HOUSTON -- The New England Patriots' season ended with a 34-28 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, as they charged back from a 25-point second-half deficit. Here is a look at the season and what's next:
Season summary: The bar has been raised high in New England under Bill Belichick, as seasons are defined by whether the team’s Super Bowl hopes were realized. Anything less than that and it falls short.
If this were just about the regular season, the 2016 campaign was one of the most impressive of Belichick’s 17 years as coach. The year began without quarterback Tom Brady, who served a four-game suspension as part of the NFL’s Deflategate penalties, and the Patriots came out of that with a 3-1 record. Having backup Jimmy Garoppolo ready to go was a strong reflection on Garoppolo and the coaching staff, and then when he injured his shoulder, winning in Week 3 with rookie Jacoby Brissett under center was a terrific accomplishment.
By season’s end, it’s hard to argue much with a 14-2 record, a team record for fewest interceptions in a season (two, smashing the previous mark of five), and a level of consistency that continues to impress as volatility prevails across most of the rest of the NFL landscape.
But in the end, this is always about the playoffs for the Patriots, and anything less than a Super Bowl ring is a disappointment. Talk about high-class living.
Biggest draft need: Tight end. With Rob Gronkowski coming off back surgery and Martellus Bennett no guarantee to return as a free agent, this is a position that figures to be high on the Patriots' radar based on its general importance to the offense over Belichick's 17-year tenure. Belichick has talked about how a true combination tight end who is effective in both the running and passing games can be hard to find.
Key offseason questions:
Are LB Dont’a Hightower or CB Malcolm Butler signed to extensions? When cornerback Darrelle Revis signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the Jets in 2015, owner Robert Kraft pointed out how the team had some up-and-coming players due for extensions and that every decision the team made had a trickle-down effect. Two of those players Kraft referred to, Chandler Jones (Cardinals) and Jamie Collins (Browns), are now elsewhere and that leaves Hightower and Butler as the next in line. Hightower, who made some of the biggest defensive plays in Super Bowl LI, is an unrestricted free agent who could get the franchise tag if an extension isn’t reached. Butler is a restricted free agent.
What happens with QB Jimmy Garoppolo? This is one of the most fascinating storylines across the entire NFL, as Garoppolo has great value to the Patriots as the backup to the soon-to-be-40-year-old Brady, but if another team is willing to put together a can’t-refuse-it deal, do the Patriots take the plunge? Garoppolo is a free agent after the 2017 season and the Patriots could lose him after that anyway. How the team views the future of Brissett, a third-round pick in the 2016 draft, figures to be part of the consideration as well.
What is a realistic expectation for Rob Gronkowski? The Patriots are in a good economic position to not have their hand forced with Gronkowski, who is coming off back surgery and due to earn $4.25 million in base salary in 2017. Gronkowski should be part of the team’s plans, but how much they can rely on him could have an impact on their team-building plans. If Gronkowski sustains another season-ending injury in 2017, what then? Gronkowski’s base salaries spike to $8 million in 2018 and $9 million in 2019, which is a lot more for the team to absorb if there are injury concerns. So Gronkowski’s return to health in 2017, and how that proceeds, will be watched closely.