By Steve Silverman
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There may be hope for the AFC East.
New England has had a stranglehold on the division for 14 of the last 16 seasons. While the Patriots deserve credit for their strength and consistency, let’s face it, the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills have basically laid out the red carpet for their nemesis throughout that time.
The Patriots have been as dominant as any professional sports team over the last 50 years. But there are signs that their long run may be coming to an end — or at least hitting a significant bump in the road.
There are key issues that need to be rectified, beginning with the immediate loss of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and there are other key changes coming.
Patricia will be the next head coach of the Detroit Lions, while McDaniels was officially given the reins of the Indianapolis Colts on Tuesday.
That means Bill Belichick has to find adequate replacements, but it’s possible they come from within. Current Patriots wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea could easily get promoted to offensive coordinator, while linebackers coach Brian Flores could get Patricia’s spot.
Even if those two get the jobs, it will take them a while — probably half a season or more — to understand and fulfill Belichick’s demands.
The Patriots have a number of key free agents this offseason, including running back Dion Lewis, wideout Danny Amendola, and cornerback Malcolm Butler. Additionally, special teams mainstays Nate Ebner and Matthew Slater are also expected to hit the open market.
While none of those players are superstars, they all play key roles.
Then there’s the reported friction that has developed between owner Robert Kraft, Tom Brady, and Belichick. Don’t believe for a second that this is a made-up, media concoction. Belichick needs to be in control, and it seems that Brady has been challenging him with his dependence on his personal trainer. If Kraft is siding with Brady, it will take some work by all involved to sort it out.
Brady is going to play next year, but he’s bound to fall victim to Father Time at some point. The 40-year-old three-time MVP keeps himself in near-perfect shape, but what happens if the offensive line isn’t what it has been in the past and he takes a big hit or two big shots in a row? Sooner or later, Brady is not going to be the same player.
And currently the Patriots have no backup plan. Brian Hoyer is an older quarterback who at this point isn’t the heir apparent to anyone.
Then there’s the defense. This unit was awful at the start of the season, and while there was some improvement in terms of scoring defense after Week 5, the group never really stopped giving up big yardage. The Pats finished 28th in yards allowed, and they don’t have a decent pass rush or the kind of big hitters that put fear into opponents. Simply, they need a talent infusion and quickly.
Belichick’s decision to bench Butler in the Super Bowl was strange. If there was a disciplinary problem for missing curfew or any other issue, it would have made sense not to start Butler or possibly sit him out as much as one quarter. But the entire game? That was a ridiculous move on the part of someone many refer to as a genius head coach. Belichick’s decision has been questioned by those close to the team, and that means that the move has not gone over well inside the locker room.
So the vulnerability is there, and the Jets could be in a position to take advantage. Of course, the first thing they have to do is find a legitimate No. 1 quarterback this offseason.
What would be wrong with signing Kirk Cousins? The Redskins may be making noises about franchising him yet again, despite acquiring Alex Smith, but to me that’s just posturing. If the Jets can find a way to sign Cousins and get him working with new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, an up-and-coming assistant with a “quarterback whisperer” flair, they could very well end up with an attacking offense.
The Jets also need help at cornerback, an edge rusher and improvement on the offensive line, especially at center.
But let’s not forget that they have the No. 6 pick in the draft and may end up with close to $100 million in salary cap space. All that can go a long way toward improving this rebuilding team in a hurry.
If the Jets can take care of their needs — particularly at quarterback — they will have a real shot of at least pushing the Patriots, something that didn’t look immediately possible as the 2017 regular season ended.
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