New England Patriots 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

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.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

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. 

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

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.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

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. 

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

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.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

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.

Grade: B

Secondary

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.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

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.

Prediction: TBD

New York Jets at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

New York Jets (2-13) at New England Patriots (6-9)

The Patriots have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the league this season. They’ve beaten quality teams like the Dolphins, Raiders, Cardinals, and Ravens, with the first two coming by double digits. They have a 45-0 win over the Chargers and have also kept it close with the Seahawks and Bills. At the same time, they lost their rematch to the Dolphins and badly lost their rematch to the Bills. They also have double digit losses to the Rams and 49ers and have lost to the Texans and Broncos, while almost losing to the Jets, before pulling out a mere field goal win. 

There also isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to their inconsistency, as their loss to the Texans came in the middle of a 4-1 stretch, while their recent 3-game losing streak (Rams, Dolphins, Bills) has come after probably their most complete game of the season against the Chargers. Their schedule hasn’t been easy and they haven’t been horrible all things considered, ranking 22nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.76%, but they’ve been very tough to predict week-to-week.

In terms of variance, the Patriots rank 5th in the NFL and their inconsistency is even worse than that suggests, as most teams that rank high in variance have had injury problems throughout the season that have caused them to not have the same personnel available to them every week, which hasn’t really been the case for the Patriots. The best explanation I have for their inconsistency is that they’re a bottom-third team talent wise that is more likely to exceed their talent level and play surprisingly well than your average bottom-third team because of their coaching edge.

Given that, it’s hard to ever bet them confidently, but it seems like the Patriots’ stock is so low now after their recent 3-game losing streak that they are a reasonably safe bet, now favored by just 3 points over the Jets, after being favored by 9 points on the early line last week. Everyone saw them get blown out by the Bills on Monday Night Football, but the Bills are arguably the best team in the league and, even if the Patriots don’t play their best game, they should be able to win this game by at least a field goal against one of the worst teams in the league.

Massive line movements like that almost always tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. The Patriots’ injuries are starting to pile up, with key offensive linemen David Andrews and Shaq Mason and talented edge defender Josh Uche now sidelined after playing last week, joining top running back Damien Harris and top cornerback Stephon Gilmore as key players to go down in recent weeks, so some line movement was justified, but the Patriots still rank a somewhat respectable 24th in my roster rankings, while the Jets rank 31st.

The Jets have won back-to-back games after losing their first 13 games of the season by a ridiculous 16.15 points per game, but I don’t think they’re suddenly a drastically improved team, as they seemed to catch the Rams off guard more than anything and last week they faced a Browns team that was missing several key players on offense, including their top-4 wide receivers. Teams also tend to be overrated after wins as big home underdogs like the Jets got last week, covering at a 43.1% rate after a win as home underdogs of 3.5 or more. 

Like the Patriots’ loss to the Bills, the Jets win last week shouldn’t have led to a line movement of more than a point or so. I’m not saying this line should still be at 9, after the results of last week and the Patriots’ injuries, but I still have it calculated at New England -5, so we’re getting decent line value with the Patriots. The Jets have also seen injuries start to pile up in recent weeks, something that has been overlooked because of their mini winning streak, most notably the absence of their top defensive player Quinnen Willliams, who went down for the season after the win against the Rams week 15.

I hate betting on a team that has been as tough to predict as the Patriots, but even in one of their worst games of the season, they were able to beat the Jets in New York by a field goal, so they should be able to win ugly again at home if they have to and the Patriots’ obvious coaching edge gives them a better chance of winning this game easily than most teams with an underwhelming roster. The most likely outcomes of this game, in order, are a close Patriots win, a not so close Patriots win, and then a close Jets win, so I like my chances at New England -3.

New England Patriots 23 New York Jets 17

Pick against the spread: New England -3

Confidence: Medium

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (11-3) at New England Patriots (6-8)

After back-to-back dominant offensive performances against top level defenses in the Steelers and Broncos, the Bills have jumped actually pretty far ahead of the Chiefs for the #1 rank in first down rate over expected (+4.89% vs. +3.87%). The Chiefs still lead the conference in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, but only slightly (+3.32% vs. +3.29%) and only because of the Bills’ defensive struggles, as the Bills rank just 25th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.60%.

Defensive performance is much less predictable week-to-week than offensive performance, but beyond the inherent unpredictability of defensive performance, the Bills are also healthier than they’ve been all season on defense and they are much more talented on paper than their overall season performance, so I would say they’re much more likely to be improved going forward than your typical 25th ranked defensive unit. If they can even be a middling group defensively going forward, this team should be considered one of the top few contenders for the Super Bowl, as their offense should continue playing at a dominant level.

Unfortunately, this line has moved significantly from last week, favoring the Bills by a touchdown on the road in New England, as opposed to Buffalo -4, which is where this line was last week on the early line, before Buffalo’s nationally televised blowout victory over the Broncos. We’re actually getting a little bit of line value with the underdog Patriots in this game, as my calculated line is just Buffalo -6. Overall, the Patriots have been a slightly above average team this season, ranking 13th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.82%, but they’ve been very inconsistent, beating teams like the Ravens, Cardinals, Raiders, and Dolphins (split) and playing the Bills and Chiefs close, while losing to teams like the Broncos and Texans. 

In terms of variance, the Patriots rank 2nd in the NFL, which is rare for a team that hasn’t had a ton of injuries that would cause them to be so inconsistent. The Patriots are slightly diminished this week, missing their top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but still rank a respectable 17th in my roster rankings, so we’re getting slightly line value. I can’t be confident in them at all, given that we’re getting minimal line value and they’ve been so inconsistent, but they are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Buffalo Bills 30 New England Patriots 24

Pick against the spread: New England +7

Confidence: None

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (6-7) at Miami Dolphins (8-5)

The Patriots have been a tough team to predict this season because they’ve been one of the most inconsistent in the league, ranking 4th in the league in variance, only behind three teams that have had a lot more injury problems and, as a result, have started drastically different lineups at different points at this season, explaining a lot of the variance. The Patriots had some injuries earlier in the season when they lost by double digits to the 49ers and Chiefs and lost to the Broncos in upset fashion and they’ve been better in recent weeks, knocking off quality teams like the Ravens and Cardinals and blowing out the Chargers, but, even still, the Patriots have also lost to Houston during their recent stretch and were blown out by the Rams last week.

Overall, the Patriots have been a little bit above average. They have about an even point differential (-2), despite facing one of the tougher schedules in the league, and in terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, they rank 12th at 0.86%, which lines up with my roster rankings, which also have them 12th, now healthier than they were earlier this season during their most disappointing stretch. 

The Dolphins, meanwhile, have a couple more wins, but haven’t been as good overall. They’ve played a relatively easy schedule, with half of their wins coming against the three worst teams in the league (the Bengals, the Jaguars, and the Jets twice). Of their eight wins, just two have come against teams that currently have a winning record, a 3-point victory over the 7-6 Cardinals (who the Patriots also beat) and a win over the Rams in which the Dolphins managed just 8 first downs and 145 yards of offense and primarily won because they had return touchdowns of 78 yards and 88 yards, which certainly is not sustainable every week. 

Beyond those two return touchdowns, the Dolphins have generally benefited from metrics that are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, in addition to their easy schedule. The Dolphins lead the league in opponent’s field goal conversion rate at 60.00%, rank 8th in fumble recovery rate at 58.06%, and they have a +10 turnover margin, which ranks tied for 2nd in the NFL. As counterintuitive as it may seem, going against teams with impressive turnover margins this late in the season actually tends to be a smart move. Turnover margins are very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, as a result, teams with a turnover margin of +10 or more in week 15 or later, on average, have a +0.64 turnover margin over the final 3 games of the season, leading to them covering the spread at just a 46.2% rate in those games.

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which is much more predictive, the Dolphins are a middling team, ranking 17th at +0.37%, behind their opponents, the New England Patriots. That is even better than their roster rankings, suggesting they’ve actually outperformed their talent level to get to this point. They rank 23rd in my roster rankings and, while they could move up if key questionable players like linebacker Kyle Van Noy, guard Ereck Flowers, and tight end Mike Gesicki suit up, if several of those players are unable to play, I am probably going to end up betting on the Patriots, even if we aren’t getting much line value with them as 1.5 point road underdogs. This is a low confidence pick for now (my calculated line is New England -2), but I may have an update when inactives are released.

Update: Van Noy will play for the Dolphins, but that’s where the good news ends on the Dolphins’ injury report, as not only will Gesicki and Flowers both be out, but the Dolphins will also be without their top-2 wide receivers Devante Parker and Jakeem Grant. Already thin in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, the Dolphins figure to have a tough time consistently stringing together drives in this game, even against a middling Patriots defense. The Patriots will be without running back Damien Harris, but they’re deep enough at running back that Harris’ absences won’t be a huge deal.

The line has dropped to New England +1, but I would lock this in ASAP in case the line shifts further. Also, I didn’t mention this earlier, but it’s worth noting that Bill Belichick is 45-33 ATS as the head coach of the Patriots off of extra rest, which the Patriots will have after playing on Thursday Night Football last week. And then there is Bill Belichick’s history of dominance against rookie quarterbacks like Tua Tugavailoa. If the Patriots hadn’t been so inconsistent and unpredictable this season, I would make this a high confidence pick.

New England Patriots 20 Miami Dolphins 16 Upset Pick +100

Pick against the spread: New England +1

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Los Angeles Rams: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (6-6) at Los Angeles Rams (8-4)

The rule of thumb in games where both teams are on short rest is to bet the favorite, especially in non-divisional games. It makes sense that more talented, better coached teams would be at even more of an advantage in a tough situation like a short week, especially if they aren’t facing a divisional opponent that is familiar with them, and it’s also backed up by numbers, as teams are 60-37 ATS as non-divisional favorites on a short week over the past 30 seasons. The Rams are favored by 5.5 in this non-conference matchup, so they fit the trend, but the trend only makes sense if you can justify the team being favored by as many points as they are, which is hard to do, as these two teams are much closer than this line suggests. 

This game is in Los Angeles, meaning it’s technically a home game for the Rams, but they won’t have any fans in the stadium, so homefield advantage really is beneficial only for travel purposes and the Rams will actually have traveled more recently than the Patriots, as they were in Arizona last week facing the Cardinals, while the Patriots will be in their second straight game in Los Angeles, having faced the Chargers last week, which should also cancel out the circadian rhythm problem that east coast teams have against west coast teams in night games. I would maybe give the Rams a half point for homefield advantage, so for this line to be right, the Rams would have to be 5 points better than the Patriots, which doesn’t seem accurate.

The Rams have definitely had the better defense this season, ranking 2nd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.62%, only behind the Steelers, while the Patriots rank 15th at +0.36%, but defensive play is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive play and my roster rankings suggest that, while the Rams have a good defense, they have overplayed their talent level, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see them regress at least somewhat going forward. 

If that happens, the Rams will be more reliant on their offense, which ranks 15th in first down rate over expected at +0.58% and is still missing a key player in left tackle Andrew Whitworth. That injury has been overlooked because the Rams have gone 2-1 in his absence, but one of their wins came against a Cardinals defense that is one of the worst in the league, their other win came in Tampa Bay in a game in which the Rams had a mediocre offensive performance in a good situation spot, while their loss came at home against a middling 49ers team.

The Patriots, meanwhile, are just 6-6, but they’ve been better than their record, especially on offense. They have a positive point differential at +19, despite a relatively tough schedule and some early injury and COVID absences, and they rank 11th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.20%, including 8th in first down rate over expected at +1.55%. Their offense isn’t flashy, but they’re very efficient on the ground with both running back runs and quarterback runs and they have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL, even with Isaiah Wynn injured. 

The Patriots also don’t get blown out often, with just one loss by more than one score with Cam Newton in the lineup. They kept it within 5 points in Seattle and in Buffalo and have beaten quality teams like the Cardinals, Raiders, Ravens, and Dolphins, so it’s hard to see how the Rams would be expected to win by 6 points in what amounts to a neutral site game, as the Rams are more or less comparable in caliber to the aforementioned six teams that the Patriots have played competitively this season. 

I have these two teams about 1.5 points apart, giving me a calculated line of Los Angeles -2, so we’re getting significant line value at +5.5, as about 28% of games are decided by 2-5 points. This might be my Pick of the Week if this game were later in the week, but there may be others I like more, so I’m keeping this as “just” a high confidence bet. Either way, I like the Patriots a lot this week, as they continue to be underrated, while the Rams’ offensive issues have been overlooked.

Los Angeles Rams 24 New England Patriots 23

Pick against the spread: New England +5.5

Confidence: High

New England Patriots at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (5-6) at Los Angeles Chargers (3-8)

The Chargers are just 3-8, but it’s well-known that they have been competitive in most of their games, even against good teams, as they’ve only lost one game by more than one score all season, including near victories over the Chiefs, Saints, and Buccaneers. However, their offense hasn’t been all that impressive, ranking 24th in first down rate over expected at -1.29%, which is a concern because offensive play is much more consistent week-to-week than defensive play. 

The Chargers rank 9th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.55%, but aren’t guaranteed to be that good going forward, especially given that they are missing key players due to injury, including stud defensive end Melvin Ingram and top linebacker Denzel Perryman and that they traded away talented slot cornerback Desmond King at the trade deadline. They could also be without top cornerback Casey Hayward and Melvin Ingram’s replacement Uchenna Nwosu, who are both considered questionable for this game.

The Patriots are almost an opposite team from the Chargers, ranking 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.72% and 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.53%. You might not think of them as a good offense because of their passing game issues, but they have a strong offensive line and versatile running game, with both power running back Damien Harris and quarterback Cam Newton finding success on the ground. That formula won’t work against every team, but it should be effective against a team like the Chargers, especially with the Chargers missing their top linebacker. 

The Patriots’ defense has been a problem this season, but defensive play is very inconsistent week-to-week and I trust Bill Belichick and company to make the right defensive adjustments as much as any coaching staff in the league. Belichick should particularly be at an advantage this week against a rookie quarterback, a situation he is 15-4 straight up in throughout his career. The Patriots are the more talented overall team and matchup well with the Chargers on both sides of the ball, so they should be favored by at least a couple points, rather than being slight underdogs. This isn’t a big bet, but there’s enough line value here for the Patriots to be worth betting and I may increase this bet if it turns out Hayward and/or Nwosu can’t play.

New England Patriots 23 Los Angeles Chargers 20 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: New England +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Arizona Cardinals at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (6-4) at New England Patriots (4-6)

The Patriots are just 4-6, but they appear to have made the right decision to move on from Tom Brady and not guarantee him 50 million dollars for his age 43 and 44 seasons in 2020 and 2021 like the Buccaneers did. Brady is having some success in Tampa Bay, but he has a much better team around him with the Buccaneers and likely would not be having the same success in New England. In fact, there is an argument to be made that the Patriots would be worse off with Brady than with Cam Newton, even before taking into account that Newton is making next to nothing, allowing the Patriots to maintain long-term financial flexibility and shorten the length of their rebuild.

After ranking just 21st in the NFL in first down rate last season with Brady, the Patriots rank 8th in first down rate over expected this season at +1.84%. The Patriots have a better offensive line and running game this season, but they also don’t have their only consistent veteran wide receiver in Julian Edelman, who will miss his 5th straight game. The Patriots don’t have much of a passing game this season, but it’s unlikely it would have been much better with Brady throwing to these unproven receivers and Newton’s running ability at least gives this offense another dimension to make up for their lack of a downfield passing game. Overall, the Patriots’ offense hasn’t been the problem. 

The big problem is their defense, which led the league in first down rate allowed by a wide margin last season, but has fallen to 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.80%. That’s understandable, given that 6 of their top-11 in snaps from last year’s defense are no longer with the team, either leaving in free agency, trade, or opting out. Even with their defensive struggles though, they’ve been better than their record suggests, as they’ve played a tough schedule and have gone just 2-4 in one score games. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Patriots rank a middling 19th at +0.04% and they could easily be better than that going forward, because they’re healthier now than they’ve been and because offense is much more predictable and consistent on a week-to-week basis than defense. If their defense can even be middling going forward, this won’t be an easy team to face. My roster rankings are even more generous, ranking them 12th. The Patriots have had a couple stinker performances in recent weeks, nearly losing to the Jets and losing to the Texans, but they were in a bad spot in both of these games, before and after a big upset victory over the Ravens. Coming off of last week’s loss, I would expect much better focus from New England this week.

Instead, it could be New England’s opponents who aren’t totally focused, with the Cardinals potentially looking ahead to a key divisional matchup with the Rams next week in Arizona. The Cardinals are a very similar team to the Patriots, with their defense significantly lagging behind their offense, and these two teams rank about even in my roster rankings. We’re only getting a point and a half with the Patriots as home underdogs, so there isn’t enough here for the Patriots’ money line to be worth betting without any fans in the stands, but these two teams are about even except for the spot and with the Patriots in the better spot, I would expect them to sneak out a close victory, so the Patriots should be the better side for pick ‘em purposes. The money line at +110 is worth a small bet, as the Patriots should be considered no worse than 50/50 to win this game straight up and my calculated line is New England -1.5.

New England Patriots 33 Arizona Cardinals 31 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: New England +1.5

Confidence: Low

New England Patriots at Houston Texans: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (4-5) at Houston Texans (2-7)

The Patriots pulled off the upset last week, beating the Ravens last week by final score of 23-17. That was a shocking result to people who left the Patriots for dead after a four game losing streak and a near defeat to the Jets, but I wasn’t overly surprised. Not only were the Ravens missing key players that made them much less than the dominant team we’re used to them being over the past year or so, but the Patriots were also much better than most people thought. Of their five losses, only one of them was a game in which they were uncompetitive and they could have easily picked up victories on the road in Seattle and Buffalo, to go with their double digit home victories over capable teams in the Dolphins and Raiders.

People are taking the Patriots more seriously after last week’s win over the Ravens, with this line shifting from favoring Houston by 2.5 to favoring the Patriots by 1.5, but line movement within the field goals like that isn’t all that valuable and I think the Patriots are still underrated. The Patriots rank 13th first down rate differential at +0.74% and that’s despite the fact that their starting quarterback dealt with illness and possibly injury for a couple weeks, their top cornerback Stephon Gilmore missed 3 games, and they’ve had a variety of injuries on the offensive line. With Newton healthy, Gilmore back in the lineup, and their offensive line being one of the best in the league now back at full strength, the Patriots rank 8th in my roster rankings, so they’re no pushover.

Even better for the Patriots’ projection going forward, their problems have been primarily concentrated on defense, which is the much more inconsistent side of the ball, as they rank 6th in first down rate over expected, but just 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected. Even on sheer regression, I would expect this Patriots’ defense to be better going forward, but getting players like Gilmore and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy (returned last week) back from injury and having Bill Belichick as head coach/de facto defensive coordinator makes it even more likely that we’ll see better defensive play from them going forward. If that’s the case and their offense can remain efficient with Newton, a strong offensive line, a strong running game, and Jakobi Myers stepping up as a downfield target in the passing game, this could be a dangerous team the rest of the way, even if it’s possibly too late for them to climb back into a playoff spot.

Given that, the Patriots should be favored by more than 1.5 points here in a matchup with a Texans team that ranks 29th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -3.43%. The Texans have lost to quality opponents in all of their losses, but they haven’t been overly competitive with those quality opponents and their only two victories have come against the Jaguars, the second one coming in a competitive game in which the Jaguars had a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion late. My roster rankings have them significantly higher than that and they could be better going forward if they can underachieve less than they have, but they also aren’t well coached and even if they do play up to their talent level, they’re just 18th in my roster rankings, so they’re a good amount behind the Patriots. 

Much like all of the Texans other games against quality opponents, the Texans are likely to lose this one and it possibly won’t be competitive. The Texans will have some fans in the stadium, which will give them somewhat of a boost, but in a game the Patriots basically just need to win to cover, I like their chances of covering a good amount. The one thing that concerns me with betting the Patriots is they could be a little flat after such a big win last week (teams cover at a 41.3% rate after a home upset victory as underdogs of 5 points or more), but there is still enough here for the Patriots to be bet confidently.

Update: Laremy Tunsil will be out for the Texans with an illness, which is a huge blow to the Texans’ offense. This line has climbed to 1.5 or even 2 in some places, but as long as this line is under a field goal, I like the Patriots a lot this week.

New England Patriots 30 Houston Texans 24

Pick against the spread: New England -1.5

Confidence: High

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (6-2) at New England Patriots (3-5)

The Patriots have gone just 3-5 in their first season without Tom Brady, at one point losing four straight games for the first time since 2002 and only snapping that losing streak by squeaking out a field goal win over the Jets last week. Things haven’t been quite as bad as they sound though. The Patriots have lost a lot of close games, going 1-3 in games decided by one score or less and, if you exclude a game in which they were within a score of the Chiefs with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter despite starting a backup quarterback, the Patriots are 2-1 on the season in games decided by more than a touchdown. The Patriots have also faced an above average schedule and, when adjusted for schedule, have a -0.92% first down rate differential that is only slightly below average. 

Even better, the Patriots’ issues have primarily been on the defensive side of the ball this season, as they rank 10th in first down rate over expected at +1.25%, but just 23rd in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.17%. The defensive side of the ball tends to be the much more inconsistent side of the ball and the Patriots’ offense, while not being the passing game we’re used to from them, is still pretty effective at moving the chains, especially on the ground, and has one of the best offensive lines in the league. 

As bad as their near loss to the Jets was, the Patriots actually exceeded expectations on offense with a 39.47% first down rate against a Jets defense that isn’t hapless, ranking 20th in first down rate allowed over expected. The problem was their defense surrendered a 40.91% first down rate to an offense that had been anemic all season, but defensive issues are easier to fix week-to-week and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is one of the best of all-time at defensive adjustments. It’s also very possible the Patriots got caught looking forward, facing a last place Jets team before this Sunday Night Football game against Baltimore. I would expect a better effort this week.

The Patriots’ schedule gets harder this week as the Ravens are obviously a much tougher opponent than the Jets, but not as much as you might think. This once dominant Ravens offense ranks just 27th in first down rate over expected at -1.86% and, while they are better than that on paper, they are also missing their top-2 offensive linemen from last season in Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley and, with defenses catching on to how to defend this offense, it looks less and less likely that the Ravens will consistently find their 2019 form again this season. 

The Ravens have still played well defensively this season, ranking 9th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.94%, but defensive play is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive play and the Ravens are missing a pair of key players this week with defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback Jimmy Smith sidelined. Given all that the Ravens are missing, this line is too high at a touchdown.

I’m going to bet the Patriots at least a little bit at +7, but unfortunately the Patriots have listed 17 players questionable this week, including cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, who missed last week’s game against the Jets and may be needed if this defense is going to bounce back, so I’m leaving this as a small bet until we get more clarity before gametime. This could easily end up being a higher confidence pick though, depending on injuries.

Baltimore Ravens 27 New England Patriots 24

Pick against the spread: New England +7

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at New York Jets: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (2-5) at New York Jets (0-8)

With the Patriots falling to 2-5 in their first season without Tom Brady, there has been a lot of talk that the Patriots made a mistake not trying harder to bring Brady back. However, I don’t know how this would have gone much differently even with Brady, minus Cam Newton’s brief bout with COVID that caused him to miss the Kansas City game and may have disrupted his next couple weeks. We saw Brady with this receiving corps last season and they were not a good offense, ranking 21st in first down rate, despite a much easier schedule than this season, when they rank 13th in schedule adjusted first down rate. It’s not like they were an offensive juggernaut and lost Brady and now they’ve fallen off a cliff. Brady looks good in Tampa Bay, but he has one of the best supporting casts in the league.

By far the biggest reason for their struggles winning games this season has been their dropoff on defense, which has fallen from being by far the top defense in the league by first down rate allowed to ranking just 16th in schedule adjusted first down rate allowed. Defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent year-to-year and week-to-week than offensive performance, but for the Patriots, the reason for their dropoff is clear. Of their top-8 players in terms of snaps played from last year’s defense, just two (Devin McCourty and JC Jackson) were active for last week’s loss in Buffalo.

The Patriots have still been better than their record though, as they rank 18th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at 0.18% and have been competitive in all but one of their losses. Both of their wins have come by double digits against competent opponents, but they are 0-3 in games decided by one score or less, which doesn’t even include a Kansas City game that was close throughout and that the Patriots easily could have won if they didn’t have to start a backup quarterback.

This week, the Patriots could get one of their top players back, with top cornerback Stephon Gilmore returning to practice after missing his first game of the season last week, and the Patriots also get a much easier matchup, going to New York to face a Jets team that has been the worst team in the league this season and that won’t have the benefit of any fans in the stands. The Jets also won’t have quarterback Sam Darnold due to a re-aggravation of his shoulder injury and, while he doesn’t been great this season any by stretch, he’s still been measurably better than washed up backup Joe Flacco, with whom this offense has been utterly inept this season, including one of the worst offensive performances I’ve seen in a while against the Dolphins in his most recent start.

The Jets are getting healthier in other areas, including wide receiver, but they still rank dead last in my roster rankings and they also rank last by a significant margin in schedule adjusted first down rate differential this season, at -8.78%. Not only have they not won a game, but they haven’t even come particularly close, with their closest loss coming by 8 points and their average loss by 18 points. This line jumped from 7 and 7.5 to 9.5 when the Darnold news was announced, but I have this line calculated at New England -12, as the Patriots are at least a middling team that should be able to handle the Jets like everyone else has. 

This isn’t a good spot for the Patriots, with a home game against the Ravens on deck, as road favorites cover at a 38.7% rate over the past 30 seasons before being home underdogs, but with the Patriots on a 4-game losing streak and needing a win just to keep their season alive, I would expect them to be focused for this one. I would probably need Stephon Gilmore to be active for the Patriots to be worth betting, but they are the pick for pick ‘em purposes regardless.

New England Patriots 21 New York Jets 9

Pick against the spread: New England -9.5

Confidence: Low