New England Patriots: Defending champs might be better entering camp

By The Sports Xchange  |  July 20, 2017 at 11:02 PM
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Little more than five months removed from securing the team's fifth Lombardi Trophy with a historic, overtime comeback win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, head coach Bill Belichick's New England Patriots open training camp in Foxborough as the Vegas favorite to win it all again.

Things are so positive these days in Patriots Nation - the defending champs are looking to be the first NFL team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-04 New England squad, trying to also join that team in winning three in four years - that talk of a potential 19-0 campaign has begun among fans and media alike.

Wide receiver Julian Edelman recently called such talk "stupid," and if you could get him to answer truthfully, Belichick would probably dismiss it with even more colorful but less than family friendly language.

Make no mistake, though, after an aggressive offseason that saw the signing of Pro-Bowl cornerback Stephen Gilmore and a trade for speedy playmaking receiver Brandin Cooks, it's not hard to argue the Patriots open the summer as a better team than the one that won it all last winter.

That's good news for the tens of thousands of fans that will hit the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium this summer and a scary thought for the 31 other teams that once again will likely have to go through Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots in the championship hunt.

TOP THREE TRAINING CAMP GOALS

--Build cohesion on offense. Brady may have more weapons to turn to in 2017 than he ever has before. The trade addition of cooks adds big-play ability to the passing attack. The signing of running back Mike Gillislee brings a back who led the NFL with a 5.7-yard average in Buffalo's run-first attack to a role in which he should face softer defenses in the Patriots' pass-heavy scheme. Complementary newcomers like running back Rex Burkhead, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and tight end Dwayne Allen will need to begin to carve out roles for themselves this summer within the established mix of receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, running backs James White and Dion Lewis and tight end Rob Gronkowski returning from back surgery. July and August present time for Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to begin to figure out how roles, reps, carries and targets might play out as the Patriots' potential-filled offensive attack comes together.

--Settle on a third cornerback. The arrival of former Bills Pro-Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore - the biggest free-agent signing in Patriots history - to play opposite Malcolm Butler gives New England one of the top handful of cornerback duos in the NFL. Beyond seeing Gilmore settle into his new home, new defense and the pressure of a $65 million contract, New England needs to figure out the roles at cornerback behind the two stars atop the depth chart. Eric Rowe arrived via trade last season and had his ups and downs along the way, though he finished the year with a solid Super Bowl. Cyrus Jones, the team's top pick in 2016, had a dismal rookie year as both a cornerback and returner, but in an ideal world will compete for the slot corner role. Second-year undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones and third-year player Justin Coleman should also be in the mix for playing time. Rowe is the favorite for the No. 3 job, but as a bigger corner that would likely push Butler into the slot at times. If one of the other players can win the job, preferably Cyrus Jones, it would keep the two big guns at corner on the outside. Regardless, the third corner reps will be one of the top focal points in training camp battles in New England.

--Develop the pass rush. Belichick's Patriots have rarely had elite sack numbers and the coach emphasizes the importance of coverage and rush working in concert for productive pass defense. New England has the potential for an elite secondary, but the pass rush is far less proven. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich isn't getting any younger and his sack totals dropped from 8.0 to 6.5 to 4.0. The offseason also saw defensive ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard and their 9.0 combined sacks depart via free agency. There will be a heavy weight of expectation on third-year defensive end Trey Flowers, who had a team-best 7.0 sacks last fall and capped the year with 2.5 sacks in the Super Bowl. Another former Super Bowl standout in defensive end Kony Ealy, who arrived via trade from Carolina, will be expected to add at least complementary rush help. New England also used two of its four draft picks on ends, including top pick Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia likely has plenty of questions about his pass rush entering camp, but he also has a versatile mix of options to turn to as he tries to piece things together on the edge this summer.

PROJECTED CAMP DEPTH CHART

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Tom Brady. Backups - Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Mike Gillislee. Backups - James White, Rex Burkhead, FB James Develin, Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster, LeShun Daniels Jr., FB Glenn Gronkowski.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Rob Gronkowski. Backups - Dwayne Allen, James O'Shaughnessy, Matt Lengel, Jacob Hollister, Sam Cotton.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan. Backups - Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Andrew Hawkins, Devin Lucien, Matthew Slater, Austin Carr, Cody Hollister.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Nate Solder, LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, RT Marcus Cannon. Backups - C/G Ted Karras, T Tony Garcia, T Conor McDermott, T Cameron Fleming, T LaAdrian Waddle, OL Jamil Douglas, T Andrew Jelks, C/G James Ferentz, OL Max Rich, OL Jason King, OL Cole Croston.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Rob Ninkovich, DT Malcom Brown, DT Alan Branch, RDE Trey Flowers. Backups - DT Vincent Valentine, DE Kony Ealy, DE Derek Rivers, DL Lawrence Guy, DE Deatrich Wise Jr., DT Woodrow Hamilton, DT Darius Kilgo, DE Geneo Grissom, DL Adam Butler, DT Josh Augusta.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Dont'a Hightower, MLB David Harris, WLB Kyle Van Noy. Backups - OLB Shea McClellin, MLB Elandon Roberts, OLB Jonathan Freeny, MLB Harvey Langi, LB Trevor Bates, MLB Brooks Ellis.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Malcolm Butler, RCB Stephon Gilmore, SS Patrick Chung, FS Devin McCourty. Backups - FS Duron Harmon, CB Eric Rowe, SS Jordan Richards, CB Justin Coleman, CB Cyrus Jones, SS Nate Ebner, CB Jonathan Jones, SS Brandon King, S David Jones, CB D.J. Killings, CB Will Likely, CB Kenny Moore II, DB Dwayne Thomas, DB Jason Thompson, DB Damarius Travis.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, KOR Cyrus Jones, PR Cyrus Jones.

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