The New England Patriots are a team primed for a bounce back.
After a disappointing 2020 season that saw the Patriots miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and finish with a losing record for the first time since 2000, the team loaded up in the offseason with a free agent spending spree.
Just how much better will the Patriots be in 2021? ESPN's Max Kellerman is willing to throw the Pats into the "dark horse" Super Bowl contender category.
"You want a dark horse? Try the New England Patriots," Kellerman said Thursday on ESPN's "First Take". "Try the Patriots on for size. Take a team with a head coach/GM with something to prove in Bill Belichick, the GOAT. With Tom Brady just winning the Super Bowl, do you think (Belichick) is going to be ready?
"A team that was two plays away from a 9-7 record in a year where they had a brand new quarterback (in Cam Newton) -- opposite of the kind they used to have. A guy who had an injury and hadn't played in a year. A guy playing for a team whose defense lots (several) guys to (opt outs) due to COVID before the season started. Practice facilities got shut down, no time to practice. Bill Belichick couldn't prepare, and Cam couldn't learn because there was no preseason or practice. And then Cam Newton got COVID. Now they're still to plays away from 9-7.
"Cam, the former MVP who's been to a Super Bowl. Who, before he got hurt, was having the best passing season of his career (in 2018) with Norv Turner as his OC. They didn't have tight ends last year. Bill Belichick's whole offense is predicated on tight ends. They went out and got Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. How many guys did they sign -- wideouts, tight ends, the defense is back. The Patriots are a true dark horse."
OK, there's a lot here, but Kellerman does make some fair points.
The Patriots did lose a bunch of players to opt outs last year amid the pandemic. One of them was linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who's not only a very talented player but also a tremendous leader on defense. Hightower is back in the fold this year.
New England's aggressive approach in free agency bolstered the roster on both sides of the ball. Kellerman mentioned the tight ends, but the Pats also acquired wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne as free agents. The defense was upgraded with the signings of linebacker Matthew Judon, defensive lineman Davon Godchaux, defensive back Jalen Mills and others. The offensive line could be a top five unit after the trade for tackle Trent Brown and the team re-signing center David Andrews.
The quarterback situation also should be improved. First-round draft pick Mac Jones, coming off a national title-winning season at Alabama, has played well in training camp. Newton is more familiar with the offense and had a full offseason to prepare.
Despite all of these reasons for optimism, oddsmakers still aren't giving the Patriots much of a chance to win their seventh Lombardi Trophy.
The Patriots have the 17th-best odds to win Super Bowl LVI at +3300, according to PointsBet's latest betting lines. The Los Angeles Chargers have the same odds.
The Pats are certainly a longshot to win the Super Bowl next season. There's little doubt about that. However, the Patriots returning to the playoffs wouldn't be surprising given the offseason improvements made.