The AFC East appears to be somewhat more open now that Tom Brady jettisoned New England and resurfaced in Tampa Bay. With Brady under center, the Patriots won 17 of 19 division titles. The last time the Patriots lost the East was in 2008 when Brady went down with a season-ending injury in Week 1. While Brady is gone, Bill Belichick, the only head coach in league history to hoist the Lombardi Trophy six times, is still running the show in New England. That fact is certainly not lost on Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who was recently asked if he is "excited" to face a Patriots team that no longer has Brady.
"He's one of the greatest players, if not the greatest player of all-time," Darnold said on 'The Michael Kay Show'. "Obviously, and we know this, we understand that every game is a challenge in itself. But I think Bill and those guys in New England are gonna be ready to go, no matter what. Obviously, it's a big change, it made some headlines, but we're definitely not gonna take them any more lightly than we did before. We know whenever we play those guys, we got our hands full, no matter what."
Darnold knows better than just about anyone how daunting of a task it is to face a defense influenced by Belichick, who won two Super Bowls as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach. In two games against the Patriots last season, Darnold's Jets went 0-2 while being outscored 71-3. In those games, Darnold completed less than half of his attempts (27-of-60) for 253 yards with zero touchdowns and four interceptions and five sacks.
The worst game of Darnold's brief NFL career came against Belichick's Patriots. A week after he led the Jets to an upset victory over the Cowboys (completing nearly 72% of his passes for 338 yards with two touchdowns and an interception), Darnold and the Jets fell flat against New England's top-ranked defense. Darnold never found his rhythm, going 11-of-32 for 86 yards with four interceptions in a 33-0 loss. Darnold, who was "mic'd up" for the game, was heard saying that , a comment that immediately went viral.
The Patriots will undeniably look different without Brady, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they were will a drastically diminished version of themselves.
While Belichick has won championships with dynamic, high scoring offenses led by Brady, it appears that he is building the 2020 Patriots to be a similar version of his 2001 team, the team that jump-started the Patriots' dynasty. While that group was devoid of star power on the offensive side of the ball, they had depth at just about every position. They also had a seemingly endless supply of pass rushers along with smart, veteran players who knew how to decipher what opposing teams were trying to do.
In free agency, the Patriots lost linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, as well as defensive tackle Jamie Shelton and safety Nate Ebner. New England addressed those losses by signing former Buccaneers defensive tackle Beau Allen, former Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland, former Chargers safety Adrian Phillips and former Jaguars safety Cody Davis. They were also able to re-sign safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Shilique Calhoun.
New England further addressed their defense during the draft, selecting safety Kyle Dugger with the 37th overall pick. They spent their next two picks on EDGE rushers, selecting Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings with the 60th and 87th picks, respectively.
The Patriots, in free agency as well as during the draft, also added new pieces to their offense. They spent both of their third-round picks on tight ends, acquiring Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. The Patriots then spent three of their five Day 3 picks on the offensive line, selecting guard Michael Onwenu, tackle Justin Herron and center Dustin Woodard.
In free agency, the Patriots signed former Cardinals receiver Damiere Byrd and former Packers fullback Danny Vitale. Byrd will help replace Phillip Dorsett (who signed a one-year deal with the Seahawks), while Vitale will look to replace James Devlin, who retired in April.
While they didn't draft a receiver, the Patriots did sign several undrafted rookie receivers in Will Hastings (who played with Patriots quarterback Jarrett Stidham at Auburn), Sean Riley, Isaiah Zuber, and Jeff Thomas. The team also signed running back J.J. Taylor, who, despite being just 5-foot-5 and 185 pounds, managed to rush for 3,263 yards during his four years at Arizona.
As far as their quarterback position is concerned, Belichick appears confident that Stidham, a 2019 fourth-round pick who attempted just four regular season passes as a rookie, can get the job done. Last month, Matt Cassel under center for the majority of the season., when New England went 11-5 with
"Whoever the quarterback is, we'll try to make things work smoothly and efficiently for that player and take advantage of his strengths and his skills," Belichick said, via Andrew Callahan of the Boston Herald. "Cassel would be a good example. We geared everything toward what would be best for him, just like we always geared everything toward what was best for Tom to help our offense there. So I don't really see that changing."
Belichick also likely doesn't see the Patriots' run of success ending anytime soon, either. That sentiment is obviously shared by Darnold, who is expecting to face the same old Patriots when the Jets host Week England in Week 9.