The New England Patriots are reigning Super Bowl champions, but this franchise has never been about living in the past. It’s on to 2019, and New England should remain one of the best teams in the league. However, if the Patriots want to repeat as champions for the first time since 2004, they’ll need to do the following five things. (Note: Keeping Tom Brady healthy and effective is too obvious to include in a list like this).
Five Things the New England Patriots Need to Repeat As Super Bowl Champions
Solidify the Left Tackle Position
The Patriots roster is one of the best in the league, but they have some genuine questions at left tackle. Trent Brown signed with the Oakland Raiders in the offseason, leaving 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn as the heir apparent at the blindside protector. Wynn offers plenty of upside, but he’s rehabbing an Achilles injury and has yet to play an NFL snap. The Georgia product is still working his way back from injury and has yet to play in the preseason. That said, he just began taking first-team reps in full-contact drills, so he could make his preseason debut in Week Two.
The depth behind Wynn leaves a lot to be desired. Dan Skipper earned the majority of first-team reps in Wynn’s absence, and the results have been hit-and-miss. While he performed well in the preseason opener, he’s reportedly struggled in practice. If Wynn can’t fully recover soon, New England could shift Joe Thuney to left tackle or try to trade for someone like Washington’s Trent Williams.
Improve the Red Zone Offense
The Patriots need to prove that they can be an efficient red zone offense without Rob Gronkowski. Last year, the team ranked 12th in red zone touchdown percentage with a hobbled Gronkowski. This rating, while not terrible on its own, pales in comparison to seasons’ past. New England had the third-best red zone touchdown percentage in 2017 and the fourth-best in 2015. Gronkowski missed the majority of 2016, and the team finished with the NFL’s 10th-best red zone touchdown rate.
Fortunately, Bill Belichick appears to have a plan in place. While the rest of the league invests in quick, shifty receivers, the Patriots spent the offseason adding larger, physical players to the offense. N’Keal Harry, Maurice Harris, and Jakobi Meyers all have the necessary skill set to outmuscle defenders and win in tight places, and that obviously can play up in the red zone. If New England actually gets Josh Gordon back, then they’ll be even more dangerous in the short part of the field.
Conversely, the Patriots could just try to run it more in opponents territory. Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason form the best interior offensive line in the league and were the main reason Sony Michel recorded six touchdowns in the 2018 postseason run. Whether it’s Michel or Damien Harris in the backfield, the running game should succeed with blocking that talented.
Find Reliable Chain Movers
The Patriots have a lot of intriguing big-bodied receivers, but nobody who has Brady’s trust quite like Julian Edelman. Edelman is currently battling a thumb injury but should be back for the start of the regular season. When healthy, Edelman is simply unstoppable in the short and intermediate portions of the field. However, keeping him healthy has been something of an issue. Edelman’s only played a full 16-game season twice, and the offense suffers a significant drop off when he’s not around. Last year, the Patriots went 2-2 without Edelman and 14-3 with him.
The closest player to Edelman on the roster is 2018 sixth-round pick Braxton Berrios. Like Edelman, Berrios wins with quickness and agility and excels in the short and intermediate portions of the field. However, unlike Edelman, Berrios is exclusively a slot receiver and doesn’t possess the same burst, speed, or overall ability that Edelman does. In many ways, he’s a poor mans’ Danny Amendola rather than an adequate Edelman replacement.
N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers are nothing like Edelman from a build perspective, but both players have the ability to line up in the slot and make plays in the short and intermediate portions of the field. Whereas Edelman wins with quickness, these two win by simply overpowering the coverage like Anquan Boldin in his prime.
Secure the Edge
The Patriots lost arguably their best defender in Trey Flowers, but essentially replaced him with Michael Bennett. Bennett is roughly Flowers’ equal as a pass rusher, but he isn’t quite as good in the run game. This doesn’t matter too much, as a defensive end’s primary focus should be disrupting the pass instead of the rush. However, you cannot completely ignore the run game. In 2017, New Engalnd’s was the 31st-ranked run defense by DVOA.
As of this posting, New England’s top defensive ends are the aforementioned Bennett and Deatrich Wise, John Simon, and Chase Winovich. Wise and Simon are better off playing depth roles, and NESN’s Doug Kyed doesn’t believe Wise to be a good fit for New England’s new defensive scheme. Chase Winovich has a similar skill set to Rob Ninkovich, but he’s only a rookie and might not be ready for a big role in the defense.
In seasons past, the Patriots have tried using Dont’a Hightower exclusively as an edge defender. Hightower is traditionally an off-ball linebacker, but he has the size and strength to line up in the trenches. Considering New England’s impressive linebacker depth, the Patriots could use this strategy again in 2018.
Stay Fast in the Secondary
Right now, the Patriots primary competition for AFC supremacy is the Kansas City Chiefs. Kansas City has an elite quarterback in Patrick Mahomes to go along with a new and (probably) improved defense led by Steve Spagnuolo. However, what truly makes Kansas City so dangerous is the speed at receiver. Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman are all among the fastest players in the league, and Travis Kelce is fast for a tight end. These players can take the top off any defense and can turn any play into a touchdown at any moment.
Stephon Gilmore can match up against anyone, while Jonathan Jones is one of the fastest cornerbacks in the league and a perfect matchup for Kansas City’s offense. However, the rest of the depth chart needs to prove they’re up for the challenge. J.C. Jackson struggled in the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs, and Jason McCourty is at an age where speed tends to slip away. Patrick Chung theoretically could match up with Kelce, but New England could also use second-round cornerback Joejuan Williams to take away the stud tight end. This secondary might be the best in the league, but stopping the most dangerous offense in football is no easy task. If they can do it, New England should be the favorites for yet another Super Bowl championship.
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