Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

Amid change, Patriots remain team to beat

The New England Patriots enter the 2018 season as the favorite to win the AFC. The competition in the AFC is weak and the competition level in the AFC East is almost non-existent. The Patriots have won the division nine straight years and 16 out of the 17 years that Tom Brady has been the starting quarterback. The Super Bowl might have provided the greatest contrast in NFL history. Never before had an offense played so well with a defense playing so poorly in the Super Bowl. Brady passed for 505 yards, the offense gained 618 yards yet the defense gave up 538 yards.

After the Super Bowl, it would be reasonable to think that the Patriots only needed to worry about the defense. Then came a dysfunctional offseason where some thought Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski might walk away – taking the offense back into the dark ages. The Patriots finally convinced their two stars to return and in training camp added incentives to each of their contracts.

Brady can earn up to $20 million if he plays well (still far below the $30 million per year that Matt Ryan receives or the $33 million per year that Aaron Rodgers receives). Gronkowski can earn $13 million per year if he hits all the incentives, which would make him the highest paid tight end in football.

It was also a disappointing offseason at receiver. The Patriots lost two receivers, Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, who had a combined 162 catches in the regular season and playoffs. Amendola was a star in the playoffs with 26 catches. The Patriots clearly were not going to pay Cooks, which is why they traded him to the Los Angeles Rams in the offseason. His contract was up at the end of the 2018 season. The thought was to get something for Cooks – rather than lose him for nothing in this upcoming offseason. Cooks received a deal from the Rams that guaranteed him about $50 million. Letting Amendola go was more of a head scratcher given that he only signed a two-year deal in Miami that the Patriots easily could have matched.

This year’s receiving core might be the weakest of the Bill Belichick era since 2006 when they had Doug Gabriel, Chad Jackson, Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney. Julian Edelman is suspended the first four games of the 2018 season because of performing enhancing drugs. Thus, the Patriots will likely have only three active receivers in the first four games: Cordarrelle Patterson (who the Patriots acquired from the Raiders in the offseason), Phillip Dorsett, and Chris Hogan. Hogan is average, Patterson while fast must show that he can transition from an excellent kickoff returner to a receiver and Dorsett, who had only 12 catches a year ago, must improve his route running and understanding of the offense.

At running back, there is reason to be optimistic given that James White has become an excellent all-purpose running back. White has shown great versatility with his ability to catch out of the backfield. The Patriots drafted Sony Michel in the first round and he has been hurt for most of training camp.

The Patriots lost stalwart left tackle Nate Solder to the New York Giants in the offseason. Solder had protected Brady’s blind side for seven years and Brady was seen hugging Solder before the Patriots final preseason game against the New York Giants. Brady clearly misses Solder. The Patriots traded for Trent Brown, 6-6 380 pounds, who is mammoth but his athleticism is a question mark. First-round pick Isaiah Wynn is out for the year with an ACL injury. They must rely on Brown and Marcus Cannon, who has been hurt most of training camp as their tackles. LaAdrian Waddle will be their swing tackle if either Brown or Cannon cannot play.

Now, the question is whether the defense has improved. The only bright spot in the Super Bowl was cornerback Stephon Gilmore who took away the Eagles best wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey. The decision to bench Malcolm Butler backfired as the Patriots had no reliable second corner and the Eagles receivers were wide open. There was no pass rush, as Eagles quarterback Nick Foles had ample time to survey the field. The Patriots have likely improved their pass rush in the offseason. They signed Adrian Clayborn from Atlanta and Derek Rivers, their 2017 third-round pick who tore his ACL last year, will finally play. Having Clayborn, who had 9.5 sacks with Atlanta in 2017, should help improve the defense. Rivers also has shown a nice burst during training camp.

Another question is whether the Patriots can expect production from their linebackers. Rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley has shown flashes of an ability to play middle linebacker and make the calls in the middle of the defense. Kyle Van Noy is serviceable and Elandon Roberts needs to improve his coverage skills. The secondary with Gilmore, Eric Rowe, rookie Duke Dawson, Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon, J.C. Jackson (a rookie free agent who made the team), Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty should be one of the best units on the team. However, Rowe must show that he can be an adequate replacement for Butler at the No. 2 corner spot. Butler, a free agent, signed a big contract with the Tennessee Titans in the offseason.

SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 9-1. The Patriots open up against Houston, which offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said feels like a division opponent given how often the teams have played. Houston’s head coach Bill O’Brien was once the offensive coordinator in New England and Romeo Crennel, the Texans defensive coordinator, was the Patriots coordinator when they won three Super Bowls between 2001-2004. Since O’Brien became coach the Patriots are 4-0 against the Texans including a 34-16 playoff victory in 2017.