Three Questions for Every AFC East Team: Patriots

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The AFC East should be heading towards being interesting again. For the first time in years, the division could be competitive. That’s, of course, due to the rough offseason experienced by the New England Patriots, which saw the end of an era – the most dominant by any team, arguably, in NFL history.

Believe it or not, Tom Brady‘s departure to Tampa Bay wasn’t the worst thing that happened to the Patriots. In fact, they did lose tons of defensive personnel, in addition to letting receiver Phillip Dorsett sign with the Seahawks via free agency.

Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins also signed with Miami and Detroit, respectively, further weakening the Patriots’ almighty defensive unit. Their most notable moves, while having not addressed the newly-opened hole at quarterback, were not terrible. New England ended up adding Pro Bowl free safety Adrian Phillips and former Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland.

Now, the Pats look finished in the free-agent field and have set their sights on the upcoming NFL Draft. Bill Belichick has many issues to address and many questions, whose answers are yet to be found. After another set of subtractions, the offense seems short-handed, while the defense lacks depth. It’s difficult to fix all this in just one draft. The leftovers of a wild free agency don’t look encouraging, either.

Here are the biggest questions before the Patriots as they head into one of the most uncertain drafts, and seasons, in a while.

Who is going to be the next starting quarterback?

The legend of Tom Brady left the town and moved south in Florida. Now, nobody knows who his replacement is going to be. Well, except Belichick, he always has a plan, and this isn’t any different.

If Bill Belichick didn’t have a plan to plug in a new, younger playmaker and still remain competitive, he wouldn’t have let him go so lightly. Reports were consistent in accordance with the fact that the two sides were never close to a new deal. Brady’s public announcement weeks ago reflected his own desire to shake up his career path, but not only that. It also indicated that the long-tenured coach is prepared to start from scratch, which pretty much fits the current state of the Patriots’ offensive roster.

So, who is it going to be? To introduce the topic, betting sportsbook Odds Shark released odds on who the next starter for New England will be. To be honest, it’s becoming less and less surprising that Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer, the only quarterbacks on the current Patriots depth chart, are favored, +100 and +400, respectively.

Some of this might have to do with the Patriots’ inflexibility to work with the salary cap. New England has just $708,585 available under the $198.1 million threshold, the second-lowest after the Chiefs. You probably have heard where they stand as of right now.

However, you better believe Belichick is ready, more than any other coach, to develop Stedham and turn him into a prolific QB right away. When the Patriots picked him out of Auburn in the fourth round last year, they knew he fits their style perfectly. Just like Brady, he has the making of an efficient pocket passer. Just like Brady, Belichick’s system will build him as he succeeds Brady as the next ultimate winner in the NFL.

Cam Newton and, especially, Andy Dalton may be seen as better chance for the Patriots to continue chasing playoff glory. You could see in Dalton a lesser but similar version of Brady that could be working just as fine in New England. However, he, unlike Newton and Jameis Winston, requires a trade with the Bengals.

While selecting a QB in this year’s Draft, it looks like the top long-term priority to develop Stidham. Belichick, nevertheless, would still want to be within contention and show he can win it all with another man under center, and, at the same time, avoid a year of misery.

That’s why it should not be ruled out as an outcome for the Patriots to pursue any of the three experienced free-agent targets and put one of them as a starter come Week 1. However, it looks more likely that either Stidham or the more experienced Hoyer will start.

It won’t be a surprise to the Pats to return to the playoffs or even go further. The Belichick system can turn the slightest of talent into an excellent quarterback, just as it did in the early 2000s with a sixth-round pick out of Michigan. To successfully exploit the short-distance game through the middle that has been run in New England, they’ll need some more upgrades. That starts and ends with more wide receivers and a tight end.

How do the Patriots approach their receiving issues?

When it comes to pass-catching targets, the Patriots remained at the same level through free agency. They lost Dorsett and added former Cardinals receiver Damiere Byrd. Just as last year, the corps has something encouraging brewing but still suffers from lack of depth and inconsistency. That applies to Mohamed Sanu to the biggest extent.

N’Keal Harry will finally play a full year. The 2019 first-round pick from Arizona State missed the majority of 2019 but still managed 12 receptions for 105 yards, and 8.8 yards average per catch. He and Edelman make for a good core but, with Sanu disappointing, it just seems like something’s missing.

Actually, it’s multiple things that are missing that have to do with the offense overall, One of those is another solid target and the other is a new tight end. Last year, the Patriots had some hope Rob Gronkowski might consider coming back from retirement. Now, Gronk is a football player-turned-professional wrestler that is set to host Wrestlemania 36 if the event goes ahead.

The features some spicy TE pieces in the middle-to-late rounds. Possible subjects of consideration would include Colby Parkinson from Stanford and Adam Trautman from Dayton.

As for another WR1, the current market is very thin. However, oh boy is the draft just the opposite. When the Patriots have their first pick at No. 23, the likes of Denzel Mims, Jalen Reagor, Randon Aiyuk and Laviska Shenault could still be available. With the need for drafting a quarterback suddenly weakening, it’s the perfect time to get some of the very best of a historic WR class.

How can the Patriots free up salary cap space?

As previously noted, the Patriots aren’t in a good situation. Or at least they aren’t in a flexible situation. The fact that have about $1 million in cap space alone isn’t the end of the world. They’ve already executed the minimal offseason program and left anything else to the draft.

That mentality, if that’s indeed the way they approach it, puts unfriendly limitations. It keeps them away from getting a high-profile or signing a receiver from the market like Taylor Gabriel, who averaged 12.2 yards per catch last year and is worth a look at the very least.

Numerous reports over the last months have indicated that the Patriots could be cutting players like Rex Burkhead and Deatrich Wise. The Patriots are paying them a combined $5 million. Either way, it will be interesting to see what the Patriots do going forward.

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Teodor Tsenov is a writer in the NFL Department of Overtime Heroics. Teodor joined the media in March 2020, previously writing for Franchise Sports UK. Also a second-year International Sport Management student at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in Den Haag, the Netherlands. Originally from Sofia, Bulgaria.