Mac Jones is the future. Cam Newton is the here and now.
Patriots Nation mumbled and grumbled throughout last year’s 7–9 campaign, lamenting every hiccup by Newton while still keeping their lonely eyes on Tom Brady.
This season will be different, but the quarterback will remain the same. Despite spending a first-round draft pick on a quarterback for the first time in his career, Bill Belichick is committed to Newton — anointing him the starter just hours after Roger Goodell announced Jones’ selection. Newton signed early, an indication of the trust he has in the organization and the confidence he has in himself. With a full season in the program under his belt and a full training camp on the horizon, Newton will be much improved, and the Patriots’ victory total will be as well.
Jones gets a year to learn how to be a professional and digest the playbook before becoming the face of this franchise.
A major reason for the Newton optimism is New England’s revamped corps of pass catchers, including tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry and receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, all of whom immediately jump to the top of the depth chart. With Smith and Hunter, the Patriots will go back to their comfort zone of an offense that is heavy on 12 personnel looks, attacking the middle of the field with a pinpoint horizontal game. This forces defense to collapse, creating opportunities to take shots down the field. Smith is direct from Freak Show central casting with excellent size (6'3", 248 pounds) and exquisite athleticism. He can line up as an in-line tight end or be flexed out wide, in the slot or as a hybrid H-back. The possibilities are endless, and Josh McDaniels will make the most of them. Henry is more of a traditional in-line tight end with outstanding blocking skills, but don’t sleep on his receiving — he was Justin Herbert’s most trusted target in Los Angeles last year. Tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, neither of whom made an impact as rookies, will get to learn from two of the best, but they’ll be hard-pressed to get many snaps.
A major question: Who takes over for Julian Edelman? For the 12 grouping to be at its best, a sure-handed slot man is essential. Jakobi Meyers played some slot last season, and Gunner Olszewski is being groomed for a larger role. Rookie Tre Nixon has the skills (quick feet, strong hands) that could allow him to get into the mix.
New England’s running back corps is loaded. Damien Harris emerged last season and will team with Sony Michel to provide a nifty 1-2 punch for early-down back duties. Harris is quick to the hole and accelerates nicely at the second level. Michel, whose fifth-year option was declined, is looking for a bounce-back season after two injury-riddled campaigns. James White remains one of the league’s top pass-catching backs but is also an effective runner, especially on draw plays from the gun.
The offensive line is deep and talented. Retaining center David Andrews was a key move, as he is the glue, making all the protection calls. Right guard Shaq Mason is a road grader, and projected left guard Mike Onwenu is coming off a tremendous rookie season in which he played guard, tackle and jumbo tight end. Speaking of jumbo, Trent Brown (6'8", 380) is back at tackle, likely on the right side. Isaiah Wynn (his fifth-year option was exercised) will man left tackle. Ted Karras and Justin Herron provide great depth.
The holes started opening on the New England defense last year during free agency, when several linebackers fled for rich deals, and they kept multiplying when more players opted out. The gaps never really closed, as running backs regularly gashed the front seven in 2020. It was a major reason why the club invested heavily to shore up that group.
The schemes will remain the same with a base 3-4 but with plenty of subpackage snaps. Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson and Montravius Adams were signed as free agents, and Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. were re-signed to fortify the line. The rebuild continued with the drafting of Christian Barmore in the second round. Godchaux and Barmore best fit on the interior, while the rest of the rotation has the ability to play multiple roles. Guy, Anderson, Adams and Wise all can help set the edge against the run but also kick inside on passing downs.
The second level also will look drastically different as it will feature a “back to the future” element with the returns of Dont’a Hightower (opt-out) and Kyle Van Noy (free agency). In addition, the Patriots brought in Matt Judon and Raekwon McMillan, two linebackers who have the versatile skill sets to fit in New England’s multiple schemes.
Those valuable and versatile veterans will help aid in the development of young linebackers (and future foundations) Chase Winovich, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.
On the corners, Stephon Gilmore has an exceptional blend of size, length and closing burst, allowing him to cover a multitude of pass catchers, whether they’re small, speedy, big or brawny. He can shut down the opponent’s best receiver and needs little help. J.C. Jackson has improved every season and collected nine interceptions last season. He covers the deep ball as well as anyone. Jonathan Jones handles nickel duties with aplomb.
On the back end, Devin McCourty enters his 12th season and continues to be one of the top safeties in the land. He can cover, and he can hit. Hard-hitting Kyle Dugger is poised to make a big sophomore step, and newcomer Jalen Mills will help offset the loss of the retired Patrick Chung. Adrian Phillips basically played linebacker and safety last season and did yeoman’s work. Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant are depth pieces.
The Patriots fielded one of the best kicking game units across the board in 2020, highlighted by the performances of a pair of first-team All-Pros in Jake Bailey (punter) and Olszewski (punt returner). Bailey averaged 48.7 yards per punt and shined as a kickoff specialist. He’s become adept at chipping kickoffs high and short, allowing his teammates to swarm returners inside the 20-yard line. Olszewski returns punts with a reckless abandon, averaging a ridiculous 17.3 yards per return. Look for Olszewski and J.J. Taylor to battle for the kickoff return job in training camp.
Perhaps most impressive specialist performance came from 36-year-old kicker Nick Folk, who hit 26-of-28 field goals — including his final 26 attempts. Neither Bailey nor Folk would trade long snapper Joe Cardona (who has been darn near flawless for six seasons) for anyone in the league. As for the coverage units, Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel continue to set the gold standard as gunners. They are virtually unblockable off the snap, fly down the field and almost always land the first hit on return men.
The Patriots have put themselves in a prime position to get right back into the mix in the AFC with an unprecedented splash in free agency. Newton, who embraced his leadership role from the time he touched down in Foxborough, is another year removed from the shoulder and foot injuries that hampered his final seasons in Carolina. He flashed signs of returning to form early before a bout with Covid-19 knocked him for a loop. With a full offseason and camp, Newton will almost assuredly turn in a more consistent season. Additionally, the Patriots were able to use the draft with an eye toward the future. The club had eight picks, and several will be counted on to be stars — just not right away. From Jones to Nixon, all the baby faces are poised to receive an apprentice season before being asked to be regular contributors.