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2021 Team Report: New England Patriots

Last updated: Fri, Jun 4

Offensive Philosophy

Bill Belichick is often praised as a defensive genius, but it's less often acknowledged that no coach has run as many different offensive systems during his career, either. Belichick has spoken before about how he tries to anticipate league trends by a few years so he can get talented players before their skills are in demand, and there are several examples of him pulling this off, from Wes Welker leading the league's slot revolution to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez presaging the rise of receiving tight ends. With that in mind, expect New England's offensive system to be less a function of any specific philosophy other than maximizing the skills of the players on the field. Should Cam Newton remain the starter, this would mean lots of designed quarterback runs. If Mac Jones takes over, this might shift to an emphasis on quick passes over the middle and more runs from the running backs, instead.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Cam Newton
Backup(s): Mac Jones [R], Jarrett Stidham

Starting QB: Cam Newton is, according to head coach Bill Belichick, still the starter despite the team selecting Mac Jones with the No. 15 pick, but Newton struggled a ton in his first year as a Patriot, so if Jones comes in and shines, it would shock nobody if Newton took a seat. To be fair, the struggles weren't all on Newton, given that multiple teammates opted out of the season, and then missing multiple weeks himself with positive COVID-19 tests. Belichick has talked about how much he likes what Newton can do and what he worked through (no offseason, COVID, new playbook) so he has a shot to keep the job.

Backup QB: Alabama's Mac Jones became the No. 15 pick of the draft after having been a person linked to the Patriots for a while. They didn't have to do a thing to get him, as he dropped into their lap. Head coach Bill Belichick said that Cam Newton is still the starter but that if Jones - or less likely, Stidham - performs well, they are in the mix. Jones is accurate and coming off a big 2020, takes care of the ball and places it well on his throws. He isn't always the most poised under pressure, and can get antsy. So if Newton looks good, a year behind on the bench could be a big help for Jones' development. Jarrett Stidham hasn't shown a ton in a pair of years in the NFL, though he is a serviceable backup.

Running Backs

Starter: Damien Harris, Sony Michel
Backup(s): James White, Brandon Bolden, J.J. Taylor, Rhamondre Stevenson [R]
Fullback(s): Jakob Johnson

Starting RB: Damien Harris was the primary running back for New England, mostly as an in between the tackles and guy who comes out on third down. Harris has explosion through the gaps, and could see more touches overall this season if he is healthy. Sony Michel has health issues of his own, and missed a serious chunk of 2020. Michel has shown some good speed and toughness running, but cannot stay out of the trainers room and with Harris showing more talent, is in danger of being severely sidelined.

Backup RBs: Nobody really expected James White to be brought back given the decline in his production and carries, but re-sign he did. Aside from potential third down pass catching, White won't see a lot of work, though with Sony Michel's injury history, he might see more than we expect. Brandon Boldin opted out of the 2020 season, but will return and take up his special teams role again. JJ Taylor was inactive most of last season and will have a tough time making the active roster in 2021. Rhamondre Stevenson, the 120th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, has good size and can run during both early downs and short yardage situations, but it may take a year - and Sony Michel plus James White - leaving next offseason for him to truly gain a consistent job or carries.

Fullback: Johnson has been success story from the NFL's International Pathway Player Program. He took over for James Develin after Develin suffered a neck injury in 2019 that forced him to retire in 2020. Johnson has improved and should be considered the favorite to win the fullback job, however if 2020 third-round pick Dalton Keene can show the ability to play fullback while still providing depth at tight end, he could save the team a roster spot be the choice over Johnson.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne
Backups: Jakobi Meyers, N'Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski, Matthew Slater, Kristian Wilkerson, Isaiah Zuber, Tre Nixon [R], Marvin Hall

Starting WRs: Nelson Agholor had a great 2020 in Las Vegas, and now becomes the primary downfield target for Cam Newton or whoever is under center for the Patriots in 2021. He received a two-year, $22 million dollar deal this offseason. New England will continue to run a lot, but Agholor gives them a legitimate weapon at receiver now that Julian Edelman is gone. Kendrick Bourne is very versatile and can line up inside or out, which should be a nice compliment to Agholor. He received a three-year, $15 million deal, so he's likely to start.

Backup WRs: Jakobi Meyers can work the middle of the field, and after coming off the bench in Week 6 of last year, he consistently showed he had enough talent to perform at a pretty high level. With Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne in place, though, Meyers will have to fight on his hands to get looks. N'Keal Harry has been a massive bust considering where he was drafted and there have been a lot of rumors that he might get moved before the summer, or at the very least, before it ends. Gunner Olszewski was pressed into duty last year, while Matthew Slater returned primarily because he is a leader in the locker-room and Belichick loves him. Kristian Wilkerson and Isaiah Zuber are camp bodies with little upside. Tre Nixon was a late Day Three pick, a good but not great athlete who has good size.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry
Backups: Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, Matt LaCosse

Jonnu Smith signed this offseason and should see a lot of work inside the 20s for New England, while Hunter Henry comes over from the Las Angeles Chargers where he saw a lot of work from rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. While on the surface this has echos of Aaron Hernandez/Rob Gronkowski, neither tight end is a lock to be quite that good, and Cam Newton has a long way to go in order to be as good as Tom Brady was at the time. They should both see some significant targets, but they are likely to stifle each other's upside. After dealing with injury during the 2019 season, Matt LaCosse opted out of the 2020 season and will battle with Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene for what might be the last two roster spots at the position.

Place Kicker

Nick Folk, Roberto Aguayo, Quinn Nordin [R]: Folk stepped in mid-camp and took over the kicker job last year fifth-round pick Justin Rohrwasser was disappointing. He was with the team in 2019 and made them look wise for signing him with a strong season, making 26-of-28 field goal attempts, making 12-of-13 attempts from 40-49 yards and 2-of-3 from 50+ yards. He is going undrafted, but Folk is almost assured of being the Week 1 kicker because he got 1.225 million guaranteed on his one-year deal. If the Patriots offense improves and Folk doesn't drop off from last year's form, he could be a startable fantasy kicker, so put him on your list of emergency last round picks and waiver wire speed dial if your kicker disappoints. Aguayo is trying to rehabilitate his standing in NFL circles and could get consideration for a job elsewhere with a good camp.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Gunner Olszewski

Gunner Olszewski occupies something of a sweet spot among return specialists. He's good enough that his roster spot isn't really in question, but not so good that the team will be tempted to reduce his special teams involvement to feature him more on offense.

Punt Returners: Gunner Olszewski

Gunner Olszewski occupies something of a sweet spot among return specialists. He's good enough that his roster spot isn't really in question, but not so good that the team will be tempted to reduce his special teams involvement to feature him more on offense.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Isaiah Wynn, LG Michael Onwenu, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, RT Trent Brown
Key Backups: OL Ted Karras, OL Justin Herron, OL Will Sherman, OL Yodny Cajuste

Right tackle Trent Brown was traded from the Raiders, and rejoins a familiar system in New England. Left guard Michael Onwenu was a draft steal last season and could be the next for Pro Bowl honors. Ted Karras returns to compete with David Andrews at the center spot. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn and right guard Shaq Mason hope to stay healthy. Assuming they all avoid injury, this line holds a top-ten grade.

Team Defense

The Patriots D/ST was a fantasy MVP in the first half of 2019 and they came out of the game strong with two scores in the first three games last year, but faded save for a 45-0 blowout win over the Chargers late in the season. The run defense should improve this year after offseason investment and the team also spent big on Matt Judon to anchor the edge rush. D'Onta Hightower will also be back after opting out of 2020, so this unit could be underrated for fantasy at their ADP which usually puts them among the last D/STs to be taken in a typical draft. They will open with Miami and the Jets, so consider the Patriots a top target if you are waiting until late to take your D/ST.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Lawrence Guy, NT Davon Godchaux, DE Henry Anderson
Backups: DT Christian Barmore [R], DE Deatrich Wise, DE Montravius Adams, DE Bill Murray, DE Carl Davis, DT Byron Cowart, DT Akeem Spence, DT Nick Thurman

Starting DL: The Patriots appear to be moving back to a 3-4 base defense. This group lacked depth a year ago but made some improvements with the additions of Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson. Lawrence Guy has proven to be a consistent source of tackles with at least 54 combined tackles during his four seasons in New England. Godchaux had some productive years in Miami and should provide a boost to the run defense. Anderson isn't likely to replicate his 7-sack season from 2018 but has a bit more upside than most 3-4 defensive ends if he can stay healthy.

Backup DL: The key player to watch in this group is 2nd round pick Christian Barmore, who could become an impact player. Deatrich Wise figures to see plenty of snaps on passing downs but hasn't been able to take advantage with just 4.5 sacks over the past two years. Adam Butler left in free agency and the only replacement signed was Montravius Adams, who didn't show much in his time with the Packers. Byron Cowart, Bill Murray, and Akeem Spence all return to compete for depth spots.

Linebackers

Starters: OLB Kyle Van Noy, ILB Donta Hightower, ILB JaWhaun Bentley, OLB Matt Judon
Backups: LB Chase Winovich, LB Josh Uche, LB Terez Hall, LB Raekwon McMillan, LB Anfernee Jennings, LB Ronnie Perkins [R], LB Cameron McGrone [R]

Starting LBs: The Patriots upgraded their pass rush with the addition of Matt Judon as well as the return of Kyle Van Noy, who was a surprising cut by the Dolphins. Judon has been a strong 2-way defender for the Ravens while averaging nearly 8 sacks per year over the past four seasons. Van Noy also has a proven track record of success in New England and should make a seamless transition. Inside, the Patriots will welcome back veteran Donta Hightower after he opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid. He may not provide much help for fantasy players but he is a significant boost to the run defense. JaWhaun Bentley appeared overmatched at times last year as the team's primary middle linebacker and could be in danger of losing his starting job at some point.

Backup LBs: Chase Winovich was impressive last year and offers the versatility to play inside or outside. Josh Uche also has some intriguing potential and could develop into an impact pass rusher eventually. Terez Hall returns to provide depth inside while Raekwon McMillan has starting experience but lacks cover skills. Anfernee Jennings is another young edge player whose primary strength is defending the run. Ronnie Perkins could compete for playing time on the edge after being taken in the third round while Cameron McGrone is a developmental option inside.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Stephon Gilmore, CB J.C. Jackson, FS Devin McCourty, SS Kyle Dugger
Backups: SS Adrian Phillips, CB Jonathan Jones, DB Jalen Mills, DB Joejuan Williams, CB Myles Bryant, S Cody Davis, S Joshua Bledsoe [R]

Starting DBs: While Stephon Gilmore appeared to take a step back last year, he remains an elite shutdown corner. J.C. Jackson also broke out with 9 interceptions in 2020 to make this one of the best cornerback tandems in the league. Devin McCourty has been starting in the Patriots secondary since 2010 and the Patriots may need to start looking for his replacement. The player to watch here is Kyle Dugger, who was taken in the second round last year and has star potential if he can continue to develop after playing from a small school.

Backup DBs: Adrian Phillips led the team in tackles during his first year with the team while mostly playing linebacker and remains a strong candidate for a big nickel role if he's not starting. Jonathan Jones posted 60 solo tackles last year as the team's primary nickel corner but was often picked on by opposing quarterbacks. A free-agent signing from the Eagles, Jalen Mills can play any position but likely fits better at safety. Joejuan Williams is a former high pick who brings excellent size at 6'3" but remains a work in progress. Myles Bryant is another promising developmental player who showed some promise as a rookie.