In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the AFC East, starting with the New England Patriots today.
Recap of 2015: The 2015 season was a roller coaster ride for the 2014 Super Bowl champions. While Deflategate/Ballghazi led the headlines for an entire year, the media coverage did not seem to slow the Patriots down on the field. New England rolled through their schedule as usual, winning 12 of their first 14 games of the regular season. Surprisingly though, they stumbled down the stretch, losing to the Jets and Dolphins in Weeks 16 and 17 respectively. The Pats finished the season at 12-4, but those late losses caused them to lose the #1 seed to the Denver Broncos. They beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round and traveled to Denver to face the Broncos in the AFC Championship. Despite being heavy favorites, the Denver pass rush got to Tom Brady all game long and the Broncos upset the Patriots 20-18 to go onto the Super Bowl. A bitter disappointment for New England, especially after having to watch Peyton Manning and the Broncos hoist the Lombardi Trophy that could have been theirs.
Significant Additions: G Jonathan Cooper, WR Chris Hogan, TE Martellus Bennett, DE Chris Long, DT Terrance Knighton
Significant Subtractions: WR Brandon LaFell , LB/DE Chandler Jones, LB Jerod Mayo
Potential Impact Rookies: CB Cyrus Jones, G Joe Thuney, WR Malcolm Mitchell
Team Strengths: Basically across the board, the Patriots are very strong. They have one of the best offenses in the league every year, including a top five DVOA finish again last season. They have a top tier quarterback in Tom Brady and by far the best tight end in the NFL in Rob Gronkowski. Brady threw for 4,470 yards and 36 touchdowns last season, while Gronk caught 11 of those touchdown passes, along with accumulating over 1,100 yards himself. Their defense has been quietly very good recently as well, led by Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler. The defensive unit finished in the top 10 last year in DVOA, points allowed, and total yards allowed. Top to bottom, this might me the most balanced squad we have seen during the Belichick-Brady era.
Team Weaknesses: Their relationship with the Commissioner’s office. The biggest hurdle for the Patriots this year will be weathering the controversial four game suspension of their future Hall of Fame quarterback. Aside from that, the Patriots are pretty good at most positions. If you want to get nitpicky, this is a team that does not run the ball very much, but the running back position probably has the least pure talent on this team. Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount are both castoffs from other teams, yet the Patriots find a way to get the most out of them. The Patriots purposely do not heavily invest in the running back position, as they pass the ball on 65% of plays, ranking third in the NFL last season.
Fantasy Players to Watch: A possible draft day steal is if you can get Tom Brady late in your draft. Stash him on your bench for the first few weeks and he will be sure to fire on all cylinders when he gets back from his suspension. I would recommend picking him up after the first five or six quarterbacks come off the board, but be sure to get a solid backup who has a favorable schedule early in the season (Cousins, Stafford, Flacco come to mind). The Brady suspension also makes Jimmy Garoppolo an interesting flier in deeper leagues in the beginning of the season, but I like some of those other options more as a fill in if you are in a standard league. I know Dion Lewis has been going pretty late in mock drafts so far, but he has a ton of value if he come back healthy and stays in the same role as last year. I am pretty high on him at this point, as well as LeGarrette Blount, who always finds a way into the endzone. If Julian Edelman stays healthy (a big if), he should be a top 15 wide receiver this year, especially in PPR leagues. Chris Hogan is also tempting as a sleeper, but I have personally gotten burned by Brandon Lloyd, Danny Amendola, and Brandon LaFell before, so don’t necessarily trust the Patriots for a WR2. Gronk should be a first round pick in almost any league and is in a tier by himself at the tight end position. Also at tight end, Martellus Bennett should be drafted in the TE2 area, but he has a chance to do serious damage in an offense without a super deep receiving corp. I don’t recommend drafting a kicker until the last round of the draft, but Stephen Gostkowski is annually the best fantasy kicker in the business if you choose to reach early. As usual, it’s a pretty safe bet to have New England players on your fantasy roster.
2016 Outlook: The Patriots will start the season behind the proverbial eight ball as they deal with the aforementioned Brady suspension. New England still has easily the best roster in the AFC East, so they should still win this division and make another deep playoff run. I still do not foresee a scenario where the Bills, Dolphins, or Jets really challenge them for the division title. One of the biggest things to watch is how the Patriots replace Chandler Jones’ production on defense. Jones had 12.5 sacks along with four forced fumbles last season. Someone will need to step up on their defense as an impact playmaker. Even without Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are still outstanding players in the middle of their defense and should be able to pick up some of the slack. I have no worries about the offense after Week 5 and expect them to be humming heading toward the playoffs. The Patriots will still be one of the most exciting teams to watch in the league and are currently Super Bowl favorites. Their outlook is pretty good in 2016.
Record Prediction: The Patriots have won the division 12 of the last 13 seasons, including a current streak of seven straight years. I do not see any reason, despite the loss of Brady, for that dominance to end now. I expect they will go 2-2 in those Brady-free games (losing to Arizona and one of Houston/Buffalo/Miami), but once he returns, the only games that will give them grief will be at Pittsburgh, at Denver, and home against Seattle. I still think the Patriots end up finishing 12-4 like last season, and they will make the Super Bowl once again in January.
Photo Credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images