Sunday’s loss out in Denver was pretty brutal, with the laundry list of issues the Patriots had been dealing with all year finally bubbling over during a frustrating 20-18 AFC Championship loss that abruptly ended New England’s season.
Now that the year has come to an end, it likely won’t take long before they turn the page toward 2016. It’s a little early in the process, but here are some initial thoughts about some things to look forward to in 2016 and some changes that will likely be coming.
1) The Patriots’ offensive line issues ultimately cost them a shot to repeat as champions: The Patriots managed to get relatively healthy at their skill positions but it doesn’t matter if Brady can’t get them the football, and it’s obvious that the Patriots will need to make some changes this offseason to one of their most important groups.
Part of the issue is obviously the fact that it’s tough to go far in the playoffs with a couple of starters who aren’t healthy and largely back-up players, and that’s essentially what Brady and the offense were forced to deal with. Most of that was a product of bad luck considering New England’s starting left tackle Nate Solder was lost for the season, and Sebastian Vollmer was clearly still hampered on the other side. From there, thanks to injuries, the lack of talent on the interior part of the line prevented Brady from being able to a step up and avoid guys like Von Miller coming from the outside. Brady was running for his life for most of the game and there were several plays where he was chased rolling out from the backside and caught from behind.
It’s something they’ll need to explore this offseason, although there’s reason for optimism after seeing players like Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason show some potential, as well as the emergence of David Andrews during Bryan Stork’s absence earlier in the year. But there’s no question they’ll need to bolster this group even further heading into 2016.
2) The lack of a running game absolutely killed them on Sunday: It’s hard to imagine the impact LeGarrette Blount might have made on Sunday given how poor he looked for much of 2015, but it’s obvious that a running back, as well as a pass-catching back, will need to be areas they look into this offseason.
New England was one-dimensional on Sunday, with Brady finishing with 56 pass attempts, which allowed the Broncos to tee off on him since there was never a threat to run the football. The Patriots should have Dion Lewis back in the fold next year, but given the fact he’s coming off of a knee injury there will obviously be questions about whether or not he’ll be as quick or shifty as he was prior to going down. Part of what the Patriots were missing was a running back who could catch passes with defenses bearing down and unfortunately, James White doesn’t have the explosiveness necessary in this offense. Lewis did before his injury, and if he can return to form that would certainly give Brady a weapon he was lacking Sunday.
But in terms of an every-down running back, that’s an area that’s a bit of a mystery. It would be a surprise to see Blount back next year, and for now, the Patriots don’t really have a player who you could pencil into that role next year. Steven Jackson was great to have, but his role was obviously one that was likely just for this postseason. He came through with his one big moment Sunday after scoring a touchdown, but it’s probably going to be the last time we see him in a Patriots uniform. Needless to say, there will likely be changes in New England’s backfield next season, which the playoffs proved is clearly a necessity.
3) The Patriots’ defense is going to be good again next year – Looking back at their performances this year, this is a defense that should be solid again in 2016. Malcolm Butler obviously emerged as an elite cornerback and Logan Ryan easily falls under the category as one of their “most improved” players given how far he’s come after the amount of criticism he endured during the early part of the season. From there Justin Coleman, Leonard Johnson, as well as Jordan Richards were each players who also rounded out a pretty good group. Coleman is a free agent this offseason.
At linebacker, we already know how good Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower are and Jonathan Freeney also had a solid year. The big question will be the future of Jerod Mayo, who ended back on injured reserve again and will be one of the stories that will be on the radar this offseason, as well as whether or not New England is able to extend both Collins and Hightower, who they’ll likely want to try and lock up for the long-term.
Up front, this is an incredibly solid group that’s only going to get better. Rookie Malcolm Brown looked great this season, while Jabaal Sheard and Alan Branch were two other pleasant surprises. Akiem Hicks and Sealver Siliga are set to become free agents this offseason and Hicks was a player who started coming into his own as the year went on, so it would be tough to see him move on if they’re unable to re-sign him. But fans can hopefully look forward to Dominique Easley coming back next year, as he had a great year prior to getting hurt and should be fun to watch alongside Brown in 2016.
4) The offense returns largely intact next year, but Julian Edelman’s recovery will be a big story this offseason – After breaking his foot this season and staying sidelined since November, Edelman tried to give it a go with a return in the postseason and made it through the Chiefs game last week and most of Sunday’s game before showing signs of wearing down. He slowed down quite a bit toward the end of their battle in Denver, with reports saying he was spotted after the game limping in the locker room. Now that the season is over, the number one priority is going to be making sure he’s 100% by the time next season starts. However, one concern is the fact the Patriots haven’t had much luck when it comes to receivers coming back from foot injuries, with Aaron Dobson and Brandon LaFell among the most recent examples of players who were a mess after dealing with it. Edelman is obviously a different player and considering the type of receiver he is and how important his quick feet are to his ability to be the explosive player we’re accustomed to seeing, how he recovers will be one of the most important story lines heading into next year.
Gronkowski escaped 2015 mostly healthy and should hopefully be able to recover heading into next year, and Danny Amendola still remains a nice compliment to this offense. The bigger question this offseason will be the future of Brandon LaFell, who never really looked 100% even after coming back from PUP. The Patriots already locked up Keshawn Martin after a pretty good season, and the other question will obviously be the future of Aaron Dobson, who ended back on injured reserve for the second-straight season. Changes could be coming, but overall, barring any injuries, this group should be pretty formidable again next year.
There are a lot of personnel moves that will likely be made this offseason, but overall the Patriots are in pretty good shape heading into next year. Sunday proved they still have some work to do after coming up short at a chance to return to the Super Bowl, but there should be plenty of optimism about how good this team will be again when they eventually return to the field next September.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary