The New England Patriots' 2021 season came to a brutal end with Saturday night's blowout wild-card loss to the Buffalo Bills. While it certainly wasn't the ideal finish for Bill Belichick and Co., there are a few reasons to be optimistic as the focus shifts to 2022.
Here, we'll look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly from the 2021 campaign and look ahead to some important offseason storylines.
Patriots-Bills takeaways: Josh Allen ends Pats' season with epic performance
Positives from 2021-22
2021 NFL Draft class looks promising
Perhaps the most reassuring part of the 2021-22 season was the performance of the 2021 NFL Draft class, specifically quarterback Mac Jones, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, and running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
Starting with Jones, the 15th overall pick proved capable of being the new franchise quarterback in the post-Tom Brady era. By no means was it a perfect season, but Jones played well enough to insert himself into the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation and lead New England back into the postseason. After the Patriots' dismal 2020 campaign, that's all they could really ask for out of their rookie signal-caller.
Barmore has quickly developed into a standout player on the Patriots' defensive line. A teammate of Jones' at Alabama, Barmore made a tremendous impact with his ability to pressure the passer. He finished his rookie campaign with 1.5 sacks, nine QB hits, three tackles for loss, and 46 total tackles.
Stevenson bounced back from a rocky start to the season and formed a 1-2 punch in the backfield behind Damien Harris. The Oklahoma product notched 133 carries for 606 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games.
Free-agent spending spree (mostly) pays off
The Patriots spent a record $163 million in guaranteed money last offseason. That spending spree didn't translate to a Super Bowl title, but it did pay dividends for a team that desperately needed reinforcements.
Linebacker Matt Judon and tight end Hunter Henry starred in their first season in Foxboro. Judon finished with a career-high 12.5 sacks and was by far New England's most disruptive player on defense. Henry was Jones' go-to target in the end zone and ended up with 50 catches for 603 yards and a career-high nine TDs.
Another impactful signing that shouldn't fly under the radar is wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. The former San Francisco 49er was one of Jones' favorite targets and had a career year with 55 catches for 800 yards and five TDs.
Those were the wins of the 2021 offseason. We'll get to one of the big losses in a bit.
J.C. Jackson looks like a No. 1 CB
When Stephon Gilmore's tenure with the Patriots came to an end, the pressure was on J.C. Jackson to step up as the franchise's new top cornerback. For the most part, Jackson passed that test.
Jackson tallied eight interceptions a year after finishing second in the league with nine INTs. He had a career-high 23 passes defensed and was selected to his first Pro Bowl.
All of this means Jackson will be expecting a big payday in the near future. He'll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Team exceeded expectations
All in all, the Patriots took a step in the right direction in 2021. During the summer, no one knew whether it would be the veteran Cam Newton or the rookie Mac Jones under center. It was unclear how the offseason signings, particularly on offense, would fit.
A 10-7 finish and a playoff berth isn't what many Pats fans would consider a success after 20 years of greatness, but it's fair to say this team surpassed what was expected of them after a dismal 2020.
Negatives from 2021-22
Losing James White
Simply put, losing James White for the season was a huge blow to the Patriots right out of the gate. The veteran running back is integral to pretty much everything New England wants to accomplish on offense. There's no doubt Jones would've benefitted greatly from having a pro's pro like White not just next to him on the field, but also with him in the locker room.
The bright side to losing White was Brandon Bolden stepping up in his absence. Bolden stepped into that pass-catching role out of the backfield and had 41 receptions for 405 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed 44 times for 226 yards and a TD.
Jonnu Smith underwhelms
We already covered the free-agent signings that worked. Tight end Jonnu Smith was not one of them in Year 1 of his Pats career.
Smith had a bad case of the drops for most of the season. Expected to be one of Jones' top weapons, The former Tennessee Titan just couldn't find his groove with the rookie QB. He ended his disappointing year with 28 catches for 294 yards and one TD.
The Patriots were rolling as they took a seven-game win streak into their Week 14 bye. Whatever they did during that bye week, they'll want to do something completely different in 2022.
New England lost three of its last four regular-season games after the bye and looked like a team struggling to find its identity. It failed to rectify its issues in the wild-card game as they were flat-out embarrassed by Buffalo. Uncharacteristic mistakes over the final month ultimately cost New England an AFC title and perhaps a deeper postseason run.
Jake Bailey has been a stud ever since taking over as the Patriots' punter in 2019, but 2021 was not his year.
It wasn't all Bailey's fault, though. There isn't much a punter can do when he isn't properly protected. New England allowed three blocked punts during the season after not giving up any in the five previous campaigns. Improving on special teams (although, kicker Nick Folk was outstanding) needs to be a focal point heading into next season.
Patriots 2022 free agents
Below are all of the Patriots set to become free agents this offseason.
*UFA - Unrestricted free agent; RFA - Restricted free agent; ERFA - Exclusive rights free agent
- S Devin McCourty (UFA)
- RT Trent Brown (UFA)
- LB Dont'a Hightower (UFA)
- CB J.C. Jackson (UFA)
- C Ted Karras (UFA)
- WR Matthew Slater (UFA)
- RB James White (UFA)
- RB Brandon Bolden (UFA)
- FS Brandon King (UFA)
- QB Brian Hoyer (UFA)
- K Nick Folk (UFA)
- OLB Jamie Collins (UFA)
- LB Harvey Langi (UFA)
- FB Jakob Johnson (RFA)
- TE Troy Fumagalli (RFA)
- LB Terez Hall (ERFA)
- LB Ja'Whaun Bentley (UFA)
- WR Jakobi Meyers (RFA)
- WR Gunner Olszewski (RFA)
Key offseason dates
Feb. 22 - March 8: Franchise/Transition Player designation period
March 16: 2021 NFL league year ends at 3:59 p.m. ET. Free agency begins at 4 p.m ET
April 8: Start of offseason workouts
Note: Teams with new head coaches begin offseason workouts April 4.
April 22: Last day of restricted free agent signing period
April 27: Last day to match offer sheets to RFAs
April 28 - 30: 2022 NFL Draft
TBD: OTAs, minicamp and training camp
- Buffalo Bills
- Miami Dolphins
- New York Jets
- Baltimore Ravens
- Cincinnati Bengals
- Chicago Bears
- Detroit Lions
- Indianapolis Colts
- Arizona Cardinals
- Cleveland Browns
- Green Bay Packers
- Minnesota Vikings
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Las Vegas Raiders
Patriots' 2022 NFL Draft picks
TBD: Patriots to pick between 19-23 in first round.
Areas of need
The Patriots' primary area of concern entering 2022 lies in the secondary, especially if top cornerback J.C. Jackson isn't franchise-tagged and signs elsewhere in free agency. Veteran safety Devin McCourty will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason as well. There's plenty to be sorted out here, but expect the Patriots to eye a few young defensive backs in the upcoming NFL Draft.
After figuring out their secondary situation, the Patriots will need to focus on the second level of their defense. It's time to get younger and quicker at linebacker. Dont'a Hightower has had a sensational career in New England, but those days appear to be coming to an end. He'll be a free agent along with fellow LB Ja'Whaun Bentley.
The Patriots splurged for some offensive firepower last offseason when they signed tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, as well as wideouts Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor. The Henry and Bourne additions paid off, but Smith and Agholor left plenty to be desired. New England will need to get more weapons for Mac Jones in 2022 whether it's in free agency, the draft, a trade, or all of the above. It's also time for the N'Keal Harry era to come to a merciful end.