ESPN released a list of the 99 people that will shape the 2017 NFL season on Wednesday with 99 days to go before the start of the 2017 season and there are six members of the New England Patriots that made the cut, including a section dedicated exclusively to the reigning champions.
Here are the players and my thoughts on each.
WR Julian Edelman
Everybody wants to talk about Malcolm Butler's contract situation, but Edelman has caught more than 90 passes in three of the past four seasons and is making $4.5 million in the final year of his deal. Is he destined for the Wes Welker treatment or a long-term contract in New England?
Edelman fell under the category “Players in a Contract Year” and there is a mention of Malcolm Butler, but Butler himself didn’t make the list. I love Edelman, but it’s a fair question to wonder if Edelman or Butler means more to the Patriots success in 2017.
Edelman is an extremely reliable target on offense, but the Patriots have roughly a thousand other options like Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell waiting for more snaps. If the defense loses Butler, then that means more snaps for Cyrus Jones.
I also feel like from a free agency perspective, Butler is going to draw a lot more interest than Edelman in 2018 free agency, which would point to Butler being a more significant player to watch this year. That’s just my opinion.
As for the analysis of Edelman, it will be curious to see whether or not he remains in New England. Some think the receiver might take a pay cut to stay with Tom Brady and become a Patriots lifer. We’ll see how it plays out.
Head coach Bill Belichick
Belichick is clearly still at the top of his game, and he attacked this offseason like a coach determined to win several more titles before it's all over.
If I’m starting a franchise from scratch and I have the first overall pick of any player, coach, or executive to start my team, I’m using that pick on Belichick. I’m taking the architect of the entire Patriots franchise and organization over any quarterback because Belichick has a system that can overcome most obstacles.
QB Tom Brady
Brady could have been in the "How much longer?" category, and certainly in the "Offensive MVP race." As long as he's in the league, he will shape every season in some way. How many more titles can he deliver in New England?
The list of quarterbacks that have succeeded in their 40s is extremely short, and if Brady can put together a solid encore performance, then he will be setting new and impossible standards for the position.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels
McDaniels entered January as a hot head coach candidate, but he believes the job he has now is better than a few of the head coach jobs he might be able to get. New England will continue to benefit from his career patience.
We can throw defensive coordinator Matt Patricia into this mix, too. McDaniels and Patricia both took over the Patriots playcalling in 2012, giving New England the longest tenured coordinators in the league. In fact, the McDaniels and Patricia duo has been together twice as long as the next closest tandem.
McDaniels and Patricia will again be the hot coaching candidates for 2018, so it’s important to look at the possible openings:
Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin Lewis hasn’t won a playoff game as he enters his 15th season as the Bengals head coach and another disappointing season should theoretically put him on the hot seat. The Bengals have some serious talent on the roster and a franchise QB in Andy Dalton and would be an enticing landing spot.
Indianapolis Colts: Chuck Pagano started his tenure in Indy with three-straight 11-5 seasons and followed it up with back-to-back 8-8 seasons. New general manager Chris Ballard might not want another down year and could want a new head coach to take advantage of Andrew Luck’s prime. The Patriots traded with the Colts this offseason, which could imply that the relationship has thawed.
New Orleans Saints: Sean Payton is considered an offensive genius, but the Saints have missed the playoffs three years in a row with 7-9 records. Drew Brees is heading towards retirement and the roster is mediocre so this might be a less desirable option.
Chicago Bears: John Fox has put together two disappointing years and likely won’t get through a third, unless the ownership believes that the coaching staff should get a couple years with QB Mitchell Trubisky.
Add in teams like the Detroit Lions and Tennesse Titans that are led by former Patriots execs, but are coming off strong seasons, and there should be some viable options for McDaniels and Patricia in 2018.
TE Rob Gronkowski
Once thought to be the most indispensable non-Brady Patriot, Gronk returns from injury after the team got along just fine without him. His new deal is heavy on 2017 incentives but leaves him eminently cuttable next offseason if the health remains a concern.
Gronkowski’s base salary spikes to $8 million in 2018 and $9 million in 2019 and could be cut or traded with just $4 million in dead cap space. Gronkowski will have to prove his value in 2017 and take advantage of the extra cash incentives the Patriots have added to his contract- and a good performance will make his trade value go through the roof.
Of course I don’t think the Patriots want to trade Gronkowski, but anything is possible.
QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Tom Brady would have to get hurt (or, I guess, suspended) for Garoppolo to play. But that New England held so tightly to Garoppolo this offseason means it hasn't ruled him out as a large part of its future.
Garoppolo was listed in the “Next Wave of QB Stars” category and he will again be a major part of the next offseason. If Brady takes even the smallest step backwards, look for the Patriots to try and reach an extension with Garoppolo. If Brady somehow gets better for the fourth-consecutive year, then Garoppolo will probably be franchise-tagged and traded for a second round pick or a future first round pick.
Are there any other Patriots that you think will shape the 2017 NFL season?