2017 NFL Preview: After another title, the Patriots seem to want perfection

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

When Bill Belichick awkwardly started a “No days off!” chant at the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl parade, it seemed like just another sticky catchphrase. We found out Belichick was serious.

We can speculate the reasons why Belichick and the Patriots attacked the offseason with such aggression. Perhaps Belichick knows Tom Brady’s time is running out. Maybe he has retirement plans of his own we don’t know about yet. It’s more likely he simply realized he had the best team in football and there were paths, thanks to a surprising amount of salary-cap room, to put his foot on the gas. Whatever was behind it, the Patriots let the rest of the NFL know they plan to repeat. There will be no letting up. No days off.

The Patriots traded for receiver Brandin Cooks, a dynamic playmaker. They signed top cornerback Stephon Gilmore. They re-signed linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and scooped up veteran linebacker David Harris when the Jets cut him. They traded for defensive end Kony Ealy and tight end Dwayne Allen. They signed restricted free-agent running back Mike Gillislee away from the Buffalo Bills, and unrestricted free agent running back Rex Burkhead. They ended up not trading cornerback Malcolm Butler or quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after a lot of speculation. New England is absolutely loaded. The Patriots’ backups might be able to beat the New York Jets. That’s not a joke.

The Patriots went 14-1 after Brady returned from suspension last season. They won 11 of those games by double digits. The only loss came when a pass to Rob Gronkowski from the 1-yard line fell incomplete on the final play against the Seattle Seahawks. The one time the Patriots played poorly with Brady, it lasted three-and-a-half quarters and then they staged the greatest comeback win in Super Bowl history.

And that team, which would have been 15-0 with Brady had they punched in one of four chances from the 1- or 2-yard line at the end against Seattle, got significantly better this offseason. It’s not even fair.

If Brady hasn’t hit the wall, Rob Gronkowski is healthy, the new additions fit the system well and there aren’t a ton of injuries or anything else unforeseen, the Patriots have the chance to be one of the greatest teams the league has ever seen. The 19-0 talk has already started, and it’s not entirely out of line. Las Vegas posts early lines on all NFL games through Week 16, and the Patriots are favored in every one of their games. It’s fun to argue who the greatest teams in NFL history are, and the Patriots have a few candidates: 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2016. The 2017 version might be the best Patriots team we’ve seen, and that’s saying something. At least they look that way on paper.

The Patriots, with this unbelievable 16-year run, have already stamped themselves as perhaps the greatest dynasty ever. They have won at least 10 games 15 of the last 16 years, won 14 AFC East titles including eight in a row (it’s 13 in a row for seasons Brady wasn’t injured), seven conference championships and five Super Bowls. And there’s a real chance this will be their best season yet.

Tom Brady has a shot at a sixth Super Bowl title this season. (AP)

The Patriots lost some key pieces but replaced all of them, sometimes with an upgrade. Tight end Martellus Bennett left in free agency, and he’s probably a little better than replacement Dwayne Allen, but Allen is capable. LeGarrette Blount left too, but clearly the Patriots think Mike Gillislee is better. Cornerback Logan Ryan left, but Stephon Gilmore should be better. Jabaal Sheard departed, but Kony Ealy can replace him. One thing the Patriots seem to have figured out before anyone else is that trading picks for players is generally smart. As I asked in the Saints preview, would you rather have Cooks or offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who New Orleans took with the pick acquired in the trade? Right, I thought so. With a flurry of moves, this is the most forceful offseason statement we’ve seen a defending champion make in a long time. Grade: A

If you want to find some fault with the Patriots, it’s that their defense was very good but not dominant last season. They could end up being better this season. Despite a lot of chatter about trading Malcolm Butler, they didn’t move him and now he and Stephon Gilmore are perhaps the best cornerback duo in the NFL. New pieces in the front seven like linebacker David Harris and linemen Kony Ealy and Lawrence Guy will fit in fine. Even rookie defensive end Derek Rivers looks like a third-round steal. New England’s defense wasn’t bad last season. The Patriots tied for eighth in the NFL in yards allowed per play. They were by far the leader in points allowed at 15.6 points per game, 2.2 points per game better than the second-place New York Giants, though an efficient offense that controls possession helps with that. The Patriots defense was pretty good last season, and it seems like that group could improve.

This offseason I saw writers claim the Patriots didn’t have enough height at receiver, and that the team was taking a “big risk” with their depth at guard. Those things could be true, but when we’re digging that deep it’s clear this team has no weakness worth losing sleep over. Any other team would love for their biggest problem to be a lack of height at receiver.

There is one thing that could derail the Patriots, and I’ll probably write about it every year until it happens. There is practically no history of 40-year-old quarterbacks playing well, aside from one Brett Favre season. Among 40-year-old quarterbacks who have started at least nine games in a season, only two have posted a passer rating above 76: Favre (107.2 in 2009) and Warren Moon (83.7 in 1997). Not many quarterbacks have even reached that threshold, because most of them hang it up long before 40. At some point Tom Brady will hit the wall. I can’t believe the quarterback who was nearly perfect against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game last season and had 466 yards in a miraculous Super Bowl comeback against the Atlanta Falcons is close to the end. He was one of the three best quarterbacks in football last season, and arguably the best. But nobody plays forever. When does the decline come for Brady?

The Patriots were dominant last season, nearly winning all 15 games after Tom Brady’s suspension. Oh, and they did that with tight end Rob Gronkowski being healthy for practically five games. In those five games, Gronkowski had 529 yards. For the season he averaged 21.6 yards per catch, which is unbelievable for anyone, much less a 265-pound tight end. Since 1990, only eight receivers have averaged more yards per reception in a season. The problem with Gronkowski is he takes a beating and it’s hard to depend on him being healthy for 16 games. Gronkowski is coming off another back surgery, and that’s scary. But if the most dominant tight end ever can stay healthy through even most of this season? I’m not sure how you’d stop this offense.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “At first glance, the Patriots backfield might look overloaded, but the key is to strike Dion Lewis from the photo. Consider that the Pats extended Super Bowl hero James White (who was the No. 22 PPR back after Tom Brady returned; hat tip Evan Silva), and also acquired Mike Gillislee (a lighter but more dynamic version of LeGarrette Blount) and Rex Burkhead (a personal favorite of Bill Belichick). Indirectly, the Pats are telling you something about Lewis. I’ll sign off on Gillislee around the sixth round — even without any passing chops — and view White as a reasonable flex option in PPR formats. Burkhead is your Hail Mary lottery ticket, albeit an injury or slump ahead of him would significantly help. As for Lewis, the silent dots to connect make it seem like the team isn’t confident in his health or potential forward. He’s not on my draft board.” 

[Pressing Questions: Fantasy outlook on the Patriots]

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Here are the career highs in catches for the Patriots’ main skill-position players: Julian Edelman (105), Rob Gronkowski (90), Danny Amendola (85), Brandin Cooks (84), James White (60), Dwayne Allen (45), Chris Hogan (41), Dion Lewis (36), Malcolm Mitchell (32). That’s amazing depth. And Lewis, Hogan and Mitchell each took turns playing huge roles in the Patriots’ three playoff games last season. You could look at that collection of skill-position players (Mike Gillislee isn’t much of a threat out of the backfield but he’ll get his touches as New England’s best runner) and wonder if there are enough balls to go around. But the Patriots generally do a good job keeping complaints about touches in check. Really, it’s incredible Tom Brady has this many dangerous targets at his disposal.

WHY DIDN’T THE PATRIOTS TRADE JIMMY GAROPPOLO?

This question has fascinated me all offseason. The standard move would have been to trade Garoppolo. Presumably they could have gotten a good pick for him. But the Patriots rarely do anything by the book.

Gushing about Garoppolo’s hidden greatness (and I still wonder if we’re repeating the same Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer mistake and overrating another Tom Brady backup) is practically irrelevant because his contract is up after the season and unless Brady slows down significantly this season he’s going to be their quarterback in 2018. (He will be, right? Hmmm … ) Even if you’re positive Garoppolo is the next great one, you have to answer this question: What will the Patriots do next March when Garoppolo becomes a free agent? Since the Patriots will probably never give the real reason they didn’t trade their talented backup quarterback, it’s fun to speculate. Here are the reasonable explanations I came up with:

They plan to offer Garoppolo a long-term deal to be Brady’s backup: We’ve seen Brock Osweiler get $18 million a year and Mike Glennon get $15 million a year the past two offseasons. Garoppolo could get at least that on the open market and have a chance to start. I don’t see any way he’d agree to a new Patriots deal – even a large one – if Brady’s still around. You have to assume he wants to play, and he’ll get paid either way.

They plan to franchise-tag Garoppolo: The franchise tag for quarterbacks this year was almost $20 million for one season. It seems insane to think the Patriots would pay Brady’s backup that much. Maybe they see a value in it, but this would be an odd plan.

They’re all in for this season and don’t care if Garoppolo walks in March: It makes sense. Look at how they went about the offseason; it’s all about winning in 2017. They might worry about a dream season being ruined by a fluke injury to Brady. In that sense, it might be worth passing on a first-round pick to keep Garoppolo for insurance.

They are worried about Brady hitting a wall and it’s worth keeping Garoppolo around just in case: Reasonable as well. Go back and re-read the part about the history of 40-year-old quarterbacks.

They plan to part ways with Brady and turn it over to Garoppolo after the season, no matter what: Now we’re cooking with gas. As crazy as trading or cutting the greatest quarterback ever sounds, every move the Patriots have made also fits with this theory. They’ve loaded up for a huge (final?) run with Brady this season. They reportedly never seriously considered trading Garoppolo, even though they have to know it would be bananas to franchise him and he presumably wouldn’t accept a long-term deal to keep sitting on the bench. Also, Brady has suffered only one injury that has caused him to miss any games in his 17-season career. Keeping Garoppolo around for insurance might turn out to be smart, but if that’s the reason it’s an incredibly safe move from an organization that’s not risk averse. Time after time Belichick has made bottom-line, cold-blooded calculations to move on from veterans, and none of them were 40 years old. Would Belichick do the same with Brady, who has meant more to his success as a coach than anyone else? I don’t think he’s that heartless … but maybe he is. When you look at this possibility, that the Patriots aren’t planning on Brady being their quarterback in 2018, all of the other pieces fit in place. Just saying.

Many chuckled and rolled their eyes a bit when USA Today predicted the Patriots to go 19-0 this season. Picking the Patriots for a perfect season seems crazy … except that it might not be that crazy. I can’t sit here and predict any NFL team to run the table. It’s a tremendous challenge to win 16 NFL games in a row and then three more in the playoffs. And after what happened in 2007, I’m not sure the Patriots would even go for 16-0 in the regular season again. But this team has the talent to make a run like that (and the fifth easiest schedule in the NFL, according to analyst Warren Sharp). The Patriots might not go 19-0 but there won’t be many losses. And yes, there’s a chance they could go 19-0.

I can’t tell you any realistic scenario that includes the Patriots not winning the AFC East. The Patriots could take on injuries to their starters at quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end and still be better than the other three teams in the division thanks to their depth. But after winning two of the last three Super Bowls and loading up for another championship run, anything less than winning another Lombardi Trophy would be considered a failure. It’s tough to go into a season with expectations like that, but this is New England we’re talking about.

There will be many rankings and Super Bowl predictions from now until Sept. 7, when the Patriots kick off the NFL season against the Kansas City Chiefs. Anyone who picks someone other than New England in the top spot is trying too hard to be different, or hates the Patriots. You can’t make a good argument for placing any team ahead of the Patriots. New England might not win it all, because funny things can happen in a competitive league with a single-elimination playoff format. But the Patriots are the best team coming into the season, and it’s not close. If they don’t win another Super Bowl, it’s going to be a surprise.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos
11. Tennessee Titans
10. Carolina Panthers
9. Oakland Raiders
8. Kansas City Chiefs
7. New York Giants
6. Seattle Seahawks
5. Dallas Cowboys
4. Green Bay Packers
3. Atlanta Falcons
2. Pittsburgh Steelers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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