2022 NFL Previews: New England Patriots

If you are not a Patriots fan then you are probably quite pleased that their dynasty has seemingly come to an end. Despite making the playoffs last year, New England is no longer the dominant team in the league. In fact, they failed to win the division the past two years, which hadn’t happened in a very long time.

This is certainly a new era for the Patriots. They are not going the route of a full-blown rebuild but they are definitely trying to remake the team on the fly, starting with the most important position on the team.

Quarterback Mac Jones was incredibly impressive as a rookie in 2021. The fifth quarterback drafted in the first round was the most impressive on the field, leading his team to the playoffs and earning a spot in the Pro-Bowl. Even with his great play as a rookie, Jones still needs to improve in order to develop into the franchise quarterback that New England is banking on him becoming.

Much of that improvement will simply come from having more experience in the league. Jones is a very smart player that excels at making the right reads and decisions so he should only get better with more reps. His success this year will likely depend on how the offense looks with former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gone. Jones is not yet at the point where he can carry an offense by himself so he will need good coaching to help him reach his potential.

Jones will also need plenty of help from his offensive weapons in order for him to succeed this year. He should once again be able to rely on the ground game to take some of the pressure off of him, which is always helpful for quarterbacks.

Running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson formed a pretty reliable one-two punch in the backfield last year. Harris rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and scored 15 touchdowns while Stevenson posted over 600 yards and five scores. Both will be better this season with more experience in the offense and with more time working with Jones, especially Stevenson, who was a rookie last year. The Patriots also brought in two rookie running backs in Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris, with Strong looking like the leading candidate to take over some of James White’s pass-catching duties after the veteran retired recently.

One thing that will also have a major impact on the success of the running game is how the offensive line performs in 2022. The Patriots always manage to have an effective unit up front due to great coaching and player development but that could be put to this test this year.

New England will be without guards Shaq Mason and Ted Karras, who started 15 and 13 games, respectively, last year. the team does still have plenty of players in place to maintain the continuity up front. Center David Andrews, guard Mike Onwenu, and tackles Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn all return after playing significant roles last season.

The final spot on the line should go to rookie guard Cole Strange, whom the Patriots selected in the first round of this year’s draft. The selection of Strange was widely regarded as a bit of a reach but New England surely trusts its own player evaluation. If Strange is an effective starter as a rookie then the pick will be labeled a success but if he struggles then it will be hard for Patriots fans to not think about who their team could have drafted instead.

With the ground game likely to be the focal point of the offense once again, that would place much less pressure on Jones and the rest of the passing attack. There shouldn’t be much pressure on that aspect of the offense in the first place, though, given the lack of talent at receiver.

The Patriots do have good players at the wide receiver position, they are just lacking any big names that make opposing defenses worry. The depth is certainly there for the New England wideouts but overall, it is one of the worst wide receiver groups in the NFL.

The team brought in DeVante Parker in the offseason to try and help with that issue but even he does not add that much to the position group. The Patriots also have Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne in place. Those players are all very solid options but none of them really jump off the page as a potential number one wide receiver.

New England’s best chance for a star at the position may be rookie wide receiver Tyquan Thornton, and even he comes with plenty of concerns as well. One thing that Thornton definitely has is speed. He ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash at the combine so the dude is a certified burner. But he was never overly productive in college and he may have the same problem as a pro. He still has the most potential and the highest ceiling of all the receivers so it is worth paying attention to how he and Jones develop together this year.

If the wide receivers do underwhelm, at least the young quarterback will be able to rely on his tight ends. The Patriots did some very uncharacteristic spending in free agency last year, including signing tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to big contracts.

The early returns on both players have been conflicting. Henry had instant success in New England, leading the team in touchdowns, but that makes sense given that he fits the Patriots’ style of tight end. Smith was not as fortunate, really struggling to make an impact in year one with his new team. He is still very talented and relatively young (he turns 27 next week) so there is still hope that he can carve out an effective role in 2022.

But even if the offense struggles this year the defense should be able to pick up the slack. The Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick have been, and always will be, a defense-first team. And that will be no different this year.

In 2021 the New England defense was once again one of the better units in the league despite a few major personnel losses. They will have to deal with some departures again this year, most notably cornerback J.C. Jackson.

Jackson was one of the game’s top corners and was a perfect fit in Belichick’s defense. His loss will definitely hurt the defense, especially because they didn’t bring in anyone of his caliber as a replacement. The team did sign cornerback Malcolm Butler, who is a Super Bowl legend in New England, but his best days of football are behind him.

The Patriots will rely on guys like Jalen Mills, Terrance Mitchell, Joejuan Williams, and rookie Marcus Jones at corner, which is not necessarily a great group. They are hoping that exceptional play at safety can help mask whatever issues present themselves out wide.

Safety Devin McCourty has been an integral member of the defense for a long time and despite being around for a while, he is still incredibly effective at free safety. Another big year from Kyle Duggar will also help the secondary. The third-year player really plays all over the field despite being listed at safety. He is quickly developing into an elite playmaker and one more season of that level of play could lead to him becoming the next star of the defense. the Patriots also have safeties Adrain Phillips and Jabrill Peppers so they can get creative with how they use all those guys on the defense.

One position that doesn’t need to be worried about much is the linebackers. The Patriots have plenty of quality veterans at the position, some of which are quite experienced with the system.

Dont’a Hightower is the biggest name of the bunch and has been the leader of the defense for a few years now. But fellow linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley has surpassed Hightower in terms of most productive on the field. Bentley was the leading tackler last season and the 25-year-old is starting to get recognized as an up-and-coming star at the position.

The Patriots also have Jamie Collins, who has spent multiple stints in New England, Jahlani Tavai, and Raekwon McMillan, but the most intriguing name is Mack Wilson. The Patriots traded for Wilson this offseason and gave up a pretty interesting asset in doing so (defensive Chase Winovich). That would suggest that Belichick and the rest of the defensive staff see some potential in Wilson and believe they can unlock his talent in their defense.

The Patriots have another productive veteran at outside linebacker in Matt Judon. He had a fantastic season last year, registering 12.5 sacks, and was widely concerned one of the best defensive players in the league. They are hoping for one of the young pass-rushers to step and form a productive duo with Judon. Outside linebackers Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, and Ronnie Perkins are the options, with New England hoping one of them can break out this season.

The Patriots are always very stout on the defensive line and this year should be no exception. They have a handful of very solid players to plug the middle. Payers such as defensive linemen Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, and Deatrich Wise will all be effective up front once again. The player that could take the d-line up a notch is second-year defensive tackle Christian Barmore. He was an incredibly disruptive force in college and showed flashes as a rookie last season. If he improves on that performance in year two then he will be well on his way to becoming a consistent and effective starter.

The New England roster looks very good on paper, which is no surprise given how well they have been able to construct teams this century. But unfortunately, NFL games aren’t played on paper. While I still think they will be a competitive team, I think they’ll finish 9-8 but don’t see them making it back to the playoffs. I think there are enough concerns on the roster (wide receiver, cornerback, pass rush) to keep them barely out of the postseason.

The biggest reason for that is the overall strength of the AFC conference. It seems very unlikely that the Patriots will beat out the Bills and win the AFC East, leaving them to fight for a wild card spot. And with two or three teams from the AFC North, two teams from the AFC South, and the entire AFC West all considered viable playoff teams, the wild card battle is going to be a very tough one.

Ultimately, I don’t think Jones will be good enough to earn one of the wild card spots, although I don’t think it will be all his fault. I think he is in a tough position with the talent (or lack thereof) at the skill positions around him. He is not quite at the level where he can elevate those players into a top-tier offense.

And while the defense will be good once again, I don’t know if it is good enough to make up for the offense. I think they are a few elite playmakers short of being a truly dominant unit on that side of the ball. Those players can certainly come from guys already on the roster but they would have to make significant jumps this year, which I don’t see happening.