With the NFL season right around the corner, it seems we have finally hit prediction time. The New England Patriots have won the AFC East eight consecutive seasons, have been to the past six AFC Championship games, and won two Super Bowls in that time span. This off-season, the rich got even richer, as the Patriots reloaded a roster that will be defending the Super Bowl LI title. Heading into this season, Tom Brady may have the most talent around him on both sides of the ball he’s ever experienced. With various weapons aided by great depth up and down the depth chart, the 2017-18 Patriots will be even more difficult to predict than seasons past. Luckily for Patriots fans, no prediction can ever be too bold because you just never know what Bill Belichick will do.
1. Trey Flowers is among league leaders in sacks
Last year the Patriots had one of the top defenses in the league, including ranking number one in points allowed. Their most defined weakness was getting pressure to the opposing quarterback consistently. It showed in the stat column as the team finished 24th in sacks with just 34. While the Patriots chose to begin their season with Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard starting on the edges, it didn’t take long for Flowers to find his way into the rotation. Once given quality playing time, Flowers was arguably the most consistent force on the Patriots defensive line AND he lead the team in sacks with 7. This year, New England opted for a new direction when they let Long and Sheard sign elsewhere and then revamped the DE position by trading for Kony Ealy (Panthers), signing Lawrence Guy (Ravens), and drafting pass-rushing specialists Derek Rivers (Youngstown State), and Deatrich Wise (Arkansas). But those four newly acquired players seem to be vying for one starting spot, as Flowers figures to have the other starting spot at DE locked away. With one of the best secondary’s in all of football, Flowers will have even more time this year to get into the depths of the backfield. Look for Flowers to blow up over all over the NFL scene and create a name for himself, as he finishes in the top 5 in sacks with 12+.
2. Patriots finish top 5 in rushing yards
Last year the Patriots were 7th in team rushing yards with LeGarrette Blount leading the way with 1,161 rushing yards and Dion Lewis chipping in 283 yards. With Blount signing in Philadelphia this offseason, the Patriots will rely on the services of returning backs Lewis and James White, while also bringing in free agents Rex Burkhead (Bengals) and Mike Gillislee (Bills). None of these guys are household names in terms of NFL elite running backs, but the Patriots will still find their way into the top 5 in team rushing yards behind their sturdy offensive line. Last year, the Patriots O-line was rated as the number three rushing offensive line and the 10th best O-line overall by ProFootballFocus. Though the Patriots will use a running back by committee approach, look for Gillislee to lead the way. Last season with Bills, Gillislee averaged 5.7 yards per carry and ranked 3rd out of 58 RB’s in yards after contact with an average of 3.3 yards (according to ProFootballFocus). Gillislee achieved this by running through the right guard and right tackle of the line protection. It just so happens the Patriots two best run blockers are in fact, RG Shaq Mason (PFF’s #14 G), and RT Marcus Cannon (PFF’s #1 RT). Football Outsiders also rated Gillislee and fellow signee Burkhead as the two most efficient RB’s on a play by play basis last season. Now the Patriots will feature a balanced rushing attack, which plays right into Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels’ hands.
3. Rob Gronkowski breaks Moss’ NFL Single Season Receiving TD record
This has been a popular prediction in previous years, but this year it’s more bold than ever due to the fact that Brady arguably has the best receiving core he’s played with and because of Gronkowski’s vast injury past. The mammoth tight end has been limited by injuries in five of his first seven seasons, which included last season where Gronk played in just eight games and reeled in a career low three touchdown receptions. The Patriots lost TE Martellus Bennett in free agency to the Packers, but added TE Dwayne Allen and Saints star receiver Cooks, who will definitely command his fair share of targets. With receivers Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, along with the crafty receiving backs, James White and Dion Lewis still on the roster, players will have to take advantage of each and every target among the crowded offense. Despite all of these factors working against Gronk, once you consider how defensive resources will be focused on Cooks and Edelman, there’s plenty of room for Gronk to swiftly rack up scores. Tom Brady absolutely loves to spread the ball and does so about as well as any other quarterback, but once the Patriots get into the red zone, there’s no question who Brady’s favorite target will be; This year, if playing healthy, Gronkowski can snatch 23+ TD’s from Tom Brady, breaking Randy Moss’ 2008 record.
4. Patriots finish the season 18-1 again
18-1 is not a record any Patriots fan likes to hear. It brings back nightmares of the 2007 perfect season that ended with that one Giant loss in the Super Bowl. This year however, the Patriots will get redemption. While they may not achieve perfection, the Patriots are geared up for another 18-1 run, this time with a happier ending and a sixth Brady championship. Quite possibly better on paper than the 2007 team, this team is coming off one of the most incredible comebacks in Super Bowl history and somehow got better during the offseason. The Patriots have the 12th hardest schedule in the league, which includes a tough stretch of five road games in six weeks, but how difficult can a schedule truly be when you’re the New England Patriots led by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Sure, the Patriots will have to travel to Denver, Mexico City to play Oakland, Buffalo, Miami, and Pittsburgh, but I expect the Patriots to be 8-0 when they roll into Denver, and 13-1 when they leave Pittsburgh. This 18-1 season certainly won’t be as nice as the perfect season, but ending the season with a 6th ring for the franchise will help erase some of the sting that remains from that 2007 loss.
5. Patriots end up top 3 in Pass Defense
Bill Belicheck’s defensive philosophy has always been “bend, don’t break.” This year’s defense may not have a “bend” setting built in and seems to be stuck on annihilation. The Patriots secondary ranked 12th last year in passing yards with Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan lining up as CB1 and CB2 respectively. This offseason the Patriots made a few tweaks to the secondary, most notably opting to sign Stephon Gilmore from the Bills after Logan Ryan scurried to the Titans. Gilmore and Butler on the outside gives the Patriots one of their best CB tandems in franchise history, arguably just falling short of the Revis and Talib days. The Patriots also signed linebacker David Harris from the Jets, an intelligent linebacker that should help the pass defense, as well. As mentioned earlier, a revamped defensive line could create more pressure on the opposing QB’s this year, too. The 2016 mid-season acquisition of Eric Rowe from the Eagles will prove to be a huge success as he eyes the CB3 position to start the 2017 campaign. While it’s easy to gloat about the cornerback talent in the Patriots’ secondary, their best player back there might be safety Devin McCourty. PFF ranked McCourty the 4th best safety in all of football last year. The bolstered D-Line, plus one of the most talented secondaries in the league equals a top pass defense this year.
These are my bold predictions for the 2017 New England Patriots – For more follow @dbeard13 & @prosportsfandom on twitter