If you look ahead at the upcoming season, the outlook for New England is much better than most people think. A good majority out there are ruling out the Patriots as a possible contender, but things aren’t quite as bad as the naysayers out there would lead you to believe.
As a matter of fact those same people who are picking New England as a last place team may have to reconsider their frame of mind considering how much things have changed in only the last two months in the AFC East. Buffalo let go several great veteran players including Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas. Then there is the Jets who watched Bill Parcells step down as head coach (rumor has it he may be returning), and also the trade of wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson who the team failed to replace during the draft with one of the Tampa Bay draft choices. The Dolphins watched Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino retire after the season, and Jimmy Johnson resigned as head coach handing over the reigns to Dave Wandstadt. The only team to not suffer any changes was Indianapolis, but Belichick has done a great job against the Colts in recent years.
So how do things look for the Patriots?
Take into consideration that when Pete Carroll took over the team in 1997, the Patriots still were a very competitive team despite the coaching change. They went on to go 10-6 that season and were one point away from returning to the AFC Championship Game. With the hiring of Belichick, the team will have a much improved defense, as well as a quarterback who can better understand what opposing defenses are trying to do to stop him.
The release of veteran offensive lineman Bruce Armstrong and Zefross Moss definitely weakened an offensive line that yielded 56 sacks last season, but the addition of third round draft choice Adrian Klemm should help out quite a bit. Put together the signings of Grant Williams and Lance Scott who the Patriots acquired through free agency, along with Derrick Fletcher or Ed Ellis (depending on what Belichick does with him), any of these players could possibly end up to be adequate enough to give Bledsoe enough time to put points up on the board.
The loss of wide receiver Shawn Jefferson to free agency will definitely be a downside heading into the season. Jefferson was a very vocal leader in the locker room, and a great clutch deep threat for Drew Bledsoe. But third year man Tony Simmons could end up to be a solid contributor on offense. Simmons struggled as he was inserted in and out of the line-up and never really had a chance to get comfortable. If the fastest man in the 1998 draft can have a good performance during the preseason, the Patriots may have the deep threat they need to compliment Glenn at the other wide receiver spot. With Troy Brown lining up in the slot, New England still has a fairly solid wide receiver core.
The effects of releasing Ben Coates are hard to predict. Coates was used sparingly in Zampese’s offensive system, but fifth round draft choice Dave Stachelski along with Rod Rutledge and Eric Bjornson should give the team adequate replacements. The door is still open for Coates to return, but it will come down to whether or not he can swallow his pride and join the team and a reduced rate. Talks with the Titans involving Coates recently broke off, and it appears Tennessee is no longer interested.
Runningback J.R. Redmond impressed many during the rookie orientation last weekend, and quite a few people believe he has what it takes to be an every down back for the Patriots. If Redmond can simply gain a few yards here and there and keep opposing defenses honest, the team could find itself back where it was in 1997 when Robert Edwards softened the blow of losing Curtis Martin. If Redmond can be a game breaker, the outlook becomes even better.
On defense the only real question mark remains at right cornerback and at the free safety position. Tebucky Jones and Kato Serwanga will compete with Antonio Langham for the right cornerback position, and the free safety spot will most likely be won by Tony George who impressed many with his hard hitting style last season. With the possible signing of Anthony Pleasant a near reality, the Patriots defensive line which currently consists of Willie McGinest, Chad Eaton, Henry Thomas (who may become a cap casualty soon) and Brandon Mitchell, (currently a restricted free agent who may or may not return) will be at least as good if not better than it was last season. Add in Belichick’s defensive prowess and the outlook again is still very good.
So all this considered, why the 6-10 predictions are still there goes completely beyond logic. New England has lost very little during the offseason, and the re-signing of Lawyer Milloy and Troy Brown helps solidify two very important positions on both sides of the ball. Put this all together and a division win is not completely impossible.
So for all the pessimistic and so called expert people out there saying “they’re not worth the price of admission,” you may have to think again. The Patriots are still a team who will be a strong contender for the division, and with the Jets, Dolphins and Buffalo Bills all having much bigger problems, a division title is still not out of the question.