Patriots
Mark Daniels, The Providence Journal

New England Patriots: Most Impactful New Faces for 2021

The New England Patriots just had their worst season in nearly 20 years. For the first time since 2008, they missed the playoffs with a record of 7-9. Even though they won seven games with a bottom-five roster in the league, the season felt like a complete disaster. From the most COVID opt-outs in the league to signing Cam Newton a month before the season to having the worst tight end and wide receiving core in the league, things were rough in the first year removed from Tom Brady. After the 2020 season was over, Robert Kraft and Coach Belichick went on a spending spree in free agency, dishing out over $150M in guaranteed money. They brought in two tight ends, two wide receivers, and several defensive starters. They had a solid draft that included Christian Barmore, Ronnie Perkins, Rhamondre Stevenson, and of course, Mac N’ Cheese Jones. With several new faces on the roster, which signings or draft picks will have the biggest impact in 2021?

Christian Barmore (DT)

The Alabama defensive tackle was regarded as the best interior defensive lineman in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Patriots traded up and grabbed Barmore with the 38th overall pick. Even though the offense had its woes in 2020, the defense was not much better. Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Devin McCourty anchored the secondary, but one thing was evident with the Patriots’ defense, they could not pressure the quarterback. The Pats only had 24 sacks in 2020, which was bottom-six in the league.

Barmore was the 2021 National Championship Defensive MVP and proved to be an elite disruptor from the defensive tackle position. In the 3-4 defense run by the Patriots, Barmore and Davon Godchaux will anchor the nose tackle position. With the departure of Lawrence Guy to Miami, Barmore should see playing time right away. I have not watched a lot of Godchaux, but I did watch a number of Alabama games. I like Barmore’s combination of power and athleticism. For a guy that’s over 300 pounds, the man is pretty nimble on his feet.

Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor (WR)

The wide receivers for the Patriots had never really been exposed until Brady’s last year in New England. Brady covered up for a lack of talent at the receiver position, but in 2019, Tom was visibly upset with the receiving core put around him. The wideouts got even more exposed in 2020 as the quarterback play of Cam Newton was not close to that of Brady. The Patriots’ receiving core in 2020 was horrendous. Jacobi Meyers was the only consistent threat, N’Keal Harry could not create separation, Julian Edelman only played in six games, and Damiere Byrd was hit or miss.

Part of the New England free-agent spending spree involved two receivers; Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Agoholor is coming off his best season as a pro in his one year with the Raiders. In 2020 Agholor had 48 receptions, 896 yards, and eight touchdowns. Bourne has been solid during his time in San Francisco. In 2020, Bourne had 49 receptions, 667 yards, and two touchdowns. Do I think these guys are studs? Absolutely not? However, Bourne and Agholor paired with Jacobi Meyers will take their receiving core from abysmal to formidable.

Jalen Mills (CB/S)

I like the signing of Mills a lot. Other than Matt Judon, he was the best defensive signing the Patriots made. The Patriots’ secondary was the strength of their team last year, but you can never have too many defensive backs. The thing I like about Jalen Mills is his versatility. He can cover, he can tackle, he can play corner and safety, and most importantly, he takes some pressure off guys like J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore.

Veteran safety Pat Chung retired this past offseason which left a whole in the secondary entering 2021. Mills should be able to fill in for Chung and provide a similar effect on the game. While Mills is listed behind Devin McCourty on the depth chart, Mills will see a high number of defensive snaps. Finally, if things go sideways with Gilmore and his contract dispute, Mills can fill that cornerback role alongside J.C. Jackson.

Matt Judon (OLB/EDGE)

Like I said earlier, the Patriots’ inability to consistently rush the passer was evident in 2020. The sack leader for the Pats last season was Chase Winovich with 5.5. Judon had six sacks with the Ravens in 2020. Judon is listed as the weak side linebacker, but I don’t see him dropping back into coverage any time soon. Similar to Jalen Mills, Judon is a very versatile player. He can rush the passer, can disrupt the running game, and has elite speed off the edge. Kyle Van Noy and Donta Hightower will play the typical linebacker role by both rushing the passer and covering the occasional running back out of the backfield. Judon is at his best on the edge, using his speed to get to the quarterback. Outside of Hightower, I am most excited to watch Judon and the impact he is going to have.

Mac Jones (QB)

I have been very critical of Mac Jones since the Patriots selected the Alabama quarterback in the 2021 draft. Jones was a one-year starter for one of the best college football teams ever assembled, led by legendary head coach Nick Saban. While I have my reservations about Jones, he is an accurate thrower with a decent arm. There have also been multiple reports that Jones has impressed and that the Patriots are headed towards a true quarterback competition between Cam and Mac.

Mac was at his best when he was able to stand in a clean pocket and distribute the ball to elite skill players. The Patriots have assembled an elite offensive line, as PFF ranked the Pats’ o-line third heading into the 2021 season.  They brought back Trent Brown, while Mike Onwenu has proven he can rotate between guard or tackle, David Andrews is an above-average center, and Shaq Mason is a solid guard. As long as Isaiah Wynn can stay healthy, this offensive line is one of the NFL’s best.

The skill players in New England are not elite by any means, but they have massively upgraded at receiver and tight end. Like I mentioned earlier, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne are competent receivers, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are borderline elite tight ends, and the running back position has never been a weakness for New England. When Mac gets the chance to start, he is going got have a good o-line and capable weapons to throw to.

Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry (TE)

As much of the Patriots’ receiving core has been a cause for concern their tight end group the past two seasons has been a joke. With guys like Matt Lacosse, Ryan Izzo, Dalton Keene, and Devin Asiasi, their tight-end production has been non-existent. The last time the Patriots had two elite tight ends was Gronk and Aaron Hernandez. Do I think Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith can recreate the greatness of Gronk and Hernandez? No, but the Patriots’ tight end group went from bottom-three to top-three in the matter of one offseason.

When the Patriots signed Jonnu Smith, I was ecstatic. Smith has not been super productive but has proven to be a vertical threat at the tight end position with elite speed. Last season, Smith had 41 receptions, 448 yards, and eight touchdowns for the Titans. Smith isn’t your typical blocking tight end and probably won’t be used in heavy run packages. I think McDaniels has a plan for Smith, and if Henry sees the majority of snaps at tight end, I could see Smith taking some run at wide receiver. Don’t be surprised to see some jet sweeps with Smith as well, similar to when Cordarrelle Patterson was in New England.

Hunter Henry was the icing on the cake when it came to the free-agent spending spree by New England. The former San Diego/LA Charger is an elite blocker and pass catcher. Henry’s impact on the field is undeniable. In the past two seasons, Henry has had more than 50 receptions, 600 yards, and four touchdowns. The biggest concern for Henry is his ability to stay healthy. In five seasons, Henry has missed 25 games, including all of 2018 with an ACL injury. This offense just massively upgraded a number of positions, and whichever New England quarterback gets the start will have plenty of weapons to throw to.

This is the most excited I have been for an NFL season in a long time. Belichick is out for blood, and this team is hungry to get back on top. With a loaded AFC and upgraded AFC East division, the Patriots have an uphill battle to get back to the playoffs, but this team is going to look a lot different in 2021.

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