As legendary professional wrestler Ric Flair would say: “to be the man, you gotta beat the man.” And so far, there’s nobody that can “be the man” in the AFC, because there seems to be nobody who can beat the current “man” of the New England Patriots.
New England’s offense is built on a foundation of two of the best players at their position in the NFL, and a myriad of players around them that embody head coach Bill Belichick’s mantra of “do your job.”
Quarterback: Another year, another MVP trophy for the NFL’s GOAT — greatest of all time — at quarterback in Tom Brady. In 2017, Brady led the NFL in passing yards (4,577), finished second in touchdown passes (32), and had the third-highest passer rating (102.8). And he did all of this while averaging the fifth-highest yards per attempt (7.88) in the NFL as well. The irony of all of that, at times, you could see the signs of Brady’s age. While he remains in exceptional shape due to his “TB12” training method, you can’t escape the fact that Brady will be 41 years old when the season starts. To put his age in perspective: Brady was a freshman at the University of Michigan before Sam Darnold, the second quarterback taken in the 2018 NFL Draft, was even born. But even at this age, bet against Brady at your own risk. There is little reason to believe he isn’t a top three fantasy quarterback this year.
Running Back: At some level, you can thank the New England Patriots for the recent trend of specialization and interchangeability we’re seeing at the running back position. The Patriots have traditionally carried a flock of running backs, utilizing them as part of their always-changing game plans. This year looks no different. While the loss of Dion Lewis, a powerful weapon for Brady to use out of the backfield, will certainly hurt; he accounted for over 1100 yards of offense on 210 touches. However, New England still has plenty of weapons to choose from. Rex Burkhead and James White will likely split up a few of the reps that they lost from Lewis, while running back Sony Michel, whom the team selected with a first round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, will likely be looked upon to fill that multi-talented weapon role. New England also signed former Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill to be their first and second down “banger,” but how much Hill has left to contribute remains to be seen.
Wide Receiver: Even with a couple of new faces added to the group, New England will largely have the same group of guys from last year at wide receiver, save for one notable exception. The team was content to trade away wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who had 1082 yards on 65 catches last year, with a team-high 16.6 yards per reception. Who’s going to take his place? That’s a great question. Chris Hogan is a fantastic and reliable possession receiver, but he’s no Cooks. The team signed former Buffalo and Philadelphia wide receiver Jordan Matthews in the offseason, but think of him as more of a replacement for the departed Danny Amendola (Matthews is best suited as a slot receiver). Cordarrelle Patterson is more of a “gadget” player who’ll be used on special teams. One other major question will be around when wide receiver Julian Edelman returns to the field. He missed all of 2017 after tearing his ACL in the preseason last year, and was suspended four games to start 2018 due to a drug-related issue (which he’s appealing).
Tight End: Say what you want about his persona off the field, but when Rob Gronkowski is healthy and in the Patriots lineup, it changes everything. In only 14 games last year, Gronkowski led the NFL in receiving yards among tight ends (1,084), had the most catches of over 20 yards among tight ends (18), and finished second in touchdown catches by a tight end (eight). Now here’s what’s even more interesting: Gronkowski enters the 2018 season mostly healthy, as opposed to most years when he’s recovering from an injury. That could translate into even bigger production for him this year.