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Hurley: It Doesn't Feel Like The Patriots Are Back In Super Bowl Contention

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- Everybody loves to overreact to the NFL Draft one way or another. This is not that. (Congrats to the Jets, though. Big weekend for the Jets.)

This is, rather, a zoomed-out view of the past three months of roster-building in New England and everywhere else in the AFC in an effort to determine whether or not the Patriots will satisfy Robert Kraft's expectation for the team to get back to serious contention this year.

It's rather difficult to say the Patriots are there.

Or ... really all that close.

Consider that the Patriots had the lowest strength of victory among AFC playoff teams last year at .394. That is to say, of the seven AFC playoff teams, they had the weakest resume. Among the 14 total playoff teams, only the Eagles had a less impressive body of work.

The Patriots went 2-3 against playoff teams, with one win coming against a Derrick Henry-less and A.J. Brown-less Tennessee Titans, and the other coming in the midst of an Orchard Park tornado. They counted, sure. But they came in unique circumstances. They'd later face the Bills in normal conditions twice in a three-week span, losing by a combined score of 80-38 and failing to force a single Buffalo punt.

Clearly, the Patriots weren't nearly on the level of the AFC East champs.

Since the season ended in painful fashion, you're surely aware that the Patriots lost J.C. Jackson, as well as their starting guards. (To a lesser extent, they also lost their punt returner.) They may lose their middle linebacker/defensive captain, too, with Dont'a Hightower's playing status still undetermined. And they lost their longtime offensive coordinator in Josh McDaniels -- a man who was essentially the head coach of that entire side of the ball -- along with three more offensive assistants.

The extent to which the Patriots have supplanted those spots can be debated. Yet looking in totality about the entirety of the Patriots' offseason to this point, the best-case scenario is that they've managed to tread water while hoping for significant year two jumps from last year's rookie class.

In a league where teams must constantly be improving in order to stay alive, standing pat doesn't feel like the road to contention.

The Cole Strange pick fills one immediate need, but he also plays a position that the Patriots have managed to fill with mid-round picks and undrafted players for a very, very long time. Outside of first-round picks Logan Mankins and Damien Woody (whom Belichick inherited in 2000), the Patriots' offense has thrived with third-rounders (Joe Thuney), fourth-rounders (Shaq Mason, Bryan Stork), fifth-rounders (Dan Koppen), sixth-rounders (Ted Karras, Mike Onwenu) and undrafted players (David Andrews, Dan Connolly, Steven Neal, Ryan Wendell) manning the interior line spots. It's hard to believe that the 29th overall pick was needed to plug that vacant guard spot, when the team had and has some larger concerns at cornerback, in the front seven and at the receiver spot, and also could have likely gotten Strange later in the draft. And if Strange was taken by another team before the Patriots could snag him later ... it does feel as though the Patriots could have survived such a loss. That lengthy list of successful Patriots guards provides reason for confidence in such a statement.

The Tyquan Thornton pick -- after trading up to get him -- feels like a boom-or-bust potential. The Patriots' history of drafting receivers -- especially in the first three rounds -- provides some serious doubt on the likelihood of the boom.

Certainly, the likes of Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith (and maybe even Nelson Agholor) figure to be in for steps forward in their second year working with Mac Jones. DeVante Parker (if healthy) may be the best of the group.

But for one, the massive loss in McDaniels and the offensive assistants absolutely shouldn't be overlooked. With the complete unknowns on the offensive side of the coaching staff, positive progress should not be assumed to be a given. Part of what made Jones' rookie year such a success was that he was landing in a well-established program. This year, that safety net has been removed, and if the troika of Joe Judge, Matt Patricia and Nick Caley lacks the precision and fluidity of the McDaniels-led offense, then Jones and Co. could be in for some very long Sundays this fall.

And secondly, with all of the focus on the Patriots, the improvements made around the conference cannot be ignored.

Jokes aside, the Jets have added a lot of talent this year. What that means, exactly, is yet to be determined. But football people really liked Robert Saleh for a reason, and it does seem fair to believe the Jets won't be the 4-13 doormat that they were a year ago. The Dolphins may still be rolling with Tua Tagovailoa, and they may have a head coach with some sneaky question marks (namely, can he run a football team?), but they also added Tyreek Hill and Terron Armstead. The team that beat the Patriots twice last season figures once again to be a very formidable foe. Then there's the Bills, who came an eyelash short of making the AFC title game, and spent the offseason trying to improve. They signed Von Miller in free agency, part of a beefing-up of the defense, and they drafted highly regarded cornerback Kaiir Elam out of Florida. The needle continues to point up in Buffalo.

Elsewhere in the conference, the Broncos finally have a real quarterback in Russell Wilson, making the team with one of the best defenses in the NFL suddenly viable as a real contender. The Colts upgraded from Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan, the reigning conference-champion Bengals now have a functional offensive line, the Browns have (probably?) Deshaun Watson to run their offense, the Chiefs did lose Hill but added two legitimate receivers for Patrick Mahomes, the Chargers added J.C. Jackson and a top-rated guard in Zion Johnson, and the Raiders added Davante Adams, arguably the best receiver in football. In terms of improving through the draft, the Chiefs and the Ravens went the route that a lot of football fans in New England hoped to see out of the Patriots, adding several players who very well could be impact players as soon as this season.

Adding DeVante Parker, Mack Wilson, Ty Montgomery, and a guard out of Chattanooga to a wild card team doesn't feel like evidence that the Patriots are keeping pace with their AFC brethren.

Obviously, nothing in sports ever works out exactly as planned, and some of the offseason "winners" are sure to find life more difficult than they envisioned once the games kick off in the fall. Undeniably, though, there's been an arms race for talent across the conference, an event for which the Patriots have mostly been spectators.

That doesn't mean that the 2022 Patriots are dead and buried here in the first week of May. It is, though, a recognition that the team at this point in time does not appear to be in the position that the owner wants and expects them to be. With the busiest days of free agency and the entire draft now in the rear view, it's hard to see the road that gets them there from here.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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