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The Patriots and Falcons Face a New Set of Questions

What are each team’s top priorities this offseason following New England’s historic comeback in Super Bowl LI?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s been more than 48 hours since Super Bowl LI ended, and I’m still not entirely sure what happened. The Patriots are the champions (again), and at this point it’s time to start turning our attention to what happens next.

Anytime a team reaches the Super Bowl, its offseason takes on a different feel. It has to deal with additional attention, speculation, and curiosity — and that should be the case for both New England and Atlanta. For the Pats, the challenge will be figuring out how to retain many players who will be free agents and retool for another run. For the Falcons, the first hurdle will be recovering from a devastating second-half collapse, and the second will be getting their young guys to keep developing and stay at a high level after the departure of a star offensive coordinator.

Let’s consider the biggest questions facing each team.

Will the Patriots trade Jimmy Garoppolo?

Tom Brady’s terrific season (3,554 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, and two interceptions) all but guarantees that the Patriots will trade Garoppolo this offseason. There’s only one year left on his rookie contract; it wouldn’t make sense for the Pats to give the 25-year-old an extension just to have him sit behind Brady for a chunk of the deal.

Who will make a move to get the former second-round pick is anyone’s guess, but there are plenty of parties that should be interested. Garoppolo will have a $1.1 million cap hit next season and could land with any team willing to part with the type of draft capital the Patriots desire. Garoppolo, who grew up less than an hour from Chicago, has been linked to the Bears and Browns (both teams with plenty of money to throw around if they wanted to sign the quarterback to an extension). Given that cap figure, though, cash-strapped teams like the Texans could be in play as well.

Cleveland likely wouldn’t be willing to part with the no. 1 overall pick in a potential trade for Garoppolo, but Bill Belichick and New England should consider it a win if they can somehow pry the no. 12 pick (or something in that range) for their backup. While Garoppolo provides excellent insurance for Brady, who is about to turn 40, it’d be irresponsible for the Pats to not explore turning a QB they’re likely to lose next spring into a first-rounder.

How will the Falcons handle the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan?

On Monday, the NFL’s worst-kept secret became a reality, with Shanahan accepting the job as the 49ers head coach. The Falcons wasted no time in naming his replacement, announcing Tuesday that they’d hired Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian — who was once the head coach at the University of Washington and USC, and who has ties to Atlanta coach Dan Quinn through their mutual former boss Pete Carroll — to run the offense.

Matt Ryan throws a pass during Super Bowl LI (Getty Images)
Matt Ryan throws a pass during Super Bowl LI (Getty Images)

For a group like the 2016 Falcons, who led the NFL in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA and in points per game (33.8), a drop-off in 2017 is almost inevitable. It takes a few breaks for a team to maintain an environment where a quarterback can average 9.3 yards per pass attempt, and even if Shanahan had stayed in Atlanta, it’s unclear whether Matt Ryan’s surroundings would be quite as cushy next fall. All five of the Falcons’ starting offensive linemen started 16 games, which is a rarity. Atlanta also has to worry about retaining restricted free-agent wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, who gave the offense a new dimension in his first season with the team.

Even if Shanahan hadn’t changed jobs, Ryan might not have been able to stave off the cruel beast that is regression. With a new coordinator in the mix, the likelihood that 2017’s version of Atlanta will approach anything close to the offensive heights of this season is remote. Shanahan isn’t just a brilliant mind; he also had formed a strong bond with Ryan and gained a complete grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of his personnel. Sarkisian’s system should share elements with Shanahan’s (both come from backgrounds in the West Coast offense, and Sark has used a healthy amount of play-action at his previous stops), but time and comfort with a coordinator always factor into an offense’s success.

There are plenty of ways to positively spin the Sarkisian hire: This is a guy who, during his time in the college ranks, engineered offenses that led to NFL teams drafting both Mark Sanchez (2009, no. 5 overall) and Jake Locker (2011, no. 8 overall) in the top 10. That should count for something. And Sarkisian has extensive history as a play-caller, meaning there will be no learning curve in that area. Make no mistake: This offense was Shanahan’s creation. But with Ryan, Julio Jones, and a ridiculous duo of running backs, Atlanta’s attack should remain formidable next fall, even if it falls short of what the Falcons produced this season.

What will New England do with its Scrooge McDuckian pile of money?

The Patriots enter the offseason with more than $65 million in cap room. Somehow, only the Browns and 49ers have more. That’s because the Pats have a slew of guys set to become free agents who they’ll need to make decisions on in the next month. That list includes (but is not limited to): Martellus Bennett, Dont’a Hightower, Logan Ryan, Alan Branch, Malcolm Butler, LeGarrette Blount, Jabaal Sheard, and Chris Long.

Martellus Bennett (Getty Images)
Martellus Bennett (Getty Images)

Let’s start with the big names. Bennett’s 2016 numbers (55 catches, 701 yards, and seven touchdowns) weren’t eye-popping, especially with Rob Gronkowski on the shelf since early December. Still, Bennett presented a matchup problem for New England’s opponents and provided the Pats with plenty of blocking help in the running game. He reportedly turned down a $7 million annual offer from New England when the team acquired him last offseason, and, according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Pats won’t give Bennett a deal worth more than the $9 million average that Gronkowski makes. That doesn’t offer a lot of wiggle room between the number Bennett rejected and the Pats’ supposed ceiling.

One possible solution for New England is to slap Bennett with the franchise tag and pay him close to $10 million in 2017. That’d be more than Gronk makes, but it’d be a one-year commitment that would give the Pats a chance to see how Gronk’s health plays out. For all the trade rumors that have circulated since the Patriots won the Super Bowl without their star tight end, Gronk is the team’s best offensive weapon, and his deal for this season is completely palatable.

Gronk’s cap number in 2017 ($6.8 million) and the dead money remaining on his contract ($6 million) are almost a wash; in 2018, his cap number will jump all the way up to $11 million. It seems likely that New England will keep him through this fall and see if his health problems linger. By tagging Bennett, the Patriots could give themselves some flexibility at tight end.

For Hightower, who made one big play after another in the Super Bowl, a long-term deal in New England makes sense. In trading Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins — both set to become free agents — Belichick essentially tabbed Hightower as the young defender whom he was willing to pay. The Pats have a record of offering deals to linebackers who serve as the defense’s vocal leaders; they gave Jerod Mayo a five-year extension with $25 million guaranteed in 2011.

Malcolm Butler (Getty Images)
Malcolm Butler (Getty Images)

Butler is the other key defensive piece the Patriots should try to keep. The former undrafted cornerback is a restricted free agent, meaning New England will have more leverage in his situation than it would if he were to hit the open market. The Patriots’ diverse skill sets at corner were an integral part of their defensive success in 2016, and that included slot man Ryan, who had an excellent postseason. New England has regularly shown it would rather draft and develop young defensive backs than overpay for established ones. Still, Ryan, 25 with the ability to play inside, was good enough down the stretch that the Pats should explore what it would take to bring him back.

When it comes to Branch and Blount, it feels like New England should have an edge in signing them. Both make more sense — and have enjoyed a lot more success — for the Patriots than they have for any other team, and each seems likely to try to finish his career in New England. Also in play for Belichick will be the parade of veterans willing to take modest deals in exchange for having the chance to win a Super Bowl. Long made that exact trade-off this season; he’s hardly the first and will almost certainly not be the last.

Can Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff bolster Atlanta’s defense?

A small step back for Atlanta’s offense next fall would be less worrisome if the defense continues its trajectory from the second half of the 2016 season. The Falcons ranked 11th in pass defense DVOA from Week 9 through Week 17, and their performance through the first three quarters of the Super Bowl provided a glimpse into what this group can be.

The Sporting News reported Tuesday that the Falcons will move on from defensive coordinator Rick Smith, a decision that shouldn’t be as drastic as it sounds. This is primarily Quinn’s defense, and with seven starters in their first or second seasons, he should have almost all of his key pieces back in the fall. Dimitroff said Tuesday that Atlanta’s top offseason priority is re-signing cornerback Desmond Trufant, who hurt his shoulder in Week 9 and missed the rest of the season. With Trufant, Robert Alford, and Jalen Collins, the Falcons would have a capable set of young corners.

The help that Atlanta is set to get back on the line may prove even more important. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was playing well before going down with a partially torn meniscus against the Cardinals in Week 12 (and eventually a torn biceps in the divisional round, ending his season). He should be healthy come Week 1. The Falcons should also benefit from the return of defensive end Derrick Shelby, who tore his Achilles during a loss to the Seahawks in October.

Despite that group of reinforcements, though, the Falcons could afford to add some pass-rushing help from the draft or free agency, especially given the uncertain future of 36-year-old Dwight Freeney. The idea of bringing in a talent like former San Diego first-round pick Melvin Ingram, a free agent who recorded a career-high eight sacks in 2016, is enticing, but Atlanta isn’t exactly flush with cash. The Falcons have about $24 million in cap room and could free up additional space by extending Ryan and lessening the blow of the $23.8 million he’s due this year.

While Atlanta’s 2017 offense could struggle to be as prolific as the 2016 unit, its defense seems likely to trend the other way. With progress from its young core and some offseason tinkering, Quinn’s bunch has the makings of a top-15 unit.