21. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-7)
LAST SEASON: The Patriots spent heavily in free agency last offseason and got great production in return from new additions Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux and Hunter Henry. Still, they got off to a 2-4 start, which included a loss to Tom Brady and Tampa Bay in his return to face his former team. It turned out to be an inflection point. A subsequent seven-game win streak briefly catapulted New England into first place in the AFC East, a position it hadn’t held since Brady’s departure. That was erased by three losses in the final four games, setting up a wild-card playoff matchup with Buffalo. New England’s return to the postseason lasted that one game as the Bills rolled to a 47-17 win.
FREE AGENCY/TRADES: Traded G Shaq Mason to Buccaneers and LB Chase Winovich to Browns. Lost CB J.C. Jackson (Chargers), C Ted Karras (Bengals), WR-KR Gunner Olszewski (Steelers), FB Jakob Johnson (Raiders), RB Brandon Bolden (Raiders) and LB Brandon King (Colts). Acquired WR DeVante Parker (Dolphins) and LB Mack Wilson (Browns) via trade. Signed free agent CB Malcolm Butler, WR Ty Montgomery, S Jabrill Peppers and CB Terrance Mitchell. Re-signed S Devin McCourty, RB James White, ST Matt Slater, LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, T Trent Brown, OL James Ferentz, K Nick Folk and QB Brian Hoyer.
THEY NEED: LB, OL, CB, WR.
THEY DON’T NEED: QB, RB, S.
POSSIBLE FIRST PICK: Georgia LB Nakobe Dean; UCLA WR Kyle Philips; Clemson CB Andrew Booth Jr.
OUTLOOK: The Patriots are in transition mode after former director of player personnel Dave Ziegler went to Las Vegas, where he’ll be new coach Josh McDaniels’ general manager. There’s been some adjustment to their approach under new personnel head Matt Groh, but he has been with the Patriots for more than a decade and is familiar with Bill Belichick’s philosophies. Look for New England to be more aggressive than usual, when it typically has chosen to trade back. The only year the Patriots haven’t made at least one draft-day trade under Belichick was 2004.
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