The New England Patriots sure had a wild 2021. Now that it is almost over — the year that is, not the NFL season — it is time to take a look back. What were the biggest stories to emerge over the past 12 months? Who helped shape the Patriots that we know today? And what moments stood out?
Welcome to Pats Pulpit’s 2021 Review, and a Happy New Year to you all!
Nick Caserio departs for Houston
Shortly after the Patriots’ 2020 season came to an end, the team’s long-time director of player personnel decided to leave the organization. Caserio joined the Houston Texans as their new general manger, creating a big hole in the New England front office: he had been in his position since 2008, having originally joined the club in 2001.
The organization filled Caserio’s shoes by promoting his assistant, Dave Ziegler, and by bringing former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia back into the fold in a different role.
New England goes on a free agency spending spree
The Patriots are rarely among the big spenders in free agency, but they spectacularly changed course in 2021. When the dust had settled, the team had invested $159.6 million in guarantees to bring outside talent aboard.
Among the players added were the top two tight ends available (Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry), a pair of starter-level wide receivers (Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne) and four starters on the defensive side of the ball: linebackers Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy, defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, and cornerback Jalen Mills. New England also added eventual starting guard Ted Karras.
The team’s investments did not end there, however. The Patriots also re-signed a significant portion of their in-house free agents — a group that included team captains David Andrews, Lawrence Guy and James White, as well as veterans Deatrich Wise Jr, Justin Bethel and Nick Folk.
The NFL moves to a 17-game format
The writing was already on the wall, but the league made it official in late March: the 16-game regular season is history, the 17-game era is upon us. The NFL and the NFLPA had originally decided to move to a 17-game format last offseason as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the owners finally flipped the switch this year.
Mac Jones gets drafted in the first round
Entering this year’s draft, Bill Belichick had never selected a quarterback in the first round. Alabama prospect Mac Jones put an end to this streak: New England invested the 15th overall selection in Jones, making him the fifth QB to come off the board and the presumptive heir to the role held by Tom Brady for most of the last two decades.
The youngster also became the first quarterback to be drafted in Round 1 by the Patriots since Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe was picked first overall in 1993. Mac Jones was born five years later.
Jones was not the only potential difference-maker drafted by New England, though. The team also made a move up the board in the second round to select the consensus top defensive tackle available, fellow Alabama product Christian Barmore.
Three franchise legends announce their retirement
The Patriots’ offseason was one of change, and it also saw three franchise legends call it a career. Safety Patrick Chung and wide receiver Julian Edelman announced their retirements in March and April, respectively. After the draft, they were joined by long-time research director Ernie Adams; seventh-round wide receiver Tre Nixon was hand-picked by Adams as a parting gift.
Chung, Edelman and Adams have all left their mark on the organization: they own a combined 12 Super Bowl rings due to their contributions. They are locks to be enshrined into the Patriots Hall of Fame one day.
Fans are back at Gillette Stadium
The Coronavirus pandemic forced the Patriots to play their home games during the 2020 season in front of 65,878 empty seats. The introduction of vaccines, however, gave the team an opportunity to finally welcome fans back on its premises over the summer.
Fans were allowed to visit New England’s training camp practices yet again, while the preseason opener was the first game at Gillette Stadium since the 2019 wild card playoffs. When the Patriots opened their regular season versus the Miami Dolphins in early September, the stands were packed once more — a much-needed return to normalcy.
Mac Jones wins the quarterback competition
The Patriots re-signed incumbent starting quarterback Cam Newton to a one-year contract ahead of free agency, giving him an opportunity to build on what had been a disappointing 2020 season. The arrival of rookie QB Mac Jones, however, changed his outlook and put considerable pressure on the former league MVP: he was faced with a competition for the starting gig.
Newton looked like the frontrunner throughout the summer, consistently taking first-team reps and starting all three of New England’s preseason contests. However, he eventually came up short: the Patriots ended up releasing the veteran on roster cutdown day, handing the keys to their offense over to Jones.
There is no one moment that decided the race in Jones’ favor. However, Newton missing five days in late August due to an apparent “misunderstanding” of Covid-19 protocols did certainly not help his cause. Jones took QB1 reps while the incumbent was out and further built the foundation for eventually beating him out.
Tom Brady returns to Foxborough
Week 4 of the regular season saw one of the biggest games in recent memory: Tom Brady’s return to his old stomping grounds, facing off against his former head coach and the Patriots’ new quarterback of the future.
New England’s game versus Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a defensive affair. The Patriots held the franchise legend in check but were unable to take advantage. Eventually, the game was lost when the usually reliable Nick Folk missed a 56-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter.
Stephon Gilmore gets traded to Carolina
Stephon Gilmore’s status was one of the biggest stories throughout the Patriots’ offseason. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who spent the summer on the physically unable to perform list after suffering a partial quad tear in 2020, was unhappy with his contract. However, neither an extension nor renegotiation was ever signed.
Instead, the Patriots decided to put Gilmore on the trade blick. The star cornerback was eventually sent to the Carolina Panthers in early October; New England received a sixth-round selection in the 2023 draft in return.
With Gilmore gone, the Patriots turned to former rookie free agent J.C. Jackson as their new CB1. The fourth-year man was voted to his first ever Pro Bowl two months later, in large part due to his ability to generate turnovers and shadow top-tier wide receivers one-on-one.
As for the Gilmore trade, it was not the only big such move made by the Patriots this year. The team also brought offensive tackle Trent Brown back into the fold, sent long-time starter Marcus Cannon to the Texans, and parted ways with Sony Michel — moving him to the Los Angeles Rams.
The Patriots turn their season around
Following their loss to the Buccaneers, the Patriots sat at 1-3 and were already looking up in the AFC East. To make matters worse, they fell into a 22-9 hole in the third quarter against their Week 5 opponent, the Houston Texans.
Something started to click for New England at that point. The team ended up scoring 16 unanswered points to secure a much-needed win. It did lose the following week’s game versus the Dallas Cowboys, but it had finally started to trend into the right direction. The third quarter in Houston was therefore a turning point of sorts.
The Patriots eventually went on a seven-game winning streak to improve from 2-4 to 9-4. They have since lost back-to-back games but are right in the middle of the playoff race in the AFC — something few saw coming when the team fell behind against the Texans in Week 5.