The confetti has been washed away, Tom Brady and Julian Edelman are back from Disney World and the Duck Boats have been stashed away until perhaps the Celtics or Bruins take their turn at a title run come June.
New England’s sixth Super Bowl title of the millennium is in the rearview mirror and the organization isn’t on to Cincinnati or any other foe: it’s on to the off-season, which as always, promises to be a busy one around Foxboro.
The good news is that unlike last February, the Patriots are indeed champions and don’t appear to be falling apart at the seams thanks to a mysterious benching in the Super Bowl. The bad news is that there are a variety of questions facing this roster, many of which can no longer be ignored, champions or not.
Free agency is still more than a month away and the draft is nearly three months out. We’ll take a more in-depth look at how the Patriots should treat those when the time is right, but for now, here are five big-picture questions for the off-season that need addressing.
1. Figure out who’s retiring as early as possible
Rob Ninkovich called it quits just as training camp was getting underway in 2017, just as Tedy Bruschi decided to retire on the eve of the regular season in 2009. Each player was a seasoned professional who’d earned the right to go out on his own terms, just as Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty are right now.
Except the Patriots really can’t afford to wait too much longer on answers from either of them, especially in the case of Gronkowski. At least New England can always fall back on a safety tandem of Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon if McCourty decides nine seasons and three rings is enough, though McCourty’s impact in the locker room would surely be missed.
Should Gronkowski decide that WWE or Hollywood or Motorcross is what’s on tap for him, the crater he’d leave at the tight end depth chart would be staggering. Again, he’s earned the right to leave on his own terms, but he can’t leave the Patriots hanging through free agency and/or the draft.
2. Keep the identity of the defense the same
New England gave up 41 points to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII with Matt Patricia as defensive coordinator and then just three against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII with Brian Flores calling plays.
Seven of the players who started last year’s Super Bowl vs. the Eagles started again on Sunday vs. the Rams, with several more receiving similar playing time to what they had vs. Philadelphia. Throw it all out the window now that like Patricia, Flores is gone and Greg Schiano will become New England’s new defensive coordinator, per Jim McBride of the Boston Globe.
Schiano has minimal NFL coaching experience: just two years as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a forgettable stint in which Tampa went 11-21 in 2012 and 2013, and three years as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bears in the ‘90s.
However, he’s an accomplished college head coach and coordinator, best known for his work at – wait for it – Rutgers, where he was head coach from 2001-2011. The Patriots seemed to be more aggressive on defense under Flores, and it’s a trend which hopefully continues under Schiano. Maybe he even convinces the McCourty twins to hang around a bit longer.
3. Extend Tom Brady’s contract
Brady, who’ll be 42 by the 2019 season opener, has just one year remaining on his current deal. Jimmy Garoppolo is long gone, meaning it’s just 33-year-old Brian Hoyer and practice squad member Danny Etling accounting for organizational depth.
Did Brady’s play fall off a tick in 2018? Compared to his MVP campaign in 2017, absolutely. But this much-ballyhooed “cliff” simply isn’t anywhere near approaching for Brady, who needs to be signed to at least a new two-year deal that’ll keep him in Foxboro through his age 44 season.
That could buy New England time to invest another draft pick in a quarterback, or see what it has in Etling. He did spend the entire 2018 season traveling with the Patriots, unusual for a practice squad player.
Strangely enough, addressing the quarterback depth chart feels like less of a need this off-season as compared to the previous one, now that it’s apparent no number of championships will be enough for Brady to ride off into the sunset. But he’s never played a season as a pending free agent, either, so something needs to happen on the contract front.
4. Revamp the depth chart at wide receiver (and potentially tight end)
Gronkowski’s decision on retirement is only the beginning.
Aside from Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman, who’ll be 33 come training camp, every single wide receiver on the 53-man roster will hit free agency. Unless you want to count Josh Gordon, which is a danger unto its own.
The situation at tight end isn’t much better, with Dwayne Allen (13 catches, 113 yards through two seasons with the Patriots) on a non-guaranteed contract for next season and Jacob Hollister (eight catches, 94 yards through two seasons) counting merely $3,334 against the salary cap if he’s cut.
Tom Brady set a new NFL record in 2018 when he threw a touchdown to a 71st different player. Expect that number to rise in 2019.
5. Don’t punt on the draft
No scandal has ridded New England of its top draft choice (at least not yet) but the team will be picking last in the first round. Historically, that hasn’t been a bad spot for the Patriots, who’ve drafted Benjamin Watson and Logan Mankins 32nd overall through the years. Just last April, Sony Michel joined the team as the 31st overall pick, a selection which paid immediate dividends.
On top of their own first and second-round picks, the Patriots have a second rounder coming to them via trade from the Chicago Bears (56th overall) and a third-rounder via the Detroit Lions (73rd overall). New England is aging in many parts of its roster – it was the third-oldest in the league at the start of the 2018 season, with an average age of 26.8 – and will need to get younger…hypocritical as that may sound as the Patriots continue to go all-in with a 42-year-old quarterback.
New England had just four draft picks in 2017, and only two (Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr.) remain on the roster. Michel was the only rookie to make a difference for this year’s Super Bowl champs. The Patriots can’t be dealing off these picks for veterans, they need to hit on as many of their early selections as possible.