As we sit less than a week from the first 2021 pre-season game for the New England Patriots, there is reason to be hopeful of what this season, and the future, will bring. In the landscape of the four major Boston professional sports, there is a lot of negative energy at the moment: Red Sox are 1-6 in their last 7 and hope is dwindling, the Celtics haven’t gotten much better in the offseason while others have improved, and the Bruins lost some key players and at best are a tick worse than last year. The Pats bring optimism and hope to the landscape after a rocky season last year. One main reason: the offense.
Whether you believe QB Cam Newton, QB Mac Jones, or a combo will be the starter this season, they both have a significantly improved receiving core to target. Both TE Hunter Henry and TE Jonnu Smith would have come into New England as the #1 option, but with the addition of both, it creates a ton of flexibility in play-calling for Josh McDaniels. He loves multiple tight-end sets and is best calling plays in those situations. Both Henry and Smith can hold their own blocking and obviously have made names for themselves catching the football. Maybe most importantly, two talented pass-catching TEs can create massive match-up issues for opponents (i.e. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez).
The WR depth is better than last season, although it didn’t take much to make that happen. The additions of WR Kendrick Bourne and WR Nelson Agholor add depth to the rotation with WR N’Keal Harry and WR Jakobi Meyers. All four have flaws and frankly, don’t always instill confidence, but they can all catch a football on occasion and when not the #1 target, will likely have success as a group. Both Bourne and Agholor are good size targets with ok speed (Bourne is 6’1″ around 200lbs and Agholor is 6’0″ around 200lbs) and can hopefully create separation from a #3 or #4 corner. They should thrive when not getting attention from top corners and their combined 11 years in the league will help the younger Harry and Meyers (combined 4 years) continue to develop.
The running game of the Pats looks similar to last year, but with RB Damien Harris potentially moving up the depth chart. He had some strong moments towards the end of 2020 and is looking to carry that into this season, potentially becoming the focus back over RB Sony Michel. If they are both healthy, the competition should help drive better performance from both. The Pats still have depth at the position with RB Brandon Bolden and receiving back James White. The only real changes are the exit of RB Rex Burkhead and the addition big rookie RB Rhamondre Stevenson from Alabama, but I don’t expect him to see much of the field this year unless the injury bug hits hard or he seriously overperforms. Of course, if Cam Newton is the QB, there will be a lot of designed option plays to use his legs as an advantage as well.
The offensive line for the Pats will look pretty similar to 2020, but with one large addition: OL Trent Brown. My biggest concern with the OL is injuries. Only last year’s rookie OL Mike Onwenu played all 16 games in 2020, so there is some reason for concern. OL Isaiah Wynn has shown some potential when healthy, but has only appeared in 18 games in his 2 seasons in the league and OL Justin Herron who may be the starter at LG appeared in 12 games (6 starts) in his first year in the league in 2020. Veterans C David Andrews and OL Trent Brown bring the experience with a combined 11 seasons in the league, but again, have had trouble playing a full season recently. The other likely starter is OL Shaq Mason who is also solid when on the field. The OL is a solid group as long as they can stay healthy, which is a big concern.
Overall, the offense got significantly better over 2020. They have their QB of the future at least practicing and learning the playbook, if not starting at some point, and they have a significantly stronger receiving core. The TE group will have the biggest impact on the entire offense if healthy, opening up more holes for the run game and making defenses cover more receivers leaving others more open. While last year was almost entirely a running play or a pass to Meyers, this year the offense should be more varied and more interesting to watch and difficult to cover. A real reason for optimism.