4 new storylines surrounding the 2018 Patriots

Who will replace the stars that left this offseason?

Tom Brady, Sony Michel
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hands off to rookie running back Sony Michel during minicamp. –AP Photo/Steven Senne

On the first day of Patriots training camp, Tom Brady and Robert Kraft exchanged pleasantries while Bill Belichick kept a close eye on the second-team offense’s goal-line drills. If anything had changed among the triumvirate atop New England’s hierarchy, it wasn’t evident to the naked eye on Thursday.

However, the rest of the roster — and coaching staff — has seen plenty of changes. The draft, trades, and free agency brought in a collection of new talent, while giant offers from other teams plucked some stars away this offseason. Some of the controversies surrounding the Patriots, like Josh McDaniels’s decision to rejoin the team, have cleared away, but others, such as Alex Guerrero’s role, linger.

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As training camp gets underway, here’s what’s new about the 2018 Patriots:

There are shoes to fill — especially early in the season.

The Patriots released a few players this offseason, including Cody Hollister, Martellus Bennett, and Shea McClellin. However, those departures pale in comparison to the players who left of their own volition: Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis, Nate Solder, and Malcolm Butler.

Those high-profile names found greener pastures —and much more green — elsewhere in free agency. Jimmy Garoppolo is another face from last year’s training camp who won’t be there this time around. And Julian Edelman’s out for the first four games. So who’s going to replace them?

At 6-foot-8, 380 pounds, Trent Brown has the size to fill just about any gap, and he’ll be in the mix to take over for Solder as Brady’s blindside protector. Michel should pick up some of the slack Lewis left behind, while Jordan Matthews, Chris Hogan, and the rest of the receiving corps will try to ease the pain of Amendola becoming a Dolphin.

On the defensive side of the ball, Jason McCourty could start the season as one of the starting cornerbacks, but his brother Devin cautioned against thinking he can replace Butler by himself.

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“We can’t replace those guys with just one guy,” he said, per NESN. “But I think the thing you learn in the NFL is each year, your team is different, so we’ll have to find different ways to win games without the Malcolms, without the Dions, the Nates. That’s the challenge of every offseason and trying to come together as a team.”

Sony Michel is here to be a three-down back

Sony Michel’s 27-yard, walk-off touchdown in the Rose Bowl for Georgia provided a glimpse of what he can bring to the Patriots this season. The rookie, selected by the Patriots with the 31st overall pick, will be the highest-paid running back on the roster with expectations to match.

Michel took reps with the first-team offense during red zone drills on the first day of camp. He projects as a three-down back, whether it be on the ground, in the air, or in pass-protection.

As a Bulldog in 2017, Michel ran for 1,227 yards and 16 touchdowns on 156 carries. If the rookie can address the ball security issues that flared up in college, he should have a sizable role in Tom Brady’s offense — running behind his college roommate and fellow first-round pick Isaiah Wynn.

Immediately after the draft, Michel said he hadn’t thought about taking a handoff from Brady because “there’s levels” to reaching that point. During minicamp, his reps were limited as he sought to make a mark within the position group. His touches will increase at training camp and if all goes to plan he’ll fulfill the promise of that high draft pick.

Brian Flores replaces Matt Patricia in charge of the defense.

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Brian Flores might not have the title of defensive coordinator, but he certainly has his players’ respect and attention. The longtime assistant, now in his 15th season with New England, was handed play-calling duties when Matt Patricia left to take over as head coach of the Detroit Lions.

Linebacker and defensive captain Dont’a Hightower noted players seem to be learning better and quicker under the new leadership.

“You can definitely tell there’s a difference somewhere along the line,” Hightower said. “It helps everybody else on the field when everybody knows what they’re doing. You can play faster and do different things. Whatever he’s doing is working.”

Defensive end Trey Flowers said Flores is “a guy that you can depend on and put us in the best position to win.” While Flores — who primarily worked with safeties and linebackers — never directly coached Flowers’s position group, the fourth-year pro recognized his work coming off through the ranks of the Patriots staff.

“He’s a great coach,” Flowers said, per NESN.

Cordarelle Patterson has new kickoff rules to work with.

The NFL made a series of rule changes to the kickoff, traditionally one of the most dangerous plays in the sport. There should be less full-speed collisions under the new rules, which include eliminating both wedge blocks by the returning team and the kicking team’s running start.

While the rules are intended to make the play safer, they could potentially open the gate for more touchdowns by taking away the coverage team’s free run down the field. That should play right into Cordarelle Patterson’s hands — even if the new Patriots kick returner says his approach won’t change.

“Me, personally, it [doesn’t change anything] for me,” Patterson said during minicamp, per the Patriot Ledger. “Nine deep, eight deep, four deep, whatever, I approach every kickoff like it’s the last. That’s something I take good pride in, and every time I get the ball in my hands, I’m just trying to make an explosive play.”

New England acquired Patterson and a sixth-round pick from the Oakland Raiders for a fifth-round pick. Although the 6-foot-2, 220-pound speedster can line up as a wide receiver or out of the backfield, his return stats are the ones that catch the eye. Over five seasons, Patterson has returned 153 kickoffs for 4,613 yards and five touchdowns.

He already has one 109-yard touchdown return to his name. The new kickoff rules could allow for even more of Patterson’s electrifying runs.

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