Top Factors That Could Sink New England Patriots This Season

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2017

Top Factors That Could Sink New England Patriots This Season

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Every NFL team has a weakness somewhere. Though, at this time in the offseason when optimism reigns supreme, these weaknesses can be difficult to identify. Of course, this is because many weaknesses won't actually reveal themselves until the regular season or even the postseason.

    The New England Patriots are probably viewed as the team with the fewest weaknesses heading into the 2017 season. They are the defending Super Bowl champion and actually took steps to try improving the roster this offseason.

    However, certain scenarios could unfold that weaken even the mighty Patriots this year. Any one of them could be enough to cause New England to fall short in its quest for another ring. We're going to examine these factors here. Consider this a "what if" of things that could potentially go wrong.

    Only one team can lift the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season. If that team isn't New England, one of these potential scenarios could be the reason why.

The Backfield Becomes a Liability

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Running back LeGarrette Blount wasn't the most explosive guy in the NFL last season. In fact, he only averaged 3.9 yards per carry. However, he was incredibly important to the Patriots, because when the team was looking to gain tough yards on the ground, he could usually get them.

    Blount finished the year with 1,161 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. More importantly, he prevented an offense with an all-time great quarterback from being one-dimensional or predictable.

    Blount is gone now, replaced by former Buffalo Bills running back Mike Gillislee and former Cincinnati Bengals back Rex Burkhead. Dion Lewis and James White return in their roles as receiving/change-of-pace backs.

    Gillislee and Burkhead have both shown glimpses of starting talent. Gillislee especially looks poised to take on a starting role. He racked up 577 yards and eight touchdowns on just 101 carries last season. The problem is that the Patriots don't have a proven starter on their roster—Gillislee's 101 carries last season were the most in any season by a current Patriots back.

    If New England cannot find a way to field a consistent running game with its current crop of backs, the offense could become one of the predictable pass-first variety. This could make it more difficult for the Patriots to surprise teams offensively and more difficult to close out games late.

    In a league where defenses are regularly built to combat the passing game, it could make it even harder for the Patriots to get back to the Super Bowl.

Tom Brady Starts Showing His Age

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Quarterback Tom Brady has done as good a job as anyone in the history of the game to combat Father Time. Yet even he is going to succumb to the aging process at some point. The problem—as we learned with Peyton Manning a couple years ago—is that when the decline does come, it can come fast.

    If Brady suddenly starts showing his age, it could be disastrous for the Patriots. Yes, Manning was able to limp on to the field and win another ring, but he had a unicorn of a defense with the Denver Broncos that year. The Patriots defense is good, but it's not an all-time unit.

    Brady aging would actually make things worse for the Patriots than if he suffered an injury. New England showed it can win games with its backup quarterbacks last season. If Brady is healthy, however, it could be hard for Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft to pull him.

    It took an injury for the Broncos to pull Manning from the playing field in 2015. Considering Brady's pride and competitive nature, getting him to the sideline could be ever harder.

    Now, there's nothing going on to suggest that Brady is going to begin declining this season. In fact, Brady was arguably at his best last season—Pro Football Focus rated him first among quarterbacks—and he isn't eyeing retirement.

    "I always said my mid-40s," Brady said, per Ian O'Connor of ESPN.com, "and naturally that means around 45. If I get there and I still feel like I do today, I don't see why I wouldn't want to continue."

    The reality, though, is that Brady will be playing at 40 this season, and it's incredibly hard to see a sudden decline due to age coming.

Injuries Along the Offensive Line

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Age isn't the only thing that could potentially slow Brady in 2017. One significant injury along the offensive line could make life a lot harder on him and the entire offense.

    New England's starting line, as a whole, is pretty strong. The group was rated 11th in pass blocking and third in run blocking by Pro Football Focus last season. The problem is that there isn't a lot of depth behind starting tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason and center David Andrews.

    If one of the tackles goes down, can the Patriots really rely on rookie Antonio Garcia or journeyman LaAdrian Waddle? Can a guy like Jamil Douglas or Chase Farris step into the starting lineup and keep things rolling in the interior?

    The reality is that we just don't know.

    Now, injuries at any position have the potential to hurt a team for the long-run. However, the Patriots have a roster that can survive injuries as wide receiver, running back, safety, along the defensive line and perhaps even at cornerback. As previously mentioned, the team can likely even survive a stretch without Brady.

    An injury along the offensive line, however, could be disastrous. Just look to 2016, when Solder was lost for the season. The Patriots still made it to the AFC title game, but then the team fell because the line couldn't find an answer for Denver's pass rush. A similar injury could again cause New England to fall short.

The New-Look Defenive Front Doesn't Improve the Pass Rush

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    New England made some significant changes to its defensive line this offseason. Gone are defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long. In are defensive ends Kony Ealy and Lawrence Guy. Rookie Deatrich Wise could also be in the end rotation, as could rookie Derek Rivers as an edge-rusher.

    On paper, the Patriots defensive line looks like it could be better than it was a year ago. It's certainly younger. However, it remains to be seen if the new unit can be more effective at getting to the opposing quarterback.

    If it isn't, the Patriots could be in trouble.

    New England's defense was good in 2016, but the pass rush was a liability at times. As a team, New England finished the regular season with just 34 sacks and rated 24th in pass rush by Pro Football Focus.

    An inconsistent pass rush was part of the reason New England fell behind 28-3 in the Super Bowl and was forced to mount an epic comeback. The team would like to avoid a similar situation—at any point in 2017. Unfortunately, if the pass rush isn't improved or if it actually takes a step back, it's going to be a lot harder for New England to slow elite passing offenses.

    The bad news here is that once New England gets into the postseason, quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger, Derek Carr and Andrew Luck could be waiting.

Stephon Gilmore Fails to Adapt

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The Patriots turned a lot of heads when they signed former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal this offseason. If Gilmore fails to live up to the contract—or even worse, if he struggles to fit in with the New England defense—the Patriots could be looking to hide their faces.

    Gilmore is undoubtedly a good cornerback. He's No. 1 material and he's coming off his first Pro Bowl season. However, he is still inconsistent as a pass-defender. Pro Football Focus rated him just 139th in pass coverage last season. The guy Gilmore will be replacing, Logan Ryan, was rated 21st in pass coverage among all cornerbacks.

    There's simply no guarantee Gilmore will be an upgrade over Ryan in the Patriots scheme. The other side of the potential problem is that Gilmore's addition could affect the play of No. 1 corner Malcolm Butler.

    Butler has been nothing but a consistent professional for New England, and he rightfully deserves a long-term deal. Instead, he was given a first-round tender as a restricted free agent, while Gilmore got the big-money contract from New England.

    Butler, by the way, was rated second in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus last year.

    If Gilmore struggles to adapt to New England's style of offense, it could have a serious impact on the team's overall pass defense. This issue would be compounded if the team's pass rush also fails to materialize.

The New Receiving Corps Fails to Find Chemistry

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The beauty of New England's receiving corps last season was that the group had many interchangeable pieces and there wasn't any selfishness on the part of the pass-catchers. When tight end Rob Gronkowski went down for the season, Martellus Bennett stepped in and filled the void. When teams were focused on stopping wideout Julian Edelman, a guy like Danny Amendola or Malcolm Mitchell would take over the role of go-to receiver. 

    Most of the pieces from New England's receiving corps are back this season. However, Bennett has been replaced by Dwayne Allen, and the Patriots traded to acquire Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints.

    These additions could potentially mess with the chemistry in New England's offense.

    Cooks has become accustomed to being a go-to receiver. According to Mike Triplett of ESPN.com, Cooks grew unhappy with his role last season, when he wasn't consistently the No. 1 option in New Orleans.

    Allen is an athletically gifted tight end, but can the Patriots rely on him as consistently as they did Bennett last season? That definitely remains to be seen. According to Phil Perry of CSNNE.com, Allen has struggled with drops in offseason practices and has become frustrated.

    "There's a standard of excellence here," Allen said, per Perry. "So if you drop a pass, that's not excellence. It's always frustrating whenever you don't do your best."

    On paper, the Patriots' collection of pass-catchers appears even more dangerous than last year's group. However, if a lack of chemistry—or even worse, friction—develops, the offense could actually take a step back.