Rob Gronkowski isn’t showing up for the start of the New England Patriots’ offseason program. Could this be the beginning of the end in Foxborough?
The end is always near. Every year for the better part of the last decade, pundits have wondered whether the New England Patriots were facing the meeting with their proverbial maker. Each year, those questions have been turned back, with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick laughing on their march toward another ring.
This winter, the same doubts have been voiced, but this time with a different twist. The shouts have been coming from internally, and from the locals. The screams aren’t national, but from within, signaling that all is not right at Patriot Place.
With the team beginning its work this week, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski won’t be attending OTAs, his mind still contemplating retirement. Gronkowski, who turns 29 years old in May, has not played in all 16 regular-season games since 2012 and sustained a wicked concussion in the AFC Championship Game, leading to his indecision.
In addition to the Gronkowski situation, the Patriots watched as Dion Lewis, Nate Solder, Malcolm Butler and Danny Amendola left via free agency. Then, in early April, Belichick traded Brandin Cooks to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for the 23rd-overall pick, giving the roster another hole to fill but ample draft ammunition.
Going into OTAs, the Patriots haven’t look this weak in some time. If the team lined up tomorrow in a game, Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan would be the starting outside receivers. Assuming Gronkowski decides to play, New England will be relying on a 41-year-old quarterback, a oft-injured tight end and Julian Edelman, who is both turning 32 years old and coming off a torn ACL.
Defensively, the front seven remains a mess, with the hope being that Adrian Clayborn and Derek Rivers can change its look. The secondary is leaning heavily on Stephon Gilmore, but we saw what that unit looked like without Butler in Super Bowl LII.
Of course, the Patriots should still roll to an AFC East title, but that says more about the division than anything. The real question is whether anybody can topple them in what appears to be an incredibly weak conference.
There’s little argument that the Patriots are vulnerable, but who ascends to take the throne? The Pittsburgh Steelers are the popular choice, but infighting could be their downfall. Last year, the Steelers had constant battles through the press, something that has continued on with Le’Veon Bell and his contract dispute. The Houston Texans are an interesting team, but what of the healthy concerning J.J. Watt, Tyrann Mathieu and Deshaun Watson?
It’s impossible to discount the Jacksonville Jaguars, who took New England to the brink at Gillette Stadium a few months ago. Could Jacksonville muster up the same type of challenge with Blake Bortles at the helm? Perhaps it’s a team like the Los Angeles Chargers or Kansas City Chiefs, two high-octane offenses that could win a shootout.
Without question, the Patriots are in a down cycle, which for them means they aren’t an iron-clad lock to be in the Super Bowl. Still, actually knocking them off is quite a challenge, and one that nobody in the AFC has been able to meet in quite some time.
Top 12 quarterbacks not in Hall of Fame (must be eligible)
1. Ken Anderson, Cincinnati Bengals
2. Phil Simms, New York Giants
3. John Hadl, San Diego Chargers
4. Boomer Esiason, Cincinnati Bengals
5. John Brodie, San Francisco 49ers
6. Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia Eagles
7. Joe Theismann, Washington Redskins
8. Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia Eagles
9. Jim Hart, St. Louis Cardinals
10. Steve McNair, Tennessee Titans
11. Drew Bledsoe, New England Patriots
12. Roman Gabriel, Los Angeles Rams
“I know that I can be a really good football player; I just need to stay healthy,” Montgomery said this week as he took part in the Green Bay Packers’ annual Tailgate Tour. “It’s something I haven’t been able to do my rookie season and last season. Two seasons before that, I wasn’t playing for almost half the season. I’m looking forward to getting one full healthy season under my belt. That’ll tell.”
– Green Bay Packers running back Ty Montgomery on staying healthy for 2018
The Packers desperately need a boost from their rushing attack this year, and Montgomery could be the best bet. Green Bay has a host of young runners including Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones, but Montgomery still looms large in that position group. However, he needs to produce more than the 273 yards and three touchdowns in eight games that he produced in 2017.
With the Packers trying to contend in the Minnesota Vikings, Montgomery’s ability to stay on the field is a key factor in the NFC North race.
Matt Verderame and Josh Hill break down all the latest NFL storylines every Monday, both on iTunes and FanSided’s Facebook Live page at 1 p.m. ET.
The first number the Seattle Seahawks retired was 12, in honor of their fans.
Info learned this week
1. Browns sign Jarvis Landry to enormous contract
John Dorsey acquired Jarvis Landry in March, and he didn’t wait long before signing him to a mega-deal. The Cleveland Browns locked up a main offensive piece for the foreseeable future, inking the 25-year-old to a five-year contract worth $75 million, including a whopping $47 million in guarantees.
There’s no question the Browns overpaid Landry in comparison to the market, but Cleveland might have to do that in the short term. Selling elite players on a future with the Browns is easier with green than hope, and while Dorsey may regret this contract in a few years, it’s an understandable risk in the present.
Landry has amassed 4,038 yards on 10.1 yards per catch with 22 touchdowns in his four-year with the Miami Dolphins, before coming over via trade. In the deal, Miami received fourth and seventh-round selections. Last year, Landry led the NFL with 122 receptions, but only totaled 987 yards.
2. Color rush uniforms being scrapped for TNF this season
Thankfully, mercifully, the NFL won’t be forcing teams to wear their Color Rush uniforms on Thursday Night Football this season. In an interview, FOX Sports network executive Bill Wanger stated that teams won’t be asked to look like neon-green highlighters or Christmas trees during the telecasts.
While some of the uniforms may still crop up when a team decides the time is right, hopefully we’re moving away from that fad. Changing it up is always fun, but sometimes good intentions go sour.
In honor of TNF doing away with the unis, the worst have to be the mustard-colored Jacksonville Jaguars duds. Nobody feels good looking like that. As for the best? The New Orleans Saints all-white look. Fantastic uniform.
3. Dez Bryant released by Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys decided to move on from Dez Bryant on Friday afternoon, clearing $85. million in cap space. The Cowboys reportedly didn’t offer a pay cut to Bryant, who said he would have been willing to take one. Instead, he becomes a free agent less than two weeks before the NFL Draft, putting him in a tough spot.
Perhaps Bryant does what many of the high-profile free agents have done this year, and takes a one-year deal to reset his value. The Houston Texans would be an ideal fit, keeping the 29-year-old in Texas while putting him on a contender. Maybe Bryant agrees, which would explain his following of many Texans’ stars on Instagram over the weekend.
A few other fits would include the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts. Carolina went 11-5 last year and desperately needs a receiver to play opposite of Dvein Funchess. The Colts simply need talent coming through the door, and another weapon for Andrew Luck. For Bryant to go to Indianapolis, though, one would imagine a large check would be in order.
4. Top 10 in NFL Draft remain complete mystery
The NFL Draft is less than two weeks away, and the top portion of the first round remains cloaked in uncertainty. There are ample rumors about who the Browns will take with the No. 1 overall pick, leaving the rest of the group uncertain about the remaining board.
In New York, general manager Dave Gettleman has a decision to make. Does he take a quarterback, another player or trade back? If it’s the latter, do the Buffalo Bills try to jump the New York Jets in hopes of usurping their AFC East rival for a franchise quarterback?
Further down the top 10, there are other question marks. At No. 5, the Denver Broncos could go in a litany of directions, also including quarterback. If Josh Rosen or Baker Mayfield falls, does Denver take a huge swing? The Indianapolis Colts have needs across the board, leaving them as a wild card which is likely to take the best player available.
Finally, things appear to be shaking out well for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay desperately needs help in the secondary, and there’s a good chance that it has the choice of Minkah Fitzpatrick, Derwin James and Denzel Ward.
5. NFL preseason schedule gets released
The NFL has released its preseason schedule to the masses, and there are some intriguing storylines throughout. The Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens are kicking off the slate with the Hall of Fame Game on Thursday, Aug. 2.
Looking deeper, we should see a pair of high-profile draft picks in Week 1 against each other, with the Browns visiting the Giants. There is also the Jon Gruden reboot, as the Oakland Raiders host the Detroit Lions. Come Week 3, the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Chicago Bears, with Matt Nagy and Andy Reid squaring off.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a model of consistency through the years. Since hiring Chuck Noll prior to the 1969 season, Pittsburgh has had only three head coaches through the present. In comparison, the other franchise born prior to the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 has employed less than eight.
After going to Super Bowl LI and suffering the most devastating loss imaginable, the Atlanta Falcons collected themselves and got back to the playoffs in 2017. Unfortunately for them, the Falcons were cruelly bounced from the postseason in the Divisional round by the Eagles, ending a dream of redemption.
With an excellent roster in hand, Atlanta could make a push to end up representing the NFC come February, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff must find the right answers in the draft. The Falcons have only a few pressing needs — guard, defensive tackle — but those spots are weak enough to sink them in the tough NFC.
If Dimitroff can find a way to patch those holes, Atlanta might be the contender that nobody is talking about in August that ends up leading the charge in January.