The Patriots are used to playing meaningless Week 17 games for very different reasons than what they’ll encounter on Sunday against the Jets.
Although I would never advocate for the Patriots to purposely tank a game, it’s hard to ignore the positives in a Week 17 loss. If you want a prayer at Lance, Wilson, Pitts, Smith, or any of the top-tier prospects in the 2021 draft, then the Pats likely need to lose on Sunday.
With a loss and some help, New England can improve from where they currently stand at 14th overall to as high as ninth in April’s draft, which could make a huge difference in their rebuild, and is all that is at stake.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is going to try to win the game, as he should, and there aren’t many incentives for current players on the roster to tank. There’s nothing to gain for a player from putting out bad tape, especially upcoming free agents. Still, it’s one game where you might rest a few veterans and live with the results from younger players (the Pats already ruled out David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Damien Harris).
The game is unlikely to produce anything useful in terms of evaluating the roster for next year, and I wouldn’t put too much stock into anything that happens in one game.
Here are thoughts on the futures for Jets head coach Adam Gase and quarterback Sam Darnold plus a few of New England’s upcoming free agents:
COULD ADAM GASE END UP IN NEW ENGLAND?
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s overly complimentary comments towards Jets head coach Adam Gase despite New York’s 2-13 record.
Belichick typically heaps heavy praise on every opponent as a sign of respect for the game, but it’s slightly deeper than that with Gase.
Gase made a name for himself as the offensive coordinator for Peyton Manning in Denver, and with Manning’s seal of approval became the head coach of the Dolphins and now in New York.
The 42-year-old has a career 32-47 record as a head coach and is 9-22 with the Jets over the last two seasons. Outside of his two seasons with Manning, Gase’s offenses will finish outside the top 20 in total yards in his six other seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach. In the last two seasons, the Jets were dead-last in total offense.
Despite reports that he’ll be fired as the head coach of the Jets at the end of the year, Belichick is a fan.
“I have a lot of respect for Adam. I think he’s a very good coach,” Belichick said this week. “He’s always made things difficult on our defense. So, known each other for a while through a mutual connection there. But I think he’s done an excellent job. He’s, as I said, a coach I have a lot of respect for, and he gives us a lot of problems.”
New England’s football czar is linked with Gase by old friend Nick Saban and current Pats OC Josh McDaniels. Gase got his start at Michigan State and LSU under Saban and coached wide receivers in Denver while McDaniels was the Broncos’ head coach.
After McDaniels was fired in 2010, Gase remained in Denver as the quarterbacks’ coach and was eventually named offensive coordinator.
Although Belichick hasn’t worked with Gase directly, he called Gase to discuss his future when the Dolphins fired the Saban disciple, and the two are, at the very least, workplace associates.
With former Pats quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch leaving to become the head coach at Arizona and McDaniels still searching for a head coaching job, there are potential openings for Gase in New England. But why would Belichick want him? That’s a difficult question to answer.
Belichick mentioned in the quote above that Gase gave the Patriots problems over the years, which isn’t entirely true.
In 12 games against New England as either a head coach or offensive coordinator, Gase’s teams are 3-9 against the Pats and average 20.2 points per game.
On the whole, Belichick has owned Gase, but there were some good offensive performances by Gase’s teams, including a 27-point showing led by backup quarterback Joe Flacco in Week 9.
In that game, Gase designed ways for vertical threat Breshad Perriman to get one-on-one matchups with Pats cornerback JC Jackson, and Perriman caught two touchdowns on Jackson.
On Perriman’s 50-yard touchdown, the Jets got cover-1 man as expected from the Pats defense. The post route by slot receiver Braxton Berrios forces Devin McCourty to stay in the middle of the field, leaving Jackson on an island with Perriman. Perriman gives Jackson a little stutter-and-go and gets behind Jackson for six.
(via Sports Info Solutions)
Jackson had a rough game against Perriman last time and struggled with Bills wideout Stefon Diggs in his two biggest auditions as a number one corner. Jackson will have another chance at Perriman again this week and needs a strong performance to improve his numbers when Stephon Gilmore isn’t in the lineup.
If the Patriots want to add Gase as quarterbacks coach with McDaniels as the coordinator, that’s one thing. Bringing him on for more responsibility than that is asking for trouble.
SAM DARNOLD’S FUTURE WITH THE JETS
After seeing Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields’s performance against Clemson in the College Football Semifinals, there’s a good chance the Jets will move on from Darnold and draft Fields with the second overall pick in 2021 draft.
New York selected Darnold with the third selection in the 2018 draft, and he hasn’t developed into the player they hoped. As we saw this season with the Patriots, it wasn’t all on Darnold that he isn’t improving.
Darnold has yet to start a full season, the supporting cast is bottom-five, and was statically the worst starting quarterback in the NFL in the first 14 weeks of the season.
To his credit, Darnold is playing much better since returning from injury to a fully-healthy group of weapons. The Jets quarterback played well in an upset victory over the Rams and took what the defense gave him against Cleveland.
Although it’s unlikely that Jets’ general manager Joe Douglas would trade him in the division, let alone to the Patriots, Darnold will likely be available this offseason for the right price.
Belichick, just like with Gase, had plenty of praise for Darnold despite his struggles and praised the 23-year-old for his play during the Jets’ two-game win streak.
“I think he’s got the ability to make all the throws. He can throw a ball down the field and intermediate throws. There are plenty of examples of him going through a read progression, a 1-2-3 type of progression, high to low, outside to inside, man to zone, from one side of the field to the other based on what the coverages is, blitzes, so forth. So, I think he’s shown the ability to do everything. The consistency has looked better in recent weeks. Yeah, I don’t think there’s any shortage of talent there or play-making ability,” Belichick said of Darnold.
On the one hand, Belichick isn’t wrong about Darnold possessing the necessary arm talent and playmaking ability to be a starting quarterback in the league. As a prospect, Darnold always impressed with both those attributes, even if his work from the pocket was suspect.
The former USC’s star’s lack of consistency on downfield throws still hurts him, but there are flashes of “wow” moments on tape that make a young quarterback prospect intriguing.
Here, Darnold shows off his arm talent and tight-window accuracy by fitting the ball into tight end Chris Herndon on a crossing pattern. Herndon is well-covered underneath, and the deep safety is screaming into the passing lane as well. But with a flick of the wrist, Darnold fits it through the keyhole.
Later in the Jets’ upset win over the Rams, Darnold displays his best attribute as a passer, escapability and creativity outside the pocket. Darnold avoids Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald in the backfield, pulls a defender in coverage towards him, and finds Jamison Crowder.
However, even improved accuracy to throw catchable downfield passes in recent weeks is marred by too many examples of his ball placement taking bigger plays off the board.
Most of those throws come from inside the pocket. The Jets ran a post-wheel pattern to flood the deep zones on the left boundary. The route design works perfectly, but Darnold’s pass is short, taking Herndon to the ground rather than leading him into the end zone.
Here’s another example of a tougher downfield throw. This time, New York ran a “Yankee” concept variation with a vertical clear-out opening the middle of the field for the crosser. Darnold has to make a far-hash throw to a crossing route moving in the opposite direction, not easy, but he throws behind Breshad Perriman and can’t lead his receiver into yards after the catch.
Gase and Darnold are basically on the same career trajectory; a coach and player with moments of brilliance but fail too often to create consistent results for their team.
After beating two playoff teams in Los Angeles and Cleveland, there’s no doubt that Gase and the Jets are playing better football than the Patriots heading into Sunday’s season finale.
Along with Darnold’s improvements, the Jets defense is second in expected points added per play (-0.140) in back-to-back wins over the Rams and Browns, which stunned the entire league.
After firing defensive coordinator Gregg Williams last month, interim DC Frank Bush has his defense playing well, and the Jets are showing more positive signs than the Patriots currently.
However, all of that could be good news for New England. New York’s two recent victories dropped them out of the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes and could trick general manager Joe Douglas into retaining Gase and Darnold, both of which are unlikely to figure it out. Passing on Fields would be crazy.
For the Patriots, it could be an ugly end to the season if a streaky Jets team beats them in their own building.
PLAYER REPORTS (Unrestricted Free-Agent Edition)
Lawrence Guy – Guy should be near the top of the priority list for the Patriots this offseason. He has blossomed into one the best strong-side defensive ends this decade in New England. He’s a perfect fit, a good mentor, and shouldn’t be too pricey as a two-down run-stuffer. The Patriots have enough holes as it is on the defensive line. Let’s not make matters worse by losing Guy in free agency. If they get a nose tackle and linebackers to play alongside Guy, he’ll anchor a good run defense.
David Andrews – the Pats center will sit out the final game of the season due to a calf injury, meaning the loss to the Bills could theoretically be his final game in New England. The calf noticeably hindered Andrews over the last two weeks, where he allowed a sack and six quarterback pressures in pass protection. Still, he had another solid season and is a team leader as one of the offensive captains. Based on Spotracs projections, Andrews will demand roughly $7 million per year in free agency. With that being half of Joe Thuney’s estimated cost, re-signing Andrews instead of Thuney is a likely outcome.
Adam Butler – Butler is now an unrestricted free agent after playing on a second-round tender this season, and according to a league source, the team hasn’t talked extension with him as of yet. Since Week 12, Butler is tied for eighth among interior defensive lineman in quarterback pressures (18), and we know how often he occupies blockers for his teammates to pile up stats. However, there are concerns about his three-down fit in Belichick’s defense. He’s not a two-gapping nose tackle that can eat blocks, but rather a penetrating DT that wants to shoot gaps. Ideally, the Patriots could play him at weak-side defensive end in an odd front if they can find a traditional nose tackle. Butler, who has excellent length and explosiveness, is still a great fit as a pass rusher and earned a pay increase.
Jason McCourty – it’s hard to part ways with a player and person like Jason McCourty, who, alongside brother Devin, is quietly a leader of the defense. However, the 33-year-old is a free agent that could contemplate retirement and is probably best in a reserve role at this stage. McCourty’s days as a starting outside corner are over. He’s probably at his best now playing in the slot or guarding tight ends inside, but the Pats have better options there. Maybe he could get more playing time if he can transition to deep safety. Playing their younger defensive backs, such as Kyle Dugger, Joejuan Williams, or Myles Bryant makes more sense.
Damiere Byrd – if Byrd were a complimentary weapon rather than a primary option, his career-high 46 catches for 597 yards would look a lot better. Aside from the drop against Buffalo, Byrd used his speed to get open underneath the defense and create downfield opportunities. But he’s limited at the catch point due to his size, making it difficult for the quarterback to trust him in contested situations. Byrd also improved as a ball carrier as the season wore on. Although, I wouldn’t call that a strength as he looks tentative at times. Byrd isn’t going to get the bag in free agency, but he made some money this year. With that said, if they want him back it won’t cost much.
Deatrich Wise – Wise is another player that is productive from a pass-rush standpoint but is too streaky against the run for an every-down role. There were times this season where Wise was making improvements as a run defender, but that waned down the stretch. At 6-foot-5 with nearly 36-inch arms, Wise is an imposing physical specimen that doesn’t play to his size in the run game. In reality, his height might be a deterrent to a stout anchor because he isn’t flexible enough to play with good pad level and leverage. The Pats might hang onto Wise, thinking they’ll upgrade their defensive line and allow him to play more situationally. Still, it feels like they have a few too many one-trick ponies on the D-Line.
John Simon – According to Sports Info Solutions, the Patriots allowed the third-most yards per rush on off-tackle runs this season (5.3). Setting the edge is Simon’s specialty, and as a player that offers nothing in the pass rush and is a liability dropping into coverage, it’s hard to see a role for him moving forward. At the very least, the Patriots can’t have Simon playing nearly 70 percent of the snaps as he did this year. New England asks three things of their edge defenders: set the edge (most important), rush the passer, and drop into coverage. With only three quarterback pressures on the season, Simon ranks 78th among 79 qualified edge rushers and 52.0 coverage grade.