Our 2019 NFL Preview continues to roll through the AFC East, as we stop in Foxborough, Massachusetts to check in on the reigning Super Bowl Champions, the New England Patriots. For the second time in three years, the Pats hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, the sixth time in Franchise History that the historic duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick claimed that honor. Now that the dust has settled on yet another successful campaign, how exactly do they move into what by and large should be the twilight of their dynasty? Will Brady finally succumb to the rigors of age? How will Belichick manage to replace another exodus of Free Agents and Assistant Coaches? Let’s pull back the curtain and take a glimpse at what this season may have to offer New England…
The Ageless Brady
By the time that he takes his first snap of the Regular Season, Tom Brady (65.8%, 4,355 YDS, 7.12 NY/A, 29 TD, 11 INT, 68.0 QBR) will be Forty-Two Years of age. Let that sink in for a bit, folks. At the ripe old age of Forty-One, all the future Hall-of-Famer did was complete 65.8% of his Attempts for 4,355 Yards on 7.12 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Nine Touchdowns and Eleven Interceptions, lead one of the all-time Postseason Performances in the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs, culminating in a historic Sixth Super Bowl Championship over the Los Angeles Rams. While he’s openly stated his desire to play well into his mid-40s, the three-time MVP may in fact be the first Quarterback to defy time and continue playing at a high level well into that age bracket. However, it begs the question though: will this guy ever fall off the proverbial cliff, and if so, will anyone see it coming? Here’s the thing though, despite the successes of 2018, Brady DID slip last season, albeit only marginally. His Touchdown Percentage (5.1%), Interceptions (11), and Quarterback Rating (68.0) represent his worst figures in this recent three-year run of Super Bowls, and this upcoming season he’ll not only be another year older but he’ll be without the services of All-Pro Tight End, Rob Gronkowski (47 REC, 682 YDS, 14.5 Y/R, 3 TD), who eventually announced his retirement following the triumph in Super Bowl LIII (more on that in a bit). No team manages to adapt to the situation better than the Patriots, who did exactly so in 2018, running the football far more frequently than they had in previous seasons, which preserved their veteran Quarterback for the stretch run. One would have to imagine that they’ll continue to build upon the foundations of that game plan moving forward.
The Succession Plan
Of course, with Bill Belichick at the helm, it’s anyone’s guess to what exactly that game plan may be. There is a reason that the Patriots are able to adapt so well, and that’s because the venerable Head Coach is thinking ten steps ahead of everyone else. With an aging Quarterback he took the Offense back a few decades by running the football with greater volume (and success) than in recent years; New England ranked Third in the NFL in Rushes (29.9) and Rushing Yards (127.3), both of which were up from 2017 where they ranked Eleventh (28.0) and Tenth (118.1) in those respective categories. Expect this trajectory to continue with Gronkowski retired, but more so with the presence of Offensive Coordinator, Josh McDaniels, whom once again spurned the opportunity to take over as a Head Coach somewhere else, to continue his work with Brady. After the departure of yet another high-profile Assistant, Linebackers’ Coach Brian Flores, who became the Miami Dolphins Head Coach back in late February, the widespread belief is that when Belichick finally does decide to call it quits, that McDaniels will be his successor. However, there is the matter of a successor to Brady, which doesn’t appear to be on the roster at the moment. Veteran Backup, Brian Hoyer, is merely that, while former Auburn Quarterback, Jarrett Stidham, was selected 133rd Overall in the NFL Draft. The Rookie may eventually become something great, but he’ll be firmly entrenched in the background as Brady leads the way.
Next Men Up
It’s not often that a defending champion needs to rebuild, but there is something of a revolution going in New England. If you peer past the presences of both Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and established veterans such as Super Bowl MVP, Julian Edelman (74 REC, 840 YDS, 11.5 Y/R, 6 TD), there is a rebuilding project full of young players, particularly a huge 2019 Draft Class, featuring a number of players that could very well become fixtures for years to come. Last season, Sony Michel (209 CAR, 931 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 6 TD) led the team in rushing as a Rookie, with fellow First Round Pick Isaiah Wynn paving a way in the trenches at Tackle. This season, former Arizona State product, N’Keal Harry, was selected 32nd Overall, with the expectation that the 6-4, 225-lb Wideout will help fill the void left by Gronkowski, particularly in the Red Zone. Since 2010, no player in the league had hauled in more Receiving Touchdowns than the decorated Tight End, and replacing him will no doubt be a difficult task, even for a team such as the Patriots who have made quite a habit of replacing players without so much as a hiccup. Then again, that’s even if Gronkowski actually remains retired; there is a prevailing feeling in New England that the 30-Year Old could be (and eventually will be) enticed to return to the grid iron. Time will tell, but either way, the next crop of potential Pro Bowlers is growing in Foxborough.
2019 Forecast: 11-5
After hoisting yet another Lombardi Trophy, the Patriots have no doubt locked that trophy away and are focused on the road to claiming another, and there really isn’t any reason to believe that they won’t be in contention to do so in 2019. Even if Gronkowski remains retired, Belichick and Brady’s track record suggests that they’ll be fine as they adjust the offense to better suit their personnel. Yes, there’s always a chance that Brady will finally succumb to age, but at this point, would anyone really bet against No. 12? It also needs to be stated that the schedule is far from daunting, at least not until after their Bye Week in Mid-November, giving them plenty of time to come together for the stretch run.