Where Do the Playoff-Eliminated New England Patriots Go from Here?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 20, 2020

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick stands on the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Dolphins defeated the Patriots 22-12.(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The New England Patriots' 22-12 Week 15 loss to the Miami Dolphins ensured they will miss the playoffs this year for the first time since 2008.

The end of an 11-year run atop the AFC East also essentially confirms the end of an era for a Patriots team that might have seen this coming when legendary quarterback Tom Brady and several other key veterans departed in the 2020 offseason.

What's next for Bill Belichick's squad? Whether the Pats like it or not, a rebuild may be inevitable. But those can happen rather quickly these days, especially if you operate in a smart and calculating fashion, which they usually do.

Here's the blueprint.


Move on from Cam Newton

It was a worthwhile experiment, especially at a cost of just $1.75 million, but it's clear Newton isn't the difference-maker he used to be. The 31-year-old was the league's fifth-lowest-rated qualified passer entering Sunday's game, and in Miami, he failed to throw a touchdown pass for the eighth time this season.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

With just five such strikes, he has the lowest passing touchdown rate and the worst touchdown-to-interception ratio (5-to-10) in the NFL.

Newton might not be much more expensive in 2021, but the Patriots would merely be treading water with him under center. It's better to sink or swim with a fresh starter. Worst-case scenario, you save some money and likely end up with more draft capital in 2022.


Draft a Quarterback Early

The Patriots experienced too much success this season to have a shot at projected top pick Trevor Lawrence in the 2021 NFL draft, but they still have a shot at a top-10 selection and several other intriguing first-round options at the quarterback position.

They could attempt to position themselves for Ohio State's Justin Fields, who has the intelligence and underneath accuracy to be a great fit in New England. Coincidentally, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller recently likened Fields to a "young Cam Newton."

AJ Mast/Associated Press

There's also North Dakota State product Trey Lance, who wouldn't appear to be as natural a fit in New England but could be coached up by Belichick and Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. And then there's BYU's Zach Wilson, who might be a bit of a project like Lance but has flashed unreal athletic traits during a breakout junior season with the Cougars.

At this point, it would be surprising if the Patriots weren't positioned to land one of those guys. There are a lot of other holes on the roster, but you have to start with a quarterback, and it's time to swing the bat on a first-rounder for the first time since they took Drew Bledsoe first overall in 1993.


Don't Shy Away from the Open Market at Quarterback

Newton didn't pan out, but the idea should still be to roll as many dice as possible in the crapshoot-like process of finding a franchise quarterback. If a young quarterback with growth potential like Sam Darnold or Dwayne Haskins Jr. becomes available via trade or the free-agent market, Belichick should take a shot.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

That doesn't mean they have to give up on 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham. But there's no indication he's the long-term answer, and the Patriots can't put all their eggs in that basket beyond the rookie field.

Ideally, they turn the 2021 offseason into an all-out battle between Stidham, a rookie like Fields, Lance or Wilson and a young reclamation project like Darnold, Haskins or Mitchell Trubisky.


Invest in a Veteran Receiver

There's still some mystery surrounding the 2021 salary cap as the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic set in throughout the league, but the Patriots are at least projected by Spotrac to possess more cap space than anybody else in football except the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

That could enable New England to invest in a young free agent like Yannick Ngakoue or Solomon Thomas on defense and Corey Davis, Will Fuller V, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay or JuJu Smith-Schuster on offense. That receiver class looks loaded, which could enable the Pats to get decent value for a veteran player at a critical position of need.

It's important that New England gives its next quarterback the best possible chance at succeeding, and one more experienced offensive weapon would help with that.


Dump Aging Veterans

That's also true because the Patriots might not be able to get much more out of wide receiver Julian Edelman, who will turn 35 in the spring and wasn't exactly productive even before tearing his ACL early in the 2020 campaign. They can save $4 million by moving on from him, which would make a lot of sense, especially if they follow our advice in the above open-market analysis.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Meanwhile, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore has been far less effective in his age-30 season. His best days are likely behind him, and the Pats would be better off pocketing $9.5 million by cutting ties with the cornerback. Throw in the $2.6 million they could save by releasing 33-year-old Devin McCourty and there are plenty of opportunities to raise money this offseason.

Dump all three of those declining players in favor of a standout receiver in his prime to support your to-be-revealed young quarterback, take a blow on defense as part of a quasi-tank and make 2021 about assessing the roster.

It would be a rebuilding year. But if all goes to plan, 2022 could bring about a return to glory in Foxborough.


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.


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