5 Biggest Issues the New England Patriots Will Face in 2016 Season
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots have wrapped up spring practices and are in the early stages of a five-week break in action before training camp kicks off July 28.
This offseason has not been short on stories for the Patriots, but not all of those stories have reached their conclusions. As such, the team still has some significant questions and issues it will need to address at some point this season.
Whether it's important training-camp battles, general health or weaknesses that need to be improved, the Patriots are looking at a number of concerns on multiple fronts. Here is a look at some of those issues.
Tom Brady's Suspension
Deflategate is in its sixth century of days, having crossed the 500 mark on June 1. Yet we still do not know whether Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will serve his four-game suspension for the findings of the Wells Report investigation into the underinflation of footballs in the 2015 AFC Championship Game.
Brady's legal team is waiting to learn whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will grant the quarterback's petition for rehearing "en banc" of his suspension, which was reinstated after being overturned initially last summer. Indeed, this is the second straight year the Patriots have faced uncertainty over who will be the starting quarterback in Week 1.
How will the Patriots approach the situation in practice? Last summer, Brady bore the brunt of the first-team snaps (although Patriots head coach Bill Belichick doesn't believe in first- and second-team groupings in training camp), while backup Jimmy Garoppolo worked mainly with the backups.
But more importantly, how would it impact the Patriots' season if Brady's suspension is upheld again?
Assuming Brady sits the first four weeks, if Garoppolo can get the team to a 2-2 record at the end of September, the Patriots would be in good position to resume their spot as the top team in the AFC East. The biggest concern to that end is the Patriots' ability to run the ball. Brady can carry the offense to success on his own, but can Garoppolo handle the same responsibility? That remains to be seen.
Effective Running Game
The Patriots have struggled to move the ball effectively on the ground over the past two years (821 carries, 3,131 yards, 3.8 yards per carry). 2016 marks a good time for the Patriots to refocus on balancing out their offense with a potent running game. It appears the Patriots are hoping for growth from within in the form of a return to health for both LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis.
The Patriots added some depth in the form of Donald Brown and D.J. Foster. And James White, Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney and Joey Iosefa were already on the roster. What's clear is that the Patriots are not lacking in depth at running back. What isn't clear is whether they should be relying on two running backs who finished the 2015 season on injured reserve.
The running game could improve if the run-blocking improves, and that is possible with the return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Without health and improvement from the running backs as well, the Patriots may be relying on the passing game as much as they have in the past two seasons.
That's a scary prospect with the possibility that it could be Garoppolo (or even rookie Jacoby Brissett) behind center instead of Brady in the first four games.
Offensive Line Uncertainty
There will be an extraordinary number of battles on the offensive line at training camp this summer. Nearly everything appears to be up for grabs, particularly on the interior. The starting guard spots, backup guard spots and even the starting center spot could all be contested.
Tre Jackson, Shaq Mason and Josh Kline were the team's top three choices to start at the guard positions in 2015, and those battles may heat up even more with the addition of former Arizona Cardinals first-round pick Jonathan Cooper. At center, Bryan Stork and David Andrews appear to be headed for a competition after sharing the workload in spring practices.
No matter what configuration the Patriots decide is best, it needs to be better than last year. Not only did the Patriots struggle to run the ball, but the passing attack was heavily predicated on short passes because the offensive line couldn't pass-protect long enough or consistently enough to give Brady time to scan the field. Brady was sacked on average 3.27 seconds after receiving a snap, 16th out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Whispers of a change in defensive philosophy began earlier this offseason when the Patriots signed defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and released former first-round pick Dominique Easley. The two are listed as the same position, but they represent a black-and-white dichotomy of defensive tackles. Knighton is a run-stuffing, gap-plugging nose tackle, while Easley is a pass-rushing interior presence known for getting into the backfield.
The speculation has intensified since minicamp, where defensive end Rob Ninkovich was spotted playing out of position at linebacker, and linebacker Shea McClellin was tried on the edge as a pass-rusher.
Could the Patriots be shifting back to a 3-4 defense? Are they simply experimenting, as Belichick is wont to do at this time of year? Either way, at this point it would be pure speculation. The fact that the Patriots could feasibly go in either direction is an indication that perhaps we're reading too much into it; the Patriots have traditionally flexed back and forth between a 3-4 and 4-3 front.
It seems they could be preparing for a similar strategy in 2016, but only time will tell for sure.
Health has been alluded to several times here already, and it's obvious why. Health was one of the biggest factors that derailed the Patriots' 2015 season and their bid to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Between injuries to Julian Edelman, Nate Solder, Blount, Lewis and others, the Patriots were short-handed early on in the season and lost piece after piece throughout 2015.
Now, several of those players are recovering from surgeries and hoping to stay healthy in 2016. Edelman and Danny Amendola both had offseason surgeries, as did guards Jackson and Kline. Solder and Sebastian Vollmer were not present at spring practices.
It would help if the Patriots could stay healthy, but it would help even more if they could enter the season at full health. The beginning of training camp could help settle some of the uncertainty as to which players will begin the season on the physically unable to perform list or the reserve/non-football injury list.
If important players are absent early in the season, it will only make things more difficult should Brady miss the first four games.