For the expanding swath of Americans sick and tired of the New England Patriots, relief does not appear to be in sight. The Patriots have advanced at least as far as the AFC championship game in six consecutive seasons. There’s no reason to think the Patriots won’t put themselves in position to make it seven next year, for reasons beyond the continued prominent involvement of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
The morning after they won Super Bowl LI in astonishing fashion, the Patriots, at 9-to-2 odds, opened as the early favorite to win Super Bowl LII. Who else would warrant that title? Under Belichick’s direction, they will bring back a load of talent to surround Brady, on both sides of the ball, with enough payroll flexibility and draft resources to add to it.
The Patriots’ biggest decision will be what to do with backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who proved fully capable during the seven quarters he filled in for Brady at the outset of the season. Brady will be 40 next season, and for all of his greatness, age comes for everybody, usually faster than expected. It would be foolish to doubt Brady, but it might also be an unwise risk for the Patriots to play without a backup they know and trust.
Then again, the Patriots operate differently than most teams. The Patriots could reap a bounty of draft picks by dealing Garoppolo, perhaps gaining back the first- and fourth-round picks they lost in 2016 as part of their Deflategate punishment. In the past, the Patriots have shown no hesitation in trading Brady’s backup and finding another young quarterback to serve as his understudy.
The unremarkable careers of Matt Cassel, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett suggest the Patriots can handle cycling through another backup. And the Patriots used a third-round pick on rookie Jacoby Brissett, a signal that they would comfortable with him behind Brady.
And so it may be a safe bet that the Patriots will be able to add talent both through the draft and through free agency. The Patriots have the fourth-most available salary cap room in the NFL, according to Spotrac.com. They’ll have to exhaust some of those funds either to bring back or replace a few key defensive players, particularly linebacker Dont’a Hightower, cornerback Logan Ryan and defensive tackle Alan Branch.
But their reserves will give them plenty of options, especially given Belichick’s knack for finding undervalued players who fit into his system. The Patriots have the built-in advantage of paying Brady far less than he’s worth, at Brady’s choice, and the ability to lure veterans who prioritize the chance to win a Super Bowl.
The Patriots just won the Super Bowl with a young defense, and players such as Trey Flowers, who recorded 2.5 sacks Sunday night, should only improve. They’ll also have the option to bring back their entire offensive line, maintaining cohesion among a group that, despite struggles in the Super Bowl, improved vastly from last year.
If the Patriots have any cause for concern, it centers on the health of tight end Rob Gronkowski. When he plays, Gronkowski is one of the great pass-catching forces in the NFL and an impossible matchup for opposing defenses. But he missed the final half of the season after undergoing back surgery, and his long history of injury casts uncertainty on his return.
But in general for New England, there simply isn’t much to worry about. It just played a season that began with Brady suspended for four games and ended with his best weapon on the sideline for the final 11. And it went 17-2, the final victory doubling as the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. The Patriots, no matter what the country would prefer, are not going anywhere.