Last off-season, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots parted ways after the most successful two decade stretch in NFL history, in which the Patriots won 17 division titles, 9 AFC Championships, and 6 Super Bowls and set countless records. The breakup between the two sides is undoubtedly complicated and there are likely things we will never know about how it went down, but the decision appeared to be at least somewhat mutual.
Patriots Head Coach and GM Bill Belichick did not want to commit to a soon-to-be-43-year-old Brady at a significant level and Brady was unwilling to stay without a commitment at that level, instead opting to take a fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million dollar deal with the Buccaneers that barred Tampa Bay from franchise tagging him at the end of the contract, giving Brady both short-term guarantees at a high salary while leaving him completely in control of his NFL future, despite his advanced age. Beyond that, the Patriots seemed to be heading into something of a rebuilding year with or without Brady, while the Buccaneers gave Brady a talented roster that was legitimately a quarterback away from being Super Bowl contenders.
Brady’s Buccaneers didn’t just contend for that Super Bowl, but ended up winning it, giving Brady his 7th ring and his 1st away from Belichick and the Patriots, who fell to 7-9 in his absence. At first glance, the Patriots seem to be the obvious losers of that exchange, but it’s more complex than that. As I mentioned, the Patriots were heading into something of a rebuilding year with or without Brady. The 2019 Patriots won 12 games, but they did so thanks to a league best defense, while their offense ranked just 21st in first down rate and got progressively worse as the season went on.
That defense was always likely to regress in 2020, as they had lost significant talent in free agency and, though Brady could not have seen these things coming when he made his decision in March, opt outs further depleted their talent on defense. As a result, the Patriots fell all the way to 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.22%, a year after leading the league in that metric by a significant amount.
Assuming that would have happened with or without Brady, it’s hard to see the Patriots making a serious run in 2020 either way, as they did not have the necessary talent in the receiving corps for their offense to be significantly improved from 2019 regardless of their quarterback situation. As well as Brady played in Tampa Bay, it’s important to remember he had so much more talent around him than he would have had he stayed in New England.
The Patriots could have kicked the can on their cap issues another year to bring back Brady and potentially some help around him on defense, but by taking their lumps last year and not attempting what would have almost definitely been an ill-fated attempt to win one last Super Bowl with Brady, the Patriots are in much better shape going forward in 2021 and beyond. After years of spending to keep talented players around Brady, the Patriots essentially paid off the credit card last season and had the 3rd lowest average annual salary in the league, a metric that highly correlates with winning. The Patriots were only ahead of the Jaguars and Jets, who went a combined 3-29, so, by those standards, the Patriots winning 7 games seems like something of a miracle.
The Patriots’ reward for that was having among the most cap space in the league this off-season, in an off-season when most teams lacked financial flexibility due to a shrunken cap, which led to the Patriots going on an unprecedented shopping spree this off-season that has pushed them all the way up to 9th in average annual salary. The Patriots have almost never spent big money in free agency, but that is because they’ve had to reserve most of their cap for keeping some of the talented players they drafted and developed over the years. The Patriots’ drafts have fallen off in recent years, so a big free agency was necessary for this team to try to get back on top.
It’s admittedly not as effective of a strategy for building a team as drafting and developing, but the Patriots didn’t have much of a choice, they’re not starting from that low of a basepoint (7-9, 21st in schedule adjusted first down rate differential) and there is no denying, between free agency and players returning from opt outs, that this team has a huge infusion of talent coming in this season. They’re also, of course, still coached at a high level by Bill Belichick and his coaching staff and, for as many recent draft misses as Belichick has, he still has a lot more hits historically and he remains probably the best evaluator of pro talent in the league, which likely came in handy when he was on his big off-season shopping spree.
The Patriots shooting up to 9th in average annual salary this off-season doesn’t tell the whole story either, as six of the eight teams ahead of them are all paying their quarterback significant money, while the Patriots have concentrated their funds on the rest of their roster and are hoping they’ve found a cheap young franchise quarterback through the draft in Alabama’s Mac Jones, who they selected 15th overall.
If they have, the Patriots chances of winning a Super Bowl in the next few years shoot up significantly, as having a franchise quarterback on a rookie deal and being aggressive surrounding that quarterback with talent is the best way to contend for a Super Bowl, outside of having a transcendent talent like Brady or Patrick Mahomes. Since the beginning of the salary cap in 1994, just 7 of 27 teams have won the Super Bowl with a quarterback taking up more than 10% of their salary cap and all 7 are future Hall of Famers. Beyond that, more than half (14 of 27) of those Super Bowl winning quarterbacks took up less than 7% of their team’s salary cap and a third accounted for less than 5%.
That’s a big if though, as with any quarterback selected in the first round, Jones’ chances of becoming a franchise quarterback are questionable. Jones might not even make it into the starting lineup as a rookie until midway through the season, as the Patriots have brought back incumbent starting quarterback Cam Newton and could use him as a stopgap if they don’t feel Jones is ready. Newton drew a lot of the blame for the Patriots’ down season last year, but it was hardly his fault given the rest of this roster and, as crazy as it might sound, the Patriots actually converted first downs at a higher rate relative to the rest of the league with Newton in 2020, when they ranked 18th, than with Brady in 2019, when they ranked 21st.
That’s not to say that Newton was an upgrade on Brady, but while the 2019 Patriots’ offense mostly consisted of Brady trying and largely failing to consistently string together drives through the air with one of the worst receiving corps in the league. Newton at least gave them an added dimension as a runner, averaging 4.32 YPC and scoring 12 touchdowns on 137 carries and opening up running lanes for the rest of this backfield, leading to the Patriots jumping from a 25th ranked 3.81 YPC in 2019 to an 8th ranked 4.67 YPC in 2020.
That somewhat offsets passing numbers, 65.8% completion, 7.22 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, that almost definitely would have been better had Newton had a better receiving corps to throw to and had he not cannibalized so many of his own passing touchdowns by rushing for it instead. Overall, Newton was PFF’s 23rd ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible, not great, but probably better than the common perception. If the Patriots have to start Newton for a stretch, I would expect him to be better than last year, now with another year in the system and a lot more talent around him, although it goes without saying that the veteran’s best days are almost definitely behind him and that the young Mac Jones gives them a much higher upside.
Unless Newton takes a big step forward, it’s hard to see him keeping the job all season, but this is a genuine competition and the Patriots have enough talent around the quarterback that they could be competitive with either option, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Newton start into mid-season if the team is winning consistently. Jones also could just outright take the job in training camp, which would probably be the best case scenario for this team, assuming it doesn’t come by default because of Newton being totally washed up or getting hurt. The most likely scenario, however it comes, is the Patriots getting at least capable play under center from one of their two quarterbacks.
Given the Patriots’ issues in the receiving corps last season and really for the past two seasons, it’s not a surprise that was a big focus of their off-season shopping spree. However, instead of spending at the top of the wide receiver market, the Patriots instead signed free agency’s two best tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, to contracts that pay them among the top tight ends in the league, and instead shopped more in the middle of the market at the wide receiver position.
The numbers might look like an overpay for the tight ends, as both become the third highest paid tight end in the league in average annual value on contracts worth 50 million over 4 years (Smith) and 37.5 million over 3 years (Henry), but the tight end market has been undervalued for years, so these contracts are pretty reasonable values. For years, the top receiving tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, and Zach Ertz were all signed to well below market value deals that they signed early in their careers and, because NFL contracts are largely determined by contracts given to peers at the same position, that led to no tight end even reaching 10 million annually until Austin Hooper signed a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Browns last off-season.
Kelce and breakout tight end George Kittle followed shortly after with big extensions, but the tight end position still looks undervalued when you consider that if you take into account wide receivers. Kittle and Kelce rank just 19th and 21st among pass catchers in average annual salary, even though they produce like top level receivers and also block inline. Smith and Henry might not jump off the page as top level tight ends, but they’re two of the exceedingly rare tight ends in the league who are both above average run blockers and pass catchers and, if you look at their contracts compared to wide receivers, they rank just 23rd among pass catchers in average annual salary. Top free agent wide receiver Kenny Golladay signed for 18 million annually, not far behind the combined 25 million annually that the Patriots are giving their two tight ends and I think the Patriots will get significantly more value out of the two of them than if they had just spent the money on one wide receiver.
Henry entered the league as a second round pick of the Chargers in 2016, selected to be the successor for future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, who was in the twilight of his career. Henry showed a lot of promise in his first two seasons in the league as a part-time player behind Gates, averaging 2.02 yards per route run, blocking at a high level, and finishing 6th and 2nd among tight ends on PFF in those two seasons respectively. In 2018, it seemed as if Henry was destined for a breakout year with Gates no longer with the team, but instead he got hurt before the season began and missed most of the year, causing the Chargers to have to bring back Gates for one last season.
Henry has been relatively healthy the past two seasons and saw more playing time with Gates gone for good, but he still missed six games between the two seasons and he didn’t quite live up to early career expectations either, ranking 14th among tight ends on PFF in 2019 while posting a 55/652/5 slash line and averaging 1.67 yards per route run and then ranking 18th among tight ends on PFF in 2020 while posting a 60/613/4 slash line and averaging just 1.28 yards per route run, with new quarterback Justin Herbert not targeting the tight end position as much as his predecessor Philip Rivers. However, Henry is still an above average tight end who is only heading into his age 27 season and his career 8.12 yards per target average is pretty impressive, even if he hasn’t always been the focus of the offense enough to produce massive receiving yardage totals.
Smith, meanwhile, was a third round pick of the Titans in 2017. Smith has never posted a big receiving total either, never topping 448 yards in a season, but that’s because he took a couple years to develop and then over the past two seasons he’s split time with other tight ends on a team that runs the ball a lot. Over those two seasons, he averaged an impressive 1.64 yards per route run and 8.14 yards per target, but his lack of targets limited his overall production. Also a solid blocker, Smith has finished 16th and 11th among tight ends overall on PFF in those two seasons respectively, showing he’s been a lot better than you’d think just by looking at his raw receiving totals. Still only going into his age 26 season, Smith could keep getting better and at the very least should remain in his prime for several seasons.
The Patriots having two tight ends might conjure up images of Tom Brady throwing to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (or Martellus Bennett), but there are some big differences, aside from the obvious of Brady being gone and neither Smith or Henry likely to live up to the level of Gronkowski. For one, both players can block and catch the football at an above average level, meaning that when the Patriots line up in two tight end sets, which is likely to be frequently, opposing defenses will have to either cover both with linebackers, which will create mismatches, or they will have to cover them with safeties, in which case the Patriots have the offensive line and power running game to take advantage of that mismatch.
If anything, a better recent comparison might be the kind of offense the Baltimore Ravens ran in 2019. Obviously Lamar Jackson isn’t around and the Patriots’ offense doesn’t have that same upside as a result, but the Ravens having multiple tight ends that could catch the football allowed them to play a style of football that defenses had a hard time matching up with and the Patriots’ offensive line and running backs compare favorably to the same position groups of those 2019 Ravens.
I was expecting the Patriots to target a mobile quarterback in the draft to compete with Cam Newton, so that the Patriots’ offense would have that extra element of the quarterback taking off and running as well. However, Mac Jones is about as far away from Lamar Jackson as you can get so, while Jones is very likely to ultimately be a better thrower of the ball than Cam Newton, the Patriots will only have that added benefit of defenses having to account for a quarterback run when Cam Newton is under center, although I wouldn’t rule out the Patriots using Newton as some sort of short yardage/goal line quarterback, given how tough he is to stop in those situations.
The Patriots also have good depth at the tight end position. Their tight end group was abysmal last season, totaling just 18 catches on 32 targets, including just 2 catches and 3 catches respectively from third round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, but they would hardly be the first tight ends to improve significantly after a bad rookie season and they’re good depth to have in the 3rd and 4th tight end spots, behind what looks like arguably the best tight end duo in the league.
The Patriots didn’t go after the top level wide receivers, but they made additions at that position as well. The biggest one and probably their most questionable signing of the off-season was a 2-year, 22 million dollar deal given to Nelson Agholor that guarantees him 16 million. If Agholor plays like he did last season, he’ll be worth that contract, as he finished with a 48/896/8 slash line while averaging 2.04 yards per route run and 10.93 yards per target, but that’s far from a guarantee given his history, as Agholor had averaged just 1.04 yards per route run and 6.89 yards per target across just first five seasons in the league prior to last season.
In fact, Agholor ended up signing just a one-year, 1.05 million dollar deal with the Raiders last off-season and the Patriots, who desperately needed wide receiver help, went with other options at a similar price, so it’s strange that Belichick would suddenly think Agholor is worth this kind of money after one year. If we’re sticking with the Ravens offense metaphor, Agholor was clearly signed to be the deep threat who takes the top off the defense while they’re focused on dealing with the tight ends and the running game, similar to Marquise Brown.
Agholor’s 18.7 yards per catch average last season would suggest he is a good fit in that role, but that came after averaging just 11.2 yards per catch over his first 5 seasons in the league. Agholor is a former first round pick who may could prove to be a late bloomer, still in his late prime in his age 28 season, and his usage with the Raiders last season was very different than his first five seasons in the league, as his average depth of target shot up from 11.3 to 15.7, suggesting that simply having him run deeper routes may have been the trick to unlocking him, but I would bet against him not repeating his career best year, even if he only regresses a little.
Kendrick Bourne, meanwhile, was a much better value on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal. He’s also coming off of a career best year, finishing with a 49/667/2 slash line, but his 1.49 yards per route run average was both decent and not out of the ordinarily for a player who averaged 1.31 yards per route run in his first 3 seasons in the league, after the 49ers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Bourne didn’t get a chance to see significant playing time until injuries ahead of him on the depth chart in his fourth season in the league, but he could remain at least a marginal starting wide receiver for the Patriots, who will take that compared to much of what they got last season.
Their only wide receiver or tight end to play significant snaps and earn even an average grade from PFF last season was Jakobi Meyers, who had a sneaky good season in the midst of all of the Patriots’ problems in the receiving corps. Meyers wasn’t inserted into the lineup until week 7, before which he had played just 22 snaps, and he finished the season having played just 665 snaps, but he averaged a very impressive 2.24 yards per route run average (12th among wide receivers) and 9.00 yards per target, en route to finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked wide receiver overall on the season and totalling a 59/729/0 slash line.
Meyers is a 2019 undrafted free agent who only averaged 1.32 yards per route run as a rookie and he’s very unlikely to see the same target share this season as he did down the stretch last season, with several key additions made to this group this off-season, but Meyers should still be in the mix for the #2 or #3 wide receiver role and probably has a higher upside than Bourne. The Patriots two tight ends likely mean they won’t play many three wide receiver sets compared to the rest of the league, but all three of Agholor, Bourne, and Meyers are likely to see significant playing time as none of them are really a #1 wide receiver.
Reserve options farther down the depth chart include 2019 1st round pick bust N’Keal Harry, who has averaged just 0.93 yards per route run in limited action in his career and only theoretically still has upside because of his draft status, which may also be the only reason he makes this final roster, and journeyman deep threat Marvin Hall, who has just 37 catches in 5 seasons in the league but has taken 14 of them for at least 20 yards and has averaged a 1.69 yards per route run average in his limited action. Hall is not a candidate for a larger role than he’s seen, but he gives this offense another option to take the top off the defense in the rare occasions they decide to spread the defense out. This is not a spectacular group, but it’s hard to ignore how much better they’ve gotten just by adding several competent or better options.
Even with an improved receiving corps, the offensive line and running backs still figure to be a big focus of this offense. Damien Harris was their lead back last season, rushing for 5.04 YPC on 137 carries, after just seeing four carries as a 3rd round rookie in 2019. Harris also rushed for 3.02 YPC after contact last season and ranked 19th in carry success rate at 53%. Now going into his third year in the league, Harris would seem to have a lot of upside if they gave him a larger role, but they also don’t seem ready to give him that larger role.
Sony Michel returns and, while he’s missed 10 games in 3 seasons in the league and has been limited in countless others, he’s still rushed for 4.28 YPC over 535 carries with 2.68 YPC after contact and the former 2018 1st round pick has a similar profile to Harris as a runner, so he figures to continue eating into his work when on the field. The Patriots also used a 4th round pick on Oklahoma running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who also fits a similar profile, even if he’s obviously very raw and unproven. He probably won’t have a huge role as a rookie, but like Michel he could prevent Harris from getting a significant workload for a team that doesn’t like to commit to one back.
Stevenson being added as the third back is great news for James White, who will have his pass catching role to himself, as Harris (5 catches in 10 games), Michel (26 catches in 38 games), and Stevenson (28 catches in 18 collegiate games) all leave something to be desired in the passing game. While those three backs are very similar, White could not be more different, with more catches (369) in his career than carries (309). White’s 49/375/1 slash line across 62 targets in 2020 was down from his 63/557/5 average slash line across 86 targets from his five seasons as Brady’s primary passing down back, but it was to be expected that he would fall off without Brady, who was notorious for targeting running backs in the passing game.
It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see White’s receiving numbers pick back up a little in a better offense in 2021, especially with former fellow passing down back Rex Burkhead no longer stealing work from him (33 targets in 2020). White has just a career 4.01 YPC average and is unlikely to see more than a few carries per game, but he’s firmly locked into his passing game role, with Stevenson being the only other running back on this roster with even theoretical upside as a pass catcher. The Patriots will use several backs this season, but they have a solid stable of situational players.
On the offensive line, the Patriots are losing one of the better interior guards in the league in left guard Joe Thuney, who signed a 5-year, 80 million dollar deal with the Chiefs, after finishing 10th among guards on PFF in 2020, but this offensive line was still so talented aside from him and they added veteran Trent Brown in free agency to give them another starting option to replace Thuney, so they should still remain one of the top offensive lines in the league. Brown won’t replace Thuney directly at left guard, but he could play either left or right tackle for them, allowing Michael Onwenu, who saw action at both guard and tackle last season, to focus on guard in 2021.
Onwenu is really the key to replacing Thuney, as the 2020 6th round pick played well enough as a rookie, primarily at right tackle, to make Thuney expendable. Overall, Onwenu finished 8th among offensive tackles on PFF, showing himself to be arguably the best value pick of the entire draft. He might not be quite that good going forward and the fact that the league let him fall all the way to the 6th round just a year ago can’t be ignored yet, but he projects as an above average replacement at left guard and he could prove to be better long-term inside than outside.
While Onwenu is a big part of how they plan to replace Thuney, Brown’s addition was big as well. This is actually his second stint in New England, as Brown spent a year in New England as part of their Super Bowl winning team in 2018. Brown was a steal when they acquired him from the 49ers for a swap of mid round picks and paid him just a 1.907 million dollar salary for a season in which he made 16 starts at left tackle and earned a slightly above average grade from PFF, after proving himself as a right tackle the previous season in San Francisco, when he finished 28th among offensive tackles on PFF as a 10-game starter.
The Patriots were also smart not to keep Brown on a deal like the 4-year, 66 million dollar deal that he ended up signing with the Raiders that off-season, as Brown was limited to just 16 starts in two seasons with the Raiders and was basically salary dumped on the Patriots this off-season, who restructured his deal down to a much more manageable 9 million over 1 year. Brown didn’t show any dropoff on the field when he did play with the Raiders and he should still be in his prime in his age 28 season, so he has bounce back potential if he can stay on the field, but that is a big question after the past two seasons.
Regardless of whether Brown starts on the right side or the left side, he’ll start opposite Isaiah Wynn, who has been the starter at left tackle in Brown’s absence over the past two seasons. A first round pick in 2018, Wynn’s career started on an unfortunate note as he missed all of his rookie year with a torn achilles, but he’s developed pretty well in the two seasons since, ranking 35th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2019 and improving up to 10th among offensive tackles in 2020.
However, durability has remained a problem for Wynn, as he has missed another 14 games over the past two seasons, so it’s a big question mark whether he’ll be able to make it through the whole season without missing time, perhaps even more so than Brown. Justin Herron, a 2020 6th round pick who played 352 nondescript snaps as a rookie, would probably be the first one off the bench in case of an injury, so it’s a bit of a concern, although they could move Onwenu back to tackle in that scenario and plug in a reserve at guard instead.
At guard, Shaq Mason will play opposite Onwenu and, with his former counterpart Thuney gone, Mason is probably their best player upfront now and that may have even been the case before Thuney left. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Mason has made 83 starts in 6 seasons in the league, including five straight seasons in the top-12 among guards, four seasons in the top-6, and a 5th ranked finish in 2020. Still very much in his prime in his age 28 season, I see no reason to expect anything different from him this season.
The Patriots also retained David Andrews in free agency, bringing their center back on a 4-year, 19 million dollar deal that looks like a steal. Andrews missed all of 2019 with illness and fell to 15th among centers on PFF upon his return in 2020, which likely led to him having a depressed market in free agency this off-season, but he finished 4th and 10th in the two seasons prior to that missed season and is still in his prime in his age 29 season, so he could easily bounce back. Even if he doesn’t, he’s finished above average on PFF in four straight seasons and should remain at least a solid starter, on a very team friendly deal.
Earlier in the off-season, it looked like Andrews would go elsewhere after turning down the Patriots initial offer, which they responded to by signing former Patriot Ted Karras, who filled in for Andrews in 2019 and spent 2020 as the starting center in Miami. Karras has made 31 starts across the past two seasons and has largely held his own, earning middling grades from PFF, but Andrews is definitely a better option, while Karras fits in well as a reserve because he can also kick over to guard if needed. Aside from depth behind their injury prone offensive tackles, which could be made up for by moving Onwenu and plugging Karras in at guard in case of an injury at tackle, this is a talented group with no glaring issues that could easily be one of the best in the league once again.
The Patriots also made some much needed additions on defense this off-season, most notably edge defender Matt Judon, who signed the biggest contract the Patriots handed out this off-season, coming over from the Ravens on a 4-year, 54.5 million dollar deal. Judon spent last year making 16.806 million on the franchise tag and lived up to expectations in his one year on the tag, so I suspect in a normal off-season, Judon would have gotten significantly more money annually, perhaps in the range of 18-20 million annually, which would have put him in the top-10 at his position. By locking Judon in as the 22nd highest paid edge defender in the league (a rank that will almost definitely fall even further over the next couple seasons as the cap normalizes), the Patriots seem to have gotten a great value.
Judon leaves something to be desired against the run, but he’s been a very efficient pass rusher throughout his career, totalling 34.5 sacks, 69 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate in 76 games, including 6 sacks, 15 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate in 14 games in 2020. Judon has also posted those numbers despite dropping into coverage on 23.8% of his pass snaps, and, while he hasn’t been overly impressive in coverage, his experience dropping is probably why he appealed to New England because they like edge players that can drop into coverage if needed.
Judon joins a group that should be a lot better this season, after being led in snaps last season by veteran journeyman John Simon, who finished 120th among 124 edge defenders on PFF across 702 snaps. Chase Winovich is their top returning edge defender, playing 593 snaps last season. He primarily is valuable as a pass rusher, with 11 sacks, 13 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate in 32 games as a part-time player since entering the league as a 3rd round in 2019, and he leaves something to be desired against the run, but he can drop into coverage a little bit (7.1% of his career pass snaps) and should at least continue having a heavy sub package role in this defense.
This group will also benefit from the return of Dont’a Hightower from his opt out. Hightower is kind of a hybrid linebacker/edge defender, but he rushed the passer on 59.3% of his pass snaps in his last season in 2019, primarily off the edge, and fared well, with 5.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate. He’s also a solid run stuffer and can hold his own in coverage, making him very valuable to this defense, which badly missed him last season.
Hightower’s age is becoming a concern, now in his age 31 season, after a year off, and durability has always been a concern, as he’s only played all 16 games once in his career, back in his second season in the league in 2013, but he hadn’t shown many signs of slowing down before the opt out, finishing 21st among off ball linebackers on PFF in his last season in 2019, and, even if he declines a little in 2020, he should at least remain a solid starter.
Kyle Van Noy is also returning to this group after a year away, but not because he opted out last season. Van Noy was PFF’s 19th ranked edge defender in his last season in New England in 2019 and he cashed in with a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal with the Dolphins, but failed to live up to expectations and was only a middling player for Miami, leading to them releasing him after just 1 season and 15 million, which led to him rejoining the Patriots on a much team friendlier 2-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season.
Van Noy’s 2019 campaign stands out as an outlier when you look at his 7-year career as a whole and he may be on the decline, now heading into his age 30 season, but he’s been at least a capable starter for each of the past four seasons and the familiarity of returning to a scheme that got his career best year out of him should be a benefit for him, even if he doesn’t play nearly as well as he did in that 2019 season. Like Hightower, he is capable of playing some off ball linebacker as well, dropping into coverage on 45.2% of his pass snaps over the past four seasons combined.
The Patriots also added Oklahoma’s Ronnie Perkins in the third round of the draft and they have a pair of second year players who could earn roles as well, 2020 2nd round pick Josh Uche and 2020 3rd round pick Anfernee Jennings. Uche has the higher upside of the two second year players, not only because he was the higher pick, but because he flashed a lot of potential across 176 snaps last season in a rookie year otherwise plagued by injury. If he’s past his rookie year injuries, Uche has the potential to be valuable to this team in a situational role. Jennings, meanwhile, may still have untapped potential, but didn’t show much across 293 rookie year snaps and now may be buried on the depth chart in a much improved position group.
The Patriots also made some additions on the interior as well. Last season, four players, Deatrich Wise (565 snaps), Lawrence Guy (503 snaps), Adam Butler (481 snaps), and Byron Cowart (419 snaps) all saw significant action on the interior. Wise and Guy were the best of the bunch and the only two to earn an above average grade from PFF, but Butler is now with the Dolphins and the Patriots added a trio of defensive tackles this off-season who could all see playing time, which will likely leave Cowart buried on the depth chart, after the 2019 5th round pick finished 107th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF, in the first significant action of his career last season.
Those three defensive tackles are veterans Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson, signed to deals worth 15 million and 7 million respectively over two years, and second round pick Christian Barmore. Godchaux missed most of last season with injury and has never been much of a pass rusher, with a career 4.7% pressure rate, but the 2017 5th round pick earned an above average grade from PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league prior to last year’s injury plagued year, including a career best 17th ranked finish among interior defenders as a run stopper in 2018. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, having only missed 1 game to injury prior to last season, he has a good chance to bounce back and be an asset on early downs.
Anderson, meanwhile, is more of a pass rushing option, but he’s also been a consistently solid run defender throughout his career, even if he’s typically been used more as a pass rushing specialist. He hasn’t been bad as a pass rusher either, totaling 11.5 sacks, 33 hits, and a 8.0% pressure rate in 74 career games and he’s overall been a solid rotational player across an average of 37.8 snaps per game throughout his career. The only major issue he’s had in his career has been injuries, which have caused him to miss 22 games in 6 seasons in the league. He’s now going into his age 30 season, so he’s probably not getting any better, but he has managed to play all 16 games in two of his past three seasons.
Anderson is well-rounded enough that the Patriots could use him as a run stuffer or a pass rusher, but he was most likely signed to be a pass rush specialist, as this group is otherwise run focused. I’ve already mentioned Davon Godchaux, but the rookie Barmore is also more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher, while holdover Lawrence Guy should also continue playing in a base package role, even if he doesn’t quite see the 516 snaps he’s averaged over the past six seasons. Guy has earned an above average grade from PFF in all six of those seasons though, so, even if he does start to decline in his age 32 season, he should be a capable player on early downs in a rotational role.
Fellow holdover Deatrich Wise also is likely to play a significant role, as he’s a situational pass rush specialist, excelling with 14 sacks, 41 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate in 62 career games, but consistently mediocre play against the run. He’s an asset for them in sub packages though and, even if he doesn’t match his career high 565 snaps from last season in a deeper group, the Patriots are shorter on pass rushers than they are on run stuffers in the middle of their defensive line and they didn’t re-sign Wise on a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal if they didn’t plan on continuing to use him in a significant role. Like on the edges, this is a much improved group in 2021.
As I mentioned, Dont’a Hightower and at times Kyle Van Noy will play some traditional off ball linebacker as well. The Patriots will also use safety Adrian Phillips and/or safety Kyle Dugger as linebackers in sub packages, which I will get into later. As for traditional off ball linebackers, Ja’Whaun Bentley led the way with 608 snaps last season, but he played mostly a base package role and he wasn’t that good, finishing 58th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers. Bentley was a 5th round pick in 2018 and showed more promise earlier in his career, but that was across just 413 snaps played in his first two seasons in the league and he has yet to translate that to even a situational role like he had last season. Behind Bentley, 2019 undrafted rookie Terez Hall struggled across the first 259 snaps of his career.
In addition to adding Hightower and Van Noy, this group is improved by adding Raekwon McMillan in free agency. McMillan was not one of their most heralded signings and in fact he is on just a 1-year, 1.15 million dollar deal, after playing just 170 snaps with the Raiders last season, but he was PFF’s 10th ranked off ball linebacker in run defense grade in 2018 and their 11th ranked in run defense in 2019, as a base package specialist with the Dolphins, who originally selected him in the 2nd round in 2017.
His lack of coverage ability led to him falling out of favor with the Dolphins and then he was buried on the depth chart with the Raiders, but he was a strong run stuffer as recently as 2019 and he’s only in his age 25 season, so he could prove to be a smart signing as a situational linebacker. He could easily play over Bentley, while Hall will have to compete for a roster spot in another position group that is much improved.
As mentioned, the Patriots will frequently use three safeties together in sub packages to mask their lack of coverage linebackers, with either Adrian Phillips or Kyle Dugger playing closer to the line of scrimmage as essentially a linebacker. Along with long-time Patriot Devin McCourty, the Patriots were pretty deep at safety last season. They were expecting to be even deeper in 2021 with Patrick Chung back from an opt out and, while he decided to stay retired, the Patriots replaced him by signing ex-Eagle Jalen Mills to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal. Along with 2019 2nd round pick JoeJuan Williams, a hybrid cornerback/safety, the Patriots have plenty of talent and depth at the safety position.
Mills also has the ability to play some cornerback as well, but the 2017 7th round pick proved over his five seasons with the Eagles that he was better at safety. He was pretty inconsistent overall, but his best play has always come at safety, including a career best year in 2020 when he finished 24th among safeties on PFF as almost exclusively a traditional safety. He’s an unspectacular signing, but he probably won’t be an every down player and he gives them good versatility. Kyle Dugger might be the favorite to start opposite McCourty, after showing some promise across 520 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2020, but even if he earns an every down role on this defense, he figures to see action at multiple spots. He has the most breakout potential of the bunch.
McCourty, meanwhile, is coming to the end of the line, heading into his age 34 season and his 12th season in the league since the Patriots selected him 27th overall in 2010. In his 11 seasons in the league, he’s finished in the top-20 at his position in 8 seasons and has never once finished below average on PFF, but his 43rd ranked finish among safeties in 2020 was the lowest of his career. He could have another couple solid seasons left in the tank and I wouldn’t rule out him being a little better this season than last season, but he could also fall off significantly. Fortunately, the Patriots have enough depth at the position to deal with that if that happens.
Adrian Phillips also played 747 snaps last season as a hybrid safety/linebacker and earned a slightly above average grade from PFF for his efforts. That’s largely been the case for him throughout his career, although his snap count last season was a career high for the 7-year veteran. He should remain a versatile, rotational piece for this defense and should hold up well, but he’s very unlikely to be an every down player. JoeJuan Williams is currently buried on the depth chart after having played just 252 snaps across two seasons in the league, but he could earn a rotational role if players ahead of him underwhelm. The Patriots have a lot of options at safety.
They’re also in good shape at cornerback, although a lot of that depends on cornerback Stephon Gilmore being on this roster week 1. Prior to this off-season’s shopping spree, Gilmore was the most significant outside free agent the Patriots had ever signed, signing a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal with the Patriots four off-seasons ago. Some viewed Gilmore as an overpay at the time and in fact Gilmore had never finished higher than 23rd among cornerbacks on PFF in 5 seasons with the Bills prior to free agency, including a 71st ranked finish in his final season in 2016, but the 2012 10th overall pick proved to have plenty of untapped potential upon his arrival in New England, finishing 24th, 1st, and 6th among cornerbacks on PFF in his first three seasons respectively and winning 2019 Defensive Player of the Year.
After accomplishing all of that, Gilmore went from being viewed as overpaid by some to being universally viewed as underpaid. Gilmore took notice and tried to get a new contract out of the Patriots last off-season, but instead ended up only getting some money from 2021 moved up to 2020. Normally a move like that is followed by a new contract the following off-season, but Gilmore remains on the roster at his reduced 7.5 million dollar salary. Gilmore’s down 2020 campaign, where he finished 67th among cornerbacks on PFF and missed 5 games with injury, may have something to do with the Patriots’ hesitance, but Gilmore would still be paid significantly more on the open market and is understandably upset with his salary, having seen the Patriots go on a massive spending spree of outside free agents this off-season.
Gilmore held out of minicamp and, while it’s possible that something will get worked out before training camp, a trade may end up being the most likely scenario, even if it would have made more sense for the Patriots to do that earlier this off-season when they could have acquired a draft pick this year and used it on an asset that could help this team immediately, rather than moving him for a pick in 2022 and/or beyond. If he remains on the roster in 2021 one way or another, he does have obvious bounce back potential after an uncharacteristically down year, even if he’s at the point in his career (age 31 season) where his best days are probably behind him. If Gilmore is not on the roster in 2021, the Patriots will either have to find a replacement somewhere or use Jalen Mills and/or JoeJuan Williams more at cornerback than safety.
Regardless of Gilmore’s status, JC Jackson and Jonathan Jones are locked into roles in the Patriots’ top-3 cornerbacks and the presence of those two talented young cornerbacks may be part of why the Patriots don’t want to pay up for Gilmore. Jackson, in particular, is due a big raise going into the final year of his rookie year and, while he hasn’t been quite as good as his interception totals over the past two seasons (14 interceptions), he’s still finished above average on PFF in three straight seasons, including a 49th ranked finish in 2019 and a 32nd ranked finish in 2020. Still only going into his age 26 season, he could keep getting better and figures to get paid big money by someone next off-season.
Jones, meanwhile, signed a 3-year, 21 million dollar extension a couple off-seasons ago that looks like a steal now, as Jones has seen his snap count increase in each of the past four seasons from 438 to 516 to 619 to 730 and has developed into one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league, ranking 23rd among cornerbacks on PFF in 2019 and 4th in 2020 and impressing both in coverage and especially off the edge as a run defender. This secondary will have a higher upside if they can keep Gilmore in the fold, but this is a talented group regardless.
The Patriots led the league in special teams DVOA and unsurprisingly were one of four teams to finish above average in all special teams aspects. The Patriots dominating on special teams is nothing new, as they’ve probably had the best special teams play of any team in the league over the past decade and they’ve definitely had the best special teams play in the league since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000. That’s not all that surprising when you consider that Belichick, a former special teams coordinator himself, has placed as much emphasis on having good special teams as any team in the league aside from maybe the Baltimore Ravens, who also have a former special teams coordinator as head coach.
The Patriots invested in this special teams unit when they selected Jake Bailey in the 5th round in 2019 and it paid off, with Bailey finishing 6th and 7th among punters on PFF over the past two seasons respectively. Bailey also handles kickoffs, one of the few punters in the league to regularly do so, and he excelled in that aspect as well in 2020, finishing 5th on PFF in kickoff grade. The Patriots got great play from their special teams supporting cast, but Bailey’s play on kickoffs and punts is a big part of the reason why the Patriots were strong in those aspects of special teams in 2020.
Kicker Nick Folk was not as impressive, not only because he didn’t handle kickoffs, but also because they rarely let him try deep field goals, going just 2/3 on 50+ yard field goals with a long of 51 yards, but even still he was an impressive 26/28 on the season, including 11/12 from the 40-49 yard range. In total, Folk has made 93.3% of his extra points and 88.9% of his field goals since joining the Patriots two seasons ago and the 14-year veteran in total has made 81.4% of his field goals in his career, though with just 27 field goals made from 50+ yards total. I would expect more of the same from him in 2021. He has a limited ceiling and is probably the weak point by default of the Patriots special teams, but he’s a relatively reliable option. He and Bailey should continue playing close to about as well as last season.
The Patriots also fared well on returns, especially punt returns, leading the league with a 15.5 yards per punt return average, while lead punt returner Gunner Olszewski was PFF’s #1 ranked punt returner and averaged 17.3 yards per return with a touchdown on 20 returns. Undrafted in 2019, Olszewski is a one-year wonder who was not as good on 18 returns as a rookie, finishing with a 9.0 yards per return average, but even if he isn’t quite as good as he was a year ago, he should remain an above average returner. If he continues to get great play around him, he should continue being highly productive.
Olszewski was not as good on kickoff returns last season, averaging 23.2 yards per return across 18 returns and earning a middling grade from PFF in the first kickoff return action of his career. He could potentially face competition for the kickoff return job from JJ Taylor, who averaged 21.8 yards per return across 4 attempts as a rookie in 2020, but it’s likely Olszewski will retain the job. It’s unclear if his kickoff return abilities will ever catch up with his punt return abilities, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do a little better on kickoff returns in 2021 compared to 2020. Even with his relative struggles on kickoff returns, he was still PFF’s #2 ranked returner overall and, even if he comes up short of that this season, he should remain an above average starter.
The Patriots also bring back all of their key special teamers from a season ago, giving the best special teams in the league a year ago a good chance to repeat that or come close to that again in 2021. They also retained special teams coordinator Cameron Achord, who in 2020 took over for long-time special teams coordinator Joe Judge after he became the New York Giants coach and obviously the Patriots’ special teams didn’t skip a beat under their new leadership. Head coach Bill Belichick is also as involved on this side of the ball as any head coach in the league and that should continue contributing to their special teams success.
Cody Davis was the star of this group in 2020, finishing as PFF’s #1 ranked special teamer, after finishing well above average on special teams in 6 of his first 7 seasons in the league prior to last season, but Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel also have finished in the top-10 among special teamers on PFF in two seasons and three seasons respectively. That trio of core special teamers is as experienced and proven as any special teamers in the league in recent years and together they significantly elevate this group. The Patriots didn’t have any other special teamers finish in the top-50 on PFF last season, but they didn’t have anyone struggle significantly either. They should remain one of the best groups of special teamers in the league in 2021.
The Patriots had their worst season in a couple decades last season, but they still managed seven wins in a rebuilding year and it’s not hard to see how they could be significantly better this season, with a big infusion of talent coming in, particularly at their positions of weakness in the receiving corps and on the defensive front. They also figure to have better quarterback play, whether that is from Cam Newton having another year in the system or Mac Jones beating him out to be a starter as a rookie. Quarterback play might ultimately be what keeps a talented overall roster from being a true Super Bowl contender, unless Jones can exceed expectations in year one, but this team would seem to have a relatively low floor and should be able to at least make it back into the post-season in the AFC. I will have a final prediction for the Patriots at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21: The Patriots could have the best special teams in the league again this season, which matters more than I realized. The Patriots have a good chance to be above average in all three phases this season, one of the few teams who can say so, and are one of my top Super Bowl sleepers.
9/4/21 Update: With Mac Jones winning the starting job week one with a very impressive pre-season, the Patriots are one of my top underrated teams going into 2021. They went 7-9 last year on the strength of a dominant special teams and should be significantly improved on both sides of the ball to go with their dominant special teams. Even if Mac Jones can be an average starter, there is enough talent for this team to win a lot of games against a friendly schedule. Aside from a late trip to Buffalo, the Patriots are unlikely to be heavy underdogs in any of their games this season because they face their toughest opponents at home. They’re probably a year away from being significant contenders, but they should at least be a playoff team.
Prediction: 13-4 2nd in AFC East