Each of the last two years, the New England Patriots’ offseason was dominated by questions about the starting quarterback role. In 2020, Tom Brady’s free agency status was the biggest unknown for the organization. One year later, the long-term outlook at the most important position came into focus.
The Patriots were able to answer their quarterback questions in 2021, selecting Mac Jones in the first round of the draft. Jones’ impressive rookie season left no question that he is the player around whom the organization will build its roster. That said, given the importance of the position relative to every other on the field, it still is a point of emphasis heading into the offseason.
How to help Mac Jones make the famous second-year jump is one of the most pressing questions for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his team. It is not the only one worth discussing, though.
Let’s take a look at six of those questions to see what awaits the team coming off a 10-7 regular season that saw a lot of promise before ultimately going down in flames in the postseason. Jones is the center piece, yet, but not the only one that needs the Patriots’ attention over the coming weeks and months.
What can be done to help Mac Jones’ development?
There is no denying that a quarterback needs to possess a certain set of skills to find success in the NFL. A good arm alone does not make a good QB, while inadequate athletic skills or insufficient technical proficiency will also hurt a prospect’s development. All the talent in the world also may not help you if you land in a bad spot.
The old debate between nature and nurture will continue until the end of time — “Imagine how many Super Bowls Peyton Manning would have won in New England!!1!11!” — but one thing cannot be denied: Mac Jones landed in a pretty good situation when the Patriots drafted him 15th overall last April. His rookie season confirmed that, with Jones ending the year heads and shoulders above the other first-round QBs.
Jones’ floor being higher than that of other quarterback prospects last year was one of his appealing traits. However, now it is about making sure his ceiling gets raised as well.
The Patriots need to find a way to help Jones’ development heading into Year 2.
Obviously, he plays the main part in this: Jones needs to keep working on his craft to get better heading into his sophomore. The organization itself, however, can do its part to help with that nurture aspect.
There are a few basic areas:
1.) Try to keep some coaching consistency. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels and assistant quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree were both instrumental in helping Jones get ready as a rookie. Veteran backup QB Brian Hoyer also has a case to be added to this list, despite not being a coach.
2.) Shore up the protection. The Patriots’ offensive line as a whole played some good football in 2021, but it faces some questions heading into the offseason. Two starters — left guard Ted Karras and right tackle Trent Brown — are headed for unrestricted free agency; re-signing at least one of them would be big to keep the unit intact as well as possible.
3.) Add a go-to wide receiver. With the tight end spot taken care of last year, the Patriots need to turn their attention to their receiving group. Sure, a top three of Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor is fine, but the group and its quarterback would benefit from a true WR1 opposing defenses need to account for. Finding a Ja’Marr Chase-like impact player will be difficult given New England’s draft position, but the team needs to try its best to give Jones a go-to weapon either through the draft, free agency, or the trade market.
If the Patriots can take care of those three issues, they will put Jones in a strong position to take the second-year leap and become an even better and more consistent player moving forward. New England’s offense as a whole — one that has to compete with high-octane attacks in Buffalo and Kansas City — would be all the better for it.
What will the secondary look like?
Despite its rough outing in the postseason loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots’ secondary as a whole had a solid 2021 season even after trading former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore to Carolina. This offseason could bring some major changes, however.
This process quietly started last week already, when the Patriots decided not to sign three of its practice squad defensive backs to reserve/futures contracts. D’Angelo Ross has since joined the Miami Dolphins, with De’Vante Bausby and Sean Davis remaining on the open market. All three of them saw some playing time down the stretch but are apparently not part of the plan moving forward.
As far as their potential impact on the New England defense, however, those three pale in comparison to two other players scheduled to enter free agency: cornerback J.C. Jackson and safety Devin McCourty.
The biggest name on New England’s list of free agents and one of the best cornerbacks in football, there is no question Jackson will get paid this offseason. The question is which team will invest in him. New England does have the advantage of the franchise tag if no agreement can be reached ahead of free agency, but there is no guarantee it will be used to keep Jackson in the fold.
As for McCourty, his contract is set to void on the first day of the new league year. The question whether or not he gets re-signed before that day is not the only one, though: at age 34, the long-time team captain is a candidate for retirement as well.
Losing both Jackson and McCourty would put some major pressure on a secondary that already had some depth issues in 2021 (leading to the aforementioned Ross, Bausby and Davis seeing action). They are not the only players in the spotlight this offseason, however.
Former second-round draft pick and de facto boundary CB3 Joejuan Williams continued his disappointing tenure with the Patriots, and is no lock to return for the final year of his rookie deal. Furthermore, slot cornerback Jonathan Jones will return after missing most of the 2021 season on injured reserve; his recovery status will be worth keeping an eye on.
How can the available resources be maximized?
The Patriots are heading into the offseason with only $3.68 million in available salary cap space, per Miguel Benzan. They will need to find a way to increase that number if they want to re-sign a significant portion of their free agency class plus add some additional depth through the open market and the draft.
There are multiple ways to do that, of course. The Patriots could part ways with some of their players either through trade or release — Kyle Van Noy, Lawrence Guy and Jahlani Tavai come to mind — or sign others to contract extensions in an effort to bring their cap hits down. Renegotiations are also possible.
New England’s offseason resources are not just of monetary nature, though. The team also possesses six draft picks, a number that will only grow through the compensatory process if Jerod Mayo or another minority assistant coach or executive gets hired by another team.
In order to make the most out of those six selections, the Patriots might decide to swing some trades. Moving down from the 21st slot in the first round, for example, might net the team some extra capital on Day 2 — capital that could be used to address some of the most pressing needs on the roster such as wide receiver, linebacker or cornerback.
Who will emerge as a next-generation leader?
We already touched on this topic earlier this week when speaking about the Patriots’ defensive leadership on the basis of three core members with uncertain futures: Devin McCourty, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo.
McCourty and Hightower have been tone-setters for the organization both on and off the field ever since joining the team in the early 2010s. They are not the only defenders whose status heading into the offseason is uncertain: like McCourty and Hightower former team captain Ja’Whaun Bentley is also an unrestricted free agent and not guaranteed to return.
On the offensive side of the ball, team captain James White is headed for the open market, as is fellow veteran running back Brandon Bolden. Then, there are special teams aces Matthew Slater and Brandon King — the former the longest tenured Patriot, the latter a core member and leader of the kicking game unit. Both are free agents as well, with Slater a candidate to announce his retirement.
While there is a chance McCourty, Hightower, Bentley, White, Bolden, Slater and King are all brought back, most of them are on the back-nine of their respective careers. The Patriots will need a new generation of leaders to emerge in all three phases to help make the transition from those that have been part of Dynasty 2.0 into the Mac Jones era a lot easier.
Potential candidates to fill those voids, should they open up, are already on the roster. On offense, Jones is obviously the biggest name: he needs to leave his rookie status behind and emerge as a player capable of pulling the rest of the team along. Defensively, players such as Adrian Phillips, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Matthew Judon come to mind — veterans who have already filled some leadership roles in 2021.
The Patriot Way was born in the early 2000s and through players such as McCourty, Hightower and Slater brought into the 2010s as well. In order to stay alive into the 2020s as well, New England’s young leaders and previously added veterans alike need to rise to the occasion.
How can the defensive speed be improved?
Before surrendering 47 points to the Bills on wild card weekend, the Patriots had been ranked as one of the best defenses in football: not counting scores given up by the offense and on special teams, the unit ranked first in the league in points allowed during the regular season. That ranking, however, did not help the team in Buffalo.
While the defensive breakdown was far from the only issue — the offense turning the football over on its promising first possession opened the floodgates — it did show the weaknesses of the unit against a high-profile unit such as the one led by Bills quarterback Josh Allen. It lacked depth in the defensive backfield, and speed at the second level.
The first of those areas is already mentioned above and highly dependent on the statuses of J.C. Jackson and Devin McCourty. The second, meanwhile, is a bit different: even with Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins set to become free agents in March, the Patriots have plenty of bodies available at the linebacker position.
The problem is that the present group is not one filled with many big names or game-changing potential. The edge group is headed by Pro Bowler Matthew Judon, but the depth alongside him — Josh Uche, Chase Winovich, Ronnie Perkins — has yet to fully emerge. The off-the-ball/move position, meanwhile, is a collective question mark.
Kyle Van Noy is an established presence but his $7.45 million salary cap hit could be seen as a problem. The others are either coming off injury (Raekwon McMillan, Cameron McGrone, Anfernee Jennings) or appear to have more upside on special teams than defense (Harvey Langi, Jahlani Tavai).
Most importantly, only a handful of players possess the range and speed that is needed to successfully flood the zones against defenses such as the Bills’. Uche, Winovich, Perkins and McGrone could help but they are more projection than clear-cut contributors at this point in their respective careers.
The Patriots have some encouraging pieces in defensive tackle Christian Barmore and box safety Kyle Dugger, but the second-level speed is something that needs to be addressed. investing multiple draft picks to try to fix that issue might be on the menu for New England.
Will there be any coaching changes?
So far, only one assistant coach — the aforementioned Jerod Mayo — has taken head coaching interviews elsewhere. He is a realistic candidate to leave, something that might also be true for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: even though no interview has been requested yet, there has been some buzz about him joining the Las Vegas Raiders alongside Patriots director of player personnel Dave Ziegler.
As of right now, however, no member of the organization has left it to take a job elsewhere. That could still change, but even if it does not the coaching staff might look a bit different in 2022.
The first person to talk about is running backs coach Ivan Fears. The longest-tenured assistant on New England’s staff — Fears is coming off his 23rd straight season as a Patriots coach, and 25th overall — is a candidate for retirement. If Fears indeed calls it a career, he would leave a big hole.
How to fill it if push comes to shove? His assistant Vinnie Sunseri or assistant wide receivers/kick returners coach Troy Brown might be two potential options.
Then, there is Cam Achord. After being one of the best special teams units in football in 2020, Achord’s group took a nosedive in 2021. The unit had some major issues, including struggling in punt protection: three of Jake Bailey’s punt attempts were blocked, with one of those getting returned for a touchdown.
His group’s 2021 outing might force Bill Belichick’s hand — and maybe open the door for one of his former assistants to return to the fold: long-time special teams coordinator Joe Judge was fired as the New York Giants’ head coach earlier this month, and a reunion is not an unrealistic outcome in case Achord is let go.
What about all the other questions?
“Wait a second! That’s seven questions instead of the six mentioned in the headline! Heresy!”
Yes, indeed. The Patriots, after all, are facing a lot more questions than just the six most pressing worth digging into a bit deeper. They range from big-picture issues such as Covid-19 to concrete decisions such as what to do with particular free agents not mentioned above.
Basically, for every big question there are multiple smaller ones. Will Jakobi Meyers be tendered? Will Nick Folk be re-signed? Who will be brought aboard from the outside? What to do with those two sixth-round draft picks? Will there be more rookie free agent signings than last year...? You get the idea.
Just like any other team in the NFL — even those still alive in the playoff race — the Patriots have a lot of questions to answer. Not all of them might have the same impact on the team’s outlook for 2022, but they are still worth keeping in mind.