Patriots Playoffs: As we march further on into the offseason, and ever closer to the start of the 2021 NFL season, a question on the minds of football fans from Maine to Connecticut has to be addressed: Can the Patriots make the playoffs? What for years has been a foregone conclusion is now going to be a yearly debate, as the team continues to find its identity a year removed from the departure of QB Tom Brady. And these sorts of questions begin to be answered when looking at the roster assembled.
This offseason has been unusual in a number of ways for the Patriots, most notably the amount of free-wheeling spending the team has done bringing in free agents.
While Head Coach Bill Belichick is not known for spending huge sums of money for free agents, his approach has certainly shifted this offseason, with the Patriots leading the charge for spending, according to spotrac. The Patriots 307 million-plus dollar value of contracts given this offseason is solidly in first, outspending the second place 49ers by nearly 60 million dollars more.
Most would probably point to Belichick wanting to prove he can make the playoffs and win without the aid of Tom Brady, who was able to show the world that he didn’t need the future Hall of Fame coach in order to win the Super Bowl. Whatever the case for this shift in offseason philosophy is for the Patriots, these key signings could prove critical to their success this season, and when breaking down the team by each side of the ball, many of these acquisitions, along with some key draft picks, will be expected to start come Week 1.
To say the Patriots’ offense was bad last year is an understatement. This team was downright awful in generating points when they had possession of the ball, and while their run game was good, finishing fourth in rushing yards and sixth in rushing touchdowns last season, their passing game was non-existent.
New England finished with the third fewest passing yards, and second fewest passing touchdowns in the entire league. And while some may attribute that to Cam Newton and claims that he’s not what he once was, what was more apparent was a clear lack of weapons for him to throw to. WRs such as Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd were just unable to create separation between themselves and the secondaries of teams, leading to the sub-par passing performances.
Belichick has clearly recognized the issues in the passing game, going out and picking up in free agency four new weapons for Newton, wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, and tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. Agholor finished his 2020 campaign with 896 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns, which would have made him the leader in both stats last season for the Patriots.
Expect him to immediately slot in as the Patriots number one pass catcher next season and be an integral part of the offense. Kendrick Bourne comes in from San Francisco, where he composed a tandem last season that included Brandon Aiyuk, alongside the stellar George Kittle lining up as a primarily receiving tight end.
Aiyuk would certainly be helpful when teams look to put their best corners against Agholor, and while not the most explosive of receivers, his ability to be used in the slot as well will certainly work within the design of the Patriots offense.
The signings of the two best tight ends in this year’s free agency, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, were definitely the most interesting developments out of this off season for the Patriots. Either would have been seen as a positive signing, but to have both opens up a host of possibilities for the Patriots offense.
Both have showcased abilities to be great receiving targets, and Smith has shown a knack for being able to block as well. The Patriots offense have had great success in the past with two tight end sets, and it seems like Belichick wants to recreate those dominant offenses.
Being able to mix and match Henry and Smith between blocking and receiving can create trouble for defenses, not knowing who to cover in the secondary. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see one of these two line up at receiver throughout games, creating mismatches in the secondary that will allow Newton to find them open.
Elsewhere on the offense, the re-signing of James White for another season is vital in maintaining a threat out of the backfield for the passing game, along with the rushing tandem of Damien Harris and Sony Michel.
The offensive line will look similar to years past, as although they lost Joe Thuney in free agency to the Chiefs, they were able to re-sign center David Andrews, brought back Ted Karras in free agency, and are bringing back Trent Brown following a trade with the Raiders.
And while Belichick has committed to Newton as starter for this coming season, the drafting of QB Mac Jones out of Alabama in the first round sees a succession plan established at the position. If Newton is unable to perform with the new weapons he has, at the very least the Patriots are potentially set at the position for years to come.
Where the Patriots offense struggled this past season, the defense last season was average for the league, following years of league leading performances. They were eighth best against the passing game, but seventh worst when defending the run, pointing to an area that they could find huge improvement in this coming season.
Their free agency moves seemed to head in a direction of bolstering the defense, with the massive signing of former Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon, whose versatility and ability to get to the QB should be a boon to a defense with aging veterans like Dont’a Hightower. Against the run game, the signing of DT Davon Godcaux is huge, as the young interior lineman has been ranked as one of the best at stopping the run among those at his position.
And Kyle Van Noy, who had spent last season with the Miami Dolphins, returns and is expected to be an essential part of the defense, his knowledge of the defense and effort he brings on the field looking to improve the run stopping potential of this team. And let’s not forget the skill set that second round pick Christian Barmore can bring to this team.
His versatility allows him to play either inside or on the edge. His pass rushing capabilities could see him play a huge role on third downs. And perhaps most importantly, his stamina could see him playing a significant amount of snaps, always a positive on a team that stresses giving it your all during the game.
The secondary will continue to be the strongest part of this Pats defense, as Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson both remain as the two primary corners on this team, while Jonathan Jones will continue to bring depth as a third corner in certain packages.
Devin McCourty, ever the constant in this defense, will continue to provide the veteran role alongside safety Adrian Phillips, who had bright spots in coverage throughout last season. The signing of Jalen Mills in free agency brings another layer of versatility and ability to a secondary that benefits from this retooling.
Is This Roster Playoff Caliber?
This team, with their signings and drafting, has rebuilt itself. Belichick and his staff have been able to successfully target their areas of need and have addressed the issues which plagued them all throughout last season. As the squad stands, barring major injuries during the season, has the potential to make the playoffs. However, where they end up in the standings is a lot more variable.
The Bills are now the dominant team in the AFC East, and if the Patriots want to have any hope of winning the division, they’ll have to beat them at least once. The improvements made by the Dolphins this season can’t be ignored, nor can the Jets future with QB Zach Wilson now at the helm.
The usual suspects of top teams in the AFC will also be assumed to make the playoffs, including the Chiefs, Ravens, and now the Cleveland Browns. But with one of the easiest strength of schedules in the league, and a newfound motivation to return to greatness, the hopes of the New England Patriots and their fanbase to make the playoffs have been reinvigorated.