Losing sucks, there is never anything good about being saddled with a loss with a Super Bowl on the line. However at the same time, I believe it's better to not dwell too long into the past and focus on what's in the future. Even though the Patriots won't be able to give the ultimate "F U" to Roger Goodell for Deflategate, there's no reason to believe that they won't be right back in the AFC Championship game next season despite the loss of a first round pick. Patriots original picks are the 29th selection of each round and their overall draft order will be published on a later date.
Under Contract for 2016:
- Core Players: QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Julian Edelman, ED Chandler Jones, ED Jabaal Sheard, DT Malcom Brown, LB Dont'a Hightower, LB Jamie Collins, CB Malcolm Butler, CB Logan Ryan, S Devin McCourty, S Patrick Chung, ST Matthew Slater, LS Joe Cardona, P Ryan Allen, K Stephen Gostkowski.
- Important Role Players: CB Justin Coleman, DT Alan Branch, RB Brandon Bolden, RB James White
- Core/Important Players Returning From Injuries: OT Nate Solder, RB Dion Lewis, DL Dominique Easley
Key Free Agents: CB Tarell Brown, G/C Ryan Wendell, DT Akiem Hicks, S Nate Ebner, RB LeGarrette Blount
Potential Cap Casualties: WR Danny Amendola, WR Brandon LaFell, DT Alan Branch, DT Chris Jones, LB Jerod Mayo, ED Rob Ninkovich, OT Marcus Cannon
Extension Candidates: LB Dont'a Hightower, LB Jamie Collins, ED Jabaal Sheard, CB Malcolm Butler, ED Chandler Jones
Right now, the Patriots will likely be able to field a similar team in 2016, save for a few changes on the offensive line and the receiving corps. The Patriots will return at least 9, possibly 10 starters on defense for 2016. Patriots defense got better in 2015 and the Patriots have an opportunity to further build on it. The Patriots need to find a way to lock up Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins for the considerable future, especially Hightower. Malcolm Butler proved that he is a starting CB in the NFL and can match up against certain team's #1 receiver. The Patriots are deep in talent on the defensive line and in the secondary, which with more continuity together should improve the defense.
On offense, the Patriots offensive line fell apart in the final game of the season. The Patriots should be getting Nate Solder back from a torn pectoral and bicep, but the Patriots clearly have a need for quality OT depth. Sebastian Vollmer is still playing at a good level, but is 31 and his eventual decline is just around the corner. On offense, the Patriots really struggled when Edelman was gone and I believe that LaFell likely played all season with a badly injured foot. The Patriots clearly are hoping to find a potential upgrade at the X Receiver position, whether LaFell gets better when healthy or they import someone else.
Realistically, the Patriots only need to acquire more quality depth for the 2016 season to make a run. Injuries piled up on the team and eventually caught up to the Patriots against the Broncos. Injuries are no excuse, but at certain spots the Patriots backups couldn't get the job done. Next year, I believe this team will be playing in the AFC Championship again. They just need to make a few tweaks and adjustments to the lineup next year along with rookies and other young players improving over the course of the season. We'll see where the Patriots wind up going this offseason, Free Agency is in March and the draft is in Late April/Early May.