Now that the New England Patriots have been eliminated from playoff contention, all eyes have shifted to the offseason and the rebuild of the roster. New England has a bunch of questions to answer, so head coach Bill Belichick will be facing his toughest offseason since 2007.
The biggest question of the offseason will be the quarterback position, as the offense has struggled to score points in their two recent losses. Unfortunately, the questions don’t stop there. Below is an 8-step guide to replenishing the Patriots roster in order to make them competitive in 2021 and beyond, with predictions on who the Patriots could target as answers.
This will be a fluid process and predictions will change as more information comes available, so take this as an introduction to the Patriots offseason and the beginning of their push for the 2021 playoffs.
Step 1: The Quarterback Room
With the Patriots currently slated in the 15th spot in the NFL Draft order, the chances that they can acquire one of the top quarterbacks in the class are slim without a trade up the board. With quarterback-needy teams such as Jacksonville, the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers all currently positioned within the top 4 picks, it could take a trade up the pick #5 (or shortly thereafter) to have a chance at selecting Zach Wilson or Trey Lance. New England could be bidding with other teams in their range such as San Francisco, Denver or Chicago.
If New England stays put, there is a chance that they’ll have the opportunity to select Mac Jones or Kyle Trask, but that is no guarantee either.
The more likely scenario is that New England signs a veteran free agent on a cheap deal, and it would make sense for that player to be one who already has knowledge of the offensive system. That means the return of Cam Newton or free agent Jacoby Brissett. A potentially higher ceiling “bridge” option could be former #1 overall pick Jameis Winston.
Bill Belichick prefers to target a quarterback with each draft class, and that means a mid-round pick should be in the fold. The quarterback class has a number of interesting prospects who could be pushed down the board because of the strength at the top of class, names such as Desmond Ridder, Jamie Newman and Kellen Mond. Those players will compete with either Jarrett Stidham or a reclamation project that New England is able to acquire via trade, such as Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen or Dwayne Haskins.
Reasonable Prediction: Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, Jamie Newman
Step 2: Upgrading the Offensive Weapons
The group that New England rolled out this season at wide receiver and tight end was a disservice to Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham, and it simply needs to improve. The only player that ignites an ounce of excitement moving forward between the two positions is Jakobi Meyers.
New England needs to identify a free agent wide receiver that can upgrade the room and become one of the leading targets, and there should be reasonably priced options on the market. Sammy Watkins, Marvin Jones, Curtis Samuel, Josh Reynolds, Keelan Cole or even Nelson Agholor would add much needed talent. Better options could be Corey Davis (who may have priced himself out of range with his play this season) and Tim Patrick (who is a restricted free agent likely to be tendered by the Broncos).
Beyond free agency, New England needs to find fresh faces through the draft. This class is flush with talented wide receivers, so even if the Patriots decide to target other positions early, there will be quality options deep into the draft. Adding a speedy, playmaking wide receiver outside of the first round such as Rondale Moore, Elijah Moore, Chris Olave, Shi Smith, Tylan Wallace or Dazz Newsome would be a breath of fresh air.
The tight end position has been a disaster this season, to say the least. New England drafted Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the 2020 NFL Draft, and they’ve combined for a whopping 2 receptions for 10 yards. Asiasi has shown something as a blocker, but that’s it. Veteran presence Ryan Izzo has minimal production and at least gives effort in the running game, but has an easily replaceable skill-set. New England needs to add a high-caliber player to this position.
There are quality options in the NFL Draft, namely Kyle Pitts and Pat Freiermuth. There are also free agents that will be available, with the crown jewel being 26 year-old Hunter Henry. Bill Belichick has long made his affection for Henry’s game known, and I’d expect a hefty offer heading his way from Foxboro.
Reasonable Prediction: Marvin Jones, Jakobi Meyers, Julian Edelman, Chris Olave, N’Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski
Hunter Henry, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene
Step 3: Finalizing the Offensive Line (Joe Thuney or David Andrews?)
New England’s offensive line has had it’s fair share of ups and downs this season, but has been a solid unit overall. Left guard Joe Thuney is playing this season on the franchise tag while center David Andrews is in the final year of his contract. Odds are that one of them won’t be re-signed this offseason.
My money would be on Thuney walking, as New England may have found his successor in Michael Onwenu. The burly, strong Onwenu has been one of the best rookies in the NFL this season and has played basically all across the offensive line, but his best film has come at guard.
This could mean a starting offensive line of Isaiah Wynn, Michael Onwenu, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon (returning from his COVID opt-out). Rookie Justin Herron, who has played 266 snaps this season, will be back in the fold. Jermaine Eleumunor (328 snaps this season) is a free agent, but could be brought back as a cheap depth option.
New England could be wise to target another offensive lineman in the draft to improve the competition for depth, but that player likely won’t come in the early rounds.
Reasonable Prediction: Isaiah Wynn, Michael Onwenu, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon (Justin Herron, Jermaine Eleumunor, James Ferentz)
Step 4: The Second Level of the Defense
New England’s defense hasn’t been the problem this season, but it hasn’t been a solution either. The issues on defense start with play-calling and in-game personnel decisions, but those aren’t likely to change. Talent-wise, their second level is in need of serious upgrades.
Dont’a Hightower returning from his COVID opt-out will be huge, but he won’t be a cure-all. Ja’Whaun Bentley hasn’t shown starter-level traits this season, and neither has Terez Hall. Rookie third-round pick Anfernee Jennings is a hybrid stand-up and edge player, and he has predictably been up and down. New England needs multiple options as far as stand-up linebackers go to pair with Hightower.
New England likes their young players on the edge in Chase Winovich and Josh Uche, and it’s predictable that they’ll look to bring back John Simon and Deatrich Wise Jr. on modest deals. That depth only stays true if they use Uche as a true edge defender because they’re getting production from their linebackers.
The NFL Draft could present multiple options on Day 2, such as prospects Nick Bolton, Dylan Moses, Zaven Collins, Chazz Surratt, or Cameron McGrone. On top of prospects, New England would be well off to add a veteran presence with starting experience for better depth. Kamalei Correa will be a former second-round pick who hasn’t quite panned out, only posting 75 total tackles and 8.5 sacks to this point in his career, but is a strong athlete with a ton of experience on special teams.
Reasonable Prediction: Dont’a Hightower, Chazz Surratt, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Kamalei Correa
Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, John Simon, Deatrich Wise Jr.
Step 5: Interior Defensive Line
There have been flashes of dominance from the Patriots veteran interior defensive line this season, but too many stretches of ineffective play. Unfortunately, the issues don’t stop there.
Both veterans Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler will be free agents this offseason, as will depth pieces Akeem Spence and Carl Davis. The only two options that are currently expected to be under contract next season are Beau Allen and Byron Cowart. New England needs to find a way to bring back Adam Butler, the younger of the two incumbent starters at 27 years-old.
New England will look to add yet another interior defensive lineman through the NFL Draft, but likely outside of the top 50 picks. With Belichick’s connection to Alabama head coach Nick Saban, the Patriots should take a hard look at LaBryan Ray, a former 5-star recruit who has been bothered by injuries but projects well as a penetrating 3-technique.
Reasonable Prediction: Adam Butler, Beau Allen, LaBryan Ray, Byron Cowart, Akeem Spence
Step 6: Future of the Secondary
New England’s secondary has continued to be the strength of the defense this season, but the future of the unit is a bit less settled. Reigning defensive player of the year at cornerback Stephon Gilmore will be entering the final year of his contract, and counterpart J.C. Jackson will be a restricted free agent. Free safety Devin McCourty and twin brother Jason could be getting closer to retirement, and Patrick Chung will be returning from his COVID opt-out at 34 years-old.
New England will almost assuredly find a way to bring back J.C. Jackson, and have Jonathan Jones and promising rookie cornerback Myles Bryant under team control. Rookie safety Kyle Dugger looks like a future star, but New England could use more youth at the position.
The answers to the secondary should come through the NFL Draft in order to get younger, but it isn’t the most pressing need. Finding an experienced plug-and-play prospect will help the unit in the immediate aftermath will be key. Iowa State safety Greg Eisworth is a versatile 5th-year safety who has started for three seasons, producing nearly 200 tackles and earning the team captain honor for the Cyclones.
Reasonable Prediction: Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant
Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Kyle Dugger, Greg Eisworth
Step 7: Draft Strategy
While I’ve outlined potential prospects fits above, the Patriots draft strategy will hinge on how they attack the first round. There are numerous variables to consider.
New England has forfeited their 3rd round pick, but are projected to receive a 3rd round and two 4th round compensatory picks. If New England decides to trade up the board, they’ll likely surrender some of their later selections in order to do so. Assuming they’re not targeting a quarterback with their first selection, the better option may be to trade down and accumulate extra picks. New England simply has too many needs to only have two selections within the first 95 picks of the draft.
Reasonable Prediction: New England trades down from their 1st Round pick
Step 8: Coaching Staff Upgrades
New England’s coaching staff has had assistants and coordinators poached for years, likely more than any other NFL team during the Belichick era. Before this year, the negative impacts have been masked because of Tom Brady. The effects were clearly felt this season, and the staff could use veteran coaches to provide a guiding presence for the young positions coaches.
Could a Matt Patricia reunion be in store? Or could New England look to the college ranks for a former head coach to act as consultant to Belichick, such as Gus Malzahn or Will Muschamp?
New England has benefitted from this type of coach in the past with Bret Bielema.
Reasonable Prediction: Matt Patricia returns as Assistant Head Coach