep both Brady and Garoppolo. Garoppolo was a free agent after the season, so they got something for him, and proceeded to make two more Super Bowls with Brady, winning one. But the fact that Brady simply outlived Garoppolo in New England is probably not a consolation to Jimmy, but heading to San Francisco, reaching a Super Bowl in your only full season as a starter, and downing the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in your next year, will probably do.
As for Newton, he’s been bad these past few weeks. Is it his comeback from COVID-19? A lack of practice time? A deep void of playmakers in the offense?
It’s probably all those things, coupled with the fact that Newton has also just played bad. He’s missed open receivers, held onto the ball too long, and doesn’t look comfortable.
Still, Belichick told the media that Cam would remain the starting QB going forward.
At 2-4, and with a tough game in Buffalo awaiting, the Patriots are perhaps awaiting a cold and dark football winter not seen before since 2000, Belichick’s first year in New England as head coach.
And perhaps that’s what we’re dealing with here — a “gauging-of-the-roster” season from Belichick, in which he can make trades, sign free agents (they have ample cap space next offseason) and make sound draft decisions (although their last few drafts have been bad) to put New England back in the thick of things in 2021.
It is starting to feel like Brady made the right decision in leaving the Patriots, who are at least in need of a re-tooling, if not re-build. And at age 43, chasing never-seen-before history, I don’t blame the best football player of all time creating a South Florida super team in his twilight. Heck, we didn’t blame LeBron James for it in Miami?
It adds salt to the wound that on the bleakest day of New England football this century, Brady was as sharp as we’ve seen him since perhaps 2017. He threw for four scores, including an unreal, outside-the-numbers deep ball to Scotty Miller, ran for another touchdown, and passed Drew Brees to sit atop the all-time touchdown pass list in the process.
Now, with Antonio Brown’s arrival imminent, Rob Gronkowski rounding into form as a pass catcher, and the offense catching fire to compliment one of the league’s top defenses, a seventh ring for Brady certainly seems obtainable.
Just weeks ago, Tampa’s ceiling appeared to be the NFC Divisional Round, while New England looked like it may round into the “nobody-wants-to-play-us” team of 2020, like the Titans of last season.
Instead, the Patriots are in a dark place, while Brady and Garoppolo lead surging NFC teams.
Still, even if this season continues on its path for these three teams, it’s too early to solidify a take on Belichick’s approach. This team simply needs more weapons, and Belichick the GM is up for the challenge this offseason to piece this puzzle back together.
But as for Brady, and Garoppolo, no matter what happens with Belichick’s Patriots, they’ve already won in their own way.
We’ll see if New England can eventually join the party with Cam Newton, or someone else at quarterback.
Antonio Brown joins Tom Brady, Bucs
Despite winning a tough road game in flashy fashion while passing Brees for the passing touchdown record in the process, the major news out of Tampa Bay over the weekend is still the imminent signing of Antonio Brown to a one-year deal.
Brown, 32, who may be available in Week 9 for Tampa’s rematch with the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints, has yet to post on social media in regards to his reunion with Tom Brady, but the deal should become official sometime this week or next.
Predictably, the move was followed by a storm of well-written articles on the moral stance of the Buccaneers signing Brown, and Brady’s advocacy for him.
“I’m not getting into personal conversations we’ve had together,” Brady told the media of his relationship with the controversial wide receiver.
“He’s a tremendous football player. I played with him for a brief period of time. I’m looking forward to working with him again. He’s a very hard-working guy.”
Although it feels a bit wrong to get excited at the pure football prospect of Brown and Brady connecting on the football field again in South Florida, there’s no denying that Brown fits the bill of Brady’s favorite type of receiver — the quick, shifty, route-running archetype.
Of that mold, Brown is the best receiver to ever live.
Pairing AB with an already-crowded pass-catching group of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and others seems like overkill, especially considering Tampa’s love of running the football with their staple of veteran backs (Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy), but from a QB-to-receiver standpoint, Brady to Brown is a dream connection of football IQ, talent and fluidity. Even with the two former Patriots sitting at ages 43 and 32, respectively.
But that won’t (and shouldn’t) drown out the absurdity of Brown finding work again, Brady’s continued friendship with Brown over the past year, and TB12’s call to criticized (and famous) life coach and guru Tony Robbins to help get Brown back on track.
To harken back to the bevy of national media takes on the signing, I think NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling had the most on-point take when criticizing Brady — and Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, who was also wooing Brown to come to Seattle — in their misguided attempts to become friendly with Brown for pretty obvious, see-through football reasons. But alas, the prospect of a talent like Brown for a near-minimum deal on the most “all-in, win-now” football team in history is tough to pass up, especially when the two-fold move keeps Brown away from another wooing NFC contender such as Seattle.
Moral reasons, and a naive sense of confidence that Brown will remain inline, aside, this is the type of move that this type of team should make, for football reasons only.
Connor Orr, a brilliant writer for Sports Illustrated, delivered a take that I believe had the right intentions (condemning why Brown is being signed) while venturing too far into the outrage sector by first criticizing Tampa’s decision to bring in Brown, but then later insinuating it may have been too risky to bring in Brady on a farewell tour to pair with this burgeoning, lasting defense of the now and future.
I don’t see the sense in that. While fielding an up-and-coming top-tier defense and a star-studded offense, you try to find the QB that will maximize that talent, now. If you have the ability to chose between the roulette of the draft, some younger, only capable free agent (Teddy Bridgewater) or Tom freaking Brady, you take Brady if he’s available. The 43-year-old’s performance on Sunday is further proof of that.
For better or worse, Tampa is Tom’s team now. And don’t believe Arians’ post-game quote from Sunday suggesting Brady “didn’t have anything to do” with the signing of Brown. It was just months ago that Bucs head coach Bruce Arians adamantly shot down any chance of the former Steelers great coming to Tampa.
“I think he’s matured,” said Arians. “I believe in second chances.”
Now that may be true (meaning Arians’ stance, not that Brown may have matured).
But let’s call this what it is — Brady getting his wish. And with the GOAT playing as is, and the deal itself so risk-averse monetarily, it’s hard to chastise Tampa for obliging. Yet, off-the-field, there is ample reason to do so.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) (Last week: 1). The last undefeated squad, and overall best team in football, resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Every few years, at least for a fleeting moment, this seems to be the case. This is a well-run franchise.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (6-1) (Last week: 2). With the contrast of Tom Brady and the Bucs versus the lowly Patriots drawing the most eyes in the late afternoon window, the Chiefs quietly dismantled the Broncos in snowy Denver. Le’Veon Bell (six carries, 39 yards) looked good in the KC offense.
3. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 3). Baltimore would find themselves virtually three games back (with the tiebreaker) of Pittsburgh in the AFC North if they can’t beat the Steelers at home this Sunday. This is a big game.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2) (Last week: 10). It’s time to give them their due. Their defense is superb and Brady and the offense is rounding into form, with Antonio Brown on the way. Good luck to the rest of the NFL. Tampa’s ascension appears imminent.
5. Seattle Seahawks (5-1) (Last week: 5). As great as Russell Wilson was for much of Sunday night’s game, those three interceptions were killers. He’s still the clear MVP favorite, but with the Seahawks as is, you can’t make those mistakes versus opposing teams with stellar offenses. We’re beginning to see how Seattle’s season will go — they need Russ to put up a great game virtually every week to win.
6. Green Bay Packers (5-1) (Last week: 6). That was a nice bounce-back effort on the road, no matter how defunct this Texans team is. It’s a treat to see the Aaron Rodgers-Davante Adams clicking like that.
7. Tennessee Titans (5-1) (Last week: 4). They almost came from behind again, but let’s stay grounded and admit that there is some worry in Ryan Tannehill’s ability to go against the league’s best teams (equipped with the best QBs), no matter how much he has improved as a passer. Still, they are a legitimate contender in the AFC.
8. Buffalo Bills (5-2) (Last week: 7). That was an ugly showing in New York, but they did enough to beat the Jets. They have an opportunity to provide the knockout-punch to New England’s 2020 AFC East title hopes on Sunday.
9. New Orleans Saints (4-2) (Last week: 8). They’re starting to get going on offense, but their defense has been disappointing thus far. I believe the issue is fixable, though.
10. San Francisco 49ers (4-3) (Last week: 13). Just like that, here come the Niners. That blowout win over the struggling Patriots in New England had to be cathartic for Jimmy Garoppolo, who has played well these past two games. San Francisco is a team on its way back to contention in the NFC, injures and all. But they have the Seahawks in Seattle this week. That’ll be telling.
11. Arizona Cardinals (5-2) (Last week: NR). That was an incredible comeback win that proved Arizona can hang with Seattle. They’re quite similar teams, really. Two exciting QBs that make plays while proving height doesn’t matter like we thought when it comes to quarterbacks. Then, there’s the defenses, which could be the downfall of each club. Both teams make for exciting television.
12. Chicago Bears (5-1) (Last week: 9). If the Bears do win tonight, we can move them higher, but I don’t see it.
13. Los Angeles Rams (4-2) (Last week: 11). With the NFC West heating up, the Rams will have to keep pace by beating the Bears tonight.
14. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) (Last week: 12). We’ll put them here during their bye week. They are a clear AFC Wild Card hopeful in a tough conference. We’ll see how far Phillip Rivers can take them.
15. Cleveland Browns (5-2) (Last week: 14). They had trouble with the lowly Bengals, but it was encouraging to see Baker Mayfield lead his team down the field for a game-winning score. The loss of Odell Beckham Jr. hurts, though.
16. Miami Dolphins (3-3) (Last week: NR). Let’s move up the Dolphins to this spot during their bye. Sitting at .500, with Tua Tagovailoa set to take his first start versus the Rams on Sunday, a new era dawns for them.
Next up: Las Vegas, Carolina, Detroit, New England, Philadelphia
A Week 1 game in the NFL should follow with this disclaimer — “Do not overanalyze, as often times things are not what they appear.”
And in a NFL season during a year in which the world is turned upside down, the words above should ring even more clear. Heck, there were no preseason games and the offseason was severely shortened and unorthodox. We often talk about the first week or two of the regular season as an extended preseason, but we could be talking about each team’s first six to eight games in that way this season. Right now, we just don’t know. Things will change.
Still, it’s tough to refrain from overanalyzing.
There’s been more skepticism surrounding the possible success of Cam Newton and the New England Patriots than Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And at face value, there’s good reason for that.
Brady — and former Patriot Rob Gronkowski — joined Bruce Arians’ high-flying offense, equipped with some of the league’s best skill position personnel. But some of those offensive weapons, Mike Evans and Gronk in particular, failed to find a rhythm Sunday for a team that looked every bit as undisciplined Sunday as it did last season with Jameis Winston at quarterback.
And so TB12 sat opposite Winston, Tampa’s old QB turned Saints backup, and suffered a 34-23 defeat to New Orleans in a game that raised many questions about just how efficient Tampa Bay’s offense will be.
But for all the mistakes, including a ghastly pick-six, Brady — 23 for 36 for 239 yards, three touchdowns — showcased some zip and overall arm strength that many thought he left back in 2017 or earlier in New England. He found some success targeting the likes of Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller downfield.
Still, the disconnect with his teammates was stark and a reminder that things better change quick if Tampa Bay is to compete with some of the league’s top teams.
There’s no need to abandon what they view as their offensive approach — pass catchers and pass attempts galore, including formations with multiple (and capable) tight ends, as well as the occasional shotgun draw to keep the defense honest.
There’s something here with what they have, and what they view as as budding firecracker in their personnel. Brady and these weapons? You betcha.
That offense will look much different than Brady’s old unit in New England, however.
As expected, Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels ran Newton on a bevy of zone-reads, QB powers and bootlegs. In all, Newton rushed 15 times (second most of his career) for 75 yards and two touchdowns. The formations weren’t too unfamiliar to Brady-era lovers, but there was some pistol formation worked in.
The Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins, 21-11, in a game that seemingly ended while the rest of the 1:00pm ET time slot contests were entering the fourth quarter. New England ran the ball 42 times for 217 yards and won the time of possession battle by roughly 35 minutes to Miami’s 25.
It’s a bit early to think on this level, but if New England is to go far in the AFC postseason, they’ll likely use this form of bully ball to do it. Newton looked sharp through the air, particularly on his first throw of the game, a downfield drop by Edelman on a beautifully placed play-action pass. The 2015 NFL MVP went 15 for 19 for 155 yards. But the Patriots lack an adequate arsenal of pass catchers to compete in a shootout with the likes of Kansas City, or even Seattle, their next opponent. Still, New England’s top-tier offensive line and a unique group of versatile running backs give them something to work with.
Comparably (or not really), Brady has Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Gronk, O.J. Howard, Leonard Fournette and more. Things didn’t go well for Tampa on Sunday, but there’s reason to believe that it might as the year goes on. Saints QB Drew Brees got the win but rarely threw downfield, which could be a skill that the Saints now look to Taysom Hill for. It’s not farfetched to claim that Brady looked better than Brees on Sunday, despite the mistakes. Tom looked livelier than the 41-year-old New Orleans, but the precision and timing with his new teammates was not there.
Without a preseason, there would be an expected learning curve with this “Tompa” Bay offense, especially with a Week 1 opponent such as New Orleans. Brady will find a rapport with a few guys and things will begin to click. The six-time Super Bowl-winning passer has Tampa head coach Bruce Arians to turn to — a known QB whisperer.
But Cam now has Belichick. And in turn, Belichick has Cam. There’s more creativity to come in New England, and success will surely come to Tampa this season, in some form.
These two — very different — offenses will certainly be compared and contrasted all season. If you look passed the cheap, soon-to-come “Bill 1, Brady 0” takes, there’s a fascinating football story brewing in both the evolution of the Patriots offense and the experiment of Brady in Tampa Bay at age 43.
Rams stymie Cowboys’ talented offense
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the Dallas Cowboys and their high-octane offense, the Rams were able to corral America’s Team in their inaugural game in the beautiful SoFi Stadium. On offense, Sean McVay stuck with the ground game, which looked a lot more punishing than their stat line of 3.8 yards per carry suggests. Los Angles ran the ball 40 times for 153 yards, and went to play-action with Jared Goff when they didn’t. But this game was won by the Rams’ defense, particularly their pass rush. Aaron Donald was his usual self, posting a few highlight-worthy, trench-dominating moves from the interior, and Los Angeles sacked Cowboys QB Dak Prescott three times by a unit that many thought would be subpar at the EDGE position heading into the season. The current construction of Los Angeles’ roster is well-known. Contracts for players like Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey take up a good portion of the cap, so they’ll need help from the rest of their roster, such as Bears castoff Leonard Floyd, a former first-round pick who virtually depreciated in Chicago but looked better than advertised on Sunday. It’s been just two seasons since the 2018 Rams entered the season as an all-in team, and even though their cap situation suggests they are still in that mode, the Rams may quietly have a plan to quietly return as a contender behind some quieter acquisitions.
Lamar Jackson thrives from pocket versus Browns
The Baltimore Ravens began their quest for Super Bowl 55 (and they are one of the few teams in which it’s not too early to talk like this) with a 38-6 beatdown over the Cleveland Browns. Sure, it seems as if the Browns may remain lowly in 2020, even with a new head coach, but that shouldn’t take the air out of a superb performance from Lamar Jackson through the air. Last year’s unanimously-voted NFL MVP was brilliant as a passer on Sunday, going 20 for 25 for 275 yards and three throwing scores. Those marks helped him post a 152.1 passer rating and 94.1 Total QBR. Even for a Week 1 game versus Cleveland, those are absurd numbers. If the Ravens are to reach (and win) Super Bowl 55, they will have to show improvement in two key areas that doomed them in the postseason last year — run defense (which was so-so despite the win on Sunday) and Jackson improving as a passer. Luckily, Jackson was able to do most of his work in the middle of the field, which will forego the critique of his much-needed improvement outside the numbers, but Jackson looked even more comfortable than last year from the pocket on Sunday. His only matchup-winning targets are “Hollywood” Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, but Jackson’s ability to not only run, but read the field should be good enough to lift this supporting cast to Tampa Bay in February. He was already much better as a passer than critics would give him credit for in 2019, but it seems as if he’ll be even better in that aspect in Year 3.
Respect for Gardiner Minshew
The Jacksonville Jaguars certainly won’t be a playoff team this year. They are still in contention for the No. 1 overall pick in my eyes, and if they do end up in that slot, I suspect they’ll take Clemson wunderkind QB Trevor Lawrence. But after a 27-20 Week 1 win over the Indianapolis Colts, I felt obligated to give Gardiner Minshew some respect. Just one week after former Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette slighted him, Minshew went 19 for 20 for 173 yards for three touchdown passes with a barren set of skill position players versus one of the AFC’s best rosters. If the Jaguars do end up around 4-12, it’s worth wondering whether Minshew would be capable of starting elsewhere after Jacksonville turns to a top draft pick at quarterback. Teams like the Bears and Colts instantly come to mind. Jacksonville may not see a future with Minshew, but there may be a future for Minshew as a starter in the NFL.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). The Chiefs played on Thursday, so it’s easy to forget how dominant they looked while also looking a bit sloppy. They will play much better than they did on Thursday for much of the season, and they looked like the best team in football anyway versus Houston. That’s scary.
2. Baltimore Ravens (1-0). If Jackson is going to be this good through the air in 2020, look out.
3. New Orleans Saints (1-0). There are some concerns with Brees’ ability to push the ball downfield, but with offensive weapons such as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill, that may not be too alarming.
4. Green Bay Packers (1-0). I suspected Aaron Rodgers would play angry and well this year. That was a superb start in Minnesota.
5. New England Patriots (1-0). There are major concerns with this pass-catching group, but with what Belichick appears to have in store for Cam Newton and this offense, that may just be a wart, as opposed to an Achilles heel.
6. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). Russell Wilson was as sharp as a QB possibly could be in Week 1. Maybe it was the pandemic that threw things off, but Seattle certainly didn’t look like a team heading west to east for an early start time on Sunday.
7. Buffalo Bills (1-0). Josh Allen had some good, some bad, and everything in between on Sunday. This Bills team is immensely talented, but there’s not much to take away after a Week 1 win over the New York Jets, who may have the worst roster in pro football.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0). The Steelers will undoubtedly field one of the NFL’s best defenses. If they can get anything out of their offense, they’ll be in good shape.
9. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). The Rams looked impressive on Sunday night, and they can play much better.
10. San Francisco 49ers (0-1). San Francisco is lacking at wide receiver, so you can imagine the feeling when it looked like George Kittle may have suffered a serious leg injury. He appears fine, however, and returned to the field. The 49ers are a team that will improve as the season goes along. They’ll need to figure out something at wide receiver until Deebo Samuel returns, though, and even then, they need some more help there.
11. Dallas Cowboys (0-1). Good things will come for Dallas’ talented offense, but I worry that prognosticators have overvalued them yet again this preseason. Are they really Super Bowl contenders?
12. Arizona Cardinals (1-0). Arizona was able to down the defending NFC champs while also not playing their best on offense. They at least got DeAndre Hopkins (14 catches, 151 receiving yards) involved. That’s a good sign.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1). That was an ugly start, but they’ll certainly improve on offense. Don’t jump ship just yet.
14. Tennessee Titans (0-0). The Titans are one of the toughest teams in football. They’ll need to utilize that skill for a tough Monday night matchup in Denver to kick off their season.
15. Washington Football Team (1-0). They belong here. That front seven is talented, and will be getting after quarterbacks all year. Rookie EDGE defender Chase Young could easily follow Nick Bosa’s 2019 route by becoming the next No. 2 overall pick from Ohio State to dominate up front as a rookie.
16. Houston Texans (0-1). It’ll take some time for this offense to click, and the pass blocking of their offensive line is still a mess, but the Texans still have Deshaun Watson. They have another tough test this week, though. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are coming to town.
Next up: L.A. Chargers, Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas
Last January, in the final minutes of a tight AFC Wild Card matchup in Gillette Stadium, Super Bowl 53 MVP Julian Edelman dropped a key third-down pass in a clutch situation, and Tom Brady failed to deliver.
Tennessee Titans 20, New England Patriots 13. Welcome to 2020.
This was simply an odd beginning to a mostly catastrophic and unprecedented year up to this point.
Now for New England, weird will be the new normal as Brady is in South Florida with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Patriots’ hopes on offense rest with former Carolina Panthers franchise quarterback Cam Newton.
Yes, Cam Newton is the starting QB for your New England Patriots, in a world where Brady is not retired and still playing pro football with the same burning desire that fueled an unprecedented 20-year run of success in the northeast.
So far, the Newton-Belichick pairing has been met with cheery optimism. Both Belichick and Newton have done nothing but overly praise each other to this point, and Newton appears as happy as he is motivated.
Instead of allowing him to play out the final year of his contract, the Carolina Panthers jettisoned the 2015 NFL MVP after failing to find a willing trade partner. Newton was hurt, and angry, but has seemed to have bottled that despair in the form of grueling training and recovery geared toward proving the Panthers and other doubters wrong via a bounce-back performance.
Belichick and the Patriots are surely the perfect facilitator for such a journey.
As previously mentioned, Newton took the league by storm in 2015. He was the league’s best player that year, leading Carolina to Super Bowl 50 — and subsequent loss to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
But that’s likely not the level of play the Patriots will be getting at quarterback in an unconventional 2020 season. Past shoulder and foot injuries, multiple surgeries, additional wear and tear, and a shortened offseason — with no preseason games — make it difficult to imagine Newton ever reaching his 2015 level again.
This leaves Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and new quarterback coach Jedd Fisch hoping for the 2018 version of Newton, before a shoulder injury caused the former No. 1 overall pick to drop his last eight starts heading into this campaign.
In 2018, under Norv Turner, Carolina began the year 6-2 behind a quick-passing game that saw Newton move on from his previous downfield passing barrage of earlier seasons with ample success. His ability to adapt to a new offense, and thrive while throwing precision-type passes to the likes of D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey and others prove that Newton is willing and able to adapt to a new scheme.
At that point in his career, Newton’s completion percentage was 58.5 heading into his eighth season, but after the aforementioned 6-2 start, Cam had a 67.3 completion percentage, and was squarely in another MVP race before Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt obliterated Newton’s throwing shoulder.
The difference here is that there is no McCaffrey or Moore on the roster. There are, however, James White and Julian Edelman, two wiley veterans in the roles of pass-catching running back and No. 1 wide receiver. Both are clutch, both are postseason heroes with a combined seven Super Bowl appearances and 1,096 career receptions (including playoffs).
After, that there’s not much in terms of experience and big-play potential at the skill position.
A wide receiver group that ranked dead last in average separation according to NFL Next Gen Stats has not been altered much since the end of last season.
N’Keal Harry returns as the top option at X-receiver along the boundary. Harry ranked 143rd (dead last) in the NFL last season in average separation at throw on all routes for receivers who ran at least 100 routes.
The 2019 first-round pick is listed at 6-4, 225 pounds but displays quickness and shiftiness of that of a smaller receiver. He can run reverses and use his power and running ability to create yards after the catch. But ironically, despite his size, he doesn’t appear to have the skill set for a dominating No. 1 type receiver on the outside.
Newton, of course, hasn’t played with such a player, but he has found a niche of throwing slants, 10-yard outs an hitches to bigger receivers. He had flashes of success on such passing patterns when targeting the likes of Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. Newton’s throws those routes possibly better than any QB I’ve seen over the past 20 seasons, and perhaps Harry can become a factor on such plays.
He’ll need to, because 34-year-old Edelman — who will presumably get the most targets — can’t do it all, and certainly not at his age.
After Edelman and Harry, Damiere Byrd projects as the Patriots No. 3 WR with WR2 production potential. Byrd played four seasons with Newton in Carolina before a one year stint with the Arizona Cardinals last season. He ran a 4.28 40-yard dash coming into the draft, and projects to fill a Phillip Dorsett-type roll for New England, with much better potential on underneath routes.
After that, second-year undrafted men Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers return as project players that likely will be thrown into the fire once more.
The pass-catching group is far from scary to opposing defenses. New England at least drafted two tight ends in the third round — Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene — in attempt to fix perhaps the worst position group on any team last season, and that’s not a hyperbole.
Asiasi (6-3, 260 pounds) has pass-catching potential as an athletic ‘Y’ who should find some success in the seams as well as the middle of the field. Newton’s No. 1 target for much of his tenure in Carolina was tight end Greg Olsen, and although that’s way too high of a production projection for Asiasi in Year 1, the rookie could find a role as a security blanked for Newton at times. His potential is burgeoning as an NFL tight end after a so-so college career at Michigan and UCLA.
Keene, 6-4, 251 pounds, projects as more of an off-line, H-Back option with fullback potential.
Believe it or not, Keene could be the biggest indicator of where the Patriots see this offense going with Cam.
If it doesn't happen, feel free to laugh at me, but I feel like the #Patriots are building an O in need of hybrid H-back/wing backs that caters to Pistol formation stuff CAR/Cam Newton worked with.
When New England drafted Keene out of Virginia Tech, not to toot my own horn, I immediately thought of him as an H-back that fit in shotgun and pistol formations that were heavily utilized in some of Newton’s best seasons in Carolina.
But as months went by without an announced New England-Newton pairing, many, including myself, began to wonder if the Patriots were building a Kyle Shanahan-esque offense around second-year man Jarrett Stidham.
Think of San Francisco and Minnesota. An offense revolving around the running game, with under-center formations featuring outside zone, pulling guards, an athletic pass-catching fullback, tons of pre-snap motion and play-action passes designed to freeze linebackers after they’ve been gashed by the run. An easy game plan for a young quarterback, essentially.
There may still be some of that with Newton under center, but that doesn’t seem like a productive staple with a QB that athletic and talented.
At the time, the Patriots were also expecting “Superback” Danny Vitale to be the team’s fullback, but he has since opted out.
Now, New England fields Keene and second-year man Jakob Johnson, who is from Germany and is part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program.
Neither is a bulldozing lead-blocking extraordinaire a la James Develin, but Johnson should improve as a capable traditional fullback in Year 2.
As for Keene, his presence to me indicates that New England is envisioning using a lot of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) or 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), depending on how Keene is viewed, or used. Keene may not even play often to start, especially with the offseason as it was, but eventually, expect the Patriots to use him at both fullback and H-Back/wingback.
This puts Newton and the Patriots tinkering with a heavy dose of shotgun, pistol and other formations featured around multiplicity and Newton’s ability to run the football both in designed plays and when improvising on passing downs.
Sure, New England will still utilize a traditional 11 set (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) at times. Edelman will likely see a slight down tick in snaps due to his age, but he should be on the field for most of the game, leaving Harry and Byrd fighting for time in 2-WR sets and both being used, with Edelman, in 11 personnel. Both Olszewski and Meyers each factor in as Z-receiver (flanker)/slot hybrids behind Edelman.
In 2018, the Panthers ran 11 personnel on 69 percent of snaps. Only eight teams used it more. But because of the Patriots’ current personnel, and lack of talent at wide receiver, expect Belichick to only use principles of Norv Turner’s Panthers offense from 2018. This will only be a slice of the pie, like the potential limited usage of Shanahan offensive concepts.
New England does field a diverse set of running backs, even if they are banged up some heading into the season. Sony Michel and Damien Harris should battle for lead back carries when Harris returns from injured reserve. White will be the third-down back, and Rex Burkhead will factor in both in the running and passing game as a do-it-all option who may be heavily utilized early (September) and late (December, January…February?) as a safe option in big games because of his versatility. But New England will likely limit his playing time to keep him fresh. And then there’s undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor, a 5-foot-5 mighty mouse who is currently on the roster.
Here are two interesting notes from a recent episode of The Athletic Football Podcast via NFL’s Next Gen Stats:
With Michel on the field, New England ran the football 67 percent of the time in 2019. That’s the highest percentage for such a stat among running backs with at least 200 snaps last season.
Additionally, with White on the field, the Patriots ran a passing play on roughly 82 percent of snaps last season, which was good for fifth-highest among running backs.
If the offense is going to become less predictable by personnel, Michel will have to improve some as a pass catcher. But at the very least, you’d like to see him run wild in cold weather like he did down the stretch in 2018.
Basically, look for the Patriots to run the heck out of the football in 2020, and for them to do it out of a variety of formations, including many unique looks out of the shotgun. They may even roll with shotgun formations with both Burkhead and Michel in the backfield. Or Burkhead and White. Or all three.
Really, everything revolves around Belichick and Josh McDaniels once again to design a new offense with unique concepts, this time around a different QB.
Luckily for Newton, his NFL home is now full of men more adept than any other when it comes to tailor-made offensive game plans revolving around quarterbacks. And even better, Belichick and McDaniels have done this at a chameleon-like level of versatility, and they have done it on the fly.
Zone-reads, RPOs, designed QB runs. The Patriots will likely try to do it all with Newton. In a perfect world only in Belichick’s mind, the Patriots would run the football at a 2019 Baltimore Ravens level, plowing over teams on the way to the end zone.
No one really knows how Newton will fare as a runner in 2020. But you can bet that New England will look into it.
Additionally, Newton’s ability to tuck and run will encourage teams to play more zone coverage this season. Gone will be the days of 2019 where teams used man coverage across the board, doubling White or Edelman and blanketing New England’s passing game.
Newton should be able to buy time and find the open man, which will often be zone coverage spatial awareness mastermind, Edelman.
The Patriots will do this all behind an offensive line that will return center David Andrews to provide a stout interior core with guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. Isaiah Wynn should improve as the team’s left tackle and with long-time right tackle Marcus Cannon sitting out this season, it looks like the Patriots may be relying on former Ravens guard Jermaine Eluemunor to play right tackle.
There is slightly less pressure on these tackles’ ability to pass block with Newton than there would be with Brady because of Newton’s ability to scramble, but the Patriots are still looking for strong play out of their O-line. This unit needs to be the constant. I suggest minimal problems with run blocking, at least.
The most exciting thing about this Patriots season is the offense under Newton. With no preseason games and a limited offseason, no one really knows what we’ll see. But we can make educated guesses, like I have here.
When Evan Lazar of CLNS Media asked what the offense will look like with him at quarterback, Newton smirked and gave this response: “Nobody knows, and nobody is going to know. You’ll just have to tune in and see.”
We’ll find out this Sunday.
Week 1 Projected offense:
QB — Cam Newton
RB — Sony Michel
FB/H-Back — Jakob Johnson/Dalton Keene
‘X’ WR — N’Keal Harry
‘Z’ WR/Slot — Julian Edelman
TE — Devin Asiasi
LT — Isaiah Wynn
LG — Joe Thuney
C — David Andrews
RG — Shaq Mason
RT — Jermaine Eluemunor
Scatback — James White
WR3 — Damiere Byrd
WR4/Slot WR — Gunner Olszewski
WR5 — Jakobi Meyers
RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead
RB3 — Damien Harris
Scatback — J.J. Taylor
Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo
Swing Tackle — Yodney Cajuste
* * * * * * *
Unlike the offense, which will see somewhat of an overhaul, New England will likely use some of the same concepts on defense, just with different personnel.
By now, everyone’s aware of key opt-outs in linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung. New England should be able to get by without Chung, but losing Hightower could be a breaking point for a front seven that already lost linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, as well as nose tackle Danny Shelton.
The Patriots switched to formations with 3-4 principles in 2019 because of their personnel. Because of their current personnel and shortened offseason, it’s worth wondering if Belichick will switch to more of a 4-3 concept, like he did when the NFL last had a shortened offseason in 2011 due to CBA discussions. Obviously, teams mostly use Nickel as their base in today’s game, but depending on how the Nickel defense is utilized, it will feature principles from the ole 3-4 or 4-3 looks.
In the front seven, only Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler return as consistent, sure things. Guy is versatile and has proven his worth by taking on multiple defenders up front, and Butler is a solid interior rusher who is steadily improving as a run defender. After that, it’s a mystery.
Beau Allen was brought in to replace Danny Shelton at nose tackle, but Allen is currently on IR, ensuring he’ll miss at least the first three weeks. Deatrich Wise Jr.’s playing time decreased in 2019 due to a poor scheme fit, but the fourth-year defensive lineman has had a solid camp, and apparently has beefed up, meaning he may be able to slide into an interior role. Then there’s Byron Cowart, a fifth-round pick from last year who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation out of high school in 2015. The talent is there for Cowart, who could surprise as a fixture next to Guy up front in Nickel 2-4-5 sets.
Last season, New England generated a pass rush schematically by using Guy and other defensive lineman to eat up blockers up front, allowing Van Noy, Collins, Hightower and others to shoot the edge and gaps to rush the passer. If New England is to do the same this season, they’ll need a big second-year jump from EDGE Chase Winovich, who tallied 5.5 sacks on limited snaps as a rookie sub rusher in 2019.
Winovich is a little light to stop physical rushing attacks, but opposite him is strongman John Simon, who is entering his third season with the Patriots in sort of a Rob Ninkovich role. He is a strong-side EDGE defender who is versatile enough to play both stand-up or on the line. New England often switched their Nickel 2-4-5 into a 3-4 look last season in pre-snap. They’d bring Chung up into a linebacker role and have Simon play stand-up 3-4 defensive end, which looks unusual but was very effective for Belichick’s defense last season.
They’ll need Simon and rookie Anfernee Jennings to set the edge in the run game. Jennings projects to fill Van Noy’s in run defense only, but most likely won’t produce a pass rush anywhere near Van Noy’s 2019 level, nor will he play as many snaps as Van Noy did for New England last season.
In the middle of the defense, Ja’Whaun Bentley will need to evolve from part-time thumper linebacker to a full-time role as the front seven’s leader. He’ll essentially slide into Hightower’s role, but will be used a bit differently. And former New York Jet Brandon Copeland should factor in as an off-ball option, and perhaps the same with rookie sixth-round draft pick Cassh Maluia.
Then there’s Josh Uche, the team’s second-round pick out of Michigan. Uche played limited snaps in Michigan, but was a superb pass rusher, where he was opposite Winovich at one point. New England loves versatile players, and Uche will bring just that as a defender who will likely spend time as an off-ball linebacker on early downs and EDGE defender on passing downs. He’ll rush from both spots, and play some middle-of-the-field zone coverage, and perhaps, cover running backs.
Essentially, Uche will be used in Collins’ role from last season. Because of the lack of experience and depth at linebacker and EDGE, the Patriots are banking on Uche to learn quickly.
The linebacking core also signals that the Patriots will likely have instances where they use a ton of safeties on the field at the same time. Like last season, they’ll use a lot of three-safety packages in the form of Big Nickel and Big Dime. They’ll use multiple safeties in the box as psuedo-linebackers, and turn around and use those same players as traditional safeties.
New England’s versatile set of safeties — Phillips, rookie Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks, Devin McCourty — can all play in the box, in attempts to field a faster defense congruent with some of the spread offenses in today’s game.
May this group, and the league’s best set of cornerbacks, limit high-flying spread offenses such as the Chiefs? Yes. Could they slow down Jackson and the Ravens by utilizing a ton of safeties at once (like the Chargers did in 2018) as opposed to last season’s unsuccessful heavy, stack-the-box personnel? Possibly.
But a team like the Titans could make mince meat out of this type of defense behind a 30-carry performance from bruising back Derrick Henry. Like always, Belichick will mix and match defensive game plans by the week.
In that case, it helps to have a constant in the league’s best group of cornerback and overall secondary. The Patriots should continue to rely on man coverage. According to PFF, New England has used Cover 1 more than any other franchise since 2015. Last year, they nearly perfected it with their versatile group of pass defenders.
Stephon Gilmore, 30, remains the game’s best cornerback and perhaps the NFL’s best non-QB, non-Aaron Donald football player. He’ll continue to shut down opposing receivers in given assignments.
Opposite him, J.C. Jackson should overtake Jason McCourty as the team’s No. 2 cornerback on the outside, but both will get ample playing time, with Jonathan Jones manning the slot and occasionally playing two-deep safety, which he has done over the last two seasons (see: Super Bowl 53). Then there’s last year’s second-round pick, Joejuan Williams, a 6-foot-4 matchup piece that is learning the safety position.
It will be interesting to see how New England plays in the back end. The Patriots primarily used Duron Harmon as the lone deep safety last season, with McCourty moving up as a robber.
This season, New England can opt to keep McCourty as the free safety in Cover 1 or use Dugger in Harmon’s place. Dugger, and Phillips, are each certainly capable of filling Harmon’s old role. But it’s Dugger, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound athletic force, who may fit best there. Still, Dugger may find himself in man coverage on the likes of Travis Kelce and other tight ends who are unleashed as jumbo wide receivers out of the slot.
Like the offense, there is a sense of mystery on how the defense will line up, but you can bet a lot of Belichick’s old trends will factor in. The only wonder is whether the front seven will rely heavily on a Nickel 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles, or more of a Nickel defense with 4-3 principles, but in the secondary, the Patriots will continue to play to their strengths by applying man coverage and often using three-safety packages.
Week 1 Projected defense:
Interior — Lawrence Guy
Interior — Adam Butler
EDGE — Chase Winovich
EDGE — John Simon
LB/EDGE — Josh Uche
LB — Ja’Whaun Bentley
CB1 — Stephon Gilmore
CB2 — J.C. Jackson
Slot CB — Jonathan Jones
S — Kyle Dugger
S — Devin McCourty
3-4 Nose Tackle — Beau Allen
Interior — Bryan Cowart
Sub EDGE/Interior Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr.
LB — Brandon Copeland
EDGE/LB — Anfernee Jennings
S/LB (‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Adrian Phillips
S/LB (‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Terrence Brooks
CB3 — Jason McCourty
CB4/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams
* * * * * * *
Projected record: 10-6 (AFC’s No. 3 seed)
Despite Brady’s departure, the mass exodus in the defense and the possible ascension of the talented Buffalo Bills, the Patriots still have Belichick and a former NFL MVP at quarterback.
The defense will need to remain a top-five unit and Newton will need not only to be healthy, but also capable of elevating a sub-par group of pass catchers. He’s done this before in Carolina. If the Patriots can establish a solid and unique rushing attack, Newton should be able to make enough plays for the Patriots to surprise many on offense.
Prognosticators have been a bit harsh on New England’s chances this season. Yes, the Bills are more talented, but there’s a good chance an inferiority complex kicks in as soon as the Patriots establish an offensive identity and begin to roll, in which they will at some point this season — most likely down the stretch after a tough early-season schedule.
For these Patriots, a 12th straight AFC East title is in play, as well as a trip to the AFC Divisional Round. After that, the likes of Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh will make it tough for them to go any further. Divisional weekend seems like a good bet for this team, which isn’t bad for a re-tooling (not re-building) year.
Perhaps when the dust settles on the upcoming 2020 NFL season (if there indeed is a season) the most important date of the league’s 101st campaign may end up being a day that has already passed.
On the start of free agency, and over a month before the draft, Tom Brady announced he would be leaving Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots after 20 seasons and six Super Bowl rings with the team.
On that same date, the Carolina Panthers botched their wishful-thinking-based PR move by taking to social media to announce that they were allowing Cam Newton, their NFL MVP quarterback of nine seasons, to seek a trade, which was news to Newton.
After the goodbyes and initial dust settled on Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, many wondered — “Cam Newton to New England?”
We speculated. We wished. We became enamored with the idea.
But as days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and that included a NFL Draft where the Patriots passed on drafting a quarterback. By then, most of the media and the Patriots’ fan base talked themselves into 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham as the heir to Brady’s throne, with Brian Hoyer, who is back in New England for a third time, as the backup and mentor.
Now, as of the very end of June, another former Auburn quarterback is the favorite to become New England’s first QB1 in their post-Brady era.
It was a weird time for this move to finally take shape. But these are weird times, indeed. Which is why New England, who reportedly had the least amount of cap space in the NFL before this deal (under $1 million), is somehow signing Newton to an incentive-heavy deal that caps out at $7.5 million over one season. This is during an offseason where the Detroit Lions signed Chase Daniel, a quarterback with five career starts, to a three-year, $13.5 million contract to backup Matthew Stafford.
New England will need to make moves via trades, cuts or extensions — Joe Thuney before July 15? — to be at a realistic cap figure by season’s start, but Belichick almost certainly has a plan.
And although the timing of this signing suggests Belichick simply gave in to the ultimate bargain in Newton, and was willing to ride with Stidham or Hoyer, it appeared New England was building an offense that fits a quarterback with Newton’s skill set.
If it doesn't happen, feel free to laugh at me, but I feel like the #Patriots are building an O in need of hybrid H-back/wing backs that caters to Pistol formation stuff CAR/Cam Newton worked with.
In Carolina, the Panthers often used Pistol formations that often employed off-line tight ends and H-back/wing back-like players, and Carolina utilized many RPO’s and zone-reads to maximize Newton’s dual-threat skill set.
In the signing of uber-athletic fullback Danny Vitale, and drafting of do-everything H-Back Dalton Keene in the third round out of Virginia Tech, Belichick now has a couple players that fit a Pistol-type scheme.
Additionally, Sony Michel, whose name is a hotbed for controversy — was he worth a first-round pick in 2018? — among the New England fan base, had great success with shotgun, inside zone runs while at the University of Georgia. It would take some practice, but Michel and Newton could thrive a shotgun, zone-read system.
Either with Newton, or Stidham, New England was surely shifting their offense to where they’ll include a mix of Kyle Shanahan-infused concepts (outside zone, heavy motion, bootleg, heavy play-action). They may still lean that way with Newton, but perhaps with a touch of what Baltimore is doing with Lamar Jackson. There will be more designed runs, either via zone-read or by power rushing, to utilize Newton’s skills. We can’t forget, Newton forced more missed tackles (110), ran for more yards (4,806) and more rushing touchdowns (58) than any other quarterback in the 2010’s.
But Newton can also play in the pocket.
While under center, Newton is capable of running bootlegs and reading defenses on play-action concepts that work off a well-oiled rushing attack. In fact, Newton would bet set up for more success in those concepts than he ever was in Carolina, as the Patriots are poised to have one of the league’s better offensive lines with a stout interior, as long as they keep Thuney.
Julian Edelman and James White are the most reliable targets on offense in New England. Both players thrived with Brady. Newton and Brady are different types of passers, but the former 2015 NFL MVP could become successful with some of the timing routes that the veterans were accustomed to with Brady. We saw some of that with Newton throwing to McCaffrey on angle and option routes out of the backfield when the Panthers stared 6-2 in 2018, the last time Newton looked like, well, Newton.
The pass catcher who stands the most to gain with Newton is 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry.
One of Cam’s best qualities is his ability to throw the slant pass to bigger wide receivers. In fact, Newton is one of the best all time passers of that route, rifling the ball in to the perfect spot to the likes of Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin in the past. Harry, a big-bodied (6-foot-4, 2225 pounds) jack-of-all-trades receiver who projects as the Patriots’ top ‘X’ or boundry receiver, should receiver a big boost in his sophomore campaign with Newton, as he projects as a better fit with him than Brady, due to his skills.
Elsewhere, Mohamed Sanu, rookie tight end Devin Asiasi, Rex Burkhead and Damiere Byrd, Newton’s teammate for four years at Carolina, would also been the mix in a Newton-led offense, and each is a pass catcher capable of building a legitamite rapport with Cam.
In a league with unique talents of all kinds at quarterback (Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers) now, Newton at his best is uniquely like no other. His peak is perhaps a much more athletic, and better version of Ben Roethlisberger, although he is not as consistent as Big Ben.
But his surrounding help by the way of front office, coaching and personnel, and injury luck had a say in his inconsistency.
In fact, Newton, 31, has lost his last eight starts, and has played just 16 games over the past two seasons, after missing just three games in his first seven seasons in Carolina.
He’s had multiple surgeries to correct a Lisfranc injury that derailed his 2019 season, and shoulder issues that that nagged him before that. In all, he’s had major surgery three different times since 2017.
But judging by his social media posts detailing his workouts and status, it appears Newton is ready to go. He’s eager to prove the Panthers, and the rest of the league that more MVP-level seasons remain in his future. And he’s joining the perfect team to do so. A team with the best head coach in the history of football, and an offensive coordinator in Josh McDaniels that changes offensive schemes and game plans on the fly like no other.
In fact, McDaniels drafted Tim Tebow in 2010 when he was the head coach of the Denver Broncos, and conduced a workout for Lamar Jackson himself during the lead up to the 2018 NFL Draft, in which the Patriots were reportedly interested in the dual-threat NFL MVP.
Another thing to keep in mind was how interested the #Patriots and, in particular, Josh McDaniels were in Lamar Jackson leading up to that draft. The teams held multiple interviews with him & were intrigued by the possibilities. McD has liked the idea of a mobile QB for some time
It appears McDaniels, and maybe Belichick, have been itching for this moment. A chance to show what they could do with a new-age franchise quarterback who is just as dangerous as a runner as he is a passer.
Even Newton at 70 percent effectiveness is an upgrade over Stidham, and is good enough to challenge, and defeat the Buffalo Bills for the AFC East crown, and perhaps, challenge the likes of the Chiefs, Ravens and Steelers (yes, Pittsburgh will be good) in the AFC, just as they’ve done the past 20 years with Brady at the helm.
Newton to the Patriots always made too much sense, even if New England seemingly wasn’t interested, and risked the chance of Newton signing elsewhere. Eventually, New England got their man. And with an offensive that has begun to lean more on the running game since the latter half of the 2018 season, adding Newton would solidify their move to power-rushing concepts and unique rush-heavy game plans that use concepts from San Francisco and Baltimore’s attacks. As the league has moved to smaller, faster players on defense, Belichick has loaded up on full backs, tight ends, and now, Newton, while passing on drafting a wide receiver, opting to stick with 34-year-old Edelman and 31-year-old Sanu as his top targets.
With last year’s No. 1 defense in both points allowed and total yardage returning on a slightly re-tooled front seven, the Patriots are competent quarterback play away from remaining one of the NFL’s top contenders, and with the chance of Newton being much more than just competent, there’s always a chance that this could become a special season.
Of course, the still-going pandemic of COVID-19 seems to be on the uptick once more, leaving the league vulnerable to a push back, or shortened season, if there is a season at all, no matter how many league statements are made in June in July. As it is, the current landscape makes it harder for newer players to get up to speed. There’s always the extremely slim chance that Stidham beats out Newton for the job, and New England cuts ties with Newton before Week 1.
But assuming the latter, and highly unlikely scenario happens, and the league finds a way to start on time during the Coronavirus outbreak, Newton and the Patriots now rival Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the Bucs as the two most interesting stories in the league, by far.
On March 17th, the Patriots were without a NFL MVP-level quarterback. It was an odd three and a half months. And now, the odd couple of Newton and the Patriots feels just right.
Because of the litany of reports, mock drafts and over-speculation geared toward the NFL Draft, which remains sort of a Christmas Day for many (it’s fun!), I decided to skip out on a mock draft piece for the second straight year. Instead, I tweeted out my mock and decided to put together this more-useful draft recap, equipped with some of the league’s biggest storylines from the past week.
This year, the usual intrigue of the draft was maximized by the actual logistics and broadcast of the event itself, as COVID-19 has put a halt on our lives.
Because of our state, this “virtual” draft expectedly became the most-watched ever, drawing in a first-night record of over 15.6 million viewers across broadcast, cable and digital streaming via ABC, ESPN and NFL Network (The previous high for Round 1 was 12.4 million viewers in 2014) and reaching a record total weekend viewership of over 55 million (up 35 percent from last year).
But roughly 48 hours before the NFL Draft at its most interesting state, the unprecedented intrigue over the league’s event was temporarily hijacked by league news of Rob Gronkowski’s return to the league to play with Tom Brady on the Tampa Bay Buccaneeers.
If you scroll down, you’ll see that I tackle some of the biggest post-draft topics, with analysis stemming from Day 1 to Day 2selections, and some thoughts on Cam Newton and some of the remaining free agents, but first, lets examine the Gronk trade and the Buccaneers’ draft selections.
What are the takeaways from the Gronk return-and-trade, Buccaneers draft?
There are many takes swirling around about Brady and Gronkowski scheming together after Super Bowl 53 for Gronk to retire, avoid another year under Bill Belichick, and then return to force a trade once Brady signed with his new team a year later. Although I won’t fully dismiss those claims, I won’t get into that. Although Belichick’s program can be demanding, and it certainly appears it became taxing for Brady and Gronk down the stretch, I believe the respect between all three of them remains and will be discussed among them after all all parties are retired from the sport. As it is, both Brady and Gronk have now praised Belichick, even if lightly, in their introductory conferences with Tampa. Many are trying to twist the knife on Patriots nation, but the fact of the matter is that New England received 20 years from Brady, nine from Gronkowski, and Robert Kraft’s fanbase was able to root for the best quarterback (and player) and tight end in NFL history, all while celebrating six Super Bowl championships. The sixth Super Bowl title also offsets any revisionist talk of the Patriots ultimately not trading Gronkowski to Detroit for a haul of premium picks in 2018. The title makes it all worth it. In the end, everything was worth it. This is not the end that the Patriots organization, or its supporters envisioned for Brady’s (or Gronk’s) career, but those memories will always be there. I choose to look on the bright side. It’ll be must-see television when Brady and Gronkowski reunite for a few more touchdowns. Things could be worse.
Now, for the important stuff —
Although Gronkowski still could plug-and-play as the NFL’s best blocking tight end, his skills as the best pass catcher at the position seemed to finally diminish in 2018. Now, with a year of rest, a rejuvenated Gronk may improve on that front in 2018, but he’ll also be entering his age-31 season. Gronk is a huge get, but not as massive of a bring-in that many believe. Still, it’s an important, low-risk move that helps add to Brady’s comfortability with his new team.
As it stands, the Bucs are comfortable eating the salary cap hit of nearly $20 million and keeping tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Cam Brate and O.J. Howard. No realistic trade options surfaced, and TB wants to give Tom Brady all the matchup options he would need.
Many speculated that Gronkowski hopping onboard meant the Bucs would become more lenient in their willingness to trade OJ Howard for more realistic assets. According to a report on Sunday from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler above, that does not seem to be the case.
I believe Howard may still be dealt, even as late as the preseason, but the team seems content to holding on to all three tight ends, which also includes Cameron Brate, who took a pay cut to stick around. Howard was misused under Arians last year, but maybe Brady’s affinity for middle-of-the-field passing to athletic tight ends will force Arians to be more creative in his usage of both Gronk and Howard in an ’12’ personnel (1 running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) that would include X-receiver Mike Evans and slot/flanker hybrid Chris Godwin.
Furthermore, Gronkowski and Howard are versatile enough to play as in-line tight ends, out wide, or in the slot as ‘Y’ pass catchers. Gronk recently said his playing weight was at around 262 pounds, and he currently weighs 250.
Basically, this addition of Gronkowski, and the draft, show how committed Tampa Bay is to winning now, in the next year or two.
The team lucked out when Iowa’s plug-and-play tackle Tristan Wirfs fell out of the top 10. The Buccaneers traded up one spot to No. 13 to get their new right tackle, who I think is most pro-ready over the likes of guys like Andrew Thomas and Mekhi Becton. I thought the Giants would get Wirfs at No. 4, but they went with Thomas.
Later on, the team added a No. 3 wide receiver in Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson in Round 5. I suspected Johnson would go somewhere in the third or fourth round. I thought of him as one of the best mid-round value picks at any position. He should be good to go in the slot as a bigger option in the middle of the field, capable of coming down with tough grabs. He’ll be an excellent addition who will produce in 2020. Just watch.
Furthermore, the team added to their young-and-improving defense with the selection of versatile, safety/nickel back hybrid Antoine Winfield Jr. (whose father played as a cornerback for the Bills in the 2000s, often facing off with Brady) in Round 2.
This Buccaneers team is ready to go, and I suspect they’ll be one of the NFL’s five or six best teams, even if there is a little risk involved.
Jordan Love/Aaron Rodgers = Jimmy Garoppolo /Tom Brady
The Packers surprised many by bypassing on a wide receiver or offensive weapon in the first round, instead trading up to the No. 26 slot to select what appears to be Aaron Rodgers’ eventual successor in Utah State’s Jordan Love.
In Love, Green Bay gets a boom-or-bust, raw quarterback prospect with a strong arm and the ability to make highlight-worthy plays, but has struggled to produce consistently. Some have compared Love to Patrick Mahomes, and some have said that he was not worth selecting in the first round, or perhaps, any round.
And Green Bay opted for Love, instead of supplying a 36-year-old Rodgers with offensive help. In fact, Rodgers has been the last offensive skill position player selected (2005) by Green Bay in the first round.
Instead of the Brett Favre-Rodgers scenario that saw Rodgers, a possible No. 1 overall pick, fall into Green Bay’s lap, this situation is much more to the tune of the Tom Brady-Jimmy Garoppolo situation that began in in New England after the 2014 NFL Draft.
Brady was entering his age-37 season in 2014, and although it was more of a lack of offensive help that produced a decline in production, it appeared New England was bracing for their next franchise passer when they selected Garoppolo with the 62nd pick of the 2014 draft.
Of course, Brady outlived ‘The Patriot Way’ by fending off Garoppolo for the starting role, winning two Super Bowls with him on the roster, and reaching two more (winning one) after Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers during the 2017 midseason.
Rodgers hasn’t had a Rodgers-esque season since his near “run-the-table” affair with a severely undermanned 2016 squad, in which he led them on eight straight wins following a 4-6 start, before succumbing to a more-talented Falcons squad in Atlanta in the 2016 NFC Championship Game.
It’s more than fair to wonder if Rodgers’ best days are behind him, like we did with Brady in 2014, but there’s also a chance this ignites a fire under Rodgers for a late-career revival.
But if he is to do that, he’ll need to work with a roster that GM Brian Gutekunst and head coach Matt Lafleur have clearly built to cater to a running game in two-tight end sets.
Rodgers could end his career elsewhere, a la Favre, or Brady, or he could fend Love off until 2024 and retire then. We’ll see.
What about the Eagles and Saints’ QB rooms? Jalen Hurts? Jameis Winston?
The Eagles shocked many with their selection of Jalen Hurts with the No. 53 pick in the draft, just 11 months removed from their four-year extension of Carson Wentz that included up to $144 million, with $66 million fully guaranteed.
Philadelphia clearly sees something in the versatile, intangible-driven Hurts. Given Wentz’s injury history, Hurts is likely a safe fail in that case, but there’s also the chance that they view him as someone who can come in and produced in specialized plays like Taysom Hill, or more so, like Lamar Jackson in his rookie season when he backed up Joe Flacco.
At the very least, the Eagles may just like what they see in Hurts, and are willing to develop him to eventually challenge for the starting quarterback role, although that feels like a long shot.
The Saints opted not to draft Jordan Love, or any quarterback near the top of the draft (they drafted Mississippi State’s Tommy Stevens in the seventh round) and instead are planning to sign Jameis Winston to a one-year deal (should go through by Tuesday), while also extending Taysom Hill to the tune of a two-year, $21 million deal.
All signs point to Drew Brees, age 41, retiring at the end of this season to join NBC Sports on a lucrative broadcasting deal, meaning the Saints will be in line for a new starting quarterback in 2021. The plan appears to be them continuing to utilize Hill in his swiss army knife role, while also seeing what they have in Winston as the traditional backup quarterback to Brees.
Then, they can make a choice next offseason on Winston, Hill or both to compete for the starting role in 2021. There is also the possibility they draft a quarterback early in the draft next spring.
Brian Flores, Tua Tagovailoa and the surging Dolphins
To be frank, I love what the Dolphins are doing under Brian Flores.
Last year, many made fun of them early on, clamoring they were “tanking for Tua,” and that they were one of the worst rosters of all time. Flores had jettisoned many of the team’s talented players (Laremy Tunsil, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kenyan Drake, etc.) in favor of future capital, and after a 5-4 finish to a season that began 0-7, Miami used their five picks in the first two rounds over the weekend. Their first pick ended up being the player we thought would go to them for the past nine months.
I’m glad Miami deviated from the same decision they made when they signed Donta Culpepper over an “injured” Drew Brees in the 2006 offseason. Tua brings a lot to the table, including a versatile skill set, strong arm, new-age, dual-threat capability, and most of all, hope. Hope to a franchise and a fan base that needs it. Flores, and this selection, has instilled this.
Just a hinge of my opinion here, Dolphins fans should be optimistic about their future. They seem to be in good hands with Brian Flores and Chris Grier.
Additionally, Flores appears to be building a recent-age Patriots-like roster, giving big money to two cornerbacks (Byron Jones, Xavien Howard) capable of playing press man coverage on the outside, before using additional assets on the position in nickel back Noah Igbinoghene at the end of Round 1 (pick No. 30).
Additionally, Miami used a second-round pick on Alabama interior defensive lineman Raekwon Davis, a Belichick-esque selection to rebuild a front seven that already added former Patriots stand-up edge rusher Kyle Van Noy in free agency.
Elsewhere, Miami used a first-round pick (offensive tackle Austin Jackson, No. 18 pick) and second-round selection (guard Robert Hunt, pick No. 39) on offensive lineman to build up their big boy unit. And I even loved the Dolphins selection of Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry in Round 7, a Belichick favorite who could be utilized in a variety of special situations. He may even make the team.
Oh, and Miami has two more first-round picks, and two more in Round 2, in the 2021 draft.
Yeah…I love what they’re doing.
Team trends revealed in draft strategy
The draft also revealed some clear strategies from teams. Let’s take a look.
— The Eagles clearly were looking to upgrade their speed at the wide receiver position, with what I think was a good selection of TCU’s Jalen Raegor, a jitterbug-type player with pick No. 21, then following suit with John Hightower (Round 5) and Quez Watkins (Round 6) on Day 3. With all that, DeSean Jackson is also slated to return.
— Despite hiring offensively-driven head coach Matt Rhule, the Panthers used all seven of their selections on defense, starting with pro-ready defensive tackle Derrick Brown with the No. 7 overall pick, and later adding athletic 4-3 EDGE rusher Yetur Gratos-Moss and thumper strong safety Jeremy Chinn in Round 2.
— Despite losing Tom Brady, and a variety of defensive players, Bill Belichick and the Patriots conducted business as they always do, opting to fill needs via free agency (fullback/H-back Danny Vitale, nose tackle Beau Allen, do-it-all safety/linebacker Adrian Phillips) via a familiar and versatility-driven way. Phillips now is perhaps the most versatile piece on a defense that seemingly will be defined by that trait. He has manned up Tyreek Hill with help over top (a la Jonathan Jones) and has been used as a quarterback spy for Lamar Jackson. In the draft, the Patriots added to the theme by selecting D-II prospect Kyle Dugger first in Round 2, who seems to be Patrick Chung’s replacement as a strong safety capable of moving up into the box, or covering athletic tight ends from the slot. New England then added linebacker/EDGE defender Josh Uche, and then Anfernee Jennings in Round 3, who projects as a strong side EDGE defender in the mold of John Simon, but was moved around at Alabama. Despite an offseason of major change, New England seems to be staying the course.
— The Broncos appear to be all in on quarterback Drew Lock. I would, too. Lock went 4-1 as a starter last season, and already found a connection with No. 1, ‘X’ wide receiver Courtland Sutton and athletic tight end Noah Fant. Add in Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon as a soon-to-be two-back attack and wide receivers Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam from this draft, and you have a complete offense for Denver. They still need work on their offensive line, though.
Best of the rest — Intriguing first round picks
— The Raiders selection of Alabama burner receiver Henry Ruggs was a classic move that Al Davis would have loved. It was also a classic Jon Gruden move. Any time the Raiders take a blazing receiver, it’s more than acceptable to be skeptical, but I truly do think Ruggs is the best receiver of his class, and fits the Tyreek Hill mold. I think there were better fits for Ruggs to succeed (49ers, Broncos, Eagles) but I still think he’ll have a good career.
— The Chargers selection of Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert (No. 6 overall) was expected but now I’m wondering if they view him as a Day 1 starter, or will they ride with Tyrod Taylor, who hasn’t started a game in almost two years. Whoever it is, the pressure is on. The Chargers have a somewhat-older, win-now roster on team that lacks a significant fan base, and is moving into a new stadium this season.
— Wide receivers Jerry Jeudy (No. 15 pick, Broncos) and CeeDee Lamb (No. 17 pick, Cowboys) fell to spots that are good for each of them. Both will be No. 2 wide receivers with pretty solid teams. There’s some pressure on them, sure, but it’s different from each going to say, the Jets, or Raiders, as a “you better produce now!” No. 1 receiver.
— LSU linebacker Patrick Queen falling to the Ravens was their best-case scenario. Baltimore has built up their front seven that was plowed over by Derrick Henry and the Titans in the playoffs. They already had a superb secondary that rivals New England’s as one of the league’s best. They also did a fantastic job with the rest of their draft. Bravo, Ravens.
Day 2 value picks
Considered a deep draft at many positions (particularly at wide receiver), there were some interesting Day 2 selections in Rounds 2 and 3.
The disciples of Bill Belichick made some solid Patriot-like selections in the second round, with the Lions taking Georgia running back D’Andre Swift to split time with Kerryon Johnson, the Giants nabbed versatile Alabama safety Xavier McKinney, and the Dolphins added to a solid draft by beefing up their interior defensive line with Alabama’s Raekwon Davis. All three seemed like fits in New England.
#Colts have one of the NFL’s best run-blocking O-lines and many saw Jonathan Taylor as the best pure runner in this draft.
Other solid Day 2 picks in my mind were the Colts adding to their offense with X-receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (USC) and bully running back Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), the Panthers selecting the Kam Chancellor-esque Jeremy Chinn (Southern Illinois), the Patriots snagging the versatile Josh Uche (Michigan, teammate of Chase Winovich) as a Jamie Collins replacement, and the Broncos continuing to build around Drew Lock with selections of receiver K.J. Hamler (Penn State) and top center/guard prospect Lloyd Cushenburry (LSU).
After that, I liked the Saints pick of EDGE rusher Zach Baun (Wisconsin), who slid to Round 3 presumably after a drug test mishap, and Washington’s pick of do-it-all, running back/receiver Antonio Gibson out of Memphis in the third round.
Where will Cam Newton end up?
The most fascinating soon-to-be Summer storyline is the potential landing spot for Cam Newton. Some of the more once-obvious fits like the Dolphins and Chargers are presumably out after drafting passers in the first round, and the fact that the Bears traded draft capital for Nick Foles and his contract back when Newton was available also speaks volumes.
At this point, for Newton, we’re looking at two “I guess this kinda make sense?” fits in Washington and the Jaguars, two under-the-radar, possible suitors in the Bills and Broncos, and two “this makes too much sense” wild card fits in the Patriots and Steelers.
In Buffalo and Denver, there are young and near-established franchise quarterbacks in Josh Allen and Drew Lock. It appears the Broncos love Lock, and after his 4-1 record as a starter as a rookie, they have every reason to. I don’t think they’d like to ruffle the feathers by bringing in Newton. Allen has shown his value as a football player at quarterback, but he hasn’t necessarily improved too much as a passer. With heavy assets invested in a wide receiver trio of Stefon Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley, and a superb, top-flight defense, the Bills are ready to win the AFC East now, and possibly more than that. Maybe they’d like an insurance plan at quarterback in case Allen has a set back, or doesn’t pan out? Plus, the Bills head coach, Sean McDermott, was Carolina’s defensive coordinator during most of Newton’s tenure in Charlotte.
If it doesn't happen, feel free to laugh at me, but I feel like the #Patriots are building an O in need of hybrid H-back/wing backs that caters to Pistol formation stuff CAR/Cam Newton worked with.
As for the Patriots, they’d have to open up cap space by cutting veterans (Mohamed Sanu, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon, Rex Burkhead) or by trading guard Joe Thuney for draft capital in 2021. If they were to open up the space, the idea of a rejuvenated, motivated Newton joining the Patriots on a one-year, prove-it deal, for say, $9 to $12 million sounds appealing. No offense is more effective at using a chameleon-like approach as Josh McDaniels’ bunch in New England, meaning it likely wouldn’t be hard for them to cater their offense toward Newton. Pairing Newton with one of the league’s top defenses would put New England right back on the map. The Patriots passed on all quarterbacks in the draft, but picked up two undrafted rookie free agents at the position, to bring the total to four at the position for them. Still, I smell there’s a chance for Newton to end up in New England once he’s able to come in for a physical, and once the Patriots open up some cap space. Vegas seems to agree.
FYI nothing has changed here. The Patriots haven't shown any interest in signing Cam Newton, per source. https://t.co/z4s67JOSC6
But more level-headed minds, and usually-locked-in reporters don’t seem to agree. The Athletic’s Jeff Howe remains adamant through his source, that the Patriots continue to express zero interest in Newton. Still, call it a hunch, or maybe overly-wishful thinking, but I think Newton to the Patriots is a situation that bears monitoring, maybe even well into the summer.
The Steelers have built a solid defense and may be in need of another quarterback in 2021. This seems like the end of the road for 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger. I thought Jalen Hurts would have been a good fit for Pittsburgh in Round 2, but he wound up on Pennsylvania’s other NFL franchise. If Newton can be happy in a backup role, with a chance to take over in 2021, I think Pittsburgh would be a good fit.
The end of July brings forth the smell of fresh grass (or turf), practice jerseys, helmets, and a renewed sense of hope for 31 NFL franchises and their fans, and a persisting rash of confidence for the New England Patriots.
The foundation for the eventual Super Bowl LIV champion is being built in these hot summer days. The team in-line for the biggest turnaround this season is the San Francisco 49ers, who received welcoming news when franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was cleared for his first two practices over the weekend. After a promising 2017 campaign in which Garoppolo led the 49ers to five straight wins to end the year, Jimmy GQ suffered a torn ACL in a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs last season. The injury dashed any hopes of a successful season in San Francisco, and now, the Niners hope Garoppolo can lead the franchise back to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Considering Garoppolo is entering the second-year of a massive five-year, $137 million deal — the largest in NFL history at the the time — the pressure is on to make the postseason. Perhaps more pressure to succeed than any other passer in 2019. The 49ers even have an ‘escape’ clause in his deal that can be used this offseason. But behind Jimmy and offensive wizard Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco will exceed the hype by making it back to the playoffs, while simultaneously shocking the world via a run to the NFC West title over the Los Angeles Rams.
In Garoppolo and a bolstered defensive line, San Francisco is built like a successful modern day club in their ability to pass and rush the passer. Nick Bosa, the second overall pick in this past NFL draft, joins the newly-acquired Dee Ford (13 sacks in 2018) and the underrated DeForest Buckner to form a vaunted front. Coupled with the addition of Kwon Alexander to a previously-underwhelming linebacker core, and a dangly duo of 6-foot-3 cornerbacks in Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon, the Niners are set to surprise many on defense.
But the games will be won on offense under Garoppolo and a few new offensive pieces. Although the team missed out on the Odell Beckham Jr. trade sweepstakes, San Francisco has the NFL’s best tight end in George Kittle, giving them an A-level playmaker to build their pass-catching arsenal around. Marquise Goodwin returns as Garoppolo’s most reliable receiver, and Dante Pettis should be the starting ‘X’ receiver. But the team invested in two more potential starters in the draft in second-round pick Deebo Samuel and third-round choice Jalen Hurd.
Hurd (6-foot-5, 227 pounds) projects as both a ‘big slot’ receiver and hybrid tight end/H-back. He has excellent leaping ability and after-the-catch skills for a former college fullback (as a freshman at Tennessee). Shanahan has raved about the fiesta Hurd this offseason, and will scheme up creative ways to use him. Samuel (5-foot-10, 214 pounds) is more likely to have immediate success out of the two rookies. He’s a combination of a ‘Z’ and slot receiver capable of becoming Garoppolo’s second-best pass catcher as a rookie in Shanahan’s scheme. His stout, muscular frame, route-running and feel for the position make him one of the more intriguing young receivers in the game. He’ll fit right in under Shanahan’s scheme.
Deebo Samuel is one of the best route runners of the 2019 NFL draft class and he is going to be a problem.
San Francisco’s backfield will have a new feel thanks to the addition of Tevin Coleman, a Shanahan product from the Falcons, as the team’s lead back who can contribute as both a lead rusher and a pass catcher. And additionally from Jerrick McKinnon, who will play his first snaps with the team this year after suffering a Torn ACL last offseason. McKinnon will nicely compliment Coleman as the team’s passing back who is capable of being the team’s feature back depending on the opponent. Then. of course, there’s Matt Brieda. The 49ers will mix and match with this group throughout the year.
In conclusion — San Francisco is immediately ready for a turnaround, but they’ll have to get through a tough NFC West, which may retake the title of the NFL’s toughest division this season, a title the group held from 2012 to 2015. But the Los Angles Rams are due for a slight dip after a catasprhic end to last year’s promising season, while Seattle is still re-tooling, despite having the ridiculously-good trio of Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. And then there’s Arizona. The Cardinals will be surprisingly feisty, but are a club whose success will be in the future.
Barring any unforeseen major injuries, the NFC West will finish like this:
San Francisco (11-5)
Los Angeles Rams (10-6)
The Rams will make the postseason as a wild card but the Seahawks will fall just short of football in January. They can thank the 49ers — a team primed to create havoc in 2019.
Quarterbacks under most pressure in 2019
To pull from earlier in the column — Jimmy Garoppolo is among the most quarterbacks under the most pressure this season. But who else is with him?
Kirk Cousins — Cousins had a disappointing 2018 campaign in which the Vikings missed the playoffs despite fielding one of the NFL’s most talented rosters. Additionally, the Vikings have arguably the best one-two punch at wide receiver in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Minnesota may be in need of a change if they fall short of the playoffs for the second year in a row with Cousins at the helm.
Jameis Winston — The former No. 1 overall pick enters his fifth season and has yet to evolve into a top-tier quarterback. In fact, Winston has been just bad for various stretches of the past few seasons. Will Bruce Arians bring the best out of Winston in the final year of his contract?
Marcus Mariota — The second overall pick after Winston in the same draft faces a similar situation this year. Also entering the last year of his contract, can Mariota lead the Titans to the postseason? Tennessee has invested in a bevy of receiving weapons to his arsenal these past two offseasons in 2017 first-round pick Corey Davis, scatback Dion Lewis, and now rookie A.J. Brown and Adam Humphries. The issue is the AFC South is the most complete division from top to bottom. All four teams have a shot at the division title, making Mariota’s road to success pretty difficult.
Derek Carr — The addition of Antonio Brown and the impending move to Las Vegas puts a sense of urgency into Carr’s ability to return to his 2016 form (or better) this season. One more subpar year and it will be Carr who the Raiders cut ties with, before head coach Jon Gruden.
Cam Newton — I differentiated these next two passers from the rest because their jobs are not yet in jeopardy to the point of the aforementioned passers. But still, these clubs are very much in a ‘win-now’ mode, and are counting on their All-Pro quarterbacks for success. Newton’s right shoulder status caused the Panthers to draft West Virginia product Will Grier in the third round this season. Newton seemingly looks good to go. He’ll need better protection from an offensive line that’s failed him over the past few seasons. In Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers have one of the best young players in football, while the combo of D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel at receiver should also take off this season. Add in a re-tooled defensive line and Carolina seems primed for success, but they’ll have to battle two of the most talented teams in football, the Saints and Falcons, to carve out a postseason path. Will Newton get the Panthers back to the playoffs?
Carson Wentz — Had Wentz not went down with a torn ACL in 2017 he would have undoubtedly won the NFL MVP award. But would he have led the Eagles to the Super Bowl like his former backup quarterback Nick Foles? That’s the question that Philadelphia and the rest of the NFL world will bring up of Wentz until be brings this talented team to a title. The Eagles enter this season on a very short list of the most complete teams in football. Only the Chargers, Bears and Saints are relatively close. Add in the return of speedy deep threat DeSean Jackson and feature back Jordan Howard to an arsenal of Alshon Jeffrey and Zach Ertz, and you have an offensive machine in the wings. Like Newton, Wentz’s job is not immediately in jeopardy, but a failure to beat out the Cowboys for the NFC East title would raise major questions in the city of brotherly love.
How will Patriots employ Michael Bennett?
Patriots fans can rest easy as the team’s prime offseason acquisition, defensive end Michael Bennett, arrived at training camp yesterday, flying in that morning from Hawaii.
“I didn’t retire,” Bennett told the media after practice. “I heard everybody say I retired. I was laughing at home.”
Bennett was all smiles after practice, but rest assured, he won’t be causing much laughing from his opponents this season, especially with the ways Bill Belichick and the staff must be scheming him to rush the passer.
Where might Bennett line up this season? Most likely, he’ll move all along the defensive line. Bennett has had success lined up in a ‘wide’ formation way outside the tackle, right along the tackle as a traditional defensive end, and as an interior rusher in clear pass rush situations.
The Patriots would love to employ Bennett as inside rusher on passing downs with sub Adam Butler, the team’s only other rusher who has shown consistent success up the middle. But New England is thin on the edge with Deatrich Wise Jr. and Rob Ninkovich-types John Simon and rookie Chase Winovich. They’re clearly lacking a true presence on the outside, meaning Bennett will surely see most of his snaps as a traditional edge rusher, while sometimes moving inward to rush the passer on say, a 3rd-and-8 scenario.
But what if the Patriots are scheming up a new base defense. They’ve re-added the athletic Jamie Collins to the fold at linebacker, and seemingly have big plans for Ja’Whaun Bentley as the ‘Thumper’ or big inside linebacker. Bentley wore the green dot reserved for coach-to-player communication for the defense on Thursday.
Add those two with full-time starters Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower and the Patriots have an influx of linebackers.
I spoke with Van Noy last month, and he stated that Belichick is trying new defenses with ‘two lineman’ suggesting all four linebackers may be involved in a defense with New England’s two best players among the defensive line, which would be defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and Bennett.
Having Guy and Bennett up front as interior lineman would give Belichick the option to put Van Noy and Hightower — who has slimmed down for what could be a new role — on the edge more often, while Bentley takes up the middle linebacker role, and Collins moves around like a rover. At times, all four linebackers could stand up right among the line, giving a confusing look for quarterbacks who would not know who will be rushing and who will be dropping back into coverage.
This ‘amoeba’ look fooled Patrick Mahomes and others last season.
The Patriots placed a big emphasis on disguising their coverages/rush schemes to confuse Kirk Cousins. Here’s what they came out in on the Vikings’ first third down. One down lineman (Flowers), three LBs, three CBs, four safeties. Tons of pre-snap movement. pic.twitter.com/SJDRdBi3O4
In this case, Bennett could see more time as an interior player than initially thought. Bennett has also surprised as a somewhat of a stout run blocker throughout his career, meaning the run defense shouldn’t suffer on his end. In all, the Patriots are receiving one of the more complete defensive ends of the past two decades. Even though Bennett turns 34 in November, New England should see similar (or better) production from Bennett, as they did from Trey Flowers.