With the New England Patriots’ offseason starting to pick up steam after a wild card weekend loss in Buffalo just under two weeks ago, it is time to turn the page and prepare for the 2022 season.
All things considered, the 2021 Patriots exceeded expectations considering the many new faces they had to incorporate on both sides of the ball — most prominently a rookie quarterback that gained experience week to week. Despite winning 10 games and making the playoffs after a one-year hiatus, the expectations at One Patriots Place were not met despite where this team was a year ago: it’s Super Bowl or bust.
That being said, the Patriots did solidify themselves as contenders again in a loaded AFC once again.
The question will be, how can this team can build off of a solid 2021 campaign? How can Mac Jones get better if the talent around him continues to improve? Defensively they will always remain a stout unit as long as Bill Belichick is around, but how can they avoid another December collapse?
Bill Belichick and his staff will be busy over the next few months identifying players both through free agency and the draft to try and find the pieces that can make this team a true contender for 2022 and the years to come. So, let’s lay out a step-by-step battle plan that they could follow to do just that.
1. Get Mac Jones a playmaker at the wide receiver position
If you are a Patriots fan that watched this past Sunday’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, you probably came to the conclusion that the Patriots have a lot of work to do on the offensive side of the ball if they want to compete with the cream of the crop in the AFC. There is plenty of work to do on the other side of the ball too (which we will get into later), but adding a number one wideout to help Mac Jones develop at a rapid rate may be the Patriots’ number one need this offseason.
It is no secret the Patriots have lacked speed and playmaking ability at the wide receiver position probably dating back all the way to the 2017 season. With Jones showing all the signs of being the teams’ franchise quarterback for the next decade but still being an ascending player, however, his development is dependent on getting him a true number one receiving option that can help take the load off him.
It continues to be a head-scratcher as to why the Patriots opted against selecting at least one wide receiver on the first two days of their last few drafts considering the depth and talent at the position coming out of college. Maybe they did not like the fits, maybe they hoped N’Keal Harry would turn his career around. Whatever the reasons, New England was forced to go the free agency route last offseason to upgrade its wide receiver personnel.
They added Kendrick Bourne, who was a pleasant surprise in 2021, and Nelson Agholor last spring. Meanwhile, Jakobi Meyers continued to carve out a nice role for himself.
Nonetheless, the Patriots lacked a true No. 1 wide receiver that is going to demand the ball and pick up first downs at will.
How will they get there? That’s yet to be seen. The 2022 draft class is loaded with talent inside the top 100 that can instantly come in and provide a spark offensively. If the Patriots fear they cannot draft and develop a wide receiver at the pace they need, there’s certainly the free agency or trade route.
Whatever and however it comes, it doesn’t matter: the Patriots need to add a true WR1 to help Mac Jones and this offense get more explosive.
2. Add more athleticism and speed to an aging linebacker group
Guys like Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins have been franchise cornerstones for a long time and have played in plenty of meaningful football games throughout the years. However, with the way the NFL is trending, their skillsets just don’t cut it at the linebacker position on a down-to-down basis.
It was evident watching the Patriots down the stretch that they just couldn’t keep up with teams like Indianapolis, Buffalo and even Miami, who dominated in the intermediate levels of the field due to their speed at the skill positions. The Patriots will always have an elite defense as long as Bill Belichick is at the helm and his ability to put players in the best spots to succeed isn’t going anywhere, but they need to match up better versus the AFC’s best in the coming years.
The good news? The Patriots seem to already be trending in this direction with getting more athletic at linebacker. In the past, they typically looked for linebackers over the 6-foot-3, 240-pound range but after drafting Cameron McGrone and signing Raekwon McMillan — both coming off torn ACLs — it seems to be a positional group that they are willing to address moving forward.
3. Upgrade the cornerback position while retaining J.C. Jackson
J.C. Jackson is priority number one when it comes to the Patriots’ pending free agents. His ability to lock down an opponent’s top receiver is something that is hard to find on the open market and through the draft.
New England elected not to pay Stephon Gilmore and eventually traded him to Carolina. At that point, however, the CB1 role already belonged to Jackson and he proved he can live up to that label. The money Jackson may demand on the open market may be out of the Patriots’ price range, so using the franchise tag on him and continuing to work things out long-term throughout the offseason may be the most realistic option for the team.
Jalen Mills got better as the season went on, but the believe when he was brought in was that he would be used as a versatile piece before moving over to safety when a guy like Devin McCourty moves on. Mills is certainly a serviceable cornerback but when facing teams like Buffalo or Kansas City, they will find ways to put pressure on him. The same is true for depth options such as Myles Bryant or Joejuan Williams.
The cornerback class in this year’s draft is loaded with man coverage talent and could see six or seven picked inside the top 40. Pairing Jackson with a young cornerback for the future can allow the Patriots to get back to having an elite, consistent secondary again.
4. Figure out both tackle spots in the short and long term
One of the positional groups that hasn’t been talked about enough so far this offseason is offensive tackle and what the Patriots should do at both spots in 2022 and beyond.
The Patriots elected to pick up Isaiah Wynn’s fifth-year option last year, which will account for $10 million on the Patriots’ salary cap. Trent Brown, who was acquired via trade last spring is headed for unrestricted free agency.
It is clear Brown can play the position consistently and seemed to fit right back in along the offensive line after spending two years in Oakland. Wynn has been a solid option at left tackle as well, but he has missed extended amounts of time since entering the league in 2018.
With the draft class loaded with tackle talent, the Patriots should look to retain Brown on a multi-year deal while looking to keep the pipeline flowing. Wynn, after all, is no guarantee to be brought back beyond 2022.
5. Continue to build through the draft
After a few years of poor drafting, the Patriots responded in 2021 by having one of the best drafts across the league: they found quarterback Mac Jones, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, and running back Rhamondre Stevenson in their first few picks. All three played a vital role in helping the team return to the playoffs in 2021. Additionally, edge defender Ronnie Perkins had a redshirt year and looks to provide an impact in 2022.
With their quarterback for the future already in the fold and on a rookie contract for the next four seasons, the Patriots have an opportunity to build around Jones and allow themselves to be a true contender in the AFC for years to come. Linebacker, tackle, cornerback and wide receiver are some of the spots where the team could use an infusion of youth and athleticism.