Rounding Up Latest New England Patriots Offseason Buzz
It's always fun to talk about which franchises "won" the NFL offseason. Scoring big in free agency and navigating the draft well can generate a ton of offseason buzz for a team. What's important, though, is how teams take their offseasons and use them to improve on the field in games that actually matter.
The New England Patriots are one of those teams that seem to have done well this offseason. New England has added pieces like wideout Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots also happen to be defending Super Bowl champions, which means the expectations would have been high in 2017 even if the team hadn't been an offseason winner.
As things currently stand, though, it's championship-or-bust for the Patriots—at least, this is the narrative heading into the summer. Of course, there are other stories going on in New England other than high expectations and a chase for a sixth ring.
We're going to dive into the latest Patriots storylines and rumors here.
Patriots Are on to 2017
We know that the Patriots have big expectations coming off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. We should also know that the Patriots aren't a team that is going to rest on its recent accomplishments.
Head coach Bill Belichick recently addressed the media and made it quite clear that his team is ready to move forward. He did so in perhaps the most Belichickian way possible.
Belichick said the following, via the team's official website:
"It was a great night, but, really, we need to move on to 2017. You know, we've had enough parades, enough celebrations and enough everything. This '17 team hasn't done anything yet -- none of us have. We really need to focus on what we're doing this year. There have been a lot of great moments in the past, which is great, but that isn't going to help us this year."
Belichick's use of the phrase "on to 2017" is an obvious callback to a press conference he gave during the 2014 season. The Patriots lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 41-14 in Week 14 that year. In an ensuing press conference, Belichick repeatedly answered questions with the mantra "we're on to Cincinnati."
The Patriots beat the Cincinnati Bengals 43-17 the following week, lost just two more games that season and "went on" to win Super Bowl XLIX.
Belichick's point then—as it is now—was clear. New England is looking toward the future, no matter what the past might have meant.
This Patriots team isn't going to rest on its laurels. It's all-in on a Super Bowl in 2017.
Is This the Best Patriots Offseason Ever?
So we know the Patriots aren't going to look back at the 2016 season much, unless it's in the film room. This isn't the way the franchise works, and it's precisely why New England was extremely active in the offseason.
Adding pieces like Cooks and Gilmore were big. However, the little additions the Patriots made could prove to be just as important.
The team supplemented its backfield with guys like Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. It also added to the defensive line with defensive ends Kony Ealy and Lawrence Guy. Dwayne Allen was brought in to replace Martellus Bennett as the No. 2 tight end, and the team even added experienced slot receiver Andrew Hawkins to the fold.
Let's not forget that the team managed to bring back star linebacker Dont'a Hightower, too.
All of this has made for one of the top offseasons of 2017. However, Dan Graziano of ESPN.com recently ranked this as the best offseason of any team ever.
Graziano's second-best offseason belongs to the 2003 Patriots:
"Strong offseason here. The Patriots signed veteran running back Corey Dillon, who would rush for 1,635 yards in 2004, and drafted franchise mainstay Vince Wilfork and tight end Benjamin Watson in the first round. This team went 14-2 for the second year in a row and is the last to repeat as Super Bowl champions."
Considering New England has managed to bring in replacements for pretty much every key departure this offseason, it's hard to disagree with Graziano's ranking. This isn't a team that lost a championship and then added Kevin Durant, it's a team that won a title and has made a big effort to get even better.
This is all on paper right now, of course, and things still have to play out. However, it really does feel like the 2017 Patriots have the best chance of repeating of any team since the 2003 incarnation.
Derek Rivers Learning the Ropes
Rushing the passer was an issue for the Patriots in 2016. As a team, New England only produced 34 sacks during the regular season. Defensive end Trey Flowers led the team with just 7.0. This is why the development of rookie edge-rusher Derek Rivers is extremely important for the coming season.
With New England's free-agent and trade moves taking the spotlight, the drafting of Rivers is easily overlooked. However, the rookie could have a huge impact on the coming season.
The good news is that the Youngstown State product doesn't want for raw talent. He's a quick (ran a 4.61-second 40 at the combine), athletic pass-rusher with size (6'4", 248 pounds) and ability. He finished off his 2016 campaign with 58 tackles, 19.5 for loss, and 14.0 sacks.
The even better news for the Patriots is that Rivers is making the effort to absorb what he can from Flowers this offseason.
"I watch everything, how he defends the run, just how precise his hands are, how accurate they are in the pass rush, how he gets his hips around—every little thing that helps you get to the QB or make plays," Rivers explained, per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com.
If Rivers can develop quickly, he could give the Patriots defense a legitimate threat opposite Flowers—and someone who can take the opposing line's attention away from him.
Flowers, for his part, is happy to help.
"A lot of guys can be leaders, I'm just one of the guys that works hard and if I can help out here and there, I can help," Flowers said, per Reiss. "I'm one of the guys who have been in the scheme a little longer, so if they have questions, I can help them out."
Ealy Looking to Dominate
Rivers can provide a big boost to New England's pass rush if he adapts well to the pro game. New addition Ealy can provide just as big a boost—if not a bigger one—if he can find his way in the Patriots defense.
Bringing in Ealy made a ton of sense for the Patriots, who said goodbye to ends Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long in free agency. Those two combined for 9.0 sacks last season. Ealy produced 5.0 sacks in a limited role by himself in 2016.
At just 25 years old, Ealy is also a young defender whom the Patriots can build around for the foreseeable future if he does work out in coordinator Matt Patricia's system. Patriots fans should find further joy in the fact that Ealy comes to New England as a motivated player.
"I think each year should be your best year," Ealy explained. "You never should be complacent with the year you had previously. You should always want to get better and that's what I plan on doing individually and with the team. I'm pretty sure everybody around here has the same attitude as far as that."
Ealy has shown a lot of promise during his three years in the NFL, but he has yet to truly break out as a star. While individual success doesn't seem to be a motivating factor, it's great to see that Ealy is looking to be at his personal best in 2017.
This is exactly the type of attitude that is expected from a Patriots player, and it's the type of attitude that can help make Ealy a real asset this season.
Cooks Looking to Fit in
While Ealy could prove to be an important addition this season, Cooks is already a high-profile one. Not only is he already establishing himself as one of the top young wideouts in the NFL, Cooks also came to New England in exchange for a first-round pick.
Can Cooks prove himself worthy of such a high cost? It'll take effort, even for a guy who produced 1,173 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
If there were any questions about Cooks' willingness to work hard and buy into the Patriot Way, the receiver is doing his best to dispel them. Cooks has been busy absorbing everything he can about the offense in early offseason workouts.
"I'm just watching the concept and trying to learn the offense as a whole because I have no clue where I'll be put," Cooks said, per Henry McKenna of USA Today. "So the best thing for me is to learn the whole concept so when it comes time to know everything (I will)."
Fans should love the fact that Cooks is willing to commit to learning now. We've seen supremely talented pass-catchers come into New England in the past and fail to grasp the nuances of the offense (Chad Johnson, anyone?), but it doesn't look like Cooks has the mental determination to avoid that route.
There Is Some Reason for Concern with Allen, Though
Rivers, Ealy and Cooks are new additions who seem to be finding their way with the Patriots. Unfortunately, tight end Allen seems to be having a bit more trouble.
Allen has been plagued by dropped passes in early offseason workouts, which doesn't bode well for the former Indianapolis Colt. Doug Kyed of NESN.com was recently asked the question of whether Allen will find his hands.
"No," Kyed responded. "Are you sensing a pattern? Allen dropped another pass Tuesday. It's still not time to push the panic button, but it is at least slightly concerning that Allen is dropping so many practice passes. The Patriots will be plenty patient with their new tight end, though."
There is some cause for concern here because the Patriots don't often give opportunities to players who perform poorly on the practice field. Physically, Allen can help provide the type of tight-end tandem New England wanted last season with Bennett and Rob Gronkowski.
If Allen cannot earn the trust of quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, though, he's more likely to become an afterthought.