When the New England Patriots meet the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, they will go up against an opponent they last faced in February 2018. Back then — in Super Bowl 52 — the Eagles were able to beat the Patriots to win their first ever Vince Lombardi Trophy. Two years is a long time in the NFL, however, and the two teams underwent a major transformation process since Philadelphia’s 41-33 victory.
For starters, 34 members of New England’s final 53-man roster during the 2017 season are no longer with the club: the team saw some turnover on both sides of the football, with only three offensive starters — quarterback Tom Brady and guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason — still available for this week’s game. The Eagles, meanwhile, saw 27 of their Super Bowl-winning players leave over the last two years.
Let’s take a closer look at the changes.
The Patriots’ receiving corps looks drastically different
New England had three 100-yard receivers in Super Bowl 52, but not one of them is still with the team:
- Rob Gronkowski: 9 catches, 116 yards, 2 touchdowns — retired in 2019
- Danny Amendola: 8 catches, 152 yards — left during free agency 2018
- Chris Hogan: 6 catches, 128 yards, 1 touchdown — left during free agency 2019
Gronkowski, Amendola and Hogan were key members of New England’s passing attack in 2017 but are all no longer with the club. The same goes for the team’s number one perimeter receiver that year: Brandin Cooks, who left the Super Bowl early with a concussion, was traded to the Los Angeles Rams shortly after the Super Bowl.
How did the Patriots fill the voids created by the departures? Julian Edelman is back as Tom Brady’s number one wide receiver, with Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett, who played in Super Bowl 52 but had only one 19-yard reception as Cooks’ replacement, also on the roster. First-round rookie N’Keal Harry is also on his way to return to the field and could make his season debut as early as on Sunday.
Nick Foles is no longer in Philadelphia
While he ended the 2017 season as Super Bowl MVP, Nick Foles actually started it as the backup for Carson Wentz. The former first-round draft pick tore his ACL, however, and paved the way for the veteran to step in and ultimately lead Philadelphia to a championship. Foles also filled in for Wentz the following season, when a back issue forced the team to put its franchise quarterback on injured reserve for a second year in a row.
Foles did not lead the Eagles to another title in 2018, but he set himself up well for free agency which he hit after opting out of his contract. The 30-year-old, who completed 28 of 43 pass attempts for 373 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, is now playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars while Wentz is back in Philadelphia’s starting lineup.
New England’s secondary has been upgraded big time...
After benching starting cornerback Malcolm Butler for the game and losing Jonathan Jones to injury earlier during the playoffs, New England rolled out a secondary that included the likes of Eric Rowe (72 of 75 defensive snaps), Jordan Richards (16 snaps) and Johnson Bademosi (10 snaps). Rowe started slowly into the game, but actually was serviceable as the number two perimeter cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore — something that cannot be said about Richards and Bademosi.
Fast forward two years, however, and you see the Patriots field the NFL’s best defensive backfield. Gilmore has a strong case as the league’s best cornerback, while Jones is back in the lineup and having a tremendous season in the slot. Meanwhile, the second perimeter spot is manned by veteran Jason McCourty with second-year man J.C. Jackson also seeing regular playing time. Add this group to a safety trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon — all three played in Super Bowl 53, but Chung had to leave the game injured — and you get a bona fide secondary.
...just like the rest of the defense
The rest of New England’s defense has also improved over the last two years. Gone are the likes of defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Ricky Jean Francois, defensive ends James Harrison and Eric Lee, and linebacker Marquis Flowers — all five played considerable snaps against Philadelphia — with the Patriots bringing in upgrades at all their positions: Danny Shelton and Adam Butler have carved out rotational roles along the interior defensive line, with John Simon and Chase Winovich on the edge.
The biggest change, however, came at linebacker. Dont’a Hightower, who was on injured reserve for Super Bowl 52, is back and in the middle of a very good season, while Jamie Collins Sr. was added to the equation earlier this year; he has been a steal and one of the most impactful defenders in the entire NFL. This, in turn, has also allowed the team to move Kyle Van Noy around the formation even more and put him in a position to play to his strengths — something that was not possible during the Super Bowl.
The Eagles changed their offensive backfield...
“The Eagles no longer have LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi but they are getting good production out of Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders,” said Brandon Lee Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation about Philadelphia’s backfield. “Corey Clement, who led the Eagles in receiving yards in Super Bowl LII, hasn’t come close to replicating that kind of performance since then. Injuries have been a big issue for him as he’s ended up on IR the past two seasons.”
...and receiving corps
“The Eagles’ wide receiver situation is much more dire than it was back then,” Brandon said about Philadelphia’s pass catchers. “Alshon Jeffery, who turns 30 in February, is two years older and it really shows. He’s looked hobbled by the nagging injuries he’s been dealing with this season. On that note, he might miss this week’s game with an ankle injury.”
“Nelson Agholor was a revelation in 2017 but he’s gone back to being an abject disaster,” he continued. “He was able to thrive as a slot receiver two seasons ago but now he’s being asked to do more than that and the results aren’t pretty. Torrey Smith was hardly an elite deep threat but teams had to at least respect his speed and he offered some level of reliability.”
“The same can’t be said for the Eagles’ current cadre of pass catchers, who lead the league in drops. The Eagles majorly upgraded on Smith by reacquiring DeSean Jackson but he only played one full game before ultimately ending up on injured reserve,” continued Brandon before pointing out one positive development: “[Tight end] Dallas Goedert is a significant upgrade on Brent Celek playing in the final year of his career. Certainly much more of a receiving threat.”
New England’s offensive line returns only two of five starters
As noted above, guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason are the only other starters of Super Bowl 52 alongside Tom Brady who are still with the team (others such as David Andrews and James Develin are currently on injured reserve). This means that three-fifths of the offensive line have been changed ever since:
- Left tackle: Marshall Newhouse instead of Nate Solder
- Center: Ted Karras instead of David Andrews
- Right tackle: Marcus Cannon instead of Cameron Fleming
Cannon is certainly an upgrade over Fleming, while Karras and especially Newhouse are downgrades compared to their successors. Not all is bad, however, at least from a long-term perspective: Karras has looked good filling in for one of the NFL’s best centers, and is certainly a serviceable commodity in his own right. Newhouse, meanwhile, should be replaced by former first-round draft pick Isaiah Wynn as early as next week.
The coaching staffs on both sides have seen some movement
Of the 13 coordinators or positional assistant coaches the Patriots had on their staff for the Super Bowl in February 2018, only six remain. The biggest changes certainly came on the defensive side of the ball, where coordinator Matt Patricia and his one-year replacement Brian Flores both left to take on head-coaching gigs elsewhere. Defensive line coach Brendan Daly and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer have also moved on from New England.
The Eagles, on the other hand, have seen considerable turnover on the offensive side of their coaching staff, as Brandon pointed out: “Losing offensive coordinator Frank Reich (no thanks to Josh McDaniels!) and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo certainly weakened the Eagles’ coaching staff. I still believe Doug Pederson had done a good job overall but he could afford to upgrade upon his assistants.”
“Current Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh has caught a lot of heat for Philly’s struggles since the start of 2018,” Brandon continued. “I don’t think it’s unwarranted given that Reich was said to have a big role in the Eagles’ game script and without him the Eagles were the slowest start team in 2018. Slow starts have also been an issue for the 2019 Eagles, especially earlier on in the season.”