2020 turned out to be a year to forget very quickly in Foxborough. Tom Brady finally closed the door behind him after two decades and six Super Bowls, leaving the Patriots despaired and weak. The pandemic also hit Bill Belichick’s team hard. The Patriots had the highest number of opt-outs of any team in the National Football League (NFL). The effects on the results were immediately visible. The Patriots were unable to set a winning record for the first time since 2000 (!). They also lost the battle for the AFC East for the first time since 2008 with a disappointing 7-9. Belichick was furious and doesn’t want to go through this scenario again.
The Patriots dominated the headlines right from the start of Free Agency. The attacking compartment in particular was thoroughly embellished. No fewer than two tight ends and two wide receivers signed starter contracts with the Pats. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry must breathe new life into a deplorable tight end room next season. Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor must fill the void left by Julian Edelman. The MVP of Super Bowl LIII hung up on his cleats after a lingering injury and retired. Smith, Henry and Agholor can all count on an annual salary of more than $11 million. Right tackle Trent Brown returned to the old nest after two years with the Oakland Raiders.
Also defensively they did not look at a dollar more or less in New England. Linebacker Matt Judon came over from the Ravens and signed a $56 million four-season contract. In addition, DT Davon Godchaux, cornerback Jalen Mills and linebacker Kyle Van Noy – another regretful optant – also signed lucrative deals. Defensive end Henry Anderson traded the New York Jets for the Patriots to complete the defensive quality injection.
On the outgoing side, the departure of Joe Thuney was particularly striking. He signed for the big money in Kansas City. Like Edelman, Safety Patrick Chung opted for retirement rather than an extended stay. Those who did opt for an extended stay were quarterback Cam Newton, center David Andrews and DT Lawrence Guy. Certainly Newton’s new contract came as a surprise after his – to say the least – mediocre performance in 2020.
After the end of last season, it was clear that the New England Patriots had a problem with the quarterback position. Tom Brady had left and his replacement, Cam Newton, did not seem the right fit. The Newton experiment fizzled out. Despite Newton being offered a new one-year deal, everyone agreed that the Patriots would bring in their quarterback of the future through the draft.
They did what everyone expected of them. Without having to trade up, Alabama’s Mac Jones fell in 15th place in the Patriots’ lap. Jones is not known as an athletic quarterback, but he is an accurate pocket passer with experience at the highest College level. A seemingly perfect fit for a team where Tom Brady ruled for 20 years.
In the second round, Belichick showed some aggressiveness to choose DT Christian Barmore – also of Alabama. The Patriots traded up a few places and selected a man who can be deployed almost immediately. Given last season’s very weak run defense, reinforcements had to be brought in. In the third round, the 96th pick went to Ronnie Perkins from Oklahoma. The defensive end was initially projected a lot higher and so this could safely be called a steal.
In the later rounds, the Patriots filled in some other gaps in the core. Oklahoma running back Rhamondre Stevenson came off the board in the fourth round. In the fifth round, Michigan linebacker Cameron McGrone was chosen and in the sixth round, Joshua Bledsoe (safety, Missouri) and William Sherman (OG, Colorado) went to the Pats. Finally, UCF wide receiver Tre Nixon was seized in the seventh round.
The New England Patriots’ offense was mediocre to say the least in 2020. Bad would be a better description, however, as the Pats had the sixth-worst offense. In 2021, however, the offense of coordinator Josh McDaniels will look completely different. The quarterback’s arsenal, in particular, has received a significant quality injection. That quarterback will still be Cam Newton at the start of the season. Despite his poor 2020 season, New England maintains confidence in the former MVP. If it doesn’t work out, rookie Mac Jones is ready to seize his chance. The signals from training camp are already favourable.
In terms of weapons, the Patriots have undergone a metamorphosis. Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne joined at wide receiver. Certainly Agholor is becoming a cornerstone of the receiving corps. In addition, the Pats also count on Jakobi Meyers ; one of the few bright spots in the offense last season. Also who can count on many targets are the two new tight ends: Henry and Smith. With those two names they want to relive the heyday of Rob Gronkowski in New England. The only position where no free agents have been added is running back. Also this season it is almost impossible to predict who will be the most important rider in New England. However, it seems that people are mainly looking in the direction of Damien Harris.
They don’t have to worry as much about the O-line in Foxborough. In front of Cam Newton is a solid unit with center David Andrews, guards Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu and tackles Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown. This ensemble is potentially among the very best O-lines in the NFL.
The New England Patriots are usually proud of the defensive quality they bring to the field year after year, but last season their defense was mediocre. Defensive guru Bill Belichick does not tolerate mediocrity and so there was also a lot of investment on this side of the ball. That’s why there are a lot of new (or returning) names on the defense this season.
Defensive coordinators Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo will also likely opt for a 3-4 defense in 2021, with nose tackle Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy and Henry Anderson on the front line. Behind them, three-time Super Bowl champion Dont’a Hightower returns from his opt-out of linebacker. He may have Ja’Whaun Bentley next to him. The edges are populated by another returned prodigal son, Kyle Van Noy, and Matt Judon. Rookie Cameron McGrone can also probably count on a lot of snaps in his first year as a Patriot.
The secondary looks very strong on paper. Stephon Gilmore, 2019’s Defensive Player of the Year, will return to cornerback without incident unless his contract dispute is not resolved. On the left corner back we find JC Jackson who had a break out year in 2020 and caught no fewer than nine interceptions. Veterans Devin McCourty and Adrian Philips are on safety just like last year. This group has already performed well in 2020 and there is no reason to believe that the level would drop this year.
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The New England Patriots look – at least on paper – a lot better than in 2020. Both offensively and defensively, a lot of quality has been added. Both in free agency and in the draft, players have been found who are immediately deployable and who need to significantly boost the level. Bill Belichick has gone all-in after last season’s dramatic and is looking to win again. Losing is no longer an option for the greatest coach of all time.
Still, there are reasons to still doubt the Patriots. The quarterback position, for example, may be the weakest position on this team. Cam Newton was not good last year and the question is whether he can suddenly regain his MVP form with a full off-season. It seems unlikely. Should Cam fall through the ice, it is also far from obvious that rookie Mac Jones can immediately take over the torch.
In addition, the Patriots are in a strong division, the AFC East. It almost feels bizarre to say it, but the AFC East is one of the better divisions in the NFL this season. The Buffalo Bills have become even stronger and the Miami Dolphins also have a lot of talent in the team. Even the New York Jets should not be automatically written off. The Patriots will do better than last year, but their advance will be held back by a competitive division. So a winning record, but getting to the play-offs will be very difficult.