The Patriots open training camp on July 28th and will be looking to rebound from a disappointing 2020 season. The organization certainly has its sights set on improving after shelling out a quarter of a billion dollars in free agency and using their first two draft picks on players who starred for college National Champion Alabama: Mac Jones and Christian Barmore. Ahead of camp, here are five Patriots to watch.
Usually this list is reserved for players, but this camp will be especially important for McDaniels. He has established himself as one of the best offensive coordinators in the NFL and will have the first true quarterback battle of his career to judge this year between Mac Jones and Cam Newton. Newton was the 2020 starter and performed underwhelmingly, though he came to the team late and had lesser skilled pass catchers to work with than some colleges. Jones looked great at Alabama and flashed potential in Mini Camp, but he is still a rookie. One of these players will win the job and it will then be up to McDaniels to tailor the offense to the strengths of the winner and get the offense ready for a difficult early season schedule. Having a lot of new pass catchers, including Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith at tight end is great, but it will require more teaching from McDaniels than in many past years.
Jones was selected by the Patriots at 15th overall, the first time New England used a first round pick on a quarterback since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. With his college success and draft status come professional expectations. The Patriots would probably prefer to sit Jones for a year, but there were points in Mini Camp where he looked like the best quarterback on the roster and if that trend were to continue Jones would be starting games this season.
Since being drafted by the Patriots in 2012, Hightower has been one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL and the key to the Patriots defense. His game saving tackle of Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl XLIX and strip sack of Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI helped propel New England to two championships. He also won another Super Bowl in 2018. His absence in 2020 was felt severely; New England’s run defense was porous, allowing 5+ yards per carry in six different games and allowed an average of 131 yards per game, which was 26th in the league. The Patriots pass rush was also inconsistent and the defense looked out of sync for several stretches, both of which will be greatly improved with Hightower back.
Hunter Henry/ Jonnu Smith
As mentioned above, the Patriots shelled out an unprecedented amount of money early in free agency and the tight end tandem of Smith and Henry were big recipients of the spending spree. New England’s tight end position has been a black hole since Rob Gronkowski retired from the team after the 2018 season. Their top two tight ends mustered 30 total receptions in 2019 and 2020 was even worse with only Ryan Izzo contributing at the position. He caught a very quiet 13 passes all season. Smith caught 41 passes in 2020 and Henry caught 60. Both of them will be massive factors in the Patriots offense and will give second year player Devin Asiasi a chance to grow into a role as well. Smith is 25 and Henry is 26, both are entering their primes and should give New England the best years of their careers. It is essential for the Patriots offense to have effective tight end play; Smith and Henry should provide it.
Gilmore is currently holding out and looking for an adjustment to his contract. Gilmore is one of the best corners in the NFL and severely underpaid. The Patriots defense has elite potential, but they will need Gilmore to reach it. J.C. Jackson is a good number two corner and Jon Jones is a great slot corner, but neither is on the level of Gilmore. He can take away an opponent’s best receiver and his skills allow Bill Belichick to get more creative with his defense than he otherwise would be able to. The Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 is coming off an injury, but at age 31 Gilmore still has at least 1-2 strong years left before he declines. If the Patriots want to return to contention in 2021, they’ll need Gilmore in the fold.