By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The New England Patriots' 2015 season may be over, and it may have ended in spectacularly disappointing fashion. But there were still plenty of good things to take away from the season that was. The future remains bright in New England and, barring more serious injuries, the Patriots should be right back in the Super Bowl hunt in 2016.
There are many positives on both sides of the ball, starting with the core. None of the Patriots' high-end talent is up for free agency until after the 2016 season at the earliest. When it comes time to talk contracts with players like Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, and maybe even Chandler Jones, they should still have plenty of cap space to work with.
As for the downsides that need to be improved for 2016, they are few and far between. The team had one obvious weakness that can't possibly be worse, and the team could easily replace the few key pieces in danger of leaving.
It's been a somber few days in New England, but it feels like the grief is subsiding and Patriots Nation is ready to move on. It's time to spread some positive vibes. Take solace in these positive developments as you look forward to next season...
The offense remains elite
Tom Brady had a rough go of it in the second half as the porous offensive line got him beat up badly game after game. But with Julian Edelman back at 100 percent in 2016, and Rob Gronkowski escaping a second straight season without a serious injury, Brady's weapons are in their prime and the offense could be as strong as ever in 2016, even as Brady reaches age 39.
Dion Lewis emerged as the best third-down back the Patriots have seen since Kevin Faulk, and will be back for another go on time after tearing his ACL in Week 9. More on him later. An upgraded offensive line and improvement at outside receiver, whether or not it comes from Brandon LaFell, are the only obstacles in the way of the Patriots offense once again being as potent as any in the league next season.
The defense got better
After a troubling offseason that saw the Patriots let Darrelle Revis walk to free agency while gutting nearly the entire rest of the secondary, leaving starting duties to Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, things looked bleak for the Patriots entering 2015. Instead, the defense got even better. Butler and Ryan proved to be up to the challenge while Patrick Chung had the best season of his career, showing great improvement in coverage. This really helped the Patriots' relentless pass rush, the kind not seen in New England since the days of Seymor, McGinest and Vrabel.
How about that front-seven? Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower emerged as one of the best linebacker tandems in football. Chandler Jones had a career-best season. Jabaal Sheard was a revelation as an edge rusher. On the interior, Alan Branch and trade acquisition Akiem Hicks exceeded expectations while Dominique Easley and rookie first-round pick Malcom Brown showed flashes of high-end talent at times.
This Patriots defense is young, talented, battle-tested, and still has plenty of room to get better.
All key pieces on both sides of the ball are returning
Not only are all the key players on offense (Brady, Edelman, Gronk, Lewis) and defense (Collins, Hightower, Jones, Butler) all returning for at least one more season, even the coaching staff remains largely intact as coordinators Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels will put off potential head coaching jobs for another year.
The Patriots will need new offensive line and strength & conditioning coaches, which could very well be promotions from within. Not only are the Patriots talented and deep, they have some of the best continuity in the league; all the key pieces have played and coached together for several years now.
The team's pressing needs are few and far between and no major pieces are in danger of leaving. Expect mostly the same team back on the field going forward.
They still rule the AFC East
Rex Ryan was supposed to improve the Big Bad Bills when he switched teams in the AFC East, and the Dolphins and Jets were supposed to close the gap between themselves and the Patriots with several offseason free agent pickups. Nothing of the sort happened.
The Jets certainly improved on defense and Todd Bowles seems like a capable head coach, but they still don't have a good enough quarterback to hang with Brady or other elite signal-callers. An improvement at that position could make them division contenders. The Bills and Dolphins, meanwhile, had surprising regressions. This could bring Ryan's coaching into question ... The Dolphins, however, had no questions about their coaching staff: it was horrid.
Until the other three AFC East teams get better at coach and quarterback, they won't have a sniff at dethroning the Patriots for the division crown.
Malcolm Butler emerged as a legit No. 1 corner
Butler had eight months of questions swirling around him after making arguably the biggest interception in Super Bowl history and being handed the No. 1 cornerback job. Fans did not think he could replace the All-Pro talents of Darrelle Revis.
No. 21 may not be a true "shutdown" corner, but he sure is capable of delivering big-time performances in one-on-one matchups with top receivers. He gave up almost nothing to Odell Beckham Jr. after an early touchdown and held his own against other top-flight wideouts. Best of all, Butler plays his ass off on every single play regardless of his performance, the best kind of attitude to have at that position.
Don't be surprised if Butler sits at the top of Belichick's list for a contract extension before he becomes a restricted free agent.
Dion Lewis became a legitimate weapon
The Patriots didn't only have a star emerge on defense. Running back Dion Lewis came out of nowhere to not only pick up the offense quickly and earn Brady's trust, but become a dynamic weapon out of the backfield who warrants serious attention from opposing defenses.
Perceived initially as just another free agent off the scrap heap, Lewis not only replaced Shane Vereen's talents but consistently made eye-popping plays in space that Vereen never showed. If he can stay healthy, he could be one of the more productive backs in football getting significant touches in this offense.
One more reason the offense should improve in 2016...
The offensive line will get better
Could it possibly get worse? Brady took a historic beatdown at the hands of the Denver Broncos pass rush in the AFC Championship and the offensive line struggled to block for both Brady and the running game for much of the season. But the unit can only go up after hitting rock bottom in 2015; all they need is better health, and additional depth where needed.
Left tackle Nate Solder will be back, which moves Sebastian Vollmer back to right tackle (or the bench, if the Patriots spend high capital on a new tackle) and allows the interior linemen to slot into their natural positions. After relying heavily on three rookies in center David Andrews and guards Shaq Mason and Tre' Jackson, the Patriots will expect those players to take a step forward in their second years.
Next season could also show whether Dave DeGuglielmo's coaching really was that detrimental to the team, especially if most of the same line returns and plays much better. But the return of Solder plus an additional depth piece or two should make life easier for Brady (and the offense as a whole) in 2016.
Join the conversation!
What else did you like about the Patriots' 2015 season? Share your thoughts in the comments. Positive vibes, everyone!
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.
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