The Arizona Cardinals take on the New England Patriots in six days.
Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit took the time to preview the season, before the Tom Brady suspension. Here's what he had to say.
From a big picture perspective, would Tom Brady missing the first four games of the season be the best scenario for the franchise just to see what Jimmy Garoppolo can do in real game?
I don’t think losing Brady for any stretch of the season is a good thing. We saw last season just how important homefield advantage can be in the playoffs, when the Patriots traveled to Denver and lost when the offense couldn’t play with a silent count. Handicapping the squad four games will make it even more difficult to get a bye week, nevermind homefield advantage.
While it would be nice to see what Garoppolo brings to the table, and to flaunt him around as trade bait, we know that he’s not the quarterback of the future for the Patriots. New England extended Brady in the offseason and drafted Jacoby Brissett in the 3rd round. I’d take four games of Brady over the possibility of trading Garoppolo for a first round pick.
Should any regression be expected in Brady’s game this season now that he’s 39?
Brady has been pretty stable for the past five seasons. He was one of the top three quarterbacks in the league last year and I wouldn’t be surprised if he “dropped” into the top five, but I don’t see any reason for concern. He’s still going to be dominant and capable of putting the team on his back.
The Patriots have made a point of modifying the offense to fit his skill sets- quick passes to players like Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis, deep passes up the seam to Rob Gronkowski and now Martellus Bennett, allowing numerous pre-snap adjustments- and Brady will continue to thrive.
A lot of the older quarterbacks fall off a cliff at 39-years-old, but most of them are battling serious injuries. Peyton Manning had neck surgery. Brett Favre suffered shoulder injuries with the Jets. Brady is as healthy as he’s ever been and there’s no immediate reason to project a big decline in production.
Do the Patriots have enough reinforcements to protect themselves if Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman miss time?
Well, there’s no way to protect against the loss of Rob Gronkowski. He’s the single most unique offensive player in the league and his loss is impossible to overcome. That said, the team did as much as they could by trading for Martellus Bennett. While Bennett was at odds with the Bears in 2015, he was one of the best tight ends in the league for the few years prior. The Patriots have plugged him into the offense and he looks to have a large role.
As for Edelman, he’s not as unique as Gronkowski, but he’s vital to the offense. He’s much, much better than any other receiver on the roster. The Patriots signed Chris Hogan away from the Bills this offseason as insurance for Edelman’s foot injury, but players rarely acclimate to the New England offense out of the gate. Hopefully Edelman won’t miss time- or if he does, it occurs later in the season.
Brady was officially hit 20 times in the AFC Championship –– more than any other quarterback in the league last season. Did the Patriots do enough over the offseason to address their offensive line?
The Patriots spent more time fixing their offensive line than any other position this offseason. They brought back retired line coach Dante Scarnecchia, signed his likely long-term replacement in Cole Popovich (no relation to the Spurs), traded for right guard Jonathan Cooper, drafted left guard Joe Thuney, and returned left tackle Nate Solder from the injured reserve.
Last year’s issues were a mix of bad coaching and bad luck. Nearly every single player suffered an injury at some point, whether it was torn biceps (Solder), concussions (Sebastian Vollmer and Bryan Stork), a shoulder injury (Josh Kline), or knee problems (Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson). The injury luck literally could not be any worse. Hopefully the better coaching and improved injury luck will yield better results in 2016.
Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler will all be free agents at the end of the season. Which player would you re-sign first?
I would sign Hightower because he’s a team leader and a cornerstone of the defense. The Patriots just gave him the locker of Tedy Bruschi and Jerod Mayo and expect him to be in charge of the defense for a long time to come. Hightower is also likely to be cheaper than the more athletically-gifted Collins due to status around the league. For some insane reason, Hightower has yet to be elected to the Pro Bowl, while Collins was second team All Pro. Hightower will likely be signed for a more palatable amount.
Butler is a restricted free agent, so he’s a lower priority out of the gate.
How does trading Chandler Jones make the Patriots better on the field in 2016? If it doesn’t, what was Belichick’s thought process when he made that deal?
It’s hard to say that the Patriots are “better” when they’ve lost a double-digit sack monster with as much physical talent as anyone in the league, but I’ll give it a shot. Jones’ biggest issue was his consistency; he’d completely take over the game for a few weeks, but then disappear down the stretch. His replacement in Jabaal Sheard was even-keeled all year, even if his upside might be less.
So the Patriots defense is probably going to be more consistent in 2016 than in 2015, and “reducing risk” is Bill Belichick’s middle name. Probably.
That said, I don’t believe the consistency had too much to do with the Patriots trading him away. As you’ve noted, the Patriots have a lot of key defenders to sign to extensions. Collins and Hightower are better linebackers than Jones is as an edge defender. Jones is likely to sign a massive deal in free agency, if he’s been watching Olivier Vernon’s contract with the Giants.
Basically, it wasn’t in the Patriots financial cards to retain Jones for the long term, so the team opted to acquire a 2016 2nd round pick and former top 10 draft pick OG Jonathan Cooper, instead of keep Jones for a year and receive a 2018 3rd round compensatory pick.
Who's the fan favorite player, the cult hero [think how John Kuhn used to be in Green Bay] and why?
I feel like Gronkowski, Edelman, and Butler can’t be cult heroes because they’re too well known. Rob Ninkovich might have held that status for a short period, too.
But I’m going to go with a pair of special teams stars in Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner. Slater is a team captain and multiple-time All Pro as a gunner, while Ebner is another special teams stud that recently returned from the Olympics after representing the United States in rugby.
I feel like Bill Belichick’s affinity for special teams has rubbed itself off on Patriots fans because the vast majority would be able to name the core special teams players. I feel like few other teams can say that.
How does the first month of the season go for the Patriots? The last month of the season? What's the final record going to be?
The first month is going to be iffy, but I wouldn’t be shocked by a 2-2 record under Jimmy Garoppolo. I expect a loss against the Cardinals, and then I wouldn’t be shocked by a loss against any of the other three teams (Dolphins, Texans, Bills) the Patriots will host at Gillette Stadium.
The final four weeks should be interesting against the Ravens, at the Broncos, the Jets, and at the Dolphins. Those teams always push the Patriots to the limit. If the Patriots remain healthy, they could win all three, but that’s a major “if.”
I think that the Patriots will finish the season with a 12-4 record, as is tradition, or 11-5 if Garoppolo falls on his face out of the gate.