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Exit Interview: New England Patriots

It looked like a down year for New England, but here we are again. What could next season look like for the defending champs?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2018 NFL season just ended, so it’s time to look forward to next year. The Ringer has analyzed what went right, what went wrong, and where each franchise could go from here. Next up are the champion New England Patriots, who won an ugly Super Bowl over the Rams on Sunday.

What Went Right

The 21st century. The Patriots’ anticlimactic 13-3 win over the Rams on Sunday was just the latest championship in the greatest run in NFL history—this one coming after an 11-5 season that had some questioning whether the team’s best days were over. In 18 seasons, the Patriots have won 16 division titles, reached 13 conference championship games, made nine Super Bowls, and won six Lombardi trophies. Tom Brady has ascended to the undisputed GOAT status in football that Michael Jordan once occupied in basketball. Brady has six Super Bowl wins, more than any other player, and more Super Bowl wins than any other quarterback has Super Bowl appearances. Bill Belichick has coached six Super Bowl champions, while Vince Lombardi made the playoffs as a head coach six times and Bill Walsh made the playoffs as a head coach seven times. It’s also the second championship Boston has won over Los Angeles in the past four months. Sign kid will have to update his sign. Now it’s a dozen Boston titles in 18 years.

What Went Wrong

Free Agency

Like any New England offseason, the Pats will have to reshuffle the decks. This year may involve more turnover than even Patriots fans are used to, but Belichick has proved he can do anything with anyone after letting his left tackle and no. 1 wide receiver go this past offseason and winning the Super Bowl anyway.

Brady has reiterated he wants to return, and with his contract expiring in 2020, he’ll likely sign an extension this offseason. The biggest question facing the team is whether tight end Rob Gronkowski will retire. Gronk admitted earlier this year that he threatened retirement when it seemed possible he’d be traded to the Lions last offseason, and he creatively dodged the question throughout the week leading up to the Super Bowl. The tight end, who played through ankle and back injuries this year, had his worst season on a per-game basis since his rookie year, and he has more career opportunities lined up in retirement than just about any other football player. If he does retire, he’ll finish with the third-most receiving touchdowns for a tight end in NFL history despite playing for just nine seasons.

The less-celebrated but more impactful retirement could come from defensive back Devin McCourty, a stalwart member of the Pats secondary who started alongside his twin brother, Jason, this season. Devin acknowledged last week that if he were to win his third Super Bowl with his brother, who would be winning his first, he’d consider calling it a career.

The litany of players acquired via trades in the past year or two—Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett, cornerback Jason McCourty, and defensive lineman Danny Shelton—are all free agents and could be let go. So, too, could Chris Hogan, who failed to step up into a big opportunity with a declining Gronkowski and a suspended Julian Edelman to start 2018. The Pats are paying for Josh Gordon’s rehab in Florida, but his future is a mystery. If all four of the receivers without a contract depart, it would mean 193 of the 382 targets Brady sent to wide receivers and tight ends this year would be gone. If Gronkowski retires, that number would jump to 265, which is more than half of Brady’s targets in 2018. Receiver has been the lone black mark in Belichick’s team-building résumé, and if winning the Super Bowl after trading Brandin Cooks was Belichick’s masterpiece, then he could up the ante this offseason by heading into free agency with Edelman as the only receiver on the roster.

Belichick also completed a masterstroke by replacing left tackle Nate Solder with Trent Brown this season, but both Brown and reserve tackle LaAdrian Waddle are free agents. That could complicate Brady’s pass protection for his age-42 season. Brown, the largest player in the NFL, was better than expected as Solder’s replacement, but he also allowed 12 quarterback hits, tied for the second most of any offensive lineman. If the Pats let Brown and Waddle go, they’ll either have to look for outside help to protect Brady’s blindside or perhaps ask one of their guards—Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, or 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn—to try their hand at tackle next year.

On defense, the Pats’ biggest free agent is the deeply underappreciated defensive end Trey Flowers. He did not rack up a huge sack total (7.5), but he was tied for 13th in the league in pass pressures and was the third-highest-graded edge defender in 2018, according to PFF, behind only Calais Campbell and J.J. Watt, and one spot ahead of Khalil Mack and Von Miller, who tied for fourth. Given Flowers’s season and New England’s habit of letting star defenders leave, it would be more surprising if the Pats retained him. But he was so critical to the Pats defense in 2018 that Belichick could consider ponying up.

Sure, offense and defense are cool, but what Belichick has cared about most during the Patriots dynasty is special teams. Both kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Ryan Allen are free agents. Gostkowski has been the Patriots’ kicker for 13 years, longer than Adam Vinatieri, and letting Gostkowski leave would be risky. Allen, on the other hand, may be a goner. The Pats have been willing to swap out punters over the years, and considering Belichick’s love of the nuances of punting, scouting for a new punter might be his idea of a vacation.

The Draft

The Patriots have their own pick in the first two rounds (32 and 64) plus Chicago’s second-rounder, which the team acquired last year, as well as Detroit’s third-rounder. The Pats sent their own third-rounder to Cleveland in March. It’s always a good bet that the Patriots will move back, so it is silly to project whom they may pick. Yet New England may be in line for yet another swing at a second- or third-round wide receiver, something they’ve consistently whiffed on for most of the century. (Shout-out Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, and Aaron Dobson.) If Georgia’s Riley Ridley is still available by whatever pick the Patriots have after they’ve traded back 16 different times for 34 separate first-round picks, he could be the best swing the team takes at finding a homegrown no. 1 receiver.