For the first time in 20 seasons, the New England Patriots look to be directionless. After suffering their first losing season since Tom Brady was a dough-eyed rookie, the team is now stuck performing the most daunting task that the NFL has to offer, rebuilding.
Now there is some good news and some bad news. Good news is, they’ve been in similar spots before. They’ve had disappointing seasons like 2005 and 2009; they had teams that lacked high end talent like in 2006 and 2013; they’ve entered offseasons with tremendous uncertainty like 2007 and 2014. The bad news? They’ve never dealt with all of these things at the same time.
So, as they try to navigate all of these things at once, why not try and find a common resolution? Something that has been a constant during the dynasty, and that no one does better than Bill Belichick? Developing talent under established stars.
A tactic that they’ve been practicing for decades, there isn’t a team in the NFL that is better at using its stars to prepare for the future than the Patriots.
They’ve done it with slot receivers: Julian Edelman sat for three seasons behind Wes Welker, who took over for the inaugural New England slot receiver, Troy Brown. They did it with the third-down running back role: James White sat for a season under Shane Vereen, who sat for a season behind Danny Woodhead, who spent time playing with Kevin Faulk. They even did it on the defensive side on the ball with their signal-calling linebackers: Tedy Bruschi ran the Patriots defense for a decade, and when his career started to wind down, the Patriots drafted Jerod Mayo with the 10th overall pick. As Mayo’s injuries started to catch up to him, the Patriots took Dont’a Hightower in the first round.
It’s a long and rich history that has contributed to the Patriots’ success just as much as any individual player or decision (Tom Brady and Bill Belichick being the exceptions). So let us take a look at some of the ways they can get back to this practice, and some ways that they may have already started.
Development in motion
Kyle Dugger learning behind Devin McCourty/Patrick Chung
Now it’s tough to choose between McCourty and Chung because Dugger could conceivable play both roles. He’s got the pedigree to play a deep/roaming safety role like McCourty, as the bulk of his college career came as the lone single-high safety in Lenoir Rhyne’s defense. He could also spend most of his time in the box, as his size, athleticism, and physicality pair perfectly with what Chung has been doing for the Patriots since his return in 2014.
There could be a decision to make as to where Dugger’s future takes him, but pigeonholing him into one spot would be a mistake. We saw it with our own eyes last season, Dugger has the ability to play everywhere, and that is exactly what he should be doing.
Kyle Dugger lined up at four different positions on the #Patriots first defensive drive against the Jets.— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) January 4, 2021
- In the box safety.
- Single high safety.
- Free safety.
- Strong side linebacker.
They’ve got themselves a pretty damn versatile player. pic.twitter.com/K0S5SW7T0c
Dugger has been afforded a golden opportunity to learn behind two very good but very different safeties. The more you think about the potential of what Dugger could do for the New England defense, the better the pick looks, and it’s already shown to be a pretty damn good one.
J.J. Taylor learning behind Rex Burkhead/James White
First and foremost, it is a longshot that both if not just one of Burkhead and White return to the team in 2021, but all three of these men spent 2020 in the same room so we’ll keep this entry under the “in motion” category.
With Burkhead or White, the Patriots will be able to keep an extremely important role in their offense filled, while also having a player for J.J. Taylor to learn behind for yet another year. Taylor was an undrafted free agent in 2020 and showed some flashes; he’s got some serious speed and received high praise from running backs coach Ivan Fears who compared him to yet another former Patriots third-down back.
“Little Dion, that’s what he is. Little Dion, Same quickness, same suddenness. He’s a hell of a pass catcher, guy’s got great vision, ah there’s a s**tload of stuff that’s good about him.”
Though he certainly could use more seasoning, Taylor has followed a similar path to that of James White by sitting for most of his rookie season with touches coming few and far between. In fact, Taylor had more touches than White did as a rookie, outpacing him 24-14. His path to becoming a contributor isn’t as crazy as it may seem.
Jakobi Meyers learning behind Julian Edelman
Another situation in which we will wait to see what the existing players’ future holds, Jakobi Meyers has gotten to learn behind Julian Edelman for two years, and may soon make it a third.
Though Meyers isn’t the same kind of player as Edelman, he played his best football in the slot when the veteran was down with a knee injury in 2020. In fact, his first game as a starter came in the slot, replacing Edelman just a week after he was hurt. He recorded 12 catches for 169 yards in a Patriots win over the New York Jets.
This one is simple, Meyers is already a good NFL wide receiver, giving him another year to play with Edelman while learning the minute details of the position will go a long way in his development as a slot receiver. He’ll never be the same player, but he brings some things to that spot that Edelman doesn’t.
Coming in off the bench and having patience like this is impressive. pic.twitter.com/vJseu8ZICP— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) October 26, 2020
Though Meyers’ versatility helps the Patriots tremendously now, him becoming the next great slot receiver could help them a lot more.
Potential moves to aid in development
Sign Kyle Van Noy to help Josh Uche
Josh Uche showed some tremendous flashes during his rookie year, but there were a few things that really could have helped him show a little more. Staying healthy, for example, and having another versatile linebacker who he could learn behind. Signing Kyle Van Noy may provide those things for him in year number two.
Van Noy is an experienced player in the Patriots system and provides a tremendous amount of versatility, which is undoubtedly what the team was looking for Uche to do for them in 2020. Unfortunately, two separate injuries limited his time on the field to only nine games. Uche still recorded seven QB hits and provided consistent pressure as a pass rusher whenever available.
Josh Uche (#53) had a pretty damn good first NFL snap. Avoids a chip from the TE and creates easy depth on 320lb Dion Dawkins. Keeps his hand in Allen’s face while tracking him step for step, forces the incompletion. A+ stuff from the rookie. pic.twitter.com/4QOKmLpbvr— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) November 2, 2020
At the very least, signing Kyle Van Noy would allow Uche to have someone with a similar pedigree to learn from in addition to providing some pretty good insurance for the chance that Uche’s injuries continue.
A unit consisting of Uche, Van Noy, and Dont’a Hightower would immediately upgrade the defense, making their second level one of the best in the conference. The upside of this move is outstanding.
Sign Kyle Rudolph to help Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene
The Patriots’ tight end room needs veteran attention perhaps more than any other positional group in the entire NFL. The team finished its 2020 season with only two tight ends on the roster, rookies Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi. Collectively that twosome recorded five catches for 55 yards and one touchdown in 15 games, numbers that were outpaced by 81 individual tight ends.
So, not only do the Patriots need someone to help those two along the way, they need someone who can step in and provide some production at the position for the first time since Rob Gronkowski’s departure. That is where Kyle Rudolph comes in.
Rudolph has played the mentor role for the last two seasons in Minnesota. He was the Vikings’ top tight end in 2019 while then-rookie Irv Smith Jr. sat behind him. Rudolph took a backseat in 2020, when Smith Jr. eventually emerged as the top man.
I like the idea of the #Patriots signing Kyle Rudolph to mentor the young TE's.— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) March 7, 2021
Played that role for Irv Smith Jr. in 19-20, who's emergence ultimately made him expendable. A short term deal can't hurt.
Here are Rudolph and Smith's numbers from the last few years. pic.twitter.com/6Soci3eCeq
Worst case scenario; Rudolph doesn’t have anything left in the tank and he’s cut during camp, at the very least you get a former Pro Bowler in the same room as your young guys and hope they learn something.
Best case scenario; Rudolph still has plenty left in the tank and can give you a good season out of a tight end, something you haven’t even remotely sniffed since 2018.
If his market is scarce, there is no reason not to take a shot. They’ve had success in this same scenario with Alge Crumpler mentoring Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Draft Avery Williams to learn behind Matthew Slater
Matthew Slater has flirted with retirement for the last few seasons. The greatest special teamer in the history of the NFL will likely hang up the cleats soon, so why not pair him with one of college football’s greatest special teams players?
Williams was the do-it all man for the Broncos in his time at Boise State. He returned punts and kicks, blocked punts and kicks, and led the team in special teams tackles for three straight seasons. There is no doubt he becomes a productive special teamer at the next level, but pairing him with the best could push him into the top tier.
Giving Slater a project to work with might even make him stick around a while. A win-win for everyone.
Draft Amon-Ra St. Brown to learn behind Julian Edelman
If you’ve paid any attention to our pre-draft coverage, you know that I am a HUGE fan of USC wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. His physical profile and play style lend themselves perfectly to the slot role in New England. Making him an ideal candidate to step in and learn behind Julian Edelman for a year before the Patriots’ all-time playoff leading receiver hangs them up.
As I mentioned before, Jakobi Meyers did play his best football in the slot, but it could be in everyone’s best interest to keep him moving around. The same goes for St. Brown.
This scenario would put both St. Brown and Meyers under Edelman’s wing(s) and allow them to learn from one of the best. While one gets time in the slot, the other would have the versatility to play outside. Having multiple receivers that can play multiple roles would be an invaluable asset to an offense that has struggled for a few seasons now.
The Patriots’ main goal in the last few drafts has been to get more athletic and more versatile; the selection of St. Brown would do that as well as place another player in the pipeline of talent learning behind established stars. Two birds, one stone.
Draft Cam Newton’s successor
Cam Newton is back for another round in New England and there have been some . . . mixed reactions. The original number of $14M caused some alarms to go off but as we’ve strayed further away from the announcement and the details of the contract have come out, it’s easy to see what that contract truly signifies, Cam is the placeholder for the next franchise guy in New England.
So who could that man be and how do they obtain his services? Do they trade up and draft Trey Lance? Do they stay put and hope Mac Jones falls to #15? How about taking a mid round flier on Jamie Newman or Kellen Mond?
No matter what they do, there’s no doubt that the Patriots will do something, as running it back with the same QB room as 2020 would be a huge mistake. With multiple options and a number of different ways to look at this situation, we’re just waiting to see what it will be. (Let us know who you think it could be down below.)
Making a case for this rebuilding method
Save for a miraculous series of events, the 2021 New England Patriots won’t be competing for a championship, meaning the group of guys that brought you Super Bowls 49, 51, and 53 should have their eyes set on a new goal: developing the youngsters.
Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, Julian Edelman, James White, Matthew Slater, and Patrick Chung are the only players left from the Super Bowl 49 team. It’s no coincidence that those elder statesmen are the ones who will be tasked with preparing the future stars of the franchise.
The time has come for the Patriots to enter a new chapter, and even though that chapter will likely be defined by the next generation of stars, it starts with this one. Like those who came before, this group of men owes it to themselves to prepare the next wave of guys. They deserve the opportunity to lead New England into the future.