Every week, we send out questions to our sister sites here on the SB Nation family in advance of games played by the Detroit Lions. This week, as the Lions host the New England Patriots, we asked Brian Phillips of Pats Pulpit (who was also on our First Byte preview podcast) and Rich Hill to field our most pressing inquiries about the Super Bowl champions.
1. Everyone's been talking about how the Patriots have done nothing but get better this offseason, but what's the one improvement that you can point to above all others right now?
Brian: While the most popular choices to answer this question would likely be the acquisition of Brandin Cooks or Stephon Gilmore, I think that return of a completely healthy Rob Gronkowski to this offense will ultimately be the biggest "addition" any team will have made this offseason. His impact as a passing-game threat is certainly no secret, but it's the pride he takes in being one of the league's best run-blocking tight ends allows the Patriots to fully take advantage of defensive personnel packages.
Rich: So when you look at the Patriots team that won the Super Bowl versus the roster right now, the Patriots have upgraded their running backs (+Mike Gillislee, +Rex Burkhead, -LeGarrette Blount); they’ve upgraded their wide receivers (+Brandin Cooks); they’ve upgraded their tight ends (+Rob Gronkowski from injury, +Dwayne Allen, -Martellus Bennett); they’ve upgraded their defensive tackles (+Lawrence Guy); they’ve upgraded their linebackers (+David Harris, -Barkevious Mingo); and they’ve upgraded their secondary (+Stephon Gilmore, -Logan Ryan).
That’s a long list of serious upgrades, but perhaps the improvement that is most flying under the radar is on the offensive line where the team is extremely young and posed to improve. LT Nate Solder is a franchise tackle and one of the top ten left tackles in the league. RT Marcus Cannon is coming off his first year as a full-time starter (previous starts were due to injuries) and was named Second Team All Pro. Both of those players are stalwarts and Cannon could be even better in his second season as a starter.
It’s the interior where we’ll see the biggest changes. LG Joe Thuney started every game as a rookie and should take a big sophomore jump; he’s been lauded as one of the most dominant linemen of the Patriots offseason. C David Andrews and RG Shaq Mason are entering their third seasons and both took major steps forward in 2016. If they can continue their growth, the Patriots interior line will be discussed as one of the strongest in the league.
And line play means a lot because it influences the rest of the offense. Gillislee won’t gain any yards without a strong offensive line and Tom Brady won’t be able to find Cooks or Gronkowski if he doesn’t have time in the pocket. The offensive line improvements should be the big one to watch.
2. Where have the Patriots gotten worse, if anywhere? Alternatively, what's the area of most concern for this team?
Brian: I think any Patriots fan or media member will tell you that the main concern heading into 2017 is their razor thin pass rush depth. The retirement of Rob Ninkovich, and injuries to rookies Derek Rivers (likely season-ending) and Deatrich Wise (yet to be cleared from a concussion) have depleted a group that already had some question marks. Trey Flowers is looking to build on a strong 2016 campaign, but at the moment, Kony Ealy is the only ether edge defender on the depth chart with NFL experience.
Rich: The Patriots have fallen apart at edge defender. Chris Long is with the Eagles and Jabaal Sheard is with the Colts. Rob Ninkovich retired. The Patriots first draft pick Derek Rivers (albeit third round) could be lost for the season with a torn ACL. The Patriots pass rush consists of Trey Flowers, who is great but has just half a season of starting experience; Kony Ealy, who is inconsistent and was acquired from the Panthers; and a whole host of rookies.
Just like with the offensive line serving as the heart of the offense, if the Patriots pass rush vanishes in 2017, then it doesn’t matter the talent level in the secondary. Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty won’t be able to cover for five or six seconds every single snap without some player slipping free. The pass rush is extremely important for the Patriots and someone will have to step up- or the Patriots could be looking to acquire someone in a trade.
3. Tom Brady has made another claim that he can play football until the year 20XX, but how long do you think that actually is? What's the plan for the future, and do you think Brady can keep playing at this top level until he decides he's finished?
Brian: That's the million-dollar question isn't it? Brady, whose contract runs through 2019, truly believes that his TB12 method of nutrition and exercise is warding off Father Time. He looked particularly fleet of foot in the pocket last season, but we're now in uncharted territory when it comes to 40+ year old quarterbacks playing at the level he did in 2016. Judging from his performance this summer, and given the considerable weapons he'll have at his disposal, there is no reason to believe that Tom can't have his best season as a Patriot in 2017.
However, the Patriots have been open in their preparation for the future ever since drafting Jimmy Garoppolo in second round of the 2014 draft. They will have a tough decision to make this offseason as his rookie contract comes to an end.
If forced to pick an endpoint for Tom's career, I would lean towards him retiring at the conclusion of his current contract. But then again, nothing would surprise me.
Rich: I think Brady has two or three more years left, but his decline shouldn’t be as abrupt as Peyton Manning because Brady isn’t dealing with a serious injury. I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to see a dip in performance this year or in 2018, although he’ll probably still play like a top 10 quarterback. But instead of being in the tier at the top of the league with Aaron Rodgers, maybe he’ll slip into the conversation with the Carson Palmers or Philip Rivers of the league. The Patriots can still win with that, but that’s probably why the team has invested so heavily in top-tier skill players to compensate for any decline in Brady’s performance.
I think the Patriots will try to reach a long-term extension with Jimmy Garoppolo to keep him around as the quarterback of the future and I think that Brady will ride off into the sunset when he’s 43 or 44.
4. Will you, or the Patriots, miss Martellus Bennett? He seems like a fun guy.
Brian: 'Marty B' will always hold a special place in the hearts of Patriots fans. As a big personality, there were certainly some who voiced concerns that he and coach Belichick could coexist, but those skeptics were proven wrong. He came in and worked hard, never complained about his role, and was embraced immediately by his teammates. On the flip side, you never got the feeling that he was asked by anyone in the organization to quell his personality—and if he was, he didn't listen. He became the media's dependable daily soundbite source. He was a breath of fresh air in the locker room, and it was a perfect one-year marriage that ended successfully for both sides. A majority of Patriots fans were sad to see him go.
Rich: Absolutely. I’m always a fan of players that appreciate the importance of life outside of football. Bennett realizes that there’s so much more than just the game and that he can use his platform to greatly benefit people around the country. Check out this Twitter-essay from Bennett after the Patriots won the Super Bowl.
“When you look at me what do you see? I know you wanna ask me what sport I play. I mean what else could I possibly be besides an athlete. When you look at me see the father, the awesome dad, the author, film director, business owner, champion, friend, Hufflepuff beast.
“Shut up and stick to sports!! Enjoy the low hanging fruits Marty. Don't climb to the top of the Apple tree and taste that high hanging fruit.
“This is part of the reason why I'm working to build Art Centers and Computer Labs for kids to learn coding. I'm not building gyms. I'm not interested in building football fields or doing football camps. I'm interested in doing film camps and coding camps.
“You don't have to be good at sports young man. Go upstairs and finish practicing that trombone. You don't have to rap. You can score films. You don't have to dunk. You can crossover and own the basketball team. The first thing they tear down are the basketball goals. They can't tear down your mind.”
He’s an awesome personality and I wish him luck.
5. Okay fine, you get one. What's the best 28-3 joke you've seen this offseason?
Brian: There are so many good ones out there that it's tough to keep track of them all. But to keep it current, I really got a kick out of Falcons fans on Twitter saying "I watched my team blow a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl, I'll look directly at the eclipse if I damn well please."
Rich: You can’t top the Patriots using 283 diamonds on their Super Bowl ring. You simply can’t.
Update 8/24/17: Rich Hill joined in with Brian Phillips so we added his questions. Double trouble in 5 Questions!