So endeth the roster-building portion of the 2021 New England Patriots season. I know there will be tweaks and transactions – the Patriots didn’t add their 2020 starting quarterback until the end of June, fer crissake – but you can pretty much bet that what we’re projecting at the start of May is pretty much what we’ll be seeing at the start of the season.
It’s interesting, the 2020 season promised to be whacked out before anyone realized the havoc COVID-19 was about to wreak. Tom Brady uprooted. The team was in salary cap hell. And then the opt outs came. The Patriots were ready to take their lumps anyway, but they got even more than anticipated. If Bill Belichick ever entertained such questions, I’m sure he’d say 2020 was right up there with 1995 as the most challenging season of his 46-year NFL coaching career.
Now? It’s a 180-degree turn. And the 3.0 version of the Patriots dynasty is much further along in research and development than it was when the season ended. Ready for launch? Not exactly. But the parts are being assembled AS WE SPEAK.
Even though this weekend was all about who came in via the draft, it’s more instructive to look at the offseason as a whole to appreciate where things are headed.
Flush with money at the start of free agency, the rest of the league was strapped. The result? Not only were the Patriots able to address obvious needs with high-level talent at tight end, defensive line, edge and wide receiver, they were able to retain a pile of their own talent. The lack of money on the open market meant key players like David Andrews, Lawrence Guy and James White ended up returning.
It’s been a massive overhaul. Consider the Patriots' seven leading pass-catchers in 2020: Jakobi Meyers, White, Damiere Byrd, N’Keal Harry, Rex Burkhead, Julian Edelman and Ryan Izzo. Only Meyers, White and Harry are still on the roster. Only White and Meyers seem likely to see many chances in an offense that added Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
The Patriots' leading tacklers in the front-seven last year were Ja’Whaun Bentley, Lawrence Guy, Chase Winovich, John Simon, Terez Hall and Deatrich Wise. With free agent additions Matthew Judon, Henry Anderson, Kyle Van Noy, Davon Godchaux and the return of Donta Hightower after his opt out, the numbers will be different there.
I haven’t yet mentioned any of the draft picks from this weekend because even the first four players taken – Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, Ronnie Perkins and Rhamondre Stevenson – are going to have the opportunity to ease into roles because there’s somebody ahead of each player.
You may feel differently on Jones dislodging Cam Newton but I think it’s going to be a longer process than most are expecting because Newton is inevitably going to be a much better player than he was in 2020. And that’s a good thing.
Honestly, where are the gaping holes on this roster? The secondary is stacked at safety (Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger at the top) and corner (Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones at the top). The linebacker group is loaded with Hightower, Van Noy, Judon, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Bentley, Winovich and Hall. The interior defensive line is Guy, Anderson, Godchaux, Wise (who is a bit of an edge guy as well) and Barmore.
The offensive line has all the answers on paper with (left to right) Isaiah Wynn, Mike Onwenu, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Trent Brown. The wideouts and tight ends we discussed and the running backs are led at this point by Damien Harris and Sony Michel with Stevenson behind them. James White is the third down back with J.J. Taylor the depth to him.
Special teams were brilliant in 2020 and that group – punter Jake Bailey, kicker Nick Folk, punt returner Gunner Olszewski, cover guys Matt Slater and Justin Bethel – is back.
We all know, if the games were played on paper everybody’d get a lot of paper cuts. Getting all the new pieces oriented and figuring out which old pieces are no longer needed will take all offseason. Even beginning to understand “who” the 2021 Patriots are going to be might not come clear until after Columbus Day.
But it’s worth pointing out that that 2020 team – without tight ends, with wideouts that wouldn’t have started anywhere else, with a quarterback that was learning on the fly and anchored to an unimposing group of skill players, with a front-seven that was a shell of what it had been in 2019 – actually won seven games.
That group in the hands of a coaching staff led by anyone other than Bill Belichick might have won three. Optimistically.
This group, assembled by Belichick in the months after his former quarterback is still basking in the afterglow of winning a Super Bowl somewhere else? This group is going to win a few more than seven.