Every year since 2005, whenever the New England Patriots lose a playoff game, the attack dogs come out in force to ask if the dynasty is dead. The Patriots threw those dogs off their scent this offseason by winning all three playoff games en route to the franchise's fourth Super Bowl victory.
That being said, any year could be "the year" when the Patriots miss the playoffs. Only then will the "death of a dynasty" prognostications bear any level of validity, and even then, there's always the possibility that the Patriots could return to the playoffs the next year.
None of this is to say that the Patriots are in danger of missing the postseason in 2015. Losing defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, running back Shane Vereen and cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington certainly didn't help their case. At the same time, the Patriots still have a lot of the pieces from their Super Bowl championship roster of a year ago, and most of those players are under contract for at least a couple more years.
|Key Patriots set to hit free agency|
|Player||Position||Year as FA||Years left|
|Source: Over The Cap|
There are 21 key players who will come up for new contracts in the next few years, but those players will still be available to help the team take more cracks at winning their fifth title.
The only key players who are due for new contracts next offseason are left tackle Nate Solder, punter Ryan Allen, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga and running back LeGarrette Blount.
Solder could command a pretty penny in his new deal, given the going rate for left tackles (north of $8 million per year and $10 million guaranteed for the top left tackles). The Patriots have been very willing to part ways with veteran running backs in the past, and even parted ways with Blount just last year before bringing him back. Siliga has a lot of potential, but be has not been given an opportunity to tap into it in a full-time role just yet, but this could be the year when he finally gets that opportunity.
Next year's decisions won't be too costly; down the line, though, Patriots owner Robert Kraft could be reaching deep into his checkbook.
Players like defensive ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, wide receiver Brandon LaFell and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are all under contract through the 2017 season. That's most of the core in the front seven, and the front seven appears to be the new core of the defense given the way the Patriots have assembled their roster this season.
With top-to-bottom changes to their depth chart at cornerback, it makes sense they would direct their focus to the front seven.
If the Patriots plan to focus their defensive philosophy on generating a lot of pressure on the quarterback, they've given themselves at least two years to get that philosophy working at an optimum level.
However, the Patriots are no longer competing with themselves in the AFC East. The Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills have all made strides toward improving their rosters this offseason, so the Patriots can't simply rest on their laurels and expect to waltz their way to another easy AFC East title.
The Dolphins have completely overhauled their depth chart at wide receiver, with the additions of rookie DeVante Parker and veteran Kenny Stills. The Jets have also added talent in the passing game in the form of rookie wide receiver Devin Smith and veteran Brandon Marshall. The Bills already had talented wide receivers in Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, but they added tight end Charles Clay, running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver Percy Harvin to round out the skill position group.
All three teams have assembled defensive units that could make life difficult for the Patriots, as well, due to their talent on the defensive line and in the secondary.
Of those three teams, though, the Dolphins appear to be the closest to making a run at the AFC East division crown thanks to the stability of the quarterback position and the steady improvement of Ryan Tannehill. The Jets have made the most improvements from last year, but there is still a significant question mark at quarterback as to whether Geno Smith can lead the franchise. The same question applies to the Bills and quarterback E.J. Manuel.
All three teams are on the rise, but for now, the division still belongs to the Patriots.
Even without Tom Brady in the lineup for the first two to four games of the season, the Patriots should still be up for another 11- or 12-win season. That should be enough to win the division, if not make the playoffs—granted Jimmy Garoppolo can keep the ship afloat while Brady is out.
At some point, though, the Patriots won't be able to call on Brady anymore. That point could come in 2018, when Brady's contract expires. The problem, though, is that Garoppolo's contract expires then as well. Garoppolo was a second-round pick, so the Patriots do not have the option of a fifth year as they would if he were drafted in the first round, per the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
That's not for another three years down the line, though. For now, the Patriots still appear to have at least a couple more cracks at a Super Bowl before their window is in serious jeopardy of closing.
Unless otherwise noted, all salary cap and contract information provided by Over The Cap.