There are some Patriots players who have nothing left to prove — Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty and James White come to mind.
However, it’s a different story entirely for other players on New England’s roster.
As part of our 2021 season preview, we examined five Patriots players with the most to prove entering the new campaign. Honestly, we could’ve listed more (hence the “honorable mentions” section at the end), but we had to stop somewhere.
Let’s get into it:
Nelson Agholor, WR
Agholor largely was a disappointment over his five pressure-packed seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. He then went to the Las Vegas Raiders last season and enjoyed a career-best campaign (896 receiving yards, eight touchdowns), which was performed in front of zero fans.
So, what kind of receiver is Agholor? Is he ready to thrive in an even tougher environment than the one he saw in Philadelphia? Can he meet the expectations that come with a $24 million contract?
The Patriots paid Agholor to be their top wideout, and he’s talented enough to be the difference-making boundary receiver who rookie Mac Jones will need in his first season. But Agholor basically did nothing during preseason games and regularly left training camp practices with various minor injuries. Perhaps none of that will matter once the real action starts, but Agholor’s first camp in New England still wasn’t ideal, even though he did have his moments.
Davon Godchaux, DL
Godchaux also would be included on a “most important Patriots” list. Never underestimate the value of a nose tackle.
New England during the offseason gave the 26-year-old a two-year, $16 million contract to help shore up its defensive line, which struggled against the run last season. Godchaux was a good-not-great player over four seasons with the Miami Dolphins, but he has the kind of size and talent that hint at untapped potential.
While the investment in Godchaux isn’t enormous, it certainly is enough to put added pressure on the LSU product. The Patriots, with a thin secondary devoid of Stephon Gilmore for at least six games, need their defensive line to stop the run, put opposing offenses in long-yardage scenarios and enable the pass-rushers to do their thing. Otherwise, the secondary could be exposed in a hurry.
Is Godchaux good enough to lock down the interior? His preseason performance was uninspiring, but we’ll reserve judgment until watching him in games that matter.
Isaiah Wynn, OL
New England picked up Wynn’s fifth-year player option in May, so he does have financial security through the 2022 season. However, the 2018-first-round pick has more to prove if he wants a lucrative payday in a couple of years.
The fourth-year left tackle thus far has had a strange career. He missed all of his rookie campaign with an Achilles injury and missed a combined 14 regular-season games over the last two years due to various ailments. When on the field, Wynn has been above-average, as evidenced by his ranking as the 11th best tackle last season, per Pro Football Focus.
This season, Wynn has an opportunity to establish himself as a legitimate franchise left tackle, something he has the ability to do. The 25-year-old did have a good camp, and Jones certainly will need him.
The biggest problem for Wynn: High-quality positional redundancy. Trent Brown, Mike Onwenu and even Yodny Cajuste all are capable of handling left tackle. So, Wynn must own his position.
Gunner Olszewski, WR/KR
J.J. Taylor’s increased usage as a punt returner during the preseason led some to speculate whether Olszewski, an All-Pro returner last season, even would make the roster. Nevertheless, the former Bemidji State corner is back for a third campaign in Foxboro.
Olszewski has proven himself as a returner. He’s fearless, talented and kind of explosive. But is he so good that he deserves a spot on the receiver depth chart, despite thus far not having earned a consistent role in the passing game?
It feels like this is his last shot.
Olszewski has transformed his body since his rookie season. He’s bigger, faster and just looks more like an NFL receiver. The 24-year-old runs good routes and does a good job of getting open. But drops have been a huge issue for Olszewski, and likely will not be tolerated much longer.
If he can get the drops under control, Olszewski, a very likeable player, could be a Patriot for years to come. If not, he probably will be playing elsewhere in a year.
Mac Jones, QB
Duh. When you’re the 15th pick in the NFL draft, you have a lot to prove.
Still, this list would have been disingenuous if Jones weren’t on it.
The Alabama product absolutely deserved to win New England’s starting quarterback job, even if off-field issues factored into Cam Newton’s departure. Jones during camp and preseason games was accurate, efficient and demonstrated an ability to run the two-minute and no-huddle offenses. His reputation as a high-football-IQ guy precedes him.
But that was preseason. Jones is about to play regular-season games at Gillette Stadium, for Bill Belichick, with the added pressure of being Tom Brady’s true heir. That’s a lot to ask, and opinions are mixed on what a successful rookie campaign for Jones should look like.
At the very least, he needs to justify his head coach’s decision. We think he will, but you just never know with rookie quarterbacks.
Jones also needs to prove he’s physically ready for the NFL. A 17-game schedule in the pros is a lot different than what Jones saw in Tuscaloosa, and a player whose body definitely needs improving already is dealing with a knee issue. That said, Belichick clearly is comfortable enough with where Jones is at physically to have him leading the Patriots in Week 1.
Honorable mentions: Hunter Henry, TE; Kyle Dugger, S; Damien Harris, RB; Devin Asiasi, TE; Dont’a Hightower, LB