The New England Patriots have been playoff fixtures for two decades. But every great run ends, and the Patriots are about to find that out.
The refrain has always been to never count out Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
That might well change this year.
Yes, it’s June. Yes, Patriots fans have every right to believe this season will be filled with second-year quarterback Mac Jones leveling up, Belichick coaching up the defense again and the age-old ideals of limiting penalties and turnovers winning plenty of games.
Here’s the rub: all those things could happen, and the Patriots would still have a tough time being a postseason entrant.
The NFL changes rapidly, and the Patriots are a perfect example. Going into Week 15 last season, New England was riding a seven-game winning streak as the AFC’s top seed. Jones was being hailed as Baby GOAT. Another run was being predicted in Foxboro.
Then, reality. The Patriots lost three of their final four regular-season affairs, fell to the No. 6 seed and got smashed 47-17 in the Wild Card round by the Buffalo Bills.
Now, after an offseason in which the AFC went wild with upgrades, it’s hard to make a realistic case where the Patriots are a top-10 team. Looking at the conference, the only teams New England is clearly superior to are the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. While there are other teams in the Patriots’ class, they’ll need almost everything to go right to eclipse them.
And with their roster, it won’t be easy.
Offensively, Jones is surrounded by running back Damien Harris, a solid offensive line and a litany of capable players with no star-power.
The receivers are DeVante Parker, Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, N’Keal Harry, Nelson Agholor and rookie Tyquan Thornton. The depth is good, but the room lacks up top. Saving Thornton, those receivers combined for 2,838 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
At tight end, New England heavily invested in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith during the previous offseason, giving them $87.5 million combined. Henry and Smith — who have two of the team’s four largest cap hits in 2022 — totaled 897 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, with only 13 catches of 20+ yards.
Then there’s the recent notion of former defensive coordinator and Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia calling plays. Patricia was an offensive assistant with New England from 2004-05, but never in such an important capacity. It’s a huge gamble as the Patriots attempt to replace the departed Josh McDaniels.
Defensively, the only Pro Bowl-caliber player is edge rusher Matthew Judon. The secondary is a chief concern, with cornerback J.C. Jackson leaving in free agency for the Los Angeles Chargers. The remnants at corner are Malcolm Butler, Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones and Terrance Mitchell, not ideal in a division flush with fantastic receivers.
If this unit doesn’t sink the Patriots, it’ll largely be because Belichick’s scheme befuddles opponents. It certainly won’t be due to overwhelming talent.
For 20 years, we were told never to disrespect Belichick and his team.
While that remains prudent advice, it’s becoming easier to overlook the Patriots.
Top 10 head coaches entering 2022
1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots – 290 wins (3rd all-time) and six titles
2. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs – 233 wins (5th all-time) and one title
3. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers – 154 wins (T18th all-time) and one title
4. Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams – Two Super Bowl appearances, one title before age 40
5. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens – 137 wins (27th all-time) and a title
6. Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers – 39-10 record in three seasons
7. Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers – One Super Bowl appearance
8. Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks – 152 wins (T-21st all-time) and one title
9. Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills – 49 wins, four playoff appearances in fives years
10. Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans – 41 wins, three playoff appearances in four years
"“You know, everyone’s got their own opinion. I’m just excited to be playing this game, have this opportunity. I think we have the ability to do something special here and then we have a really good skill set offensively to be dynamic. It takes one day at a time, obviously, but for me, I don’t try to put too much pressure on myself. I always have high expectations for myself and for the offense, but I don’t try and play those types of games.”"
– Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz on Troy Aikman saying this could be his last chance
Whether Wentz wants to accept reality or not, Aikman is correct. This is Wentz’s third team in as many years, and the guaranteed money in his deal is expiring. If he struggles in Washington, it’s difficult to see another team giving him a starting role unless injuries are involved.
Despite having the worst winning percentage of any active NFL franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have more Super Bowl victories than the rest of the NFC South — Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons — combined.
Info learned this week
1. Texans now implicated in Watson mess as enabler
When the Houston Texans traded Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns, it seemed Houston was done being involved with what’s become an ugly situation over the past year.
Turns out, that was an incorrect assumption.
Last week, Jenny Vrentas of the New York Times dropped a phenomenal report, detailing Watson’s massage history dating back to late 2019, including appointments with 66 different female masseuses. In the piece, Vrentas reported the Texans — whom Watson played for during all these massages — were not only aware of them, but provided him with a non-disclosure agreement after one of the women threatened to go public with his alleged behavior.
In light of this, the Texans are now being sued in civil court alongside Watson due to facilitating Deshaun Watson’s conduct, according to lawyer Tony Buzbee, who represents all 24 plaintiffs.
With this new information, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell now needs to expand the league’s investigation and decide whether to levy stiff penalties against the Texans as well, ranging from significant fines to forfeiture of draft picks and beyond.
The Watson story isn’t going away. It’s getting worse by the day for all parties involved.
2. Rams keep spending, this time with big Cooper Kupp extension
The Los Angeles Rams continue to lock up their homegrown talent, this time on the offensive side of the ball.
After giving defensive tackle Aaron Donald an extra $40 million into his current deal, the Rams paid receiver Cooper Kupp an extension to make his contract worth $110 million over the next five seasons, including a positional-record $75 million guaranteed.
For Kupp, it’s a well-earned pact. He was the league’s top receiver last season in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947) and receiving touchdowns (16), before earning First-Team All-Pro honors and a Super Bowl ring. Kupp was brilliant in the playoffs as well, notching 33 catches for 478 yards and six scores across four games.
Turning 29 years old this week, Los Angeles is realistically locked into Kupp for the next four seasons unless we see another situation such as Todd Gurley or Jared Goff, in which the Rams eat a ton of dead cap. Whether the contract ages well is an obvious unknown, but general manager Les Snead has consistently shown a willingness to invest top-dollar in premium talents, and the wins have kept coming.
3. Broncos get sold at record price to Walmart mogul
The Denver Broncos sold for $4.65 billion on Tuesday night. Yes, with a B.
The price tag is the largest ever paid for an American sports team, and the check was written by the Walton-Penner group, led by Rob Walton. Walton is the Walmart heir, so his money won’t dry up anytime soon.
There are a litany of subplots to the sale, including what it means for when quarterback Russell Wilson gets paid, how the team will operate going forward, and whether the Broncos will use their outrageously wealthy ownership to their advantage in free agency periods to come. While many think the salary cap evens the proverbial playing field, there’s a difference between cap and cash budget. The latter could be almost limitless in Denver.
Furthermore, inking big contracts is about commitment, but also escrow. When a player signs, his guaranteed money must be put in escrow when the deal becomes official. Even for the ultra-wealthy owners of the NFL, this can be problematic at times. It shouldn’t be for Walton.
Finally, what does the price mean for future franchise sales? If the Broncos are worth $4.65 billion, what would the Dallas Cowboys go for? In 1989, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones bought the club for $140 million. He’d easily get north of $5 billion, and with AT&T Stadium, he could likely take in a few billion more.
The Broncos have a new owner, and their sale could have many impacts.
4. Tyreek Hill sounds off, but doesn’t make much sense
On Friday, Tyreek Hill sounded off in his new podcast. It was loud, but not full of substance.
In It Needed To Be Said, Hill talked about Tua Tagovailoa being more accurate than Patrick Mahomes, the disrespect shown to him by Chiefs general manager Brett Veach and how Kansas City refused to use its best receiver at times. It was an odd collection of complaints, especially considering two of the aforementioned ones are easily dispelled.
As for Mahomes being less accurate than Tagovailoa, let’s not waste time. Tagovailoa’s completion rate is 0.1 percent better over his career, yet Mahomes consistently goes downfield while Miami’s passing game is centered around quick throws near the line.
For the notion of Kansas City not using Hill, that’s a baffling take. The Chiefs targeted Hill 159 times last season. Only six players saw more.
In fact, since Mahomes took over as a starting quarterback in 2018, Hill ranks eighth in targets per game for players who were active for at least 55 games over that span:
1. Davante Adams – 10.7
2. Michael Thomas – 9.7
3. Keenan Allen – 9.5
4. DeAndre Hopkins – 9.4
5. Stefon Diggs – 9.0
6. Cooper Kupp – 9.0
7. Travis Kelce – 8.9
8. Tyreek Hill – 8.6
Considering Hill has been alongside an all-time great in Kelce, he’s seen a ton of targets.
Now, Hill is going from a pass-happy scheme under Chiefs coach Andy Reid to a Mike McDaniel offense. Assuming it’s similar to that of the San Francisco 49ers where McDaniel came from, the unit will be predicated on the run. It’s unlikely Hill’s targets or raw numbers will increase, even if he has an excellent year.
Frankly, it’s a bizarre commentary from Hill, who should be thrilled with his present. The Dolphins gave him a record-setting $30 million per year, he lives on South Beach, and he’ll be the No. 1 weapon without having another Hall of Famer to share the ball with.
Hill should enjoy Miami, forget about Kansas City and start proving he can thrive without the quarterback he seems to have little regard for.
5. Kenny Moore is covertly an important name to watch
The Indianapolis Colts are a trendy pick to contend once again this spring. But this time, with a quality quarterback in Matt Ryan, the hype could be justified.
However, Indy desperately needs to make sure corner Kenny Moore is taken care of before training camp.
Quietly, Moore has been one of the NFL’s best corners since entering the league in 2017. He’s been a starter since ’18 and has 14 interceptions along with seven sacks, adding value as a blitzer while being sticky in coverage both on the outside and in the slot. After adding boundary corner Stephon Gilmore and safety Rodney McLeod in free agency to bolster the secondary, general manager Chris Ballard must take care of his own.
Moore has done his part to keep the relationship strong, showing up to mandatory minicamp. However, he’s hinted training camp might be another story without an extension. Currently, Moore’s deal is set to expire after the ’23 season, and he’s only scheduled to make $14.3 million over the next two campaigns combined.
The question is whether Ballard wants to pay Moore as a slot corner — which likely means around $10 million per year — or if he’ll value his star as a top player at the position, which could be near double the price. In today’s NFL, teams are in nickel more than any other package, which reduces Moore inside. However, when Indy plays base defense, Moore goes to the outside.
While the Colts certainly value Moore, it could be a tricky negotiation, and one worth watching.
Much of the NFL chatter this offseason has been about the AFC West’s strength. Little has been san about what could be one team’s big downfall.
While the Los Angeles Chargers, Chiefs and Broncos have all remade their rosters in various ways over the past two months, the Las Vegas Raiders have done the same. New general manager Dave Ziegler added edge rusher Chandler Jones in free agency after trading for superstar receiver Davante Adams.
Based on those names, the Raiders seem ready to make a move following a playoff berth in 2021.
However, their defense is a potential disaster.
Outside of Jones and fellow edge rusher Maxx Crosby, it would be tough for many fans to name a single Las Vegas defender. While linebacker Denzel Perryman deserves shine, the remainder of the group is suspect at best. The secondary is a major issue, especially in a division with Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson.
Beyond Jones, Crosby and Perryman, the rest of the projected starters include Johnathan Hankins Bilal Nichols and Vernon Butler up front, Jason Brown on the second level, corners Trayvon Mullen, Nate Hobbs and Rock Ya-Sin, and safeties Trevon Moehrig and Johnathan Abram.
If the Raiders are going to make a play for the AFC West, it’ll be because the offense is otherworldly.
Inside the league
With minicamps wrapping up, start watching for extensions.
While the Rams are apparently not waiting, decision-makers in the league will tell you this is the time for contractual talks.
In some cases, it’s to get a deal done with a player on the franchise tag with only a month until the July 15 deadline. In other situations, it could be to lock a player up before he’s going to hit free agency at season’s end. And finally, some conversations simply set the table for more substantial talks, either bring the campaign or afterwards.
With footballs about to be put in storage until training camp, general managers are readying to call agents and start talking about dollars and cents.
The AFL-NFL merger was forced in large part by a kicker.
Pete Gogolak came to America as the first soccer-style placekicker in pro football history, breaking in with the Bills in 1964. However, when Gogolak and Buffalo couldn’t agree to a new deal, the Hungarian signed as a free agent with the NFL’s New York Giants on May 18, 1966.
After years of a mutual, unspoken agreement to avoid the other league’s players, this caused the football version of all-out war. Both leagues began raiding the other, with the AFL famously going after stars such as Chicago Bears tight end Mike Ditka and 49ers quarterback John Brodie among others.
By June 8, the NFL and AFL agreed to a merger that would create the Super Bowl, and eventually have the AFL absorbed to become the AFC in 1970.
Don’t sleep on the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While expecting a playoff push in the first year of head coach Doug Pederson’s program would be aggressive, it’s not absurd to expect a competent team that can hover around .500.
By way of firing former head coach Urban Meyer, the Jaguars have already greatly improved. Now factor in the likely jump for second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the league-high dollars spent in free agency and a fairly weak division. It quickly adds up.
Does it mean a leap into the postseason for Jacksonville? Probably not, but the days of being a prime contender to pick No. 1 overall should be over.
For the Jaguars, it’s going to be a long road to contention, but the journey must begin. And with Pederson, an improved roster and renewed hope, Jacksonville has at least gassed up the car.