The 2020 season was as bad as any in recent history for the New England Patriots and their fans. Not only did they have to watch Tom Brady leave the organization after two decades, they also experienced a disappointing regular season: the Patriots missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and at 7-9 had their first losing campaign since the year 2000.
Moving forward, however, there are reasons for optimism. Whether or not that optimism will actually translate into on-field success to manifest itself in a bounce-back season obviously remains to be seen. Nonetheless, with training camp only two weeks away fans can certainly feel a lot more confident than last year.
With that said, let’s take a look at five reasons why that is the case.
1. The circumstances
Last season was unique for the entire league. The Coronavirus pandemic forced the NFL to cancel offseason workouts, alter training camp routines, and scratch the preseason slate. While all 32 clubs had to adapt, the Patriots — a team in a major transition following Brady’s departure — were hit particularly hard: players such as quarterback Cam Newton had to learn on the fly, and their struggles did not come as too big a surprise.
While that might have been the biggest circumstantial issue for New England last season, it was not the only one. The team had to deal with a Covid-19 outbreak ahead of its Week 4 game in Kansas City, and also lost key players such as Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung to the opt-out clause.
All in all, the 2020 season was a challenging one for the Patriots — a team not able to overcome those challenges.
2. The quarterback position
Cam Newton was among the statistically worst passers in football last year, and only time will tell whether or not he will be better in his second season with the Patriots. The club obviously feels that there is a chance, or else it would not have re-signed him before the start of free agency.
One thing is certain, though: the circumstances mentioned above will work more in his favor this time around. Newton has a year of experience in the system under his belt and was able to spend the whole offseason working with his new and old teammates. His processing and decision making should improve as a result and in turn lead to him being a more productive quarterback than he was down the stretch in 2020.
There also are two other factors to consider. One is Mac Jones, who was selected 15th overall in this year’s draft. Jones is the future of the franchise no matter if he wins the starting gig as a rookie or not — there is a realistic chance he does but training camp and preseason will be the deciding factor. No matter what happens fans should feel optimistic about what he brings to the table, even if he ends up as New England’s QB2.
The other factor to consider is the supporting cast. One year after fielding arguably the worst assortment of receiving talent in the NFL, Newton — or, if he surprises and wins the starting gig, Jones — will have a chance to play alongside some top-tier tight end talent (Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry) and two starter-level wide receivers (Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne).
3. The offseason additions and depth across the board
Before a league-high eight Covid-19 opt-outs, New England was in a difficult financial situation. This offseason looked quite different: the Patriots had plenty of cap space to work with, and they did.
The four players mentioned above — Smith, Henry, Agholor, Bourne — should help get the team’s passing game back on track. Offensive tackle Trent Brown, acquired via trade from the Las Vegas Raiders, will fill a starting role along the offensive line. All five of those additions will play massive roles in 2021 and put the quarterbacks in a much better spot.
On defense, meanwhile, the Patriots were also able to upgrade their roster. The interior defensive line saw the additions of Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson and Christian Barmore, while the linebacker group will feature Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy this year. Add Covid-19 returnee Dont’a Hightower and you get a massively improved front seven — and a defense that should be much better than last year’s unit as a whole.
Overall, the team is a much deeper one that it was last year. With the NFL season being a marathon rather than a sprint, that depth could become crucial. That is particularly true with the league switching to a 17-game regular season format.
4. The young core
New England’s recent drafts have produced some head-scratching results at times, but there is no denying the team found some potential difference makers. On offense, players such as Damien Harris or Michael Onwenu are already among the best the team has to offer. On defense, Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche will be worth keeping a close eye on this year.
Those four players might be the biggest names to watch in 2021, but they are far from the only youngsters on the roster who should further establish themselves as members of the Patriots’ young core. Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Jake Bailey and the members of this year’s draft class also fall into the same category.
5. Bill Belichick
The Patriots’ roster last year was not of the same quality as those of years past, on both sides of the ball. And yet, the team still was able to win seven games and come pretty close in some others (at Seattle and Buffalo, for example). Needless to say that “you are what your record says you are” but New England above its talents at times in 2020.
Belichick played a pretty big role in this. Yes, he also built the roster that was struggling to field competitive depth at times, but he also put his players in a position to be successful. Regardless of what Pro Football Focus is saying, the 69-year-old is still the premier coach in football — one that should have his improved team in a position to compete again this year.