New England Patriots' Biggest Remaining Offseason Question Marks

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJune 1, 2017

New England Patriots' Biggest Remaining Offseason Question Marks

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    Bill Sikes/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots usually seem to be a team that has all the answers.

    Just look at some of the questions that hovered over the team in the last year: Tom Brady was suspended four games, so what did the Patriots do? They used two backups and went 3-1 without Tommy Touchdown. They were down 28-3 in the Super Bowl, and how did they finish? The offense wore out the Atlanta Falcons defense with sustained drives and pulled out a win in overtime.

    The Patriots have had plenty of answers to questions this offseason too—and they've repeatedly come up with answers.

    Brandin Cooks was added to boost the offense; Dont'a Hightower was allowed to test the market but returned to the team on a long-term deal; and Malcolm Butler was unhappy with his situation but is playing good soldier, at least for this season.

    Dating back to the beginning of last season and running through today, the Patriots have answered just about every question that has popped up about the team. Yet, there are still a few question marks remaining—even for know-it-all New England—as we creep toward training camp.

    We're going to examine those remaining questions here and provide our thoughts on each.

What Does the Future Hold for Jimmy Garoppolo?

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    Bill Sikes/Associated Press

    This is a question that has hovered over the Patriots ever since Jimmy Garoppolo won his first start against the Arizona Cardinals. Will he truly be the heir to Brady? Will the team try to move him in exchange for another potential Super Bowl-winning piece?

    Realistically, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft already have their answers here—though the rest of the world is still wondering. They probably have a good idea of how long Brady, 39, will continue playing and if keeping Garoppolo around is worth the potential cost.

    Garoppolo can almost certainly command starting-quarterback figures on the open market. Mike Glennon got a three-year, $45 million deal this offseason. Would the Patriots spend more than that to keep Garoppolo as a free agent? Would they utilize the franchise tag on a backup?

    These are questions that won't crop up until next offseason—unless the Patriots find a way to extend Garoppolo now. A lot could depend on how things unfold in the offseason. Should the 25-year-old show he is realistically on or close to Brady's level when commanding the offense, the team may decide extending him now is the right move.

    If the Patriots were going to trade Garoppolo, they likely would have done so before the draft, when his value was high. They didn't, so I don't think moving him is the plan.

    I'm not convinced that the team only wants him as a backup for one more season either, however. The Patriots should try to get an extension done with Garoppolo, and it makes the most sense—financially and strategically—to get one done this offseason.

Who Takes the Role of Leading Rusher?

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    Bill Sikes/Associated Press

    If we're looking at questions directly related to the upcoming season, we almost have to start with the backfield situation. The Patriots kept Dion Lewis and James White, but they allowed LeGarrette Blount to walk in free agency.

    Blount rushed for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.

    The question now is which running back is going to take over the lead back role? Will it be White or Lewis? Will it be a newcomer like Mike Gillislee or Rex Burkhead?

    The reality is that the Patriots probably don't even know but are willing to let the situation sort itself out in camp.

    Gillislee will probably get the first crack at the starting job. The Patriots thought enough of him to steal him away from the rival Buffalo Bills as a restricted free agent. They gave him a two-year, $6.4 million deal in order to snag him.

    At 5'11" and 219 pounds, Gillsilee also has the build of a leading rusher. He averaged an impressive 5.7 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns last season in Buffalo.

    However, Burkhead did some impressive work of his own with the Cincinnati Bengals, albeit on a more limited basis. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2016.

    The Patriots will likely use some combination of the two to lead the rushing attack, while White and Lewis continue in their roles as pass-catching backs.

What Role Will Derek Rivers Play?

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    Associated Press

    The Patriots spent a third-round draft pick on former Youngstown State defensive end Derek Rivers in this year's draft in order to help boost the pass rush.

    As a team, New England was rated just 24th in pass rush by Pro Football Focus last season. Rivers racked up 14.0 sacks by himself last season.

    This question surrounds just how the Patriots will utilize Rivers in 2017. He played end at Youngstown State, but NFL.com lists him as an outside linebacker. Will he play exclusively at one position? Will he switch between end and linebacker?

    The Patriots don't typically lean heavily on rookie defenders, so there are plenty of questions about how much the team will use him. A lot will probably become clearer as the offseason wears on. The faster Rivers develops—and the more versatility he shows—the earlier he'll probably be on the field in a significant role.

    "I'd say that we try to identify guys that may have some position flexibility," defensive line coach Brendan Daly said, per Doug Kyed of NESN.com. "Maybe they do, maybe they don't. I think all of that depends on what happens out here on the field. I think particularly this time of the year, we're trying to put guys in a number of different spots to get them evaluated."

    If the Patriots like what they're getting out of Rivers, he should be a big part of the pass rush early this season. The defense needs him to be.

Will the Team Try to Extend Malcolm Butler?

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    Bill Sikes/Associated Press

    Starting cornerback Malcolm Butler is definitely a quality player. Pro Football Focus rated him fifth overall among all corners last season, and he's definitely the type of player the Patriots should want to keep around for the long-term.

    However, Butler is only under contract for this season.

    The Patriots gave the 27-year-old a first-round tender as a restricted free agent this offseason, which Butler eventually signed.

    Though he was initially upset with being given the tender while incoming cornerback Stephon Gilmore was given a five-year, $65 million deal, Butler has been a participant in offseason workouts. Presumably, he'll play this season for New England and play hard.

    The question is when or if the Patriots try to give Butler a long-term extension. If they believe the value is there, they may try to do so before the season starts in order to remove any drama from his situation moving forward.

    However, if Belichick gets a good look at his roster in training camp and decides he can move forward without Butler, 2017 may be the cornerback's last season in Foxborough.

    Butler doesn't seem too concerned either way.

    "I am just here to do a job and do anything to help the team win. Just moving forward. Whatever happens, happens," Butler said, per WEEI 93.7 FM.

    We should have an answer to this question by the end of training camp, as the Patriots tend to shelve contract talks once the regular season gets underway.

How Will the Defense Use Kony Ealy?

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    Daniel Gluskoter/Associated Press

    The Patriots traded out of the second round in this year's draft in order to acquire defensive end Kony Ealy from the Carolina Panthers. Now, it will be intriguing to see just how the Patriots plan to utilize the fourth-year man.

    Ealy has shown a lot of potential in his three-year career, but he has never become a true star. He's never logged more than 32 tackles or 5.0 sacks in a single season, but at times, he has shown he can take over a game. Just look at his performance in Super Bowl 50 for proof; he finished that game with four tackles, 3.0 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.

    Will the Patriots try to unleash Ealy on opposing offenses the way the Panthers unleashed him on Denver in the Super Bowl? Will defensive coordinator Matt Patricia keep him strictly at defensive end or will he move the 25-year-old between end and tackle as he often did with Chris Long and Trey Flowers last year?

    Ealy isn't sure, but he appears ready to accept any challenge that comes his way.

    "Man, I just want to dominate whatever position I'm in, you know? I think if you take that mind approach good things will happen for you," Ealy said, per Henry McKenna of USA Today.

    My guess is that if Ealy can show positional versatility, the Patriots are going to utilize it—since versatility and multiple looks are a mainstay of the New England defense.

    Whether or not Ealy consistently performs to his full potential is a question that won't be answered until the regular season.

How Does the Receiver Depth Chart Shake Out?

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    Bill Sikes/Associated Press

    Adding Brandin Cooks to the Patriots' receiving corps should make the offense more dangerous. However, it also leads to questions about the depth chart at the receiver position. Presumably, Cooks and Julian Edelman will be the team's starting receivers—at least in two-receiver sets.

    Cooks and Edelman were rated 27th and 31st, respectively, among receivers by Pro Football Focus last season.

    After Cooks and Edelman, though, things get a little uncertain. Veteran Danny Amendola will probably split time with Edelman in the slot, while 2016 acquisition Chris Hogan is better suited for the outside. Second-year man Malcolm Mitchell is also going to be in the rotation somewhere. Sorting out the roles will be a difficult task.

    This could be one of the bigger offseason challenges for the Patriots. There is a wealth of talent at the receiver position, but with the team's offensive identity—the frequent use of running backs and tight ends as receivers—it's going to be hard to get everyone on the field.

    Given their skill sets, either Hogan or Mitchell will likely become the third wideout when Edelman slides into the slot. Amendola can then spend time as a rotational receiver and the team's primary return specialist.

    Of course, a surprise emergence by guys such as rookie Austin Carr or second-year receiver Devin Lucien could throw a proverbial wrench into the entire equation.

             

    *All contract information via Spotrac.com.