In the lead-up to training camps, USA TODAY Sports will be breaking down the key questions facing each NFL team. Today, we look at the New England Patriots:
Has ‘The Patriot Way’ lost its way?
It’s not easy to question a franchise that’s missed the Super Bowl once in the last four seasons and won it twice in that span. But it’s hardly been smooth sailing since the end of the 2017 regular season.
In January, ESPN published a story detailing mounting tensions between coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft. A month later, the Patriots lost Super Bowl LII to the underdog Eagles, largely due to an ineffective defense that was without starting cornerback Malcolm Butler, benched by Belichick. That decision would later be criticized by several Patriots, including Brady. Since then, the team let several prominent free agents walk; tight end Rob Gronkowski and Brady skipped voluntary workouts; and Brady made passive-aggressive comments in an interview with Jim Gray about the franchise’s (lack of?) appreciation for him. The Pats did appear to reload in the draft, however recent history reveals a disturbing pattern of busts and questionable personnel decisions by Belichick, including the trade two years ago of pass rusher Chandler Jones, the NFL’s sack king in 2017 and a player New England hasn’t come close to adequately replacing.
The Patriots remain the NFL’s only 21st century dynasty, and the track record in the Belichick-Brady era suggests the team will overcome distractions, personal agendas and personnel challenges. But it’s hard to recall a time in the past 18 years when it seemed like internal issues threatened to crack the Patriots’ veneer of football invincibility.
Has Tom Brady’s supporting cast been sufficiently addressed?
What must Brady, the reigning league MVP, have been thinking over a three-week period this spring as his longtime left tackle (Nate Solder), leading rusher (Dion Lewis) and top two wide receivers in 2017 (Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola) walked out the door?
The team seems poised to bank on its new rookies. Promising first rounder Sony Michel, widely compared to Alvin Kamara prior to the draft, might actually prove a significant upgrade over Lewis. Braxton Berrios could replace Amendola’s production as a slot receiver and returner more quickly than many might expect of a sixth rounder … though Amendola’s clutch factor in the playoffs is a different story. Regardless, the return — after a four-game suspension, the offseason’s most recent setback — of Julian Edelman, who will be a year removed from his ACL tear by opening day, should largely offset any concerns in the receiving corps. Malcolm Mitchell should also be back.
The big question is the blind side. Brady has been protected almost exclusively by Matt Light and Solder throughout his career. New England’s other first rounder, Isaiah Wynn, was a left tackle at Georgia, but there are questions about whether he can handle the post in the pros. Even if he’s up to the task, there would be inherent risk having a rookie safeguard a 41-year-old quarterback.
3. Who’s going to challenge the AFC champs?
Aside from 2008, when Brady was waylaid by a knee injury on opening day, the last time New England failed to win the AFC East was 2002. And given the rampant issues elsewhere in the division, it’s fair to expect the Patriots to go 6-0 against the Bills, Dolphins and Jets, a good launch point to another No. 1 playoff seed.
But it does appear the AFC path to Super Bowl LIII could be more rugged than it’s tended to be in the post-Peyton Manning era. The Steelers remain a legitimate threat, especially if they can patch some defensive issues. But the Jaguars, who lost last year’s AFC Championship Game, Texans — they’ll get Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus back from major injuries — Chargers and maybe even the Broncos also seem capable of challenging for the throne … even if the Lombardi road still goes through Foxborough.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis