Could Patriots Actually Be Even Better Than Expected In 2017?

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Comfort is a valuable commodity in New England for Patriots playing under Bill Belichick.

Of course, comfort is a relative term around Gillette Stadium. No player is ever truly comfortable playing under Belichick. He tells his team there are no starters, no guaranteed roster spots at this time each year. Hey, even Tom Brady could be left without a job if he shows signs of regression and Belichick decides Jimmy Garoppolo gives the team a better chance to win.

But there are levels of comfort with the Patriots, and multiple players who served valuable roles on the team’s Super Bowl LI-winning squad weren’t exactly at ease in 2016.

Wide receiver Chris Hogan was in his first season in an ultra-complex offense, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell and guard Joe Thuney were rookie contributors, Shea McClellin was playing multiple roles as a first-year Patriot, linebacker Kyle Van Noy was forced to pick up a new defense midway through the season as a trade-deadline pickup and cornerback Eric Rowe was acquired shortly before Week 1.

Van Noy straight-up laughed and scoffed when asked if he was put in a difficult situation last year. McClellin fully admitted he feels more comfortable this offseason. Rowe acknowledged he was still learning how to play cornerback before being traded. He’s only now in his fourth season at the position.

Many have assumed the 2017 Patriots would be better than the 2016 squad after acquiring running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen, defensive linemen Lawrence Guy and Kony Ealy, linebacker David Harris and cornerback Stephon Gilmore over the offseason. But it’s difficult to account for the improvement of players who have gained intangibles like experience or comfort.

But it’s safe to assume, barring injury, guys like Hogan, Mitchell, Thuney, McClellin, Van Noy and Rowe will be better than they were in 2016. Just like it’s safe to assume guys like Gillislee, Burkhead, Cooks, Guy, Ealy, Harris and Gilmore might need some time to get acclimated before they’re playing at their fullest potential.

Some project the Patriots to finish 19-0 this season based on the offseason acquisitions. It’s not an insane premise. The Patriots went 14-2 and won Super Bowl LI last season, and they did get better in the offseason. It’s impossible to finish better than 19-0, but it seems to be overlooked that so many players will be in more comfortable situations entering 2017 than they were in 2016.

The idea of McClellin, or maybe even Van Noy, taking over Rob Ninkovich’s role based on how they played in 2016 might be a little frightening to some. But McClellin and Van Noy were expected to learn multiple roles in a short amount of time last year. A full offseason should do them a world of good as they try to take on even greater roles this season.

It’s absurd to imagine a team being better than 19-0, but that’s the current ceiling for the 2017 Patriots.

Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images

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