The New England Patriots are a team in transition. Coming off a 7-9 season that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in seemingly forever, they will not just have to restock a roster with sizable holes on both sides of the ball but also groom a new generation of locker room leaders to take the roles currently held by players such as Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower.
While time will tell when the three long-time captains will inevitably move on, a safe bet in all three cases is next offseason when their respective contacts expire. Regardless of what happens with them, however, the Patriots need to find some successors not just in terms of the on-field roles but those off the field as well.
Leadership, after all, matters quite a bit in the NFL. The Patriots of the early 2000s are a prime example as they established a championship pedigree that still is the foundation of the organization to this day. Players such as Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison set the tone that allowed a team rallying around a young quarterback to build a dynasty — one that lasted for two decades.
The second of those decades were led by Slater, McCourty and Hightower, among others: tone setters both on the practice field, inside the locker room and ultimately on game day.
The question now becomes who will succeed them one day and carry the “Patriot Way” — regardless of how it is defined — into a third decade. There are quite a few candidates already on the roster, who are comparatively early in their careers and could thus be cornerstones for the team for years to come.
One obvious candidate is linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. While his performance was up-and-down in 2020 and with Hightower having opted out of the season, his teammates still recognized him as a leader by voting him a team captain.
At 24, Bentley was the youngest captain last year but his future is in question as well beyond the upcoming season: he will be an unrestricted free agent and is therefore in a make-or-break campaign in 2021. There is a chance that Bentley gets re-signed, though, which would make him an obvious candidate for a leadership role throughout his tenure in New England.
The same obviously goes for a pair of players set to enter free agency next month: David Andrews and James White, both of whom still on the “right” side of 30 and thus candidates to stick around for years to come.
While White’s free agency outlook is up in the air and he is a candidate to leave the team — possibly to join Tom Brady in Tampa and be closer to his mother who is still recovering from a car accident that killed his father last year — Andrews should be expected back when all is said and done. If the 28-year-old indeed returns, so would a cornerstone of the Patriots’ offense and captaincy meetings.
How about other comparatively young players, though, who have not yet been named captains but could play vital leadership roles moving forward?
One player that comes to mind in that category is special teams linebacker Brandon King. The 27-year-old did miss each of the last two seasons because of injury, but was praised by head coach Bill Belichick last month for his active involvement in the Patriots’ social justice discussions. King, a core special teamer before his back-to-back seasons on the sidelines, might very well be the frontrunner to take over Matthew Slater’s role in the organization one day.
Also seemingly on his way to a bigger role in terms of leadership responsibilities might be a pair of young defenders: Chase Winovich is already one of the most outspoken players on the team, while Kyle Dugger should emerge as a key communicator in the secondary in the coming years. Together with running back Damien Harris and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers they are at the very core of the next player generation, and as such possible next-gen leaders as well.
Of course, one big spot on the leadership council will naturally go to the quarterback.
Tom Brady was a captain in New England for 19 consecutive seasons, with Cam Newton taking over the gig as both QB1 and team leader in 2020. Newton’s free agency experience will determine whether or not he gets another chance with the Patriots, but even if he is brought back he will not be a long-term solution at the position.
Whoever gets brought in from the outside this spring to be just that — either via the draft, free agency, or trade — will also have to rally the men around him. Brady and Newton did it, and the next starting quarterback will have to do so as well.
Together with the other leadership candidates mentioned above, he will play a critical role in helping replace the aging group of leaders currently still with the Patriots. And their success will shape the future of the team for years to come.