How Can the Patriots and Bill Belichick Get Back to The Super Bowl?
By: Cody Molla (Twitter: @cmolla1)
The 2020 season for the New England Patriots ended earlier than we’ve grown accustomed to in Foxborough. A 7-9 record marks the first time in 20 years the Patriots finish under a 500 winning percentage. This was also the second time in that span that they’ve missed the playoffs, the last time was 2008.
So what went wrong this year? The Patriots had to replace their face of the franchise in Tom Brady. There were early talks of moving forward with Jarrett Stidham but eventually landed Cam Newton. Newton given an abnormal off season to learn the playbook and get in the building and worked struggled throughout the season but still flashed some explosive talent.
Other struggles on offense included a receiving core that wasn’t healthy enough and talented enough. Because of this, the Patriots used an old school mentality on offense. A heavy rush attack to try and grind teams down and limit possessions while shortening games.
On defense, the Patriots had a few key guys opt-out of the season including Patrick Chung and Don’t’a Hightower. These two guys were well missed and could have boosted the defense’s performance. Despite missing these guys the Patriots pass defense was amongst the best in the league. The defense lead the league in total interceptions, JC Jackson had nine alone, good for second-most across the NFL. The defense was also the best in pass attempts allowed and second in total plays.
With the heavy ground attack and solid pass defense, the Patriots found a recipe to win seven games this year. With some additions this offseason, one of the best coaches of all-time in Bill Belichick will find a way to get the Patriots back to a contender.
The key free agents the Patriots need to lock up include Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and JC Jackson. They and Andrews are two veteran interior linemen who have been outstanding. Jackson is the only Patriot that is a restricted free agent. Jackson is an ascending player and one of their few young assets that could interest teams in a trade.
The biggest team needs are quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, and potentially cornerback. The Patriots have over $60 million in cap space where only a few other teams are in that neighborhood. They have the ability to go out and make a splash or two. Outside of the organization here are 5 players the Patriots should target this offseason.
Addressing the quarterback position is likely the team’s priority. The quicker this is figured out the sooner the Patriots return to the playoffs begins. There are a few names that can land in New England. Matt Stafford, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and a potential future draft pick in Mac Jones.
Stafford could be a viable option. His best statistical season was 2011, he threw for 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. Since then he has surpassed the 30 touchdown total one time. In 2020, he completed 64.2% of his passes for 4,084 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.
Stafford has been consistent in his play over the years in Detroit. Stafford would give the Patriots a strong-arm quarterback who can get the ball down the field quickly. Danny Jalliet of Patriots Wire says, “He would be able to reinvigorate the Patriots passing game and allow them to have a more balanced offense than they did in 2020.” Given some weapons in the offense Stafford has the ability to get the Patriots into the 2021 postseason.
The caveat to this is Matt Patricia is back in the Patriots organization. This may be a problem as Stafford has recently been reported to not enjoy playing under Patricia in Detroit.
Ryan Fitzpatrick as a bridge quarterback till they get their guy is an option as well. Fitzpatrick has played for every AFC East team but New England. Fitzpatrick has expressed interest in playing and starting still. He performed well in limited time with the Dolphins and served as an incredible mentor to Tua Tagovailoa. Drafting Mac Jones would give the Patriots a future QB prospect who can learn under one of the best coaches in the league and develop under a veteran till ready. The Saban and Belichick pipeline may come through once again.
Hunter Henry is the next free agent target the Patriots should have their eyes on. The Patriots lack of receiving production has been well documented as of late. On the season the Patriots only had 12 passing TDs. Five of those were caught by WRs and TEs.
The Patriots drafted 2 TEs last year in the third round but together they produced 5 catches for 55 yards. Their best TE was Ryan Izzo who is also not a true threat in the passing game, with 13 catches for 199 yards. The need for an elite pass-catcher is present.
Henry has battled injuries through the first few years of his career, he’s a top-10 tight end when healthy. The Arkansas product can also block at a high level, a necessity when being coached by Belichick.
Henry is only 26 years old, and it seems as if the Chargers are ready to move on from him in the offseason. Henry posted 60 receptions for 613 yards and four scores in only 14 games. The main issue surrounding Henry is health, as he has yet to play a full 16-game slate in his first four years in the league.
Henry to the Patriots just makes sense. There was a video swirling around with Bill Belichick talking to Henry after the Patriots-Chargers game, and Henry’s return to Los Angeles is also in question.
This year’s wide receiver free agent class has some high-quality names and players. However, there is one player that may be a sneaky bargain addition and fits the Patriot mold perfectly. Curtis Samuel.
Samuel is a complete football player. He can run, catch, pass and contribute on special teams. The perfect gadget player and weapon that can be deployed in the Patriots attack masterfully.
Again, the Patriots offense struggled mightily in 2020 and needs to infiltrate playmakers immediately to be able to compete. In an up and coming AFC East that includes Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen, as well as the New York Jets and their second overall pick, the competition is increasing for the New England.
Samuel is a gadget player who can do so many things well and just seems like such an easy fit for the Patriots. The former Buckeye finished 2020 with a career-high in catches and yards, both rushing and receiving. Samuel had 77 catches for 851 yards and three scores while adding in 41 carries for 200 yards and a pair of scores.
The 24-year-old has a long career and bright future ahead of him, coaches like Belichick and McDaniels will surely bring about wonders with a guy like Samuel.
Over the last few drafts, the Patriots have been able to find some promising players on defense. In 2020, Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, and Anfernee Jennings all popped on film. Other emerging players include Chase Winovich and Byron Cowart who show potential to be starters. As of late the Patriots have a better batting average identifying defensive players at the draft than on offense, which is why this should be their strategy in 2021 where they are projected to have six picks in the first four rounds including compensatory picks.
With the Patriots likely spending big on offense, finding young talent through the draft is the best way to save money. Doubling down on defense at the draft not only helps relieve the cost of big free-agent signings, but the Patriots could build an up-and-coming defense on the fly if they hit on a few selections.
A few selections they can consider in the first round include Jaycee Horn, Gregory Rousseau, and Kwity Paye.
With Gilmore and Jackson’s futures uncertain corner will be a spot needing help. Horn is a physical, athletic playmaking cornerback who would add depth at the position. If the Patriots lock up Jackson they may use Gilmore as a trade piece. Horn can play in that spot and learn under two great corners while building for the future as well.
Rousseau had 15.5 sacks during his breakout 2019 season for the Miami Hurricanes. He opted out in 2020 but his upside is too intriguing to pass up. As a Canes fan, I’ve seen his ability to wreck plays. He can make game-changing plays in the pass rush and is an interesting prospect.
If Rousseau is not available another intriguing edge rusher is Paye. Finding a pass rush is amongst the top of the offseason to-do list and Paye, who is an athletic marvel, fits exactly what the team needs along the defensive line.