Mac Jones Practice

Dawn of a new era: Can Mac Jones lead the Patriots back to the playoffs?

Twenty years ago, Bill Belichick was faced with a tough decision at quarterback. 

Taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Tom Brady made it far too difficult for Belichick to return to the New England Patriots’ then-$100 million man in Bledsoe, when the presumed franchise passer was cleared to play. 

The tough choice to stick with Brady spawned a two-decade dynasty in Foxboro that totaled six Super Bowl wins, nine Super Bowl appearances, 13 AFC title game berths and 17 AFC East division titles.

Now, looking to pick up the pieces after a rough first season without Brady (who added to his Super Bowl total in Tampa Bay with the Buccaneers), ‘The Hoodie’ was tasked with another conundrum at QB.

Cam Newton versus Mac Jones. 

Belichick once again opted for the young, gangly passer over a former No. 1 overall pick when he decided to abruptly extinguish the Cam Newton era, releasing the 2015 NFL MVP before eager Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium ever got the chance to cheer for him in person. 

Now, the keys to the New England’s complex offense belong to Mac Jones, the franchise’s lone first-round pick quarterback (No. 15 overall) of the Belichick era, and first since Bledsoe in 1993. 

Cam Newton and Mac Jones
Mac Jones is a better fit for the Patriots’ offense than Cam Newton. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

Comparing Jones to Tom Brady outright is a fool’s errand. 

Brady will forever be the face of the franchise. He’s the greatest player in NFL history. Even if Mac Jones’ career is everything the Patriots hope for, there will likely be a statue of Brady built outside the stadium in Foxboro midway through Jones’ New England career, which is something that probably won’t happen for the latter. 

However, it’s fair to say that Jones is of Brady’s mold. Shared attributes include a super-computer football mind, pocket presence, accuracy, poise, and shared “deficiencies”such as a lack of speed and the inability to make off-schedule plays consistently. 

Both have been described as having “adequate” arm strength, despite each displaying deep-shot ability and zip on the ball. (Seriously, go watch this Brady attempt to Randy Moss in Super Bowl 42, or some of his intermediate throws in his 2010 NFL MVP award-winning season.)

ESPN‘s Louis Riddick, a former player of Belichick’s and a brilliant evaluator/analyst amidst a sea of hot-take artists in the business, took to NBC Sports Boston’s ‘Next Pats’ podcast to praise the fit of Jones with the Patriots to Insider Phil Perry:

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“He’s known for being that cerebral, fast-thinking, risk-averse…but at the same time, calculated in terms of the big shots that he takes, type of quarterback. Last time I checked, that’s what wins in the NFL. 

…At quarterback, it’s always been about decision making and accuracy. It always will be about that. Everything else is a bonus. There’s a lot of quarterbacks in this draft that make spectacular plays with their legs. What is going to separate them from the rest, and put them in the category of being elite, is: can they make good decisions and be accurate with the football? It’s really that simple. And Mac [Jones] has shown the ability to do that. 

What did he do this preseason? He was throwing people open. 

His first preseason game, what did they do? They went up-tempo and no-huddle, because things were sluggish for him against Washington. So they go five-empty, and they are just like “zoom, zoom, zoom”. No other rookie quarterback was doing that.”

——-

The decision to go with Jones over Newton came down to Jones being the perfect leader for Josh McDaniels’ offensive schemes and concepts. (As well as having the cap space to build a Super Bowl-winning team around Mac Jones’ four-year, $16 million cheap-as-hell rookie QB contract during Belichick’s presumed final coaching years). 

Many believed that New England “catered” their playbook to Newton last season, but really, Newton was asked to run the Patriots’ offense led by Brady in 2018 and 2019, with the only consistent “Cam-specific” addition to the offense being a small package of QB power-type plays utilized by Newton on the goal line and in short-yardage scenarios. 

Mac Jones and Josh McDaniels
Mac Jones is the prototypical style of quarterback to run Josh McDaniels’ offensive schemes in New England. (Photo: Mark Daniels)

Jones is the perfect fit to run any of New England’s offensive iterations in the Brady era: run-heavy and play-action passing out of I-formation and Singleback under center, quick-passing and timing-based throws out of shotgun empty and spread, and up-tempo attacks with versatile pieces such as New England’s two new tight ends. 

Jones is the type of passer who thrives before the snap and goes through his progressions quicker than most after the snap. Often times last year, Newton’s struggled in New England’s play-action reads from under center. He held onto the ball for too long when scanning the field. Sure, a lack of competent pass-catchers certainly had a lot to do with that, but Newton just didn’t seem to fit New England’s offense, and the Patriots didn’t seem willing to change, nor did they have the time to do so with no preseason and a truncated training camp in the Summer of 2020.

Bill Belichick's Prototypical QB
Mac Jones fits Bill Belichick’s prototypical quarterback template to a tee, as described by Belichick here in a 1991 scouting guide he presumably gave to his Cleveland Browns staff. (Photo by Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network)

Jones is the perfect fit for what the team wants to do. And in 2021, that’s best predicted as an amalgam of their early-dynasty offense from 2001 to 2006 (and again from 2018 to 2020), and their up-tempo, quick-passing, matchup-exploiting scheme from 2010 to 2012 with the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, paired with Brady at the end of his physical peak. 

Asking for Jones to be anything close to what Brady was from about 2007 to 2017 is incredibly unfair. It won’t happen. But Jones is absolutely capable of mimicking Brady’s early years, when New England won three Super Bowls with a solid team around him. 

Up front, New England has what should be one of the NFL’s four or five best offensive lines. The Patriots have returning starters in left tackle Isaiah Wynn, Center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu, who is moving over from right tackle to left guard, a more natural spot for him after he mostly played tackle last season, and excelled. 

The Patriots let their best offensive lineman over the past few seasons, Joe Thuney, walk in free agency for a big deal with AFC rival Kansas City based off the play of Onwenu, who as a rookie, was the eighth-highest-graded tackle (84.3) in the NFL in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus

Wynn, Onwenu and Mason are incredible run blockers, in particular. The Patriots will go heavy with pulling guards and man-blocking as a power running team once more. 

The unit may be the best run-blocking group in the NFL, and should be in the top half of the league in pass-blocking, with the latter being helped out by the last-to-be-named starting offensive lineman: right tackle Trent Brown

New England kicked off the offseason by trading back for Brown after his two seasons with the Raiders. Brown was an anchoring left tackle for New England in their 2018 Super Bowl run, which helped the 6-foot-8, 380-pound gargantuan earn a contract as massive as his size. 

Size is the name of the game with this group of front, as each starter is over 300 pounds, and the entire unit averaging a league-high 330 pounds. This is one of the bigger offensive lines in the league, if not the biggest. 

Running behind them often will be Damien Harris, who should be the team’s clear leading rusher now that Super Bowl 53 hero Sony Michel is battling for RB1 duties with the Los Angeles Rams. 

The team felt comfortable with Harris leading the charge as a traditional, downhill-running back who makes up for any talent deficiencies with his tough, and smart, ball-carrying style. 

But it’s only a matter of time that rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma, and J.J. Taylor, entering Year 2 out of Arizona, become significant parts of the offense. 

Taylor should be first up as RB2 as a Dion Lewis/Rex Burkhead hybrid who runs with a surprising amount of power for his size (5-foot-6, 185 pounds). 

Stevenson is a bigger back (6-foot, 246 pounds) that initially drew comparisons to LeGarrette Blount, only for many to find out that he is surprisingly agile as a make-you-miss runner who will excel in shotgun, inside-zone attempts, and is probably the second-best receiving back of the group behind James White. 

Speaking of White, the eight-year-pro, and longtime Patriots hero, stands the most to gain from the switch from Cam Newton to Mac Jones at quarterback. The Patriots can now turn to its quick-passing attack that historically feeds its pass-catching backs. That wasn’t really Cam’s game. So White, who had less receiving yards (375) and receiving scores (one) than he’s had since his rookie year (where he barely played) should have a resurgence on screens, as well as flat routes and option routes from the backfield on 3rd-and-5-and-under situations. 

The reimplementation of White as a factor in the offense is just one of a slew of factors that should help improve won of the most inefficient passing offenses of the 21st century last season. 

The team threw a league-worst 10 touchdown passes last season, and ranked 27th in passing in Football Outsiders‘ renowned DVOA stat. 

To help combat the issues, Belichick overhauled the tight end position by making headlines with not one, but two free agency splashes at the position in Jonnu Smith (4 years, $50 million, $31.25 million guaranteed) and Hunter Henry (3 years, $37.5 million, $25 million guaranteed). 

The offense will be led by rookie Mac Jones, but will revolve around the O-line, running game, and play-action passing to what should be two phenomenal chess pieces in Smith and Henry for McDaniels’ play-calling. 

12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) has long been a staple of New England offenses, but with limited personnel post-Gronk, the team has barely used the tight end position. The Patriots ran 12 personnel in just two-percent of offensive snaps (22 snaps) in 2020, according to Sharp Football Stats, a league low, and New England has only three touchdown receptions from tight ends in the last two seasons combined. Quite simply, they’ve ignored the position during games because they’ve had to, due to a lack of talent. Now, they likely will use more two-tight end sets than any team in the league. 

In Henry they have more of a traditional ‘Y’ tight end who is capable in-line as a blocker, and can spread out as a pass-catcher in looks such as a shotgun 3×1 setup, where the former Charger would project as a backside ‘X’ receiver a la Travis Kelce in Kansas City. 

Smith, a former Tennesee Titan, is more of a rare breed as a Swiss army knife-type player who can line up on the line, in the slot, as an H-back, fullback, or even running back. McDaniels will look to get him matched up on slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs in hopes of utilizing Smith’s incredible yards-after-the-catch ability, in which he has averaged 6.8 YAC for his career, by using a blend of power and finesse as a fully-aware, movement player with supreme ball carrier vision, athleticism and toughness for his position.

On the surface, it would seem lazy to compare the Henry-Smith combination to the great Gronk-Hernandez tandem from 2010 to 2012, but the archetypes seem similar. Sure, Henry isn’t as powerful as Gronk, and Smith, although a much better blocker than Hernandez, doesn’t quite have the body control of the former troubled Florida Gator product, who made defenders miss after the catch perhaps better than any tight end the game has ever seen.

But, there are similarities. The Patriots should be much better in the red zone with this tight end tandem. Smith, alone, had a career-high eight touchdowns in 2020. 

Additionally, look for each to run a myriad of routes out of play-action in I-Form and Singbleback two-tight end sets. In shotgun-spread, Henry will split out wide at times, and Smith should work heavily in the middle of the field, whether it be seam routes, or quick outs from the slot, or option-routes from the backfield. 

All of this leans on Jones’ ability to get these guys the ball, of course. The Alabama QB seems to thrive in both spread and under-center, play-action looks, and is accurate when throwing the football. A bigger cause for concern with the tight ends, is the health of Henry, who is coming into Week 1 possibly banged up, and has missed 24 games in four seasons. Henry has also never played a full season of games. 

If Henry does miss time, Devin Asiasi, a 2020 third-round pick, stands to fill his place as the Y-tight end, but it’s more likely that New England will then heavily mix in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) and the common 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) to make up for Henry’s absence. 

Not yet mentioned, Jakob Johnson is a traditional fullback who lacks the power of James Develin, but is a capable lead-blocker in I-formation, strong, and weak looks. Even with Smith and Henry healthy, Johnson will get his fair share of goal-line and short-yardage snaps. 

At wide receiver, the Patriots paid Nelson Agholor (2 years, $26 million, $15 million guaranteed) and Kendrick Bourne (3 years, $22.5 million) to come in and help a wide receiver core that struggled mightily against man coverage in 2020. Last season, the Patriots passing offense was 31st in EPA/play versus man coverage and single-high looks.

Agholor’s contract suggests New England views him as their top receiver. The former Philadelphia Eagle was considered a bit of a first-round bust as a slot receiver, even if he burned the Patriots for a nine-catch, 84-yard performance as an underneath, quick-pass option in Philadephia’s Super Bowl 52 win over New England. 

Playing on a prove-it, one-year deal for the Raiders last year, Agholor reinvented himself as a speedy deep-threat and X-receiver, setting a career-high in receiving yards (896) and tying his high in touchdowns (8), all while ranking second in the league in yards per reception (18.7).

Agholor will be tasked as New England’s deep-shot playmaker who also runs intermediate, in-breaking routes such as crossers, from both the perimeter and the slot. There, Agholor can utilize his speed to break away from man-coverage defenders, allowing the rest of the team’s pass-catchers, such as fellow newcomer Kendrick Bourne, to work underneath. 

Bourne, coming over from San Francisco, will likely begin the season as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver who comes on the field in 11 personnel and third-down situations. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver is not known for his speed, but rather his quickness, route-running, strength/toughness and ability in the clutch on 3rd-and-7-or-so scenarios. He will be a threat underneath, in the red zone, on third down, and in crunch time. Expect Bourne to be one of the team’s more improved players in the scheme by season’s end. He has the potential, along with James White, to be a third-down security blanket pass catcher for the team’s rookie QB. 

Then, there’s Jakobi Meyers. The former North Carolina State QB-turned-receiver continues to defy expectations, blossoming into one of the NFL’s more competent and productive possession receivers. He ranked 10th out of 111 qualifying pass catchers in receiving yards per routes run (2.24) last year, and led the Patriots in receiving yards (776) despite not starting in the team’s first few games of 2020. 

He’ll often play in the slot in both shotgun-spread and 11-personnel looks, and as a Z-receiver/flanker option on the outside in 12 personnel. Basically, despite having a bit of a different skill set, Meyers is taking over Edelman’s role in the offense. Meyers is on an early-career, Edelman-like progression track within the offense, too. He should be a focal point in his third year in 2021.

After that, there’s 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry, who will miss the first few games of the season on injured reserve, and look to produce as a moving chess piece on the perimeter, in the slot, and in motion as an athlete-type player at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, who may surprise some in Year 3 after gaining confidence and experience.

Rounding out the group is Gunner Olszewski, an All-Pro punt returner and backup slot option, and newcomer Malcolm Perry, a former Navy quarterback (right up Belichick’s wheelhouse) converted to a slot receiver-running back in Miami under former Patriots coach Brian Flores. Expect him to be a gadget-type player at first  who attempts to learn the receiver position, a la Julian Edelman. Perry does have incredible quickness. 

The offense will likely get back to its roots under Mac Jones, with McDaniels reverting back to his mix-and-match approach with game plans as Jones becomes more comfortable leading the offense. The team’s chameleon-like approach was renowned in the 2010s, and was a major factor in their success under Tom Brady. 

Expect the Patriots to lean heavy on 12 personnel, power-running and play-action passing at first, before eventually leaning more on Jones’ ability to run an up-tempo, spread offense that famously uses versatile players (Jonnu Smith, James White, etc.) to exploit matchups in a timing-based, quick-passing scheme.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Mac Jones

RB — Damien Harris

‘X’ WR — Nelson Agholor

‘Z’ WR/Slot — Jakobi Meyers

‘Y’/Traditional TE — Hunter Henry

‘F’/’Move’ TE — Jonnu Smith

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Michael Onwenu

C — David Andrews 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Trent Brown

Situational positions: 

FB — Jakob Johnson

WR3 (Underneath option, 3rd-down, etc.) — Kendrick Bourne

3rd-down back/receiving back — James White

RB2/Scatback — J.J. Taylor

RB3 — Rhamondre Stevenson 

‘Y’ TE/TE3 — Devin Asiasi

WR4 — N’Keal Harry

WR5/Slot WR — Gunner Olszewski 

‘Gadget’/Slot WR — Malcolm Perry

Swing Tackle — Yodney Cajuste/Justin Herron 

* * * * * * *

For all the talk of the ineffective passing offense from last year, the Patriots defense stumbled down the ladder of the league’s top-ranked defenses, into a unit that resembled nothing of its staunch 2019 form. 

The team went from first in DVOA in total defense in 2019 to 26th last season, which included a ranking of dead-last in run defense DVOA. Those are catastrophic numbers for a Belichick-led defense. 

The unit struggled mightily last year after losing some of its key players both to free agency (Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton) and opt-outs (Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung), and missing Stephon Gilmore, New England’s current best player, for five games due to injury. 

The Patriots’ Spending spree in free agency included an initial wave of players on defense with Van Noy returning from Miami on a two-year, $13.2 million deal. The team also signed cornerback/safety-hybrid Jalen Mills (4 years, $24 million) and plucked nose tackle Davon Godchaux (2 years, $16 million) and defensive end Henry Anderson (2 years, $7 million) from AFC East rivals. 

But their biggest offseason addition was the the signing of former Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon to a four-year, $56 million deal ($32 million guaranteed). Judon already looked the part in the preseason as a menacing edge setter. 

In addition to finishing last in run defense DVOA last year, the team was also ranked last in off-tackle yards per attempt, showcasing just how bad they were in setting the edge in the run game. Chase Winovich is one of the league’s better edge rushers, but coupled with the likes of John Simon, Shilique Calhoun and Tashawn Bower last year, the team was horrendous in stopping outside runs.

Adding Judon and re-adding Van Noy to set the edge in the run game, along with the additions of Godchaux and Anderson (3rd among interior lineman with a 43 percent run-stop-win rate in 2020) to plug up the interior will transform this front seven, and give the Patriots what they want: a tough, deep depth chart of defensive lineman and linebackers for their 3-4-style (mostly) defense that they’ve shifted too since 2019. 

 

Patriots defense -- 2020 trends
The New England Patriots have mostly moved to a 3-4 style of defense since 2019, employing a “base” Nickel 2-4-5, often with three safeties, as their most-used formation.

Expect the Patriots to run a boatload of 2-4-5 with Godchaux (6-foot-3, 311 pounds) and the returning Lawrence Guy (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) up front as a versatile lineman who can play both 4-3 defensive tackle an 3-4-style defensive end. Each of these men are excellent two-gapping lineman for this type of defense. The Patriots struggled last year with an endless supply of practice-squad type players and cast-offs rotating around Guy up front, which hurt the defense almost as much their deficiencies on the edge. 

This year on the edge, the aforementioned Matt Judon is probably New England’s best football player on the roster with Gilmore sidelined. He’s the strong-side, stand-up EDGE defender that is perfect for this scheme. The “Elephant” role, is what former Patriot Willie McGinest calls this role, according to CLNS Media‘s Evan Lazar

Matthew Judon -- Training Camp
Matthew Judon may be the Patriots’ best player in 2021. New England was in dire need of a player of his caliber as an EDGE defender. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

Judon can use his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame, athleticism and aggressiveness to stop the run, rush the passer and even play a bit of shallow pass coverage. 

Van Noy returns on the other side as the opposite EDGE on early downs, with the possibility to move inside as well. 

At off-ball linebacker, the return of Dont’a Hightower is one of the more under-the-radar, massively important stories of the entire league. The 10-year-pro is a leader on the defense, and New England missed his football wit, swagger and ferociousness up front. 

Depending on the scheme, the Patriots will have Ja’Whaun Bentley, who struggled in Hightower’s role last year, returning to his perfect fit as a “thumper” inside linebacker in 3-4 looks. 

New England also loves to employ three safeties, and the Patrick Chung role as a box safety/linebacker hybrid will certainly be utilized in some 2-4-5 looks. Last year, Kyle Dugger played mostly as a strong safety, and Adrian Phillips as a linebacker. This season, there’s a chance their roles switch, as Dugger’s tackling ability and sideline-to-sideline speed fit better in the box, with Phillips impressing many in pass coverage, specifically man coverage on tight ends, in training camp. Although, Phillips was tough up front tackling ball carriers in 2020, even with his smaller frame for the box. But the lack of run-stuffers up front meant more lineman coming downhill and blowing Phillips out of the play. That shouldn’t happen this season. 

Rounding out the safeties is Devin McCourty, who enters his 12th season at age 34 as a dependable free safety on early downs, and Cover 1 robber defender to stop crossers (think: yellow zone in Madden) on later downs. The “Duron Harmon” role as the team’s deep safety on clear passing downs (such as 3rd-and-long) is up for grabs, with slot cornerback Jonathan Jones looking like a frontrunner. 

The Patriots loved to run a heavy amount of man coverage, with Cover 1 being their speciality. Last year, Cover 1 and Cover 3 were once again their main coverage tendencies, but the split between man coverage and zone was roughly 51 percent to 49 percent last season, according to my film review and charting.

The increase in zone coverage from the previous season probably had a lot to do with the absence of No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore for five games. 

The Patriots are vulnerable without Stephon Gilmore, who even at age 31 is arguably the best man-coverage cornerback in football on the perimeter. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year is attempting to return from a torn quad, and will miss at least six weeks since he’s on the PUP (Physically unable to perform) list. Gilmore is also looking for a new contract, as he’s playing on just a $7 million base salary in 2021, much lower than top-of-the-market pay for his position. So his situation is murky, making New England’s cornerback situation a possible Achilles heel on an otherwise superb-looking defense. 

With Gilmore out, J.C. Jackson, who is playing on a contract year (he’s playing in 2021 on a cheap restricted free agent tender this season), moves up to No. 1 cornerback, a position in which he struggled some last year, particularly against Bills All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs. 

Jackson is possibly the best No. 2 cornerback in football, but stands to improve as a No. 1 option. After gaining some experience in the role last year, expect him to be even better in 2021. He’s one of the best deep-ball defenders in the game on the outside. 

Jalen Mills, a struggling cornerback-turned-competent-safety with the Eagles is the type of versatile defensive player that the Patriots covet, but it’s worth wondering how he’ll hold up as the No. 2 cornerback on the outside. He best slots in as competition for Jonathan Jones as a slot or nickel-type who plays some safety.

The Patriots should also get a lot out their non-starters, as they look for their best pairings. 

In the secondary, Joejuan Williams and newcomer Shaun Wade, Baltimore’s fifth-round pick this past spring out of Ohio State who was once considered a first-round pick prospect, are gangly cornerbacks with safety potential who will get their fare share of playing time with Gilmore out. 

At linebacker, Harvey Langi returns to the Patriots to provide depth after a three-year-stint with the rival New York Jets that saw him in a starting role at times in 2020. 

On the defensive line, there’s Carl Davis as depth for Godchaux at nose tackle after earning his spot as the lone midseason addition who could stop the run last year. Then there’s newcomer Henry Anderson and the returning Deatrich Wise Jr., a Belichick favorite, will battle it out for snaps alongside Guy and Godchaux as a 3-4 defensive end in base 3-4 looks. Wise Jr. is more of a 4-3-style player but has molded his game over the past two years to fit the 3-4, and is a great locker room presence. 

Wise Jr. will also see time as an interior rusher in clear passing situations in the Patriots’ Big Dime 2-3-6 setup, a go-to look for them on third down. 

Next to him will be rookie Christian Barmore. New England moved up to get the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Alabama defensive tackle in the second round after he fell out of his projected spot as a back-half-of-the-first-round prospect. Barmore may one day be a starter in 3-4 and 2-4-5 looks on early downs, but he’ll begin his career in the Adam Butler role as perhaps the Patriots’ best interior rusher. He should also be the lone hand-in-the-dirt lineman in Big Dime 1-4-6 looks.

Rounding out the insanely-deep EDGE position is third-round pick Ronnie Perkins, who should get a bit of a redshirt year in a learning role, and the aforementioned Chase Winovich, who will return to his pass-rush specialty position as a third-down rusher and occasional base player.

And last but not least, there’s Josh Uche, one of the team’s most important players this season, along with Dugger at safety, considering the second-year “leap” each player is projected to take. 

Josh Uche -- Training Camp
Josh Uche is projected to have a breakout second season, and perhaps may overtake Kyle Van Noy as a starting stand-up EDGE opposite Matthew Judon in base defense looks later in the season. (Screenshot: Josh Uche Instagram)

Uche has the speed and athleticism to take over the 2019 Jamie Collins role as both an early-down EDGE defender and off-ball linebacker in passing situations who often blitzes up the middle. But Uche’s raw talent at rushing the passer, with his speed, quickness and ability to bend past offensive tackles make him a fit as a full-time EDGE, where he may be able to kick Van Noy to the inside. After all, Dont’a Hightower called Uche “little Judon” for his talent and overall ability as a stand-up EDGE defender. 

Uche, a 2019 second-round pick, will certainly play often, and the possibilities of mixing and matching these pass-rushing edge rushers on clear passing downs are endless. 

Could you imagine a 1-4-6 look on a 3rd-and-10 with Barmore on the line, and four out of five of a group including Judon, Hightower, Van Noy, Winovich and Uche all along the line as stand-up rushers? That’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare. 

The Patriots have the ability to go with a bulkier 3-4, a 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles (their usual base), or a Big Dime look (2-3-6, 1-4-6) as their main defense for the majority of a game, depending on the opponent. 

They can run three safety-looks, and can also use run-stuffing personnel, pass-rushing personnel and more, all with the perfect amount of player overlap and cycling of players with different skill sets. 

This unit has the ability to be a top-five group in both points allowed and efficiency metrics (DVOA, etc.).

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior/Nose Tackle — Davon Godchaux

Interior— Lawrence Guy

EDGE — Matt Judon

EDGE — Kyle Van Noy

LB — Dont’a Hightower

Box safety/LB— Kyle Dugger

S (‘Big’ Nickel/Dime/three-safety packages) — Adrian Phillips

CB1 — J.C. Jackson

CB2 — Jalen Mills 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

Interior/3-4 DE — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

Interior/3-4 DE  — Henry Anderson

3-4 Nose Tackle — Carl Davis

Interior pass rusher (Big Dime 2-3-6/1-4-6) — Christian Barmore

3-4 ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley

EDGE/LB/3rd-down pass rusher — Josh Uche 

EDGE/3rd-down pass rusher — Chase Winovich

EDGE — Ronnie Perkins

CB1 (PUP, out six weeks) — Stephon Gilmore

CB4 (perimeter)/slot — Shaun Wade

CB5/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

* * * * * * *

Projected record: 11-6 (AFC’s No. 6 seed)

In an attempt to reboot the team after a 7-9 transition season in a post-Tom Brady world, during a pandemic, Bill Belichick hurled an NFL-record $159.6 million of guaranteed money in free agency to attempt to fix his team on both sides of the ball. 

Some criticized the moves, calling some of the contracts “overpays,” but the moves were strategic, as the Patriots were one of just a couple teams with the available cap space in 2020 after the salary cap shrunk in an attempt to make up for lost revenue from a lack of fan attendance during last season. 

The salary cap will increase, swiftly and dramatically, I might add, which will make many of these deals closer to market value, or even below the threshold, which means the Patriots will have additional cap space after all, to build a team around rookie Mac Jones. 

Yes, it’s Jones who Belichick plucked from good friend Nick Saban’s team in Alabama, in the first round of the draft. It’s Jones, who Belichick has deemed worthy as Brady’s official successor, perhaps thanks to valuable insider info from Saban. 

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 20 years since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. That season, it was fitting that the New England Patriots banded together as a team, built off a solid defense, top-tier play in the trenches (OL, DL), a tough power-running game, and a young quarterback leading the offense as a clutch, unafraid leader with much to learn. And let’s not forget, great coaching. 

The 2021 Patriots are a similar breed, perhaps not as sturdy in the secondary without Stephon Gilmore, but just as deep in the front seven, with a better offensive line, and perhaps, better offensive weapons, with two tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith ready to become a focal point of the offense. 

Of course, times have changed, as the game is equipped with new rules today that were not in place in 2001. High-flying offenses and great quarterback play are more important than ever. 

So even with all of this, the comparisons to the 2001 Patriots and all, this team is not quite Super Bowl-ready, but they will surprise many, challenging the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East for all 18 weeks of the regular season, before earning a wild-card berth, and winning the franchise’s first playoff game since Super Bowl 53, three seasons ago. (I have them losing in the Divisional round.) 

There was a clear opposing of views between Brady and Belichick when it came to team-building philosophies. That was perhaps the main reason for Brady’s split to Tampa Bay during his final years. Brady has his high-flying offense, and now, Belichick’s vision for a more complete team has come to fruition.    

Tom Brady -- Super Bowl LIII

Seventh Heaven? Brady, Belichick make attempt at record seventh title

This week marks the beginning of yet another season for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the once-again defending Super Bowl champions. Few could have predicted their still-dominant place in the league at this time just five years ago, after the team was steamrolled on a Monday night in Kansas City. Yet, the Patriots remain at the top of the league, with more success since that Fall night in 2014 than perhaps any five-year stretch of their greatest-of-all-time dynasty.

Per usual, the team has gotten a makeover consisting of several wrinkles — some are smaller (Patriots shifting to more two and three-man fronts along the defensive line) and some are larger (Rob Gronkowski’s retirement)  — that will help shape their 2019 season and it’s end result.

The two constants — Brady and Belichick — can be addressed without too much of a deep dive. Belichick returns for his 20th season as the Patriots head coach, implementing new trends and defensive schemes to help keep his team at the top.

Brady returns for his 19th season as the franchise’s key player and leader. After signing a two-year extension masked as a one-year deal, it’s officially fair to assume Brady is now on a year-by-year basis despite insisting that he’d still like to play until the age of 45. Can he play that long at a fairly-high level? Almost certainly. Will he? Especially if New England does indeed pull ahead as the only franchise to win Super Bowl titles in 2019? That’s a question to be addressed six months from now.

Brady has certainly reached uncharted territory — as has 40-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees  — but anyone doubting him would be a fool to do so, and there are many doubters.

* * * * *

It’s well-known that New England’s offense (and defense) adjust on the fly better than any other franchise over the better part of the last two decades. In 2019, the team will likely retain their chameleon approach to their opponents, which is something that has been more prominent in recent seasons with Josh McDaniels’ offenses.

“We were adaptable” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on NFL Network’s ‘Do Your Job Part 3’ special. “You know, Tom [Brady}, if he’s supposed to hand it off 37 times and win that way, then he’ll do it. If we need him to throw it 52 times, then he’ll do that too. It’s the same way Bill [Belichick] is. Bill doesn’t care if we win 43-40 or 13-10. The willingness to be able to do that is a special trait.”

Last December and January, the Patriots relied heavily on a power-running game featuring rookie rusher Sony Michel and lead-blocking fullback James Develin. Expect that to carry over into the 2019 season as a staple of the offense with Rex Burkhead and rookie Damien Harris spelling Michel.

But with the subtraction of the game’s all-time greatest tight end, New England will have to rely on either Broncos castoff Matt LaCosse or 2018 seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo — and later Benjamin Watson — to provide support in the running game.

Neither of these players is Gronkowski, who is perhaps the greatest receiving threat and blocking threat at his position in the history of the sport. With a lackluster group at tight end, expect the position to be deemphasized in the passing game. To make up for the absence of Gronkowski, the Patriots will turn to an array of larger-bodied receivers to assist Brady. The newest Belichick trend has brought in former Broncos All-Pro Demaryius Thomas (6-foot-3, 229 pounds) and rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) to join the team’s top option on the permitter, Josh Gordon (6-foot-3, 225 pounds).

Gordon projects to be the on-the-line ‘X’-type wide receiver, while Thomas and veteran Phillip Dorsett will likely split time at the ‘Z’ receiver. The Patriots placed Harry on injured reserve with a designation to return earlier in the week, which opened up the door for Thomas to return. Later in the season, Harry may snatch away snaps from Thomas and Dorsett to become a starter in three-receiver sets (’11’ personnel). But for this entire season, Brady will likely rely on Gordon as the team’s stalwart on the outside with any consistent success coming from Harry, Thomas, Dorsett or undrafted rookie Jacoby Meyers being a treat.

This means the GOAT will rely heavily on old friends Julian Edelman and James White.

At age 33,  Edelman is now two years removed from his brutal ACL injury, but is also pressing up against Father Time, like his quarterback. Still, the tenacious Super Bowl LIII MVP projects to have the most targets of any pass catcher on the Patriots roster, working in the middle of the field in three-receiver sets, and as the flanker (‘Z’) with the option of going in motion in two-receiver sets with Gordon.

White returns as perhaps the NFL’s best pure situational scatback. Last season, he hauled in 55 receptions in the team’s first eight games before the team turned to Michel and the running game in the Winter months. Still, White caught 15 passes in the team’s AFC Divisional Playoff smackdown over the Chargers, and made several crucial catches in the AFC Championship Game win in Kansas City.

Every player in the Patriots’ projected Week 1 ’11’ personnel for the passing game brings something different to the table. Thomas has excelled in wide receiver screens, while Dorsett is speedy enough to be an occasional deep threat. Gordon is a physical specimen who excels at slants, jump balls and posts, while Edelman and White can run a variety of option routes from anywhere along the line of scrimmage, or in the backfield. In undrafted rookies Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, the team hs a flaker/slot hybrid and a slot receiver and punt returner capable of being groomed behind Edelman. When Harry hits the field, Brady will have a jump ball specialist who can line up on the outside and as a ‘big slot’ receiver capable of replacing Gronkowski as a seam-route runner operating out of the slot in shotgun situations.

But knowing the Patriots, they’ll change their offensive philosophy and strategy depending on the opponent. But sometime during the stretch run of the season, the team will likely look to employ a power-running game as their base offense. Last year, the team alternated between two-tight end sets with Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, I-formation sets with Gronkowski or James Develin, or sometimes an I-formation with Develin and both tight ends.

“Our strengths this year will be different than some of our strengths last year” McDaniels said. 

With their uneventful tight end group at the moment, expect Develin to see the field more often, and possibly even as a H-back or blocking tight end at times. One of the last few full-tine lead-blocking full backs, Develin is an integral part of the Patriots offense.

Sony Michel vs Chargers
Sony Michel is set up for a monster sophomore campaign. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

He’ll pave the way for Sony Michel’s potential breakout sophomore season. After a slow start to his rookie campaign, Michel cruised for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games. A projected stat line of 15 touchdowns and over 1,100 yards is not out the question. But expect Michel to be spelled by rookie Damien Harris and do-it-all back Rex Burkhead as rushers that may seem time carrying the ball between the tackles. White will also spend time as a feature back depending on the opponent.

Still, all facets of the offense won’t have much success if the Patriots can’t keep up their own pace as one of the game’s best offensive lines. Dante Scarnecchia is unquestionably the greatest offensive line coach of all-time. His teaching skills will be put to the test once more as New England will work with a change at left tackle for the third straight year, and the season-long absence of team captain and starting center David Andrews.

2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn should fill in nicely as Trent Brown’s replacement. Although smaller for an NFL tackle (6-foot-2, 311 pounds), Wynn has much more potential than Brown. Plus, Wynn was the best blocker for Sony Michel while the two played at the University of Georgia. In Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, the Patriots likely have the bets combo of guards in the AFC, if not the NFL. Thuney, a solid all-around lineman, is due for a big pay day this offseason when his rookie contract expires. Mason, who already received his payday last offseason, is arguably the best run-blocking guard in football. The Georgia Tech product came from a run-heavy triple-option offense in college. But it was his improvement as a pass-blocking guard in 2018 that vaulted him into the top-five discussion. Mason worked vigorously to improve at that aspect after allowing Eagles rusher Brandon Graham to run past him and cause the game-changing turnover in Super Bowl LII. On the right side of the line sits former All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon, who still has some juice left.

With Andrews out, New England will rely on veteran Ted Karras, the team’s top backup interior offensive lineman, to fill in as a quality starting center. Karras will be monitored closely. If Karras proves incapable, James Ferentz, who recently re-joined the team after Russell Bodine was released, may get a chance to shine.

In all, the Patriots will likely mix-and-match, shifting the identity of their offense to match their personnel, as well as their opponent’s defensive personnel and schemes. While many will be worried about the absences of Gronkowski and Andrews, as well as the turnover at left tackle and center, the Patriots should find a way to do what they always do on offense — score enough points to win 12 games en-route to at least the AFC Championship Game.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Sony Michel 

‘X’ WR — Josh Gordon 

Slot WR — Julian Edelman

‘Z’ WR — Demaryius Thomas (Phillip Dorsett will likely split time with Thomas here) 

TE — Matt LaCosse (Ben Watson will replace LaCosse after serving his four-game suspension) 

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — Ted Karras 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

WR4 — Phillip Dorsett 

WR5 — Jakobi Meyers 

RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead 

RB3 — Damien Harris 

Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo 

Swing Tackle — Korey Cunningham 

 

* * * * *

 

If Brady, the power running game and New England’s offense is good enough for a routine trip to the AFC Championship Game, it’ll be Bill Belichick and the defense that finishes the job.

On a Monday night contest in Los Angeles last November, the Chiefs and Rams, the two highest-scoring teams of last season, combined for 105 points in a 54-51 Rams victory. With the exception of Patrick Mahomes’ fourth quarter outburst in the AFC title game, the Patriots allowed just 10 total points in seven quarters to those two clubs, in the two biggest games of the 2018 NFL season.

To win Super Bowl LIV, New England may very well see the Chiefs again, in the NFL’s version of the final four, followed by a prolific NFC offense like the Rams, Saints or Eagles in the big game in Miami.

Luckily for New England, Belichick has readied a unique and versatile defensive roster capable of carrying out complex schemes that Belichick seems set to employ in 2019.

A ‘base’ defense is a relative term in 2019, seeing as base usually pertains to a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, and not a nickel defense, which is the personnel teams usually use the most in today’s pass-heavy NFL. But a seven-man front is still sometimes used on early downs. And this season, the Patriots will shift for more of a 3-4 approach, moving away from their four-man fronts of last season.

In that front, Danny Shelton is slotted as the run-stuffing nose tackle, with Lawrence Guy and rookie fifith-round pick Byron Cowart projecting to be the team’s big-bodied, 3-4 defensive ends. Guy’s versatility as both a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle is what Belichick values in his defensive lineman. He was the best defensive lineman outside of Trey Flowers in 2018, and should play up to that level this season. Cowart, a former top recruit of out high school, has the potential to thrive under Belichick’s tutelage.

But New England should spend most of their time with five or more defensive backs on the field. In doing this, the Patriots will go to more exotic fronts with just one or two defensive lineman. This is where they’ll turn to their prize offseason acquisition and best defensive lineman, Michael Bennett.

Bennett, who will turn 34 in November, quietly had a productive campaign (9.5 sacks) with the Eagles last season before being shipped to New England, along with a seventh-round draft pick, for a fifth-round draft choice. Like his brother Martellus in 2016 (and briefly in 2017), Bennett is slated to make an immediate impact as a possible replacement for Flowers, who joined Matt Patricia and the Lions on a mega-deal.

Of course, Bennett and Flowers are different players. Both are versatile, but Flowers serves as a more complete player across the board in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, where as Bennett’s versatility stems from his ability to rush the passer both from the edge and the interior. Bennett is still productive as a run stuffer, but not as well as Flowers at this stage of his career. But despite his veteran status, Bennett will be a much better pass rusher than Flowers, especially in Belichick’s schemes.

Michael Bennett - Patriots Training Camp
Michael Bennett will bring his versatile pass-rushing skills to a defensive front that should up their sack total in 2019. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

At one point in NFL Network’s original ‘Do Your Job’ special, Patriots director of research Ernie Adams mentions how Bennett disrupted New England’s entire offensive game plan in Super Bowl XLIX versus the Seahawks. Before Cliff Avril left in concussion protocol, Bennett had gotten to Brady on numerous occasions. But the absence of Avril allowed New England to key on Bennett via double teams. Expect Bennett to disrupt many opponents’ game plans in favor of the Patriots this season.

In two-man fronts, Bennett will mostly be joined by Guy along the interior, as he’s their next best defensive lineman. On obvious passing downs, Guy may be subbed out for Adam Butler, who is purely a sub-package rusher.

The edge should be occupied by a mix of Bennett and a few of the Patriots’ stacked linebacking core. John Simon and rookie Chase Winovich project as stand-up edge rushers in a 3-4 scheme. In New England’s third preseason contest, which is usually the week of dress rehearsals for the regular season, Winovich started along the edge. He’s a diminutive, Tasmanian Devil on the outside, capable of wrecking havoc on tasing downs. The third-round pick out of Michigan is a sleeper pick for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Don’ta Hightower and Kyle Van Noy return as two of New England’s most important players. Their versatility has already been showcased in the preseason, as they’ve been moved all around the defense. Despite slimming down this offseason, Hightower still projects as more of an off-the-ball linebacker, despite the initial notion that he may move to the edge full-time. Although Van Noy will be moved around the formation, it appears he’s due for a new role as a 3-4 outside linebacker or stand-up edge rusher in most cases. This seems like the perfect fit for Van Noy, who may be in for a career year.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B2FiFf0pQnH/?igshid=isj74yutld6f

Then there’s the return of Jamie Collins. A second-round pick by the Patriots in 2013, Collins blossomed as one of the league’s most athletic players before his rookie contract timed out, and he was shipped to Cleveland midway through the 2016 season. After making some money in Cleveland for two-and-a-half years of uneventful football, Collins returns and he’ll project as linebacker that will spend time as an edge rusher, as well as off the ball. Like Hightower and Van Noy, Collins’ versatility is what makes him valuable. But he’s also much more athletic than those two defensive cogs, even though he’s been burned often in man coverage by tight ends (Owen Daniels in the 2015 AFC Championship Game) and running backs (Marshawn Lych in Super Bowl XLIX). If Collins can keep his freelancing in zone coverage to a minimum, he should make it more difficult for opponents’ quarterbacks to dump the ball off to their own version of a James White.

Recently-named team captain Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley will battle for the role of the ‘thumper’ linebacker, which is a bigger inside linebacker who is mostly in to stop the run on early downs. They should each see time next to Hightower as inside linebackers in the Patriots’ 3-4 formations.

In the secondary, New England trots out perhaps the deepest group of cornerbacks in the league, led by the NFL’s very best at the position in Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore is perhaps the best in man coverage since Darrelle Revis’ heyday and figures to follow opposing team’s No. 1 receiver in most situations. But Belichick often likes to matchup his top cover player one-on-one with an opposing team’s No. 2 receiver, if that player is enough of a threat. This leaves another cornerback covering a team’s No. 1, with help over the top from safety Devin McCourty.

J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty will battle it out for snaps as the team’s No. 2 guy, but both should see significant playing time. Jon Jones projects to start as a slot cornerback who can also see time at safety, a position he started and played most of the game at in Super Bowl LIII. To revisit Belichick’s scheme of putting Gilmore on a team’s secondary pass catcher, the Patriots employed Gilmore on Watkins, Kansas City’s No. 2 receiver and No. 3 pass catcher, but best traditional receiver, in the AFC title game. They did this because of Tyreek Hill’s speed and downfield ability. New England then stuck it’s fastest player, Jon Jones, on Hill with Devin McCourty shading overtop. J.C. Jackson’s ability as a bigger press-man cover corner made him a suitable match for the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, a psuedo receiver disguised as a top-tier tight end. Expect Belichick to employ different strategies against different offenses.

The Patriots’ deep group of cornerbacks ends with rookie Joejuan Williams. The second-round pick is a cornerback with massive size (6-foot-4, 208 pounds) capable of playing press man coverage on tight ends and bigger wide receivers. Williams will fight Jackson and Jason McCourty for playing time, but he projects as more of a situational matchup piece in his rookie season, while being groomed to be the team’s No. 2 cornerback of the future, or even as a replacement for Patrick Chung as a Kam Chancellor-type at strong safety.

With Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung, the Patriots will employ an aging-yet-affective trio of safeties capable of playin in three-safety sets, like they’ve done often over the past few seasons. In two-safety sets, Devin McCourty plays his usually role of free safety while Chung plays in the box. On clear-passing downs with all three on the field, Chung serves as a presss man coverage option on tight ends, while McCourty tends to play all over the field, leaving Duron Harmon as the free safety, or center fielder, on third-and-long situations. This could be the last season for both Chung and the McCourty brothers, but they still have enough left in the tank for a very good season.

Like the Patriots’ offense, Belichick will have a different game plan for each opponent. But the team’s deep group of cornerbacks and seemingly revitalized group of pass rushers have fans excited for what could be an exceptional season on this side of the ball.

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior — Michael Bennett 

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE/LB — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE/LB — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

‘Thumper’ ILB — Elandon Roberts 

CB1 — Stephon Gilmore

CB2 — J.C. Jackson 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

SS/Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

3-4 Nose Tackle — Danny Shelton 

3-4 DE  — Bryan Cowart

‘Thumper’ ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

EDGE/LB — Chase Winovich 

EDGE/LB — John Simon 

S (FS in ‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Duron Harmon

CB3 — Jason McCourty

CB4 (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

 

Projected record: 12-4 (AFC’s No. 1 seed)

The Patriots should revert to their knack for producing 12-plus win seasons after an 11-5 campaign in 2018. Their schedule is pretty easy throughout, but there is a potential murderer’s row from weeks 8-to-14, as the team will face Browns out home before visiting the Ravens and Eagles before returning home to face the Cowboys, playing the Texans in Houston , then ending with a home bout with the Chiefs.

With Andrew Luck’s retirement, and Derwin James’ injury the Chiefs serve as the only real threat at this point, with the Steelers, Jaguars and Browns looming as just potential threats before they prove otherwise. New England will fend off the upstarts and experienced teams to beat the Chiefs at home in the AFC Title Game. Their home-field advantage will be won when they beat the Chiefs in Week 14.

Then in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, the Patriots will break a tie with the Steelers by winning their seventh Super Bowl, while exacting revenge on the Eagles in the process.

At least for one more year, the NFL will belong to Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots.