NOT THE SAME OLD STORY
When the Patriots delivered their first Lombardi Trophy in 10 years, it was the veterans who led them. There was Tom Brady's usual brilliance, especially in the second half of Super Bowl XLIX. On the lines, New England would have come up short if then-33-year-old Vince Wilfork hadn't plugged the run and if 32-year-old Dan Connolly hadn't stabilized the left guard position. If press-man specialists Darrelle Revis, 29, and Brandon Browner, 30, had signed elsewhere in free agency, the Patriots would not have been able to play the types of coverages that made everyone—especially safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Jamie Collins—better.
But if New England is to become the first repeat champion in 11 years, the team's emerging young stars will have to do more of the heavy lifting. Nowhere will there be more shuffling than in the secondary. Revis, who went back to the Jets, was a steal for the $12 million the Patriots paid for his lone season of service. Once the physical, lengthy Browner returned to the lineup in Week 7, New England was free to basically play with one deep safety. That freed up Collins and Chung to play man-for-man, which accentuated their strengths.
With Revis, Browner (Saints) and third corner Kyle Arrington (Ravens) having moved on, it will be up to Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and one of two reclamation projects—Bradley Fletcher or Tarell Brown—to pick up the enormous slack. Butler had a terrific training camp, using his speed and burst to make life difficult for Brady. Ryan was steady but unspectacular. Brown was the better of the veterans, and the Patriots have a strong track record of not asking players to do more than they're capable of. At safety, Harmon and second-round pick Jordan Richards (Stanford) could see increased reps if the Pats need to play more with two deep men, which is not Chung's strength.
A green secondary will look a lot better if New England's front seven delivers the kind of pressure that, on paper, it should. It's time for 2012 first-round pick Chandler Jones, who's rangy and explosive, to become a dominating every-down pass rusher at end. Free-agent pickup Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland's second-round pick in '11, will bring pressure on the other side, rotating with Rob Ninkovich. Tackle Dominique Easley, a first-round pick in '14, didn't contribute much as a rookie, but he has an explosive first step that will be a challenge for any blocking scheme. Alongside Easley, the Patriots are hoping Malcolm Brown, a first-round pick out of Texas, can help fill Wilfork's void as a strong inside presence.
The glue of the front seven is the linebacking tandem of Collins and Dont'a Hightower, who emerged last season as disruptive playmakers. Collins, an athletic freak, put his immense tools to work once Revis and Browner locked down the man coverage, and he finished the season with four sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions. He's tough to block on blitzes, and his length in coverage bothers QBs. Hightower, meanwhile, made most people forget about Jerod Mayo (right knee) after assuming his middle 'backer role in Week 7. Hightower was steady against the run, but his six sacks took the position to another level. With Mayo back to health, his run-stopping strength allows the Patriots to turn Hightower and Collins—both natural pass rushers—loose even more often.
Offensively, the line will again be a focal point after a near-disaster start in 2014, when the Patriots began 2--2. The tide turned when the lineup of Nate Solder, Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer first played together, in Week 5, and New England won 13 of its last 15 games. Stork, tough and heady, was a revelation as a rookie center and looks as if he'll be a fixture for years. But with Connolly retired, you may see fourth-round pick Tre' Jackson (Florida State) start at guard.
The passing offense will come together as soon as Brady returns from suspension, whenever that is (his Deflategate ban remained unresolved as of Monday), and will feature old standbys Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, plus late-camp signee Reggie Wayne alongside hulking tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler, snagged from the Bills in free agency. Expect New England to operate through the Gronk-Chandler twin towers plenty in the red zone.
The Patriots, seemingly as in every other season, will be in contention for the Super Bowl. How their young guns develop on both sides of the ball will determine whether they can repeat.
SI'S PREDICTION: 12--4
ANDY BENOIT ON THE PATRIOTS' BIG WEAK SPOT
There's no way the Patriots would have won the Super Bowl last February without the cornerbacks they had. That started with the game's best player at the position, Darrelle Revis. He was stifling in man-to-man. That afforded coach Bill Belichick more freedom and aggression in the deployment of his other corners, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington. But now all three are gone. New England's top corner entering 2015 is Malcolm Butler (above), who overachieved as an undrafted rookie, but who also went undrafted for a reason. Don't expect Butler to assume Revis's Cover Zero--man duties. In fact, don't expect this unit to play much man coverage at all. The Pats' next best corner, Logan Ryan, has been benched multiple times. Behind him, newcomers Bradley Fletcher (formerly of the Eagles), Tarell Brown (Raiders) and Robert McClain (Falcons) were all dumped by other teams. This, frankly, is one of the NFL's worst cornerback groups. And, in turn, a light now gets shined on the fact that New England's pass rush isn't particularly strong. That group got to the quarterback last season, but often on the strength of man coverage that held up for insane amounts of time. This year, man coverage is no longer an every-down option.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
LB Jamie Collins