This article originally appeared in the June 21, 2017 issue of Patriots Football Weekly. To subscribe, click here.
Serious question: Where on Earth did this offseason go?!
I mean it when I say it feels like we returned from Super Bowl LI in Houston just a few weeks ago. Super Bowl seasons always have truncated ensuing offseasons, yes, but still, this one seems to have come and gone in record time.
We've raced through the so-called "team-building period" of the NFL calendar, including the free agent signing period - when the reigning champs were as active as anyone - the draft process (which the Patriots mostly sat out), the strength and conditioning program and all the spring practices (organized team activities and mini-camp sessions combined).
Earlier this month, everyone directly associated with New England's 2016 team gathered to receive their championship rings, emphatically putting a celebratory and ceremonial end to last year.
And now, it's officially on to 2017 ... well, not quite. There's still several weeks of actual offseason - i.e., summertime - to enjoy before we get down to football business again. Players and coaches have dispersed to their respective hometowns and vacation destinations - you might even catch head coach Bill Belichick cruising around Nantucket in his new VII Rings boat - until they report back to Foxborough for training camp in July.
Until then, we have some time to absorb what little we've seen of the 2017 Patriots, who will look to repeat the three-titles-in-four-years feat their predecessors accomplished back in 2004.
Stephon Gilmore makes this secondary better. I didn't doubt he would when New England signed him to the largest free-agent contract in franchise history, after having seen him play against the Patriots as a Buffalo Bill, but it's always nice to see expectations translate to the field. Even without pads, he stood out, mostly in a positive way.
Gilmore's a clear upgrade over Logan Ryan. Eric Rowe has a year's experience in this system, which should help him (he certainly saw plenty of action this spring). And Malcolm Butler, whom I always expected to remain with the Patriots this season, is perhaps going to be the most motivated he's ever been in his NFL career as he enters what could be his final year in Foxborough. I'm excited about this group and the potential they have to match up against some pretty formidable opposing quarterbacks on the '17 schedule.
I already knew Brandin Cooks was good - I saw him beat Butler several times during joint practices with the Saints two summers ago - but he looks even better and faster now. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan are all healthy and played well this spring. I'm anxious to see how much of a jump Malcolm Mitchell makes in his second training camp, because if he can improve on the success he started to enjoy late last season, this is going to be one fun group of players to watch catch passes.
Rob Gronkowski looks great. Like he never underwent a third back surgery. This guy always has a smile on his face, and he looks even more enthused to get back on the field this season, after missing half of last year, especially after adding some incentives to his contract recently.
Who supports him on the depth chart remains to be seen. Dwayne Allen, acquired in a trade with Indy this offseason, didn't "wow" during the spring, but I'm withholding judgment until I see him in pads, going full speed and having a better grasp of the offense.
On the other hand, James O'Shaugnessy, another offseason trade acquisition, made some nice plays over the spring. Some people might lament the loss of Martellus Bennett to free agency, but right now, New England might be deeper and better overall at tight end than they were a year ago.
Maybe the biggest question the '17 Patriots have to answer is on defense among the front seven. Experienced veteran ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard are gone. Even though they didn't set any records last year, replacing their production won't be easy. Is Trey Flowers ready to become the primary pass-rush threat? How quickly can top pick Derek Rivers insert himself in the rotation with dependable mainstay Rob Ninkovich?
At tackle, can Malcom Brown, a former first-round pick, become more consistent? And which young players can step up to provide depth at what was perhaps New England's thinnest position a season ago?
I'm glad to see Jimmy Garoppolo still here. Like the Butler situation, I never felt like the Patriots were going to part with him this year, if ever. For now, though, New England retains a valuable commodity in this league - a backup QB with whom you believe you can still compete for a title. Without Garoppolo, I'd be less confident handing the offense over to second-year man Jacoby Brissett if something were to happen to Brady.
The Patriots will, of course, have to revisit the whole Brady-Garoppolo dynamic at the end of this coming season, but for now, all is well at this position (although, ideally, I'd like to see Brissett take a few more steps forward come preseason).
LeGarrette Blount had an historic 2016, but I'm not at all disappointed to see him go. There will still be a committee approach to the running back position, as there has been for most of the last decade or more on this team, and Blount's replacement - likely Mike Gillislee - has a chance to be a better version of the power-back role player. New England is blessed with a solid stable of backs with diverse skill sets.
A sleeper I plan on watching closely this summer: D.J. Foster. This youngster has talent as a runner, pass catcher and return specialist. If he fulfills his potential, he could force the coaching staff to make some difficult decisions when cut-down day comes.
Dont'a Hightower is still a Patriot (OK, I admit, I thought he was a goner in free agency), and that makes him the undisputed leader of this group, which was a bit shaky last year, particularly without him on the field. Someone else needs to step up and be a more consistent contributor alongside him.
This unit was derided considerably last season - not always unfairly - but remember, several young, inexperienced players played major roles most of the year. I expect them to be better individually and collectively.
The solid kicker-punter-long snapper trio remains intact and kicker Stephen Gostkowski will rebound from whatever caused his sub-par (for him) spurts last year. Only question is, who, if anyone, will assume the regular role of kickoff and punt returner? There's a job or two to be won there.
Bill Belichick - yup, still the greatest. Remarkably, neither of his talented coordinators (Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia) left for head coaching jobs this offseason, either, as many of us expected. And chief personnel guy Nick Caserio decided to stay put rather than become a general manager elsewhere. So, a strong staff stays as such.
All this is to say that, should they remain healthy at key positions, there's no reason these Patriots shouldn't be hoisting their sixth Lombardi Trophy in Minneapolis in February. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Summer's here, after all. Enjoy. Because like the rest of this offseason, it'll be over before you know it.