Preseason is here! It’s football season which means we’re previewing the NFL. For the next 32 days we’re doing one team per day, by division, in reverse order of projected finish. Today, projected to win the AFC East, the New England Patriots.
On February 5, 2017 the Patriots are going to win their fifth Super Bowl. Today—August 21, 2016—it looks like the Patriots are shaping up to come up short this season. Tom Brady is suspended for four games; games that could determine playoff seeding or home field advantage come January. Just today, it was reported that right tackle Sebastian Vollmer will miss the season and that running back Dion Lewis will have another surgery on his knee and miss an indefinite amount of time. It’s easy to look at that and say that the Patriots simply can’t overcome it because they failed to do so last year when faced with injuries. But if you’re saying that, you’re forgetting that we’re talking about the New England Patriots.
The Patriots are as good coming into 2016 as they’ve been coming into any year in recent memory. Brady’s suspension shouldn’t worry anybody—Jimmy Garoppolo is capable of holding down the fort and letting an underrated defense and a great receiving corps carry New England for four weeks. The only game of those four that New England should chalk up as an automatic loss is Week 1 in Arizona. After that nationally televised game, and likely blowout, there will be panic about how the Patriots will survive the rest of Brady’s suspension. However, all of the next three games are at home and all three of them are against beatable teams: Houston, Buffalo and Miami. All New England has to do is go 2-2 though the first four weeks. Then Brady can do the rest.
Make no mistake, Tom Brady is the best of all-time and he’s nowhere near declining. Faced with a litany of injuries resulting in a makeshift offensive line all season and key players like Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman missing games late in the season, Brady dragged the Patriots within a failed two-point conversion of the AFC title last season. He led the league in touchdown passes, was second in DYAR and third in PFF grading. Now, at age 39, he gets four extra weeks of rest and can be driven by the image of Roger Goodell handing him the Lombardi Trophy after putting him through a two-year long legal sham that resulted in an undeserved suspension. Even at 39, we should be getting ready for one of Brady’s best seasons. He has more weapons than last season after the addition of Martellus Bennett, a healthier offensive line even after Vollmer’s injury and an extra motivator in Deflategate.
It’s easy to look at Dion Lewis’ injury and worry about New England’s lack of a run game but they’ve been playing without a reliable run game for as long as anyone can remember and it hasn’t hurt them at all. LeGarrette Blount is still capable after rushing for 4.3 yards per attempt last season and even though James White isn’t anything resembling Lewis as a pass-catcher, but he’s capable enough. There’s also a chance that Lewis comes back by the end of the season. As of now, we don’t know but if the Patriots thought there wasn’t a chance of him playing they would have put him on IR. If Lewis can be healthy by mid-December, the Patriots suddenly have a great receiver in the backfield to complement the rest of their passing game.
New England’s receivers are downright scary if they remain healthy. Julian Edelman was having a great 2015 before he got hurt. In just nine regular season games, he had 692 receiving yards with a 69 percent catch rate. He averaged 5.1 yards after the catch per Football Outsiders and has turned into a perfect partner for Brady, excelling with short and intermediate passes and quick throws that Brady loves to make. Danny Amendola is an oft-forgotten piece of this offense and will essentially be the #4 receiver this year with Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett at tight end, but he was very efficient last season, catching 75 percent of balls thrown his way.
Six years into his career, nobody has figured out how to guard Rob Gronkowski. Six years into his career, it doesn’t look like anyone ever will. When he lines up outside or gets man coverage against a linebacker, the defense might as well throw up a white flag before the ball is snapped. Martellus Bennett slots right into an offense that loved to use tight ends, using 12 personnel 43 percent of the time per Football Outsiders. That duo is going to be terrifying, particularly in the red zone where New England found success putting Gronkowski and Scott Chandler next to each other in formations last season.
If this offense has an issue, it’s up front, particularly after Vollmer was put on IR. However, the biggest issue for the Patriots last season wasn’t one or two injuries as much as it was a constant churn of injuries resulting in the Football Outsiders’ lowest offensive continuity score ever. While their offensive line isn’t particularly special when healthy, it’s a far cry from the five turnstiles that got wheeled up and down the field in Denver last January. Nate Solder missed most of last season and when he’s healthy, the Patriots have a solid left tackle. The same goes for center Bryan Stork, who played just eight games last year. At right guard, Josh Kline is solid, blowing just four blocks last season per Football Outsiders and Joe Thuney, Jonathan Cooper or Shaq Mason will contribute enough on the left to stop the position from being a problem. Right tackle will be an issue now that Vollmer’s hurt but the Patriots can manage even if they have to play Marcus Cannon. Tom Brady’s specialty is getting the ball out quickly—it takes a player of Von Miller’s caliber to truly disrupt him—so I have trouble seeing many issues in pass protection as long as the line isn’t at last year’s level of poor health.
Defensively, New England remains one of the better teams in football despite trading Chandler Jones in the offseason. Although they lost Jones’ pass rushing ability, they were able to get Terrance Knighton—one of the best run defenders in football. Knighton had a 92 percent run stop rate last season, per Football Outsiders, which is just absurd. He’ll slot right in next to second-year player Malcom Brown, a great run defender in the making. Brown posted an 80 percent run stop rate of his own last season according to Football Outsiders and is only going to get better. On the edge, Jabaal Sheard is perpetually underrated. He was seventh among edge rushers in PFF grading last season with an 88 percent run stop rate, eight sacks, five hits and 16.5 hurries per Football Outsiders. Rob Ninkovich is a solid contributor as well with a team-high 24.5 hurries last year per Football Outsiders and Chris Long will have a positive impact if healthy.
In Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Patriots might have the best outside linebacker duo of any team that plays in a 4-3. Both players were top-10 among linebackers in PFF grading last season and can do anything you ask of them. Collins had 25 defeats and 58 stops last season while also ranking 10th in success rate and 15th in adjusted yards per target per Football Outsiders. Hightower ad an 88.3 run defense grade from PFF which he bested with a 92.7 pass rushing grade. Jonathan Freeny is certainly a question mark at middle linebacker after just a 47 percent success rate last season in coverage, per Football Outsiders, but the rest of the secondary is likely good enough to make up for it.
Neither Malcolm Butler nor Logan Ryan is a star at cornerback but both have turned into solid, reliable players which are more than Bill Belichick could have asked for in the wake of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner’s departures after the 2014 season. Both were top-25 among defensive backs in success rate, per Football Outsiders, and PFF grading last season. Nickel corner is a question mark as both Justin Coleman and E.J. Biggers had two AV last season, but Bill Belichick has a habit of making things work that you have to trust in, particularly for young guys like Coleman. At safety, it’s tough to find anything bad to say about Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty. The two ranked sixth and seventh in PFF grading at the position and eased any doubts Pats fans might have had about Belichick choosing to keep that tandem intact instead of keeping Revis two offseasons ago.
From top to bottom, the Patriots are the best team in football. Brady and Belichick are the best ever at their crafts, the receiving corps is among the best in the league and the defense has exceedingly few holes. Throw in the added motivation for Brady and the Patriots are well on their way to another Lombardi Trophy.
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 If he was, New England probably would have won the AFC Championship Game last season.