As the clock ticked down on a blowout win for the L.A. Rams against the New England Patriots on a Thursday night in early December, an unfamiliar truth bestowed itself on the NFL world. Bill Belichick would not be taking his team to the playoffs this year.
That week 14 loss dropped New England to 6-7, and all but eliminated them from postseason contention. They ended the season 7-9, tied for 10th in the AFC. It was the first time the team missed the playoffs since 2008, when Tom Brady was injured in week one and missed the entire season.
So now the organization finds themselves in a spot that they have not been in since before the turn of the century really. Without being able to find consistent success on either side of the ball last season they are likely about to embark on a complete roster overhaul. There are more questions than answers in seemingly every personnel group, and only a handful of players are guaranteed to be with the team long term.
The obvious place to start here is the quarterback position. After finishing 24th in passing yards and 34th in passing touchdowns, it appears Cam Newton is not going to be on the team’s roster going forward. According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, Newton and the Patriots have decided to part ways this offseason. This leaves the Patriots with three options. They can promote another quarterback on the roster into the starting position, they can draft somebody in the first couple of rounds hoping that they can be the long term option, or they could try to acquire a starting caliber QB through trade/free agency.
The first option seems unlikely. There was some hope before this season that Jarrett Stidham could be groomed into Brady’s heir apparent. However, in the five games he took snaps in this year the second year QB completed just 50% of his 44 pass attempts, and had more interceptions(3) than touchdowns(2). The only other quarterback who has NFL experience on the roster is Brian Hoyer, who was benched in the third quarter of his only start this season, and whose contract is up this offseason.
Finding an answer through the draft seems like a much more enticing option for Bill Belichick, and one that has received a lot of buzz for much of the season. Barring a blockbuster trade-up to the first overall pick, the Patriots will not be able to get their hands on the top prize in this year’s draft, Trevor Lawrence. Sitting at the 14th pick though, the team does have options at the position to go after. Justin Fields out of Ohio State has raised his draft stock significantly after outdueling Lawrence to lead the Buckeyes to a win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff. He will likely go several picks before the Patriots are on the clock. However, many teams in the top 10 don’t need a quarterback, and New England could very well move up a few spots if they feel that Fields is their guy.
If they elect to stay at 15, they still might look to draft a QB. Trey Lance from South Dakota St. and Mac Jones would be the most likely candidates in this situation, and Jones has been linked in reports to the Patriots. With all this being said, predicting what Bill Belichick will do on draft night is about the furthest thing from an exact science.
It is very possible that the Patriots don’t feel that any of the QBs available in the first couple of rounds are worth spending a valuable pick on. Belichick at this point in his coaching career may be much more keen on coaching an established veteran than a rookie. So which starting caliber quarterbacks could be available to New England through trade or free agency?
There are limited options in free agency for the team to pursue, but there are a few. Dak Prescott seems likely to go back to Dallas, but if the Cowboys once again fail to give him the offer he feels he deserves, New England could be a good fit for him. It is unclear how much the Patriots would be willing to give him though, due to other holes on the roster that need to be filled. Cheaper options for the team to sign would include Tyrod Taylor and Jacoby Brissett. Both of these players would certainly be an upgrade to Stidham, but without a quite formidable supporting cast they would likely not help get the team back to the playoffs.
The options for the team via trade look much more tempting. They are expected to have $67 million in cap room, making it possible for them to trade for almost any contract. The most obvious possibility is Carson Wentz, who is very likely out the door in Philadelphia. If the Patriots organization believes that he can resurrect his career with them, he may not be too difficult to acquire. He had a historically poor season statistically, and has been seemingly permanently benched for Jalen Hurts. If any team has to give up more than a second-round pick in a deal for him it is a win for Philadelphia. Another possible target is Jimmy Garoppolo, who has been linked to New England. Having already played in New England, and had some success, the team might be willing to give up significantly more for him than Wentz, but he is less likely to be traded.
Wentz or Garoppolo would certainly bring hope back to New England with their arrival, but nothing like the quarterback who most recently has been surrounded by trade rumors. Deshaun Watson, according to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk, has discussed with teammates the possibility of requesting a trade away from Houston. If he does indeed ask to be traded, there will be no shortage of suitors for the 25-year-old QB. Any team that wants to get a deal done with Houston will likely have to give up three first-round picks. The Patriots aren’t known in recent history to put together packages this lucrative for one player, but this opportunity might be too enticing to pass up on. Bringing Watson into the fold could immediately thrust the franchise back into Super Bowl contention, and help lure veteran free agents to New England for cheap. A lot of dominos still have to fall to put Watson in a Patriots uniform, but the possibility may already be making teams around the league very nervous.
The quarterback position for New England will obviously receive a lot of attention, and deservedly so. However, this team’s issues do not end with who was under center this season. For starters, Cam Newton’s struggles were partially a product of a complete lack of weapons in the passing game. After Julian Edelman went down Jakobi Myers, an undrafted second-year player, became the most reliable receiver on the roster. N’Keal Harry did not make the jump that the team was hoping he would in his second season either.
Edelman will be back this season, but serious upgrades need to be made at the position. Belichick is unlikely to spend another first round pick on a wide receiver, so if the team doesn’t think that Harry will make a jump with a new quarterback, then some of that cap space will have to go towards a signing at the position. Luckily there should be at least a few very solid wideouts available in free agency. A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, T.Y. Hilton, and Will Fuller are all guys that could make a difference on the outside, and none of them are slam dunks to return to their team. New England obviously shouldn’t overpay on a guy who isn’t a game-changer, but a sizable investment needs to be made at the position to help whoever is going to be their QB.
In the same breath, the team lacked any kind of consistent pass-catching production from tight ends, something that was a staple of the offense with Brady. Luckily, they do have several young players who could develop into a useful weapon for Josh McDaniels. Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene were both selected in the third round of the 2019 Draft. Ryan Izzo is only entering his third year as well. With enough reps, at least one of these three should be able to emerge as a solid TE1. The team may make a signing at the position depending on how they feel about these youngsters, but either way it is a position to keep an eye on for this team.
In contrast, one of the few position groups that wasn’t a problem for the Patriots last year was their offensive line. Pro Football Focus ranked the group fourth in the league at the end of the regular season. Unfortunately, it will be very difficult to keep the group together this offseason.
Joe Thuney and David Andrews are both in line for big paydays, and depending on how much money is allocated to the quarterback position this offseason, the Patriots may be unable to sign both. Given how important a good center is to an offensive line, it is hard to imagine the Patriots letting Andrews go. Also considering how well Jermaine Eluemunor, a natural guard, filled in at right tackle, Joe Thuney is the clear choice to cut free between the two. Eluemunor will have to be re-signed as well, but he will be much cheaper than Thuney. If he can replicate his success at right guard and Marcus Cannon comes back strong after opting out last year, New England should once again have a strong unit up front.
Defense has yet to be mentioned here, but don’t think that New England doesn’t also have problems on that side of the ball. They did not lie in the secondary, where a talented group led by Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and the McCourty twins made the Patriots a top-10 pass defense once again. The issues were clearly located at the line of scrimmage. The front seven consistently failed to plug holes, giving up 131 rushing yards per game. They were not much better in the passing game, only managing 24 sacks, 27th in the league.
Dont’a Hightower will return after opting out in 2020, but he can’t fix this unit by himself. Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise, John Simon, and Adam Butler are all down lineman for the Patriots that are free agents this offseason. The team needs to replace at least some of them with upgrades to give their secondary some support.
Getting a high-level pass rusher in free agency is certainly one course of action. Justin Houston, Yannick Ngakoue, and Solomon Thomas are a few options that could be explored. However, to fix the run defense means getting athletic linebackers that can tackle to play in the Patriots 3-4 scheme. Avery WIlliamson is a free agent that would fit perfectly next to Hightower in the middle of that defense, and could really make some things happen. Also don’t be surprised at all if New England uses their first round pick on a front seven player this year.
The Patriots are certainly entering an offseason unlike any they have experienced in a while. This team needs a lot of pieces to get back to playing at the level we are used to seeing. The good news is that they have the cap room and the front office to do it. If they can get their hands on the right quarterback with some smart complementary additions, don’t be surprised if this team is right back in the mix for the AFC East title.