The team never looked the same following its Week 14 bye. After rattling off seven straight wins, the Patriots ended the season the same way they started, with a 2-4 record. Slow starts continued to plague the Patriots, as New England was outscored 78-13 in the first half of those games, not including the Week 17 trouncing of the measly Jaguars.
Despite the poor ending, they’re still plenty of positives to take away from the year for the Patriots. They had a handful of real contributors in year one of their free agent or rookie deals, which is certainly a promising sight for the future. And more importantly, they have their quarterback going forward in Mac Jones.
But, there is a lot of work still to be done for the Patriots, as 2021 was the first year of the rebuild following the 2020 purge. As Bill Belichick mentioned Sunday, they will go through the end of the year process the next few days before moving onto the “normal things” over the next few months (NFL Draft, pre-free agency, etc.).
So, let’s take a look at a few immediate thoughts and takeaways from the Patriots’ season heading into the offseason.
1. Acquire a game-changing wide receiver
While the defense will rightfully be under the microscope after its debacle against Buffalo, acquiring a true go-to guy for Mac Jones should be New England’s No. 1 offseason priority. The offense has lacked a receiver who can succeed on the outside and challenge defenses outside the numbers for several seasons now, and it’s time to go get one.
The Patriots’ passing offense certainly has quality pieces, but putting a true go-to guy next to Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Kendrick Bourne, and Nelson Agholor would truly open up their passing attack. They will have options too, as names such as Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson, and Michael Gallup are set to hit free agency.
The Patriots could also try to right their wrongs in the draft, or look through the trade market for a player like Calvin Ridley, who is rumored to be available. It’s certainly easier said than done, but just look how much it’s helped Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills (Stefon Diggs), as well as Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals (Ja’Marr Chase).
2. Remodel the front seven
The Patriots’ inability to stop the run the past several seasons has been one of their biggest ongoing issues. While they brought in new faces along the defensive line this season, they still got gashed on the ground, even when they knew it was coming.
Getting a bigger body at the nose tackle position could be the first step of the solution, like they used to have in Vince Wilfork or Alan Branch. Cincinnati’s soon-to-be-free-agent B.J. Hill could be an intriguing name to watch.
Besides the defensive tackle position, New England’s linebackers looked old and slow Saturday night against Buffalo, and it’s time for them to get faster and more athletic at the position. It’s interesting the team did not try out Josh Uche (six snaps Saturday) and/or Chase Winovich (inactive Saturday) — two of their younger and more athletic defenders — more throughout the season.
One solution could already be on the roster in the form of 2021 fifth-round selection Cameron McGrone. The former Wolverine (No. 44 below) missed his entire rookie season due to a torn ACL he suffered in college, but immediately lines up as the team’s most athletic linebacker entering 2022. He certainly can't be the only “addition” however, or similar issues will continue into next season.
3. Cornerback depth
Relying on Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant Saturday night against Buffalo was a death sentence. But to be fair, any team without two of its top three corners (Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones) will struggle. The issue was that cornerback depth was a question all year long for the Patriots, especially given Stephon Gilmore’s murky future and eventual trade to Carolina.
The biggest decision they have this offseason will revolve around J.C. Jackson, who is in line to seriously get paid. If the team retains his services, New England will be fine with him, Mills, and Jones entering next season. Adding some more depth at the position this offseason certainly won't hurt, but it may not be as big as a need as other positions if they bring back their current top three.
4. Jonnu Smith and Kendrick Bourne
Jonnu Smith and Kendrick Bourne are two of New England’s most versatile offensive pieces, yet they too often seemed to be ignored. Almost all of the duo’s touches felt too schemed at times, whether that was forcing them screen passes or end around carries. It should be a priority for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to find away to get both of them more involved within the flow of the offense next season.
There is less worry for Bourne, who seemed to be the only Patriot player with serious juice all season long. And adding another guy ahead of him on the receiver pecking order might do him wonders.
As for Smith, his usage is still confusing, especially after he was used all over the field and dominated while doing so throughout training camp. Perhaps it was a confidence issue, but the Patriots can't afford to pay him all that money to be used as Dwayne Allen. Cutting or trading him won't free up any money, so their best bet is to try and figure out how to best use his skillset.