Patriots

Peter King picks the Rams to defeat Patriots in Super Bowl 53

Peter King picks the Rams to defeat Patriots in Super Bowl 53

Despite the lack of receiver depth, questions about the defense or how Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will coexist, Peter King has picked the Patriots to make it to Super Bowl 53

He has them losing to the Los Angeles Rams, but they are projected to continue their hold over the AFC. To predict whether the thrown-together Rams would beat Brady in a Super Bowl is a difficult assumption to make. 

My Super Bowl pick—which annually stinks—is a combo platter of the old and the new. I’m going all-in on the franchise that last won a playoff game with Marc Bulger under center. Super Bowl 53, Atlanta, Feb. 3, 2019: Los Angeles Rams 29, New England 20.

The Rams are coming off a break-out season under rookie coach Sean McVay going 11-5. They fell to the Atlanta Falcons in the Wild Card round of the NFC playoffs, and have made key additions in Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib.

To go with Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald, the Rams have as good a chance as any to get through the NFC. Getting through a Tom Brady-led Patriots team with another chance to secure their sixth championship doesn't seem that likely. 

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Hindsight 2020: What if Patriots had traded Jimmy Garoppolo sooner?

Hindsight 2020: What if Patriots had traded Jimmy Garoppolo sooner?

Moving on from Drew Bledsoe in favor of Tom Brady. Bringing in Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. Cutting ties with Lawyer Milloy. Taking shots on Randy Moss and Corey Dillon. Drafting Rob Gronkowski, back problems and all.

The Patriots have maintained their level for the better part of the last 20 years in large part because of Bill Belichick's foresight as the team's general manager.

Still, in two decades, as there would be with any personnel czar with that kind of tenure, there are of course moves (or non-moves) that in hindsight prompt us to wonder what might've been.

In this edition of our Hindsight 2020 series, we're focused on the Patriots front office — Belichick's office — to pick out the decision that stands above the rest as the one that could've drastically altered the post-Brady course of the franchise: Not trading Jimmy Garoppolo prior to the 2017 season.

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At the NFL's annual meeting in Phoenix that year, Browns head coach Hue Jackson wasn't evasive. He wasn't playing coy. His team had the No. 1 and 12 overall picks in the draft. The top choice — earmarked for defensive end Myles Garrett — was not up for grabs. No. 12, though? Different story.

"We'll exhaust every opportunity" to find a quarterback, Jackson told a horde of reporters at the AFC coaches breakfast. Though he would not comment on Garoppolo specifically, citing tampering rules, the message was clear: If the Patriots wanted that No. 12 overall selection in exchange for Brady's backup, there was a conversation to be had.

On its face, making that move made sense for both sides. The Browns were desperate for a competent quarterback. They were flush with picks. The Patriots, meanwhile, didn't have a first or a second-rounder that spring. For them, trading Garoppolo with a year left on his contract represented an opportunity to bolster their 2017 rookie haul with a top-15 talent.

The decision wasn't that simple, of course. 

To pull the trigger, the Patriots would have to be willing to bail on Brady's insurance plan for that season — he hadn't missed significant time since 2008, but he was going into his 40-year-old season — as well as his long-term successor.

If Garoppolo remained on the roster, the benefit was that he would provide the Patriots a capable break-glass-in-case-of-emergency passer for a Super Bowl contender. Plus, it gave Belichick and Garoppolo's representatives time to try to finagle a long-term deal to keep Garoppolo in New England for the foreseeable future. 

If they could iron something out contractually, Belichick would be pulling off the near-impossible — something only the Niners and Packers had pulled off in the modern era. Riding into life after a Hall of Fame quarterback almost seamlessly, with a legitimate franchise guy ready to step in.

How likely was it, though, that holding onto Garoppolo for as long as possible would yield the Patriots the maximum possible benefit?

For that to happen, it seems, Brady would have either had to drop off the proverbial "cliff" performance-wise or suffer a serious injury. Again, we have the benefit of hindsight here, but there's an argument to be made that neither seemed imminent at the time. 

Brady was coming off of his fifth Super Bowl win and an MVP-caliber season in 2016. (The MVP went to Matt Ryan, in part, because Brady missed the first four games of that year suspended for Deflategate). Then, at 40, Brady went on to win the award for the third time in his career, and he threw for over 500 yards in a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. It was unprecedented stuff for a quarterback his age, and yet not at all shocking given his performance the previous year.

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Garoppolo remained on the sidelines for the first eight weeks of 2017 as Brady played some of the best football of his career. There was no Bledsoevian moment where Garoppolo was able step in because of injury. And there was no reason for him to bite on a long-term contract extension if it meant sitting for another season (or more) behind a guy who at the time was playing better than anyone else on the planet.

We know what happened at that point: At the trade deadline, opting to get something for Garoppolo rather than holding onto him and letting him hit free agency after the season, Belichick dealt his No. 2 to the Niners in exchange for a second-round pick in 2018.

You can point to the team's unwillingness to invest real capital in a young tight end toward the end of Gronkowski's career — how did George Kittle slip to the fifth round in 2017, again? — as a front-office "what if?" 

You can point to any number of swings-and-misses in the draft's first couple of rounds — Dominique Easley, Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson, Aaron Dobson, Ras-I Dowling, Ron Brace — as easy fixes in hindsight.

But deciding to keep Garoppolo prior to the 2017 season is fascinating to revisit precisely because of where the Patriots stand at the moment, without a clear-and-obvious long-term solution at the game's most important position. And because of what happened with that No. 12 overall selection.

The Browns did end up trading their second first-rounder three years ago, you might remember. It landed in Houston. 

That's right. In an alternate universe, a universe in which the Browns and Patriots had been willing and able to work out a deal for Garoppolo, the Patriots are rolling into next season with a seasoned backup oozing with talent, the No. 12 pick in the 2017 draft: Deshaun Watson.

2020 NFL Draft: Searching for Gronk's replacement in Patriots 7-round mock

2020 NFL Draft: Searching for Gronk's replacement in Patriots 7-round mock

Let's get this out of the way: It's not a great time to need a tight end in the draft. Relative to other years, at least.

Last spring there were two surefire first-rounders, both out of Iowa: T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. In 2018, only one tight end went in the first (Hayden Hurst), but two taken in later rounds (Dallas Goedert, Mark Andrews) are among the game's best young players at the position. O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and David Njoku all went in the first in 2017.

This year there's a "massive drop" in terms of tight end talent available, one league source told me this week.

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Not ideal for the Patriots, who could use an infusion of tight end talent perhaps more so than any other team in the NFL. And yet we have them selecting two in this year's class. Reach much? How does that make sense?

Well, just because this class doesn't have multiple high-end talents at that spot, that doesn't mean it's completely devoid of players who fit the New England mold. You'll see how it all comes together in our latest seven-round Patriots-specific mock.

Click here for Phil Perry's 7-round Patriots mock draft, Version 2.0.