Devin McCourty offers valuable perspective amid Tom Brady's Patriots exit

Devin McCourty offers valuable perspective amid Tom Brady's Patriots exit

Devin McCourty knows the New England Patriots can't replace Tom Brady's leadership.

But he also insists the drop-off won't be as steep as you think.

The Patriots safety already believes his team will play with a chip on its shoulder after Brady left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency, with players eager to prove they can (partially) fill TB12's leadership void.

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McCourty elaborated on that belief to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer while providing valuable context: Brady's departure means different things to different players.

"It's an opportunity for guys like James White, David Andrews, guys who’ve been offensive captains the last two to three years," McCourty told Breer. "They’ve been leaders, but no one cared about the captains on offense other than Tom. Now they get to step up and be different kinds of leaders.

"The effect it had on me when [Vince] Wilfork left, and [Jerod] Mayo retired, for me, as a defensive player, those guys were even bigger figures than Tom. When I was younger, I was scared to mess up, because that’s Wilfork there and you didn’t want to let him down. And then I remember when Mayo left, it was, who the hell’s gonna be the leader? I stepped up, [Dont’a] Hightowear stepped up. And I’m excited to see how that plays out on offense."

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Wilfork and Mayo both were Brady-type figures for the Patriots' defense. But when their tenures eventually ended, the unit adapted, with younger players like McCourty and Hightower taking the leadership mantle.

That transition hasn't been too bumpy: New England has won two Super Bowls since Wilfork and Mayo left in 2014 and 2015, respectively, while the Patriots boasted the NFL's best defense last season.

Brady obviously was central to those Super Bowl titles and will be harder to replace than any departure of the past 20 years.

McCourty has a point, though: Life in New England will go on, and the "next generation" of Patriots like Matthew Slater, Julian Edelman, Hightower and (possibly?) Jarrett Stidham will determine the club's success in 2020 and beyond.

"We’ve lost guys before," McCourty added. "Nobody of Brady’s stature, but what are we supposed to do? Throw the whole season in the tank?

"We’ll all see that as a challenge. This season won’t be like it was. He’s the best player in the history of the league and he’s leaving, so it’s not gonna be the same. But I’m excited to see what it is."

Browns better than Patriots in 2020? Former NFL player makes bold claim

Browns better than Patriots in 2020? Former NFL player makes bold claim

The New England Patriots have spent much of the last 20 years at the summit of the NFL -- the most successful franchise of this century. Over that same time, the Cleveland Browns have been one of the league's worst teams, with only a single postseason appearance since 2000.

Could these teams begin to switch places in 2020?

Last season was supposed to be the Browns' return to the spotlight, and the playoffs. Expectations were high for quarterback Baker Mayfield, star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and an up-and-coming defense. Instead, Cleveland got off to a horrible start in 2019, losing six of their first eight games, including a Week 7 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. 

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Despite all that unfolded in Cleveland last season, many experts are still high on the Browns' chances in 2020. In fact, one of them is even willing to predict the Patriots will be worse than the Browns.

“When you look at those two teams and the difference in the trajectory of what we feel they’ll be, I believe that the Browns will be a better football team than the New England Patriots this year," ESPN NFL analyst Ryan Clark said on the "Get Up" morning show earlier this week. 

"I believe that the Browns young quarterback (Baker Mayfield) will play better than the young quarterback in New England. And when you put all of these things together, that leaves Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots on the outside of the playoff picture and (Browns coach) Kevin Stefanski and the Cleveland Browns in.”

Oddsmakers don't agree with Clark. 

The Browns are underdogs to reach the playoffs with +137 odds at the DraftKings Sportsbook, while the Patriots are expected to make the postseason at -177 odds.

It's also hard to trust the Browns until they show the mental toughness required to play football into January. Bad penalties, turnovers, poor coaching and other avoidable mistakes have plagued the Browns for many years, and last season was no different.

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Another factor working against the Browns is their division. The AFC North is not a joke.

The reigning division champion Baltimore Ravens went 14-2 last year and should again be a top Super Bowl contender. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a playoff team for much of the last two decades, and they'll be aided by the healthy return of veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed most of 2019 due to injury. The Cincinnati Bengals are the worst team in the division, but selecting Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft has renewed hope in Cincy.

It's not inconceivable for the Browns to be better than the Patriots in 2020. The Patriots will have plenty of challenges, too, most notably adjusting to a new starting quarterback. New England's schedule also is among the toughest in the league, and the defense lost several key players in free agency.

Still, it's hard to bet against a Belichick team, especially when the other team in the conversation is the Browns. The smart money in this debate is with the Patriots.

Patriots' Stephon Gilmore hard at work in new offseason training video

Patriots' Stephon Gilmore hard at work in new offseason training video

NFL teams have not been able to conduct normal offseason workouts, rookie camps and other activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but players are still finding ways to stay in shape and prepare for the 2020 season.

That includes New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who recently worked out with former NFL defensive back Dre Bly, who's currently the cornerbacks coach for the University of North Carolina football team.

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Check out some footage of Gilmore's workout in the tweet below:

Gilmore arguably is the Patriots' best player following quarterback Tom Brady's departure in free agency. In Pro Football Focus' recent ranking of the top 50 players gonig into the 2020 season, Gilmore was the only Patriot to make the list.

The veteran cornerback is coming off back-to-back seasons of first team All-Pro selections, and in February he was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year Award winner for the 2019 campaign.

The Patriots saw a lot of veteran players from their defense leave as free agents this offseason. Luckily for New England, its secondary remains one of the best groups in the league, and Gilmore's presence as the sport's premier shutdown cornerback is the primary reason for that.