The process never ends for a winning franchise, and the New England Patriots have been winning for a very long time.
How they have managed to do so perpetually, however, is the answer to a 16-year-old question that could fetch the same price as lightning in a bottle. But who needs lightning when you have the greatest coach and quarterback in NFL history?
The dynamic duo pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in sports history last season against the Atlanta Falcons to win their fifth Super Bowl. But as confetti rained from the skies of Boston, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick stood on a championship float shouting, “no days off”. Moments like that teach us what greatness is all about. The work never ends in New England—not even after winning a Super Bowl.
Perhaps that greatness will carry over into next season and propel the Patriots to a second consecutive championship. They were the last team in the NFL to win back-to-back Super Bowls 13 years ago, and it is only fitting that they be the team to end the drought.
This is the year where the Patriots have several key players testing the waters of free agency. Will those players heed the siren’s call and head in another direction or remain anchored to the ship? That’ll be the money question in the coming days as free agency rapidly approaches.
There is still plenty to improve on schematically and personnel-wise for the Patriots whether they take a hit in free agency or not. They might be champions, but they were far from perfect last season.
Here are five things the Patriots need to fix.
Field goal kicks
Clipboard in hand and a scowl that could scare off a grizzly bear, Belichick has built an infallible reputation as a football mastermind with a keen attention to detail. So one would understand why he likely wasn’t happy with all of the missed extra point attempts from longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
The former Pro Bowler entered the season with only one missed field goal in 564 attempts. He ended it with five missed field goals and three missed extra points. You’re not a real Patriots fan until you’ve sat through a Gostkowski extra point attempt. It’s like riding a roller coaster immediately after devouring a couple of corn dogs.
This was no doubt a down year for Gostkowski, who even missed an extra point at Super Bowl LI. The Patriots are relying on him to be more consistent with his kicking, but there is no reason to push the panic button just yet. Gostkowski has been one of the best kickers in the NFL for many years.
Belichick might have been scowling, but he believed in him enough to keep him in games.
Martellus Bennett was a fantastic rental from the Chicago Bears, but this honeymoon doesn’t seem destined to last past free agency. The Patriots will do everything they can to vie for Bennett’s services for another season, but they aren’t likely to pay any tight end more money than Rob Gronkowski.
Although it would be wise to invest significantly in the position, given Gronkowski’s tendency to end up injured toward the latter half of the season. If the Patriots are lucky, help could come their way through the draft with the likes of O.J. Howard or David Njoku. There is plenty of talent in this draft class with the versatility to block and catch passes at an elite level.
The Patriots learned about the pitfalls of cutting corners when attempting to sign a tight end on a discount. If they lose Bennett, nothing will be gained by handing the backup roll to Rob Housler or bringing back a familiar face like Tim Wright.
Defensive end Trey Flowers might have been the best player on the Patriots’ defense all last season. He was that one guy on the defensive line that could consistently shed blocks and make life a living hell for quarterbacks. Just ask Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan what he thinks about Flowers.
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard’s production slipped last season, and 31-year-old Chris Long is playing in the twilight of his career. The Patriots were in the middle of the pack when it came to sacks, even though they generally succeeded in getting the pressure needed to flush quarterbacks out of the pocket.
With Long seeking a full-time position elsewhere, the Patriots need to find a more consistent contributor to play on the other side of the line. They could simply bring back Sheard on a new contract, or they could address the need in the draft or through free agency. Veteran defensive end Jared Odrick has already been in for a workout.
Backup quarterback situation
Jimmy Garoppolo looked otherworldly when he stepped in at quarterback while Brady served his four-game suspension. There have been many quarterbacks that have served as backups for No. 12, but there has never been one as talented as Garoppolo.
That makes the idea of trading him even scarier.
Brady will be 40 years old this coming season with second-year quarterback Jacoby Brissett serving as the lead backup if Garoppolo gets traded. We got our first legitimate look at Brissett at quarterback last year after Garoppolo went down with an injury, and he didn’t particularly blow anyone away with his performance. It was mostly a heavy dose of running back LeGarrette Blount while Brissett relied on his legs and short passes.
There are definitely some concerns with his accuracy following his preseason appearances and the couple of games he played in the regular season. Those are obviously mechanical issues that can be worked on in the offseason. Brissett could literally be an injury away from taking over the reins at quarterback.
The Patriots had big plans in mind for rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones when they drafted him in the second round with the No. 60 overall pick, but Jones’ nightmare season culminated in him being a healthy scratch for five of the last six games.
He struggled to keep up in coverage on receivers, and he fumbled the football five times when acting as a return man. After the Patriots won the Super Bowl—a game that he watched from the sidelines—he admitted to reaching a point where he no longer wanted to play football. That’s never something a team wants to hear from such an expensive investment.
With Logan Ryan potentially being lured away from New England in free agency, the spotlight could once again shift back to Jones for an opportunity to redeem himself. He has all of the attributes to succeed as an NFL corner.
We just need to see them in action.