New England PatriotsProjecting New England Patriots' 2017 Starting Lineup After NFL DraftKristopher KnoxFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2017
Projecting New England Patriots' 2017 Starting Lineup After NFL Draft
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- Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
In case you forgot, the New England Patriots are defending Super Bowl champions. The core of the team that won it all in 2016—guys like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski—return for the 2017 season. This means that New England had the foundation for another title run before the offseason even began.
There have been changes over the past few months, though, and big ones. Cornerback Logan Ryan was replaced in free agency by Stephon Gilmore. Defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long were replaced by Kony Ealy via a trade. Another trade landed wideout Brandin Cooks and yet another landed Martellus Bennett's replacement in Dwayne Allen.
These trades left the Patriots with little in draft capital. The team only made four selections—defensive end Derek Rivers, offensive tackle Antonio Garcia, defensive end Deatrich Wise and offensive tackle Conor McDermott. This doesn't mean the Patriots didn't leave draft weekend with a better roster.
Now that the draft is in the books, let's take a look at what New England's starting lineup is likely to look like in 2017.
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- Gregory Payan/Associated Press
Starter: Tom Brady
If there's a more secure job in all of sports, I don't know what it is. Tom Brady is a 12-time Pro Bowler, a two-time league MVP, a five-time Super Bowl champion and a four-time Super Bowl MVP. Oh, and even approaching 40 he's still pretty darn good.
Pro Football Focus rated Brady first overall among all quarterbacks last season.
The one notable thing here is that Jimmy Garoppolo is still the backup quarterback after draft weekend. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Cleveland Brown did try to make another run at Garoppolo during draft weekend, but the Patriots said "no thanks" to the trade offer.
Garoppolo will sit behind Brady for at least one more season, while Jacoby Brissett will again man the No. 3 spot.
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- Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
OK, so I may be cheating a bit here, but I don't think the Patriots actually have one lead back in 2017. The team returns Dion Lewis and James White, and added Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee in the offseason. This has the makings of a true backfield by committee.
None of the backs on New England's roster were heavily utilized in the running game last season. In fact, Gillislee was the only one to log more than 100 carries, with 101. At 5'11" and 219 pounds, he's probably best suited to handle the majority of the running duties, though I think backfield responsibilities as a whole are evenly split.
One thing to note is that the additions of Gillislee and Burkhead appear to have been motivated by a desire for efficiency. The folks at Football Outsiders rated Gillislee and Burkhead first and second, respectively, in rushing efficiency on a per-play basis.
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- Norm Hall/Getty Images
Starters: Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan
The Patriots didn't have a first-round pick this year because they grabbed Cooks from the New Orleans Saints. He's a dynamic player who New England is definitely going to start. The Patriots recently picked up Cooks' fifth-year option, too.
When in two-receiver sets, Cooks will be joined by Super Bowl hero Julian Edelman. The former Kent State quarterback has developed into one of the league's most dangerous receivers, and he's one guy that Brady trusts on the field.
Pro Football Focus rated Edelman and Cooks 31st and 27th overall among wide receivers, respectively, for the 2016 season.
In three-receiver sets, we'll likely see Edelman slide into the slot and the 6'1", 210-pound Chris Hogan opposite Cooks on the outside. Danny Amendola and second-year man Malcolm Mitchell will provide quality depth at the position.
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- Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Starters: Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is obviously "the man" in New England, not counting Brady, of course. As long as he's healthy, he's the No. 1 tight end on the team, no questions asked.
However, we're likely to see an awful lot of two-tight-end sets in New England this year—which was the plan with Bennett last season before Gronk was injured. This is why the Patriots traded to get the athletic pass-catcher Allen from the Indianapolis Colts.
Allen will definitely be the Robin to Gronkowski's Batman, but this is a dynamic duo that should thrive together.
The Patriots also added former Kansas City Chiefs tight end James O'Shaughnessy in a draft-day trade on Saturday.
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- Joe Sargent/Getty Images
Tackles: Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon
Guards: Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason
Center: David Andrews
Yes, the Patriots added a pair of tackles in the draft, but they hopefully won't see the field in 2017—except in mop-up duty.
The starting lineup of left tackle Nate Solder, right tackle Marcus Cannon, center David Andrews, left guard Joe Thuney and right guard Shaq Mason should be back. The unit was rated 11th in pass blocking and third in run blocking by Pro Football Focus last season.
The one spot that may be up for grabs in camp is the left guard spot manned by Thuney. As a rookie, Thuney showed some promise, but he also struggled at times—especially in pass protection. Pro Football Focus rated Thuney 138th overall among 158 guards in 2016 and credited him with allowing 32 quarterback pressures.
However, I'm not sure who would actually challenge Thuney in camp. The team recently parted ways with guard Tre' Jackson, and the Patriots didn't draft a guard. Maybe former Purdue guard Jason Douglas—who was inked as an undrafted free agent—is the guy.
My guess, though, is that we see the same starting five in 2017.
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- Daniel Gluskoter/Associated Press
Tackles: Malcom Brown and Alan Branch
Ends: Trey Flowers and Kony Ealy
The New England defensive front should also look quite familiar in 2017. The inside should again be manned by Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, who were rated 17th and 22nd overall, respectively, among defensive tackles by Pro Football Focus last season.
Trey Flowers, who led the Patriots with 7.0 sacks last season, will operate as the team's primary pass-rusher from one end position. The difference this year is at the other end slot. Ealy, acquired from the Carolina Panthers this offseason, should replace the departed tandem of Sheard and Long.
This is one area where a player actually taken in the draft might shine. Rivers, the team's third-round pick out of Youngstown State, could play a role as a situational edge-rusher. For his part, Rivers seems prepared for the role.
"I'm a hard worker," Rivers said, via the Patriots' official website. "You get work ethic out of me. I do whatever the coaches want me to do, and that's the type of guy I am."
Rivers and Ealy may rotate the way Sheard and Long often did last season. The difference is that at 22 (Rivers) and 25 years old (Ealy) this new defensive-end tandem is much younger.
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- Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Starters: Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin
One of the biggest moves the Patriots made early in the offseason was re-signing star linebacker Dont'a Hightower to a four-year, $35.5 million deal. Hightower is the clear standout of the linebacker corps and perhaps the only true starter of the group.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hightower started 709 snaps at linebacker during the 2016 regular season. Fellow "starter" Kyle Van Noy logged 249 snaps and Shea McClellin had 365 snaps at outside linebacker.
It is fair to note, of course, that Jamie Collins started six games before being traded to the Cleveland Browns.
Van Noy and McClellin are the perfect role players for New England's multi-look defense, though, so the fact they don't always stand out isn't a huge issue. I thought New England might try to add an upside prospect to the group in the draft, but second-year man Elandon Roberts is probably that upside guy.
Expect Rob Ninkovich to provide depth at both linebacker and defensive end this season.
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- Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Starters: Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore
Nickel: Eric Rowe
The Patriots didn't trade Garoppolo during the draft, and they didn't move cornerback Malcolm Butler either. This makes it pretty easy to figure out who the team's starting cornerbacks are going to be.
New England gave a five-year, $65 million contract to former Buffalo Bills corner Stephon Gilmore in free agency. Butler was rated fifth overall among all cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus last season. If these two aren't starting on the outside for the Patriots in 2017, something is wrong.
Eric Rowe, who was rated 49th overall among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus, should fill in as the team's nickelback. 2016 second-round pick Cyrus Jones will likely provide depth and play in sub-packages.
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- Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Free Safety: Devin McCourty
Strong Safety: Duron Harmon
The Patriots actually have three safeties who could rotate and switch roles on the back end of the team's defense. Devin McCourty is a no-brainer as the team's starting free safety, however. He's coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he was rated fourth overall among safeties by Pro Football Focus.
Where we might see a change is at strong safety. Patrick Chung has manned the spot for the past three years—and I still think he'll play a significant role—but he could lose playing time to up-and-comer Duron Harmon.
Harmon was rated 28th overall among safeties by Pro Football Focus last season while Chung was rated as the third-worst safety in the league. The Patriots seem to really like where Harmon's career is trending too.
New England recently signed the 26-year-old to a four-year, $17 million contract extension.
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- Bob Levey/Getty Images
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Punter: Ryan Allen
Returner: Dion Lewis
I thought the Patriots might try bringing in some competition for kicker Stephen Gostkowski or punter Ryan Allen during the draft, but they chose to focus on the defensive end and tackle positions instead.
As things stand, the Patriots appear ready to roll into 2017 with Gostkowski and Allen as their guys. If Gostkowski struggles again, however—he missed five field goals and three extra points in the regular season—New England could examine other options at kicker.
With more versatile pieces in the backfield this season, we should see more of Lewis as the team's returner. We'll probably see some of Amendola and maybe even some of Edelman sprinkled in, but I think Lewis will be the main guy moving forward.