Top 8 Reasons to Be Excited About the New England Patriots in 2017

Kristopher KnoxFeatured ColumnistMay 11, 2017

Top 8 Reasons to Be Excited About the New England Patriots in 2017

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    The 2017 NFL draft is over, and the bulk of free agency has passed. Aside from rookie camps and organized team activities (OTAs), there isn't going to be a lot of NFL action over the next few months.

    There are two ways to look at this fact. You can either be depressed about the lack of football and go watch another sport like baseball (yeah, right). Or you can spend the next few months getting psyched about your team's upcoming season.

    If you're a fan of the New England Patriots, there's a third option. You can spend the next several months continuing to bask in the afterglow of the latest Super Bowl win.

    We're here to talk about the upcoming season, though, and why New England fans have reason to be excited. Taking into account factors like roster additions, schedule and team potential, these are our top eight reasons to be excited about the Patriots in 2017.

8. A Division-Heavy End

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Let's be honest here. The NFL didn't do the Patriots any favors when it comes to scheduling this season. New England has the 12th-toughest strength of schedule in terms of 2016 winning percentage (.527) and has five of its final eight games on the road.

    Interestingly, five of New England's last six games are against AFC East opponents—presumably, so the Patriots don't run away with the division before midseason.

    For many teams, this division-heavy ending schedule might be seen as a steep challenge. For Patriots fans, however, this should be a welcome way to end the year.

    For one, the Patriots typically dominate division opponents. The team has a divisional record of 23-7 over the past five years. Secondly, this ensures that New England will be playing meaningful games until the end of the season.

    This means season-ticket holders will have plenty of reasons to stroll out to Gillette Stadium in Week 16 and 17 against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, even if New England is sitting pretty in the playoff chase.

7. Pretty Good Odds

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    If Patriots fans need an easy reason to smile, consider this: New England is already a heavy favorite to win Super Bowl XLII, according to OddsShark.com.

    The Patriots' odds currently sit at 15-4.

    In addition, the odds look good for New England on a game-by-game basis. Tyler Sullivan of 247Sports recently explained:

    "Outside of Week 17 (which the sports book has not accounted for yet), the Patriots are favored by an average of 6.5 points per game in 2017 with the largest being their Week 8 matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium. In that game, New England is currently a 12.5 point favorite. When the team heads down to Mexico City to play the Oakland Raiders and when they visit Heinz Field to play the Pittsburgh Steelers next year, the team is only favored by 1.5 points."

    So there you go, Patriots fans. Will New England win every single game next year? Probably not. The odds are pretty good, though, that they are going to win a lot more than they lose. That's something to get excited about.

6. New Defensive Front

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    Daniel Gluskoter/Associated Press

    The New England defensive line was pretty good in 2016. It helped forge a defense that was rated second against the run by Pro Football Focus, and it was able to get after the quarterback in key situations.

    However, there was room for improvement in the pass rush, as the team only graded out 24th in that category, per Pro Football Focus. On paper, the defensive front should be even better this season. It's definitely younger.

    The Patriots relied on ends Jabaal Sheard (28 years old) and Chris Long (32) as part of a three-end rotation with sack-leader Trey Flowers. This offseason, the team added ends Lawrence Guy (27) and Kony Ealy (25) to that rotation. In addition, the team drafted edge-rusher Derek Rivers (23) and defensive end Deatrich Wise (22) in the draft.

    While Rivers projects as an outside linebacker, he'll probably also see some work as an edge-rushing end in sub-packages—and he could be the most underrated addition to the defensive line. Bleacher Report's Doug Farrar believes he could be New England's next pass-rushing star and compared him to former Patriot Chandler Jones.

    "Like Jones, Rivers has experience in two- and three-point stances, and he's lined up on either shoulder of the tackle," Farrar wrote. "It will take time before Rivers' arsenal of pass-rush moves are as evolved as Jones' are, but it generally takes any collegiate pass-rusher a year to get the hang of NFL blocking schemes."

    Patriots fans should be excited to see Rivers and the rest of New England's rebuilt defensive front grow together throughout the season.

5. The Gilmore-Butler Corner Combo

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler has gone from being an undrafted rookie to one of the top corners in the entire NFL over the past three years. Last season, he was rated fifth overall among all corners by Pro Football Focus.

    While there was some offseason speculation that Butler might sign elsewhere as a restricted free agent or force a trade, he has signed his tender and will play in New England for at least next season.

    Joining Butler in the secondary is Stephon Gilmore, who the Patriots inked to a five-year, $65 million deal in free agency.

    Gilmore is considered one of the top up-and-coming corners in the NFL and is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance. He and Butler combined for 29 passes defended and nine interceptions in 2016. The two of them should form a cornerback tandem that is both exceptional on the field and exciting to watch.

4. That Wacky New Backfield

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    OK, so "wacky" may be stretching things a bit, but New England's backfield is certainly shaping up to be interesting in 2017.

    As of now, it appears the backfield will consist primarily of Dion Lewis, James White, former Cincinnati Bengals man Rex Burkhead and ex-Buffalo Bill Mike Gillislee. Not one of these guys have been a full-time starter before, but each has a dynamic and multi-faceted skill set.

    Gillislee is a hulking 219-pound back with home run ability, as evidenced by his 5.7 yards-per-carry average and eight touchdowns last season. He scored roughly once every 13 carries. The other three are all backs who can run but who can also excel as receiving options.

    This is going to give New England a ton of formation flexibility. The receiving ability of the backfield group means the offense might come out with a three-back set only to go no-huddle into a four wideout set on the very next play.

    Ultimately, this is an intriguing potential rotation of backs that will definitely be worth getting excited about.

    Oh, and for the LeGarrette Blount fans out there, there's a slim chance he returns in 2017.

    "According to multiple reports, the Patriots placed a 'May 9 tender' on Blount, which secures rights for the team and leaves an avenue where the running back could potentially return," Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal wrote. "The tender is an offer that's 110 percent of his 2016 pay (that comes to $1.1 million)."

3. Those New Weapons for Brady

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    If you think the new-look backfield is going to be exciting, just imagine the new lineup of pass-catchers Tom Brady is going to have at his disposal.

    The team traded to acquire former New Orleans Saints speedster Brandin Cooks this offseason. He, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell give New England four receivers rated in the top 72 by Pro Football Focus a year ago. Cooks and Edelman were rated 27th and 31st overall.

    This makes for a strong group of wideouts to go with pass-catching backs like Lewis, White and Burkhead.

    The Patriots also traded to acquire tight end Dwayne Allen from the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. While he might not be as high profile as the departed Martellus Bennett, Allen is still an athletic pass-catching tight end with a lot of upside. He's also only 27 years old.

    This means the Patriots should again have a dynamic tandem of tight ends with Allen and Rob Gronkowski.

    To this group, New England added former Kansas City Chiefs tight end James O'Shaughnessy via trade.  He might not have a lot of pro stats to his credit, but he's still a 6'4", 245-pound pass-catcher who ran the 40 in 4.68 seconds at his pro day.

    Don't be surprised if the Patriots form lethal receiving combinations this season in everything from five-wide formations to three tight end sets.

2. Brady Himself

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Brady may be turning 40 before the start of the 2017 season, but he's been playing some of the best football of his career. Despite playing in only 12 games last season, he passed for 3,554 yards with 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

    Pro Football Focus rated him first overall among quarterbacks in 2016.

    Before anyone goes talking about all the weapons the QB had at his disposal last year, remember that the team's top wideout was a converted college quarterback and the mighty Gronk was only on the field with Brady for five games.

    Patriots should be excited every season in which Brady is healthy and under center. Even non-Patriots fans should be a little excited to see New England play this year.

    Prime Brady isn't going to be around forever, and the football world should appreciate him while it can.

1. They're Defending Super Bowl Champs

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    C'mon, Patriots fans! Your team is the defending NFL champ. You get to watch New England unfurl another Super Bowl banner in Week 1.

    You know the roster is primed for another run at the title. Heck, you might even think this team is better than the one that overcame a 28-3 deficit in last year's title game.

    The Patriots are not a fluke and they're not a team that is past its prime. New England isn't chasing ghosts, it's chasing glory. If that reality doesn't get you pumped for 2017, then nothing will.