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Football Outsiders projects the Patriots that will step up during Julian Edelman’s suspension

Also, where can Tom Brady continue to improve?

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Every year, Football Outsiders releases their Almanac to preview the upcoming NFL season. We spoke with Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders to get the inside scoop on the New England Patriots. Click here to purchase the Football Outsiders Almanac!

The Patriots have historically ranked extremely well on offenses, but they’ll be without Julian Edelman for the first four weeks and will have to replace #1 wide receiver Brandin Cooks and #1 running back Dion Lewis. Which players on the roster are most capable of stepping up to fill the void of production?

RM: You know, before training camp started I would have said Malcolm Mitchell … well, anyway…

I think the early game plans for New England will be heavily Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski-centric, but the players I expect to have big roles early are Rex Burkhead and Eric Decker. I’ve always thought Decker was wildly underrated, and even though he’s older now, I think he can give a credible Danny Amendola impression for a few weeks. New England has never made any bones about going after linebackers with their running backs in the receiving game, and I think that actually sets up well for their first few weeks with Houston, Jacksonville, and Detroit on the slate. All have linebackers that can be exploited in pass coverage with the right set. Burkhead has always impressed me with his versatility and I think he might be faster than James White on seams or other routes that send a back over the top.

I really like and agree with the idea that Rex Burkhead is going to pick up a lot of the offensive slack over the first four weeks of the season while Julian Edelman is suspended. We could see James White gaining some yards, too, but it will be the running backs that Tom Brady will rely upon to start the season.

Without Edelman, the top targets will be Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan and I think Cordarrelle Patterson will be able to carve out a niche role in the offense with 5-10 touches per game.

But I expect Brady to dump the ball off to Burkhead and White to gain yards after the catch as much as possible to supplement the typical short routes of Edelman.

What are some areas of Tom Brady’s game that he improved in 2017? Any notable areas of decline?

RM: This is an odd duck question to me. Not to say that I think we’ve seen the entire scope of Brady’s talent at this point, but I would think the book is pretty set on him at this point, no?

Brady’s 2017 season to me will go down as one where he played a style of football that wasn’t his absolute best fit, and he still was dominant enough at it to win the MVP. I don’t think Brady’s arm is at the point where he should be taking as many deep shots as he did in 2017. His deep ball does die early at times. But the Patriots took advantage of Brandin Cooks, took advantage of Chris Hogan’s deep route tree, and built an offense that could quick-strike you at any moment.

I expect that will be scaled back somewhat this year, shifting to a more reliable underneath game with Julian Edelman and the chemistry he has with Brady. I don’t know that Brady has declined in any measurable way yet beyond the occasional “oops” throw. My gut tells me that when you see a decline, it will be very evident all at once. But it might not happen until Brady is 47, because he is a sorcerer.

I asked this question because Brady has improved upon different facets of his game in each of the past four years. In 2014, Brady worked on his mobility and moving outside of the pocket. In 2015, he worked on his pre-snap reads and motions to evaluate opposing defenses and win the down before the ball is snapped. In 2016, Brady really improved his deep ball. In 2017, he improved his ability to throw while pressured.

It’s fair to ask if there’s anything else that Brady has left to improve. He’s accurate and decisive and he can make all the throws. It’s unreasonable to expect him to throw with more zip at his current age, but he’s also not showing any signs of decline.

I think McCown’s description of an “oops throw” is probably the most accurate way to describe Brady’s biggest (last remaining?) flaw. Brady’s always good for a jaw-droppingly dumb interception three or four times every year, usually early on a drive where he forces the ball to a double-covered receiver for no reason or when he panics under pressure and just throws the ball up instead of eating the sack.

Between 2001-12, Brady threw 15 red zone interceptions over 949 pass attempts (1.58%). Over the past five seasons, Brady has thrown 10 red zone interceptions over 480 pass attempts (2.08%).

It’s worth noting that Brady commit three of these interceptions in each of 2013, 2014, and 2015, and only one over the past two seasons (Eric Weddle, December 2016), so perhaps this isn’t an issue at all.

So we’re really just splitting hairs here. If Brady doesn’t decline, he’s the best quarterback in the league and there’s no reason to expect him to decline in 2018.