It has definitely been an interesting offseason for the New England Patriots. Between a QB competition unlike anything we have seen in decades in Foxboro to the #1 defensive player in an odd holdout/injury situation, there has been plenty of storylines surrounding the New England Patriots. For those who aren’t following the daily comings and goings of the franchise like I do, let’s take a look at the major headlines and their potential impact in 2021 as the season kicks off this week.
1. Rookie QB Mac Jones Takes the Reins
Arguably the most talked about story this training camp and preseason was the QB competition. Incumbent Cam Newton appeared to have the edge right up until the 53-man roster was selected and he was released from the team. By all accounts, Mac Jones outperformed Cam both on and off the field this offseason, proving he was ready to lead the team despite being drafted just over 130 days ago in the 1st round of the 2021 draft. The University of Alabama QB has looked poised, calm, and confident in the limited preseason playing time we’ve seen from him and appears to have the support of the Patriots offense, which is incredibly important.
While Cam Newton provided the Pats with more offense on the ground, Mac Jones seems to have the stronger and more accurate arm. The largest difference between Mac and Cam based on my observation is decision-making. Mac has shown he can make a quick decision and get rid of the ball, unlike Cam who tends to hold on to it longer than maybe needed, leading to more scrambles and broken plays. Mac is just a rookie who will be starting his first game on Sunday, so expectations may be high, but should be tempered. He will make mistakes, but hopefully will continue to learn from them and should have a pretty high ceiling in this Pats system.
2. The Stephon Gilmore Saga
The Patriots top secondary talent, and maybe top overall defensive talent, Stephon Gilmore has had an eventful offseason off the field, but a silent one on the field. Here’s the high-level summary of the situation: Gilmore is unhappy with his $7 million per year contract because he is one of the best DBs in football, but isn’t being paid like it. He’s in the last year of his contract and started training camp in July by holding out, essentially just deciding not to show up until a deal was done. No deal was agreed to, so he appeared in Foxboro, but was immediately added to the PUP (physically unable to participate) list. A quad injury and surgery ended his 2020 season, but it’s unclear whether he is really still injured or just using it to continue to hold out.
Then, after not appearing with the team in any practices or games, Gilmore was placed on the PUP list to start the regular season, which means he will be out until at least week 7. Meanwhile, Gilmore is posting pictures on social media on vacation while the rest of the team is busting their butts in practice. The whole situation is a complete mess and was botched by the Patriots. Gilmore is an elite talent and I would guess the entire holdout situation could have been avoided with a small pay raise and perhaps a year or two extension, something that is definitely within the ability of the Patriots to complete.
The impact on the defense will be significant, because the absence of Gilmore pushes every other DB up on the depth chart and that chart gets thin rather quickly without him. This weird game of chicken could seriously hurt the Patriots this season. At this point, there is a real possibility that Gilmore will never wear the Patriots uniform in-game again, which would be a huge shame and massively disappointing.
3. The Four-Headed Running Back Depth
One of the few position groups that had a surprisingly huge spring and summer was the running back group. The 3rd year back out of, you guessed it, the University of Alabama Damien Harris came into camp as the clear #1 who should get the majority of the snaps. Entering training camp, there was a group of guys, Sony Michel, J.J. Taylor, James White, and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson all fighting for the other running back spots on the roster. After being the lead back in 2018 and 2019, Michel appeared to be on the outs with the coaching staff and in fact was traded to the Los Angeles Rams toward the end of the preseason to make room for the other guys.
While Harris maintained his grip on RB1, Taylor and Stevenson shined in the preseason and both showed the tremendous value they can bring to this team as both change-of-pace backs, but also as subs in case of injury. Taylor is tiny, by football standards, listed at 5’6″ and 185lbs. His small size makes him difficult to find behind the massive offensive linemen and his quickness is a huge asset as well as his special teams ability. He’ll probably see significant time in the return game throughout the season. Stevenson is in stark contrast to Taylor listed at 6′ and 227lbs, he has breakaway speed, but is also a tough, physical back. He did dislocate his thumb in practice this week, but could still play in week 1. They will likely not play Stevenson as much, giving him some opportunities, but barring injuries, I think they’ll take it easier with him to start the season.
White is an interesting back who has been around for awhile. He’s essentially more of a WR coming out of the back field, so will probably get some 3rd down touches and see more action in the passing game. Some weeks he’ll play like an RB2 and other weeks more like RB4 depending on the game plan for the week. They also have a Bill Belichick favorite in Brandon Bolden on the roster. He’s another guy who will likely have an impact on special teams, which is a huge plus in Belichick’s book. I imagine he will see the rare running back reps, but frankly hope they are limited given the other 4 talented players in that position.
4. The Pass-Rush Improvement
For anyone who has been an ardent supporter of the Patriots, there was a clear lack of pass-rush on last year’s team. There are several reasons, one of the biggest being the opt-out of Dont’a Hightower last season due to COVID, but also because the team lacked the overall personnel on the front 7 to get pressure on the QB. The Patriots addressed this issue in a big way this offseason, drafting DT Christian Barmore in the 2nd round this year out of, your guessed it, the University of Alabama. He has come in and looked really strong stuffing the run and getting pressure on the opposing QB. Alongside Barmore, Belichick signed 6’3″, 311lbs DT Davon Godchaux to stuff the middle and get pressure. As good as Barmore is, he’s likely 3rd best DT behind Lawrence Guy and Godchaux, which is a great place to be as a Pats fan.
On the outside, maybe the most important free agent signing this offseason was LB Matt Judon. The former Raven is a pass-rushing LB who can single-handedly disrupt the opponents offense. He’s big, athletic, and has already shown his ability get to the QB with regularity this preseason. Add back in Dont’a Hightower and the return of former Pats LB Kyle Van Noy, and that’s a pretty impressive rotation. On the end, the team returns LE Deatrich Wise Jr. and new addition RE Henry Anderson to complete the powerful front line. Opponents should have some trouble running against this front line and the opposing QB should taste some dirt, which is important given the secondary question marks.
5. Improved Receiving Options
One of the most glaring issues in 2020 was the lack of receiving options. WR N’Keal Harry didn’t step up the way the team had hoped and they were left with basically WR Jakobi Meyers as the main option for Cam Newton. The TE group was even more suspect, with no one being able to stay on the field or produce when healthy. This offseason, the Patriots clearly made that a priority and signed the 2 best TEs on the market, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Both are legit #1 options if healthy, but both have has some injury issues in the past and in training camp/preseason. Smith has been on the field more regularly, but if they both can be healthy and play at the same time, it’s trouble for opposing defenses.
In the WR core, the Pats added Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, who are nice depth pieces. They are looking at Agholor to play a bigger role that perhaps I would, but if the TEs are healthy, there are solid options across the field. Add in the pass-catching ability of James White and hopefully Damien Harris and it leads to a ton of 5-10 yard passes for Mac Jones in his rookie season. N’Keal Harry went down with an injury late in the preseason that landed him on IR, which means he won’t be able to return until at least week 4, but he could be a contributor once he returns. Overall, this group has definitely improved, although many fans will argue Belichick didn’t do enough in this area this offseason.