As we close in on the 2021 NFL season, I’ve decided to throw my name and reputation behind five bold NFL predictions surrounding the New England Patriots and the outcome of their 2021 season.
There is a lot of variance for how the campaign could go, given the team’s efforts to revamp the front seven, pass-catching corps, and the quarterback position in the offseason. Bill Belichick will be starting a rookie QB in Week 1 for the first time in his career as a head coach.
Without further ado, let’s get right on those predictions!
#1: Mac Jones wins NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year
The initial competition for the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year will start with Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Jones. All three quarterbacks will be starting any and every game they are healthy this season, no matter the performance, as each team tries to get their franchise QB acclimated to the NFL. While Wilson and Lawrence have better physical attributes than the Patriots’ signal-caller, Jones has a bigger grasp of the nuances necessary to separate himself from the pack at the position. The only way I see Jones’ production suffering is if the team’s skill players have injury issues.
Jones will be playing behind a top offensive line and the Patriots’ best group of running backs since the 2004 season. While he won’t drop back 600 times this year, there will be opportunities for him to stretch the field on play-action passes and the team will put him in situations where he’ll learn how to read the defense. The way the Patriots design their offense to get the opposing defenses to tip their coverage and front-seven looks should help Jones hold up better than most rookie QBs.
#2: Rhamondre Stevenson will be RB1 by the end of the season
Damien Harris has a history of injuries in his brief yet productive career. The Patriots are looking at a potential three-headed monster of Harris, J.J. Taylor and James White out of the backfield to start the season. But waiting in the wings is the team’s fourth-round selection, Stevenson. Personally, I think Stevenson has more upside than Harris moving forward, given the former’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and his route-running.
Stevenson was the most productive running back in the preseason, especially when it came to getting additional yards after contact. Once he’s more acclimated in the offense and is more comfortable with what they want him to do in it, there isn’t any real reason to keep him off the field.
#3: Jakobi Meyers will lead New England in targets, receptions, yards
This is probably the least-bold prediction out there, but Meyers works best with an accurate QB. Meyers put up respectable numbers in 2020, hauling in 59 of his 81 targets for 729 yards. While the third-year receiver has more passing touchdowns (two) than receiving touchdowns (zero) in his career, something is bound to change this season. His tape and production from last year suggests he could be a significant factor in the passing game as the primary chain-mover.
While the Patriots invested heavily to improve the tight end position and grabbed a field-stretcher in Nelson Agholor, it will be the steady Meyers that leads the team in receptions and yards. I could easily see him putting up around 900 yards and three or four TDs in this offense as the team’s primary “Z” receiver. Meyers can play both outside and in the slot to attack certain matchups in the opposing secondary.
#4: Stephon Gilmore will be traded for no higher than a third-round pick
New England is in a contract standoff/injury situation with their top corner, resulting in Gilmore starting the season on the physically unable to perform list. He won’t be back until Week 7 at the earliest, coming off of a torn quad muscle that ended his 2020 season in December. In his absence, the Patriots will get a chance to see how the players below him on the depth chart will perform. And if they perform well, it could allow Belichick to move on from Gilmore with just half of a season left on his deal.
It’s a move that certainly isn’t unprecedented, as the team jettisoned Jamie Collins in a similar situation back in 2016. The Patriots opted to ship the linebacker to the Cleveland Browns for a compensatory third-round pick. As each game that Gilmore is out for beyond Week 6, his value will plummet and this situation could get to the point where Belichick would rather get rid of a potential distraction.
#5: Patriots will finish the season as the fifth seed in the AFC
The AFC East will be arguably the most competitive division in football, with all four starting quarterbacks at the age of 25 or under and capable of lighting up NFL teams. Josh Allen is coming off a season that earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl, second-team All-Pro and a trip to the AFC Championship Game. The Buffalo Bills are still the frontrunner in the AFC East and don’t look any worse for the wear coming into the season. I think Buffalo’s experience will ultimately aid them to some degree, but both the Patriots and the Miami Dolphins will make them earn the division title, as no team in the division wins more than 11 games but could see three teams win at least 10 games.
The Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers and Bills are the three obvious contenders to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. It’s still the Chiefs’ conference to lose, but as is the nature of playoff games, one play could make a difference. In the second tier of the AFC are teams that should be expected to make the playoffs and anything else should be considered a failure. I lump in Cleveland as well the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans into that category.
The third tier of teams, and the ones most likely fighting each other for a playoff spot, are ones that on paper look good but have that one concern that prevents me from pushing them up a tier. Those teams are New England and Miami as well as the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers. Three of those four teams have QB questions, with the Patriots’ and Dolphins’ starters with less than a full season of experience under their belts. Colts starter Carson Wentz, who was a trainwreck under center in 2019 and 2020, is hoping to bounce back under the same offensive coordinator he had an MVP-caliber season with in 2017. The Chargers don’t have a QB issue with Justin Herbert as their guy, but the defense and special teams were horrendous for Los Angeles, and they lost far more games than they should have because of that.