2018 Season Preview

Bedard: Forget the offseason, these Patriots are better than the ’17 squad

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(Adam Richins for BSJ)

By now, we can all recite the names by heart.

Malcolm Butler ... gone.
Dion Lewis ... gone.
Danny Amendola ... gone.
Nate Solder ... gone.
Brandin Cooks ... traded.

Yes, there was an exodus of talent — to a level we haven't seen in some time — that left the Patriots in one fell swoop this offseason.

The Patriots were supposed to get some immediate help via the draft, with three picks in the first two rounds (a fourth was used to trade down). But their top three picks are injured, with two (Isaiah Wynn, Duke Dawson) on IR. The other, Sony Michel, had a procedure that caused him to miss virtually all of camp and the preseason.

Free agency was a flop at receiver, as Jordan Matthews, Kenny Britt and Eric Decker couldn't even make the team.

So just in terms of addition/subtraction, the Patriots' plans to replace their former players haven't exactly gone well.

But will that really have an impact on this season? No, I'm not talking about how easy or hard their schedule might be, or their final record. None of that really matters.

What's important: Can the Patriots better their finish last season of a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles? Can they be a 60-minute team on the biggest stage, instead of the 50-minute version (they led 33-32 with 9:22 to play) that fell to Philly?

That will depend on if New England is a better team than the one that walked out of U.S. Bank Stadium with their heads bowed.

At first blush, there's no way the Patriots can be as good. Not with all those accomplished players exiting. But is that really true? Not if you go through the lineups player by player. We have, and it's hard not to come away thinking these Patriots are actually better than the '17 version.

We're not saying you're going to see the improvement on Sunday — or even in the first month, judging the way the Patriots have handled recent Septembers. And Julian Edelman's return is a factor. But even with all those departed players and disappointing high draft picks, the Patriots should be better this season.

Let's go through it:

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK

2017: Tom Brady, age 40
2018: Brady, age 41

Skinny: Brady, who led the league in attempts and yards, was the MVP last season. He posted a 102.8 rating and 73.2 QBR. There's simply little chance he can be better at his age. It will a challenge for him to match his production of last season with a lesser supporting cast, as well as his decision to ease back on his 365/24-7 obsession with football that has come to define his greatness.

Verdict: Slight minus. Won't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.

RUNNING BACK

2017: Dion Lewis/Mike Gillislee
2018: Rex Burkhead/Jeremy Hill

Skinny:

You could make the argument Lewis was the team's best offensive player on a down-to-down basis last season, but people forget the fact that he was largely a sidecar in the postseason with 49 touches in three games (zero touchdowns). But with Burkhead largely out, he didn't have much help in Gillislee. ... Burkhead has been the team's best all-around back the past two seasons, and nothing has changed there. But will he ever stay healthy? If you can tell me yes, then this could end up in the plus column — that's how good Burkhead could be. But that's wishful thinking as of today. Hill makes this closer than it should be. Maybe Michel can make an impact at some point.

Verdict: Minus ... until Burkhead can stay healthy. But this position could a very big swing spot. If Burkhead and Hill can stay on the field — to say nothing of Michel — then this could be a big upgrade. But you'd have to be a very faithful fan to take that leap, because the collective history of everyone says this could be a disaster.

THIRD-DOWN BACK

2017: James White
2018: White

Skinny: He was a great player last year, and he'll continue to be one. There is some concern, however, about whether he can withstand the punishment if the Patriots need him to do more this season. He's had 99 touches each of the past two seasons. Seems like the Patriots coaches think 100 is his lucky number.

Verdict: Even.

FULLBACK

2017: James Develin
2018: Develin

Skinny: He's a fullback and it's 2018. Next position.

Verdict: Even.

X RECEIVER

2017: Brandin Cooks
2018: Chris Hogan (after first 4 games)

Skinny: Cooks was a very good deep threat (65 catches, 1,082 yards, 7 TDs) when surrounded by a good supporting cast (does everyone agree with me now after Cooks was traded that he's just an ensemble weapon?) and needed to be schemed open. ... The Patriots don't really have an X, but Hogan will be there by default once Edelman returns. Expect the Patriots to divvy up Cooks' numbers between Hogan, Jacob Hollister, White and Cordarrelle Patterson. Doable.

Verdict: Minus. It might not show up in the regular season, but at some point, the Patriots are going to need this spot to make some plays.

SLOT RECEIVER

2017: Danny Amendola
2018: Julian Edelman

Skinny: Amendola had 87 receptions between the regular season and the playoffs. Edelman — even if he's not totally his old self — can do that in his sleep.

Verdict: Slight plus.

Z RECEIVER

2017: Chris Hogan
2018: Phillip Dorsett

Skinny: Hogan only had 43 catches between the regular and postseason. He has a little bit more ability against man than Dorsett, but the output should be comparable with some upside. I think Dorsett has a chance to be dangerous.

Verdict: Slight plus.

TIGHT END

2017: Rob Gronkowski
2018: Gronkowski

Skinny: His health seems to get better by the day thanks to the TB12 Clinic. A healthy Gronk is Beast Gronk.

Verdict: Slight plus. Could be an MVP candidate.

2ND TIGHT END

2017: Dwayne Allen
2018: Jacob Hollister

Skinny: Allen can block, but he couldn't catch a cold at this point. Hollister has a chance to be a slack-picker-upper for some of the exits. Worry about him staying healthy, however.

Verdict: Plus.

LEFT TACKLE

2017: Nate Solder
2018: Trent Brown

SkinnyWe wrote many times about how Solder wasn't exactly the player most thought he was (74 pressures allowed last year). Brown, if healthy, could be an upgrade in both run and pass blocking.

Verdict: Plus.

LEFT GUARD

2017: Joe Thuney
2018: Thuney

Skinny: Was probably the lowest-graded lineman last year after Solder, but that misses the overall point -- this line is pretty good. Was certainly no slouch. Had three rough games, but was very good in the others.

Verdict: Slight plus. Had a better camp and preseason. Should improve.

CENTER

2017: David Andrews
2018: Andrews

Skinny: Had an impressive season to get himself near elite status. Needs to maintain.

Verdict: Even.

RIGHT GUARD

2017: Shaq Mason
2018: Mason

Skinny: One of three offensive players to earn an A from me last season, but there's some concern here. Closed with his four worst games, and his camp wasn't lights out.

Verdict: Even, but this bears watching and could trend downward.

RIGHT TACKLE

2017: Cam Fleming
2018: Marcus Cannon (or LaAdrian Waddle)

Skinny: Fleming did show a ton of improvement helping to sub for Cannon and then Waddle. But he needed a ton of help, and often struggled. Cannon is good when he wants to be. But can he stay on the field?

Verdict: Plus. Even with Cannon's status, Waddle is an improvement on Fleming if he has to go. But not a huge upgrade.

DEFENSE

LEFT END

2017: James Harrison
2018: Trey Flowers

Skinny: Harrison was the team's only good pass rusher in the Super Bowl, but this spot was also filled often by Eric Lee. Flowers has had a slow start with injuries and is switching sides, which does take time.

Verdict: Big plus. Hopefully, Flowers cashes in on a contract year.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

2017: Lawrence Guy
2018: Guy

Skinny: Isn't anything flashy but does his job, is a bear to block and is extremely consistent.

Verdict: Even.

NOSE TACKLE

2017: Malcom Brown
2018: Danny Shelton

Skinny: Brown was a solid player, but, at times, he was part of the reason the Patriots' run defense was so porous. Looked like an elite player at times, but was very inconsistent. ... Shelton looks like he could be a massive upgrade — if he plays within the scheme. A big if with new players.

Verdict: Slight plus. We'll see how good Shelton is staying in a gap in the first two games.

RIGHT END

2017: Trey Flowers
2018: Deatrich Wise/Adrian Clayborn

Skinny: Flowers is switching sides, so it's going to be hard for either of those players to approach his play from last season. But the team will have a net gain if Flowers is effective on the other side.

Verdict: Even. This should be a pretty good combo.

PASS RUSHER

2017: Eric Lee/Deatrich Wise
2018: Derek Rivers

Skinny: Wise had a very good rookie season, as he was second among regulars with a 7.4 pressure percentage (Flowers was first at 9.1) but remember this: Lee played more snaps (16) in the Super Bowl than Wise (6). Throw that on the pile of stink that emanated from the defensive side of the locker room in that game. ... Rivers, honestly, I don't know how good he is. But the Patriots have other combinations they can use.

Verdict: Even.

STRONG-SIDE LINEBACKER

2017: Kyle Van Noy
2018: Dont'a Hightower

Skinny: Hightower's injury caused a big trickle-down effect that made this the worst unit on the team.

Verdict: Plus. Can Hightower stay healthy? Can he be effective? This could be a big plus ... or it could be another big weakness.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER

2017: Elandon Roberts
2018: Roberts/Ja'Whaun Bentley

Skinny: Roberts wasn't terrible last season, and showed improvement this summer. But Bentley has the chance to be a real difference-maker, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he starts very early in the season.

Verdict: Plus. Please let it be Bentley.

WEAKSIDE LINEBACKER

2017: Marquis Flowers
2018: Van Noy

Skinny: The Patriots had to patch things together after Hightower's injury and, at times, it wasn't pretty. That being said, Flowers did a solid job, but was the forgotten man this summer and was released. Van Noy has looked better ... but we've seen this before, and it's not pretty.

Verdict: Even.

RIGHT CORNERBACK

2017: Stephon Gilmore
2018: Gilmore

Skinny: Gilmore got off a really slow start — he looked like a complete bust through six games last year — but once he was allowed to play more man, he was very good. The preseason was not great, but a year in the system has to bring more comfort.

Verdict: Slight plus.

LEFT CORNERBACK

2017: Eric Rowe
2018: Rowe

Skinny: Rowe was a lot better in the Super Bowl than people want to give him credit for, and they forget that he came back from a torn groin during the season. He's healthy and better this season.

Verdict: Slight plus.

SLOT CORNERBACK

2017: Malcolm Butler/Patrick Chung
2018: Jonathan Jones

Skinny: Well, this was supposed to be Butler's spot in the Super Bowl until he did whatever he did to get benched for the entire game. That put Chung into the slot and we all know what happened after that. Jones, if he's healthy, won't be as good as Butler initially. But he's a good player.

Verdict: Minus.

STRONG SAFETY

2017: Patrick Chung
2018: Chung

Skinny: He's been a good player in his second stint with the team. But he's still 31 this season, which doesn't bode well.

Verdict: Slight minus.

FREE SAFETY

2017: Devin McCourty
2018: McCourty

Skinny: Started to show some real slippage last season and there has to be some real concern that his best football is behind him at 31.

Verdict: Slight minus.

3RD SAFETY

2017: Duron Harmon
2018: Harmon

Skinny: Doesn't make a ton of plays except for tipped or overthrown interceptions. But for the most part plays a good deep safety.

Verdict: Even.

 

IN CONCLUSION

So to bring everything home and kind of quantify the exercise we went through, we put together one of our trusty tables and assigned values to the verdicts (plus-2: big plus; 1: plus; 0.5: slight plus and vice versa). Here's the table:

[table id=135 /]

There are certainly some problem areas (Brady not likely matching MVP season, running back with injuries, receiver until Edelman returns and three spots in the secondary) but on the whole, the Patriots should be somewhat improved from the team that barely lost to the Eagles in the Super Bowl.

Depth is certainly going to be a factor at this point — and this team is thinner than the '17 team — but thanks to some key additions (Clayborn, Bentley), returning players (Hightower, Edelman) and year-over-year improvement by some players, it's difficult to buy some of the noise that the Patriots are going to face tougher sledding this season.

While this doesn't account for additions by other teams and their own internal improvement, expect the Patriots to be right there again and, if luck is on their side, back to being a 60-minute team in the Super Bowl.