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New England Patriots Have Cap Space to Bounce Back from Rare Losing Season

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2021

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, left, speaks to head coach Bill Belichick before an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. Belichick wore a patch honoring Fritz Pollard, the first African American head coach in the American Professional Football Association, renamed the National Football League, in 1921 for the Akron Pros. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

We just saw Tom Brady lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory while the New England Patriots fell out of the playoff picture—an odd turn of events considering their years of success as a collective unit.

Even after Brady made it clear that he'd start a new chapter with another team, many of us hesitated to count out the Patriots in 2020.

We thought Bill Belichick, who's regarded as one of the best head coaches in NFL history, would roll up (or cut off) his sleeves and pull off one of his best coaching performances ever despite eight New England players opting out of the season and the loss of Brady.

But the Patriots looked mediocre, winning four of five games between three- and four-game losing streaks en route to a 7-9 finish.

Could Belichick now go through back-to-back losing seasons without a playoff berth? That's hard to imagine, especially since he's working with $66.5 million in cap space. 

New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower
New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a HightowerElise Amendola/Associated Press
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The Patriots will welcome back key players who opted out of the 2020 season in linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and right tackle Marcus Cannon, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

In addition to returning a pair of starters on defense, New England can take a swing at top free-agent edge-rushers to strengthen its front seven. This past season, Chase Winovich led the team in sacks (5.5) and quarterback pressures (37) while playing just 58 percent of the defensive snaps. At less than $15 million annually, Haason Reddick, Carl Lawson or Romeo Okwara could shore up the pass rush. 

Besides, the Patriots may need to apply more pocket pressure if they deal lead cornerback Stephon Gilmore, whose name has appeared in the rumor mill (h/t The MMQB's Albert Breer). In the event New England deals him, its front office could use the acquired pick to select a cornerback in an early round of the draft.

However, most of the Patriots' offseason focus will go toward the offense, which ranked 27th in points and yards this past term. They've agreed in principle to acquire offensive tackle Trent Brown from the Las Vegas Raiders, per Rapoport. If healthy, he'll bolster the team's pass protection on the perimeter.

New England inked quarterback Cam Newton to a bargain deal at one year and $1.75 million with incentives last offseason, but he struggled through most of the campaign while throwing to a pass-catching group comprised mostly of backups and unproven players. 

Newton only threw for 2,657 yards, eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions through 15 contests, though he contributed 592 yards and 12 scores to a top-five ground attack. 

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (left) and quarterback Cam Newton (right)
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (left) and quarterback Cam Newton (right)Winslow Townson/Associated Press

On the I Am Athlete podcast, the Auburn product responded "hell yes" when asked if he'd return to New England on a one-year deal. According to ESPN's Mike Reiss, the Patriots haven't closed the door on their lead signal-caller from last season, either.

"Until the Patriots find an answer, they aren't in position to be closing any doors—and while it likely isn't the Patriots' top choice and a longer-odds scenario, the possibility of pairing Newton with another QB is different than bringing him back as the clear-cut No. 1," Reiss wrote.

Perhaps the Patriots believe Newton has the ability to post better passing numbers with a stronger supporting cast. Belichick has "raved" about the 31-year-old signal-caller despite concerns about his arm strength after multiple shoulder surgeries, per Ben Violin of the Boston Globe.

According to Greg Bedard of the Boston Sports Journal, the Patriots still have their sights set on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo if he goes on the trade block. If not, they have the cap space to acquire other quarterback options such as Marcus Mariota, Gardner Minshew II or Andy Dalton. Don't forget they could also see Alabama's Mac Jones fall to them at No. 15 in the draft, too.

The Patriots must help whoever starts under center in 2021. Their wide receivers and tight ends both ranked 27th or worse in receptions, yards, touchdowns and first downs in 2020 (h/t NFL Network's Mike Giardi).

Doug Kyed of NESN expects New England to retain its wide receiver corps and make "splash additions" in free agency. It'll need significant help at the position, especially since Edelman's status for the 2021 season remains unclear, per Rapoport. 

Gary McCullough/Associated Press

If Allen Robinson II and Kenny Golladay hit the open market or become available via franchise-tag-and-trade scenarios, the Patriots may inquire about them. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Will Fuller V could also draw the club's interest as notable targets. 

According to Kyed, former Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph sees New England as a potential landing spot, but the club can aim higher among available players at the position. He's a serviceable veteran but turns 32 years old in November.

Hunter Henry is arguably the top tight end on the open market, logging at least 55 receptions and 613 yards in each of his last two terms. Jonnu Smith hauled in 41 catches for 448 yards and eight touchdowns with the Tennessee Titans last season. He's a high-end alternative at the position.

On the ground, Damien Harris and Sony Michel can split the rushing workload, though the addition of Tevin Coleman or Duke Johnson or the return of James White would make sense as New England looks to fill the third-down pass-catching role.

Unfamiliar with rebuilding, the Patriots don't have to tear down their roster during the spring. Sure, they have to solve the quarterback issue and add a couple of pass-catchers, but they have the resources to address those needs. 

The free-agent wide receiver pool will offer a plethora of starting-caliber options, and because of their recent success, the Patriots are still a desirable destination. Assuming Belichick is open to trades, he can also absorb big contracts of players on the move, including those who would carry a franchise tag with them to New England.

Because of the expected dip in salary-cap space, New England should take advantage of the open market while other teams employ more cost-effective approaches. If the Patriots invest in the top ready-made playmakers, they'll be back in the playoff picture, reloading in 2021 with a solid offensive line and some important pieces on defense already in place.

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