HOUSTON – The New England Patriots have been the most prolific dynasty over the past two decades, winning the fifth Super Bowl of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. If they want to remain atop the NFL, they need to answer a few questions.
1. Will the Tom Brady decline begin?
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) and Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) both take the field prior to a game against Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.
Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports, USA TODAY Sports
Tom Brady has said he wants to play well into his 40s. He’ll get his first crack next season after turning 40 on Aug. 3. In 12 games, Brady completed 67.4% of his passes for 3,554 yards, and 28 touchdowns versus only two interceptions. It doesn’t look like he’s slowing down, but he won’t be able to play – especially at such a high level – forever. By comparison, Peyton Manning retired last year at age 39 when his physical skills diminished. Brady, however, keeps a strict diet and workout regimen that are tailored to maximize the longevity of his career.
2. What will the future hold for Jimmy Garoppolo?
With that said, Brady came in second Saturday in the league’s MVP race and, despite his age, he remains one of the NFL’s top passers. That could mean the Patriots will try to capitalize on the growing trade market for third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He will become a free agent at the end of the 2017 season, and would likely garner significant interest and could become an expensive backup. Several reports have indicated the Patriots are asking for a first-round draft pick, and if New England can swing a deal and get stronger in the process, they may be eager to move Garoppolo and find the future of the franchise later. These are good problems to have.
3. Will New England beef up its pass rush?
The Patriots were in the middle of the pack this season in sacks forced (34), tied for 16th in the league. Part of that was because the team traded defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Jamie Collins, two of the team’s best pass rushers. Despite that, New England led the NFL in scoring defense, giving up 15.6 points per game. The Patriots made the Jones and Collins trades, in large part because cornerback Malcolm Butler and linebacker Dont’a Hightower are set to become free agents. New England won’t have the money to pay everyone, so the deals were done. But if the Patriots can pluck a dynamic low-cost pass rusher in the draft, the defense will be that much more dangerous.
4. What to do with tight end Martellus Bennett?
Butler and Hightower should be priorities this offseason, but what about Bennett? At times seen as a problem in the locker room, Bennett has been a seamless fit in New England. He has been a steady pass-catching option, and ultra-reliable in the blocking game. But Bennett will become an unrestricted free agent in March. Bennett has said he loves life in New England, but he may have to sign at a discount if he wants to stay with the Patriots. The other factor at play here is the status of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who underwent back surgery – the third of his career –in early December to end his season. Gronkowski is one of the biggest matchup problems in the NFL. But he has missed games in five seasons in a row, 21 total in his seven seasons.
5. More weapons for Brady?
One of Brady’s best attributes as a quarterback is the way he elevates skill position players around him. Players considered by many as afterthoughts, such as receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and running back Dion Lewis, have become integral parts of New England’s offense. Aside from Gronkowski, you can make the case that the Patriots don’t have any elite-level skill position talent. So imagine how much better the Patriots offense could be if New England invested a high draft pick in acquiring a receiver or running back.