The New England Patriots' first, uneasy transition into the post-Tom Brady era began with a half measure, as the team brought in another former MVP to lead the offense and otherwise stayed close to the status quo. The results with Cam Newton at the helm were initially promising but Newton's play slipped after a stint on the COVID list and the absence of several defensive starters hurt as the Patriots plodded to a 7-9 record. Incredibly, and much to the franchise's credit, that was New England's first losing season since the Brady-Bill Belichick era began in 2001, Brady's first year as a starter.
The Patriots attacked their second Brady-less year much more aggressively with a two-pronged approach. They exploited what they believed to be a market inefficiency by using a much higher-than-average cap space to make one of the most expensive runs through free agency in league history, adding pass-catching firepower on offense plus beef and pass-rushing juice up front on defense. Then they ushered in a new era by drafting Alabama quarterback Mac Jones with the 15th overall pick and eventually letting Newton go.
The results have been underwhelming so far, but that is to be expected with a rookie starting at quarterback from Day One. Jones has shown poise and, at least until last week, an impressive ability to avoid the turnovers that have plagued all the other rookie quarterbacks with starting jobs. Jones is completing 67.5% of his passes and has received uneven protection from an otherwise strong Patriots offensive line that is missing injured left tackle Trent Brown. Jones has been sacked six times and hit on 22 occasions, but he's also dropping back 42 times per game. He has thrown just two touchdown passes and has averaged a low 6.1 yards per pass attempt.
The bold and wide-ranging attempt to give Jones the weapons the Patriots' passing game has lacked in recent years may very well still pay off but neither tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry nor wideouts Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne have put up big numbers yet. Holdover Jakobi Meyers has been the top target in a passing attack that ranks 20th in yards per game and 26th in yards per play. Overall, New England is 22nd in yards per game (317.7) and 26th in points per game (18.0).
New England's defense has welcomed back linebackers Dont'a Hightower, who opted out in 2020, and Kyle Van Noy, who spent an unhappy year in Miami, and is performing quite well. In fact, the Patriots are back in the top 10 on defense after their top-ranked unit of 2019 fell to 15th last year. The Patriots rank fifth in both points (17.0) and yards (282.3) allowed per game and free agent signee Jalen Mills has teamed with J.C. Jackson, who emerged as a star in 2020, at cornerback to help New England post the second-best pass defense so far. Some of that may be because teams have chosen to run the ball on the Patriots on 50.5% of their snaps, the third-highest rate against any defense. New England added interior lineman Davon Godchaux and end Henry Anderson in free agency and drafted Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore but so far are giving up 122.7 rushing yards per game. Still, Jackson has already picked off two passes and the Patriots have five picks as a defense so far.
Of course, the Patriots are still led by Belichick, widely acknowledged as the best head coach in NFL history and a team builder who has routinely shown that he can win in different ways. The 2021 Patriots are still integrating in a lot of new talent in key roles, nowhere more significantly than at quarterback. After a one-point loss to Miami to open the season and a dominant win over the Jets in Week Two, New England played its first non-division opponent last week and was beaten handily by New Orleans at Gillette Stadium. The Buccaneers won't play the Saints until December this year but might get an idea of how they stack up against their division rivals based on how well they do in the same venue this weekend. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they suit up in prime-time against the Patriots on Sunday:
Even with Stephon Gilmore unavailable, the Patriots have a number of playmakers in their secondary, including two-time Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty. Up front the Patriots' defense is getting good pressure primarily from the duo of free agency addition Matt Judon and 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche. New England's offensive line has long been a collective difference-maker for the Patriots and has still had its moments this year but has not yet been as dominant as expected. Left tackle Trent Brown would be a top impact player on Sunday if he plays but has missed two games due to injury. Judon makes our list of difference-makers for the 2021 Patriots, along with three others:
1. LB Matt Judon. One free agency splurge that has already paid off nicely for the Patriots was the four-year, $54 million deal given to Judon, the former Ravens pass rusher. Judon averaged almost exactly one sack every two games over the last four seasons in Baltimore but already has a team-leading 3.5 QB takedowns through three outings this season. He is also pacing the Patriots with six quarterback hits, twice as many as the next player on the list. Judon made the Pro Bowl in his first full season as a starter in 2019 after putting up 9.5 sacks, and he went back to the all-star game last year. He rushes about an equal amount of time off both edges, according to his NFL Next Gen Stats pre-snap heat map. Judon is long, with 34-inch arms, and very explosive off the snap. Though primarily a pass rusher, he's done some good work in coverage when asked, with 10 career passes defensed, and he's adequate at setting the edge against the run. He also plays with an edge, has strength to go with 4.73-second speed in the 40-yard dash and is a violent hitter on both quarterbacks and ballcarriers.
2. TE Jonnu Smith. The Patriots haven't really found a high gear on offense yet, but when they do it's a good chance it will run through Smith. The more athletic of the two high-profile tight ends the Patriots signed in the offseason, Smith hasn't found the end zone yet in New England but had eight scores last year and 16 over four seasons with the Titans. Smith has played nearly half of his snaps in a two-TE set and nearly 80% of them as an in-line blocker but he has still run a high number and wide variety of routes. The Patriots like to use him on tight end screens; they've thrown it to him three times behind the line of scrimmage and twice right on the line already. He's also run a number of deeper seam routes but Mac Jones has only thrown it to Smith twice so far on such routes and hasn't completed one yet. Smith even has one carry for six yards and has lined up in the backfield with the quarterback twice. The 6-3, 248-pound Smith ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine and recorded a 38-inch vertical leap, prompting Tennessee to draft him in the third round. Smith can turn on the jets and accelerate quickly, making him a tough matchup for linebackers trying to keep up with him down the middle of the field. He's also a good blocker who will make things harder on the Bucs' edge rushers as they try to get Tampa Bay's pass rush revved up.
3. CB J.C. Jackson. Before the 2020 season, both Pro Football Focus and USA Today's Doug Farrar tabbed Jackson as the Patriots' most underrated player. That label no longer applies as Jackson emerged as a full-fledged star and one of New England's best players last fall. Originally an undrafted player out of Maryland in 2018, Jackson still started 11 games and racked up eight interceptions over his first two seasons. Last year, Jackson upped that production to nine interceptions, second in the NFL only to Xavien Howard's 10. He also had 14 passes defensed, three fumble recoveries and 40 tackles. The 6-1, 198-pound defender is excellent in press coverage; according to NFL Next Gen Stats, from the start of 2019 through Week 12 of last season he allowed an opposing passer rating of 0.0. when he started in press coverage and was the nearest defender on the throw. In 2019, while on his way to the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award, teammate Stephon Gilmore said Jackson had the best ball skills of any player he had ever seen. That's certainly borne out by Jackson's 19 picks in just 48 career games, which includes a team-high two already this season. That total ties Jackson with Howard for the most in the NFL since the start of the 2018 season.
4. G Shaq Mason. The Patriots have run the ball with middling success (3.9 yards per carry) but have done their best work over guards Mason and Michael Onwenu (more on that below). Mason and company also afforded Mac Jones good protection in the Patriots' first two games before struggling against the Saints last weekend. A fourth-round pick in 2015, Mason made a very good early impression and won the Patriots' starting left guard spot in his rookie season. He switched to right guard the next season and that's where he has remained since, starting 86 games overall including all three this year. A little undersized at 6-2 and 310-pounds, Mason knows how to use his frame to stay low and consistently win the leverage battle with his opponent. A noted drive-blocker since his college days in Georgia Tech's run-heavy offense, Mason has plenty of strength to move defenders off the ball at the point of attack. Last year, Pro Football Focus ranked Mason 50th on their list of the NFL's 101 best players, feeling particularly bullish on the guard's powerful run blocking.
New England's Mac Jones-led offense has yet to put up big numbers but at least has been able to move the chains, ranking 10th in the league with a third-down success rate of 44.7%. The Patriots' defense is off to a better start, ranking in the top six in yards per game, yards per play, passing yards per game and per play, interception percentage, sack percentage and first downs allowed. New England's five picks are the third most in the NFL. Kicker Nick Folk has yet to miss on nine field goal tries and punter Jake Bailey is averaging 50.1 yards per punt (though he has three touchbacks). Here are some more specific ways in which the Patriots have performed well during the first three weeks of the 2021 season:
- New England's defense has done a good job of stifling big plays by the opposition. The Dolphins, Jets and Saints combined to record just six plays of 20 or more yards against the Patriots, which is tied for the second-fewest allowed in the NFL so far. Only Philadelphia, with four, has allowed fewer.
- The Patriots offense has done well on third down, as noted. It has been particularly good after the team has had some success on first and second downs. On third-down attempts needing three or fewer yards, New England has converted 75.0% of the time (12 of 16). They've ran the ball on nine of those 16 times and moved the sticks on seven of them.
- When the Patriots' defense has chosen to blitz, the overall results have been good. According to Statspass, the Patriots have blitzed on 20 opponent drop-backs and those plays have resulted in a passer rating of 64.7. While those extra-man rushes have only resulted in one sack so far, New England has two interceptions on those 20 plays.
- According to NFLGSIS, the Patriots' ground game has been at its best when running behind guards Shaq Mason and Mike Onwenu. On 11 rushing plays over right guard, New England has averaged 7.73 yards per carry; on 11 rushing plays over left guard, the average is 6.18. Both of those figures rank second in the NFL.
The Patriots' offense ranks in the 20s in points and yards allowed per game, as well as yards per play, rushing yards per game and per play and passing yards per game and per play. New England is also dead last on offense in the red zone, with a touchdown percentage of 25.0%. The defense is allowing 122.7 rushing yards per game and the special teams have allowed a punt block and 16.3 yards per punt return. In addition:
- The Patriots are the only team in the league that has yet to score after getting a first-and-goal inside the opponent's five-yard line. Of course, they haven't had many chances. In fact, New England has achieved only one first-and-goal situation from inside the five-yard line this season, the lowest total in the league.
- New England's defense has been just a bit below average in stopping third-down tries, allowing a conversion rate of 40.5%. However, it has yet to turn back the enemy on a third or fourth down that needs just one yard. The Patriots have faced five such third downs and allowed all of them to be successful. They are one of only five teams that has yet to stop a third or fourth-and-one.
- The Patriots have not been heavily flagged by the officials, drawing just 18 penalties and only two more flags that were declined. That penalty total ties for the 10th-lowest in the NFL. However, they have had some issue up front on offense. The Patriots have been flagged for offensive holding eight times (one was declined). Their seven accepted holding calls are the sixth-most in the NFL.
- It's a good thing that New England's offense has done relatively well on third downs because they have not often moved the chains on second down. Of the 63 second-down plays the Patriots have run, only 15 have resulted in first downs, a 23.8% success rate that ranks 29th in the NFL. Most notably, they've only gained a first down twice on the eight plays they've faced second-and-two or second-and-three.
NEW FACES IN 2021
As noted above, there are a lot of new players in key roles for the Patriots this year. We've already discussed Mac Jones and Matt Judon at length above but the pass-catching corps has been overhauled and the secondary got a new starter who is playing in place of one of the NFL's best defensive backs.
1. TEs Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. Following the retirement of Rob Gronkowski (which didn't quite stick), the Patriots got nearly no production from the tight end spot in 2020 despite drafting two of them in the third round. Rather than wait for a possible emergence by either Devin Asiasi or Dalton Keene the Patriots instead went out and signed the top two tight ends on the market in the Chargers' Henry and the Titans' Smith. Henry has had injury issues throughout his career but has 21 touchdowns in 58 games and has averaged 41.9 yards per outing. Smith had 448 yards and eight scores for Tennessee last year.
2. CB Jalen Mills. Originally drafted in the seventh round by Philadelphia as a cornerback in 2016, Mills played seven different positions in the Eagles' defense in 2020. When the Patriots gave him a four-year deal in March, he was seen as a versatile chess piece who could fit into a variety of roles in New England's secondary. As it turns out, the Patriots have needed him at cornerback because 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore has not yet returned from a quad injury suffered late last season.
3. WR Nelson Agholor. A former first-round pick by the Eagles, Agholor's five-year tenure in Philly could probably be considered underwhelming but he revived his value in one season with the Raiders, racking up 896 yards and eight touchdowns and averaging 18.7 yards per reception. Agholor hasn't popped that sort of big play for the Patriots yet, with 10 catches for 110 yards, but he does have one of the team's two touchdown receptions.
1. T Trent Brown. Brown is back for a second stint in New England after coming over in a trade with Las Vegas in March and he is the anchor of what was expected to be a very good offensive line. However, he suffered a calf strain in the team's season opener and has not played since.
2. CB Stephon Gilmore. As noted above, the Patriots' top defensive back has not taken the field since last December due to a quad injury. Not sufficiently recovered to start the season, he was placed on the reserve/physically unable to perform list. That means he must miss at least the first six games before returning, though he and the Patriots are also in a contract dispute.
3. RB James White. One of the NFL's best pass-catching running back, White suffered a hip injury in Sunday's game against the Saints and had to leave the field on a cart. White is second on the team with 12 catches for 94 yards through the first three games.