Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was the first to admit that he has a lot of work to do this offseason during his season-ending video conference.
At the top of the list is improving a passing attack that posted its lowest defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) since 1992, the year before the Pats drafted Drew Bledsoe first overall in the 1993 draft.
In 2020, quarterback Cam Newton was 30th in ESPN’s QBR metric, and his pass-catchers were 26th in Pro Football Focus receiving grade. The Pats’ tight ends accumulated 26 catches, 289 yards, and a touchdown; 31 tight ends individually surpassed those numbers this season.
Even with Brady in 2019, the Patriots were 15th in pass DVOA and 23rd in receiving grade.
A glance at the last decade of Super Bowl champions shows that it’s nearly impossible to win a championship in today’s NFL with a lousy passing game, especially to this degree.
Eight of the last ten Super Bowl champs ranked in the top ten of pass DVOA the year they won the Lombardi. The 2015 Broncos won with a historically great defense and Peyton Manning on his last leg, while the 2012 Ravens were 14th in DVOA during the season, then got hot in the postseason. Everyone else, elite passing attack.
My mistake the #Patriots have ten draft picks, including projected comp picks. We now know their first pick will be 15th overall.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 4, 2021
This offseason, Belichick has an estimated ten draft picks, including the 15th overall selection in the first round, and a projected $60.5 million in cap space, per PatsCap’s Miguel Benzan.
Belichick deserves a long leash to rebuild the Patriots, but with the ammo he has this spring, there are no more excuses for New England to continue rolling out a poor passing offense.
The veteran quarterback carousel will spin its wheels once again. There are intriguing QB options in the draft and a loaded free agency and draft class at wide receiver and tight end.
With the amount of draft capital and cap space at his disposal, Belichick can afford an ultra-aggressive approach in fixing a problem that is multiple seasons in the making.
Starting with the quarterback, we’ll take you through a five-step plan for the Patriots to improve their offense with options at every position, followed by my “dream” 2021 offense:
STEP 1: UPGRADING THE QUARTERBACK POSITION
Upgrading the quarterback position doesn’t necessarily mean moving on from Cam Newton.
Finding a better schematic fit and long-term solution is in the best interest of the team. But it also makes some sense to bring Newton back as the bridge with a better supporting cast if an immediate veteran upgrade doesn’t present itself.
Either way, the Patriots need to think big because teams that don’t are stuck in quarterback hell.
Almost every viable starting quarterback in the league fits into two buckets: a first-round pick or a big-money veteran acquisition (trade, free agent). There are a few outliers, such as Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott, but the days of finding a diamond in the rough are mostly over.
First, consider the quarterbacks taken in the first round from 2015-2019: Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Josh Allen headline the group. Sure, there are “busts” in there but that’s a great hit rate overall.
Here’s a graphic that shows the career leaders in approximate value among quarterbacks drafted outside the top 50 from 2015-2019. We took out the 2020 draft class in both instances because it’s too soon to tell, but as you can see, it’s Prescott and a bunch of career backups.
Since Prescott and Wilson are such outliers, the Patriots’ best case scenario if they go the draft route at quarterback outside the first round is a Jimmy Garoppolo or Kirk Cousins.
Maybe Belichick can win in-spite of those signal-callers, but he isn’t winning because of them, and trading up in the draft should be on the table if the team loves a prospect.
The other route the Patriots could go is acquiring a veteran quarterback via trade or free agency, which was successful for teams like the Buccaneers and Saints.
Trying to sign or trade for a known commodity could create a short win-now window with Belichick adding to the rest of the roster.
Ultimately, this sentiment holds: if the Patriots don’t address the quarterback position with a premium asset, they will be stuck in mediocrity.
Below are some options that are somewhat realistic and fit the mold of a Patriots quarterback.
Tier 1/veteran: Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan
Tier 2/veteran: Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett, Cam Newton
Tier 1/draft (sell the farm): Zach Wilson, Trey Lance
Tier 2/draft (ideally not first draft pick): Mac Jones
Tier 3/draft: Kyle Trask, Desmond Ridder
STEP 2: UPGRADING WIDE RECEIVER POSITION
The Patriots should entertain overhauling their entire wide receiver room outside of Jakobi Meyers, and they have the resources to upgrade the position and get a true #1.
Although Meyers might be ideally suited for a role in the slot as a third wideout, he has the potential to be a starting “Z” receiver if the team counts on him in that capacity next season.
Due to their deficiencies at the position, we wouldn’t rule out upgrading Meyers with someone like Devonta Smith or Rashod Bateman in the first round, both aren’t true “X” wideouts but fit extremely well as a “Z” receivers.
The same goes for players that we would label as tier two receiver options such as Florida’s Kadarius Toney or Ohio State’s Chris Olave. We like them both, but their route trees overlap with Meyers.
Where the Patriots desperately need an upgrade is at the “X” position, where N’Keal Harry was supposed to be their Dez Bryant but is not going to come close to reaching that level of play.
Damiere Byrd, an unrestricted free agent again this offseason, had a productive first half of the season and was even better on tape. But that waned down the stretch, and his warts as a player began to show themselves (hands, contested-catch ability, YAC ability).
The good news for New England is that this is one of the deepest free agent classes at wide receiver in recent memory, even if all the options don’t hit unrestricted free agency.
We would like to see the Patriots take a big swing in free agency to get an effective receiver on the boundary that could fill the void at the “X” spot.
Most NFL front offices look at the wide receiver position as a group of three, as in you need three legitimate starters, and right now, the Patriots have one. Let’s look at some options.
WIDE RECEIVER OPTIONS
Tier 1/free agent: Allen Robinson, Corey Davis
Tier 2/free agent: Sammy Watkins, Curtis Samuel
Tier 3/free agent: Tim Patrick (restricted free agent)
Tier 1/draft (top pick): Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle (Chase unlikely)
Tier 2/draft (second pick): Rashod Bateman, Kadarius Toney, Chris Olave
Early day two sleeper: Dazz Newsome
STEP 3: CONTINUE TO SEEK UPGRADES AT TIGHT END
Although it was only one game, my film reviews pointed out several positive steps for 2020 third-round pick Devin Asiasi before his strong performance in Week 17.
On the one hand, Asiasi’s play down the stretch doesn’t completely erase tight end off the list of needs, especially with the numbers we shared in the intro. But it does offer optimism.
Asiasi has a chance to develop into a starting NFL tight end. He’s got the in-line blocking ability, a noticeable initial burst off the line, and will hopefully improve his hands.
With that said, Florida’s Kyle Pitts might fall to no. 15 because of the demand for quarterbacks at the top of the draft, and that’ll be tough to pass up for the Patriots.
Pitts isn’t their ideal archetype at the position since he’s more Kelce than Gronk. Belichick might want his Gronk or Mark Bavaro types that can block with their hands in the dirt, but that’s not where the position is heading, and Belichick knows first-hand a Pitts-type is a matchup nightmare for the defense. Pitts is a real difference-maker that’ll headline your passing offense.
As great as Pitts would look in a Patriots uniform, again, his game isn’t their typical brand, and it might behoove New England to go the free agency route to get an immediate contributor.
There are a lot of options in free agency, just like wide receiver. One of those is current Chargers tight end Hunter Henry, who Belichick adores, and is the full package. Tennessee’s Jonnu Smith is another good option.
Signing Henry, or maybe a lesser version such as Smith, would alleviate the pressure on Asiasi to be the main guy next season, and as we know, two tight end sets can be lethal.
TIGHT END OPTIONS
Tier 1t: Hunter Henry (free agent), Zach Ertz (trade)
Tier 3/free agent: Jonnu Smith, Jared Cook, Gerald Everett
Tier 1/draft: Kyle Pitts
Tier 2/draft: Pat Friermuth
Tier 3/draft: Brevin Jordan, Hunter Long
STEP 4: FIGURE OUT THE SHUFFLING ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE
The Patriots have depth along the offensive line, but any good passing offense is anchored by good pass protection, and David Andrews and Joe Thuney are massive looming decisions.
Based on Spotracs projections, Thuney could command nearly $14 million per year on the open market while Andrews is slated at an average annual value of around $7 million.
Due to the cost, re-signing Andrews, an offensive captain, while letting Thuney walk seems like the best business decision. Although, nobody saw the Pats tagging Thuney last offseason.
New England has an in-house replacement in standout rookie Michael Onwenu for Thuney. Sliding Onwenu inside will return him to his more natural position where he has a higher ceiling.
Onwenu was great at tackle this season, but he had help in his direction and didn’t face great competition outside of a few games this year. I still think his best long-term fit is at guard, where his foot speed won’t be as much of a factor.
Once the Thuney and Andrews dominos fall, the Patriots will need to figure out the tackle position. Rookie Justin Herron should be in the running for the starting right tackle job, and starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn is under contract through 2022, but can they rely on them?
Wynn’s time to prove he can stay healthy for the full 16-plus games is running out, and the Pats need to start thinking of a backup plan in case he can’t stay on the field.
Drafting another tackle, even as early as the first round, isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.
Patriots fans might not like the pick at the time, but Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw is a stud left tackle prospect that checks all the measurables boxes, unlike Wynn. He could start at either tackle spot right away.
Given Andrews’ age and medical history, we also wouldn’t rule out the team investing a day three pick at center. They tried last year, but seventh-round pick Dustin Woodard retired once he saw what life would be like with Belichick.
OFFENSIVE LINE OPTIONS
Tier 1/draft: OT Christan Darrisaw
Tier 2 draft: OT Samuel Cosmi, C Creed Humphrey, OT Alex Leatherwood
STEP 5: RE-SIGN JAMES WHITE AND/OR REX BURKHEAD
The Patriots have a loaded backfield returning for the 2021 season with Damien Harris, Sony Michel, and 2020 UDFA J.J. Taylor all in the mix. Still, White and Burkhead are key vets as well.
Running back shouldn’t be a pressing need for New England, but White and Burkhead won’t be overly expensive and play the sub-back/pass-catching role that thrives with the Patriots.
Belichick could easily re-sign both players without blowing the budget, and the Pats are better off with their leadership and skillset on the roster. At least one of White or Burkhead should stay.
LAZAR’S DREAM OFFSEASON: IT WON’T HAPPEN, BUT LET’S DREAM…REALISTICALLY
Quarterbacks: Jacoby Brissett, Mac Jones
My absolute dream scenario would’ve been Matthew Stafford or Dak Prescott, but both of those seem like pipe-dreams. The Patriots then blew their chances by winning too many games for one of the draft’s top four quarterback. They could trade up for a hefty price, something like no. 15, a 2022 first-round pick, and a mid-round selection might get it done. There’s going to be buzz about Jimmy G, but the truth is he produced one above-average season and hasn’t stayed healthy otherwise. Brissett is an intriguing option for three reasons: he’s cheap, available, and had some flashes of starter-level play in 2019. Most importantly, he took care of the ball and was a more consistent downfield thrower than Cam Newton at this stage. Brissett is now an unrestricted free agent, it shouldn’t be too expensive to bring him back, and he pairs pretty well as a passer with Jones. Athletically, Jacoby is no Cam. But he had some highlight scramble passes with the Colts and threw on-target on 74.5% of his throws compared to Newton’s 68% this season. If they believe Brissett can open up the passing game more than Newton, let’s give it a shot. In the draft, Jones’s best traits are his balanced and smooth throwing motion that leads to consistent short and intermediate accuracy. There are concerns about arm strength and ability to create out of structure, but his football IQ, accuracy, and decision making fit the bill. I’d trade up from 46th in the second round to secure Jones at the end of the first round.
Running backs: Damien Harris, Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, J.J. Taylor
There are no changes here as the Patriots re-sign both White and Burkhead, two team leaders who perfectly play their roles. Burkhead’s injury was an underrated reason the offense collapsed.
Wide Receivers: Devonta Smith, Tim Patrick, Jakobi Meyers, Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry
The Patriots might be too far out of Smith’s range, but if teams seeking wide receivers ahead of the Pats prefer Ja’Marr Chase or teammate Jaylen Waddle, it’s possible with four quarterbacks going as well. Another first-round receiver that might be more realistic is Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, who draws comparison to Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson. Adding Patrick in free agency gives them a legitimate “X” receiver to pair with the likely Heisman Trophy winner. Patrick is a restricted free agent, but the Broncos already invested two top 50 picks in Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler over the last two drafts.
Tim Patrick hasn’t been a huge YAC receiver (4.4 YAC/rec.) but he takes advantage of the limited opportunities (+1.2 YAC above Expectation)
Really like how he gets vertical when Xavien Howard has him leveraged, then bubbles back outside to turn the corner pic.twitter.com/r4eX7F8e25
— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) December 16, 2020
Although he’s not a household name, Patrick can play. He has excellent vertical speed, contested-catch skills and is underrated after the catch. Belichick isn’t usually one to break the bank for a wide receiver, and Patrick is a classic under the radar Pats move. By adding both Patrick and Smith, Meyers becomes a high-end role player instead of a key cog. Smith is your number one.
Tight Ends: Hunter Henry, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene
Belichick gets his guy. The move makes too much sense not to happen with the Pats having a glaring need, the price being somewhat reasonable ($10 million per year), and Henry’s complete game for a traditional in-line tight end. With Henry as the starter, Asiasi becomes a nice TE2 in two-tight end sets and the Pats have potentially two matchup weapons in the room. Henry would make an immediate impact.
Starting Offensive Line (left to right): Isaiah Wynn, Michael Onwenu, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Justin Herron/Rookie
Herron might have the tools to start next season after getting some valuable experience as a rookie. Still, the Patriots should also entertain bringing in a third tackle with starter potential. Whether it’s for Wynn or Herron, someone is bound to get hurt or underperform. Having a chess piece like Onwenu certainly helps with depth as well. On paper, this is a strong group.