After an offseason that was arguably one of the most—if not the most—tumultuous offseasons in Patriots history under Bill Belichick, it’s time for the 2018 regular season to get underway today, when the Patriots host the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium at 1 P.M.
Turn on local Boston sports radio stations, and you’ll witness a high level of concern among the fan base that is not often seen around these parts. Many predict New England to still make it to the AFC Championship at least, but there are a lot of question marks surrounding this team that have led to many calling into question whether the Pats will cruise through the regular season like they are accustomed to doing.
With the offseason coming and going, we have gained clarity in some situations, such as Trent Brown establishing himself as the new starter at the left tackle position from Day One of training camp, but we are also left with questions, such as if the Patriots’ wide receiving corps is enough to help this offense.
With that being said, let’s take a look at five questions that are facing the Patriots, as they head into their season opener, and how they can hope to answer them moving forward.
1. Is the receiver corps capable of helping Tom Brady?
Look, this point has been beaten into the ground by now, I get it. But that doesn’t change the fact that New England’s current stable of receivers is a huge question mark going into tomorrow. As it stands now, with Julian Edelman suspended for four games, Chris Hogan is the #1 wide receiver, and will likely assume the X-receiver position on the field. Hogan had considerable success last season in the slot, and he killed the Texans from the slot last year, as evidenced by this 47-yard touchdown catch last season. Will he able to replicate that success on the outside as the X?
After Hogan, it’ll be up to Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson to help pick up the slack. Both had good preseasons, and Dorsett in particular looks ready to make a jump. Dorsett will most likely operate in the slot, but don’t be surprised if he takes some snaps on the outside, so Josh McDaniels can use his speed on the boundaries. McDaniels will be able to mix and match with Dorsett and Hogan, as both have experience on the outside and in the slot. With Patterson, he has shown electric flashes in the preseason, but the question is how many touches per game he will receive.
There is certainly loads of big play potential with Patterson, on both offense and special teams, but expect the Patriots to pick their spots on when to take a shot with Patterson for a big play. Expect this position to be in flux, at least until Edelman returns, and possibly longer. Can Brady develop enough chemistry with Dorsett and Patterson to be able to rely on them? And can Hogan, in a contract year, prove that he is capable of being a #1-level receiver? We’ll see.
2. Will rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley start?
One of the preseason darlings this year was fifth-round linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, from Purdue University. Bentley came on strong in the first preseason game against the Washington Redskins, and didn’t look back after that. Coming out of college, Bentley was known as a thumper in the run game, who struggled with his mobility and ability to cover.
This preseason, Bentley has looked great however, and has shown himself to be capable in most facets on defense. The linebacker position lacks depth right now, and Bentley is going to be thrust into an important position right away. Elandon Roberts is OK at best, and at his worst, guesses way too much and is a liability on the field. A starting unit of Dont’a Hightower-Kyle Van Noy-Bentley is a strong unit—if Hightower can stay healthy—and while the unit as a whole lacks depth still, if Bentley can maintain his level of play from the preseason, this bodes well for the Patriots’ defense to improve after a poor performance last year.
3. What’s the plan at running back?
With Dion Lewis going down to join new Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel down at Patriots South 2.0 (with Houston being 1.0), the Patriots must replace perhaps their second-most dynamic offensive player (Gronk is still most dynamic) from last season. Belichick spent a first-round draft pick to get Sony Michel, but the early returns on that decision are less than encouraging, with Michel having been out for almost the entire preseason after undergoing a procedure on his knee on August 4. Michel has been back at practice for the last week, but it’s tough to see him playing a meaningful role on this team for at least the first month, while he plays catch-up.
New England is set at the third-down back position with the dependable James White, and he is poised to take on a big role in the absence of Julian Edelman during Edelman’s suspension. But who will the lead back be?
Rex Burkhead is the leader in the clubhouse currently, but has struggled to stay healthy since he has been in New England. He sat out much of the regular season with what has been reported to be a slight tear in his knee, but according to the Jeff Howe of The Athletic, he could have played if this occurred in the regular season, and the team has high expectations for him.
Every season, the Patriots keep a big back on their roster, who can pick up the tough yards when the team needs them. LeGarrette Blount had a lot of success in this role when he was a Patriot. The team signed Mike Gillislee to replace Blount last year, but that didn’t work out. Jeremy Hill, signed to a one-year deal this offseason, beat out Gillislee in training camp, and looks poised to take on that big back role, and excel in it. Hill has better vision, patience, speed, and agility than either Blount or Gillislee. There are questions about Hill’s health, after getting ankle surgery last season and appearing to hurt it a little bit during a preseason game, but this could be the best signing of the offseason for Belichick, especially if Burkhead gets hurt again. Hill will get plenty of goal-line touches, and could be a valuable fantasy pick-up as well.
4. How will the pass rush fare?
For the New England defense to improve, the pass rush absolutely must improve. Belichick traded for Danny Shelton and signed Adrian Clayborn in the offseason to address the Patriots’ issues along the defensive line. The early returns in the preseason are encouraging, as both new acquisitions played well. Two players to monitor with this group are Trey Flowers and Derek Rivers. Flowers had a quiet preseason, and has dealt with an undisclosed injury, but has said he is good to go for Week 1. In a contract year, Flowers has every reason to play his best football, but hasn’t been heard from much in the preseason, on or off the field. Flowers is switching to left defensive end, with Clayborn only being able to play on the right side due to a condition called Erb’s Palsy, that affects his right arm’s mobility and function. If Flowers can pick up from where he left off, and Clayborn plays well, this unit will be greatly improved, but Flowers’ performance at a new position will be something to monitor.
Derek Rivers, after tearing his ACL his rookie season in training camp, could provide added depth at the defensive end position. He has shown flashes in the preseason, and there is still hope that he can become a consistent contributor to this team. If he can get that knee back to full health, and become more consistent, he could really help this team’s pass rush.
And don’t forget about Deatrich Wise. After a strong rookie campaign, Wise is poised to continue his strong momentum from his first year. He and Clayborn will likely split time at RDE, and a rotation there should allow them to stay rested and ready. This will be a strong combo for New England, with Clayborn and Wise at RDE.
5. Can Jacob Hollister make the jump?
Ever since the Aaron Hernandez scandal, Bill Belichick has been searching and searching for a move tight end to pair with Rob Gronkowski. He has had no success, but could the Patriots have something in Hollister? The second-year undrafted tight end from the University of Wyoming played sparingly last year, but has been hyped up this preseason. He has dealt with a hamstring injury that will make him a game-time decision this week, but Hollister has gotten a lot of work with Tom Brady one-on-one in practice, and appears to be making some headway to gaining status as a member of Brady’s circle of trusted pass-catchers. With Edelman suspended, having another dependable option for Brady to throw to would be very beneficial, but Hollister has to get healthy first.