Coming off their worst season in two decades, the New England Patriots made some major upgrades across the board this offseason. They used considerable resources in free agency to bolster their wide receiver and tight end groups and to improve the talent in their defensive front seven. They also selected a quarterback in the first round of the draft.
While it remains to be seen if those investments eventually pay off, the roster as a whole appears to be much deeper than the one that struggled to a 7-9 record in 2020. Still, questions remain heading into the new year — questions that have led Pro Football Focus’ Ben Linsey to rank New England’s roster as just the 18th best in the NFL at the moment.
The analysis centers mainly around the questions in the passing game and the lack of a true No. 1 wide receiver, but it also includes a short passage about who the Patriots’ X-factor for the 2021 season will be. That choice, much more so than the overall ranking or perceived strengths (running game) and weaknesses (wide receiver talent), is a rather intriguing one: linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who was among the free agency investments.
The rationale behind the pick is as follows:
X factor for 2021: Linebacker Kyle Van Noy had a breakthrough in his career with the Patriots in 2019, earning a career-high 84.2 PFF grade in his first year playing almost exclusively on the edge and getting after the quarterback on passing downs. He saw a much more even split between pass-rushing and coverage snaps last season in Miami, and the result was a 61.9 overall grade and surprise cut this offseason. A return to his 2019 role and form would give a nice boost to this defense, which struggled last season.
Van Noy re-joined the Patriots in March after a one-year stint with the Miami Dolphins. His addition will give the team some much-needed linebacker depth and a versatile and experienced option alongside the other projected starters such as Dont’a Hightower and Matthew Judon — two players that also were not part of New England’s roster last year.
Van Noy will likely play a prominent role yet again, but as far as X-factors are concerned he is still a rather curious pick. Not because of his talent — he has proven himself a productive member of the Patriots’ defense between 2016 and 2019 — but due to the value of his position relative to another: the linebacker spot is massively important in the team’s scheme, no doubt, but the list of X-factors still starts at the quarterback position.
The Patriots have plenty of room for improvement in this regard, after all. Incumbent starter Cam Newton, who was re-signed to a one-year deal ahead of free agency, was one of the statistically worst passers in football in 2020. The lack of receiving talent around him and the general circumstances all played a role in this, though, which means that it is not unrealistic to think he might take a step forward in Year 2.
Not only has he been able to go through a normal offseason workout program after one regular season’s worth of experience, he also will get to play with much improved skill position talent surrounding him: wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne were signed in free agency, as were tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry.
Add it all up, and the stage appears set for Newton to make a leap this season. If he is unable to do that, however, the Patriots offense might look a lot like it did last season — with the running game carrying it but the passing game unable to challenge teams on a consistent basis.
In that case, New England might just turn to another option: the aforementioned first-round investment, Mac Jones. While Jones looked good in minicamp, he still lacks experience and should therefore not be expected to unseat Newton right away in training camp. Anything seems possible, though, and even if he does beat out the incumbent starter the QB performance will still remain the X-factor for the Patriots’ offense and team as a whole.
As far as the defense is concerned, Van Noy is a reasonable pick but an argument can be made that another linebacker actually will be more important for the unit’s overall success in 2021: Dont’a Hightower.
Hightower opted out of the 2020 season shortly after the birth of his first child, and he certainly was missed: the linebacker corps was not up to the task of replacing him, leaving the defense vulnerable at the second level. While not the only contributing factor to the unit’s decline after its tremendous 2019 campaign, his loss can still be seen as the most impactful one.
In turn, Hightower might just be the second most important X-factor on the team behind Newton (or Jones).