The New England Patriots just won a Super Bowl with 39-year-old Tom Brady under center and arguably their biggest receiving threat, Rob Gronkowski, on the shelf. They did so despite the Atlanta Falcons holding a 25-point lead at one point, thus arguably achieving the greatest single-game championship comeback of all time. Thanks in large part, of course, to arguably the biggest single-game championship collapse of all time.
And on paper, they’re only getting better. No, really.
So how are they getting better? And why does it appear as though they’re going all-in ahead of next season? There are a couple of reasons.
On one hand Tom Brady, despite his best wishes, cannot (and will not) play forever. He definitely will next season, but how about the one after that? It’s tough to guarantee. Especially once you consider how much the Patriots are reportedly asking for in any potential Jimmy Garoppolo trade. The key takeaway:
“One person said, ‘if they’ve got 4 1’s, they wouldn’t trade him.‘”
Four first-rounders? You wouldn’t consider accepting four first-round picks for a backup quarterback who’s thrown all of 94 NFL passes? Perhaps this is a classic case of GM speak. But remember, there is nobody who evaluates talent quite like Bill Belichick these days. Maybe four first-rounders isn’t worth letting Garoppolo leave. It could just be that New England truly believes Garoppolo is the heir to Brady.
After all, he only just turned 25 years old and has handled himself quite well, admittedly in limited action. Plus, there’s arguably no franchise in football more stable than the Patriots. Why would he want to leave?
Then again, if someone were desperate enough to offer four or more first-round draft picks, how could New England turn that away? (See reasoning above.) Either way, their moves this past week suggest that not only are the Patriots building to remain a powerhouse now, they are also adding pieces in preparation for the inevitable departure of Tom Brady.
First, the big one. Well, one of the bigger ones. On Day 1, the Patriots signed five-year veteran (and 2016 Pro Bowl selection) Stephon Gilmore, the tenth overall pick (Buffalo) of the 2012 draft. For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus ranked Gilmore as the top corner of the 2017 free agent class. This, despite the fact that he actually graded out lower than eight of the other nine names on their list last season. The reasoning?
“He has 48 combined interceptions and pass breakups since entering the league in 2012, tied for ninth-most. He allows a few too many big plays to be an elite cornerback, but the good plays he makes against the competition he faces far outweigh the bad. While he earned a lower grade in the 2016 season than most other CBs on this list, his larger body of work elevates him to the top of the ranking.”
So while the Patriots typically don’t splash the cash on Day 1 of free agency, they’ve never been afraid to spend on corners either. And spend they did, signing Gilmore to a five-year pact worth up to $65 million ($40 million guaranteed). But they weren’t done there.
Brandin Cooks, the 20th overall selection (New Orleans) of the 2014 draft, is pretty good. In his previous two seasons, and with Drew Brees throwing him the football, Cooks averaged 81 catches for 1,156 yards and racked up 17 touchdowns. Now, after New England sent their first- and third-round selections to New Orleans on Saturday, he gets to catch passes from Brady. By the way, Cooks doesn’t even turn 24 until September.
Brady and the Patriots’ system has already helped elevate the performances of both Edelman and Chris Hogan, among countless others. Can you imagine what they can do with an established, fringe-superstar wideout? Have fun with that one, AFC.
Green Bay Finds Their Tight End In Martellus Bennett
Look, for the past 15-plus years, the Patriots have been an outlier. They’ve been an outlier since defeating the St. Louis Rams all the way back in Super Bowl XXXVI. Comparing any team’s future successes or failures to those of New England’s since 2001 is a truly pointless exercise. They’ve won five Super Bowls over that stretch, and if not for some extraordinary luck that went in the New York Giants’ favor, probably would have won two more.
But hey, shtick happens—Julian Edelman’s catch in Super Bowl LI is recent proof of that.
So while it’s entirely fair to suggest the Packers should have more rings with Aaron Rodgers under center, it’s never a guarantee. And I get it. Ted Thompson being consistently passive every offseason, particularly when Green Bay has been so close so often, can get awfully frustrating. But it’s far more complex than that. It really is.
There are so many uncontrollable variables from week to week—from game to game even—that one cannot simply assume the best team on paper will always win. It is entirely naive to subscribe to that belief. And it just does not happen. The Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer under center. Eli Manning, inferior to his brother Peyton in every conceivable way as a quarterback, has just as many rings (2). That’s one more than Hall of Famer Brett Favre, two more than Dan Marino, and as many as John Elway—who won each of his in consecutive seasons at the end of his career.
With Favre under center, the Packers reached the Super Bowl twice but only came away with one title. During Rodgers’ tenure, they’ve made just one (and won it). Maybe they should have more, and there are very reasonable arguments to be made in that regard, but there are also no guarantees.
Did Thompson not signing someone cause them to go 15-1 in 2011, only to be steamrolled 37-20 by the Giants—who went on to defeat New England—at Lambeau Field in the divisional round? Of course not. Did Thompson not signing someone cause Julius Peppers to tell Morgan Burnett to slide after Russell Wilson’s fourth interception in the 2014 NFC Championship game against Seattle when he had nothing but green grass in front of him? Or, cause Green Bay to blow a 19-7 lead with just over five minutes to go? Or, force tight end Brandon Bostick to ignore his assignment on special teams and instead fumble the onside kick? Absolutely not. One more—Is Thompson’s consistent lack of offseason action the reason Head Coach Mike McCarthy often gets so conservative in games when Green Bay has no reason to take their collective foot off the gas? Not so much.
Now, addressing depth is necessary. Factoring in the potential for injuries, to a certain extent at least, is also imperative. Packers fans would learn this again in 2015, despite being just an overtime period away from another NFC title game.
But again, there are some moves that need to be made. There are some positions that, in the Packers offense especially, cannot be ignored. One such position is the tight end. We’ve seen how dangerous Green Bay’s offense could be when they had a healthy Jermichael Finley—a large, athletic tight end capable of stretching the field. We saw how they struggled to stretch the field when Richard Rodgers was their primary tight end target. A red zone threat? Yes. The ability to win a jump ball? Absolutely. But having the ability to stretch the field and draw defenders? Nope.
Jared Cook, when healthy, provided that for Aaron Rodgers last season. He was a big reason for their turnaround after starting 4-6, which became abundantly clear over the course of Green Bay’s playoff run. So when contract talks broke off between Green Bay and Cook on Friday, Packers fans lost their collective mind. In a way, it was almost understandable to see why. Given Thompson’s track record, there was little optimism that he was going to sign someone else. Factoring in how deep the draft class is at that position this year all but assured them nothing would happen.
And then things changed. Suddenly, the Packers had signed Martellus Bennett to a three-year pact worth up to $21 million ($7.2 million guaranteed). Bennett just turned 30, is only one month older than Cook, and is much better than him in quite literally every way. His previous five seasons are better than Cook’s best ever (2011). Plus, Cook’s career catch rate is roughly 59 percent compared to Bennett’s (67 percent). In their previous three seasons, Cook has caught 54.4 percent of the passes thrown his way while Bennett has caught 70.6 percent. And now he goes from catching passes from Tom Brady to catching them from Aaron Rodgers. He’ll be just fine.
So while Ted Thompson, despite re-signing linebacker Nick Perry and adding Bennett, still has some work to do—letting J.C. Tretter and T.J. Lang walk would be a big mistake, in my opinion, and then there’s the story of the defense—let’s all take a collective breath. As I’m writing this, free agency isn’t even 48 hours old.
Just don’t get accustomed to Ted signing all of the players now. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you just might be disappointed.
Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference