The executive summary of the Patriots’ 2021 season paints an optimistic picture of the franchise:
After missing the playoffs in their first season without Tom Brady, the Patriots added several new players, found a quarterback in Mac Jones, and bounced back with a 10-7 record and a spot in the postseason. Jones had by far the best season of all the rookie quarterbacks, and became just the third rookie since 2013 to lead his team to the playoffs.
So why does the state of the Patriots feel so glum?
The 47-17 blowout loss at Buffalo last Saturday in the wild-card round certainly leaves a sour taste. But it’s important not to get caught up in the moment. As Bill Belichick said Sunday morning, “We all need to step back and, again, catch our breath, take a longer view of things.”
OK, well, it’s the longer view that really makes the Patriots look like they are in trouble. The last month of the season demonstrated just how far they are from being championship contenders. They have an aging, expensive team, a quarterback whose ceiling may not be so high, and no easy, quick fixes.
1. They aren’t truly a rebuilding team.
It would be one thing if they featured a young core of talent that is growing up together. But they don’t.
They entered 2021 with the NFL’s 10th-oldest roster and second-oldest defense. They were a team built through free agency because of years of poor drafts and a desire by the coaches and owners to return to the playoffs right away.
On offense, the only players under 25 who are building blocks are running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, receiver Jakobi Meyers, offensive lineman Mike Onwenu, and Jones. All good players, but not Pro Bowl talents.
On defense, they have safety Kyle Dugger, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, and perhaps edge rusher Josh Uche.
In two years, the Patriots are going to be right back in the same position of being talent-deficient unless they fully commit to a rebuild through the draft. The guys that should be part of the team’s core — such as Chase Winovich, Devin Asiasi, and Uche — are instead buried on the bench.
2. For the second straight year, they collapsed in the final month of the season.
Last season, with Cam Newton, they went from 6-6 to 6-9 to fall out of the playoff race. This season, they went from 9-4 to 10-7, then got their doors blown off in the playoffs.
The seven-game win streak that elevated the Patriots to No. 1 in the AFC was clearly a mirage — a product of facing injured teams and bad quarterbacks. The Patriots had just two wins against playoff teams all season, and they needed 50-mile-per-hour winds to beat the Bills and a rash of injuries to beat the Titans.
And don’t blame the collapse just on the defense, because the offense was horrid as well. In their four late-season losses, the Patriots were outscored, 78-17, in the first half. Jones’s stats were mostly compiled in garbage time.
This season also didn’t extinguish any of the questions about how effective Belichick and his coaching staff truly are without Brady. The special teams were a disaster, and the Patriots’ handling of their bye week was even worse.
3. Free agency spending was mostly empty.
The Patriots spent all that money last offseason, but what did it get them?
In 2020, the Patriots ranked 31st out of 32 teams in cash spending ($160.7 million), had below-average quarterback play from Newton, and finished 7-9.
This season, the Patriots ranked fourth in cash spending ($232.98 million), and it got them a 10-7 record and a quick exit in the playoffs.
Despite the additional $70 million investment, the offense was still limited, particularly in the passing game, and the defense still fell apart down the stretch.
The Patriots had a few unqualified successes: receiver Kendrick Bourne, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, center David Andrews, guard Ted Karras, and kicker Nick Folk. Hunter Henry also was solid, though the Patriots probably overpaid for him.
Otherwise they got little bang for their buck, and in some cases no bang.
Right tackle Trent Brown played well, but he also missed seven games to a lingering calf injury that set the offensive line in flux for several weeks. Receiver Nelson Agholor made $12 million and had just 473 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Jonnu Smith made $17 million and had just 294 yards and one touchdown.
On defense, linebacker Matthew Judon ($20 million in 2021) was a home run through the first three months with 12.5 sacks, but he had no sacks and just one QB hit over his last five games. Cornerback Jalen Mills and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux mostly played well but didn’t have many signature plays.
4. They still need a lot of help.
Despite all that spending, the Patriots still have an alarming number of roster holes.
On offense, they need to sign a right tackle, whether it’s Brown or someone else. They probably need to upgrade at left tackle, where Isaiah Wynn badly struggled. They need another third-down running back, and haven’t developed anyone behind an aging James White. And they clearly need at least one more receiver, ideally a slot receiver in the mold of Julian Edelman and Troy Brown.
The defense may need a total rebuild after looking old and slow over the final month. In their four December/January losses, the Patriots allowed 140 points (35 per game), 709 rushing yards (177 per game), and compiled just four sacks.
They have holes at No. 1 cornerback, free safety, and linebacker, where J.C. Jackson, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Ja’Whaun Bentley are all free agents. And they have to consider upgrading their current players.
5. Immediate help may not be coming.
The Patriots are just 18th in cash spending for the 2022 season ($139.5 million), but that’s going to go quickly when they spend potentially $17 million on a franchise tag for Jackson and several million more on a right tackle, linebacker, and free safety.
And don’t expect the Patriots to be big spenders again. They are locked into most of those free agent contracts for a second season. Agholor has $5 million fully guaranteed. Wynn has $10.413 million, and Smith has $9 million, plus $6.25 million in 2023. No team in their right mind would trade for those contracts.
It’s probably not realistic to ask Robert Kraft, who was skeptical about the free agency spending to begin with, to splurge for a second straight season.
Furthermore, the Patriots’ salary cap situation balloons in 2022. A group of 14 free agents that accounted for $67.3 million of cap space in 2021 will account for $113.2 million next season.
Judon increases from $6.4 million to $16.5 million. Smith from $5.7 million to $13.75 million. Agholor from $7 million to $15 million. Henry ($15 million) and Godchaux ($10.25 million) also will be expensive.
6. The quarterback has limitations.
Jones did have a very good season by rookie standards. He led all rookies in nearly every statistic, finished eighth in the NFL in completion percentage (67.6), and was middle of the pack in touchdown passes (14th with 22) and passer rating (15th at 92.5). The experience he got in starting 18 games (including playoffs) may prove invaluable.
But Jones’s limitations were on display in December and January. His stats plummeted in cold weather and against better defenses. Belichick clearly didn’t trust him, as evidenced by all of the short-yardage punts and the three pass attempts in the windy win over Buffalo.
Jones made a lot of smart decisions, found open receivers, and completed passes into some tight windows. But he also showed physical limitations — average arm strength and below-average athleticism.
How often did Jones make you say, “Wow”? When did he show that he can lift his teammates or carry the team? His one fourth-quarter comeback came against lowly Houston in Week 5.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Patriots, of course. Eighteen non-playoff teams would have gladly traded places with them.
But the arrow isn’t exactly pointing up. It’s pointing sideways, and if the goal is to win a Super Bowl, the Patriots don’t look any closer to it now than they did two years ago when Brady left.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.