During the 2021 New England Patriots seven game winning streak, many fans felt the team was a legitimate Super Bowl contender. They were wrong.
The Patriots lost three of the last four games of the regular season before getting embarrassed by the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card playoff game. For a team that played so well for such a lengthy portion of the season, clearly certain things need to change.
Here are 10 things the Patriots must do to regain dominance in the AFC:
1. Re-sign J.C. Jackson
This could easily be the top offseason need. Jackson was far and away the Patriots best defender in 2021. Matthew Judon was in that discussion for much of the year, but after Week 12 he recorded zero sacks and disappeared. The team released star corner Stephon Gilmore mid-season. Jalen Mills and Myles Bryant are not consistent or reliable. An All-Pro caliber cornerback like Jackson is tough to find. He must be resigned or franchised as they look to build around him in the draft or through free agency.
2. Get faster on defense
Perhaps no better example of the need for speed came in the playoff loss to the Bills. The Bills scored touchdowns on every single offensive possession. During the 47-17 blowout, Buffalo’s punter never saw the field. That happened because throughout most of the game Patriots defenders looked completely lost. They couldn’t keep up with the faster and more talented playmakers from Buffalo. From the linebackers to the secondary, they need quicker, smarter, more athletic players. If nothing changes, Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Joe Burrow will continue to embarrass the Patriots defense for years to come.
3. Get an offensive playmaker
Despite spending nearly $200 million in free agency last offseason, not one acquisition became a legitimate difference maker. Every great offense needs one playmaker. Aaron Rodgers has Davante Adams. Allen has Stephon Diggs. Matthew Stafford has Cooper Kupp. Mahomes has two in Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Mac Jones needs his Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker or his Randy Moss. Robert Kraft spent more money than he ever has this season. He’s going to have to open upon the wallet again and bring in a star if he wants to keep pace with the title contenders.
4. Utilize the tight ends
Why did the team make signing prize free agents Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith priorities if they weren’t going to be focal points of the offense? Yes, Henry showed flashes. During points of the season he was the main red zone target scoring 9 TDs. Most surprising of all, he stayed healthy and didn’t miss a game. But why wasn’t he targeted more in the middle of the field? Where was he when it mattered in the playoff game? Smith signed for $50 million and spent 2021 dropping passes and running the wrong routes. He caught one touchdown in 18 games clearly never grasping the intricate New England playbook. Henry and Smith will never be Gronk and Hernandez who were arguably the greatest TE tandem in the history of the NFL. But if New England wants to regain glory, more production from this position is a necessity.
5. Address the defensive coaching situation
The coach’s son, Steve Belichick, can no longer be the defacto defensive coordinator. It’s not working. Along with the running game, the defense was one of the team’s strengths during parts of the season. But down the stretch, that side of the ball looked lost. Slow. Confused. Inept. They couldn’t stop a nosebleed in the playoffs. They need a defensive mind in the mold of a Brian Flores. Maybe a reunion with him is in the cards. Either way, it’s time for Bill Belichick to make the hard call and replace his son.
6. Bring in new leadership
With all due respect to Dont’a Hightower, Matthew Slater, and Devin McCourty, the Patriots lack leadership. What helped make the team so successful the past two decades, was the presence of players like Tom Brady and Julian Edelman in the locker room. Guys who were born with the ability to inspire and motivate. They were team leaders who knew exactly how and when to push the right buttons. They were captains who had not only the talent, but the personalities to fill those roles. Somehow management must find a way to bring in the next great leader.
7. Trade or waive Nelson Agholor and N’keal Harry
Neither WR has shown to be a fit in New England. Agholor, under contract through the 2022 season, is a high-priced free agent who came in this season and showed zero flashes of excellence. Harry, a 2019 first round draft pick, is a bust. During his three seasons, he’s averaged 19 catches and one touchdown. He asked for a trade and often was injured. He’s not adding value. They must build around Kendrick Bourne, Jacobi Meyers and the two tight ends, while adding to the skill positions this offseason.
8. In the words of Boyz II Men: ‘It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday‘
Let fan favorites walk off into the sunset. True in all sports, certain players on every team soon become the most popular. Dustin Pedroia for the Red Sox. Paul Pierce for the Celtics. Zhedo Chara for the Bruins. Watching those guys leave Boston crushed many a New England heart. Saying adios to the likes of Hightower, Slater, and McCourty won’t be any different. Each one has brought so many memories on and off the field to sports fans across the region. It’s going to hurt ripping off the band-aid. But it’s time for fresh voices, younger talent, and a new attitude to chasing a championship.
9. Continue the development of Mac Jones
Quarterback is the most important position in sports, let alone the NFL. There aren’t many things tougher to find for a professional sports franchise. Tom Bradys don’t grow on trees. You can’t go to the grocery store and buy an Aaron Rodgers. Once you think you’ve “found your guy,” and all indications are the Patriots think they have, you give it some time. No rookie QB has ever won the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning didn’t win a playoff game during his first three seasons. They have to be patient with Jones because he clearly has the right makeup. He may not have the skill set of Mahomes or Allen, but the potential to win with him is there. He had his share of hiccups during his rookie campaign, but the wine just needs to breathe. Coach him up, keep that offensive line strong, hope he builds more arm strength, and give him a legitimate playmaker.
10. Make a blockbuster move (or two)
If Kraft and Belichick truly want to be compete for another Lombardi, they might have to do something they’ve never done. Shock us. Trade multiple high draft picks for Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, or Aaron Rodgers. Each star QB likely will be made available for a very high price this offseason. Let Jones learn under one of them for the next few years. Contend now, and for the next ten years. As proven in this year’s playoffs, star quarterbacks lead to title contention. If you can get one, do it yesterday.
There is a long to-do list for Patriots management this offseason. Goal being get as many done as possible. This last one is probably the least likely and almost certainly a pipe dream. But it sure would be the most exciting.