Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the New England Patriots.
What’s there to say at this point about the Patriots? Sure, they ended up losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, but that’s not going to keep them down for long. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still the quarterback and the head coach, respectively. As long as that remains the case, they’ll stay competitive at the very least.
Let’s instead talk about if there are any cracks that can be taken advantage of by other teams. Offensively, the Patriots have little-to-no worries. They had the best statistical offense in the league during 2017, including through the air. Their rushing attack also finished in the top-10. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided to stick around instead of taking an outside head coaching opportunity, so nothing will change for the unit next year.
How about the defense? Eh, not as good. The Patriots had the fourth-worst defense in football this season, mostly due to their pass coverage, which was third-worst. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has departed to take the reigns as the Detroit Lions head coach as well. Change may in the cards, especially since they have yet to select a replacement.
But does that even matter? They stormed their way to the Super Bowl in spite of having a shaky defense. The Brady/Belichick partnership seems to trump all at this point, and only a supremely balanced team like the Eagles is capable of momentarily toppling them.
For now, the Patriots are still the cream of the crop in the NFL. But as soon as Brady and/or Belichick bails for the comfort of retirement, they’d better start scrambling to begin anew. That’s a ways away, however. Maybe.
Current number of draft picks: 6 (#31 in the first round)
Cap space: $14-19 million
Notable free agents
Malcolm Butler, CB: A particularly juicy tidbit that came from the fallout of the Patriots Super Bowl loss was the benching of Butler, viewed by most as the best player in their secondary, just hours before the game. Nothing more has been revealed since, partially due to Belichick’s notorious tight-lipped nature, but the fact that it happened is still hard to fathom.
While Butler looked off at times this season, allowing 6 touchdowns in coverage, he still led the team in pass breakups with 12, also picking up 2 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles. He’ll turn 28 on Friday, so he still has plenty of solid production left in him. But that won’t be with the Patriots. Bridges have been burned.
Dion Lewis, RB: Lewis was a Pro Football Focus darling in 2017, earning the fifth-highest grade of any running back at 87.2. They also ranked him as the most elusive runner as well; their stats had him forcing 42 missed tackles. His hard stats were pretty good too.
Lewis led the team in rushing with 896 yards and 6 touchdowns, also notching 3 additional scores in the passing game. That’s all at just 500 total snaps. It’s fair to wonder what Lewis would be capable of if he was given a full-time starting role with another team.
Danny Amendola, WR: Amendola has usually been seen as a dependable if unspectacular, slot receiver propped up by Belichick’s phantom offense. His regular season stats from 2017 reflect that: 61 catches for 659 yards and 2 touchdowns.
However, he turned it on in the playoffs, leading all wideouts with 26 receptions for 348 yards in three games. He also scored as many TDs as he did in the regular season. It’s hard to predict if Amendola can maintain that kind of production going into next year, even with the Patriots. Still, it’s an encouraging sign for him as a player.
Nate Solder, T: Solder is by far the best tackle on the open market this offseason, and given how starved for offensive line talent most of the league is, the Patriots may not be able to keep him around. However, he had a bit of a down year, allowing 4 sacks and 51 pressures overall. PFF graded him at 75.7, decent but not among the elite. Still, someone will throw a lot of money at him.
James Harrison, DE/OLB: Physically, Harrison is certainly capable of maintaining a role in football, even though he’ll turn 40 before next season. However, it’s clear that he’s not an every-down pass rusher anymore. The Pittsburgh Steelers barely used him this year, only playing in five games before cutting him late in the year.
The Patriots scooped him up before the postseason, as they are known to do. Harrison did flash in New England, but that was more due to their lack of pass rushing talent than anything else. If he wants to keep playing, he should stick around in Foxboro.
DE/OLB: The Patriots were in the middle of the pack for team sacks with 35 in 2017, but it’s clear that they need new blood at edge rusher. Harrison isn’t a long-term solution, while everyone else at the position is unproven, sans Trey Flowers. This is likely an area they’ll address in the draft.
CB: The writing is on the wall. Butler is bound to depart in free agency, so the Patriots will need to find a competent replacement at some point.
T: With Solder hitting free agency, the Patriots need to make sure he doesn’t get away. Backup tackles Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle are also free agents. Fleming played well enough in relief this season to potentially get outside looks as well.
RB: Lewis isn’t the only free agent running back for the Patriots this offseason. Both Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden will be unrestricted free agents as well. The team normally uses a committee approach in the backfield, but they can’t let all three get away.
WR: Wideout depth is a plus for the Patriots, but Amendola going to free agency could cause that to slip a little. Special teamer Matt Slater is also a free agent.
QB: Brian Hoyer is an okay backup in the short term, but the Patriots do need to start thinking about an heir apparent to Brady at some point.
Best player/building block
Tom Brady, QB: Building block? How much longer is Brady going to play anyway? Until he’s 45 of course!
It’s astounding that Brady continues to perform as well as he has. 4,577 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions despite turning 40 before this season? It’s unreal. The top PFF grade for all QBs at 95.5. He even added 1,000 more yards during the playoffs. Brady will play until the Grim Reaper shows up at his doorstep, and that won’t be anytime soon. Because the Patriots are the Reaper’s favorite team.
Stephon Gilmore, CB: Maybe the Patriots have shied away from Butler because of how well Gilmore did during his first season with the team. He was balanced across the board, with 2 interceptions, 9 pass breakups, 50 total tackles and an 89.4 grade from PFF. The latter was seventh best among all corners. Then again, imagine a long-term partnership at cornerback with Butler and Gilmore.