New England Patriots bold predictions for 2019
What exactly qualifies as bold, anyway? How far into the depths of absurdity do we really have to reach in order for something to be considered topple-you-with-a-tidal-wave-of-bold bold?
Here are five quick predictions -- we'll leave you to determine their levels of boldness -- for the Patriots in 2019 . . .
1. McDANIELS STICKS AS PATRIOTS OC
Funny how this works. A year ago it was a foregone conclusion Josh McDaniels was gone. When he left the Colts hanging, it was assumed by many that he'd never be considered for a head job again. Now, once again, he's one of the favorites around the league to become a head coach somewhere else. This prediction is based on the fact that the perfect job doesn't seem to be out there. Cleveland could qualify, but would they break up what Baker Mayfield seems to have Freddie Kitchens? The rookie quarterback has been on a tear since Hue Jackson left. The Jets job doesn't seem like a bad one given its quarterback and cap situation, but that may be a third-rail gig for the longtime Bill Belichick pupil. I wouldn't be shocked to see a scenario in which defensive play-caller Brian Flores has a head-coaching job in 2019 while McDaniels opts for another year in New England.
2. PATRIOTS LOCK UP FLOWERS
The Patriots could have between about $19 million to $25 million in cap space this coming offseason, but that number could grow with a variety of contractual maneuvers leading up to the new league year. How much of it will the team be willing to offer their top free agent? Spotrac has pegged Flowers' market value at about $14.5 million per season, using the deals of Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Calais Campbell and Jabaal Sheard as comps. That kind of average annual value would slot him in between Stephon Gilmore ($13 million) and Tom Brady ($15 million), and may seem too rich for the Patriots. But Flowers could stick because he's exactly the type of player the Patriots shouldn't mind rewarding -- a homegrown talent who has done everything asked, performed consistently well, showed up in big moments, and someone who would serve as an example for younger players in the locker room looking for how to go about their jobs in order to get paid eventually. If the Patriots let him hit the market -- as they did with players like Devin McCourty and Dont'a Hightower -- there is the chance Flowers' market is impacted by other talented edge players who are available (Demarcus Lawrence, Brandon Graham, Ziggy Ansah among them). And perhaps his sack total (6.5 at the moment) makes teams around the league reluctant to pay him like a high-end pass-rusher. If that's the case, the Patriots should pounce.
3. PATRIOTS DRAFT GRONKOWSKI'S REPLACEMENT
The 2019 draft is a critical one for the Patriots who are in need of an infusion of young talent in a variety of areas. You could make a case for early-round picks at linebacker, safety, defensive end, defensive tackle, receiver and even quarterback. But for this prediction (YOU WANT BOLD?!?), let's say the Patriots use their No. 1 pick on Rob Gronkowski's replacement. To do it, they'll dip into a program with which they're quite familiar. But they won't take the tight end in that program that many consider to be that program's best. Confused yet? The pick will be Iowa's TJ Hockenson. He's not an athletic specimen of the same caliber as teammate Noah Fant, but he's proven to be a productive receiver with good athleticism, he's a little bigger than Fant (listed at 6-foot-5, 250 compared to Fant's 6-foot-5, 241) and he's a more polished blocker. Unless the Patriots change philosophies at the position, they'll want someone who's a dual threat. Hockenson, who just won the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end and learned to play under Belichick friend Kirk Ferentz and former Patriots tight ends coach Brian Ferentz, seems like their type.
4. PATRIOTS STEER CLEAR OF ROOKIE QUARTERBACKS
The takeaway from last year's draft class was that it was top-heavy with quarterback talent. Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson have all shown promising signs as first-round products, and the Bills seem confident that Josh Allen is still capable of rounding into a starting-level passer. This year? There's not nearly as much confidence in the quarterback crop. With the Patriots looking to make the most of Tom Brady's window -- and with Brady insisting he'll be playing for a while -- they'll bypass the position altogether, rolling once again with Brian Hoyer (fully guaranteed $1.5 million of his 2019 salary) as their backup. Instead it'll be 2020 when the Patriots opt to dip into that position, when Oregon's Justin Herbert, Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa, Georgia's Jake Fromm, Stanford's KJ Costello and Michigan's Shea Patterson are expected to be available.
5. PATRIOTS BECOME A TOP-FIVE RUSHING TEAM
Maybe it'll be Belichick's reaction to a market inefficiency. Maybe it'll be his way of managing a quarterback in his early 40s. Either way, the Patriots will run it even more in 2019. They rank eighth in terms of run-play percentage in 2018 (44.4 percent), after coming in at 23rd in 2017 (40.2). If that number sees a bump again in 2019, it would signify even more of a commitment by the Patriots to zig when the rest of the league is zagging. As the NFL leans more heavily on the passing game year after year, and as passing-game players become more prevalent in terms of their usage defensively -- not to mention more expensive across the board -- the Patriots could say to themselves, "Great, we're coming at you with six linemen and a fullback." They've already done that to a certain extent in 2018. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots have used two-back sets 28 percent of the time, which is second only to San Francisco's 41 percent. Over the last four weeks, no one has used more two-back sets than the Patriots (41 percent compared to San Francisco's 38 percent). Part of that is due to necessity. The Patriots are thin at wideout and tight end, and they have a quarterback who could benefit from a dialed-back workload occasionally. But part of it could be due to a schematic change rooted in Belichick's reaction to league trends. Passing games have never been more efficient or explosive, and they're obviously critical to a strong offensive attack. But the Patriots took a running back in the first round in 2018, and their commitment to the running game may still be growing.