The six-time Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots face the challenge of building a title-contending football team as the 2019 season looms. And once again, several questions remain unanswered as training camp kicks off on Thursday.
The most pressing concerns the Patriots’ ability to reload its tight-end position entirely with the departures of Jacob Hollister and Dwayne Allen along with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer Rob Gronkowski. There’s simply no replace Gronk directly, but New England could rely a bit more on depth this season.
While the tight end situation certainly takes precedence, there are other positions that the Patriots must address like defensive end, wide receiver, and even punter. With several rookies battling for roster spots and even starting jobs, New England could see a pretty sizeable turnover in 2019.
The challenge remains for coach Bill Belichick: build a contender with a young, new team. So will it be shades of 2005 for the Patriots this season, or will the dynasty continue? Here are the top five storylines ahead of Patriots preseason.
What’s up With Josh Gordon?
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty surrounding the start of Patriots training camp concerns the status of suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon. In 11 games with the Patriots last season, Gordon had 40 catches for 720 yards and three touchdowns — his highest yardage since an MVP-caliber 2013 campaign.
Though the troubled receiver was set to begin negotiations on lifting his suspension in May, it has been radio silence on the issue since then with no sign of an agreement at the dawn of camp. Though NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been outspoken about his desire to see Gordon on the field, there is still nothing to indicate the suspension ending anytime soon.
Gordon was a dynamic part of the Patriots offense last season, especially in play-action where, according to Pro Football Focus, he compiled 354 receiving yards. His 11.4 yards per catch is the highest by a Pats receiver with Tom Brady since 2006 and Brady’s passer grade with Gordon at his disposal was 92.4, also according to PFF.
Although Ian Rapoport reported Gordon is not part of the Patriots’ plans as of now, he would be a strong addition to an already loaded receiving corps.
Without Gordon, the Pats will move forward with first-round pick N’Keal Harry and Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman as locks, with the latter hindered by a thumb injury that will cost him the first three weeks of camp.
Other options at the position include returners Phillip Dorsett and Braxton Berrios along with newcomers Demaryius Thomas, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman and perhaps even undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers. Thomas will miss some time though as he recovers from an Achilles tear, starting preseason on the PUP list.
Is Ryan Allen up for Another Battle?
Last season, Patriots punter Ryan Allen emerged from training camp as the unanimous starter beating out undrafted rookie Corey Bojorquez for the job. In 2019, Allen will compete for his job once again, this time against fifth-round draft choice Jake Bailey (Stanford), one of the top collegiate punters.
Allen averaged 45.1 yards per punt last year (coincidentally the same as Bojorquez) with opposing returners averaging 10.2 yards, seventh-most in the league. Signed to just a one-year deal, Allen’s roster spot is far from guaranteed.
As for Bailey, the Stanford product averaged 43.8 yards per punt over his four-year college career, including a 45.4 clip in his junior season and is a two-time All-Pac 12 Second Team honoree. He was the top-ranked punter prospect in this year’s draft, described by BNB Football as “fairly athletic, sure-handed, and a quick kicker.”
Bailey also has past experience as a kicker and was used in some capacities as a kickoff specialist — a possible safety net should kicker Stephen Gostkowski be injured.
This year’s camp has shades of 2013 when Allen beat out incumbent Zoltan Mesko (also a fifth-round pick) for the job. We’ll see if Jake Bailey sees any action, however, as Bojorquez never got a chance to punt in preseason last year.
Which Undrafted Rookie Makes the Cut This Year?
Every year since 2004, no matter how strong the Patriots rookie draft class is, there’s always at least one undrafted free agent who makes the 53-man roster. Last season, it was standout corner JC Jackson who proved to be a major success at the professional level.
Jackson was projected as high as the third round in the 2018 draft but went unselected before signing with New England. He joins the likes of CB Malcolm Butler, DT Adam Butler, and C David Andrews who all made big contributions in their time with the team.
So who will it be in 2019?
There’s a few who come to mind: SS Malik Gant (Marshall), OT Tyree St. Louis (Miami), and TE Andrew Beck (Texas). More on Beck a little later. As for the first two, injuries to current starters could pave their path to a roster spot.
Malik Gant, a 6-foot-2 strong safety, is proficient at limiting yards after catch and is adept at recognizing plays quickly. Already drawing comparisons to Patrick Chung, Gant joins a crowded, veteran-heavy secondary in New England where he could battle for the final safety spot.
His biggest competition? Obi Melifonwu, who saw limited action last season. Gant’s ability at spotting the run, pass coverage in the slot, and reaction time close to the box makes him a suitable fit in the Patriots’ defense.
As for St. Louis, his path to a roster spot is a little easier given New England’s thinness on the offensive line. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound tackle has experience playing on both the left and right side of the line, the type of versatility coach Bill Belichick loves to utilize.
With rookie Yodny Cajuste starting the season on the reserve list and Cole Croston on the PUP list, the door is open for St. Louis to work his way up the depth chart.
The Patriots were lucky last season with a lack of injuries in the trenches, but that type of good health is rare over a two-year stretch and with the amount of football the Patriots have played in the last three years. His size and versatility under the tutelage of coach Dante Scarnecchia could allow him to beat out some veteran players for a roster spot.
Beck has the best shot, given he is the Patriots’ highest-paid undrafted free agent signing and the lack of depth at tight end. But we’ll dive deeper into that a little later.
How Will the Pass Rush Fair Without Trey Flowers?
Defensively, the Patriots could present one of the trickiest challenges for opposing offenses this season. With several players who can float between defensive end and linebacker, New England, much like in Super Bowl LIII, can cause problems for opponents trying to pick up the pass rush.
Although Pro Football Focus ranked New England’s pass rush 27th out of 32 teams heading into the 2019 season, the Patriots’ flexibility at linebacker could also help the pass rush.
New England added veteran Michael Bennett in the offseason to help replace the void left by Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn. Other options on the edge include Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers, John Simon, and Chase Winovich. The latter two can also drop into coverage if needed.
As for New England’s LBs, Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy lead a relatively thin crew in the middle of the defense. Hightower and Van Noy have strong pass-rushing abilities as well, especially the former whose size is more comparable to an edge rusher.
Other options at linebacker include outside back Jamie Collins, who has prior experience at defensive end, and middle linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Elandon Roberts. Rotation between the Patriots outside linebackers and defensive ends helped guide New England to a record-performance in their Super Bowl victory and will play a major factor for the pass rush this season.
How Can the Patriots Replace Gronk?
It’s not just his size, route-running ability, or blocking expertise that made Rob Gronkowski such a force on the football field. The big boy emerged as a leader on and off the field and had a knack for making a big play when it mattered most (like in Super Bowl LIII).
The Patriots lost a major piece of their dynasty, as well as its two other main tight ends from last season — Dwayne Allen (Miami) and Jacob Hollister (Seattle) — as well as preseason signing Austin Seferian-Jenkins. As a means of replacing their overall production out of this position, the Pats reacquired old friend Benjamin Watson and signed Matt LaCosse in free agency.
While the aforementioned duo is expected to emerge as favorites to earn a starting job — and after Watson serves his four-game suspension — keep an eye out for Ryan Izzo in training camp. Primarily a blocking tight end, the 2018 seventh-round draft pick spent last season on injured reserve despite a promising preseason.
There’s also undrafted rookie Andrew Beck out of Texas who could crack the roster. At 6-foot-3, 244 pounds, the linebacker-turned-blocking tight end could allow the Pats to help fill the void left by Allen as a blocker. In addition, Beck is strong off the play-action whether he’s catching check-downs or protecting the quarterback.
LaCosse, meanwhile, will be the likely starter in Week 1 despite only catching 27 passes in his first four seasons since going undrafted in 2015. At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, he played in 15 games for Denver last season, racking up 250 yards receiving and a touchdown.