The New England Patriots are entering the 2021 season with much optimism, amidst some questions. After a disappointing 7-9 finish in 2020, a season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, New England entered the offseason with a clear goal of making significant improvements.
In an approach, uncharacteristic to the franchise under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots spent big in free agency. Marquee additions such as tight ends Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, wide receivers Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and linebacker Matthew Judon headlined one of the most impressive free-agent classes in the NFL.
New England would continue its aggressive roster upgrades through the 2021 NFL Draft. For the first time since 1993 (when the team drafted Drew Bledsoe first overall), the Pats selected a quarterback in the first round. Alabama’s Mac Jones was chosen with the 15th overall pick, symbolically anointing him as the franchise quarterback of the future. However, the Pats continued to solidify their future with the selections of defensive tackle Christian Barmore (Alabama), edge rusher Ronnie Perkins and running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
Still, the most eye-opening moment of the Patriots' preparations for 2021 came during roster cutdowns. Incumbent quarterback (and presumed starter) Cam Newton was released in favor of his rookie counterpart. Following his strong performance in training camp, the Mac Jones era in New England is about to begin.
While Newton had performed well during training camp, the Patriots ultimately decided on Jones, as the rookie seemed to exude a greater deal of comfort in the Patriots passing offense. For all of the discussion surrounding New England’s desire to change their passing game, they are still operating under a timing-based system, predicated on vertical routes and completions from quick, accurate throws. While the Pats struggled to make such plays in 2020, Jones’ prowess in this area will serve them well in that regard. In addition, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne provide the Pats with a versatile trio atop the depth chart at wideout. Each is more than capable of playing outside, or in the slot.
The talented tandem of Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry will provide the Patriots with the chance to run two-tight-end packages that will give opposing teams headaches in the upcoming season. Devin Asiasi seems to be headed toward a stronger 2021, getting the chance to show impressive athleticism and his upside as a route runner. Having ranked last in production at the position in 2020, the Pats corps of tight ends looks to be poised for a complete positive turnaround.
From top to bottom, New England’s positional grouping at running back is among the deepest on the team. Damien Harris will remain the team’s feature back, while J.J. Taylor will assume the "change of pace" role. Brandon Bolden is a special teams ace, and should be a viable option on third down to help lessen the workload of James White. Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson possesses the necessary intangibles to be an effective option in both situational runs, or even receiving out of the backfield. All things considered, the running back corps should be among the most productive units in the Pats’ offense.
The strongest aspect of the Patriots offense may still be their offensive line. In fact, New England is poised to field one of the most formidable offensive lines in the NFL in 2021. Despite losing All-Pro guard Joe Thuney in free agency, the Pats still employ a stout line consisting of center David Andrews, guards Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu, and tackles Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn. While the starting unit is strong at every position, the value of the line truly rests within its depth. Ted Karras, Justin Herron and Yodny Cajuste, and the newly-acquired Durant give New England capable swing linemen at center, guard and tackle.
For all of the upgrades the Patriots made on offense, it is their defensive improvements that may pay the biggest dividends for them in 2021. Two of the areas in which the Pats struggled were setting the edge and stopping the run. New England ranked 26th in the NFL in run defense. Rookie Christian Barmore has tremendous upside, and figures to factor prominently into the team’s plans on the defensive line. Defensive tackle Henry Anderson’s versatility makes him an important piece, along with Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise. Carl Davis has been one of the defensive standouts in camp, thus far, proving his value within the system as a two-gapping interior defensive lineman.
The Patriots corps of linebackers is poised for great success in 2021. Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Matt Judon provide a much-needed veteran presence. Second-year linebacker Josh Uche continues to emerge as one of the more exciting young pass-rushers in the NFL. Ja’Whaun Bentley’s knowledge of the Patriots defensive schemes make him a key rotational piece at the position. Chase Winovich has the talent to be among the league’s most potent edge rushers. However, he needs to focus on his consistency; especially when it comes to funneling run plays into the middle. Veteran Harvey Langi continues to show his talent to be in on the tackle, as well as improving his abilities to make plays on the ball.
With Stephon Gilmore missing the first six-week while on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, the Patriots will continue to be a bit weak at outside cornerback. J.C. Jackson is ready for prime time, but who will emerge as his counterpart? Jalen Mills may see as much time at safety, as at corner, while Joejuan Williams should see increased snaps. The former second-rounder out of Vanderbilt has yet to emerge as a match with the Patriots press coverage schemes. Despite Williams’ size and length, newly acquired Shaun Wade may end up being a better fit there. Devin McCourty continues to anchor a strong group at safety. Adrian Phillips has arguably been the Patriots best defensive player during training camp and preseason. Kyle Dugger plays with strength and a wisdom beyond his years. While the Pats will miss the veteran savvy of Patrick Chung, the Pats primary trio at the position is as versatile a group as can be found in the NFL.
Despite the elevated expectations, the New England Patriots still face an uphill battle to unseat the reigning AFC East Division Champion Buffalo Bills. Though Mac Jones is more than capable of leading New England to a greater number of wins than losses, there will still be moments in which Pats fans will be reminded that he is a rookie. The strength of the Patriots will be found in its defensive front seven. As such, the Pats will win more close games in 2021. Their personnel improvements, buoyed by the coaching prowess of head coach Bill Belichick, the Pats are likely to remain in a battle for second place in the division, competing with a formidable Miami Dolphins team.
Win-Loss Record: 11–6 (Tied, Second Place, AFC East)
Expected Depth Chart
WR: Nelson Agholor (1), N'Keal Harry (2), Matthew Slater (3)
LT: Isaiah Wynn (1), Justin Herron (2), Yodny Cajuste (3)
LG: Michael Onwenu (1)
C: David Andrews (1), Ted Karras (2)
RG: Shaq Mason (1), Yasir Durant (2)
RT: Trent Brown (1)
TE: Jonnu Smith (1), Hunter Henry (2), Devin Asiasi (3)
WR: Jakobi Meyers (1), Kendrick Bourne (2), Gunner Olszewski (3)
QB: Mac Jones (1)
RB: Damien Harris (1), James White (2), Brandon Bolden (3)
RB: J.J. Taylor (1), Jakob Johnson (2), Rhamondre Stevenson (3)
LE: Deatrich Wise Jr. (1)
DL: Lawrence Guy (1), Christian Barmore (2)
DL: Davon Godchaux (1), Carl Davis (2)
RE: Henry Anderson (1), Chase Winovich (2)
LB: Matt Judon (1), Ronnie Perkins (2), Brandon King (3)
LB: Dont'a Hightower (1), Ja'Whaun Bentley (2)
LB: Kyle Van Noy (1), Josh Uche (2), Harvey Langi (3)
LCB: J.C. Jackson (1), Jonathan Jones (2), Shaun Wade (3)
RCB: Jalen Mills (1), Joejuan Williams (2)
S: Adrian Phillips (1), Kyle Dugger (2), Justin Bethel (3)
S: Devin McCourty (1), Cody Davis (2)
K: Quinn Nordin (1)
P: Jake Bailey (1)
H: Jake Bailey (1)
PR: Gunner Olszewski (1)
KR: Gunner Olszewski (1), J.J. Taylor (2), Kyle Dugger (3)
LS: Joe Cardona (1)