New England Patriots: 2019 season comes with small margin for error

The Patriots are in a small group of clear Super Bowl contenders heading into 2019. This time, however, there is less room for error than in previous constructions of the team.

New England is looking to become the first repeat champions since themselves. While it is another year of Super Bowl or bust in Foxborough, the Patriots enter 2019 with a smaller margin for error than in years past.

Look, we’re going to warn you. If the thought of reading an article where the premise could be spun as “New England has a smaller chance than usual of winning the Super Bowl this year,” makes you want to yell, well, this might not be the article for you.

If on the other hand, you are somewhat curious as to how all the changes in New England affect their chances of repeating as champions, then we truly hope you enjoy what lies ahead. It’s easy to mesh the last 20 Patriot seasons together. Bill Belichick has been in New England the whole time, while Tom Brady missed the 2008 season but otherwise has also been there the whole time. The expectation every single year for New England is Super Bowl or bust.

This group is different. The Rob Gronkowski era is over. In fact, the Patriots somewhat punted on the tight end position for 2019. For the team that made 12 personnel in vogue earlier in the decade, it is going to be bizarre watching the position be far from a focal point of the offense on a weekly basis.

The Josh Gordon reinstatement is highly valuable to this roster. However, behind him, New England has a lot of question marks at the receiver position. Gordon may cover them up for now, but it is wise to expect he misses some games, if not a whole swath of them until the counterfactual occurs.

The defensive front seven has many newcomers (albeit one of them is a familiar face), and how the arrest of Patrick Chung will impact 2019 is not yet known. The defense itself looks to be a sound unit, but it isn’t a guarantee. The Patriots appear to be lacking a substantial pass rush, despite some positive signs in the preseason. Defensive performance year-over-year is also not as consistent as offensive performance. Furthermore, the defense is built on the back of the secondary, and pass coverage performance is not as consistent year-over-year as pass-rush performance.

The minutia of the team does provide cause for pumping the breaks on New England being the favorites once again in the AFC. Of course, it can be tiresome to read an article about how swapping out Trey Flowers for Michael Bennett is most likely a slight downgrade and therefore the Patriots lost x-tenth of a percentage off their probability to hoist a seventh Lombardi Trophy.

Luckily, since you’ve made it this far, you’re interested in the granular. So without further filibustering, here is our outlook on the 2019 New England Patriots.

Offense

As stated above, offensive performance is more consistent on an annual basis. From FootballOutsiders:

From countless studies on this website, we have observed that offense has better year-to-year correlation than defense. A lot of this has to do with the consistency of the quarterback and his importance on making passing plays a success, as well as the fact that offenses run designed plays while most defenses are just reactionary units. Any of the 11 defenders can rise to the occasion to make the play a successful stop. It is easier for a quarterback to consistently get rid of the ball a certain percentage of the time — this speaks to his playing style — than it is for the defense’s pass rush to match last year’s success. Maybe last year’s schedule was heavy on scramblers and inexperienced guys who like to hold the ball while this year is filled with quick-thinking pocket passers. Meanwhile, your offense’s quarterback, health willing, is the same style of player for all 16 games. His accuracy is a repeatable skill, which is why we see decent correlation with stats like completion percentage and passing plus-minus. On the other side, our cornerback coverage charting numbers have wild variation from year to year even for some of the best players, because you never know when that pass is going to be overthrown to a wide-open receiver, or when Odell Beckham will just flat-out drop a touchdown against Josh Norman.

Not only does the data prove this notion, but it intuitively makes sense. While defense is reactionary, the quarterback is in control. If you have a quality starting QB, then year in and year out your offense has a certain floor, with the surrounding talent determining the ceiling.

Passing

Luckily for New England, they have Brady. Entering his age 42 season, he appears to forever be winning his battle against father time. There aren’t signs he is slowing down, as he ranked in the top ten in all five major advanced quarterback metrics last year:

Stat DYAR DVOA QBR PFF Grade ANY/A
QB Rank 8th 7th 6th 4th 8th

In 2018, the Patriots finished 5th in offensive DVOA. The year before that? 1st. Before that? 2nd. Before that? 5th. We could do this all day, but you get the point.

So the question is if offensive performance is consistent from year to year, and New England is always a top-five offense, why are we even bothering to say there might be a drop off on this side of the ball?

For one thing, Brady is 42. While the idea quarterbacks fall off a cliff without warning is an unsubstantiated narrative, there is no historical precedent for what Brady is doing this far into his career. There is no “best” way to project how he will fare in 2019. For what it’s worth, he looked perfectly fine in week three of the preseason against the Panthers with the B-squad receivers.

Speaking of those receivers, uncertainty looms. While Gordon fixes a lot of issues this offense was facing heading into the year, he cannot be relied upon to play 16, or 19, games. It should be assumed that at any given moment, Gordon could suddenly be completely out of the picture. That is exactly what happened in 2018.

Meanwhile, Julian Edelman is 33 years old and easily is the receiver with which Brady has the most chemistry. While Gordon is on the field, defenses will have to account for him, and won’t be able to make Edelman a sole priority in the passing game. The same was true last season with Gronkowski on the field, despite his diminished impact.

Should Gordon suddenly be unavailable, it is open season for defenses to key in on Edelman. This is a bit of a conflicting area. Without Gronkowski, Edelman has historically seen a spike in production, due to an increase in volume:

Dating back three seasons, Edelman averaged 6.9 catches on a whopping 11.4 targets for 90.1 yards in games in which Gronkowski did not play.

Edelman’s averages with Gronkowski on the field dipped quite a bit: 6.1 receptions on 8.8 targets for 71.3 yards.

Over a 16-game schedule, Edelman’s numbers without Gronk translate to 110 receptions on 182 targets for 1,442 yards. That would put him among the league leaders in all three categories.

While the extra targets decreased Edelman’s efficiency, Brady clearly targeted Edelman further downfield when Gronkowski wasn’t playing. Is Edelman capable of handling the workload of 182 targets? Last year Julio Jones led the NFL with 170 targets. The year before that DeAndre Hopkins was the league’s target leader with 176. Mike Evans led the way in 2016 with 175 targets.

Pro-Football-Reference has target data dating back to 1992, and since then there are 17 instances of a player receiving 182 or more targets in a single season. The odds are New England doesn’t want to put Edelman’s body through that much punishment during the regular season. The Patriots practice the NFL’s equivalent of “load management” more than any other team when it comes to positions outside of running back. The team is aware Edelman can’t withstand such a beating, so they won’t allow it to happen. It’s the same thing they did when limiting Danny Amendola‘s regular-season reps in order to keep him healthy for the postseason.

Amendola, and others, may have also been a factor as to why Edelman’s production jumped without Gronkowski. Receivers like Amendola, Chris Hogan, and in 2016 TE Martellus Bennett all required defensive attention of their own. Yes, James White will garner attention and another 2016 commonality is Phillip Dorsett, but are we really going to sit here and try to convince ourselves the current arsenal of weapons is as talented as prior iterations of the Patriots roster?

No, we’re not. It’s not a coincidence the above paragraph makes multiple references to 2016. New England got eight regular-season games from Gronkowski that year, and he missed the entire postseason. The Patriots also won the Super Bowl in 2016.

So it is a decent precedent for how Edelman performed without Gronkowski when he needed to be the alpha. He did see 159 targets in 2016 and played in all 19 games. He was also three years younger. More recently, he played in the 15 games (including the postseason) in which he was eligible to do so in 2018, despite again being the alpha. In 12 regular-season games, Edelman saw 108 targets come his way, snagging 74 for them for 850 yards and 6 touchdowns. Those numbers over a 16 game slate come out to 144 targets, 98.66 receptions, 1,133.33 yards, and 8 touchdowns.

So, yes, while in the past two seasons in which Edelman played, he has averaged 151.5 targets, 98.33 receptions, 1,119.66 yards, and 5.5 touchdowns over a 16 game pace, there are important differences to keep in mind. First, 151 targets significantly less than 182 targets. Second, Edelman missed all of 2017 due to a torn ACL and the first four games of 2018 due to suspension. While he matter-of-factly recovered well from his ACL injury, his body was fresh in that he hadn’t played full-contact football in over a year upon his 2018 return.

Most importantly, we need to circle back to the original premise. The margin for error is lower this season in New England. When Gronkowski went down in 2016, the Patriots trotted out Edelman, Amendola, White, Hogan, Dorsett, Bennett, and Dion Lewis as if losing the greatest TE in league history didn’t even matter.

In 2019, if Gordon or Edelman miss time for whatever the reason may be, it will be a massive blow to the offense. If they both are out, then it will be cataclysmic. For all the positive buzz Jakobi Meyers has earned himself this preseason, if the Patriots are rolling him out as their best weapon in the passing game, the team is looking at 2012-2013 all over again.

Rushing

Of course, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about how the Patriots want to transition to a power run team as Brady ages into his twilight years. They ran their way through the Chargers and past the Rams en route to winning Super Bowl LIII last season. They recently invested a first-round pick and a third-round pick in the running back position in back to backdrafts. After years of picking up late-round or undrafted running backs and turning them into every week contributors, proving running backs can be found anywhere, New England started investing premium draft capital into the position.

So how is that going? Well, Sony Michel is the guy that powered the Patriots through the Chargers and past the Rams. In the team’s three playoff games last year, Michel totaled 336 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns.

Between the regular season and playoffs last year, Michel appeared in 16 games. His total stat line was 1,267 yards and 12 touchdowns. Only Todd Gurley hit both those marks during the regular season in 2018.

New England finished 2018 ranked 9th in rushing DVOA. They ranked 3rd in rush attempts during the regular season, while they tied for 11th in pass attempts. They still threw more than they ran, as they passed 574 times to 478 rushing plays. Yet that gap figures to close a little bit more in 2019. The Patriots have a deep stable of running backs, all of which bring a variety of skills to the position.

Offensive Line

Of course, New England cannot run or throw without the five guys up front. Luckily for the team, this unit once again figures to be a strength. ProFootballFocus has this line ranked as the 6th best group headed into 2019. They were ranked 4th at the conclusion of 2018.

The Patriots figured to boast the best interior of an offensive line in the league, an interior which features the best guard duo there is. However, the sad news regarding David Andrews‘ health has brought some uncertainty into the fold. Ted Karras is a good bet to be the first man up to replace Andrews. Luckily for the Patriots, Karras has performed admirably in his opportunities over the past two seasons.

The other concern is left tackle. Isaiah Wynn appears to be the starting left tackle ahead of Week 1. Wynn is a second-year player that is coming off a torn Achilles that robbed him of his rookie season. In other words, someone that has never played an NFL down will be the left tackle for Brady.

This brings us to an important concept; offensive line play should be viewed through the prism of how bad is your worst guy, not how good any individual is. Obviously, having elite offensive lineman is a positive for any roster. But we’re talking about the weakest link theory. If one of your five lineman is so bad that the defense can constantly beat him and it disrupts the entire offense, then it doesn’t matter if Joe Thomas is your left tackle.

Point being, on paper, the Patriots should have one of the best offensive lines in football. However, if Wynn or Karras are a disaster, it doesn’t matter how good the other guys are. Now, we are talking about New England, so they will undoubtedly scheme their way out of any offensive line liability through some combination of tight end/running back chips and quick passing patterns. But to circle back again to the opening premise, the margin of error for this team is lower than in years past.

Defense

While defensive performance is more volatile on an annual basis as opposed to offensive performance, New England was at least average last year. They finished 2018 ranked 16th in defensive DVOA with a split of 13th in pass defense and 19th in run defense.

Their biggest issue was generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Last season, the Patriots tied for the second-fewest sacks in the league. They had the third-worst adjusted sack rate, behind only the Giants and Raiders

Front Seven

We have spoken about the Patriots pass rush in multiple spots before. What the team accomplished in 2016 and 2018 are outliners in this century. Since the 2000s began, the only Super Bowl champion to have an adjusted sack rate in the bottom quartile of the league is New England, and they did it twice.

While the Flowers for Bennett swap seems like a wash ostensibly, Football Outsiders has done studies that determined losing talent in free agency has a greater impact than adding talent in free agency. The obvious caveat here is that Bennett was acquired in a trade, but you get the point.

We won’t speculate on why this is the case. Quick logical items that come to mind are system familiarity and chemistry with teammates, but we have no data to back that up. Whatever the reason, even if Bennett is exactly equal to Flowers in a vacuum, the odds are Bennett won’t have as large an impact in 2019 as Flowers in 2018.

Which means the pass rush got worse, at least through this particular transaction. For a unit that already struggled, this isn’t great news. Again, circling back to the central premise, the margin for error is smaller for the Patriots in 2019.

There are some reasons to think New England can improve in this area. Chase Winovich is a leading contender for the biggest steal of the 2019 draft, and he is showing out in the preseason.

On 53 pass-rushing snaps through the first three weeks of the preseason, Winovich 12 total pressures, 8 hurries, 3 sacks, and 1 quarterback hit. That earned him a 91.6 pass-rushing grade from PFF during that span. Of all edge defenders through the first three weeks that played at least 20 pass-rushing snaps, that 91.6 grade is the third highest in the league. His pass-rush productivity metric (15.3) is tied for 6th best among all players in the preseason, again with a minimum threshold of 20 pass-rushing snaps.

The pass rush as a whole did well in the first preseason game in Detroit. Against the Lions, New England compiled 21 total pressures, 10 hurries and 9 sacks. Yes, some of this happened against third-stringers by third-stringers, but another important contributor to the festivities was Jamie Collins.

The familiar new face, Collins displayed his athleticism on his sack. All reports out of Foxborough regarding Collins are glowing. Him and Ja’Whaun Bentley are sorely needed to bolster this linebacker unit, as for years the Patriots have struggled to defender running backs in the passing game.

While this is not exclusively the responsibility of a team’s linebackers, a lot of the onus falls upon the position. As a result, we can look to FootballOutsider’s coverage vs. running backs rankings as a decent proxy for how well New England’s linebackers have performed over the past half-decade:

Year

Coverage Rank

2018

22nd

2017

22nd

2016

22nd

2015

17th

2014

27th

As illustrated above, New England has managed to reach or win the Super Bowl despite being below average covering running backs in the passing game. In fact, the one season when they were average, 2015, is the one time in the past five years where they did not represent the AFC in the season finale. Go figure.

While Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy figure to leave this group in snaps played in 2019, neither can hold up in coverage. New England has been experimenting with different front seven combinations this preseason, including machinations involving only two defenders with a hand in the dirt. It would appear that, especially in obvious passing situations, the Patriots want to get as many of their linebackers and hybrids on the field at once in order to maximize both their pass rush and coverage abilities.

The above screams, “well DUH” from a common-sense standpoint. Yes, every defense wants to maximize their pass rush and coverage abilities simultaneously. But, New England seems to want to find a way to get as many of their hybrid players on the field at the same time while having them all stand-up, so the offense doesn’t know who is rushing and who is dropping.

Secondary

As discussed when we covered the corner position, the data shows that pass coverage impacts winning more than pass rushing. This bodes well for New England as they are better in the secondary than they are upfront.

The issue is that pass coverage is not as consistent year-over-year as pass rushing. So while Stephon Gilmore was the best corner in the NFL last year, odds are he won’t be next year. New England was already an average 16th overall in defensive DVOA in 2018, buoyed by a 13th ranked pass defense. A dip in pass coverage performance would drag the Patriots’ defense down into the below-average section of the league.

Given the tight-rope walk, the offense is already performing, any dip in defensive performance would be devastating. Say it with us: the margin for error is smaller for New England in 2019.

Luckily, the Patriots have an elite trio at both corner and safety. J.C. Jackson flashed as a rookie, demonstrating an ability to be left on an island against elite receivers.

New England already had a top-five corner trio, and with the injury to Tavon Young, they should move up the rankings. If Jackson has a sophomore breakout, we could be looking at the best corner trio in football.

Unfortunately, Chung’s legal troubles create a cloudy situation at safety. Chung could end up on the Commissioner’s Exempt list, be outright cut, or not deal with any ramifications (legal, suspension) until 2020. We just don’t know as of this writing.

If everything breaks right, the secondary potential for New England is enormous. They received the second-highest coverage grade as a unit in 2018 from PFF, with an elite grade of 92.5. Only Chicago posted a better grade. Should Jackson make a second-year leap, it’s possible we’re looking at the best secondary in all of football.

Schedule

We aren’t going to bore you and go through game by game making predictions. We can do this easier than that. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the Patriots go 5-1 in the division, which accounts for their annual loss in Miami. Additionally, let’s just give the team a 7-1 home record. That gets us to 12-2 off the bat.

Could they go 6-2 at home? Sure. 8-0? Possibly. Let’s just compromise for the sake of conversation. This leaves two more games for a final record to be either 12-4, 13-3, or 14-2. This appears to be an appropriate range of outcomes for this roster. A floor of 12-4 with the upside of 14-2 if a few things go their way. This is not one of the powerhouse New England rosters of earlier in the dynasty that can conceivably go 15-1. Remember, the margin of error is smaller this time.

If Gordon misses a substantial amount of games, the floor should drop to 11-5. If Gordon and Edelman both miss time, we might be looking at an unusual 10-6 season. However, 12-4 seems like a reasonable most likely outcome given the roster and division. That should be enough to again clinch a first-round bye, given Andrew Luck‘s retirement and that one team can win the AFC West.

Season Outlook

New England should once again be in the 12-4 ballpark. The most likely scenario is they secure a first-round bye, if not the #1 seed in the conference. Given the past 20 years, it’s possible that come February 2020 the Patriots are again collecting the Lombardi Trophy.

There is uncertainty here. The weapons are different. Gronkowski is gone. Andrews will likely miss the season, left tackle is a huge question mark, and Chung is facing legal issues. Additionally, for the second straight season, the Patriots will have a change in defensive coordinator. Belichick figures to assume these duties for 2019. While it’s reasonable to say there isn’t a better defensive coordinator than Belichick, him delegating that responsibility has worked pretty well since 2001. Is it possible being more involved in the nitty-gritty of the defensive side of the ball on game days has a negative effect overall?

The Patriots are in a small group of clear Super Bowl contenders heading into 2019. This time, however, there is less room for error than in previous constructions of the team.

Jonathan Rosenberg is a writer for PFN covering the AFC East. You can find him @frosted_takes on Twitter.

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