No NFL club has repeated as Super Bowl champion since the New England Patriots in the 2003-04 seasons, but this year’s Patriots could have the best chance of any team since to end that drought. The Pats appear better on paper than 2016 after some intriguing offseason moves by Bill Belichick. They are +400 favorites to win Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis on the first Sunday of February. No other team is below +1000 on NFL futures.
The 2017 NFL schedule comes out Thursday; the Patriots have the 12th-toughest schedule in the league by their opponents’ 2016 winning percentage (.527). Short of an injury to Tom Brady, New England could be an NFL betting favorite in every regular-season game. Possible exceptions would be at the Pittsburgh Steelers, at the Denver Broncos or against the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City.
The draft begins April 27 in Philadelphia, and the Patriots as of now aren’t likely to add any major immediate contributors in it because their first pick isn’t until 72nd overall. New England traded its first-round pick, No. 32, and a third-rounder to the New Orleans Saints for speedster receiver Brandin Cooks. He gives Brady his best deep threat since Randy Moss. Cooks had back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons for the Saints and a combined 17 TD catches the past two years. He had two of the four longest receptions in the NFL last year at 98 and 87 yards.
New England also traded its second-round pick, No. 64 overall, to the Carolina Panthers for defensive end Kony Ealy and the Panthers’ No. 72 overall selection. Ealy was magnificent in Super Bowl 50 against Denver with three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. Had the favored Panthers won, Ealy would have been MVP. Off that performance, Ealy, 25, was a moderate disappointment last year with five sacks. It’s a classic low-risk, potential high-reward deal for Belichick.
Also on the defensive side, New England signed arguably the top cornerback on the free-agent market in the Buffalo Bills’ Stephon Gilmore, while also re-signing Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower. A Super Bowl champion isn’t supposed to have the salary-cap flexibility to sign a guy like Gilmore and re-sign its defensive heart-and-soul who got offered more money elsewhere. The Patriots Way in action.
While the Patriots lost tight end Martellus Bennett (55 catches, 701 yards, seven TDs) to the Packers in free agency, they traded a fourth-round pick to the Indianapolis Colts for Dwayne Allen to replace Bennett and serve as insurance for injury-plagued Rob Gronkowski. Allen had 35 receptions for 406 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games last year and is a quality blocker.
Belichick kicked the tires on signing running back Adrian Peterson, but that’s unlikely because New England has added former Cincinnati Bengals tailback Rex Burkhead while signing Buffalo’s Mike Gillislee to a two-year, $6.4 million offer sheet the Bills aren’t expected to match; they would get the Pats’ fifth-round pick. New England stole receiver Chris Hogan from Buffalo last year in the same way.
With LeGarrette Blount, who had an NFL-high 18 rushing TDs in 2016, a free agent and not expected back, Belichick will go with a backfield-by-committee of Burkhead, Gillislee, and returnees Dion Lewis and Super Bowl hero James White. The latter two are terrific receivers out of the backfield. Gillislee last year became only the fifth back in the Super Bowl era to rush at least 100 times, average a minimum of 5.7 yards per carry and score at least eight rushing TDs in a single season.
There could be one major move left on the table for Belichick. Last year’s top cornerback, Malcolm Butler, is not happy with his $3.91 million restricted free-agent tender. Butler had held out signing that in hopes teams would offer him a huge offer sheet, but none came as it would have cost the signing team a first-round pick. The Saints are known to covet Butler. Either New England will keep an unhappy Butler for 2017 and pair him with Gilmore to give the team one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL, or the Pats could trade him for an early-round pick or two at the draft.