The 2016 Patriots Season Preview: A Team Built to Win (Again)

The Patriots appear to have their most well-rounded team in the Bill Belichick era.

Though the Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years at the start of the new millennium, 2016 could be the pinnacle of the Bill Belichick era. They’ve played in five straight AFC Championships and appear as well-rounded as ever.

Balance will be the key to the Patriots’ success with Jimmy Garoppolo stepping under center to spell the suspended Tom Brady for the first four games of the season. The third-year passer put up big numbers in college at Eastern Illinois University, breaking Tony Romo’s school record for completions in a single season. In a recent interview with ESPN Radio, Garoppolo’s college coach, Dino Babers, even compared him to Dan Marino.

The Marino comparison may be a little much this early in his career, but it’s clear Belichick views Garoppolo as a starting quarterback—or else he wouldn’t have selected him in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Keep in mind, though, that all of Garoppolo’s collegiate success came in the less than stellar Ohio Valley Conference.

During his brief stints this preseason, Garoppolo’s performance was mixed. He shined in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears, executing a flawless two-minute drill to end the first half. But then he struggled the next time out against the Carolina Panthers, completing 9 of 15 passes for a paltry 57 yards.

When Garoppolo takes the field in Arizona Sunday night, he’ll likely have a full compliment of weapons at his disposal. Rob Gronkowski, who sat out the entire exhibition slate for the fourth straight year, is expected to play despite battling a nagging hamstring injury. Once he gets back on the field, he should continue to rewrite the record books on a seemingly weekly basis. Gronkowski, 27, already has more touchdown receptions in his career than any tight end who’s in the Hall of Fame.

The colorful Martellus Bennett will also line up at tight end, and promises to be the most explosive complement to Gronkowski since Aaron Hernandez. Acquiring Bennett was a classic buy-low Belichick trade: Bennett fell out of favor in Chicago, which tends to happen when you body-slam a rookie during practice, hold out from your contract, and complain about your role in the offense. But Bennett is just two seasons removed from a 90-catch campaign and is in a contract year, meaning he should be motivated to produce.

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Much like Brady, Garroppolo’s most targeted receiver will likely be Julian Edelman, who’s turned into a superstar overnight. Edelman’s value to the team was on full display last season when he missed seven games with a foot injury. The Patriots averaged 35 points per contest with him in the lineup and 25 points without him. Three years ago, Edelman was on the roster bubble. Now, he’s the lynchpin of the offense.

With five running backs currently on the roster, the Patriots might also try to run the ball more and have Garoppolo work off the play-action. On that note, the most important guy in the backfield is James White. He failed to develop into a reliable option when Dion Lewis was placed on injured reserve last November, but will receive another opportunity in Lewis’ absence this season.

The Patriots started 10-0 last year, but dropped four of their final six games once injuries started piling up. Though Edelman and Lewis’ absences got the most attention, the loss of left tackle Nate Solder wound up being the death knell. The porous offensive line melted down in the AFC Championship, allowing Brady to get hit a whopping 20 times. The performance was so bad, Belichick canned offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo and brought back stalwart Dante Scarnecchia—who coached the O-line every year from 1999-2013. Regardless of the personnel, Scarnecchia lines always appeared to jell by the end of the season. The Patriots are hoping he still has his touch.

But the real reason why the Patriots can stay afloat without Brady is the emergence of their blossoming young defense. Since 2010, Belichick has drafted 12 defensive players in either the first-or second-round. That investment now appears to be paying off.

The Patriots allowed the eighth fewest points in the league last season and could make a move into the top five. Their defense is led by young linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, who have both been named All-Pros. Malcolm Butler also developed into an upper-echelon cornerback last season, seamlessly replacing Darrelle Revis.

In a perfectly Belichickian move, the Patriots traded Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones to the Cardinals this offseason, which means they probably feel good about their pass-rushing depth. Jabaal Sheard, who finished with eight sacks last season, is expected to slide into Jones’ place.

Winning in Arizona in the season opener will be difficult, but the Patriots’ next three games are at Gillette Stadium, where they’ve been victorious 83 percent of the time, which bodes well for Garoppolo’s chances to pull off some wins. In a wide open AFC, they should still be in position to capture a first-round bye when Brady returns Oct. 9 against the lowly Cleveland Browns.

And that’s when the real games will begin. Brady, 39, is currently playing some of the best football of his career. Ever since his abysmal performance against the Kansas City Chiefs on that infamous Monday night in September 2014, he’s posted a 102.6 QB rating, and at one point completed nine consecutive passes on a game-winning Super Bowl drive. Not too shabby.

Last year, Brady said he would like to play for another decade. The jury is still out on that, but when he turns 40 next summer, he should be expecting to defend his fifth Super Bowl title.