One year ago, Pro Football Focus advocated for the New England Patriots to tank during the 2021 NFL season to improve their position for the subsequent draft and swing big to get a franchise quarterback. The team did no such thing and instead made some major investments during the offseason to reposition itself back among the best teams in the AFC.
While the Patriots’ playoff trip was a short one and ended with a blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills, the season as a whole was a step in the right direction. PFF’s Top 101 list, honoring the best players in the league, is another reflection of this: after only two players made the cut last February, five have been included this year.
35. G Shaq Mason
New England pieced its offensive line back together this season, and the unit began to really dominate once again, with Shaq Mason playing some of his best football at right guard. Mason has been a run-blocking monster since his college days in a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech. He recorded an 87.2 run-blocking grade this season and allowed 16 pressures across 589 pass-blocking snaps despite blocking for a rookie passer.
After ranking 50th on last year’s list, the Patriots’ starting right right was again included — this year 15 spots higher. Despite playing in front of a rookie quarterback and a changing cast of characters at right tackle, Mason had another quality season as both a run blocker and a pass protector. He continues to be one of the best interior offensive linemen in the game today.
71. CB J.C. Jackson
Few players can lay claim to being the kind of ballhawk that Jackson has proven to be over his NFL career. In 2021, he allowed a 47.8 passer rating into his coverage, just marginally higher than the 45.7 figure he has ceded for his entire NFL career. Just 51.0% of passes thrown into his coverage were caught by the intended receiver, and he tallied 12 pass breakups to go along with eight interceptions.
J.C. Jackson did not only earn his first ever Pro Bowl nomination this season, he also made the PFF Top 101 for the first time in his career. It is not hard to see why: Jackson established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in football, finishing the season with eight interceptions and one pick-six. He furthermore helped New England fill the void created when former CB1 Stephon Gilmore was traded to Carolina in October.
75. C David Andrews
Andrews played 1,149 snaps for the Patriots in 2021, allowing 18 pressures from 654 pass-blocking snaps when including the playoffs. He surrendered only one sack all season and recorded good grades as both a run-blocker and pass-protector.
Despite playing with a new starting quarterback for the second year in a row — one he only had comparatively limited practice time with over the course of training camp — the Patriots’ starting center delivered another impressive season. Andrews was the team’s lone starting lineman to appear in all 18 games and played a significant role in Mac Jones’ transition from the college game to the pro level.
84. OL Michael Onwenu
For some reason, Onwenu was the player forced to make his way to the bench when everybody got healthy on the New England offensive line. His play certainly doesn’t justify that move, as Onwenu has been excellent at multiple positions so far in his NFL career. This past year, he played both left guard and right tackle for at least 200 snaps and allowed 11 pressures over 340 pass-blocking snaps.
Arguably the most interesting name on the list, Onwenu originally started the 2021 season at left guard before being moved to right tackle to help replace an injured Trent Brown. The second-year man played some quality football but was relegated to backup duty upon Brown’s return; at that point, Ted Karras had solidified himself as New England’s starting left guard. With both Brown and Karras headed for unrestricted free agency, however, Onwenu will likely get another chance at a starting spot again.
90. S Adrian Phillips
Phillips was a do-it-all player for the Patriots this season, lining up on the line of scrimmage, in the box, in deep coverage, in the slot and even split wide covering backs and tight ends as a cornerback. Phillips notched four picks and five pass breakups to go along with 31 defensive stops and a forced fumble in 2021.
After what was an encouraging 2020 season already, Phillips made the second-year jump in 2021. The 29-year-old was as reliable a player as any on the New England roster, with his versatility and knack for the football making him a key piece of one of the best defenses in the league. Phillips was originally scheduled to enter free agency in March, but the Patriots already locked him up via a three-year extension through the 2024 season.
Just missed the cut: QB Mac Jones
Jones ended up playing in the Pro Bowl and was by far the best rookie quarterback this season. Jones finished the season with an 80.4 PFF grade — more than 15 points higher than the next-best rookie. His adjusted completion rate (75.0%) was also the best and at one point in the season, he had the lowest percentage of uncatchable, inaccurate passes thrown. He finished the year ranked fifth in that category. Jones was impressively composed for a first-year quarterback but now needs to show that his physical limitations don’t place a cap on how good he can be going forward.
Even though he had his fair share of ups and downs and appeared to hit the dreaded “rookie wall” late in the year, Mac Jones had a very good first NFL season. The 15th overall selection in this year’s draft, he started all 18 games after beating out incumbent Cam Newton over the summer and led New England back to the playoffs. Along the way, he completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 4,033 yards, 24 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.