No game on the 2017 Falcons schedule will be as hotly anticipated as this one, which pits the New England Patriots against Atlanta once more. The Falcons will be looking for some measure of revenge after an excruciating Super Bowl loss, while the Patriots will be looking to continue to affirm their status as (barf) the best team in football.
Atlanta’s a better team than they were a year ago, thanks to the addition of Dontari Poe and (hopefully) improvement from a young defense, but the Patriots aggressively sought to upgrade their roster in the hopes of squeezing another Super Bowl out of what might be Tom Brady’s last year or two in the NFL. I’m hopeful Atlanta can win—hell, I expect it—but nobody’s going to tell you New England is easy.
To better understand how the Patriots sought to improve this offseason after a harrowing game against the Falcons, check out the scouting report below from Pats Pulpit.
New England Patriots
Notable free agent additions: RB Mike Gillislee, RB Rex Burkhead, DT Lawrence Guy, LB David Harris, CB Stephon Gilmore
Notable free agent departures: RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Martellus Bennett, EDGE Chris Long, EDGE Jabaal Sheard, CB Logan Ryan
Trades: WR Brandin Cooks, TE Dwayne Allen, EDGE Kony Ealy
Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies: EDGE Derek Rivers, EDGE Deatrich Wise Jr. (OT Tony Garcia hopefully won’t play)
Biggest offseason addition: WR Brandin Cooks deservedly gets all the attention because of his ability (2,359 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons), his age (still 23), and his physical traits (4.33s 40 yard dash, 3.81 short shuttle), but the Patriots offense was already going to be great. I think the signing of CB Stephon Gilmore is the bigger acquisition this year because of money he received (the second-most guaranteed for a cornerback in the league) and the role he’ll have.
The Patriots lost CB Logan Ryan to the Tennessee Titans and hope they have added an upgrade in Gilmore. Gilmore has all the physical traits, but the Buffalo Bills failed to provide him with a supporting cast at the safety position. Now, Gilmore gets to play across from All Pro CB Malcolm Butler and alongside All Pro FS Devin McCourty. The Patriots secondary might have improved at a time where talent at cornerback is needed.
Last year, the Patriots faced a laughably weak slate of opposing quarterbacks. This year, the Patriots will not just face better quarterbacks, but a series of incredible wide receiver duos. Gilmore will be in the spotlight a lot.
Biggest storyline heading into training camp: There aren’t too many storylines for the Patriots. There are some competitions (ex: will Mike Gillislee see more time than Rex Burkhead? Can David Harris hold off both Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts at linebacker?) but these aren’t very big storylines in the sense that they’ll make or break a season. It’s like choosing between a donut or a cupcake; the Patriots will have a delicious dessert no matter the outcome.
To me, a big storyline requires a team to have a core-shaking outcome should the alternative take place. So my biggest storyline is whether the Patriots will reach an extension with CB Malcolm Butler.
Butler was shopped this offseason and no team took a bite. He’s an All Pro cornerback that will be 28 years old next year; he’s in his prime. If Butler doesn’t reach an extension with the Patriots prior to the start of the season, it’s likely that Butler will play out the season, enter free agency, and cash in elsewhere, leaving the Patriots to move forward with Gilmore, Eric Rowe, and Cyrus Jones at cornerback.
Or, the Patriots and Butler reach a reasonable extension and the Patriots will have the best secondary in the league for the next five years. This will be fun to watch.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: How do the Patriots edge defenders look? Rob Ninkovich is long in the tooth and could be playing his last season. Kony Ealy is an inconsistent import from Carolina. Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise are rookies. Trey Flowers is the assumed superstar.
Many hope that the Patriots edge defenders will play at a high enough level in 2017, but it’s easy to overlook that the Flowers, Ninkovich, Chris Long, and Jabaal Sheard quartet were pretty okay. There’s a chance this 2017 group takes a step backwards and the Patriots could struggle to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Notable injuries heading into training camp: TE Rob Gronkowski is returning from his back surgery, but he’s been 100% at camp and looks as good as ever.