Deflategate was at the center of the Patriots’ offseason for a second straight year, finally reaching its conclusion with QB Tom Brady being suspended for the first four games of the season, allowing he team to get a chance to see if QB Jimmy Garoppolo could be the quarterback of the future after the 39-year-old Brady retires. Other bad news for the Patriots comes in the form of injuries, including RB Dion Lewis, who had a breakout season in 2015 before a torn ACL ending his season early. He was on track to return this season, but recent news of him needing a second knee surgery results in him being out indefinitely. In other injury news, C Shaq Mason does not have a timetable to return for a broken hand, and OT Sebastian Vollmer is expected to land on injured reserve after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Despite being 38 last season, Brady continued to put up impressive numbers. He completed 64% of his passes for 4,770 yards and 36 touchdowns to go along with just 7 interceptions. It’s not surprising that TE Rob Gronkowski was Brady’s leading receiver, hauling in 72 receptions for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns despite missing a game. WRs Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman put up comparable numbers to each other. In 14 games — seven starts — Amendola had 65 receptions for 648 yards and 3 touchdowns while Edelman went 61/692/7 in nine games. After Lewis went down after 7 games, RB LeGarrette Blount took over as the main running back, carrying the ball 165 times for 703 yards and 6 touchdowns in six starts. RB James White only had 22 carries last season but played a decent part in the passing game, with 40 receptions for 410 yards and 4 touchdowns.
With reports pegging Lewis as missing 8-10 weeks, Blount and White are going to have to carry the bulk of the rushing workload for at least the first half of the season, unless the Patriots sign a free agent running back to provide some depth. The other injuries to the offensive line will make it harder for Garoppolo to find success as he fills in for Brady for the team’s first four games. Garoppolo, who was the Patriots’ second-round pick in the 2014 draft, has thrown just 31 passes in regular-season games in relief of Brady over the last two seasons. He has completed 20 of them for 188 yards and 1 touchdown and no interceptions. Obviously that small sample size doesn’t give the team much of an idea what to expect from Garoppolo as he prepares to be the starting quarterback for the first quarter of the season. The team traded for TE Martellus Bennett from the Bears to provide a bonafide 1-2 punch at the position with Gronkowski, harkening back to the days of Gronkowski and TE Aaron Hernandez both providing good offensive numbers from the position.
The first four games on the schedule are going to set the stage for how much of a cushion the team can have in its record when getting Brady back in Week 5. During Brady’s suspension, the Patriots visit the Cardinals in the Week 1 Sunday night game, then head home for Weeks 2 and 3, taking on the Dolphins and Texans, respectively. A visit to Buffalo to take on the Bills in Week 4 leads into Brady’s return, a road game against the Browns. The Patriots host the Seahawks for the Sunday night game in Week 10, following a Week 9 bye. The Patriots get another Sunday night matchup, at the Jets, in Week 12. The season ends with a road game at the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos in Week 15 and home games against the Jets and Dolphins, respectively, in Weeks 16 and 17. Even with the Patriots missing the first four games — I have them going 2-2 in that span — I projected them to go 13-3, a game better than last season, but that may be a bit optimistic now with the news of the most recent injuries and surgeries to Lewis, Vollmer and Mason.