With one final Tom Brady kneeldown, the 2020 NFL season officially came to an end Sunday night at Raymond James Stadium.
Brady’s former team, the New England Patriots, was on to 2021 weeks ago, having missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 after stumbling to a 7-9 record.
But as Brady celebrates his seventh Super Bowl title — and first as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer — the Patriots’ preparations for what they hope is a resurgent 2021 campaign will begin in earnest.
Bill Belichick and his Patriots coaching staff will reconvene this week and “start gearing up for the 2021 season,” according to NFL Media’s Mike Giardi.
As the Patriots get back to work, here’s a look at what lies ahead:
We’re five weeks away from the March 17 start of the new NFL league year, at which point teams can sign outside free agents and finalize trades.
Expect a lot of quarterback chatter between now and then.
With only Jarrett Stidham and Jake Dolegala currently under contract for 2021, finding a QB should be at the top of New England’s offseason priority list.
Potential free agent/trade options include Jimmy Garoppolo, Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr, Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jacoby Brissett, Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton, Mitchell Trubisky and Sam Darnold. The Patriots also could opt to re-sign Cam Newton, who struggled in 2020 but was placed in an unfavorable situation. Deshaun Watson (trade request) and Dak Prescott (free agent) don’t seem like realistic targets.
Beyond Newton, the Patriots have decisions to make on more than 20 other impending free agents. Among them: starting offensive linemen Joe Thuney and David Andrews, running backs James White and Rex Burkhead, defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, cornerbacks J.C. Jackson (restricted) and Jason McCourty and kicker Nick Folk.
The full list of Patriots players set to hit free agency:
C David Andrews
CB Justin Bethel
S Terrence Brooks
RB Rex Burkhead
DT Adam Butler
WR Damiere Byrd
OLB Shilique Calhoun
LB Brandon Copeland
DT Carl Davis
S Cody Davis
T/G Jermaine Eluemunor
C/G James Ferentz
K Nick Folk
DT Lawrence Guy
QB Brian Hoyer
CB J.C. Jackson (RFA)
FB Jakob Johnson (ERFA)
CB Jason McCourty
QB Cam Newton
OLB John Simon
G Joe Thuney
CB Dee Virgin (RFA)
RB James White
DE Deatrich Wise
The Patriots also must decide how to proceed with Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who is unlikely to play for the below-market $7 million salary he’s set to earn in 2021.
New England’s biggest offseason needs include quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, linebacker, defensive tackle, offensive tackle and potentially corner, depending on what happens with Gilmore and Jackson.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they’re set to enter the new league year with the fourth-most salary cap space in the NFL (around $60 million), giving them plenty of ammunition to bolster their depleted roster.
The NFL Scouting Combine, typically scheduled for the final week in February, was essentially canceled this year as the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams also will be barred from hosting pre-draft visits or meeting in-person with any draft prospects.
That means the Patriots (and the rest of the NFL) will need to rely on information collected at college pro days and during virtual prospect interviews as they build their draft board.
Patriots scouts did meet with draft-eligible players at last weekend’s Senior Bowl, including Alabama quarterback Mac Jones.
The 2021 NFL Draft itself is set to be held as scheduled, beginning April 29 and running through May 1. The Patriots currently own the 15th overall pick, which would be their fourth-highest selection of the Bill Belichick era.
The Patriots have picked in the top 20 just four times since 2000 but hit on all four, landing Richard Seymour (No. 6, 2001), Ty Warren (No. 13, 2003), Jerod Mayo (No. 10, 2008) and Nate Solder (No. 17, 2011).
New England is projected to receive three compensatory selections this year — one third-rounder to offset the loss of Brady and two fourth-rounders for Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy.
That would give the Patriots, who lost their own third-rounder as part of their punishment for videotaping the Cincinnati Bengals’ sideline in 2019, 10 picks total:
First round, 15th overall
Second round, 47th overall
Third round, compensatory
Fourth round, compensatory
Fourth round, compensatory
Sixth round (via Dallas)
We’ll have a better sense of the Patriots’ draft needs and potential targets after the initial wave of free agency, but quarterback, receiver, D-tackle, offensive tackle and linebacker all are possibilities if they stay at No. 15.
OFFSEASON WORKOUTS/TRAINING CAMP
What will this offseason look like for NFL teams and players? That remains unclear. But a return to a full slate of in-person workouts and practices isn’t likely with the pandemic still ongoing.
Last year, players were barred from visiting team facilities except to receive treatment until the start of training camp. The league has yet to determine whether OTAs will be feasible this spring.
“I don’t know when normal will occur again,” commissioner Roger Goodell said last week at his state of the NFL news conference. “… Virtual is going to be part of our lives for the long term.”
The schedule for next season won’t be announced until April or May, but we already know New England’s 2021 opponents.
The headliner: Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers returning to Gillette Stadium for the first time.
Here’s the full list:
Home: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans
Away: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers
If the NFL adds a 17th game, which reportedly was likely as of late December, the Patriots also would face the Dallas Cowboys (location TBA).