Predicting Patriots' Key Stat Leaders for 2021 NFL Season

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IMay 17, 2021

Predicting Patriots' Key Stat Leaders for 2021 NFL Season

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    No team in the NFL has been busier this offseason than the New England Patriots. That's what happens after a team misses the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and has its first losing season since 2000.

    The Pats were active early in free agency, bringing in key players to fill holes all over the field. Then, they added a new rookie class during the 2021 NFL draft, one that includes their potential future franchise quarterback in Mac Jones, who was selected during the first round.

    Jones may not start in 2021, though. It could potentially be Cam Newton, who signed another one-year deal to return to New England, back under center to open the new season.

    Either way, the Pats are in position to have a better showing than they had in 2020. Especially if they can get big seasons from some important players.

    Here are some early predictions for three key stats leaders for New England in 2021.

Jonnu Smith, TE

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    The Patriots needed a reliable veteran tight end for their offense. So they went out and signed two.

    New England signed both Smith and Hunter Henry, and it's probable that both will have big roles and become reliable targets for whichever quarterback is under center. While Henry has put up bigger numbers the past two seasons, Smith has stayed healthier and been more consistent.

    Smith and Henry should both have solid seasons, but the prediction here is that Smith will emerge as the top tight end on the Patriots' offense. Last year, he had 41 catches for 448 yards and eight touchdowns. And that came while playing on a Tennessee Titans offense with a lot of other playmakers (running back Derrick Henry, wide receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis).

    The Pats' receiving corps was one of their top weaknesses last season, so Smith should get plenty of targets and opportunities to put up strong numbers. He'll capitalize on those chances by having the best season of his NFL career thus far.

    Prediction: 58 receptions for 704 yards and eight touchdowns

Dont'a Hightower, LB

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    In 2020, New England was greatly impacted by players who opted out of the season (played amid the coronavirus pandemic), as it had an NFL-high eight who chose not to play. That included some of their top defensive players, such as Hightower.

    Although Hightower is now 31 and hasn't played a game since 2019, the linebacker was a consistent performer for the Patriots' defense over his first eight NFL seasons. And it's hard to imagine he won't play close to that form in 2021, as he should bring stability to the middle of New England's linebacker corps.

    Hightower played in at least 12 games in seven of his first eight seasons (including 15 in both 2018 and 2019). He's also racked up at least 60 tackles six times.

    It won't be Hightower's biggest season of his career, but he'll play well enough to make a positive impact and be a difference-maker for the Pats' defense. Hightower should be a welcome addition to a unit that will likely improve from last year.

    Prediction: 62 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery

J.C. Jackson, CB

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    While Stephon Gilmore has been considered the Patriots' top cornerback in recent years, he wasn't the one who put up the biggest numbers in 2020. Instead, it was Jackson, who built off his first two NFL seasons with his best year yet.

    In 16 games last season, Jackson set career highs in tackles (40), interceptions (nine), pass deflections (14) and fumble recoveries (three). Over his first three years, he has 17 interceptions in 45 games. So it's unlikely he's going to stop making big plays for New England's defense in 2021.

    There has been speculation about whether the Pats might trade Gilmore and/or Jackson, but both remain on the team heading into the summer. And as long as both stay in New England, the duo should continue to make the team's secondary a strength.

    Expect Jackson to continue to be one of the top defensive playmakers in the league. At some point, quarterbacks may stop throwing his way as often. But he's still going to find ways to step up.

    Prediction: 38 tackles, four interceptions and 17 pass deflections