A week ago, heading into the legal tampering period of free agency, the New England Patriots were still considered close to a lock to take the AFC East in 2020 and stay among the conference’s elite.

Today?

Minus Tom Brady and a handful of defensive starters, the view from the top has changed.

Not only are the Patriots vulnerable in the division, where Buffalo has its best shot in years to dethrone the champs, but they’re also being given little to no shot at contending for the Super Bowl.

One New York paper even had them finishing last in the division.

Ouch.

What happened to having faith in Bill Belichick, the GOAT of coaches? What happened to the much-used slogan “In Bill we trust?”

Obviously, given the events of the past week, Belichick finds himself with plenty of holes to fill and little cap space – NFLPA records have the Patriots with about $2.6 million available. But there’s no need to jump off the bandwagon. There’s still time for him to rebuild, restock and reload.

“I know the teams in the AFC East are jumping for joy with Tom gone,” said ESPN analyst Damien Woody. “But listen, they still have the best coach in NFL history. The organization isn’t dead, but when you don’t have the greatest quarterback of all time on your roster, you’re going to take a hit. So they’re going to take a step back, but I don’t see them falling into the abyss.

“I think the Patriots want to retool; whether it’s Jarrett Stidham (at quarterback) or they acquire another veteran. Then they’ll reallocate funds to some of the defections they had on defense.”

The curiosity is how that might take shape, and just how much of a rebuild is needed. What might Belichick have up his sleeve? The way it’s shaping up, it looks like the draft will be the chief avenue to plug holes.

The needs haven’t really changed. They’ve merely intensified after what’s transpired in free agency. The breakdown is as follows:

LINEBACKER

With three free agents in Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, this figured to be a need. But it’s escalated now, thanks to the Patriots losing all three. While they still have Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall as off-the-ball linebackers, and John Simon and Chase Winovich as edge defenders/outside linebackers, their depth has gone from a strength to a weakness. Some mock drafts have the Patriots selecting Wisconsin’s Zack Baun. He played almost exclusively as an edge defender in college, but has some versatility to move around. Bottom line: They need more bodies.

TIGHT END

The Patriots should have drafted one of the top prospects last year in a tight end-rich draft. They strangely passed, even with Rob Gronkowski retiring. After having an offense that revolved around the position, it was nonexistent last season. Benjamin Watson, now retired, played on a bad Achilles. Matt LaCosse had a bum ankle most of the year, and Ryan Izzo wasn’t anything special.

Even though Hunter Henry received the franchise tag from the Chargers, and Austin Hooper signed for big money with the Browns, the Patriots can still land a veteran (Tyler Eifert, Delanie Walker) via free agency, or trade (Cleveland’s David Njoku). But even if they nab a veteran, the draft remains key. Unlike last year, there are no first-round prospects. But Dayton’s Adam Trautman, Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet, Washington’s Hunter Bryant or Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam could help get the group back on the map.

WIDE RECEIVER

The Patriots added Damiere Byrd in free agency. He should help stretch the field with his blazing speed and is also a candidate to return kicks. He joins a primary cast that features Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers. Is it enough? It wasn’t for Brady. It probably won’t be for his replacement. They could use another top wideout.

Who’s left in free agency? Breshad Perriman? He wants to re-sign with the Buccaneers and play with Brady. Robby Anderson? He looks like he might be going back to the Jets. As it is, the Patriots are strapped for salary cap space.

But the good news is this is the best wide receiver draft in some time. The Patriots should be able to add an impact receiver. LSU’s Justin Jefferson, Baylor’s Denzel Mims, SMU’s James Proche are just a few possibilities for the Brady-less offense.

QUARTERBACK

After 20 years, the Patriots are on to someone new. Most signs are pointing to Stidham getting the job. He knows the offense, and given some of the fallout from the coronavirus, that will be handy if there’s any kind of reduction for training camp. Brian Hoyer is returning for a third stint with the team, according to reports on Sunday, and possibly could take the job, at least temporarily, if the team determines Stidham isn’t ready. It’s also not out of the realm for them to draft a quarterback, especially if they’re not sold on Stidham.

That quarterback would likely come in the first three rounds. One draft expert has Oregon’s Justin Herbert falling to them at No. 23. It’s doubtful Utah State’s Jordan Love would fall that far. Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts is a third-round possibility, as is Georgia’s Jake Fromm.

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