Team Previews: 2018 New England Patriots
Team Previews: 2018 New England Patriots

This article is part of our Team Previews series.

THE SKINNY
An offseason fraught with real or imagined organizational strife has evolved into a "we're putting the band back together" mentality, with another Super Bowl run in mind. Led by the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady combo, the Patriots have made seven straight appearances in the AFC championship game.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

THE BEAT GOES ON FOR BRADY
Following speculation he might not play this season, Tom Brady finally confirmed shortly after the NFL draft that he'd be back for at least one more year. Though the veteran signal-caller turns 41 in August, he's shown no signs of slowing down (speed was never his game anyway) thanks to a rigorous commitment to training and nutrition. Meanwhile, the "Trouble in Patriot Place Paradise" narrative appears to be a bit overblown. It's hardly breaking news that Bill Belichick isn't the easiest coach to play for, but the success the franchise has enjoyed since the duo's working relationship began back in 2000 is unparalleled. While Brady's supporting cast has been tweaked heading into the coming campaign, valuable continuity is provided by the eventual return of Julian Edelman (suspended for the season's first four games) along with the presence of Rob Gronkowski, who was also coy about his playing intentions in the offseason. With Jimmy Garoppolo no longer heir to the Patriots' QB throne, the team has not yet settled on Brady's successor. Baker Mayfield was reportedly considered, but once he was selected No. 1 overall by the Browns, the Patriots passed on the likes of Lamar Jackson, Mason Rudolph and Kyle Lauletta. New England thus postponed the inevitable transition by waiting until Round 7 to tab Danny Etling.

SONY BRINGS ELECTRICITY TO BACKFIELD
After losing Dion Lewis in free agency, it appeared likely the Patriots would add running back depth at some point in the draft, but the team seemingly ignored more pressing needs to select Sony Michel 31st overall. Concerns about the long-term soundness of his knee, which wasn't an issue as his college career closed, were overlooked, and Michel heads into training camp as the team's highest-upside fantasy option at his position. The 5-11, 214-pounder is a shifty and high-motor runner who can also chip in as a pass catcher. Joining him in the New England backfield are fellow roster locks James White, a change-of-pace maven, and the versatile Rex Burkhead. That leaves former Bengal Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee and special-teams mainstay Brandon Bolden to battle it out for depth slotting. Hill's goal-line instincts and improved health could help him stick around, while Gillislee seems like a candidate to be moved if the logjam remains intact as the summer rolls along. It's a recurring theme but still worth repeating that the Patriots' production at running back tends to vary from week to week, thanks to the coaching staff's tendency to roll out context or opponent-specific game plans. Still, as injuries tend to thin out the ranks over time, there should be some fantasy-friendly box scores churned out by the group.

SORTING OUT THE RECEIVERS
The Patriots bid adieu to clutch slot man Danny Amendola in free agency and then surprisingly traded speedster Brandin Cooks to the Rams for a 2018 first-round draft pick in a classic case of unemotional asset management. Though target-hungry Julian Edelman, whose 2017 campaign was derailed by a preseason ACL tear, will miss time early on, his return in Week 5 will provide a lift. Additionally, heady 2016 fourth-rounder Malcolm Mitchell continues to tend to a knee concern that required surgery just before training camp. The team's largely unheralded signing of 6-3, 212-pound Jordan Matthews adds depth and versatility to a receiving corps that also includes returning starter Chris Hogan, speedy Phillip Dorsett, reclamation project Kenny Britt and return ace Cordarrelle Patterson. To round out the group, draftee Braxton Berrios and Riley McCarron lurk as potential members of the team's continuing line of productive smallish slot receivers. Barring an injury-driven weeding-out process, the crew figures to engage in a spirited competition for depth chart positioning this summer. The resulting pass-catching unit should prove diverse in terms of skill sets and help fuel yet another productive aerial attack that will also include stellar tight end Rob Gronkowski and several capable receiving backs.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski didn't commit to playing this season until just before the draft, but the star tight end who has endured numerous injuries over his career stated at that time that he's feeling healthy and "super pliable," a nod to his commitment to the TB12 training method. As long as his body holds up, the 29-year-old will remain a red-zone force.

BAROMETER
RISING: Chris Hogan
With Brandin Cooks gone and Julian Edelman suspended four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, Hogan will start the season as the Patriots' top target at wideout.

FALLING: Mike Gillislee
Signed last year to absorb much of LeGarrette Blount's previous early-down and goal-line work, Gillislee started strong in 2017 but tapered off, serving as a healthy scratch for much of the second half of the season.

SLEEPER: Braxton Berrios
The sixth-round pick's chances of securing a roster spot were boosted with news of Edelman's suspension in June. With Danny Amendola no longer around, Berrios could conceivably carve out a slot role out of the gate.

KEY JOB BATTLE – GOAL-LINE BACK
After allowing LeGarrette Blount (who led the NFL with 18 TDs in 2016) to leave the team as a free agent in advance of last season, the Patriots eyed Mike Gillislee as a candidate to help fill the void and serve as the team's primary "big back." Following a strong start, Gillislee ended up being made a healthy scratch more often than not down the stretch, while Dion Lewis led the team's running back corps with six scores on the ground. With Lewis now in Tennessee, Rex Burkhead (who ran for five TDs in 2017) has a chance to get the initial nod along the goal line over first-rounder Sony Michel. Michel could claim the job as the campaign moves along, but he racked up 12 fumbles in college and thus has some things to prove to the Patriots' coaching staff in terms of ball security. Burkhead's occasional run in the role last season thus probably gives him a leg up in as training camp approaches, but it's worth noting that either Gillislee and Jeremy Hill could also potentially emerge as options in close.

KEY ACQUISITIONS:
Sony Michel – RB (Rd. 1, No. 31 – Georgia)
Adds a dynamic element to a crowded backfield situation.

Jordan Matthews – WR (from Bills)
Stalled by injuries last season, still a capable pass catcher with size.

Jeremy Hill – RB (from Bengals)
Has plenty of competition but feeling good after getting his ankle fixed.

Jason McCourty – CB (from Browns)
In line to replace Malcolm Butler opposite Stephon Gilmore.

KEY LOSSES:
Brandin Cooks – WR (to Rams)
A viable deep threat in the last year of his rookie deal.

Dion Lewis – RB (to Titans)
Versatile and effective when healthy but became too pricey to retain.

Danny Amendola – WR (to Dolphins)
Cashes in with division rival following a series of contract reworks.

Nate Solder – OT (to Giants)
Departure paves the way for an open competition at left tackle.

THE INJURY FRONT
Julian Edelman, WR – Edelman will complete a four-game suspension to start the coming season for violating the NFL's performance enhancing substances policy. For those looking to spin that in a positive way, the wideout – who is bouncing back from a torn ACL – is now on track to have some additional healing time in advance of his return to regular-season action. The 32-year-old was a regular participant throughout the Patriots' offseason program and should be at or near full strength upon his re-entry in the team's lineup.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR – Mitchell, who missed the entire 2017 season due to a lingering knee issue, has suggested this offseason that "he's good" on that front. His statement proved to be unfounded after he underwent a procedure that'll keep him off the field to commence training camp. If he can prove his health at some point, opportunity knocks for Mitchell, with Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks no longer in the Patriots' wideout mix and Julian Edelman serving a four-game suspension to start the year.

Cyrus Jones, CB – Jones, who the Patriots selected 60th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, suffered a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus late in the preseason last year, which led to him missing the entire 2017 campaign. Given the timing of the injury, he should be back to full strength in advance of Week 1, which puts him in the mix to help fill the void created by the free agent departure of Malcolm Butler.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Doria
NFL Editor for RotoWire. Roots for the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and the underdog. Plus the McGill Redmen.
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