The deficiencies within the Patriots team during the 2020 season were obvious from start to finish. Experiencing the growing pains of moving on from your franchise quarterback of twenty years is never easy. Add in trying to navigate some sort of normalcy during a season with a global pandemic, the team had a difficult time overcoming all that they were dealt.
It’s no secret that Tom Brady was unhappy with New England’s offense in 2019. Despite his efforts to improve the team by signing Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon and Mohammed Sanu, Bill Belichick did not have the cash or cap space to drastically help his quarterback. As Brady’s career was nearing its end, the team was in a “win now” mode, leaving little to no money to spend in the offseason over the course of a few years.
Fortunately for coach and GM Belichick, this offseason was one that he has not experienced in quite some time. New England had the third most cap space to spend in free agency, with just over $63 million in their pocketbook. With so many holes on the team to address however, it was difficult to grasp how far that money would actually go, mainly due the importance of the positions needing to be improved.
One of the bigger concerns coming into this offseason was deciding who to sign at quarterback. Regardless of how fans and the media felt about Cam Newton’s performance last season, it was reported that Belichick was very fond of Newton and the door hadn’t been shut on his return. With this in mind, the team did explore all possible options via free agency or trade, but ultimately decided to bring back Newton on another one-year deal.
It was certainly not the most popular choice, with many criticizing the decision due to the former MVP’s performance last season. Nevertheless, New England needed to sign a quarterback early in the offseason and most importantly before free agency began. Signing Newton sooner had the potential to increase interest in the team, especially offensively. It’s difficult to imagine how attractive a team without a quarterback would appear to free agents, making the return of Newton that much more important.
In the two days leading up to the official start of free agency, it was clear the Patriots were going all in, bringing in high tier talent on multi-year contracts and attacking the positions requiring the most improvement.
Many teams throughout the league rely on drafting talent to address deficits on their team, particularly this year with the lower-than-expected cap space allotted. But the last few drafts haven’t worked in the Patriots’ favor. The team, in particular Bill Belichick, have been highly criticized for their draft selections in recent years. Assuming Belichick is aware of this, the approach seems different this year, as the team spent big and spent a lot, leaving less positions needing addressing once the draft arrives.
Weakness in 2020: Wide receiver production, most notably scoring
Signed: Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne
Over the last few seasons, one of the most scrutinized parts of the Patriots’ team has been the lack of a true WR1. But also the issue of consistency and reliability with the receivers they did roster. Bill Belichick has received much of the blame, with many claiming he hasn’t done well with drafting receivers in his career, (which isn’t entirely false, actually). And some also feeling he hasn’t brought in many talented pass catchers over the last handful of seasons.
The 2019 season may be a distant memory to most, but it should not be forgotten the talent Belichick did sign to boost the offense. Josh Gordon was brought back after his suspension, and the Patriots broke the internet when they signed Antonio Brown right before the season began. The following month is when Mohammed Sanu was added to the roster from Atlanta.
Obviously these players did not work out well for the team, with Gordon ending up suspended once again and Brown landing himself in more controversy. However, Belichick did bring in top tier talent in hopes they could benefit the team long term.
The 2020 season was undoubtedly not the prettiest for New England and the issue of lack of weapons persisted throughout the year. Seasoned veteran, Julian Edelman, went down with injury after only playing in 6 games, leaving just Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd remaining in the wide receiver room.
Meyers quickly solidified himself as the top receiver for Cam Newton to turn to, ending the year with 59 receptions for 729 yards. But the entirety of the receiving team struggled, especially with scoring, combining for a total of 4 touchdowns on the season. It’s reasonable to say it would be unfair to place all the blame on the receivers alone, since it’s clear the offense struggled as a whole with many displaying underwhelming performances.
With free agency approaching, there were several big-name receivers hitting the open market. It was assumed the Patriots would most likely not go after those topping the list, because even though they had the money to spend, they are not a team known for lavishly spending on almost any position on the team. And shortly into the free agency week, the team snagged both top tight ends available, drastically improving the passing game already.
Because of the signings of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, New England didn’t feel the need to snag any of the higher ranked receivers available. But they did sign former Las Vegas Raider Nelson Agholor, coming off his best season as a pro. Agholor spent the first 5 years of his career in Philadelphia, finding his stride playing in the slot. He spent 2020 with the Raiders, totaling 48 catches for 896 yards and 8 touchdowns. Joining the Patriots immediately brings a deep threat option for Cam Newton, as he averaged 18.7 yards per catch last season, and brings the speed and explosiveness this offense desperately needs.
Kendrick Bourne was also signed, switching teams for the first time in his young career. But his skillset seems like a great fit for New England. The pure physicality he brings will add a new dynamic to the wideouts already on the team. And his experience outside or in the slot will be an added benefit as a rotational piece for Josh McDaniels to work with.
Both Agholor and Bourne bring much needed depth and versatility to this offense, and their value to this team should not be understated. Neither appear to be a WR1 option for the Patriots, but it’s believed either Henry or Smith will fill that spot, especially with how successful a tight end duo has been for the team in the past. But the addition of these receivers will become complimentary pieces to what this team is lacking and will surely improve the overall performance of the offense.
Weakness in 2020: Blocking and production from tight ends
Signed: Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry
It has been some time since the Patriots have had a dominant tight end duo on their roster, but Bill Belichick made sure to change that this year in free agency.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were bound to take over the league as the best offensive duo in the NFL. Although things didn’t pan out that way, the Patriots did get many memorable and supreme years from Gronkowski and have yet to draft anyone since with just a smidge of his talent and success.
With the short stints in New England from Martellus Bennett, Dwayne Allen and former Patriot Ben Watson, it was easy for the team to conceal the lack of depth at the position over the years. But the issue is no longer disguisable, as the last two seasons have been tremendously impacted by the lack of tight end production in the time since Gronkowski’s “retirement.”
There was hope from the selection of Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the 2020 draft that the position would improve, along with veterans Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse. But injuries and overall offensive trouble throughout the year stalled those hopes. Because LaCosse opted out of the season, that left immense pressure on Izzo to be TE1, when on most teams he would not be the starter. Even with playing in 62% of all offensive snaps on the year, Izzo was only able to end the year with 13 of 20 receptions for 199 yards. With virtually nothing noteworthy coming from either rookie, this left the door wide open for the team to go full force into fixing the glaring issue at hand in free agency.
Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were the top TEs available on the market, with the assumption both would be signed to big contracts that were not in the realm of possibilities for the Patriots. As free agency week began, New England made a huge splash with the signing of Smith to a 4-year, $50 million deal. Landing one of best available at the position was a great start to the new league year and tackling one of the biggest holes on the team seemed to be important to get done quickly.
But they weren’t done yet.
The following day, it was reported the Patriots also reached a deal with Hunter Henry, for 3 years and $37.5 million. The news shocked the NFL world, as there was no indication they would somehow land both tight ends this offseason. But it appears the organization is going steadfast into 2021 with the determination to not have a repeat of their previous season.
The addition of Henry and Smith to this offense will make an immediate positive impact to many facets of the team. The Patriots haven’t had the ability to use an elite double tight end package in just over 8 years, and these two players have the chance to bring that type of production back. Not only can they be big play makers as pass catchers, but their blocking will also help the run game and open up other receivers to make plays.
Hunter Henry adds the traditional type of tight end role to the team, a big-bodied pass catcher who can also block or pass protect when needed. Jonnu Smith is more dynamic at the position with his flexibility to be used all over the field. Signing both players brings impressive depth to the position, and with the injury concerns regarding Henry, adding another top tier TE is great insurance, too.
One of the most important benefits of these signings? Scoring in the red zone. New England has had the lowest pass-catching production in the red zone since December of 2019, making it difficult to win football games (obviously). The mere presence of Henry and Smith on the goal line will make it much tougher on defenses to defend, creating an easier path to scoring for not just them but for the wide receivers as well.
Weakness in 2020: Pass rush, setting the edge, stopping the run
Signed: Matthew Judon, Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, Kyle Van Noy, Deatrich Wise, Jr. (re-signed), Lawrence Guy (re-signed)
It was just two seasons ago when the Patriots defense coined the nickname, “the boogeymen.” But that seems like a distant memory now, as the inconsistency of great play reared its ugly head since the latter half of the 2019 season.
Losing key veteran players in free agency, (Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, Duron Harmon etc) and those who opted out of the season, (Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung) drastically changed the defense’s identity. Although they retained an impactful secondary, those on the line had many difficulties throughout the year.
The most obvious sore spot for the defense last year was stopping the run. Ranking 26th overall in the league by allowing an average of 131.4 YPG, they also ranked 20th in opponent rushing averages at 4.53 YPC. The edge defense was completely exploited in every game, with Chase Winovich and Josh Uche struggling to maintain some sort of presence.
On top of that, Hightower’s absence was consistently obvious as the team struggled to rush the passer. Winovich led the team with just 5.5 sacks on the year, and collectively totaling only 24 sacks by all. Far too often the opposing quarterbacks were able to take their time with plays and given several opportunities to make continue plays by running the football themselves.
Belichick went head-first into fixing this in free agency with signing a slew of young and natural playmakers:
Matthew Judon was the first big signing defensively for the Patriots, with a contract of 4 years for $56 million. The physical edge player and pass rusher was a dominating force during his time with the Baltimore Ravens. Playing in 76 games to total 34.5 sacks, Judon also had 7 forced fumbles with 2 fumble recoveries and 54 tackles for a loss. He was the sack leader on the team 2 years in a row, in 2019 and 2020, and averaged 7 sacks per season. The addition of Judon to the linebacker room brings a much-needed physicality and flexibility at the position, especially in helping to convert quarterback pressure into positive plays.
The re-signing of Kyle Van Noy was not too surprising, as the former Patriot was a part of 2 Super Bowl winning teams in 2016 and 2018. The hybrid linebacker is another complimentary piece for this defense and is at his best when setting the edge or as an off-the-ball LB. Totaling 6 sacks last season himself, Van Noy brings the pressure to the QB the Patriots desperately missed last season. And the pairing of him with the return of Hightower will surely benefit this defense.
Davon Godchaux was another great signing as a big run-stuffer along with Henry Anderson and the re-signings of Deatrich Wise, Jr. and Lawrence Guy Every player is a very “Belichick type” of guy, as they are all flexible in their positions and can be plugged in wherever they are best suited game-to-game. After an underperforming defensive line last season, the production these players bring is a massive improvement and, on paper, screams the talent of those early-mid 2000’s New England defenses.
Weakness in 2020: Protecting the quarterback
Signed: Trent Brown, Ted Karras, David Andrews (re-signed)
The offensive line for the Patriots has certainly not been a cause for concern over the last few years. But the same could not be said of last season.
Although the team saw the return of David Andrews after missing the 2019 season, injuries plagued the o-the line all season long. This caused many to play out of position game-to-game, occasionally in game as well. Despite this, they had tremendous success in creating holes for the run game, which saw a spike in plays in 2020 with Cam Newton under center. But the inconsistency overall impacted their presence and in turn their success in protecting their quarterback.
With so much to address this offseason, it was incredibly important for the Patriots to maintain a solid offensive line while also adding more talented and reliable pieces. With David Andrews testing free agency, it was unsurprising when Ted Karras was signed. As a former Patriot and flexible positionally, it made all the sense in the world to bring him back, especially with question marks regarding Andrews’ future with the team.
Things changed just a day later when New England was finally able to reach a deal with Andrews, re-signing him to a 4-year contract for $21 million. This made the Karras signing all that more interesting but having both on the roster brings back the consistency the offensive line needs going forward.
The Patriots also traded for the once beloved former Patriot, Trent Brown, as the Raiders were set to move on from him after two seasons. Having had a successful 2018 season with the team, the addition of the 6-foot-8, 380-pound OT ensures a continuing success of the run game. And creates an exceedingly difficult wall for defenses to get through on their path to the quarterback.
The potentially biggest improvement with these additions should be the increase in protection for the quarterback. Patriots’ quarterbacks were sacked 37 times last season, which ranked 14th in the league. Newton himself was sacked 31 times, which came to 7.8% of the time he attempted a pass. Some of the blame can be attributed to poor quarterback awareness and avoidance of pressure. But the lack of consistency in protection also contributed to the issue.
These signings, along with returning players like rookie standout Michael Onwenu, Isaiah Wynn and Shaq Mason, should strengthen the line and continue the success for the backfield. The Patriots running backs ranked 8th in the league, averaging 4.7 YPC and 4th in total yards with 2,346. On top of their success, Cam Newton set several Patriots quarterback records with his run game, with 137 carries for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns. As the team appears be increasing plays on the ground, it will be instrumental to their success for the o-line to stay reliable and sustain their production from last season.
Weakness in 2020: Aging secondary
Signed: Jalen Mills
Over the last few seasons, the Patriots have had a solid and dominating overall defense. The team has been fortunate in maintaining several key players, but many of the current veterans are nearing the end of their careers.
The new league year began with the news that all 2020 opt-out players would be returning to New England. Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung headlined the list, but it was announced shortly thereafter that Chung would be retiring. The news then made the Jalen Mills signing make much more sense.
During Chung’s absence last season, rookie Kyle Dugger and new Patriot Adrian Phillips performed far better than most expected. Both showed their versatility at the position and all over the secondary, making it difficult to notice the absence of Chung.
Much of the media and fans were critical of Mills’ contract, signing a 4-year deal for $24 million. But it’s apparent why Belichick believes in the player. The Eagles were not thrilled about losing Mills, who they drafted in 2016 and quickly became a locker room leader and fan favorite. With the addition of such a dynamic player, there is incredible strength and youth at safety. Because he has shown such versatility during his career, playing seven different pre-snap positions on defense during his final year in Philadelphia, Belichick will have another multi-faceted defensive piece to add to his arsenal.
Weakness in 2020: Inconsistent kicking game early in season
Signed: Nick Folk (re-signed)
Since Stephen Gostkowski went down with a back injury in week 5 of the 2019 season, and was then cut by the Patriots that offseason, the team has had trouble finding his replacement.
After being signed briefly in 2019, New England brought back veteran kicker Nick Folk to start the year. For the first month, the team had him bouncing from the practice squad to the main roster. During that time, Folk was not demonstrating the type of consistency the Patriots needed from their kicker. Missing a couple of field goals and extra points, it was unclear what Bill Belichick would do regarding the position had Folk not improved.
As the season progressed, Folk was kept on the 53-man roster, ending the season with one of the best performances of his career. Only missing 2 field goals and 3 extra points, most of which were in the first month of the season, it appeared the team had finally found the kicker they have been needing.
Although his age is not ideal, as Folk will turn 37 in 2021, the Patriots re-signed him early in the offseason to assure themselves a reliable addition to their special teams. With their 2020 draft selection of kicker Justin Rohrwasser not impressing and was recently waived by the team, the assumption is the team will try once again in the draft to find their kicker of the future.
Looking ahead to 2021:
Not only were fans not thrilled with how the 2020 season played out, but the entirety of the Patriots organization were not either. Some may feel the spending spree this offseason/free agency was very “uncharacteristically aggressive” for Belichick. But this was the season to do it.
It’s difficult to think of another time in recent years when New England headed into the draft this stacked. Because so many weaknesses have been dealt with by strong free agent signings, the Patriots have several options heading into the draft. Will they draft a quarterback of the future? Will they add another young defensive piece? Will Belichick take the risk in drafting another wide receiver in the first round? In just less than a month, it will be seen.
But as it is right now, the 2021 season is on the path to be far more successful than last year.
(Photo credits: Hunter Henry – Chris Unger of Getty Images, Trent Brown – Mark J. Rebilas of USA TODAY Sports)
–Sara Marshall is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow her on Twitter @smarshxo