As of last week, we now know how this New England Patriots season will begin: with rookie quarterback Mac Jones behind center.
But how will it end?
Will the Patriots, who loaded up on big-money free agents this offseason, surge back into contention after their worst season since 2000? Or is a longer rebuild ahead?
With New England set to welcome the Miami Dolphins to Gillette Stadium in this Sunday’s regular-season opener, we examined the best- and worst-case scenarios for Jones, head coach Bill Belichick and the rest of the 2021 Patriots.
Jones rides the momentum from his strong summer to the best season by a rookie quarterback since Dak Prescott in 2016, starting all 17 games and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year.
New England’s bets on tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith pay off big time, with the former catching 70-plus passes and the latter emerging as New England’s top red-zone threat, tallying 13 touchdown catches and adding two rushing scores.
Nelson Agholor remains the dangerous deep-ball artist he was for the Raiders last season, ranking in the top five in the NFL in yards per catch. His ability to threaten defenses vertically, coupled with the attention paid to Henry and Smith, allow Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne to feast underneath. Meyers, New England’s best pass-catcher in training camp, truly breaks out with 90-plus catches. And after opening the season on injured reserve, N’Keal Harry finally becomes a consistently reliable weapon, though he’s rarely needed given the talent above him.
In the backfield, Damien Harris stays healthy and becomes the Patriots’ first 1,000-yard rusher since LeGarrette Blount, and James White rebounds from his underwhelming 2020 campaign. Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson and second-year pro J.J. Taylor flash in supporting roles as the Patriots field a top-three rushing attack.
Assisting in this effort is an offensive line that ranks among the NFL’s best. Oft-injured left tackle Isaiah Wynn starts every game for the first time in his career, and right tackle Trent Brown, rejuvenated by his return to Foxboro, makes the Pro Bowl, with Mike Onwenu, David Andrews and Shaq Mason forming a rock-solid interior trio.
Defensively, newcomers Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore solve the Patriots’ D-line woes, and Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and Josh Uche restore New England’s pass rush to its 2019 level. Hightower shows no signs of rust after his COVID-19 opt-out. Strides from Chase Winovich and rookie Ronnie Perkins allow the Patriots to send waves of talented pass rushers at opposing quarterbacks.
On the back end, J.C. Jackson establishes himself as a true No. 1 corner over the first six weeks of the season, and Jalen Mills, Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade pick up the slack in Stephon Gilmore’s absence. Gilmore returns from the physically unable to perform list healthy and happy in Week 7, once again giving the Patriots arguably the NFL’s best cornerback duo. Kyle Dugger plays like a hybrid of Patrick Chung and Rodney Harrison in a breakout second season, forming a formidable safety trio alongside summer standout Adrian Phillips and the seemingly ageless Devin McCourty.
After dropping from first to 26th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA last season, the Patriots vault back into the top five, while also ranking near the top of the league in takeaways.
Jackson, Dugger and McCourty all pick off Tom Brady passes as the Patriots beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by double digits in Week 4, improving their record to 4-0. Despite some expected rookie stumbles along the way from Jones, New England goes 13-4, beating out a slightly regressed Buffalo Bills team to reclaim the AFC East title and challenge the Kansas City Chiefs for a spot in Super Bowl LVI.
Over the last eight seasons, 11 teams have started a rookie QB in Week 1, and just one has finished with a winning record (Prescott’s 13-3 Dallas Cowboys). Jones is unable to buck that trend. Despite passing every test during training camp and the preseason, the first-round pick struggles against more creative and aggressive defenses in the regular season. The promise is there, but the results are not.
It doesn’t help that Agholor, New England’s most controversial offseason signing, reverts into the player he was late in his Philadelphia Eagles tenure — i.e. not a very good one — and Henry and Smith struggle to stay healthy after both battled injuries in camp. Harry is an afterthought once he returns from IR and eventually is flipped at the trade deadline for a seventh-round pick.
The injury bug also strikes down Harris and Wynn, who enter the season with durability concerns, and the likes of Stevenson, Taylor, Justin Herron and Yodny Cajuste prove to be inadequate replacements. The Patriots’ run game sputters, and they have a difficult time keeping Jones upright — a common problem for teams fielding first-year signal-callers.
That leads to an injury that causes Jones — who’s worn a protective brace on his left knee for the past several weeks — to miss time, and Belichick, while mulling whether to start Brian Hoyer or a fresh-off-back-surgery Jarrett Stidham in his place, regrets his decision to cut Cam Newton.
On defense, the Patriots become the latest example of why building a team through free agency isn’t the preferred method in the NFL. Judon’s wildly productive preseason proves to be a mirage, and he fails to live up to his monster contract. Godchaux, Barmore and Henry Anderson improve last year’s woeful D-line, but not by much, and New England again struggles to stop the run. Hightower’s body isn’t able to withstand the punishment of a full season after his year away from the game.
The Patriots’ cornerback group devolves into disaster in Gilmore’s absence. Jackson, whose worst performances last season came with Gilmore sidelined, can’t keep pace against a weekly parade of No. 1 receivers, and opponents routinely pick on Mills. Dugger’s man coverage issues prevent him from taking a sizable Year 2 leap, and McCourty finally begins to show signs of decline at age 34.
Quinn Nordin’s accuracy never develops after a 10-for-15 showing in the preseason, and another team poaches Nick Folk off New England’s practice squad, forcing the Patriots to roll with an erratic rookie kicker.
Brady throws for 450 yards and four touchdowns in his return to Gillette Stadium, routing his former team 42-10 en route to a second consecutive Super Bowl title. The Patriots go 7-10, missing the playoffs for the second straight season.