State Of The Franchise

State of the 2021 New England Patriots: Bounce-back year for Cam Newton and Co.?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Patriots organization, Patriots fans around the world and those who can't believe Mookie Betts and Tom Brady have already won titles with their new teams after departing New England in 2020:

It had to feel a little weird being mortal last season for Patriots fans. Kind of like when Clark Kent entered the crystal chamber and exposed himself to the red Kryptonian sunlight. But if there is any consolation, Superman was able to get his powers back while also out-smarting Lex Luthor and Zod. So you have that going for you.

How the Patriots got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • I know that guy: Cam Newton got off to a hot start, rushing for four touchdowns in the first two games of the season. The Patriots suffered a tough loss at Seattle in Week 2, but for a moment, it looked like Cam was back!
  • I love L.A.: The Patriots absolutely destroyed the Chargers, 45-0, in the first of two consecutive December games in Los Angeles. This was easily Justin Herbert's worst game of the season, as he threw for just 209 yards with a pair of interceptions. The Patriots leveled up to 6-6 with the victory.

The lows:

  • Sidelined. Cam Newton tested positive for COVID-19 a couple days prior to a Week 4 game against the Chiefs, sending New England's season off course. The Patriots fell to Kansas City with their quarterback on the reserve/COVID list, starting a four-game losing streak. Newton said this offseason that the virus really hindered his 2020 performance.
  • I hate L.A.: You just knew that, after putting up 45 points on the Chargers in Week 13, it was going to be a much tougher day for the Patriots the following week against the Rams. And in a Super Bowl LIII REVENGE GAME, it was the Patriots who were held to just a field goal this time around.
  • Tom Brady won a Super Bowl with a different team. I feel like most Patriots fans were supportive of Brady. But watching him win a title with the Buccaneers in his first season after leaving New England had to be tough. It's like when your parents break up. And one of them quickly remarries. Something like that.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Bill Belichick. There were times last season when watching Patriots games felt a lot like seeing Guns N' Roses in the early 2000s, with only Axl Rose left from the original band. I mean, the songs kind of sounded right. And Robin Finck did do an admirable job. But it just wasn't the same.

Now Belichick enters Season 2 A.T., as in, After Tom. And I don't really have any reason to think his title of greatest coach in the history of the NFL (maybe North American sports) is in jeopardy. Not even close. He went into 2020 with a number of key players opting out of the season. He was without Brady and Gronk, and Julian Edelman missed most of the season due to injury. Despite all of that, the Patriots still managed to win seven games. They humiliated the Chargers, and Belichick pretty much did the best he could, given the circumstances. Now he has another chance to -- and this probably isn't the right expression -- prove himself. Or at least remove any doubt about his unparalleled greatness.

Quarterback: Cam Newton. I'm a big Cam Newton guy. Needless to say, I was a bit insufferable -- even more so than usual -- when Cam got out to that hot start last season. And then ... well, we're not here to talk about old stuff. OK, maybe a little bit. At any rate, the Patriots thought enough of Cam to bring him back for another season. I mean, they did draft Mac Jones in the first round in April. But Cam knows what time it is. He even acknowledged it in a recent interview with ESPN Radio.

"For me, the Patriots' organization has been impeccable," Newton said. "So my time there has been everything I could have asked for. I guess it's now time for me to uphold my end of the bargain, through and through."

Cam averaged 177.1 passing yards per game in 2020 (fewest in the NFL among 35 qualified quarterbacks). He also ranked toward the bottom of that group in TD-to-INT ratio (8:10) and passer rating (82.9). But he had 592 rushing yards (third most among QBs) and 12 rushing touchdowns (most among QBs) last year. So, I'll say it: He still can play at an elite level. Some might think the 32-year-old is a bit too old to do it. But you know who else they said that about? C.T. from the MTV's The Challenge. And guess who won The Challenge: Double Agents last season? That's right, Boston's own CT. So show some respect for your elders.

Projected 2021 MVP: Dont'a Hightower, linebacker. The Patriots are one of those teams that seemingly make a surprise player cut coming out of camp every year, and we act like it's going to be the downfall of the program. Yet, they still manage to move on. Last year was different. It seemed like the Patriots didn't get over losing Hightower, who opted out of the 2020 season. New England ranked 15th in yards allowed last season. With Hightower coming back to anchor the defense, perhaps the Patriots' D will get back into the top 10 in 2021.

2021 breakout star: J.J. Taylor, running back. The Patriots have a lot of running backs on their roster. Damien Harris is the guy who gets talked about the most (at least in fantasy football terms). Sony Michel is a former first-round pick. And let's not forget about James White. There is a little buzz building for Taylor, though. Remember, even with so many backs in the mix, the Patriots always found a way to get the ball to Rex Burkhead, at least when he was healthy. Burkhead, who signed with the Texans this offseason, was kind of that do-everything back who could both run and catch. Don't be surprised to see Taylor start to steal some touches and touchdowns that will leave your fantasy league-mates looking for him on the waiver wire. But the joke will be on them, because you're reading this right now and will be ahead of the game.

New face to know: Nelson Agholor, wide receiver. The Patriots spent a bunch of money this offseason. And they went in on pass catchers, signing Agholor to a two-year deal worth $26 million. Which seemed like a pretty interesting choice. Agholor was a popular meme at one point for his tendency to drop the football. But his performance with the Raiders in 2020 got him paid by the Patriots. Agholor posted a career-best 896 receiving yards and averaged 18.7 yards per reception to lead the NFL last season (min. 40 catches). I know a lot of people think this might be an instance where the Patriots are chasing a guy after a career year, something that happens way too much in sports. But I don't think this is one of those instances. Nelson was a locker room presence for the Raiders last year. And his leadership might be what drew the Patriots to him as much as his on-field performance. He called out his teammates after Las Vegas blew a lead against the Dolphins in Week 16, per The Athletic. That's the kind of attitude they respect in New England.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. New England is coming off its first non-playoff season in what seems like forever (12 years, to be exact). And you might be given one mulligan off the tee, but there isn't going to be another. The Patriots are expected to win.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Miami Dolphins. I mean, winning this game isn't super crucial. After all, the Patriots opened the season last year with a home win over the Dolphins, only to stumble to a 7-9 record. But with so many new faces, it's going to be a good chance to see where this team stands.
  • Week 4 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday Night Football). And as I alluded earlier in this piece, it's going to be super (pun intended) awkward when Tom Brady and Bill Belichick meet again for the first time since the breakup. Especially -- as I pointed out -- because Brady has some new bling. And as Patriots DT Byron Cowart recently told the Patriots Way of Life IGTV show of the team's mindset for this game: "We ain't welcoming him back. We just gotta play him. There ain't going to be no damn ceremony for him or nothing like that."
  • Week 8 at Los Angeles Chargers. Again -- as I already mentioned -- the Patriots beat the Bolts last year in Justin Herbert's worst game of the season. But it's worth noting here that Anthony Lynn is out as Chargers coach. In is Brandon Staley, who was the defensive coordinator of the Rams, who held the Patriots to three points last year. Mind-blowing, right?

Will the Patriots be able to …

Give Mac Jones a season to learn from the sideline? I love Cam. But we can't ignore Jones, who was selected 15th overall in this year's draft. He is the Patriots' first top-15 pick on offense in the Bill Belichick era. Mac led Alabama to the 2021 national championship. He was 13-0 last season and led the FBS with 4,500 passing yards. And you can make the jokes about Alabama quarterbacks in the NFL (which is lazy, so stop doing that). Yes, there was a shirtless photo of him making the rounds last spring that people wanted to poke fun at. But I think we can all close our eyes and remember Tom Brady's shirtless NFL Scouting Combine photo, so I'm not sure that's quite the burn that you think it's supposed to be. All that aside, Jones was a great quarterback at Alabama. He was exceptional against the blitz in 2020, throwing 18 touchdown passes with a 150.2 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus. He had an FBS-best NFL passer rating of 123.9 against pressure last year, according to NFL Research. He's a cool customer under center. I'm a fan of Mac Jones; in fact, I had already readied myself for the Bears to draft him. He should be good at this level -- I know, Alabama quarterbacks, amirite? But the best possible outcome is for Cam to play so well that we don't know what the Patriots have in Jones this season.

Move the ball through the air? The Patriots averaged 146.6 rushing yards last season, fourth most in the NFL. Which is the kind of thing that happens when your quarterback is one of the best runners in the league. But they struggled in the passing game, averaging 180.6 yards per game (30th in the NFL). They tied for last with 12 passing touchdowns. So, the Patriots went out and spent on pass catchers this offseason. Kind of like the way my daughter took all of her Target gift cards from her birthday and bought every L.O.L. Surprise! doll in the building. I was like, are you sure you don't want to spread that around a little more? But the answer was no. The Patriots also doubled down on tight ends, signing Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. (Smith is the guy you want for fantasy.) I talked about Agholor earlier in this piece. New England also added Kendrick Bourne in free agency. And it should be noted that Julian Edelman is a retiree. Well, at least until he shows up in Tampa Bay at some point this year. Yes, I know he's doubled down (maybe even tripled-down) on his retirement. But if the Bucs really need a WR, do you honestly believe he won't be there?

Revive the defense? The Patriots had the worst scoring defense of the Bill Belichick era in 2020 (they allowed 22.1 points per game), one year after the Patriots had the best scoring defense of the Belichick era (they allowed 14.1 points per game in 2019). The lack of pressure on the quarterback certainly contributed to the decline. The Patriots ranked last in the NFL with 24 sacks. They were last in pressure rate, too (19.7%, per Next Gen Stats). That has to change. As I noted, Dont'a Hightower will return this season. The Patriots also signed Matt Judon, who has 15.5 sacks and 54 quarterback hits since 2019 (fourth-most quarterback hits in the NFL over that span). The Patriots addressed the need for more pass-rush help in the draft, as well, selecting defensive tackle Christian Barmore and outside linebacker Ronnie Perkins. The latter had the fifth-highest pressure rate among FBS edge rushers last season (min. 150 pass rushes), according to PFF.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: The offense was cooking early last season. The Patriots averaged 409 yards per game in the first three weeks of the season (eighth most in the NFL). Cam averaged 287.7 yards (combined passing and rushing) over that stretch. Look, I know it's fun to see a quarterback throw for 500 yards, but the goal is to move the football. Cam was doing that. Obviously, it didn't end well. It's kind of like hitting par on your first three holes, and then hitting the ball into the houses near the golf course after that. But you can't deny that when the Patriots were right, they looked pretty good.

... people are also overlooking: Mac Jones had a much better receiving corps in college. Jones played with four first-round wide receivers from 2019 to 2020 at Alabama: Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. But enjoy N'Keal Harry (for the time being).

... people are overthinking: Getting to the quarterback. I know I spent some time talking about getting to the quarterback a little earlier in this article. And the pass rush does need to improve if the Patriots want to get back into the championship mix. But let's not overlook how good the pass defense was last year. New England tied for the NFL lead in interceptions (18) while posting the third-best TD-to-INT ratio (22:18) and the ninth-best passer rating allowed (89.3). So maybe the Patriots aren't as far away from success as some people want them to be.

For 2021 to be a success, the Patriots MUST:

  • I don't want to say the entire season hinges on beating Tom Brady's Buccaneers in Week 4. But that would be huge for the psyches of Patriots fans. I'm not sure the win would matter too much for Bill Belichick, who would probably just mumble something like "on to Houston" (the Patriots visit the Texans in Week 5) and turn it into a rallying cry. But at the very least, New England needs to get back into the playoff picture. Maybe even make a postseason run. I'm not saying it's a must, but knocking Buffalo back a peg within the AFC East would be huge for the Patriots, too.

In closing

I don't know about you, but I'm not going to be quick to pronounce the Patriots' dynasty dead, or even write off Cam Newton at this point. The rest of the AFC East should not be that guy in the horror movie who is so quick to think that the villain has been vanquished and lets down his guard. Because that is when it will spring back to life. And for me, I still see a lot of life left in the Patriots.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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