The New England Patriots just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and posted their first losing record since 2000.
If they hope to return to their winning ways in 2021, there are some pressing questions they must answer in the coming months.
Here’s the biggest one facing each Patriots position group:
Who is the QB of the future?
Nearly a year after Tom Brady’s departure, the Patriots are no closer to answering that all-important question. They could look to re-sign Cam Newton with the hope that a full offseason and an improved supporting cast result in better passing production, but odds are he lands elsewhere this spring. Potential options for 2021 range from Matthew Stafford and Jimmy Garoppolo (if their current teams are willing to part with them) to stopgap candidates like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jacoby Brissett, Andy Dalton and Tyrod Taylor. The latter four ideally would be paired with a high draft choice, and at pick No. 15, the Patriots likely won’t have a shot at Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance without an aggressive trade-up. Would they consider a third-tier prospect like Alabama’s Mac Jones in the middle of the first round? We have our doubts, especially with all the needs they have elsewhere. The Patriots currently have just Jarrett Stidham — who couldn’t earn a start this season even while the Newton-led passing game dragged — and practice squadder Jake Dolegala under contract for next season.
Will James White be back?
The Patriots have a strong core here in Damien Harris, Sony Michel (who played some of the best football of his career over the final three games) and intriguing rookie J.J. Taylor. Brandon Bolden also said he plans to return after opting out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns. They have a decision to make on White, though, as the veteran third-down back set to hit free agency for the first time. The Super Bowl hero and multi-year team captain was uncharacteristically shaky as a pass-catcher and pass protector this season while also enduring a difficult year off the field. The versatile Rex Burkhead is a free agent, as well. He was in the midst of a career year when he suffered a season-ending knee injury that could sideline him into 2021.
How can the Patriots find a real No. 1?
Jakobi Meyers was one of the Patriots’ best players this season and should be part of the solution for New England’s scuffling air attack, but he’s not a true No. 1 wideout, at least not at this point. Neither is Damiere Byrd, who was shoehorned into that role this season. Nothing we’ve seen from N’Keal Harry makes us believe he can ever rise to that level, and the soon-to-be 35-year-old Julian Edelman likely will be a complementary piece if he returns after missing most of this season with a knee injury. The Patriots need to add some top-end talent to this group. Fortunately for them, this year’s free-agent class is stuffed with quality wideouts: Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller, Corey Davis, Curtis Samuel, T.Y. Hilton, Marvin Jones, Nelson Agholor, Sammy Watkins and more. New England’s history suggests it won’t break the bank for a player like Robinson, but with more than $60 million in projected cap space, the Patriots have the resources to make a big splash if they choose to.
Is a major move coming?
The Patriots were extremely weak at tight end in 2019, then somehow got worse in 2020 despite investing two third-round draft picks in the position. It’s too early to write off Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene (five combined catches this season) and getting opt-out Matt LaCosse back would give this group a slight boost, but the Patriots desperately need to add a tight end with legitimate pass-catching potential — something they’ve lacked since Rob Gronkowski bowed out after Super Bowl LIII. Hunter Henry, whom Bill Belichick adores, will be the top available free agent, followed by the likes of Jonnu Smith, Gerald Everett and Jared Cook. Florida star Kyle Pitts is a popular first-round Patriots target but could be gone by the time New England comes on the clock at No. 15.
Will Joe Thuney and David Andrews be back?
The Patriots head into 2021 with just one fully locked in O-line starter: Shaq Mason at right guard. Andrews and Thuney will be free agents (the former should be easier to re-sign than the latter, as Thuney will be arguably the best guard on the market). It’s unclear whether right tackle Marcus Cannon will retire after opting out of this season. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn is good when healthy, but durability issues — including a season-ending ankle injury in Week 11 — have limited him to just 18 games over three seasons. Standout rookie Mike Onwenu will start somewhere, but whether that’s at tackle or guard remains to be seen. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots look to replenish this unit through the draft.
Is this group in for an overhaul?
Here are the Patriots D-linemen currently under contract for 2021: Byron Cowart, Akeem Spence, Beau Allen, Bill Murray, Nick Thurman and Michael Barnett. That’s it. Of that group, only Cowart was a full-time player this season, with Thurman bouncing between the active roster and practice squad and Spence joining late in the campaign. Losing Allen — their projected Danny Shelton replacement at nose tackle — for the season was a major blow. Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise all are free agents. (Guy, for one, said he wants to stay.) This group could look very different next season. And would anyone really be shocked if New England went D-line with its top draft pick?
Will Dont’a Hightower return after opting out?
Behind Brady, Hightower was the Patriots’ biggest personnel loss this season, especially because his opt-out came after the team already had lost Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency. New England was a mess at the second level this season, resorting to playing safety Adrian Phillips as a full-time inside linebacker and giving practice squad call-up Terez Hall more than 250 snaps over the final nine weeks. The Patriots also struggled on the edge, with the usually steady John Simon regressing and Chase Winovich not yet a reliable three-down player. Winovich and rookie Josh Uche are building blocks, but this is one of several Patriots position groups that need an influx of talent. Getting back Hightower, a team captain and 2019 Pro Bowler, would be a positive start.
What happens with Stephon Gilmore?
There are a few paths the Patriots could take with their No. 1 corner, who almost certainly won’t be willing to play for the $7.5 million he’s set to earn in 2021. They could sign him to a long-term extension, which, given Gilmore’s age (31 in September) and New England’s track record, seems unlikely. They could see if he’d accept a one-year pay raise. They could stand pat for now, risking a holdout, and wait to see how he recovers from the partially torn quad that ended his season. Or they could trade him, which they reportedly considered doing last offseason. Whichever decision Belichick chooses will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of this talented cornerback group, which also has fellow starter J.C. Jackson hitting restricted free agency (he’ll likely get a first- or second-round tender) and Jason McCourty and special teams stud Justin Bethel set to become UFAs. Gilmore currently is set to carry a $17.2 million cap hit in 2021, the highest on the team.
Will Patrick Chung return after opting out?
With Kyle Dugger impressing as a rookie, Devin McCourty planning to return for a 12th season and slot/safety hybrid Jonathan Jones under contract for two more years, the Patriots should be in decent shape here, especially if Myles Bryant makes a Year 2 leap and roster moves elsewhere allow Phillips to play less linebacker. The biggest question mark is Chung, who turns 34 this summer hasn’t indicated whether he intends to return or retire. Also worth pondering: Would the Patriots consider re-signing Duron Harmon, whom they traded to Detroit last spring in a cap-clearing move? He’ll be a free agent.
Who will kick in 2021?
By signing Justin Rohrwasser and Roberto Aguayo to future contracts, the Patriots set the stage for another training camp kicking competition this summer. The big question now is whether they’ll re-up 36-year-old Nick Folk to join that roster battle. Folk is coming off a career year (26-for-28 on field goals, 30-for-33 on extra points) and plans to keep playing.