Preseason - 2021 New England Patriots Outlook
Bill Belichick will coach for the 22nd season for the Patriots while having a chip on his shoulder after missing the postseason for the first time since 2008 and seeing Tampa win the Super Bowl title. Ideally, he would love to make a deep run in the playoffs and face Tom Brady for the championship. Belichick has a 244-92 record in New England with six Super Bowls and three other trips to the big game. The Patriots went 30-11 in the postseason since 2001. Belichick needs 49 wins to pass Don Shula for the most in NFL history.
They've won the AFC East 11 times over the past 12 seasons (16 titles over the last 18 years). New England saw its streak of 10 or more wins end at 17 seasons in 2020.
New England fell to 27th in yards gained, which tied their lowest showing in franchise history. They scored 326 points (27th), a mere 94 points fewer than 2019.
Josh McDaniels returns for another season as he looks positioned to take over as head coach when Bill Belichick retires. McDaniels worked in New England's system for 17 seasons after a brief two-year run as head coach for the Broncos (11-17) and one season as the offensive coordinator for the Rams.
The Patriots lost multiple players on their defense due to Covid concern, which led to them slipping to 15th in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed (353 – 128 more than 2019).
New England may go without a defensive coordinator for the third straight season. They brought back Matt Patricia after failing as the head coach for the Lions (13-29-1). Belichick should make the final decisions while relying on his defensive coaches for support.
New England addressed their emptiness at the receiver positions in the offseason. They signed TE Hunter Henry, TE Jonnu Smith, WR Nelson Agholor, and WR Kendrick Bourne. Each of these players forces defenses to defend a more significant part of the field.
Henry has top-tier talent at the tight end position. Injuries cost him some development time, but he should be a massive upgrade for New England in the passing game. Smith gives the Patriots a second tight end who improves the scoring at the goal line, plus he'll test defenses over the long field.
Agholor is a former first-round draft pick (2015) who found his groove last season in the deep passing game for the Raiders. He'll drop some passes, but Agholor will get open at the third level of a defense. In a way, he could be the Ted Ginn type player that Cam Newton had success with in 2015 (44/739/10) and 2016 (53/787/4).
Bourne excels in two areas (run blocking and scoring in the red zone). His opportunity will be small while doing the dirty work at wide receiver for New England.
The Patriots lost G Joe Thuney to the Chiefs. He has been a top-tier player in pass projection over the last three seasons.
The top upgrade on the offensive line was C Ted Karras. He returns to New England after one season in Miami. His ceiling is a league-average player.
Their impact signing on defense was DE Matthew Judon, who abandoned the Ravens' ship. New England brought him in to get after the quarterback and shorten the passing window. They expect him to see most of his action on passing downs.
LB Kyle Van Noy struggled in his one season with the Dolphins. His play was exceptional in 2019 for New England, thanks to his ability to slow down the run and pressure the quarterback.
The Patriots bought into S Jalen Mills' growth as a player after switching to safety in 2020 for the Eagles. His issues in coverage came over the long field, where his lack of speed exposed him. Mills handles himself well in press coverage, which should be a win for New England's red zone defense.
LB Raekwon McMillan posted 105 tackles for the Dolphins in 2018 after getting drafted in the second round. He struggled in coverage while being a nonfactor rushing the quarterback. In 2020, he added no value to the Raiders' defense while seeing minimal action. McMillan projects to be a bench player.
There was a lot of speculation in this year's draft that the 49ers would take QB Mac Jones. New England desperately needed a young upside player to fill the void after losing Tom Brady. Jones slipped to 15th, and the Patriots quickly added him to their roster.
Jones is a pocket passer with no upside in the run game (54/42/2). Most of his college highlights are from long throws while sitting in an uncontested pocket. His ball placement was exceptional while also delivering a very catchable ball. Jones played with multiple pro-level wide receivers, which helped his explosiveness.
His challenge in the NFL will be his decision-making and success when given a smaller passing window. Jones needs to prove he can beat the blitz with a weaker core of receivers, never mind the expected downgrade on the offensive line.
New England traded up to select DT Christian Barmore with the sixth selection in the second round. His quickness, hands, and explosiveness point to an impact player once he falls in line with a team philosophy on defense. He'll upgrade the run defense plus add value to the pass rush. His two shortfalls (vision and decision-making) are coachable tools.
In the third and fourth rounds, the Patriots added a pair of players (DE Ronnie Perkins and RB Rhamondre Stevenson) from Oklahoma.
Perkins comes to the NFL with a worker bee mindset while having multiple questions about his ability to win against strength in the NFL. His speed and quickness don't separate him from the field, but Perkins has the vision and feel for play development to put himself in a position to make plenty of plays. With a free run at ball carriers or the quarterback, Perkins is going to be dangerous. His challenge comes when matched up in tight quarters against bigger bodies.
Stevenson shows nimble feet in tight quarters with better than expected quickness for his size (6'0" and 230 lbs.). He'll finish runs with power and flash stutter steps in space to make defenders miss. Stevenson has sneaky upside as well in the passing game. His ability to feel open space when the quarterback is under duress increases his chances to be on the field on third down.
The Patriots added LB Cameron McGrone and S Joshuah Bledsoe in the fifth and sixth rounds.
McGrone has limited experience in college, which led to his flying under the radar on draft day. His early play at Michigan painted him as an attacking player in the run game with the vision to see the development of plays. His risk comes from his eyes in the backfield style, which leads to mistakes on pass action and misdirection runs. McGrone has risk in coverage, putting him on the sidelines early in his career on passing downs. He is young enough to develop while owing the skill set to be a competitive player at the next level.
Bledsoe has a press cornerback feel, but his lack of speed leaves him exposed over the long field. The Patriots should move him to safety, where his coverage duties will come against slower-footed receivers. Bledsoe should match up well in slot coverage in the red zone, where a small passing window helps his game. His game needs growth in tackling while bringing risk defending the run.
The last two dances in this year's draft went to T Will Sherman (6.13) and WR Tre Nixon (7.15).
Sherman needs to make up for his weakness in strength to fire off the snap. His aggressiveness can lead to him opening a losing window in pass protection. He works hard with the quickness to excel in a fast-hitting run game. Sherman will be better served by developing patience to his attack after adding more power to his game.
New England took a swing at Nixon as a potential slot receiving option. He shows the ability to create out of his release with the route running ability to test a defense over the short areas of the field and surprise in the deep passing game. His biggest question will be his hands while under duress.
The Patriots climbed to fourth in rushing yards (2,346) thanks to Cam Newton adding value to the run game. Their ball carriers gained 4.7 yards per carry with 20 touchdowns and 13 runs over 20 yards. New England fell to 30th in passing yards (3,124) with 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Their offensive line allowed 37 sacks.
LT Isaiah Wynn
After getting drafted 23rd overall in 2019, Wynn blew out his left Achilles in mid-August, costing him his rookie season. In 2019, a toe issue led to eight missed games plus another seven contests last year with an ankle issue and a knee injury. When on the field, Wynn shined in run blocking while playing well in pass projection. The Patriots need him to stay healthy to reach his potential.
LG Mike Onwenu
Despite coming to New England as a sixth-round pick in 2020, Onwenu made 16 starts at four different positions. He allowed minimal pressure on the quarterback while excelling in the run game. Onwenu should be a good fit for a quick-hitting power run game. He'll own his small piece of real estate on the field if tested with a one-on-one fight. His first step limits his overall value and ability to follow through with his blocks at the second level of the defense. Pass-rushers will test him in space and with counters.
C David Andrews
Andrews is another player from the University of Georgia who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015. In 2019, he missed the whole year due to a blood clot in his lung. Andrews suited up for 12 games last year due to a thumb injury and calf issue. He lost his rhythm in pass protection with some regression in the run game.
RG Shaquille Mason
Mason signed a five-year $50 million extension in 2018. Run blocking has always been his strength, which played well with Newton starting at quarterback. Mason tends to be an asset in pass protection despite a step back in play in 2020.
RT Justin Herron
Herron relies on his footwork to gain position in his blocks, but his hands are trailing. He has a nimble, athletic feel that should offer more upside with better technique and coaching. Out of the gate, Herron will struggle with power despite being in the game with his strength. He'll battle multiple players for the final spot on the Patriots' offensive line.
New England has four players that grade well with their strength coming in the game. The Patriots upgrade their receiving core, which bodes well for their passing game. Their pass blocking should be league average at a minimum.
New England will be in the fight to compete again in the AFC East. They own an edge with their coaching staff while looking positioned to be a top defense and have success running the ball. Last year the Patriots ran the ball 53.3 percent of the time.
QB Mac Jones, NE - Super Sleeper (high risk/potential)
Jones is another quarterback coming into the NFL in 2021 with a short resume of success. In a limited role in 2019, he passed for 1,503 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. His star shined last year when Jones led Alabama to the national championship. He completed 77.4 percent of his passes for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns and four interceptions. His highlight game (464/5) came against Ohio State in the title game.
Fantasy Outlook: Jones found an ideal home for his NFL career. He'll have a great coaching staff to help build his foundation. For now, the fantasy community needs to watch his progress this summer and listen to the coaching speak out of New England.
UPDATE: Jones completed 13-of-19 passes during his preseason debut, showing off good accuracy and leading his receivers well. It's probably only a matter of time before Bill Belichick gives the rookie a shot due to Cam Newton's erratic accuracy. View Jones as an intriguing late-rate target in Superflex drafts.
QB Jarrett Stidham, LVR - Not Draft Worthy
Over three years at Auburn, Stidman passed for 7,217 yards with 48 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Over his final two years in college, Stidham minimized the damage in interceptions (11) while lacking a top opportunity in the passing game (27.4 passes per game). His best year came in 2017 (3,158 passing yards and 18 TDs). Even with 103 rushes that season, he gained only 153 yards (1.5 yards per rush) with four TDs.
In his two seasons as a backup quarterback for the Patriots, Stidham completed 50 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and four interceptions. This year, he'll only be a placeholder as the backup quarterback until Mac Jones is ready to steal the keys to the offense.
QB Cam Newton, --- - Gamble (high risk)
In the New England area, Newton didn't do much to endear the Patriots fans after losing Tom Brady. Their fans have a long history of winning, so anything short of that was a failure.
Newton finished with only eight touchdowns while averaging only 177 passing yards per game. He set a career-high in his completion rate (65.8), which is impressive when considering the weakness in the receiving core. He ran the ball well (137/592) while making up for his shortfall in scoring via the air with 12 rushing touchdowns.
Newton has a winning record (75-63-1), with his best success coming in three seasons (12-4, 15-1, and 11-5). He passed for over 300 yards in two games (397/1 and 365/1) while only having more than one passing touchdown in one contest (242/3).
Fantasy Outlook: The addition of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith will be a win in red zone scoring. New England now has a deep threat with Nelson Agholor. If N'Keal Harry can become relevant, Newton has the tools to pass for over 4,000 yards. The Patriots have a talented incoming rookie quarterback, but his window to start will only come with failure by Newton. In the early draft season, he has an ADP of 202 as the 32nd quarterback draft, which is foolish. His ceiling is a top-five quarterback while owning job loss risk.
RB Damien Harris, NE - Bye Week Fill-in
The running position had an excellent season for the Patriots. They gained 4.8 yards per carry, but they only scored eight touchdowns due to Cam Newton sniping plenty of scores. Their backs had a sharp decline in production in the passing game (95/772/6 on 122 targets) after the change at quarterback. Despite the appearance, New England still finished with 33.6 percent of their completions to running backs and 25 percent of their passing yards, which fell in line with how the Patriots ran their offense over the previous two seasons.
Last year, I owned Harris in many leagues with the thought that Sony Michel lost his explosiveness and had injury risk. Harris ended up missing the first three games due to a finger issue that required surgery.
Over the next nine games, he gained 743 combined yards with two touchdowns and five catches on 137 carries. Harris gained an impressive 5.0 yards per rush while gaining over 100 yards in three contests (17/100, 16/102/1, and 22/121). His lack of value in the passing game was a strike, and Cam Newton stole rushing scoring show in close. His season ended in Week 14 when Harris suffered an ankle injury.
Fantasy Outlook: The running back situation looks cloudy again in 2021, with Harris battling Michel for the early-down touches. James White should regain the lion's share of the catches while working as the change of pace option when game score gets out of line. This leaves Harris as a dull fantasy running back option despite offering plenty of upside. His early ADP is 106 as the 36th running back drafted. I wouldn't view him as a viable RB3/flex play unless Michel were out of the equation. He has a chance at 1,000 combined yards with short touchdowns and catches.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson, NE - Dynasty Only
Despite limited touches (193) over two seasons with the Sooners, Stevenson does bring intrigue to an NFL franchise. He has a fullback build (6'0" and 245 lbs.) with surprising speed (4.63 forty). Stevenson finished with 1,478 combined yards with 13 touchdowns and 28 catches with Oklahoma. His 2020 season was cut short by five games due to suspension (failed drug test). He started his college career at Cerritos College (2,286 combined yards with 16 touchdowns and 13 catches in 2018).
His path at the next level will start as a short-yardage, goal-line player. If given the right opportunity in a high-scoring offense, Stevenson has the tools to exceed expectations. The key is staying within his body frame and focusing on winning between the tackles.
Fantasy Outlook: Stevenson is a player to keep an eye on in training camp. He needs an injury or two to receive a playable fantasy opportunity.
UPDATE: Stevenson put on an impressive showing in New England's preseason opener, rumbling for over 120 yards, and a pari of TDs. That included a 91-yard blast. Stevenson is bringing back memories of a young LeGarrette Blount, but unlike Blount, Stevenson can catch the ball quite well. The rookie is really picking up traction as a late-round flier and could make Sony Michel expendable.
Other Options: Brandon Bolden, J.J. Taylor
RB Sony Michel, MIA - Deep-league Only
The Patriots limited Michel's snaps over the first three games, leading to 196 combined yards and one touchdown and two catches on 26 carries. He broke a couple of long runs in Week 3 (9/117 with two catches for 23 yards, setting up some excitement with his value/opportunity. Unfortunately, Michel missed the next seven games with a quad issue while only have one snap in Week 12.
Over his last five games, he gained 367 combined yards with one touchdown and five catches on 53 rushes. Michel had six runs over 20 yards on his 86 chances compared to seven over his 473 touches in 2018 and 2019. New England didn't pick up his option for the fifth year, which may be a sign of a short role in 2021.
Fantasy Outlook: His usage almost matches how New England featured Harris in 2020. Michel showed scoring ability over his first 29 games (13 touchdowns) while regaining a bounce in his step last year. He'll get his chances, but Harris should lead the team in carries. Michel will be tough to start in fantasy leagues while having a handcuff feel. UPDATE: If fourth-round rookie Rhamondre Stevenson continues to impress, Michel's days in New England could be numbered. He's becoming a risky proposition in fantasy drafts.
8/25 UPDATE: Traded to the LA Rams! He'll likely challenge Darrell Henderson for the lead the team in carries this season. 150 carries 700 yards and 6 TDs with 20 receptions seems like a reasonable target for a player with his pedigree. The Rams give up a couple of late round conditional picks to solve the problem created by the Cam Akers injury.