The Patriots made it back to the post-season last season for the first time in the post-Tom Brady era, doing so with a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones who was by far the best of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round in 2021. Their 10-7 record wasn’t spectacular, but they were competitive in most of their losses and many of their wins were blowouts, leading to them finishing the regular season 3rd in point differential at +159. In terms of overall efficiency, which is even more predictive than point differential, the Patriots also ranked 3rd, with their offense ranking 7th and their defense ranking 5th.
The Patriots didn’t face the toughest schedule, but even when schedule adjustments are taken into account, this was still one of the better teams in the league in the regular season. However, their season ended in embarrassing fashion, getting blown out by their division rival Bills in a 47-17 loss in the first round of the playoffs. It was an especially bad performance for their defense, who allowed the Bills to pick up a first down on 51.8% of their plays and to score a touchdown on every single drive aside from the end of the halves.
The common opinion is that the Patriots’ defense wasn’t actually that good because of what the Bills did to them in the post-season, but in reality, good offense just beats good defense every time in the modern NFL, which is a part of why offensive performance is so much more predictive week-to-week and year-to-year than defensive performance, and the Patriots just happened to run into a very good offense on a particularly good day. We saw a similar thing happen the following week in Kansas City when the Bills, who finished the regular season by far #1 in defensive efficiency, allowed 42 points and a 40.0% first down rate in a loss to the Chiefs, well out of line with what they had been allowing in the regular season.
With that in mind, the bigger priority for the Patriots this off-season was upgrading this offense, which was effective last season, but lacked the big play ability to keep up with elite offenses when their defense was overmatched. To try to keep things simple for Mac Jones in his first season in the league, the Patriots had the 5th most non-quarterback carries in the NFL and attempted a pass more than 20 yards in the air at a below average 11.1% rate. In his second season in the league, it looks like the Patriots are planning on opening things up significantly, to keep up with the other elite offenses in the loaded AFC.
Jones still threw 13 interceptions, but he had among the worst interception luck in the league and finished the season 6th in adjusted interception rate, while posting an above average 67.6% completion percentage and 7.30 YPA. He only threw 22 touchdowns, but he had 2 touchdowns vultured by trick plays and even more vultured by rushing plays, with the Patriots finishing the season with the 2nd most rushing touchdowns of any team in the league with 24. Overall, Jones finished the season 12th among quarterbacks on PFF and looked well beyond his years. He might not have a huge upside, but he could easily develop into one of the better quarterbacks in the league for years to come and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he took a step forward in year two, which would be much needed for this team as they transition into a new offensive style.
The Patriots also drafted a quarterback in this year’s draft, taking Bailey Zappe in the 4th round, but he was drafted as a replacement for long-time backup Brian Hoyer, rather than as competition for Jones. Hoyer is valued as a veteran leader and an extension of the coaching staff, but he’s going into his age 37 season with just two starts over the past four seasons and even in his prime he was only a low end starter at best, with a career 82.9 QB rating.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Hoyer kept the backup job for one more season, but it’s clear the Patriots see Zappe as the future backup. Some saw it as a questionable use of a 4th round pick, but the Patriots clearly value having a cheap backup on a rookie contract who will be in the system for several years and Zappe has the traits the Patriots like in a quarterback because of his intelligence and accuracy. Either way, the Patriots would likely be in trouble if Jones missed significant time this season, but this isn’t a bad quarterback room, led by a very promising young starter.
The biggest area of improvement for the Patriots from 2020 to 2021 that got them back into the post-season after a one-year hiatus was their receiving corps. The 2020 Patriots had arguably the worst receiving corps in the league and understandably they made it a focus of their off-season spending spree last off-season. Some of their big additions didn’t pan out in their first season in New England, but some of them did and contributed to this offense in a big way, specifically wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry, who joined top holdover Jakobi Meyers as Mac Jones’ top receiving options.
For Bourne, 2021 was the best season of his 5-year career and he proved to be a steal on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal. He was only third on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver (572) and second in targets (70), but he led Patriots wide receivers with 1.99 yards per route run (14th in the NFL among wide receivers) and 11.4 yards per target, leading to a 55/800/5 slash line, despite a relatively limited role. Bourne is definitely a one-year wonder to this point in this career, as the 2017 undrafted free agent averaged 1.37 yards per route run in his first four seasons in the league with the 49ers prior to last season, so he probably won’t be quite as efficient again in 2022, but he had a decent 1.49 yards per route run average in his final season in San Francisco and he should remain at least a solid option.
Henry, on the other hand, is a more proven player, but also was not nearly as good of a value, as the Patriots had to give him a 3-year, 37.5 million dollar deal that makes him the 6th highest paid tight end in the league to sign him as a free agent last off-season. Henry proved to be worth his price tag though, finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked tight end overall last season, his 5th finish in the top-18 at his position in 5 healthy seasons in the league. Also a solid run blocker, Henry’s 1.50 yards per route run average last season (50/603/9 slash line) was both above average (13th among tight ends) and in line with his 1.63 yards per route run career average. He should continue his above average play into 2022.
Meyers, meanwhile, is going into his 4th season with the Patriots, making him the only homegrown talent the Patriots have in the receiving corps. Even though he went undrafted in 2019, he was a contributor right away as a rookie and overall has a 1.73 yards per route run average for his career, with a career best 83/866/2 slash line in the most action of his career in 2021. Still only in his age 26 season, I would expect Meyers to remain at least a solid receiving option.
The two big additions who did not pan out in the first season in New England were tight end Jonnu Smith and wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who signed on deals worth 50 million over 4 years and 22 million over 2 years respectively. Their inability to live up to expectations was a big part of the reason why this offense was limited in terms of big play ability last season and the Patriots are stuck paying them significant money either way in 2022, but both have at least some bounce back potential and the Patriots haven’t stopped adding to their receiving corps either, trading for veteran DeVante Parker and using a 2nd round pick on Baylor’s Tyquan Thornton, so this group should be much deeper than a year ago.
Agholor was supposed to be the Patriots’ deep threat last season, after averaging 18.7 yards per catch and 10.9 yards per target with a 48/896/8 slash line with the Raiders in 2020, but a repeat of that was probably wishful thinking, as Agholor had averaged just 11.2 yards per catch in five seasons in the league prior to his impressive 2020 campaign. Agholor was used similarly in 2021 in New England to how he was used with the Raiders, with his average depth of target only dropping from 15.7 to 14.7, but Agholor saw his yards per catch average drop to 12.8 and averaged just 1.15 yards per route run, while finishing with a 37/473/3 slash line.
Agholor has a 1.39 yards per route run average when you look at the past five seasons as a whole though so, while he’s been inconsistent, he has a good chance to be significantly more effective than he was a year ago, even if only by default, if he can just be as good as he’s been on average in recent years. He probably won’t be a huge asset to the Patriots or play well enough to justify his salary, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if they get better play from him than they did a year ago, especially since he should be more comfortable in the scheme.
Smith on the other hand, actually averaged 1.86 yards per route run, but was limited to a 28/294/1 slash line overall because the Patriots mostly utilized him as a blocker (66.7% of his snaps), which was a strange decision, because Smith struggled mightily in that aspect, ranking dead last among eligible tight ends on PFF in run blocking grade. With the Patriots’ offense set to become more pass heavy in 2022, I would expect Smith’s role to change significantly and his per route run average in 2021 was not totally out of line with the 1.64 yards per route run average he had in his final two seasons in Tennessee prior to last season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he remained a similarly efficient receiving option even in an expanded role.
Parker comes over after 7 seasons in Miami to give the Patriots much needed depth at the wide receiver position, for a team that figures to run more three and four wide receiver sets this season. Parker was inconsistent throughout his tenure in Miami and was often injured, missing 20 games total, including 7 last season, but he averaged an above average 1.66 yards per route run throughout his tenure in Miami, despite questionable quarterback play, and had a 72/1202/9 slash line in 2019 in the only season he ever stayed healthy all year. Parker is still only in his age 29 season and cost the Patriots just 6.25 million in salary and the equivalent of a 5th round pick in draft compensation, so he was a worthwhile addition.
Parker isn’t a true #1 receiver and none of the Patriots’ wide options are but, even if raw rookie Tyquan Thornton barely plays as a rookie outside of being a situational deep threat (4.28 40 yard dash at 6-2 181), the Patriots still have a very deep receiving corps, with Myers, Bourne, Parker, and Agholor all being at least capable options at wide receiver and a pair of good receiving tight ends in Henry and Smith, so their lack of a #1 receiver might not matter much, as they can spread it around to a number of different players and run different personnel grouping for different matchups.
How the targets get split up remains to be seen and it definitely is a crowded group where it’ll be tough for any one receiver to have a big target total, but the Patriots also figure to pass significantly more this season, which opens up more targets and could lead to players like Hunter Henry (75 targets) and Nelson Agholor (64 targets) still seeing similar target totals, with efficient, underutilized players like Kendrick Bourne (70 targets) and Jonnu Smith (45 targets) still seeing bigger target totals, and newcomer DeVante Parker still having a role of his own.
Bourne should also continue seeing a role as a ball carrier on end arounds, after rushing for 125 yards on 12 carries last season, and Smith, who lines up at fullback on occasion, also figures to continue seeing carries, after rushing for 40 yards on 9 carries last season and 8.13 YPC on 15 carries for his career. The only one who might struggle to match last year’s target total is Jakobi Meyers, whose 126 targets were 22nd in the NFL, but he should still have a big role, possibly still as the team’s leader in targets, and he could be more efficient than he was a year ago, so his production probably won’t drop significantly. This is an above average group overall.
The Patriots are also deep at the running back position and, while they probably won’t run as much as they did a year ago, their running backs still figure to be a big part of this offense, including in the passing game, which has been a staple of the Patriots’ offense for years. James White has been their passing down back for years, averaging 1.88 yards per route run and a 65/566/4 slash line per 16 games over the past seven seasons, but he missed most of last season with injury and was replaced by fellow veteran Brandon Bolden, who averaged 1.94 yards per route run and posted a 41/405/2 slash line.
Bolden is no longer with the team and White is set to return from injury, but it’s concerning that he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off of that injury, and, even with Bolden gone, White returns to a much more crowded Patriots backfield in terms of receiving options. The Patriots might have drafted White’s long-term replacement in the 4th round of this year’s draft when they took Pierre Strong, while 2021 4th round pick Rhamondre Stevenson showed a lot of promise in a limited passing game role as a rookie, averaging 1.54 yards per route run, and could easily take over a bigger passing game role in 2022 and beyond.
Lead back Damien Harris isn’t much use on passing downs (1.15 yards per route run in his career) and is primarily just an early down back, but he’s shown himself to be a high level runner over the past two seasons, averaging 4.78 YPC with 17 rushing touchdowns on 339 carries over that time period, with 59.8% of his yardage coming after contact, while ranking 3rd and 5th among running backs on PFF in rushing grade and 19th and 18th among running backs in carry success rate (53% and 54%) in those past two seasons respectively.
Selected in the third round in 2019, Harris could be entering his final season in New England, with the Patriots unlikely to give him what the market would pay him on a long-term deal to keep him beyond the final year of his rookie deal in 2022, and it’s likely the Patriots view Rhamondre Stevenson as his long-term replacement. However, for now, the Patriots have both Harris and Stevenson, who should once again form a talented rushing duo, as Stevenson also impressed as a runner as a rookie, in addition to impressing on passing downs. Stevenson averaged 4.56 YPC on 133 carries, with 71.4% of his yardage coming after contact, ranked third in the league in carry success rate at 59%, and finished the season as PFF’s 13th ranked running back in overall grade.
Stevenson was already narrowing the gap in carry total between him and Harris down the stretch last season and, as talented as Harris is, it wouldn’t be a surprise if there was something close to a 50/50 split in carries between these two backs in 2022, with Stevenson likely having more touches overall because of his passing game usage. Adding to the likelihood that this is Harris’ final season in New England is the Patriots also using a 6th round pick on a running back, University of South Carolina’s Kevin Harris, in addition to selecting Strong in the 4th, to make this a very crowded backfield and to give the Patriots another running back option long-term.
Kevin Harris might not even make the team as a rookie, but the Patriots clearly valued him enough to draft him in the 6th round, so it’s possible they keep five running backs or even that they let go of the veteran White, if he underwhelms in training camp his return from injury and other running backs establish themselves in passing game roles. White was re-signed as a free agent this off-season, but his new “2-year, 5 million dollar” contract guarantees him just 500k, so he’s not locked into a roster spot. The Patriots lack a true feature back, but this is a deep backfield and Stevenson looks like he has the upside as a runner and receiver to potentially be that feature back at some point in the future.
The Patriots offensive line was a big strength for them last season and should remain one this season, but they strangely overhauled the guard position this off-season, even though Ted Karras (13 starts) and Shaq Mason (15 starts) finished as PFF’s 18th and 4th ranked guard respectively on PFF last season. Karras not being brought back as a free agent wasn’t that surprising, but the 3-year, 18 million dollar deal he signed with the Bengals would have been totally reasonable to bring him back on and, making matters worse, the Patriots then traded Mason to the Buccaneers for just a 5th round pick, despite his contract having just 16 million over the next two seasons remaining on it, a great value for an elite player, still in his prime in his age 29 season.
The Patriots had a ready-made starter to fill in at one spot, as 2020 6th round pick Michael Onwenu has excelled in two years as a versatile spot starter, making 24 starts in two seasons and finishing in the 93rd percentile of offensive linemen on PFF in both seasons, but plugging him into the starting lineup thins their depth considerably and the Patriots had to use their first round pick to fill the void at the other guard spot, taking Cole Strange 29th overall in the first round, rather than being forced to turn to career backup interior lineman James Ferentz (521 snaps and 6 starts in 8 seasons in the league). Strange and Onwenu have the upside to be a great guard duo for years to come, but it would be hard for them to be an upgrade on Karras and Mason in 2022 and they both come with some downside, with Strange only being a rookie and Onwenu never having been a full-time starter.
The rest of this line remains the same from a year ago, with David Andrews at center and Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown as the tackles. Despite going undrafted, Andrews has been the Patriots’ starting center since his rookie season in 2015, with the exception of the 2019 season he missed with medical problems, finishing above average in overall grade on PFF in five straight healthy seasons (75 starts), including a 7th ranked finish among centers in 17 starts in 2021, his second finish in the top-10 at his position in his career. Andrews is going into his age 30 season, but has shown no signs of slowing down and could easily remain an above average starter for at least another season.
Wynn and Brown are also coming off of above average seasons, finishing 32nd and 20th among offensive tackles on PFF, but both are durability concerns. Brown has finished above average on PFF in five straight seasons and is still only going into his age 29 season, but he’s also only played in 51 of a possible 81 games over those five seasons, including just 9 starts in 2021. Wynn is also coming off multiple above average seasons on PFF, dating back to his first season of action in 2019, after the 2018 first round pick missed his whole rookie season with a torn achilles, but Wynn hasn’t been able to put the injury bug behind him, making just 33 of a possible 49 starts since returning.
Wynn did make 15 starts last season and he’s only in his age 26 season, but it’s likely he misses at least a little bit of time again, as is likely the case for Brown as well. Both will likely remain above average starters again while on the field, even if it’s unclear which one will play which side, which both having the capability to play left and right tackle, but their durability concerns are made even worse by the Patriots’ lack of depth behind them at tackle, with Onwenu moving inside permanently.
Justin Herron, another 2020 6th round pick, is likely to be the swing tackle, but he’s been underwhelming in 10 career starts and likely would struggle if forced into significant action, as is the case with Ferentz on the entire. This could be one of the league’s best offensive lines, if not the best offensive line in the league if everyone stays relatively healthy, but they lack depth and at least a couple of their starters have concerning injury histories.
The Patriots’ made their biggest investment in the receiving corps last off-season, but they also made big investments at other positions as well. Their most impactful signing was Matt Judon, who was not cheap on a 4-year, 54.5 million dollar deal, but who is a steal when you consider that he’s only the 27th highest paid edge defender in the NFL, which will only drop as Judon goes into the remaining three years of his deal. Judon has never been much against the run, but he had 12.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 15.0% pressure rate in 17 games last season, after 22.5 sacks, 54 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate in 46 games in his final 3 seasons in Baltimore prior to joining the Patriots last off-season.
Judon has also shown the ability to drop into coverage when needed, which the Patriots ask their edge defenders to do more than most teams. He’s going into his age 30 season, but has shown no signs of slowing down and should remain at least an above average pass rusher, even if declines a little bit. His pass rush ability and versatility to drop in coverage more than make up for his deficiencies as a run defender. He was a big part of the reason why the Patriots were among the better defenses in the league last season.
Deatrich Wise is a more traditional edge defender, not dropping in coverage once on 521 snaps last season and only dropping seven times in five seasons in the league, but that’s because the 6-5 275 pounder is mostly a base package run stopper. The 17 sacks, 46 hits, and 10.3% pressure rate he has in 78 career games aren’t terrible, especially considering he somewhat frequently rushes the passer from the interior, where it’s tougher to consistently reach the quarterback from, but his primary competency is his run defense, which has been average or better on PFF in three of the past four seasons. The 2017 4th round pick is an unspectacular player, but he’s a useful role player and should remain in that same role this season.
Off ball linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins all saw action as edge defenders in passing situations last season as well, combining for 7.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 15.1% pressure rate, but the Patriots didn’t bring any of them back, needing to get faster on defense to compete with faster offenses and opting to go with younger, more prototypical off ball linebackers who don’t move to the edge often. The Patriots didn’t replace any of them though, instead hoping to get more out of unproven young players, with 2020 2nd round pick Josh Uche, 2020 3rd round pick Anfernee Jennings, and 2021 3rd round pick Ronnie Perkins all candidates for significant edge defender roles.
Uche has the most upside of the bunch and has shown a lot of promise in two seasons in the league, defending the run well, pressuring the quarterback at a 12.0% rate, and even dropping into coverage well on occasion, but he’s been limited to just 424 snaps total, in part due to injuries that have cost him 12 games between the two seasons. He’s obviously a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had a mini breakout season and became an above average starter, only in his age 24 season in his third season in the league.
Perkins and Jennings are even less experienced, with Perkins having a true redshirt rookie season, spending most of the year as a healthy scratch and not playing a snap on defense, and Jennings also not playing a snap last season, missing the year with injury, after playing 293 nondescript snaps as a rookie. Both will likely see rotational roles in 2022 and, while they’re inexperienced, they have the upside to be decent in a limited role, as long as they aren’t forced into a starting role, which they wouldn’t be without multiple injuries ahead of them on the depth chart.
None of the Patriots’ edge defenders will drop in coverage as much as Hightower, Van Noy, and Collins did last season, with none of them being the true hybrid player those three players were, but they will still be expected to do so more often than they would in most defensive schemes though, with the exception of Wise. This is a very inexperienced position group behind Judon and Wise, but Judon elevates the group significantly by himself and their young prospects at least have significant upside, all being recent draft picks in the third round or earlier.
The Patriots also made a pair of key additions on the interior of their defensive line last off-season too, signing Davon Godchaux to a 2-year, 15 million dollar contract in free agency and using a second round pick on Christian Barmore, who were both above average starters in 2021, finishing 42nd and 49th among interior defenders on 641 and 599 snaps respectively. Godchaux has never been much of a pass rusher, with a 4.8% pressure rate in 5 seasons in the league, but he was PFF’s 27th ranked interior defender in terms of run defense grade last season and he’s finished above average in run defense grade in all four healthy seasons in the league.
Godchaux is still in his prime in his age 28 season and should remain an above average run defender, but he also is unlikely to have any untapped upside as a pass rusher. Barmore, on the other hand, struggled against the run as a rookie, but excelled as a pass rusher, with 1.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate, despite almost exclusively rushing the passer from the interior. Barmore might not be quite as good as a pass rusher again in 2022, but he also could be significantly improved as a run defender in his second season in the league and he profiles as a consistently above average interior defender long-term, still not even turning 23 until later this off-season.
The Patriots also added Henry Anderson in free agency last off-season, but he was limited to 35 snaps by injury. Anderson could play a significant role in 2022, but he’s going into his age 31 season and is owed just 2 million in the final year of a 2-year deal, so he’s not guaranteed a role. Anderson has mostly been a solid player in 7 seasons in the league, finishing average or better on PFF in 6 of 7 seasons, holding up against the run and pressuring quarterbacks at a 8.0% rate, but he’s also always been an injury prone player, missing 35 total games in his career, and it’s unclear if he can be anything more than a solid reserve at this point in his career. Long-time Patriot Lawrence Guy will likely remain in his base package role (532 snaps), so Anderson’s best path to playing time will be competing with deep reserve Carl Davis (277 snaps), who was also primarily a base package player in 2021.
Davis has never played more than 300 snaps in a season in 7 seasons in the league and struggled in his limited action last season, so Anderson would be an upgrade on him easily, but Guy is at least a solid player, not only a consistently above average run stopper, but also pressuring the quarterback at a 7.5% rate in his career. His age is a concern in his age 33 season and he earned his worst PFF season grade since 2014 last year, but he was still PFF’s in the 63th percentile among ranked interior defenders on PFF and the Patriots have enough depth at this position for this to be a solid group even if Guy continues declining.
Like at the edge defender position, the Patriots will be replacing departed hybrid players Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins with mostly young, unproven off ball linebackers. The Patriots did retain Ja’Whaun Bentley (694 snaps) in free agency and he’s been a solid starter over the past two seasons, while earning average or better grades from PFF in all four seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 5th round in 2018. It’s surprising the Patriots were able to keep him on just a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, as he was PFF’s 21st ranked off ball linebacker last season and is only in his age 26 season, so he was a great value signing. He should remain in a similar role and he should remain at least an average starter.
The rest of this group is much more unsettled though. Two of the players who could replace the veterans who left didn’t play a snap at all last season due to torn ACLs, but both do have upside. Cam McGrone could have been a 2nd or 3rd round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft before the injury and only fell to the 5th round because he was hurt. He’s a complete unknown at the NFL level, but off-season reports have been good and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ended up as a solid starter long-term.
For Raekwon McMillan, it was his second torn ACL on different knees in five seasons in the league, with the 2017 2nd round pick missing his entire rookie season as well. McMillan still developed into a great run stopping linebacker in a part-time role with the Dolphins in 2018 and 2019, finishing 10th and 11th respectively among off ball linebackers on PFF in run defense grade, but he struggled mightily in coverage, leading to middling overall grades from PFF in both seasons. He then got traded to the Raiders for his contract year in 2020 and played just 170 snaps, before missing all of 2021. McMillan is still only in his age 26 season and has only missed three games aside from the two injuries, so there’s a good chance he can be a useful early down run stopper for this team, but he comes with a lot of uncertainty.
The Patriots also acquired 2019 5th round pick Mack Wilson from the Browns in a trade, but he would probably be overstretched if forced into a significant role. Mack was PFF’s 93rd ranked off ball linebacker out of 100 eligible in 942 snaps as a rookie in 2019 in the only extended action of his career, though he has been better in more limited action in the past two seasons (snap counts of 372 and 193) and might deserve another chance at a bigger role, still only in his age 24 season. It’s possible he could prove to be a valuable linebacker for this defense, but I wouldn’t expect an every down role for him either way.
The Patriots also frequently used three safeties in sub packages, with one serving as a linebacker, to mask their lack of capable coverage players at the position last season, with Kyle Dugger (6-2 220) and Adrian Phillips (5-11 210) frequently serving in that capacity, and they could do that even more this season, with another hybrid safety/linebacker Jabrill Peppers (5-11 215) being added in free agency on a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal. Having safeties able to play linebacker at a relatively high level in sub packages elevates this otherwise underwhelming group.
Adrian Phillips was probably the Patriots’ best safety last season, finishing 7th at his position on PFF across 883 snaps, in part because of how he played when serving as a de facto linebacker. It was the best the 8-year veteran has ever been for a full season, but it wasn’t that surprising, as he has finished average or better on PFF in all but one season in the league and was PFF’s 5th ranked safety through 282 snaps in 7 games before getting hurt in 2019, in his final season with the Chargers.
Phillips only was 38th among safeties in his first season in New England in 2020, but he always was a good fit for the Patriots’ defense because of his versatility, so it’s not a surprise he was able to take a big step forward in his second season in the system. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to repeat the best full season of his career, but he hasn’t shown any signs of decline and should remain an above average starter for at least another season.
Devin McCourty (1,020 snaps) and Kyle Dugger (734 snaps) also played at a high level last season, ranking 15th and 26th respectively among safeties on PFF. McCourty has been playing at that level seemingly forever, finishing in the top-20 at his position in 9 of 12 seasons in the league, and he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down, even though he’s now going into his age 35 season. At his age, a significant overnight drop off is always a possibility and I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as he was last season, even if he doesn’t drop off significantly, but it’s possible he could remain a solid starter and the Patriots have good enough depth with Peppers being added that McCourty won’t have to play as big of a role as usual if he starts to decline.
Dugger, on the other hand, is a young up and upcoming player, going into his third season in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2020, Dugger was solid on 520 rookie year snaps as a part-time player, before a mini breakout season in 2021. He’s still relatively unproven, but he also has a significant upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had the best season of his career in 2022. Even if he never improves significantly, he’s likely to be a consistently above average starting safety for years to come, with the versatility to move to linebacker in sub packages if needed.
Peppers is coming off of a torn achilles, which is probably a big part of the reason why the Patriots were able to get him on a cheap one-year deal, but the 2017 1st round pick earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of his first four seasons in the league, across an average of 58.0 snaps per game, before being limited to 229 snaps in 6 games by injury last season, with his career best season coming when he was PFF’s 23rd ranked safety in 2018. That 2018 season also happens to be the only season he’s ever played without missing a game with injury, with his durability concerns being a consistent issue throughout his career. He’s still only in his age 27 season and has bounce back potential even if he’s not at his best in his first year back, especially since he’ll be a good fit for the Patriots defense, similar to Adrian Phillips.
Cornerback is the position group where the Patriots had their most significant defensive loss this off-season, with JC Jackson signing with the Chargers on a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal that makes him the 9th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary, after finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked cornerback in 2021. The Patriots have some intriguing options to play outside at cornerback, but it’s highly unlikely any of them are close to as good this season as Jackson was last season.
Jalen Mills (915 snaps) is their top returning outside cornerback and is probably locked into a starting role for the second straight year, after signing with the Patriots on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season, but he’s never been more than a solid #2 cornerback and he has been inconsistent in his 6-year career, finishing below average on PFF in half of those seasons. He was PFF’s 37th ranked cornerback last season, but he’s no guarantee to even be that good in 2022 and could prove to be a liability, as he has been in the past.
The Patriots also added veteran outside cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Terrance Mitchell in free agency this off-season and could also give promising 4th round rookie Jack Jones a look, even if he would probably be overstretched in his rookie season. For Butler, his 2-year, 5 million dollar deal with the Patriots is a homecoming, as he spent the first four seasons of his career in New England, before leaving for a big contract with the Titans. It’s also a return to the NFL for Butler, who missed all of 2021 with personal reasons, after being released by the Titans and signing with the Cardinals on a one-year deal.
Butler never lived up to the 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal he signed with the Titans, posting a lower PFF grade in all three seasons in Tennessee than he did in any of his three seasons in New England as a starter, and he’s now going into his age 32 season, but he was at least a solid starter in all six seasons from 2015-2020 (83 starts) and it’s possible he could turn back the clock a little in back in New England, where he fits the scheme well and finished in the top-25 among cornerbacks on PFF in two of his three seasons as a starter. It’s also possible he could completely fall off though, given his age and the fact that he didn’t play last season, in which case the Patriots would need to try another option.
Mitchell has experience, with 51 career starts in 7 seasons in the league, including 29 starts over the past two seasons, and he’s generally been a solid starter, but he’s coming off of a season in which he finished 118th out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and now heads into his age 30 season, so he would be an underwhelming option if the Patriots were forced to start him. He wasn’t a bad depth signing though, on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal. Whoever replaces Jackson as the starter opposite Mills figures to be a significant downgrade on Jackson.
Fortunately, the Patriots do get slot cornerback Jonathan Jones, after a shoulder injury ended his 2021 season after 224 snaps in 6 games. Jones had been an above average slot cornerback in terms of PFF grade in four straight seasons prior to last season, with a career best 4th ranked finish among cornerbacks on PFF across 730 snaps as recently as 2020, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, still in his prime in his age 29 season. He might not quite repeat the best season of his career from 2020, but he should have another above average season.
It’s possible the Patriots could play Jones a little more outside this year than normal, but 69.4% of his career snaps have come on the slot and that is where he’s at his best, so that will remain his primary position. The Patriots also used a 3rd round pick on cornerback Marcus Jones, who lacks the size (5-8 174) to play outside, but could be an option as a reserve on the slot. Most likely his primary contributions will come on special teams, where he was arguably the best returner in the draft, but he gives them depth on the slot as well. The Patriots will need their safety play and slot cornerback play to mask their issues at the outside cornerback position.
The Patriots have had consistently good special teams throughout most of Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach, with Belichick having a background as a special teams coordinator and valuing the position highly, but they had an uncharacteristically middling special teams unit in 2021, finishing 18th in special teams DVOA. Long-time special teams stalwarts Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel are getting older, going into their age 37 and 32 seasons respectively, and both have seen their play drop off, leaving Cody Davis as their lone core special teamer to finish in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF. The Patriots didn’t make any notable additions to their core special team group this off-season, so I wouldn’t expect much to change in that aspect.
The Patriots did likely find an upgrade at returner in Marcus Jones, with the Patriots using a 3rd round pick on the diminutive slot cornerback primarily for what he can do on special teams, after a collegiate career in which he scored nine times on special teams. He could turn a return unit that was a bit of a weakness last season into a strength. Aside from Jones’ aside though, this is essentially the same group as a year ago, with kicker Nick Folk and punter Jake Bailey returning as well. I would expect them to be better than a year ago and for them to be an above average unit, but they probably won’t be as elite as they’ve been in some years.
The Patriots’ defense probably won’t be as good as it was a year ago, in part due to off-season losses and in part due to defensive performance being much less consistent and predictive year-to-year than offensive performance, but their offense, which was already one of the more efficient in the league last season, has a good chance to take a step forward in 2022, with Mac Jones in his second season and an improved receiving corps.
The Patriots are starting from a higher base point than their 10-7 record suggests, with many of their losses being close (3-5 record in games decided by 10 points or fewer), and, while they’ll face a tougher schedule in a tougher overall AFC in 2022, they have a decent chance to still make it back to the post-season, even if they have to get a wild card, with the Bills seemingly locked in atop the division, barring fluke injuries. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC East