Patriots should integrate Brandin Cooks into the mix quickly

Receiver Brandin Cooks figures to be an important piece for the Patriots this fall. AP Photo/Butch Dill

With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror, and organized team activities and minicamps in full swing, here's a starting lineup projection for the New England Patriots:


QB: Tom Brady: He turns 40 on Aug. 3, but has shown little, if any, signs of decline. With Jimmy Garoppolo in the final year of his contract, there is some intrigue as to how things will shake out next offseason at the position.

RB: Mike Gillislee/James White: If the Patriots are looking for more of a traditional rusher, it’s Gillislee. If it’s more of a pass-first plan, White is the primary option.

TE: Rob Gronkowski: He likely won’t play in the preseason (he hasn’t appeared in a preseason game since 2012) and the key, as always, is keeping him healthy.

LT: Nate Solder: Entering his seventh NFL season, he is in the final year of his contract and the Patriots devoted four draft picks to trade up to select two left tackles this year: Tony Garcia and Conor McDermott.

LG: Joe Thuney: The 2016 third-round pick from NC State was one of the most productive rookies across the NFL last season, playing in every snap but four all season.

C: David Andrews: Having entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia in 2015, he was scheduled to enter his restricted free-agent year before agreeing to an extension through 2020 last week. This is still one spot where the Patriots might be seeking more depth.

RG: Shaq Mason: The 2015 fourth-round pick from Georgia Tech is growing into a dependable blocker after playing in an option-based offense in college with few pass-protection responsibilities.

RT: Marcus Cannon: He capped off an unexpected turnaround by seizing the starting job in 2016 for good and then earning a well-deserved contract extension.

TE: Dwayne Allen: Acquired from the Colts in an offseason trade, he slides into the spot previously occupied by Martellus Bennett, an exchange sparked by the Patriots’ decision-making.

WR: Brandin Cooks: In March, owner Robert Kraft said he can’t remember a receiver outside of Randy Moss whom the team has brought in during his ownership tenure who could have this type of impact from a speed perspective.

WR: Julian Edelman: When there is a “got-to-have-it” play, Brady often looks in Edelman's direction. Edelman, who turns 31 on May 22, had 98 catches last season. The Patriots will also integrate Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola into the receiver mix, so it doesn't all fall on Edelman and Cooks.


DE: Trey Flowers: The third-year veteran from Arkansas led the Patriots with 7.0 sacks last season and created the most havoc rushing from an interior position in sub packages.

DT: Alan Branch: Re-signing him to a two-year contract this offseason was widely viewed as an important piece of business, as he was cited by Bill Belichick as the team's most consistent interior defensive tackle last season.

DT: Malcom Brown: The 2015 first-round draft choice from Texas (No. 32 overall) didn’t make the major jump in Year 2 that some projected, but is still a key contributor.

DE: Rob Ninkovich: One of the elder statesmen on the roster, the 33-year-old Ninkovich enters the final year of his contract and projects to be part of a rotation with Flowers, Kony Ealy and top draft pick Derek Rivers (No. 83 overall).

LB: Dont'a Hightower: The returning captain flirted with the Jets and Steelers in free agency before re-signing and is a three-down option and glue guy in the middle.

LB: Elandon Roberts: A surprise contributor last year, the 2016 sixth-round pick from Houston is an instinctive, powerful player against the run who often comes off the field in passing situations in place of Kyle Van Noy or Shea McClellin.

CB: Stephon Gilmore: Signed to a five-year, $65 million contract as a free agent, the former Buffalo Bill is valued for his steady approach, length and physical presence at the line of scrimmage.

FS: Devin McCourty: One of the best in the NFL at his position, the eight-year veteran is a longtime captain whose range gives defensive coordinator Matt Patricia desired flexibility.

SS: Patrick Chung: At his best playing closer to the line of scrimmage or matched against opposing tight ends, he’s a durable, physical chess piece who helps in the all-important matchup game against various schemes.

FS: Duron Harmon: No team in the NFL ran more three-safety packages than the Patriots last season, which is why Harmon is essentially viewed as a starter. The three-safety package gives the Patriots enough of a run-stopping presence up front, but more athleticism on the back end against the pass.

CB: Malcolm Butler: Playing on a one-year, $3.91 million restricted free-agent tender, Butler's competitiveness is something coaches and teammates have cited as one of his best assets.


K: Stephen Gostkowski: He didn’t perform up to his usual standards in 2016 on field goal attempts and extra points, but his kickoffs remained an important weapon in the field-position game.

P: Ryan Allen: The left-footed punter has held the job since 2013, also doubling as the club's holder.

KR: Dion Lewis/Cyrus Jones: Lewis was a spark plug returning kicks in the playoffs, which puts him in a leading role, but one would think Jones will be given every chance to seize the job after a rocky rookie season.

PR: Edelman/Danny Amendola/Jones: Edelman and Amendola are proven options, but is it worth the injury risk? If Jones can prove reliable, he'd be the preferred option.