The New England Patriots ended the 2022 NFL season with a “thud”. It was a reality slap from the Buffalo Bills as Sean McDermott showed Bill Belichick and his trusted advisors exactly what a Super Bowl contender looks like.
Hey, that’s okay.
The New England Patriots had a longer consecutive run of success than any team should reasonably expect. To lose the greatest player in NFL history and not expect to rebuild after terrible drafts and trading picks for veterans to keep the roster stacked during the run was simply ridiculous thinking.
The Past Has Passed Away
The Patriots basically had three back-to-back-to-back mini-dynasties that carried them to six Super Bowl wins and nine trips to the big game over two decades.
Expecting the team to keep winning division titles and going back to the playoffs without a hiccup is unreasonable. The New England Patriots realistically should have missed the playoffs in 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, and probably 2019 based on the on-field talent of those teams.
It is a testament to the quarterback play of Tom Brady and the defensive coaching performance by Bill Belichick and his staff in those seasons that they overcame those limitations to make the playoffs. Those should have been “out of the playoffs and rebuilding” years.
It was only due to horrible ownership, management, coaching, drafting, and free agent signings by the other three AFC East teams over those two decades that the Patriots were able to win the division time and time again with inferior teams.
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The AFC East Is Now a Beast
Today, the AFC East looks different:
The Buffalo Bills have one of the best locker room cultures and most talented rosters in the league to go with one of the three best quarterbacks in the game.
The Miami Dolphins have the most dynamic pair of wide receivers in the NFL to go with the most opportunistic defense (despite their idiot owner trying his best to screw up the franchise).
This is not the 2001-2019 AFC East.
Strange Rebuild Strategy Post-Brady
The New England Patriots made the curious decision after the 2019 season to attempt to reload rather than “tear down to the studs” and rebuild. A normal NFL franchise would have looked at the roster in 2020 and traded away their aging and highly paid players for draft picks and taken a down year as a lottery ticket for a chance at Trevor Lawrence coming out of Clemson.
Whether this was the fault of owner Bob Kraft or Bill Beichick–or they equally share blame–no one will know that real story. However, considering Kraft’s public comments the past three years, I would lean towards Kraft being resistant to a “teardown”.
Instead, the Patriots have puttered along with expensive free agents, a handful of decent draft picks, and have spent the past three years beating bad teams and losing to good teams. The epitome of a .500 franchise stuck in neutral and not committing to a rebuild.
Belichick Does Not Know How to Tank
Another problem for the rebuilding Patriots has been Bill Belichick. He’s still winning too many games and costing the team valuable draft position.
The New England Patriots’ defense has continued to play well: they have been 7th, 6th and 11th in points allowed in each of the past three seasons (all statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
These New England defenses have left the team winning these 20-17, 25-22, 14-10, 23-21 and 10-3 games over the past three seasons that, going the other way as a loss, could have a huge impact during the NFL Draft:
- A few more losses in 2020 and the Patriots land Justin Fields as their quarterback.
- A few more losses in 2021 and they are in position to grab Kenyon Green to play guard instead of Cole Strange.
- Or even have a better pick to get more draft picks at higher slots by trading back.
Winning in these three should-have-been-in-full-rebuild-mode seasons with no shot at being a Super Bowl contender is not good for roster building via the NFL Draft.
What’s Encouraging for the New England Patriots in 2023?
OK, so now that everyone understands what the New England Patriots did in the post-Tom Brady era was short-sighted, arrogant and just plain dumb, is there any hope for the future?
Of course. The Patriots have a few things working for them going forward:
- Mac Jones still has the potential to be a top-15 quarterback with the right pieces around him on the field and competent coaching.
- The New England Patriots are actively and publicly addressing the coaching deficiencies on the offense.
- The defense is still a strong unit and no major free agent defections appear imminent.
- They have a ton of cap space going into 2023.
- The 2022 NFL Draft went from universally mocked to universally praised.
Throw out the Chicago Bears game. That was Mac on the field when he wasn’t ready to play. Since that game, he was a different quarterback than he had been in preseason and pre-ankle injury.
He still has the potential to be better. The coaching staff neglected to put in an offense around his strengths and the offense suffered. Injuries on the offensive line and at the wide receiver position did little to help.
Mac is not blameless–he had some real stinkers and his attitude on the sidelines and body language needs to improve. However, put him on the Jets last year and that team would win 12 games and make the playoffs..
Offensive is the correct word. The dynamic duo of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge failed to do Mac Jones and the New England Patriots’ offense any favors. It was an offense to the senses to watch this offense perform at times.
Clearly, change was needed. Change is happening.
Bill O’Brien should be the front-runner, but after seeing Shawn Jefferson on Hard Knocks with the Arizona Cardinals, his enthusiasm, intelligence and connection with his players made him stand out.
Adrian Klemm is an interesting candidate as is Keenan McCardell. The Nick Caley interview is odd, as he should have been de facto offensive coordinator LAST YEAR if the team was as high on him as they suddenly appear.
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Something is fishy with Caley not being given the offense and suddenly being a candidate this time around.
The New England Patriots defense was not a suffocating presence as in years past in 2022, but it was far from the reason the team finished 8-9 and missed the playoffs.
Other than the Ravens and Bears games (and maybe the Bills games), the defense kept the Patriots in every game this season. As terrible as the offense was, all of those other games were winnable.
Maybe that’s why the 2022 season was so frustrating–the team was in position to win the game.
Heck, I would argue that the Green Bay, Minnesota, Las Vegas and Cincinnati games were games that the Patriots SHOULD have won and found a way to lose. Swing those four games and the team is 12-5 and no one is griping and they are in the playoffs.
Depending on varying reports, the New England Patriots can have anywhere from $30 to $50 million in salary cap space this offseason. As always, they are in position to be flexible and pretty much go after any free agent they want.
Now, if you want to talk about the depressed free agency market and not finding many players worth signing, I am 100% in agreement. Not a great class of free agents as the influx of television money has allowed the salary cap to continue to grow and teams to re-sign their own free agents before they hit free agency.
However, cap space is good if the team is open to trades, and Bill Belichick has never failed to pull the trigger on some intriguing trades. With wide receiver a need and Arizona turning over at General Manager and Head Coach, the possibility of DeAndre Hopkins being made available as Arizona rebuilds again exists.
The Rookie Class
There were a lot of Fs handed out to the New England Patriots by the national and local media after the 2022 NFL Draft wrapped up. The “draft gurus” chimed in and they all agreed: The Patriots flunked the 2022 NFL Draft. The Patriots had the consensus worst draft, hands-down.
Then the games started this fall.
- Cole Strange. He’s had some struggles but showed fortitude bouncing back and finishing strong. He looks like he is going to be a standout guard on the interior offensive line and linchpin of the offensive line ala Joe Thuney.
- Tyquan Thornton. He’s still very interesting. Injuries slowed him and who knows what his real potential is after playing this year with that god-awful offensive system, but he can run and he can catch.If he is coached up to maximize his skills, he can still be special.
- Marcus Jones. Oh. My. God. A superstar in the making. A third-round draft pick playing and looking stellar on Offense, Defense and Special Teams. First-team All-Pro Returner. This kid was the team MVP!
- Jack Jones. End of season shenanigans notwithstanding, when he was on the field, he looked like a first round draft pick at a premium position on the defense. Hopefully, this is simply a miscommunication and Jones is back as a starting cornerback in 2023.
- Pierre Strong. Not a lot of opportunities for one of the fastest players taken in the draft, but he has flashed that pure speed in limited opportunities. Strong looks ready to ascend the depth chart and replace Damien Harris behind Rhamondre Stevenson.
- Bailey Zappe.Easily the surprise of the Draft and gets credit for keeping the team afloat after Mac Jones was injured. He’s not Tom Brady and not keeping the starter job, but he is a serviceable backup at a reasonable price for the next few years.
- Kevin Harris. Like Strong, he did not have a lot of opportunities at running back. However, he did not look out of place when on the field with a hard-charging style. Definitely in the mix at running back behind Stevenson next year.
- Sam Roberts. A project on defense, he played on special teams when he was active. He may not be ready for 2023, but he still has the athleticism he flashed in the preseason to be a potential contributor in a couple of years if coached up properly.
- Chasen Hines and Andrew Steuber. Incomplete. Neither were active due to injuries and were red-shirted for 2022.
Looking back now, all of a sudden, the Patriots had a GREAT draft. ESPN.com, who had graded New England as the worst draft class of 2022 originally, now has them ranked in the top-ten based on 2022 production.
Add in 2020 draft class alumni Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche becoming regular contributors on defense (and Uche with double-digit sacks) and even that draft class suddenly looked a lot better. The 2021 NFL Draft still shines with Mac, ‘Mondre and Barmore as strong draft picks and still the possibility of safety Joshuah Bledsoe and edge rusher Ronnie Perkins emerging in 2023 as contributors.
So What is On Tap for the New England Patriots in 2023?
That is what New England has to cling to going into the offseason. It is there if you are looking for it:.
- Hope that the correct offensive coordinator makes a difference and improves the offense by leaps and bounds.
- Hope that Mac Jones bounces back and looks like 2021 Mac Jones.
- Hope that Devin McCourty returns in 2023 or the team is able to seamlessly replace the underrated leader of the defensive backfield.
- Hope that some playmakers come in to jumpstart the offense via free agency or a trade.
- Hope that another strong draft class catapults the team to the next level of development.
A large part of answering the question of how much hope should we have in the 2023 New England Patriots returning from the abyss of a .500 team to some semblance of relevance in the NFL will be determined in the next few months:
- Who is hired as offensive coordinator (and other subsequent moves made to the coaching staff)?
- How does Mac Jones mesh with the new offensive coordinator?
- What moves are made regarding trades and free agency to upgrade the offense?
- Will Devin McCourty retire and who replaces him?
- What happens in the 2023 NFL Draft (always an adventure with “Trader Bill” on draft night)?
Whether the Patriots move forward and upwards as a legitimate playoff contender in 2023 hinges on all these milestones in the coming months.
So hope that Bill Belichick and company knock these out of the park and set-up the success that spoiled New England Patriots fans have come to expect each year in the fall of 2023.