The 2021 Patriots were a success. They finished 10-7 with a rookie quarterback and a wildcard berth is a major improvement over the hopeless 2020 Patriots. In the most exciting offseason in recent memory, the Patriots spent big in free agency and drafted a quarterback in the first round. How did these moves workout and what needs to be improved going forward? Brendawn of the Dead here to break it all down.
The Good Acquisitions
Matt Judon: 12.5 sacks is an absolute success. Statistical production fell off at the end of the year, but I think that’s more of a reflection on the defense in totality. More on that later…
Mac Jones: Far and away had the best season of any rookie QB. Obvious upgrade from Cam Newton one year ago. Had ups and downs, as all rookies do, but what we saw was a lot more good than bad. Hopefully his development continues, and he makes that year two jump.
Hunter Henry: Henry was as advertised, a very good but not elite tight end. In 2020, you could argue that the Patriots didn’t have a tight end worthy of an NFL roster spot. Henry started slow but developed good chemistry with Mac Jones and was a reliable target and an excellent red zone threat.
Christian Barmore: We finally hit on a second-round pick. The standard numbers don’t jump off the page, but his impact was undeniable. High effort player with the skills to be a force up the middle for years to come.
Rhamondre Stevenson: Started the year in Bill’s doghouse for a questionable fumble, ended the year as part of one of the most effective running back combinations in football. 606 yards on 133 carries and 5 touchdowns speaks for itself. He is a large, powerful runner with excellent balance and deceiving top end speed.
Kendrick Bourne: Is he overpaid? Probably. Was he the best big play threat on your roster? Yes. Statistically, you got a solid number 2 receiver (800 yards) with big play potential. Important complementary player going forward.
The Bad Acquisitions
Jonnu Smith: You paid for potential, you got his career average year. I’m not sure the Patriots really figured out how to use him effectively. They designed gadget plays for him and designated him as the primary run blocking tight end. Seems like a waste of ability. Let him run slants, screens, and seam routes and use his athleticism in a less forced manner. Give him one more year to figure it out.
Nelson Agholor: Coming off a career year for the Raiders where he showed explosiveness as a deep threat. He didn’t do that here. 473 yards, injuries, no explosive plays, no chemistry with Mac. You paid number one receiver money and got number four receiver production.
Henry Anderson – Looked bad in camp, got hurt early.
Who Else Played Well?
Damien Harris: 929 yards on 202 carries. When healthy he was one of the most effective running backs in football. If he can find a way to stay healthy, he’s easily a 1,200 yard rusher. He’s not as big as Stevenson, but he runs big and is more explosive. He punishes defensive backs in the open field and showed breakaway speed.
Jakobi Meyers: Your de facto number one receiver. Reliable target with the most consistent hands on the team. Showed that last year was not a fluke and is another example of Bill’s success with undrafted free agents. Feel good story with good production, reliable number 2 receiver going forward.
Brandon Bolden: I hated how much he played when James White first got hurt, but he sure proved me wrong. He caught 41 passes and had 226 yards rushing. Good production from a third down back that nobody saw coming.
JC Jackson: Far and away your best man to man cover corner. Quarterbacks consistently had a hard time throwing his way and he made a lot of plays on the ball. In today’s NFL, that’s all you can really ask for. Hopefully they can afford his services going forward.
Kyle Dugger: Improved from year one, looks like Bill hit on this draft pick. Big, physical safety who greatly improved in coverage. Consistent tackler and can be moved around effectively.
Adrian Phillips: Outstanding pick up from a year ago. Tackled and covered well, on a team friendly contract. Important piece going forward.
Nick Folk: Exactly what you need in a kicker. Automatic from 40 or less, pretty much automatic from 50 or less. Doesn’t miss extra points and doesn’t let pressure get to him.
The Linebackers: Excluding Ja’Whaun Bentley, this group was terrible. Since 2019, EVERY SINGLE TEAM THAT HAS TRIED TO RUN THE BALL DOWN THE PATRIOTS THROAT HAS DONE SO! Loud enough for ya!? This group doesn’t move well laterally and gets stuck on blocks. They are old and unathletic. A year off really hurt Hightower. How many times did this defense fail to make a key stop at the end of a game? They couldn’t get the ball back to the offense to give them an opportunity to go win a game and that will not change without a complete personnel overhaul. Van Noy makes the occasional play, but there is no consistency here.
The Defensive Line: Let me repeat myself… Since 2019, EVERY SINGLE TEAM THAT HAS TRIED TO RUN THE BALL DOWN THE PATRIOTS THROAT HAS DONE SO! They consistently get blown off the ball and have poor gap discipline. When Judon gets double teamed (which happens a lot), there is zero quarterback pressure. It looks like they have missed on all their defensive end draft picks since Chandler Jones. Complementary defense starts with line. If the line holds their ground and maintains gap discipline, cutback lanes for zone blocking schemes disappear and linebackers don’t get caught up in the wash. If the defensive line can move the pocket and force the ball out of the quarterback’s hand early, offensive timing is completely thrown off and you get incompletions and turnovers. This line doesn’t do any of this and it hurts the rest of the unit.
Special Teams: Once a strength, now a liability. How many punts got blocked this year? One is rare, but multiple!? Did this unit effectively flip the field? Nope. Did this unit commit stupid penalties? Yup. Gunnar was an all-pro returner last season, this season he was a waste of a roster spot. Slater might retire this year, making the climb back to respectability even steeper.
Coaching: You had a rookie quarterback, so I understand the conservative play calling. What I don’t get is the lack of aggression on offense. You can be aggressive without putting your quarterback in compromising positions, but Belichick and McDaniels couldn’t figure out a way to do this. Penalties were a huge, entirely preventable problem all year. Defensive game planning was non-existent. Brian Flores proved how much this matters. With virtually the same personnel, Flores took a defense that failed the 2017 Patriots and turned them into the team’s biggest strength. They blitzed often, they played press man coverage, and they were aggressive. This defense had no aggression whatsoever. There was no game planning to make up for your deficiencies. Is Steve Belichick the right man to be calling the defense? I have no idea but I don’t like what I saw this year.
Legitimate Number One Target: Jakobi Meyers, Hunter Henry, and Kendrick Bourne are good football players, but they do not scare anyone. Looking at the legitimate playoff teams in the NFL, they all have something in common. Game changing pass catchers. Quick rundown:
KC: Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce
BUF: Stefon Diggs
CIN: Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins
TEN: AJ Brown, Julio Jones
GB: DeVante Adams
SF: Deebo Samuel, George Kittle
TB: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski
LAR: Cooper Kupp, OBJ
To put it simply, you don’t have any pass catcher close to this caliber. You can’t score enough points as currently constituted to beat good teams. You tried to solve this problem with one of the worst first round picks in NFL history in N’Keal Harry (AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin, Diontae Johnson and Hunter Renfrow were all taken after this man). You need to draft a legitimate number one target, trade for one, or find one in free agency. Given Belichick’s track record, hope for a trade or free agent.
Linebacker: You have zero speed at this position and that needs to change in a hurry. This can be addressed in the draft or via free agency, but this position needs a major overhaul. Hightower was a major cornerstone of the 4th, 5th, and 6th super bowl victories, but age has caught up with him.
Defensive Line: Matt Judon can’t do it by himself. You need someone to take some of the attention away from him. Interior or defensive end doesn’t matter, both need help.
The 2021 Patriots were a success, no doubt about it. They are still a long way from being legitimate contenders. They lack the explosive playmakers that the top tier NFL teams all seem to have, and the defense has been exposed for the third consecutive year. If no significant personnel changes are made, the wild card is your ceiling, but even that will be tough to reach. The Bills are several steps ahead of you and the Dolphins beat you twice this season (Jaylen Waddle will be a playmaker for the foreseeable future). This is still a rebuild and getting enough talent to compete with the Bills and Chiefs will likely take two years, because they are going to have to hit on some draft picks. Hopefully they get Mac Jones some help so he can continue to develop, and they acquire the right pieces on defense. Bill doesn’t like to lose so this should make for another exciting offseason.