In Bill Belichick parlance, the Patriots are on to 2022.
That won’t come without a lot of stewing over what went wrong at the end of the 2021 season, including that wild-card whacking at the hands of the Bills. Fans may also be wondering what Belichick and his crew will do between now and minicamp to improve as a team, whether it’s adding pieces in free agency or the NFL Draft.
But before looking at which players the team can add in the offseason, let’s take a look at some key current Patriots, in addition to quarterback Mac Jones, who will need to step up in 2022 to make the team more competitive.
The Patriots have $16.5 million in guaranteed money tied up in Smith over the next two seasons, so they need to figure out how to get him going. Their failure to do so seemed to handicap the offense late in the season when teams keyed on Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry in the passing game.
New England seemed to abandon the two-tight-end offense many expected them to run with Henry and Smith, using “12″ personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends) on just 18.6 percent of offensive snaps. When Smith was on the field on passing downs, the Patriots simply weren’t using him as a receiver. He ran just 158 routes this season, which was the fewest of any qualified tight end in football via Pro Football Focus (minimum of 30 targets).
Using him as a blocker and a gadget player that gets the occasional carry or screen pass isn’t enough. Smith showed during his time in Tennessee that he is a yards-after-catch machine and a major red-zone threat, and he wasn’t deployed enough in either of those capacities in his first season with the Patriots.
If the tight end doesn’t work out in 2022, the Patriots could cut ties with him the following season. And what a waste that would be.
No matter what ends up happening with Devin McCourty in the offseason, Dugger is going to see the field a lot. He played the second-most snaps among Patriots safeties anyway, so sliding into a full-time starting role wouldn’t change much for him.
Dugger played a big role near the line of scrimmage, with most of his snaps coming as a box safety for the second year in a row. But he also notched four interceptions and defended five passes this season after putting up zeroes in both categories as a rookie, and he allowed a passer rating of just 59.1, the 12th-best mark in the NFL among qualified safeties. (Adrian Phillips is one spot ahead of him after allowing just a 56.6 rating.)
Dugger’s ability to cover slot receivers and tight ends man to man on the inside clearly developed as the season went on, which is huge for a team that loves to play man coverage as much as New England.
The soon-to-be-third-year safety has the athleticism, physicality, and versatility to be a rare chess piece for Belichick’s defense. If he keeps progressing as a cover man, the Patriots might have a top-10 safety on their hands.
The Patriots almost certainly drafted McGrone with an eye toward the end of Dont’a Hightower’s career in New England, which might be upon them now. They also did so knowing McGrone likely wouldn’t play in 2021 after tearing his ACL during his final college season. The team did activate the linebacker from the non-football injury list late this season, but he was never promoted to the active roster and went to season-ending injured reserve as expected.
Assuming McGrone returns to anything like himself after a year off, he could be the kind of off-ball linebacker the Patriots don’t have. Unlike big thumpers Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley, McGrone looks more like a modern linebacker, in the 230-pound range and displaying more quickness and downhill speed than his counterparts. He also had his moments of good play recognition and pursued plays with a high motor in college.
Jamie Collins probably won’t be back after his production faded late in the season. Anfernee Jennings hasn’t done much since New England drafted him in 2020. Raekwon McMillan is coming off of an ACL injury of his own and has to prove himself again in training camp. Harvey Langi, Jahlani Tavai, and Terez Hall are depth pieces/camp bodies.
McGrone will have to earn his way onto the field over a veteran. But assuming he is who the Patriots hoped he’d be, he could work his way into starter snaps next season and change the team’s profile at linebacker.
Injuries and a heavy reliance on Kyle Van Noy’s veteran savvy halted the breakout season many projected for Uche. He did have more sacks and overall pressures than he in his 2020 rookie season, but he also played three more games despite landing on injured reserve for a spell.
The most obvious hurdle Uche has to clear before seeing more playing time: defending the run better. He owned the second-worst run defense grade of any edge defender who played a minimum of 200 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Van Noy about to be a free agent, Chase Winovich a roster-bubble candidate entering the last year of his deal, and Ronnie Perkins coming off a “redshirt” season, this is Uche’s chance to seize a substantial role opposite Matthew Judon.
The Patriots don’t have an easy answer to dramatically improve their receiver room, having dedicated a bunch of cap space to Agholor, Smith, and their free agent signings last season. (They can still make another signing, but it might not be as good a free agent crop as many expected because of injuries.)
It would be unfair to say Agholor was ineffective. His speed did seem to open up opportunities underneath deep coverage for players such as Meyers and Kendrick Bourne. Agholor also clearly got open on several occasions, even if he didn’t end up getting the football (e.g., that deep Jones interception in the wild-card game).
Agholor needs to work at aspects of his game, such as tracking the ball more efficiently and catching it cleanly on deep balls. But as with Smith, the Patriots must do more than use screen passes or gadget plays to get him the football in space. Some more deep crosses and corner routes running away from safety help would be welcome.
He can still be the most dangerous receiver on the roster if the Patriots commit to using him that way.