It would not be outrageous to say that the New England Patriots won the offseason, adding even more talent to an already loaded group coming off an epic comeback win in Super Bowl LI. The amount of playmakers on this offense is unmatched -- and yet, the best part of the Patriots' offense is the quarterback who sees everything.
I was part of one of the most dynamic Tom Brady-led offenses -- which showcased Randy Moss and Wes Welker, polar opposites but very productive receivers, in 2007 -- during my four-year stint in New England (2005-08). As good as Moss and Welker were, Brady's ability to survey the field gave every eligible player a chance to get the ball. Even at the lowly fullback position, I knew I was never dead in the play.
The 2016 Patriots won it all and ranked fourth in passing offense despite missing their greatest threat, tight end Rob Gronkowski, for half the season. What's scary is they added a first-round-caliber receiver in Brandin Cooks and a veteran TE in Dwayne Allen (replacing free-agent defector Martellus Bennett) to a group that already included Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola. Yes, 2016 rushing TD leader LeGarrette Blount is gone, but the backfield is still plumb full of gifted backs, including James White, Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead and fullback James Develin.
Well, I know from experience that coach Bill Belichick isn't concerned about the number of targets each player gets. He's concerned about winning (no surprise here), so whoever is open with the greatest chance to progress the ball downfield will get the look. After stopping at Patriots training camp in early August, I started to think about how this team might spread the ball around -- though it's nearly impossible to predict with Belichick calling the shots.
Last season, the Patriots passed the ball on 54 percent of offensive snaps and ran 46 percent of the time. Keep in mind that Brady, who was serving a four-game suspension, didn't play until Week 5. With backups Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett under center through Week 4, the offense ran the ball 52 percent of the time, as opposed to 44 percent after Brady returned.
And yet, even with a seemingly endless amount of receiving threats at New England's disposal in 2017, I don't really think the split will change much in favor of the passing attack this season. I expect Patriots opponents to present defenses that, because they are crafted to stop the plethora of passing options, will be friendlier to the run. Thus, the Pats will be more dangerous in the pass game -- maybe more so than they've ever been in the Belichick era -- yet they'll have less throws than expected.
I'm projecting the Patriots run the ball roughly 45 percent of the time, with Gillislee taking the majority -- about 35 percent -- of the carries in his first season with the team, due to his bigger frame (5-foot-11, 219 pounds). White, who played a pivotal role in the team's Super Bowl win in February, and Lewis will each see 25 percent of the total carries, IF Lewis can stay healthy. Due to the Patriots' schedule, in which the team will face some stout run defenses, I think New England will spread the defenses out, forcing them to use nickel and/or dime schemes, and White and Lewis will be the most beneficial in these instances. The remaining 15 percent is likely to be split between Burkhead, Brandon Bolden and the fullbacks. Without Blount, who had around two-thirds of the Pats' carries in 2016, every other player in the backfield will see his touches increase.
That leaves 55 percent of the offensive snaps to be split among the air attack, and you've got to give a hefty amount to your star pass catchers ... So let's say 50 percent of the targets go to Gronkowski, Edelman (targeted on 28 percent of passing plays in 2016) and Cooks. This trio is an absolute nightmare, as all three have proven to be reliable targets on their own. Many people think Cooks was brought in to stretch the field, but he's going to be equally effective between the hashes.
We all saw how efficient Pats running backs were when catching the ball out of the backfield the last few years. Brady will lean on that 30 percent of the time, with White and Lewis getting in on the action. (Last year, White totaled the second-most receptions for the Patriots.) After watching the Patriots face the Texans, Burkhead is likely to see some targets from Brady, as well. Hogan, up-and-comer Mitchell, Amendola and Allen are likely to split the remaining 20 percent of pass plays.
With the entire playbook at Brady's disposal, this offense is poised to eat defenses up. As far as what this group can accomplish? The sky's the limit.