New England Patriots Will Be AFC's Biggest Playoff Surprise in 2021

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 19, 2021

New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton throws during an NFL preseason football game against the Washington Football Team at Gillette Stadium, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Mass. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)
Winslow Townson/Associated Press

A non-playoff season left a worse taste in the collective mouths of the New England Patriots than brushing one's teeth then drinking a glass of orange juice. The organization did everything in its power this offseason to cleanse its palette and restart by building a playoff-caliber roster. 

After enjoying a 20-year dynasty that included six Super Bowl victories, the Patriots found out how the other half of the NFL lives.

The organization didn't have a ready-made replacement for Tom Brady (not that it really could). New England's offense sputtered and stalled. The unit lacked weapons. Decisions by Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung to opt-out of the 2020 campaign hampered the defense. In fact, the Patriots endured more opt-outs (eight) last season than any other squad. Furthermore, the defense lacked key pieces, particularly a consistent edge-rusher. 

Bill Belichick and Co. did what they do best this offseason: Formulate a plan to gain an edge over their competitors.

New England took advantage of its expansive salary-cap space when many other franchises had to deal with the realities of a restrictive salary cap after a COVID-19-stricken campaign. 

"We've never been in a position where we have spent the kind of money in free agency that we did this year," Kraft told reporters four months ago. "I think if there was ever a year to do it, this would be the year because we'd move quickly and instead of having 10 or 12 teams compete against us for free agents, there were only two or three. ... We moved quickly and we also had the advantage of being in a unique position of having [the second- or third-most] cap space."

The Patriots' splurge became breathtaking at the onset of free agency. The organization signed edge-rusher Matthew Judon, safety Jalen Mills, defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith and wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor. Those six by themselves command $218 million in total contractual value. 

New England fortified its offensive front by re-signing center David Andrews and Ted Karras, who left the previous season to join the Miami Dolphins. Trent Brown also came back to the team via trade. The Patriots brought back linebacker Kyle Van Noy, too. 

Then, the organization found its potential long-term solution behind center when it drafted Alabama's Mac Jones with this year's No. 15 pick. 

Clearly, the Patriots despised not making the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. 

"What happened here last year was not something to our liking," Kraft said. "We had to make the corrections. In all businesses we're involved in, we try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the market."

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

A plan is only as good as its execution, though. No team knows itself and prepares better than the Patriots. The offseason talent haul looks to be enough to propel the Patriots into the thick of the AFC's top squads, as long as the roster coalesces properly. 

New England's skill positions were the league's worst last season, at least at wide receiver and tight end. Early returns are quite promising. 

Agholor gives the team a much-needed vertical threat, meaning opposing defenses can't compress the field. Agholor set career-highs last season with 896 receiving yards and an average of 18.7 yards per catch, which ranked first among receivers with 40 or more receptions. He fits right into the Patriots' culture. 

"He's good to work with," Belichick told reporters. "... He's very detailed and wants to be detailed. Wants to do things the way that they need to be done and be where the quarterback needs him to be and with the right timing and so forth. Just got a good skill set and has been able to play a couple of different positions for us, as all the receivers have."

Bourne brings a shiftiness to the group that will help out Agholor and Jakobi Meyers. 

"Having KB underneath with me, keeping the safety off of me, if I don't win, he'll win; if he don't win, I'll win," Meyers explained

The varied skills sets are important. The Patriots lacked explosivity last season and ranked 30th in passing offense. While the wide receivers are much improved, they're complementary pieces. 

Tight ends will dominate the Patriots' offense, as long as Henry and Smith can stay healthy. Currently, they're not. Henry continues to deal with a shoulder injury, though it's not considered serious, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Smith, meanwhile, has an injured ankle. Again, the issue doesn't appear to be serious, per ESPN's Mike Reiss. Once healthy and on the field together, the Patriots can thrive in 12 personnel. 

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Both Henry and Smith are capable targets with the ability to create mismatches in the passing game. Their presence has the potential to dictate defensive looks. This further accentuates the Patriots' advantages, because New England's offense accentuates a deep running back stable. Henry and Smith can help load the box as blockers, flex out to create favorable matchups against linebackers or line up wide to spread defenses. Each of these possibilities is now at coordinator Josh McDaniels fingertips. 

In essence, the Patriots are getting back to basics after last year's tight ends combined to make 18 receptions. 

"This offense is built for tight ends," Henry said in July. "Obviously, they have had a lot of success with two tight ends. We're completely different players from the guys in the past. ... We're trying to be ourselves. Just looking forward to the challenge ahead. But, this offense has a tradition with two tight ends. I was excited about the opportunity."

With the supporting cast drastically improved, Belichick can now properly evaluate his quarterbacks—where the biggest difference should occur. 

Newton knows he's operating under yet another one-year deal with a first-round quarterback breathing down his neck. Now fully healthy, the 32-year-old recommitted this offseason by working to rebuild his fundamentals, per Reiss

"For years, when you're the biggest, strongest, baddest … and you go into the stadium and you got this cape flowing off your back, it's easy to get in the mentality of, 'I don't have to spend the dog days of summer doing all that other stuff,'"  personal quarterbacks coach George Whitfield told the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian. "So now, we're at that point in his career, where pushing the mechanics to the forefront is important because it can prolong you."

Specifically, Whitfield concentrated on Newton's footwork and base so the quarterback remains better balanced in the pocket. Injuries to his lower body caused his mechanics to deteriorate, and they needed to be rebuilt. 

If Newton doesn't hold up physically or simply doesn't play well enough, Jones impressed throughout camp and during his first NFL preseason game. He just may be the ideal distributor to play in the Patriots' offense after creating more of a competition than intended. 

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

"I just got a text from somebody within the Patriots organization who pointed out that Mac Jones is handling things 'very well, very smart, very hard worker, steady progress,'" ESPN's Darlington reported (h/t Boston.com's Hayden Bird). "These are all the things behind the scenes that you want to feel about Mac Jones."

"Yes, it matters what we personally see in practice and preseason games, but what's happening behind the scenes in that building, the fact that he's making that type of progress, to me, tells you that yes, as Sam pointed out, this is a competition."

The Buffalo Bills are the AFC East's best team. They're also counted among the best the AFC has to offer. From there, the race should be wide open with the Patriots capable of retaking the Miami Dolphins, who finished 10-6 last season. But the two teams split their series last season, and the Dolphins' development is also dependent on a quarterback, as Tua Tagovailoa becomes a full-time starter this fall. The New York Jets remain an afterthought as they start to build around this year's No. 2 pick, Zach Wilson.

Despite all of the holes and everything the Patriots previously lacked, New England still finished one game below .500 a year ago. Now, they should be better at quarterback, offensive line, wide receiver, tight end and on defense. 

How could they not be a playoff team with Belichick leading the way? Spoiler alert: They will be, and the team will savor its return to relevancy. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski