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Are the Patriots better now than they were in 2021?

After free agency and the draft, are the 2022 Patriots in a better spot than they were after their playoff loss in Buffalo?

New England Patriots vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

There’s a great many questions in this life we live that are less than pleasant to answer, and indeed, may cause you, when asked, to respond “...the hell, man?”. Questions like, “Is my wardrobe already out of style?”. Questions like, “How long is it really OK to live like I’m in Workaholics even though it is well after college?”. Questions like, “Do I need to maybe expand my culinary palette beyond the three food groups of Five Guys, Chipotle, and takeout pizza?”

And of course, the most timeless question of them all:

As of right now, Haddaway’s lyrics still never actually answered the question. Man’s left us hanging for going on 30 years now. WTF, bro?

Anyway, we didn’t come here today to talk mid-90s club songs made world famous by SNL sketches. What had happened was, I was minding my own business, listening to The Athletic Football Show, and a simple little question from the show as it relates to our New England Patriots started grinding my gears:

Are the Patriots better now than we were in 2021?

There’s a baker’s dozen ways to attack this question, so it felt worth lobbing to the Twitter TL to see what everyone else thought, which is also a handy way to make sure you’re not the one taking crazy pills.

400-something votes seems like a decent enough sample size to get a vibe for where the fanbase is at on this. Here’s how it shook out:

Pretty decisive! For all practical intents and purposes, two thirds of Patriots Nation is confident the team has improved between the free agency and the draft, one fourth thinks it is bound for regression from an already supremely embarrassing nightmare-where-you’re-onstage-not-wearing-pants end to the 2021 season, and almost (Dave Grohl voice) 1-in-10 of you were either pissed at the way the offseason as a whole’s been going, or pissed that you read the question, thought about it, and concluded, “Well, that’s 27 seconds of my life I’ll never get back”.

Since this is Pats Pulpit, though, and I’m still (unsuccessfully) lobbying to change our official catchphrase to “Pats Pulpit: Cut the S--t”, the question of whether this team is better than the 2021 squad deserves a deep dive. A deep dive in search of the truth.

So, here’s the best way to tackle this (no dad joke intended):

We’re going to run down every position group, and the coaching staff doesn’t get off the hook either. Then we’re going to use the simplest of metrics to figure out where each part of the roster is at, relative to last season: are they better, worse, or is it a push?

Maybe if we can get that figured out, we can figure out where the 2022 Patriots stand as a whole. You know, in the same way that in order to actually get the garage cleaned out, you generally have to make a big old mess first.

Starting with the man, the myth, the dad bod legend himself, and the other two guys tasked with slinging the rock: Mac Jones and the quarterback room.

Quarterbacks

Better, worse, or push: Better.

This may seem like Kool-Aid right off the bat, but hear the argument out. Even if the Patriots get the literal EXACT same production out of Mac Jones that they did in 2021, that’d be the same Mac Jones that almost had a 4,000-yard regular season as a rookie, tossed 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, completed 67.6 percent of his passes, and added 129 yards on the ground.

Also kind of funny: Mac checked in with a 2021 PFF grade of 79.3, a couple points ahead of the 77.5 grade for... Patrick Mahomes, and barely a point and some change behind Matt Stafford’s 80.7.

(yes, we’re partially LOL-ing at PFF, but don’t let Mac’s lack of Brett Favre/Patrick Mahomes YOLO bombs distract you from the part where he’s often both accurate and very, very good at making the right decision, most of the time)

And while, yes, we’re in “best shape of my life” season right now, if any of these reports coming out about Mac Jones bombing it deep and taking on more of a leadership role with increased confidence and swagger and feeling more comfortable calling out dudes when they’re not running routes to perfection, expecting Jones to equal his ‘21 performance seems like a pretty freakin’ low bar. Add in Bailey Zappe, whose record-setting college production would seem to at least indicate some higher upside than Jarrett Stidham — who was, objectively speaking, trash — and that’s a better QB situation that Jones and Brian Hoyer alone.

Wide Receivers

Better, worse, or push: Better.

Both of the following can be true: yes, there’s no Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson, or true big-dog superstar wide receiver on this roster right now.

Even if you don’t have the BFG-9000 in Doom, though, it’s still extremely good to have a s--tload of other useful guns at your disposal that you can whip out as needed.

The latter is where the Patriots are at right now. The wide receivers, as previously mentioned, may lack star power, but they’re a considerably deeper group than last year and pack some serious potential for high-upside performances.

You could even say that two of the WR additions were the biggest splashes the Patriots made this offseason, with the additions of former division pain in the butt DeVante Parker and the fastest receiver in the draft in Tyquan Thornton. And both of those men, with their respective gifts, just might be able to offer the Pats a couple dimensions that didn’t really exist in the 2021 offense — namely, a rocked-up 6-foot-3 downfield target that’s been one of the NFL’s best contested-catch receivers over the past few years, and a burner that (in theory, anyway) can scream downfield with the best of them and maybe be that fabled take-the-top-off receiver that everyone’s been lusting after in the Patriots offense for a decade-plus.

This group has proven talent, lots of potential to improve, and depth for days. It’s pretty inarguably an upgrade on 2021’s group.

Let’s move on to the other pass-catchers...

Tight Ends

Better, worse, or push: Push

This one’s about as straightforward as it gets. No real additions or subtractions personnel-wise to speak of. Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are both back for Year 2 with the Patriots, and behind them, objectively disappointing draft picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene are still TEs 3 and 4 (not necessarily in that order). Sometimes, “it is what it is” is a good thing. This group’s fine rolling into 2022 as is.

Running Backs

Better, worse, or push: Better

You know that meme where the guy and the girl are in bed, and she’s thinking “He’s probably thinking about other girls”? That’s us, the guy, imagining Year 2 of finding ways to get Rhamondre Stevenson the rock on the ground and in the air.

Rookie running backs almost never get thrown into the frying pan in New England right away, and in his rookie campaign, ‘Mondre actually ended up getting 133 carries to Damien Harris’s 202. Ironically, both Rhamondre and Damien ended the season with the exact same yards per carry at 4.6.

Then there’s the rookie reinforcements. Say what you want about Bill Belichick consistently throwing down Day 2 and Day 3 picks on the position that the nerds will say doesn’t matter, picking up the fastest running back in the draft in South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong AND another hit-em-right-in-the-mouth bruiser in South Carolina’s Kevin Harris makes this room preposterously deep. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the eventual return of legendary scat back James White at some point in 2022. Legendary for both his performance in the Super Bowl, and for being the fantasy football sub that’ll get you precisely 11 points every week.

Jokes aside, this gang was good to begin with, and after the draft, it’s stacked.

On to the big boys up front:

Offensive line

Better, worse, or push: Worse

(deep breath) This is going to be a chippy one.

Or maybe it won’t, depending on what you thought about one of Belichick’s more “...did I hit my head again? Am I reading that right?” trades lately.

Shaq Mason, who was pretty regularly hailed by tape guys and advanced stat dorks alike as one of the best interior offensive linemen in football, to the Tampa Bay Tom Bradys for a fifth-round pick.

Whether the move was motivated by needing to clear some cap space (which the Patriots at that time certainly did) or was a result of Bill Belichick’s proprietary formula for “this guy isn’t playing like what I’m paying him anymore” is honestly kind of irrelevant in this context. Unless Cole Strange turns out to be a borderline Pro Bowl caliber guard right out of the gate, shipping Mason down to Florida objectively made this team worse. The line is still very, very good and a huge strength of the team — PFF ranked the Patriots boys up front as seventh best in the entire league — it’s just that projecting Strange to go full HulkSmash on NFL defensive linemen out of the gate is an absurdly high bar for any rookie.

Other than that, I think I can speak for the class when I say that Michael Onwenu, much like Batman, has no limits, and should be able to grow into a monstrous role at guard, while returning Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn at tackle (however they end up lining up) and David Andrews at center is about as good as “more of the same” can get.

Ted Karras was a super-sub, and while it’s certainly useful to have a large human that can play all three interior offensive line spots, let’s stop acting like him going to the Cincinnati Bengals is some kind of death blow that’ll bring this whole Jenga tower down.

That takes care of the offense. Let’s move on to the defense, where things are somewhere between not as rosy and “our pet’s heads are falling off”.


Defensive Line

Better, worse, or push: Push

Another easy one. Just like tight ends, the 2022 D-line will be the literal exact same thing as they rolled out in 2021, unless you think sixth-round DT Sam Roberts is a diamond in the rough. In the meantime, DT Christian Barmore (who, full disclosure, I was pounding the table for at Pick 15 instead of Mac Jones in 2021) is poised to keep racking up some of the best pressure stats this side of Aaron Donald, and the depth chart should look pretty stout between Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise Jr., Lawrence Guy, and maybe, just maybe, a healthy Henry Anderson. We don’t have to talk about Byron Cowart. You can’t make me.

Edge Defenders

Better, worse, or push: worse*

*technically, but probably not really. You’ll see.

This edge group saw a few very high-profile (by Patriots standards, anyway) departures. As you probably remember, Chase Winovich managed to land himself in one of the most exclusive VIP doghouses in recent memory before getting the Jamie Collins treatment and getting shipped off to the Cleveland Browns. Kyle Van Noy’s also packed up and moved on to the west coast, and while “The front 7 has to get more athletic!” got more repeated in New England last season than every Olivia Rodrigo lyric combined, it’s still true.

Before anyone freaks out, we’re including Van Noy in the Edge Defenders because he lined up more outside than inside last season. We’ll deal with Jamie Collins as an off-ball linebacker for the same reason.

The good news is, the edge defender room still not only packs a Pro Bowl talent and double-digit sack guy in Matthew Judon, but also has been stockpiling depth like health potions in Zelda for years now. Josh Uche, arguably the most maddeningly perplexing man on this team, is going into a put-up-or-shut-up season, and behind him, the team still packs some formidable-on-paper options that got the classic Patriots redshirt year in ‘21 third-rounder Ronnie Perkins and 2020 third-rounder Anfernee Jennings.

To keep with the spirit of the rules, we have to say this group is at least unproven, outside of Judon and maybe Uche. They could be just what the doctor ordered, it’s just, we have to see it first.

Linebackers

Better, worse, or push: worse

Sheesh, if you thought the last one took some imagination... off-ball linebacker may have some of the highest variance on this entire team this season.

As of right now, it’d appear that all of you bemoaning the fact that Dont’a Hightower isn’t Darius Leonard or Fred Warner or prime Luke Kuechly have gotten your wish. Boomtower’s still a free agent, and somehow he hasn’t been gobbled up by the Las Vegas Raiders and doesn’t appear to be in a huge rush to commit to football for 2022.

Now! When your Donatello of defense, the green-dot-wearing, alignment-fixing, check-making, playmaker literally named Mr. February is no longer on the roster, and the hope is that a fellow ‘Bama alums in Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan, maybe Cameron McGrone, and a hopefully-ascendent Ja’Whaun Bentley can slot right in and not miss a beat... that’s certainly a splash-the-pot bet that you’re right.

Also, we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t point out that pretty much all the safeties on this team take on linebacker-ish duties at times, most notably “linebacker that just stopped growing early” Adrian Phillips, but also Kyle Dugger and even Devin McCourty, depending on down and distance and matchup and all that. Jabrill Peppers’ size and skillset also could be a salivating option for those that miss Patrick Chung’s presence in the box. So, there’s that. Depending on whether the defense actually ends up changing in a significant way or not, this group’s more or less a complete wild-card.

Now, time to take our medicine:

Cornerbacks

Better, worse, or push: worse, emphatically

Whoo boy.

The good news is... slot master Jonathan Jones should be ready to rock after he was already back on the field for OTAs and looking recovered from his shoulder injury.

The bad news? Just a Pro Bowl-sized hole at one outside cornerback spot, and an overall approach to the pass-coverage aspect of defense that appears to be some Long Island Iced Tea of game plan-specific platoons and doing the same yard-sale thing the Patriots did with wide receivers in 2020, which was pretty much, “This is what we can afford, so, this is what we’re doing”.

Put simply, it’s a scary spot to be in when passing games across the AFC are pretty much all-guns infinite-ammo and the Patriots’ cornerbacks consist of Jalen Mills, hoping for prime or close-to-prime Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, and a pair of rookies in Marcus and Jack Jones that may pop a lot on tape and in OTAs, but, y’know, have yet to take an NFL snap.

Safeties

Better, worse, or push: Better

Finally, a defensive unit that’s actually improved!

Or, at the very least, is rolling pretty deep with proven talent.

After bringing back Devin McCourty for one more rodeo this offseason, and signing former first-round pick Jabrill Peppers for the low, low price of... money, an ascending Kyle Dugger and a proven Adrian Phillips round out the starters on a unit that packs more versatility that almost anywhere else on this team. These guys have the flexibility cover deep and come down and lay the lumber in the box if needed, and if New England does switch to more zone and/or three-safety Big Nickel looks, a lá a few years ago with the D-Mac/Pat Chung/Duron Harmon era, it looks like they’ve got the tools in the toolbox to do it.

And now, to wrap up with the category that, for most if not all of you, arguably swings this whole thing: the coaching staff.


Coaches

Better, worse, or push: Worse

Let’s be real, this conversation is all about one factor and one factor only: where you fall on the “In Belichick We Trust” scale. Nothing else really matters.

Josh McDaniels leaving? Either a crisis if you think the game’s passed Bill by, or just the latest Patriots assistant to move on and another protege for Bill to develop if you think Bill’s still got his fastball.

Matt Patricia and Joe Judge coming back? Same. There’s pretty much no question that Bill thinks both men are capable of doing whatever he’s tasked them with doing. The question is if Bill’s always thinking 10 steps ahead like everyone used to say he did, or if he’s bringing a knife to a gunfight and doesn’t know it yet.

Same goes for all the assistant coaches like Carmen Bricillo, Mick Lombardi, or Ivan Fears that either went out to Patriots Las Vegas or decided it was time to hang up the whistle, in Fears’ case. Does it suck to lose that many good football minds at the same time? Yes. Do we think that Bill Belichick is capable of filling those spots with coaching prospects he can build up to implement his vision, like he has for two decades now?

.......probably also yes?

With all that said, though, losing an offensive coordinator like Josh McDaniels that’s proven he can cook up play designs for quarterbacks with wildly different skill sets that vary all the way from the tried-and-true crossing routes to ohmygod-that-was-awesome double passes is pretty much impossible to ignore. And until we either get some clarity on who’s going to fill his shoes or see this offense in action, that loss has to go in the books as a net negative.

(although you do have to admit, it’s pretty funny that half our fanbase would’ve put Josh McDaniels on the first Southwest out of town on their own dime in November, and now a not-small portion of those are like IT’S AN INSURMOUNTABLE LOSS, I’M TELLIN YA!)


Final answer: looking at this team holistically, and even though a few position groups in particular look really, really strong, the 2022 New England Patriots just don’t appear to be a better football team than last year’s squad.

Everyone: he’s going to say “but”

BUT!

There’s also undeniably a couple spots where the Patriots have the potential to improve on 2021 in a hurry — and like we said above in the In-Bill-We-Trust-O-Meter, they’re one of only a handful of teams in the NFL that can realistically expect that a coach may be able to squeeze more out of the team than the sum of their parts might suggest.

One’s pretty obvious. If Mac Jones shows some marked improvement as a quarterback — whether it’s because of schematic tweaks, better weapons, or just flat-out understanding the game of professional football better than he did as a rookie — the best teams are the ones that are always a threat to sling the ball all over the yard and score points in bunches, and the quicker Mac can get to lighting it up from anywhere on the field, the margin for error this team has goes up exponentially.

Most importantly, though, even if you think Bill Belichick needs to live in the now a bit more than he does, at some point, he’s still Bill freakin’ Belichick. This is a man who’s defined his entire career, even going back to the New York Giants days, by doing more with the players and cap space he’s been given to play with than anyone else in football history. Does the defense look kind of scary, but not in a good way? Yes. Does the offense look like a work in progress, albeit an extremely promising and exciting one? Also yes.

If there’s reasons to believe the Patriots can play above .500 football, that’s it.