Patriots

Who will be the Patriots’ biggest challenger in the AFC?

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Who will be the Patriots’ biggest challenger in the AFC?

Covering the NFL for almost 20 years allows you to make relationships with a bunch of people. So I thought I'd tap into some of those people as we gear up for New England Patriots training camp for a series of pieces about topics we've been kicking around.

OTHER TOPICS

The panel consists of one former Pats player still in the game, two scouts of AFC teams, one front-office member in the AFC, and one NFC scout. They all requested anonymity for obvious reasons (as the player said, "hey, I might want to end up back there!") I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I had talking to these guys.

Today's topic: Who will be the Pats’ biggest challenger in the AFC?

Scout 1: Themselves. Honestly. There’s too much there for them not to roll through the AFC with relative ease. I’m not saying they’re going undefeated. Let’s pump the brakes on that one, shall we? But when you start running down the list of AFC teams, there isn’t one that doesn’t have a glaring weakness as we sit here mid-summer. The Steelers? Ben [Roethlisberger] wasn’t sure he wanted to play, their most talented receiver can’t stop smoking weed [Martavis Bryant] and that defense gets carved up by [Tom] Brady repeatedly. The Texans? Do they have a quarterback? That’s kind of a big deal. The Ravens? I think that window closed. The Bengals? Lot of talent, sure. But the coach/QB combo doesn’t exactly make you crap yourself. I like [Trevor] Siemian in Denver but that’s still asking a lot. Oakland may be the one team that appeared poised but that defense wasn’t good a year ago. So chip Khalil Mack all night and watch Brady throw for 400-plus.. I just think if the Pats stay healthy and stay together, they’ll be in Minnesota playing for back-to-back titles.

Scout 2: Pittsburgh’s the one team that can match them point for point, assuming everyone is on the field. But is Ben still vertical in late January? Is Bell burned out (as of this piece, Le’Veon Bell remained a holdout). Antonio Brown is a talent but is a Facebook Live video more important than putting in your work and respecting those you work with, and against? Mike [Tomlin] should have reeled that in a long time ago. Bill would have. Hell, any coach with a clue would have. They’d win in spite of Mike, not because he matches wits with Bill.

Scout 3: Seattle. (I meant AFC) AFC?? Geez . . . I guess Houston, if I have to stay in conference. That is the one organization that seems like it may be on to something. They’ll stand in there and land all kinds of body blows on Brady. That divisional game was the worst one I’ve seen him play since the start of the 2014 season. They can get after him with four people. They have good corners. But you can’t make mistakes. On either side of the ball. Defensively, can [new defensive coordinator Mike] Vrabel make them an even more disciplined bunch? I like Tom Savage. I think he’s smart. I think he’s poised. But the drafting of DeShaun [Watson] means he doesn’t have much time. Watson is poised too. And god knows he’s played in a ton of big games. But New England in January? Do that, and they’ll erect a statue of him in Houston. 

Ex-Patriot/Current NFL player: “It’s us. No doubt in my mind. (Hey, I can’t tell them who you are and where you play, remember?) Fine. But remember I said it. (Note taken!)

Front Office Exec: I think there are a handful of teams capable. January is a long time away. I’d put it like this: a) give me a coaching staff that has experience and can adjust. You have to against that team because they can dial up so many different ways to beat you, b) a quarterback who is accurate and protects that football. You can’t give Brady a short field. And you can’t waste opportunities +50. Mistake free football is critical. c) Brady is almost human if you hit him early and keep that pressure on him. That’s every quarterback in this league, by the way. In conjunction with that, mix and match coverages. You can’t get comfortable in that regard. He and Josh [McDaniels] are too smart, d) confidence. It sounds stupid, but it’s true. Teams I’ve been a part of that have beaten the Pats or the so-called favored team believed. Plain and simple. And one bad play, or two, wouldn’t change that confidence. The urgency, maybe. But never the confidence. 

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QUICK SLANTS THE PODCAST: Should Patriots draft Lamar Jackson at pick #32?

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QUICK SLANTS THE PODCAST: Should Patriots draft Lamar Jackson at pick #32?

(3:00) Phil Perry and Tom E. Curran discuss what their priorities are for Patriots offseason moves. Is bringing back Nate Solder the first move that needs to happen?

(7:00) Does the linebacker position need to be addressed this offseason?

(10:00) Phil Perry explains why he thinks the Patriots absolutely must get a QB this offseason.

(16:00) Dane Brugler from NFLDraftScout.com joins the podcast to break down the QBs in this draft..and the upside and downside of each player.

(21:00) Are Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson QBs that are worthy of being drafted in the first round?

(25:30) Are there any other QBs going after the 1st round that could fit the Patriots needs?

(28:00) What linebackers could the Patriots target in the draft, and in what round?

(34:00) Should the Patriots look to draft a left tackle?

Young, talented safeties available for Patriots entering 2018

Young, talented safeties available for Patriots entering 2018

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we put the safety position in focus keeping in mind that this is one position that’s morphing as quickly as any in the NFL.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


Fine. OK. Pretty good sometimes. But certainly nothing that can be confused with dynamic. In a league stocked with playmaking safeties. They are in the right place and – aside from Jordan Richards - are sure tacklers. They communicate well. They get the concepts of the defense and do their bit on special teams. But the safety group combined for six picks and four of those came from Duron Harmon. Patrick Chung was murder on tight ends in coverage but the third-down performances in some of the team’s biggest games was abysmal. The Steelers and Eagles were both 10 for 16 on third down and the Jags were 4 for 6 in the first half of the AFCCG. Devin McCourty played with an injured shoulder down the stretch that has since been surgically repaired but he just didn’t have a lot of impact plays in 2017. Richards, after three seasons in the league, has a handful of nice tackles as a box safety. Other than that, he’s got a very long way to go in a very short amount of time to approach the level of play expected from a second-round pick. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Devin McCourty, David Jones, Damarius Travis

WHO ISN'T?
Nate Ebner

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Not dire at all. But looming. McCourty is signed through 2019 and has a $13.4M cap hit next season when he’ll be 31. Chung is 30 and entering the last year of his deal. Harmon is signed through 2020 and is just 27. Unless the team thinks Richards is the heir apparent to Chung – which would be alarming – they need to get back in the draft pool to find someone at what I believe is one of the NFL’s most important positions. The team puts so much on both Chung and McCourty that it will take years for a new player to gain the depth of knowledge and nuance at the spot. And then there’s the versatility and kicking game expectations they deal with. Whether its in the draft or in free agency, spending needs to be done. But for this year, the need is a 5.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY


This is a position stocked with talented young players. Here are some of them: Green Bay’s Morgan Burnett, the Rams’ LaMarcus Joyner, Kenny Vaccaro from the Saints, San Fran’s Eric Reid and Tre Boston from the Chargers. Vaccaro’s coming off an injury. Burnett and Joyner are both going to be high-cost options. Reid is already anticipating some teams steering clear of him because of his outspoken support for Colin Kaepernick.  Further down the free agent chain are players like Boston who was outstanding in 2017. Reid, Vaccaro and Boston are players the Patriots could target. Boston is the youngest and healthiest of the group and already theorizes that he will probably move on from the Chargers.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


Alabama has a pair of safeties who’ll be coveted, the first being Minkah Fitzpatrick who is a top-10 prospect. The other is Ronnie Harrison. Stuck in between those two as a top-20 prospect is Derwin James from Florida State. The reason I could see the Patriots taking a safety in the first two rounds is because the right one can address myriad needs – coverage at the linebacker level, run-support and playmaking. Stanford’s Justin Reid (6-1, 204 pounds) and Va. Tech’s Terrell Edmunds (6-2, 220) are bookends to the type of safety builds the Patriots could use. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT?


Make a run at Tre Boston. If the price is too high, settle on Edmunds or Reid.

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