Patriots' Offseason Guide Entering 2021 NFL Season

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IJanuary 11, 2021

Patriots' Offseason Guide Entering 2021 NFL Season

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots' playoff streak wasn't going to last forever. At some point, they were going to miss out on the postseason again, even if it didn't feel like it was coming anytime soon for most of the past decade. However, it finally happened to the Pats in 2020.

    With future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady leaving for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots went on to endure a tough season, going 7-9 and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008 (when Brady tore his ACL in the season opener and New England still went 11-5). This was the Pats' first losing season since going 5-11 in 2000, which was Bill Belichick's first season as head coach.

    Can the Patriots get back to the playoffs in 2021? The Buffalo Bills have emerged as the top team in the AFC East, while the Miami Dolphins had a solid season, even though they just missed out on the playoffs. But New England will be looking to make the necessary moves this offseason to get back in the race next season.

    Here's a look at some of the top storylines surrounding the Patriots as they head into the offseason.

Who Will Be the Starting Quarterback Next Season?

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Cam Newton's first (and potentially only) season with the Patriots didn't go as well as some may have expected. The 31-year-old quarterback passed for 2,657 yards, eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and three of those touchdowns came in the season finale against the New York Jets. Newton was more effective on the ground, though, rushing for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns.

    After spending his first nine NFL seasons with the Carolina Panthers, Newton signed a one-year deal with New England last offseason. Now, he's heading back to free agency, and ESPN's Adam Schefter indicated that it's possible Newton and the Pats will be going different directions this offseason.

    Jarrett Stidham is the only New England quarterback under contract for next season, and the 24-year-old is unlikely to be its starter moving forward. The Patriots could potentially look to the free-agent market, or perhaps they'll consider taking a quarterback with the No. 15 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

    Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is the top quarterback in the 2021 class, but it's highly likely he'll go to the Jacksonville Jaguars with the No. 1 overall pick. Ohio State's Justin Fields, BYU's Zach Wilson and North Dakota State's Trey Lance are among the other top quarterback prospects, so perhaps the Patriots will consider one of them at No. 15 (or trade up to get one).

    Whether it's re-signing Newton, signing a free agent or drafting a college standout, New England will need to add a quarterback this offseason. And it will be a huge decision that could affect the trajectory of the franchise for numerous seasons to come.

Playmakers Needed on Offense, Especially at Wide Receiver

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    While quarterback is a huge need for the Patriots this offseason, they also need some talented players to put around their signal caller in the offense. They have a pair of talented running backs in Damien Harris and Sony Michel, but they're going to need to add players to boost their passing attack.

    New England's leading wide receiver this past season was Jakobi Meyers, who had 59 receptions for 729 yards in 14 games. However, he didn't score any touchdowns, and the 24-year-old likely shouldn't be a team's No. 1 receiving option, although he is under contract for next season and could again be a key contributor for the Pats' offense.

    Julian Edelman will be 35 when the 2021 season begins, and he was limited to six games in 2020 because of a knee injury. Meanwhile, N'Keal Harry didn't take huge strides in his second year in the NFL, and Damiere Byrd is set to be a free agent. So New England is going to need to find ways to boost its receiving corps.

    There's likely going to be a bunch of talented wide receivers available on the free-agent market, and the Patriots could also potentially address the position through the draft, so they'll have options.

    New England could also benefit from adding a tight end, as rookies Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi never emerged as viable options in its passing offense. In the past, the Patriots' offense has been at its best when it has a talented tight end to incorporate, so maybe they'll get back to that in 2021 by adding a player at the position this offseason.

Can Defense Get Back to Elite Level in 2021?

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    In 2019, the Patriots led the NFL in both points allowed per game (14.1) and total yards allowed per game (275.9). In 2020, they ranked seventh and 15th in those categories, respectively, taking a step back after having the most dominant defense in the league the year before.

    It didn't help New England that linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung were among its players to opt out of the 2020 season, which was played amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Patriots' linebacker corps would have performed much better with Hightower on the field. If he's back in 2021, it will likely provide a boost, but it's not a sure thing that the 30-year-old will return.

    The Pats will also need to either re-sign or replace some key players from their defense this offseason, as defensive tackle Adam Butler, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and defensive back Jason McCourty are among those becoming unrestricted free agents. Cornerback J.C. Jackson, who impressed in 2020, is set to become a restricted free agent.

    Before the season, there had also been rumors about New England potentially looking to trade cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. Could it again consider dealing him this offseason? He'll be a $17.2 million cap hit in 2021, so it's possible.

    There's a lot of work to be done on the defensive side of the ball if the Patriots hope to get back to a higher level of production, so it will be interesting to see what decisions they make this offseason. But expect them to address some key positions through free agency and the draft to try to improve the defense.