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Sunday NFL thoughts: 2019 shapes up to be a challenging year for Bill Belichick and the Patriots

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Some thoughts around the league on the first Sunday without NFL football.

Super Bowl LIII - New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

1. The offseason is only one week old, but the New England Patriots have already lost five assistant coaches. De facto defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brian Flores has been introduced as the Miami Dolphins’ new head coach on Monday, and he is taking three Patriots assistants with him: wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea, assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schupliski, and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer will all trade New England for South Beach. Furthermore, defensive line coach Brendan Daly has accepted a job with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Needless to say that the turnover will pose a challenge for head coach Bill Belichick, especially when it comes to a defense that is losing three of four assistants (safeties coach Steve Belichick stays as of right now). What should not be underestimated, however, is the role new defensive coordinator Greg Schiano might play in filling out the staff. Former Schiano assistants like Ohio State cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson or Boston College linebackers coach Bill Sheridan might therefore be on the team’s radar.

2. Knowing the Patriots’ history of internal promotions, however, New England’s coaching assistants on both sides of the football should be kept an eye on: DeMarcus Covington, Atif Austin, Mike Pellegrino and Brian Belichick could see promotions come their way in order to help fill the vacancies created by the departures of Flores and company (the fifth assistant, Cole Popovich, appears to get groomed to one day take over the offensive line — at least that’s how things look right now).

Pats Pulpit reader tb12ftw proposed an interesting coaching staff outlook the other day, one that does seem realistic from this point of view. It has Atif Austin take over as wide receivers coach, with current consultant to the head coach Bret Bielema given Daly’s old job of coaching the defensive line. DeMarcus Covington and Mike Pellegrino, meanwhile, are tasked with coaching the linebackers and cornerbacks, respectively.

All of the moves would make sense: Austin and Covington have a history of coaching on offense and defense, respectively, while Pellegrino has been a quick riser through the ranks since he joined the team as an intern in 2015. Bielema could be the biggest wild card, considering that his aspirations might exceed being a position coach in the NFL. He does, after all, have 12 seasons of collegiate head coaching experience on his résumé.

3. Let’s go back to Schiano quickly. The Patriots have never hired an “outsider” to coordinate, but they are no strangers to bringing external coaches into the organization. The aforementioned Branden Daly joined the team from the Minnesota Vikings, for example, and is just the latest assistant to come to New England from another team and be given a relatively prominent role right away. Dom Capers joined the club in 2008 and was immediately handed the title of special assistant and secondary coach, while Pete Mangurian came on board after a three-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons to right away coach tight ends. While none of the men joined in as big a role as defensive coordinator, the Patriots hiring form outside the building is nothing new.

4. While we are at the topic of the Patriots’ history, let us quickly address their recent exodus: five assistant coaches leaving is unprecedented in the Bill Belichick era, but the team is still familiar when it comes to turnover on its coaching staff. Take the offseason between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, for example — one that has also seen plenty of change: That year, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien left to become head coach at Penn State and was replaced by Josh McDaniels. Tight ends coach Brian Ferentz joined his father Kirk in Iowa was replaced by coaching assistant George Godsey. On defense, Matt Patricia went from safeties coach to defensive coordinator with coaching assistant Brian Flores taking his role. Defensive line coach Pepper Johnson and linebackers coach Patrick Graham, meanwhile, switched roles from 2011 to 2012.

While comparatively few coaches actually left the staff, the group still had to work through plenty of changes — something that also happened between 2004 and 2005, when offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell both left, and from both 2008 to 2009 and 2010 to 2011. Turnover is inevitable in the NFL both on rosters and coaching staffs, and if there is one man that has the experience to handle the challenges of both it is Bill Belichick.

5. Speaking of roster turnover, another challenge awaiting the team in 2019 is free agency. All in all, 18 of the team’s players are about to hit the open market next month with three more either restricted or exclusive rights free agents. The biggest names are, of course, defensive edge Trey Flowers and offensive tackle Trent Brown — two of the team’s best players. Other players up for free agency are worth keeping an eye on as well, however, especially considering how many important role players are part of the list.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Ryan Allen are as integral a part of the team’s kicking game operation as there is — something that can also be said about coverage linebackers Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber. Jason McCourty and Malcom Brown were starters on defense in 2019, while Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett provided valuable depth at wide receiver alongside Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman.

The Patriots are entering the offseason with $18.12 million of salary cap space (according to the Boston Sports Journal’s Miguel Benzan) and could not just lose top-tier talent like Flowers and Brown to the open market but also some valuable depth pieces. Add tight end Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty as possible players riding off into the sunset — Gronkowski more likely than McCourty — and you could see a drastically different New England team when it starts its offseason workout program on April 15.

6. That all being said, if history has taught us one thing it is that New England is better than any other organization in the NFL at adapting to different personnel both on and off the field. As challenging of a year 2019 might be from the current perspective, it is more probable than not that the reigning world champions will be among the league’s best teams yet again next season. They still have key personnel like Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and Dante Scarencchia, and Nick Caserio.

7a. Going back to the list of free agents to be: Chris Hogan in particular is an interesting case. He started the year as the number one wide receiver and was “relegated” to the number three role when Edelman returned off his four-game suspension and Josh Gordon was acquired via trade. Hogan moved into the number two spot again following Gordon’s departure and held onto the spot throughout the rest of the season and the playoffs. However, he finished the postseason with just eight catches for 58 yards and was kept without a reception in the Super Bowl despite six targets.

What speaks for the 30-year old is his experience in the Patriots’ system and with quarterback Tom Brady, as well as his contributions on special teams (he played around one third of kicking game snaps in 2018). The Patriots will not break the bank to keep Hogan around, but they might value him more than other teams — except maybe the Dolphins, who have hired two of New England’s offensive assistants to their staff and might be willing to bring the veteran on board.

7b. Another player to keep an eye on as free agency approaches is running back Jeremy Hill. The 26-year old tore his ACL in his first game with the Patriots and after touching the football only five times. New England had big plans for the former Cincinnati Bengals second-round draft pick, and it will be interesting to see if the team gives him another shot to serve as depth behind outstanding rookie Sony Michel and alongside James White and Rex Burkhead (two different types of backs than both Hill and Michel).

8a. A personal note to end this piece: thank you all for following Pats Pulpit in 2018! We want to bring you the best Patriots coverage there is and a viable alternative to other outlets, something that would not be possible without a) you supporting us by visiting the site and listening to our podcasts and b) everyone on our staff doing a tremendous job (seriously, I can’t say enough about every single person on the team). Whether you write, edit, moderate, comment, or just visit, you all are the real MVPs — which in this case can very well stand for Most Valuable Pulpiteers. Thank you!

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