Throughout the offseason, I will be running through a series of Q&As with our fellow SB Nation blogs across the AFC, checking up on the state of affairs for the Jets’ conference rivals.
We continue with a team coming off of its most disappointing finish in quite some time — the New England Patriots. Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit was able to answer a few questions regarding New England’s 2019 campaign.
1. Relative to league average, Tom Brady had easily the worst statistical season of his career in 2019. Independent of his surroundings, how did Brady perform in his age-42 season? Did he actually decline as much as the numbers suggest? Were there any significant signs regression at all?
I think it is hard to look at Brady’s performance in a vacuum and without acknowledging the fact that the departure of Rob Gronkowski and the revolving door at the wide receiver and offensive line positions also had an impact on his statistics in 2019 and New England’s offensive production as a whole. That being said, even when not regarding those problematic areas you can make the case that the Tom Brady of 2019 is hardly the Tom Brady of his historic 2015-2017 run (arguably the best three-year stretch of quarterback play in NFL history).
Brady’s elbow and foot injuries certainly played a part in this, as he was limited for an extended stretch of regular season practices due to the ailments. However, the notion that there was a physical decline cannot be supported: Brady still proved himself capable of making all the throws during games. There was a step back in another area, though, namely his confidence within the offense and in turn decision making.
Surrounded by players that did not bring their A-game on Sundays and were generally rather inconsistent, Brady oftentimes locked onto his most trusted receivers — Julian Edelman and James White — even when other options might have been better. He actively tried to get the wide receiver and tight end positions involved as the year progressed, but the players collectively failed to answer the call which in turn hurt his numbers and the Patriots’ offense, and led him to go back to Edelman and White in must-have situations.
All in all, one could therefore say that Brady’s regression has a lot to do with his supporting cast. Time will tell whether or not that is true, however, or if the Patriots see it the same way by re-signing him in free agency.
2. The pass-catching group seemed to be a major weakness for the Patriots. How much did the skill position core hurt the offense, and how will New England look to improve that group going forward?
As noted above, the Patriots’ passing offense was not up to par in 2019. The wide receiver position had only Julian Edelman as a reliable target as new additions (rookies N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu) and established veterans (Phillip Dorsett, Josh Gordon) alike struggled to get on the same page as Tom Brady. A lack of talent and productivity at tight end — the Patriots’ main players at the position were Matt LaCosse, Benjamin Watson and Ryan Izzo — did also hurt the unit as a whole. The Patriots actively tried to fix the issues by bringing in players such as Antonio Brown and the aforementioned Mohamed Sanu, but the offense remained inconsistent at best.
So, what will the Patriots do? Three goals need to be reached, in my opinion:
1.) Upgrade the tight end position: LaCosse, Watson and Izzo did not get the job done in 2019 and New England has to get better. This means either investing resources in a top-tier free agent — Austin Hooper and Hunter Henry come to mind — or drafting a tight end high. Ideally, the Patriots will do both and head into 2020 with a position depth chart consisting of at least one veteran addition, a developmental high-upside draft pick, and one of the three men mentioned above (most likely LaCosse).
2.) Get Harry and Sanu going: While wide receiver production was an issue in 2019, two players who were with the team last season could be part of the fix in first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry and in-season addition Mohamed Sanu. Both showed some promise early during their Patriots tenures but injuries hurt them and they simply failed to make up for the lost time as the season went along. If Harry and Sanu can build on last season and develop a rhythm with Brady (if he, as expected, returns in 2020) the offense as a whole should get a lot better outside of Edelman and James White.
3.) Improve the depth at wide receiver: When Harry and Sanu temporarily went down with injuries, the Patriots had no capable options available to pick up the slack. Jakobi Meyers and Philip Dorsett were emergency options at best and incapable of providing consistent targets for Brady. New England therefore needs to improve the overall depth and talent at the wide receiver position whether by targeting the position in free agency or bringing in rookies to compete for spots on the roster.
3. New England has two young starters on the offensive line set to hit free agency in Joe Thuney and Ted Karras. How do you see the team handling those two players? Additionally, how well do you think each of them have performed over their careers to date?
Both Thuney and Karras have developed well since entering the league in 2016: Thuney became a day-one starter for the Patriots and hardly left the field over his four years in New England while getting noticeably better each season; Karras became a valuable and versatile depth option over the years that was elevated to the starting center position in 2019 when David Andrews was sidelined due to blood clots in his lungs. Both men have filled their roles on the roster admirably and in an ideal world would be re-signed in free agency.
The problem is that the Patriots are not operating in such a scenario, which means that both returning appears to be a long-shot considering that the team has limited resources available: New England has roughly $29 million in cap space with 16 players — including starters such as Brady, safety Devin McCourty, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, and Thuney — set to hit unrestricted free agency.
Given his status as one of the best young guards in football, it is therefore not unrealistic to see Thuney leave for greener pastures elsewhere. After all, the Patriots will not overextend to keep him in the fold despite his tremendous play throughout the years: they know resources may have to be allocated elsewhere while one of their starting guards (Shaq Mason) is already hitting the books through a multi-year extension. Furthermore, he has already won two Super Bowls in four seasons so cashing in might be higher up on his list of priorities than winning more championships.
As for Karras, I can see him return to the Patriots especially if Thuney leaves — that is unless another team offers him starter money that blows a potential New England offer out of the water. Either way, the team’s interior offensive line could look quite different in 2020 with only Mason locked into his position at the moment.
4. The Patriots have consistently been elite on the defensive side over the past half-decade, but they took things to new heights in 2019 as they dominated at a historical level. What were the primary reasons for the leap to all-time status?
I think the biggest reason for the Patriots’ outstanding defensive play in 2019 was the secondary: led by the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year — cornerback Stephon Gilmore — the unit consistently shut opposing passing games down, which in turn made life easier for the front seven when it came to stopping the run and getting after the quarterbacks by running aggressive schemes. How could they do all that? The experience in the defensive backfield is key.
Gilmore has been with the Patriots since 2017, with the top-three safeties having numerous years in the system on their résumés as well: Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung have each spent 10 seasons in New England, and Duron Harmon seven. Add slot cornerback Jonathan Jones — a rookie free agent signing in 2016 — as well as veteran outside cornerback Jason McCourty and terrific second-year man J.C. Jackson and you get the best secondary in all of football; one capable of playing numerous coverage schemes and attacking pass catchers one-on-one across the board.
This, in turn, helped the Patriots cover for shortcomings at other positions: despite lacking elite pass rushers, the Patriots were able to keep opposing passing offenses on their heels — a winning recipe in the NFL of 2019.
5. How much longer do you envision Brady playing for? At what point do you think the Patriots will begin looking to find his heir, and what type of investment(s) do you see them making once they begin that search?
The Patriots have been looking for Brady’s heir for quite some time now: they drafted Ryan Mallett in the third round in 2011, Jimmy Garoppolo in the second in 2014, Jacoby Brissett in the third in 2016, and Jarrett Stidham in the fourth just last year. Either one of the four — well, maybe not Mallett — could have been seen as the long-term replacement for Brady but he simply would not slow down. Garoppolo certainly came closest and his work in San Francisco speaks for itself, but the Patriots were forced to trade him in 2017 with Brady still playing at an elite level.
In my opinion, the team will continue to invest resources in the quarterback position even if Brady returns in free agency this year: the position is the most important on the field, and Belichick once said that he did not want to risk a 2011 Colts situation where a lack of quality under center led to a 2-14 season.
What type of investment will the team therefore make? Based on precedent, the best guess would be that the Patriots will just keep throwing draft picks at the wall in the hope that one of them sticks. Stidham could be that guy after having shown plenty of promise during his first training camp, but the Patriots will keep investing until Brady eventually leaves either via free agency or, more likely, retirement. Speaking of which, I do think he will reach his goal of playing until 45. Whether this means returning after his age 44 (2021) or age 45 season (2022) remains to be seen.
6. If you could add one offensive and one defensive player from any point in Jets history to the current iteration of the Patriots, who would you choose?
Not considering salary cap restrictions, I would pick the following two players:
Offense: Wide receiver Don Maynard is the obvious choice here, in my opinion. A Hall of Famer who posted impressive receiving numbers despite playing in the 60s and early 70s when running the ball was still king, Maynard was a durable and productive pass catcher — something the Patriots could very well need these days. Curtis Martin, not just because of his Patriots connection, is another name to consider.
Defense: Ronnie Lott, Ed Reed and Jason Taylor would be nice, but their careers were very much coming to an end in New York so instead I’m going with Darrelle Revis. Yes, the Patriots already field the NFL’s best secondary but adding prime Revis (think 2009) to play alongside Gilmore and company would make New England’s secondary downright impossible to pass the football against.