Shocking Return of a Super Bowl Hero

The New England Patriots reunited with a old friend on Wednesday. The Super Bowl XLIX hero who was benched a few years later in Super Bowl LII has returned to wear the flying Elvis logo. CB Malcolm Butler signed a 2-year deal to come back to the Patriots after being released from the retired list by Arizona last month. Just when you thought you’ve seen it all with Bill Belichick, he pulls an extremely surprising heal-turn. The relationship had clearly soured leading up to Super Bowl LII, which was ultimately his last game in a Patriots uniform (the first stint) despite his pivotal role on the defense. All the personal aside, the Patriots are in desperate need for defensive back depth after losing top CB J.C. Jackson and Butler is certainly a guy who can step right in and contribute.

When the news came out that they brought Butler in for a visit a few days ago, I was shocked and figured it was just them kicking the tires on as many players as possible. To have the visit result in a 2-year up to $9 million contract is jaw-dropping. What must the conversations have been like when they were negotiating or asking him to sign in New England? Was Bill involved in the conversation and if so, did they talk about the benching in Super Bowl LII? I have so many questions about how this all went down and what the future will bring for this rekindled relationship.

Butler was responsible for one of the greatest plays in Patriots postseason history and will forever be remembered for that moment. Down 4 pts with 26 seconds remaining and the ball on the 1-yard line, rather than handing it off to their powerful RB Marshawn Lynch, QB Russell Wilson dropped back and threw a slant pass in the direction of WR Tyler Lockett. Butler read the play and stepped in front to intercept the pass and seal the Super Bowl victory. The Patriots win probability before the play was 12%, but it felt even lower watching it in real time. That one beautiful play forever cemented his name in Patriots lore.

In his 4 seasons with the Patriots, Butler amassed 8 INTs, 47 passes deflected, 4 forced fumbles and 172 solo tackles. He made one Pro Bowl and won 2 Super Bowl rings. The Patriots may have had a third ring if he wasn’t benched in Super Bowl LII and the defense allowed 41 points to Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles. CB Eric Rowe took his place in the game and allowed 137 yards on 6/7 against him. It’s to this day one of the more puzzling decisions I’ve seen Bill Belichick make. A player who can contribute and help you win a championship is essentially a healthy scratch for the Super Bowl. Obviously whatever the real reason for the benching is ancient history.

This could be a sneaky good move for the Patriots. Butler is not J.C. Jackson and the defensive back group is definitely not as good as last year, but Butler is a low-risk, high reward signing. After three seasons with the Tennessee Titans, Butler signed with the Arizona Cardinals. He ended up leaving the team for personal reasons at the end of camp and decided to sit out 2021. Butler could be fresher and more motivated to prove himself at 32 years old. The Patriots clearly like what they saw when he visited this week, which makes me think he’s still got the skills. He’s a veteran who knows what it’s like to win in New England and knows what it takes to make a deep playoff run. He knows the play book and despite being gone for 5 seasons, should be able to fall right back into the routine. It’s certainly possible this doesn’t work, but I have a sneaky feeling it will be a great reunion.

Now that the big free agents are gone, it may be time for some more bargain signings and perhaps a trade or two to get this Patriots roster back to playoff ready. Did somebody say wide receiver?

The Looming Josh McDaniels Departure

The will they/won’t they saga of the Las Vegas Raiders GM and coaching search has been a wild ride. In 24 hours it went from Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels and Patriots Director of Player Personnel Dave Ziegler as potential candidates headed to Vegas as head coach and GM, to them both being out of consideration and neither in the running, back to both of them being favored as a pair to take the head coach and GM jobs. The Raiders are known for having no idea what they are doing when it comes to hiring and there is no greater example of that than when they asked for an interview with GM candidate Dave Ziegler prior to even firing their current GM Mike Mayock. Mark Davis really knows how to run a franchise… Putting Vegas aside, if Josh McDaniels were to depart New England, for real this time, what impact would it have on the Patriots franchise?

The first question becomes who replaces McDaniels as offensive coordinator. While there isn’t a clear and obvious internal choice, the Patriots could consider promoting wide receivers/kick returners coach and Patriots legend Troy Brown to that role. He’s quite inexperienced in the coaching world, which is certainly a disadvantage, but not completely out of the blue for Belichick, especially if he trusts and respects Brown as a coach. It’s possible that Belichick could begin by taking over the play-calling reigns with Brown as an offensive assistant and eventually hand over the play-calling duties to him over time. It’s near impossible to say what Brown’s style as a play-caller would be other than continuing the Patriots current system, so if he were to be hired, there would be a lot of interested eyes watching his every move. While I wouldn’t say this is a strong possibility, I think it’s worth watching.

While the internal candidates aren’t obvious, there is a blatantly obvious external name on the table when replacing McDaniels. Bill Belichick could dip into his well, as he loves to do, and bring back Bill O’Brien, who was an assistant on the staff from 2007-2011 (offensive coordinator in 2011). He’s locally connected (grew up in Massachusetts, went to Brown University in RI) and has spent time both as a head coach in the NFL and college as well as an offensive coordinator in college since his departure from the Patriots. After being fired as the Houston Texans head coach in 2020 after 6ish seasons, he took over as the offensive coordinator under Belichick’s favorite college coach, Nick Saban. O’Brien just happens to be learning the Alabama offense and QB Mac Jones just happens to have had success in that same Alabama offense just a little over a year ago. To say the path seems clear and obvious is an understatement.

If O’Brien replaces McDaniels, what does that mean for the offense in general? There were certainly times last season that it felt like the play-calling wasn’t as effective as it had been in the past. A piece of that is the introduction of a rookie QB into a complicated offense and the need to simplify, at least in the first half of the season. Another piece of that equation was McDaniels trying to learn where Mac Jones was most comfortable and help ease him into the league without wrecking his confidence. McDaniels spent most of his career calling plays for a QB that he knew inside and out and that made him look great consistently. When that comfort was stripped away, some cracks emerged, but that frankly would happen to most any offensive coordinator/rookie QB combo across the league. Looking at O’Brien’s history as offensive coordinator, his style could help Jones and the Patriots move forward.

O’Brien’s lone season as the offensive coordinator with the Patriots in 2011 was one of, if not the most prolific seasons of Tom Brady‘s career. Removing this past season because of 1 extra game, 2011 was Brady’s highest yards thrown (5,235) and he was tied for the most passes completed (401) in a season. O’Brien was deemed an innovative and creative offensive mind, which helped propel him to the head coaching job at Penn State the next season. This past season, O’Brien led Alabama QB Bryce Young and the offense to a strong season, culminating in a loss in the College Championship game. The offense was the 6th most prolific in points per game, 4th in passing TDs per game, and 7th in total passing yards per game. It’s a bit hard to really judge given the dominant system he walked into, but O’Brien has some very recent experience in a high-level, pro-style system that happens to transition into the current Patriots system easily.

Ultimately, if O’Brien is the new offensive coordinator I don’t see a ton of change overall. I think O’Brien will perhaps be a bit more aggressive than McDaniels, but he’ll also have a 2nd year QB with more experience than this past season. For Jones’ sake, O’Brien would likely keep much of the same offense and just ramp up some of the pre-play motion and hopefully continue to push the creative boundaries of play-calling. O’Brien had a lot of success in 2011 with short-mid range passing game, utilizing the slot receivers and TEs in creative ways. That fits nicely with Jones’ play-style and skillset and doesn’t deviate much from the current design.

After many threats of an exit for McDaniels (seemingly every year), this year might be a good time for both parties to move on. McDaniels hasn’t exactly wowed the past few years and it’s about time he actually takes another head coaching job if he doesn’t see Belichick’s retirement on the horizon. One theory around why he took, then turned down the Colts job in 2018 was because there was some unwritten agreement that he was the heir-apparent when Belichick finally retires. Whether that’s true or not, any decision to walk away from the Patriots at this point makes me think that McDaniels believes Bill is hanging on for at least a few more years and his future path within the organization isn’t clear.

While nothing is locked in yet, this could finally be the year that Josh McDaniels finally leaves the Patriots franchise after his 2nd stint in New England and 6 super bowl championships. On the other hand, you never know what decision the Raiders will make. There is still a strong possibility that we are right back here next season having the same conversation about a potential McDaniels departure. Let the offseason hiring carousel continue to spin.

Patriots Embarrassed in Buffalo

For the first time in a long time, the Patriots looked absolutely over matched in Saturday night’s AFC Wild Card loss to the Buffalo Bills. There wasn’t a single person, position group, or coach that looked good against the Bills in the worst playoff loss of the Bill Belichick era as the head coach and one of the worst losses for the franchise. The loss was a really sour note at the end of a surprisingly enjoyable season for the Patriots who were led by a rookie franchise QB.

After a 1-year rebuild, the Pats returned to the playoffs again thanks to a 7-game win streak in the middle of the season. They surprised a lot of people and turned some heads during the win-streak and made many fans believe a deep playoff run was possible. Unfortunately, the team lost all momentum the last several games of the season and forgot how to play disciplined, smart football, a Belichick staple. Mistakes became the story of losses to Buffalo and Miami and as the Patriots played their way out of the AFC East title and into a wild card game on the road. Limping into the playoffs is rarely a recipe for success and boy was that true this year.

My biggest issues down the stretch with this team were discipline and play-calling (along with about a dozen other things). The most baffling to me is the complete lack of discipline. From penalties to missed assignments, the mistakes were plentiful down the stretch and exaggerated in the playoff loss on Saturday night. Most of the mistakes were mental errors such as too many men on the field and false start penalties and lapses in coverage that are mind-boggling. I don’t understand what happened to this team in the final portion of the season to completely forget how to play within themselves and within their position. Despite discipline ultimately resting on the players shoulders, it’s a terrible reflection on the coaching staff and their inability to prepare their players. All of it was very un-Belichick like and makes me wonder what’s happening behind the scenes.

My other main issue that was amplified on Saturday is play-calling. Josh McDaniels seems lost in what to call and when to call it the latter part of the season. On Saturday night, the first drive had a few rushes, but featured the passing game from Mac. He had one wide-open pass dropped by Brandon Bolden and the drive ended with an incredible interception by Micah Hyde, but overall looked like he could exploit the defense a bit. The following drive, McDaniels called 3 straight rushes by Damien Harris and the Patriots had to punt without even trying to look at the short or medium passing game. Later in the game, there were a number of odd calls that just didn’t fit the situation, including a fake spike at the end of the half that resulted in a terrible sack. Also, what happened to the hurry up offense that Mac looked so strong in earlier in the season? It disappeared.

The list of other issues is long, but I’ll save that for the long offseason. Based on what I saw down the stretch, I’m not sure all the Patriots positional coaches deserve to keep their jobs for the 2022-2023 season. Change is needed, whether it’s directed by the Patriots or because they lose someone to a head coaching offer elsewhere.

Saturday night was rough and will take time to get over. Take a day off and get right back to work for next season.

What is Wrong with Bill Belichick’s Coaching Tree?

Bill Belichick has been in the NFL in one capacity or another since 1975 and has been a head coach for more than 25 of those seasons. Over that time, he’s been a mentor to hundreds of coordinators and assistant coaches, many of whom have moved on to be head coaches of their own. You would expect some members of the Belichick coaching tree to be successful head coaches in time, but as a group, they have overwhelmingly been underwhelming.

In the last few days, the two remaining active head coaches in the NFL from the Bill Belichick coaching tree were fired (Brian Flores – Miami, Joe Judge – Giants). As of this moment, that means that there are no longer any Belichick disciples leading NFL teams, which is hard to imagine given his career. While I fully expect Brian Flores will get a head coaching job this offseason and linebackers coach Jerod Mayo has been getting some attention as a candidate, it’s still a bit surprising how mediocre the group of former Belichick coordinators have been as head coaches.

Over the years, 19 members of a Belichick coaching staff have become head coaches in the NFL or college. While the NFL tenures have have been short and uninspiring, there are a few college coaching careers that are noteworthy. The most obvious and clearly the strongest to date is Nick Saban at Alabama. While he lost in the National Championship game to Georgia this week, he is the gold standard of sustained success in college, basically the Bill Belichick of the NCAA. Three other coaches in the tree lasted more than 4 years at a college: Pat Hill (Fresno State 1997-2011), Kirk Ferentz (Iowa 1999-present), and Al Groh (Virginia 2001-2009).

Looking to expand the Belichick tree slightly, there are two former players who are head coaches, both currently in the NFL: Mike Vrabel (Titans) and Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals). Vrabel is in the running for Coach of the Year and has brought the Titans to the top seed in the AFC this season while Kingsbury led the Cardinals to an 11-6 record and a #5 seed in the NFC, following a strong career at the helm of Texas Tech. While Vrabel played 8 seasons in New England and clearly learned from Belichick, Kingsbury never saw the field in his one season with the Patriots thanks to an arm injury (although he did get a super bowl ring). Both coaches have proven that they know how to coach in the NFL and likely will last longer than basically all members of the “official” tree.


While I don’t have an answer for what is going on with the Belichick coaching tree failures, I have a few thoughts.

  1. Bill Belichick has a very specific system and style that work for him because of his past successes. He handles the media and dissemination of information unlike any other coach. Most members of the tree either try to copy the persona (to some degree) and fail miserably because it’s not replicable (::cough:: Matt Patricia ::Cough::) or they try to make it clear they are NOT like Bill and struggle to build completely different culture of winning when all they have known is the Patriot way.
  2. Because Belichick and the Patriots have won a lot, coordinators get opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise. When a team wins the super bowl, the coordinators immediately become hot coaching candidates whether they deserve it or not and it’s impossible to place credit effectively on the head coach vs coordinators. I’m sure several of the coordinators who got opportunities to be head coaches in the tree were not yet ready to lead a franchise and thus didn’t succeed. Unfortunately, most people without a lot of experience don’t get multiple chances to be an NFL head coach.
  3. There is no question who is in charge in Foxborough. Belichick steers the ship and no doubt has control over the weekly game plan and decisions around personnel groupings. While I don’t know for sure because I’m not in the meetings, I’m guessing his coordinators don’t have as much leeway to be creative and make independent decisions within the system and it takes awhile for Belichick to trust their decision making. As a head coach, you need to be able to be creative with the game plan and adapt on the fly, something that is learned through experience.

Whatever the reason(s), the Bill Belichick coaching tree has continually not lived up the hype and this week’s firings put an exclamation point on it. If I’m a GM, I’m taking a pause before jumping on a former Belichick coordinator as my next hire just because he is a former Belichick coordinator. Although, I may be more willing to take a chance on a former player under Belichick.

Third Time’s a Charm – Patriots vs Bills Playoff Edition

As playoff scenarios began to play out during the inaugural week 18 in the NFL, it was clear to everyone that the Bills and Patriots would meet for the third time this season in the playoffs. Even as the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers game crept into OT and the Pats vs Bengals scenario was still alive, it just felt like the Raiders had to win so the Bills and Patriots could play once more this season. The matchup is everything the NFL could want in a #3 vs #6 matchup on wild card weekend and they put the rivalry game in primetime on Saturday for all to witness.

The previous two matchups this season between the Bills and Patriots have been, well, interesting. The first was the “wind-game” where the Patriots went into Buffalo and ran all over the Bills. Mac Jones had exactly 3 pass attempts and the Patriots managed a 14-10 victory on the road thanks to 41 rushes. Damien Harris had 11 yards rushing on just 10 carries and a TD, while Rhamondre Stevenson rushed 24 times for 78 yards. Mac completed 2 of his 3 passes to Jonnu Smith and Brandon Bolden and the Pats relied on a strong defensive presence to grab the road victory. The game was far from pretty, but a W is a W and led to some sour grapes from Bills coach Sean McDermott who said after the game, “Let’s not give more credit than we need to give Bill Belichick in this one.”

The rematch two weeks ago was a completely different game (not just because there wasn’t a ton of wind). The Bills came into the game looking to punch the Pats in the mouth with their aggressiveness and it worked beautifully. From aggressive play-calling to big plays when they needed them the most, the Bills took it to the Pats. The Bills converted 3 of 4 4th downs and trusted Josh Allen to make the right decisions and in this instance, he did with his arm and legs. The Bills got a massive game from virtually unknown WR Isaiah McKenzie while the Pats mostly shut down WR Stephon Diggs in the first half. To the Patriots credit, they fought back and didn’t give up, but were completely flustered on a picked-up unnecessary roughness penalty in the last minute of the first half that led to other penalties and likely took points off the board.

Prediction

Round three should be another thrilling chapter in the AFC East rivalry. Based on past success, I expect the Bills to come out on fire Saturday night with aggression as their mantra. It worked in their second match-up vs the Patriots and really put the Pats players back on their heals. I would be surprised if McDermont doesn’t try to score quickly and take chances on 3rd and 4th down throughout the game. On December 27th, WR Isaiah McKenzie caught the Pats off-guard while the secondary did a nice job on Diggs and TE Dawson Knox and I expect something similar will occur on Saturday, but with the other receiver options, mainly Emmanuel Sanders and/or Gabriel Davis. The Pats secondary depth is of definite concern right now and the Bills are smart enough to unleash Josh Allen to attack on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th levels. I also expect a fair amount of passes (mostly screen-type routes) to RB Devin Singletary to get the playmaker the ball in space and keep the defense off balance. If the Bills can exploit the Pats secondary, it could be a long night for the Pats.

On the other side, the Pats have some work to do this week to prepare in all three aspects of the game. The #1 issue they have had over the past month is mistakes. Between bad penalties, turnovers, and mistakes in coverage, the Pats have been uncharacteristically the sloppier team. In almost all of their losses this season, the Pats have been in contention with a chance to comeback or win, but there is usually at least one mistake you can point to after the game that prevented the W. The ability of the Pats offense to move the ball downfield with balance is key to keeping the Bills defense at bay. If the Pats get down early, it makes them more predictable and easier to play against. A balanced run/pass attack will allow Mac to make more comfortable reads with space and allow the offensive line to hopefully hold up a bit better. On the defensive side of the ball, they need to get pressure on Josh Allen and contain him. If they can get pressure on Allen, he will make mistakes eventually, but the inherent risk is that you flush him from the pocket and he takes off for a 20-yard run. When playing well, the Bills offensive weapons are near impossible to cover, but when Allen feels the pressure and is forced into quick decisions, he has a tendency to make mistakes.

When all is said and done, I think the Patriots squeak out a really intense, close game 27-24. In general, I think it’s a pick’em game that could go either way. The team with the most mistakes losses and has all offseason to wonder what-if. I think the Bills options on offense are so strong and deep for the weak Pats secondary to handle, but Allen will make one too many mistakes or McDermott take one too many chances on 4th down and allow Mac Jones to drive down field and win on a late K Nick Folk field goal. I don’t feel even a little confident in the prediction, but in a toss-up game I’m picking the Pats every time.

Understanding the NFL Practice Squad

The other day my father-in-law asked me a question about the practice squad and how it works in the NFL. I had a general idea, but long after our conversation my head kept spinning with questions. Did I really understand how they work in 2021 or was my knowledge antiquated? While it’s not the most exciting topic for everyone, I’m guessing my father-in-law and I are not the only people with questions. The further I dug into the research, the more interested I became in the evolution of the practice squad.

Before jumping in too far, I want to note that thanks to the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and other negotiations, a lot has changed over the past few decades with practice squads. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, but protections for players and teams have increased dramatically over the years in a myriad of ways. Several of those changes are noted in the sections below. While being a practice squad player isn’t the ideal path for most, it can be a way for players to make a little money while being just one step away from an NFL roster.

History and Expansion

Let’s start with the basics. Every NFL team has a practice squad (sometimes historically referred to as a taxi squad). The concept for the squad began in the 1940s, but wasn’t adopted until the mid-1960s and had a brief disappearance in the 1970s. The squad was more formally adopted with the 1993 CBA that established the practice squad as a 5-player group. That number has expanded several times including a few planned expansions in the 2020 CBA that brought the squad to 12 in 2020 with another expansion planned in 2022 to bring the number to 14, however the practice squad has temporarily expanded to 16 for the 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Promotion and Eligibility

Each team is allowed to activate 2 players from their practice squad before a game without officially promoting them to the main roster (prior to 90 minutes before kickoff before inactives are submitted). Recent rule changes allow these players to go directly back to the practice squad (do not pass go and do not pass through waivers) following the game without having to pass through waivers and potentially get signed by another team. A player is only able to be elevated in this capacity twice per season and if they are promoted a third time, the team must sign the player 53-man roster.

Players are eligible for the practice squad if they have played less than 9 games on an active NFL roster during one season or have spent fewer than 3 seasons on a practice squad already (a season is considered at least 6 games on the practice squad) with an exception that was added over the past few CBAs. Each team is allowed to have up to 6 veteran players on their practice squad (an increase from past years). A veteran player can now be a player with any amount of experience in the NFL. The Patriots used this new rule recently when they put veteran K Nick Folk on the practice squad earlier this year.

Salaries

Players aren’t guaranteed anything except that week’s salary when on a practice squad, they are week-to-week hoping for a call-up. The 2021 minimum salary for a non-veteran practice squad player is $9,200 per week ($165,600 for 18 weeks) and a veteran player is $14,000 per week ($252,000 for 18 weeks). That is the minimum however, players have been paid more depending on circumstances to keep players with the team or honor contracts. Unlike a guaranteed active roster contract, if a practice squad player gets released, they get nothing assuming the haven’t been elevated to the active roster.

One additional protection for practice squad players is if a player is signed to the active roster, they receive at least three weeks worth of pay regardless of whether the player spends three weeks on the roster or not, usually the league minimum. This protects the player from being signed for one game, then cut and having to pass through waivers without any future path and no salary. The practice squad life can be a journeyman experience for some.

Signing and Protection

This is the piece of the practice squad that has evolved a lot over the years. Players on practice squads are free to sign with other NFL teams at any point as long as they are being signed to the active 53-man roster, with a few newer exceptions. Every week, each team can designate 4 players on their practice squad to protect. They are not able to be signed by another team during that week. Additionally, a practice squad player is not allowed to sign with their team’s upcoming opponent within 6 days of the game or 10 days if the team is on a bye week. This essentially protects against a team stealing an opponents game plan the week of the game and is something that Bill Belichick would occasionally employ in the past.


Overall the world of navigating practice squads is an absolutely fascinating business, at least to me. Over the years, Bill Belichick has been a master at manipulating this group as evidenced by a few of his moves earlier this year to open roster spots and move players around (i.e. Nick Folk) which is why some of these rules could come into play more often for the New England Patriots than some other teams. There is no doubt that some of the evolution in rules has come because of Belichick, as with other NFL rules changes over the years, which makes his mastery of it even more enjoyable to watch. Keep on eye out for future practice squad movement and feel more confident in understanding the implications of each move.

An Appreciation for J.C. Jackson

When I heard that Stephon Gilmore would be out for at least the first 6 weeks of the 2021 season, I had some significant concerns for the New England Patriots secondary. The DB group is solid with Gilmore, but without their CB1 it forces everyone up the depth chart and seriously weakens the matchups across the field. I also questioned whether J.C. Jackson is a true #1 and would continue to be successful without having Gilmore on the other side of the field shutting down the opponent’s WR1. Now just 2 games into the season, my feelings are beginning to shift.

Let me preface by saying that I know the Patriots played the lowly New York Jets on Sunday so the stats will naturally be skewed, but I was still impressed by the play of J.C. Jackson. Looking back at his career, Jackson has 19 interceptions in just 47 games and of those 47 games, he technically only started 24 of them. It’s hard to argue against Jackson being one of the best undrafted rookie signings in recent memory with his ball-hawking nature.

Jackson had a monster year last season with 9 interceptions, but overall he has been near or at the top on the Patriots in interceptions and passes deflected over his 3+ seasons in the NFL. He has worked his way up the snap count every year, playing just 38% of the defensive snaps his rookie year in 2018, 68% in 2019, 84% in 2020, and 100% this year through 2 games. He has become an invaluable member of the secondary which seems to have had an impact on the Patriots’ negotiations with Stephon Gilmore.

“…The ninth pick of the season, I feel like I could have had more than that. But that’s a hell of a season, to have nine picks. I’ve just got to continue to grow and get better for the 2021 season.”

J.C. Jackson on his 2020 season

Looking beyond the Patriots and across the league, Jackson is leading the NFL with 2 interceptions in 2021 (through 2 games), finished 2nd in the NFL in interceptions in 2020 (1 behind Miami’s Xavien Howard) and tied for the 2nd most interceptions in 2019 with 5. He’s beginning to get some recognition across football as well, placing #49 in the NFL Network’s list of the Top 100 NFL Players this offseason, just 2 spots behind Stephon Gilmore (the only 2 Patriots players to appear on the list).

Although Jackson isn’t yet the same shutdown CB1 that Gilmore has become, he is proving to be a more than capable of holding his own as the leader of the CB group and he’s only 25 years old. He should continue to get better each year and has forced himself into a position where he is an incredibly important piece to lock-up on a longer-term contract. He will have a tough test in week 4, as will the entire Patriots defense, when they play Tom Brady and his gazillion top tier receivers with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I feel like I’m not even at my highest level yet. I’ve still got some room to improve and have some things I need to work on.”

J.C. Jackson in January 2021

Jackson is currently on a 1-year, $3.38 million contract that felt a little like a prove-it deal for this season. So far, in just 2 games (have I said that enough yet?), Jackson is proving to Bill Belichick that he can continue to learn and become the CB1 of the present and future. If that continues, I’m hoping the Patriots ownership will think long and hard about a multi-year deal to keep Jackson with the Patriots as a protection plan for when the 31-year old Gilmore decides to move on (or is not resigned). If Jackson hits free agency this offseason after a strong year, the Pats will probably not be able to pay him what others teams might leaving them in huge trouble in the secondary.

With the likely retirement of Devin McCourty in the next year or two and the likely departure of Stephon Gilmore, the Pats need to be planning for the future in the secondary. They have the next-person-up already on the roster, the time is now to lock him up for the next several years.

Top 5 Headlines for the New England Patriots as the Season Begins

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.

The Mac Jones Era Begins in New England

There are usually some surprises on cut-down day when every NFL team needs to trim their rosters significantly down to a 53-man roster. Rarely are the significant surprises coming out of the New England Patriots camp, but today was a clear exception. After an entire preseason with QB Cam Newton being positioned as the starter and starting all 3 preseason games, Bill threw us all a curveball. Around 10am this morning the news came down that Cam Newton had been released by the New England Patriots, clearly paving the way for the Mac Jones era to begin. There is no better way for Bill Belichick to make a statement about his confidence in Mac Jones as QB1 than to cut his competition.

Its incredibly uncommon for Bill to trust a rookie at a major position, especially QB. On top of the fact that QB is one of the most pivotal positions on the field, it was also a shortened preseason this year with one less game to evaluate players. All the reports out of Patriots camp were that teammates liked Mac and were impressed by him on and off the field, but there is always a lot of fluff talk before the season starts and it’s hard to know what to really believe. As it turns out, Bill really did feel that way and was clearly impressed by the young QB in order to hand the reigns to him before his first NFL game.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, and as recently as yesterday, Mac Jones should be QB1. What no one expected was Bill making that decision. The most common word used this morning amongst those in the know in Foxboro was “shocked”. While some felt Bill would bench Cam and start Mac to start the season, most still believed, me included, that Bill would begin the season with Cam and depending on results move on to Mac later in the season. I don’t think there was a single person who could have predicted Cam Newton would be released this morning and not even make the 53-man roster.

Now that the shock is beginning to wear off, it’s time to focus our attention on the rookie QB and his debut September 12th. This is his team now and he should feel empowered to be smart and play his game. He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder and wonder if one mistake will see him on the bench. The coaching staff is not going to ask him to throw for 400 yards every week and score 6 TDs, but they need him to be a smart game manager, limit the mistakes, take advantage of opportunities for a big play, and play with confidence. The defense is weaker without CB Stephon Gilmore for the first 6 weeks, so they will likely need at least 3 scores each week to have a chance to win.

If he can complete short passes and move the chains through the air, it will open up the potent running game for the Pats and in turn, reduce the pressure on Mac. The offense is poised to be really solid as currently constituted without Mac throwing deep bombs and trying to force too many throws. If he continues his calm, cool confidence from the preseason, this could be a fun team to watch this season.

Mac Jones Should Be QB1

All of New England had curious eyes on this preseason. We were glued to practices and preseason games that don’t count more intently than any in recent memory. Everyone wanted to get a look at the potential QB of the future, Mac Jones. The hype was (is) significant with daily reports on practice reps and completion percentage and even detailed analysis on each incompletion and why it was, or was not, a good throw. For a fan base desperate for a QB who can return the franchise to championship caliber, this preseason was everything and Mac Jones delivered. He did everything he could, and should, to earn the QB1 roster spot.

I’m not shy with my criticism of QB Cam Newton and his clear flaws and issues. To me, he’s done nothing to earn the QB1 spot other than have some unexplainable loyalty from Bill Belichick. The talk all preseason was that it was Cam’s job to lose, and in my opinion, he lost the job. Mac Jones was clearly the better and more effective QB all preseason, and looked confident and effective with his decision making. On multiple occasions Mac drove the team down the field behind a backup offensive line and throwing to 4th, 5th, and 6th options at receiver and did so as if it were the first teamers. He made clear, quick, smart decisions, which was in dramatic contrast to Cam.

The thing that frustrates me the most about Cam and impressed me the most about Mac was the quick decision making. Last year, Cam ran the ball a lot. It was partially because his receiving core was weak and mostly because he took an eternity to make a decision on when and where to throw the ball. When you take a long time to make a decision, offensive lineman can’t hold their blocks and windows to hit receivers close. With Mac under center, the team looked quicker and more confident. Will that result in some mistakes and some quick throws in the ground? Absolutely, but it will also result in more 5-10 yard hits down the field and moving the chains more regularly.

My biggest argument for Mac as the starter week 1 is simple. Why not? If as an organization you believe he is the future and he’s shown you that he is more than capable to win games now, why hand the ball to Cam Newton who is on the back end of his career and has no long-term future in New England? What does it prove to have him sit on the bench behind Cam? To me it’s a no-brainer decision to hand him the reigns of the team and see what he is really capable of doing. It won’t be perfect and there will be mistakes, but do you really think he’ll make more mistakes than an aging Cam Newton?

Now is the time. Week 1 vs the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium should be Mac’s first career NFL start for the New England Patriots. Unfortunately, I think Bill Belichick has other ideas.