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How the Patriots can return to the top of the AFC East in 2021

Related: It’s official: Patriots will not win the AFC East this year

New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams
“Get a tight end.”
Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

It is official: the New England Patriots will not win the AFC East this season — the first time since 2008 that they will finish outside of first place in their division. While there is still a theoretical chance at ending up in the playoffs as one of the three wild card seeds, it is more probable than not that the club will soon turn its attention to next year.

So with that in mind, the question becomes what the Patriots can do in order to return to the top of the AFC East in 2021. While their current 6-7 record and the possibility of a losing season may have some scream for a full rebuild, the facts that the team has a solid core in place and was close at times this year despite less than ideal circumstances suggest that breaking the whole operation down to start from scratch might not be the way to go.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at what the Patriots will have to do to recapture the division crown.

Figure out the quarterback situation

When Tom Brady left in free agency, the Patriots were faced with the task of replacing the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. As they found out this season, that’s not an easy thing to do. While Cam Newton has played some quality football as Brady’s replacement, he will be headed for unrestricted free agency in spring — leaving the club with another major decision: keeping or replace the current starting quarterback again.

There are arguments to be made in favor of both courses of action, but in the end it will all come down to economics and one question: Is Newton on what will likely be a noticeable pay raise better value than, for example, backup Jarrett Stidham or a possible outside addition via trade, free agency or the draft?

The Patriots answering it with “yes” would not be a surprise given how the 2020 season went so far, despite the veteran’s inconsistency at times this year. After all, there are no obvious upgrades available (with the exception of the Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, who will likely not be available and likely commanding a top-three deal) even though the team might have a different perspective in relation to free agency and the draft.

No matter what the Patriots decide to do, though, they need to figure out who their QB1 will be heading into next year and then build a proper support structure around him. Speaking of which...

Improve the obvious weaknesses

Regardless of what happens with the talent that is currently on the roster, the Patriots need to figure out how to address its current weaknesses between the end of the 2020 season and the beginning of the 2021 campaign. The positions that stand out in this regard are wide receiver, tight end and off-the-ball linebacker — all three of which have disappointed so far this year.

Wide receiver might be the biggest need among the three given that Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry have not proven themselves to be much more than complementary pieces. They have all had their moments, no doubt, but New England’s entire offense would benefit from having at least one quality wide receiver play alongside them to impact how defenses attack the Patriots (i.e. stacking the box against the run and winning one-on-one coverage matchups).

The improvements at tight end and linebacker, meanwhile, might all be in house already.

Third-round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene have the raw talent to make an impact next year after being hurt both literally and by the lack of a proper offseason this year. They should be able to supplement Ryan Izzo as the number one tight end in 2021, especially in terms of receiving contributions.

The linebacker position, on the other hand, is scheduled to get Dont’a Hightower back from the Coronavirus opt-out list — an enormous upgrade over the likes of Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall. This would have a trickle-down effect on the entire defense, from Bentley moving into a more specialized role better suited for his skillset to Adrian Phillips not being asked to fill linebacker duties despite being undersized.

Of course, simply relying on the in-house options may not be enough, which brings us to the next point.

Invest the available resources

After an offseason dominated by limited resources, the Patriots will be among the league leaders in salary cap space next year. While it remains to be seen where the cap will be set, New England could have upwards of $50 million available (our friend Miguel Benzan, for example, is projecting a cap space of $57.2 million). That is a lot of money for the organization to work with, especially considering that a potential Marcus Cannon retirement/release would add $7 million to that number.

Some of that available cash will likely go to current Patriots in need of new contracts — whether they be unrestricted (e.g. David Andrews, Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy, Joe Thuney, James White) or restricted (J.C. Jackson) free agents. However, New England also has the financial potency to bring outside help aboard beyond those investments.

There certainly are some intriguing options available, especially at the weak-points identified above. The Chicago Bears’ Allen Robinson or the Tennessee Titans’ Corey Davis might be potential targets at wide receiver, with the Los Angeles Chargers’ Hunter Henry an option at tight end. The Patriots breaking the bank on a free agent would be somewhat out of character, but not unprecedented (see: Stephon Gilmore).

Expect New England to be a lot more active in free agency than this year.

Keep trusting the young core

While there is a lot of talk about New England’s roster being among the weakest in the NFL, the team does have a solid core to build around. This is especially true on defense, with Adam Butler, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Kyle Dugger and J.C. Jackson being an impressive young group to serve as a foundation. Putting faith in them to take on more prominent roles and start leading the charge next year would not be a bad move.

While the same foundation is not in place on offense, the line is another strength around which to build — something the Patriots already attempted this year, despite inconsistent success due to plenty of limitations elsewhere. Nevertheless, the team does have some talent in that area as well that can be harnessed to play successful football.

All in all, New England needs to keep trusting the young core and building around it to serve as a competent complement to whoever the next starting quarterback will be.

Take advantage of the schedule

This has less to do with the team, but it is also something worth noting: for the first time since the 2009 season, the Patriots will not play a first-place schedule next year. This means no games against the Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers and whoever will win the AFC South. Furthermore, playing two up-and-own southern divisions as opposed to the impressive NFC West and AFC West this year also helps.

The Patriots will have an easier schedule next year compared to the Buffalo Bills and possibly Miami Dolphins as well. That is a golden opportunity in itself to bounce back, even though the other points mentioned above are obviously more important in terms of team building and foundational work.