Patriots Superlatives: Recognizing Top Studs, Duds From 2021 Season

MVP, most improved, biggest disappointment and more

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With the New England Patriots’ 2021 season in the books, it’s time to hand out some postseason awards.

Here are our picks for this season’s Patriots superlatives:

Most Valuable Player
CB J.C. Jackson

If we handed out this award after Week 13, it would have been Matthew Judon in a runaway. At that point, the Pro Bowl outside linebacker already had tied the Bill Belichick-era franchise record for sacks in a season (12 1/2) and was the centerpiece of a defense that looked like one of the NFL’s best. But Judon disappeared in December and January, notching zero sacks and one quarterback hit over the final five games while committing multiple costly penalties and struggling as a run defender. After that ill-timed cold spell, we couldn’t keep him atop our MVP leaderboard.

Jackson wasn’t perfect in the home stretch, either — Stefon Diggs gave him trouble in each of the last two Buffalo Bills matchups — but he finished the season ranked second in the NFL in interceptions (eight), first in passes defended (23) and second in passer rating against (47.8) among cornerbacks with at least 150 coverage snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He was a Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro for the first time in his career and is set to cash in this offseason, either in free agency or via the franchise tag.

We’ll give an honorable mention to kicker Nick Folk, who went 36-for-39 on field-goal attempts and hasn’t missed one from inside 50 yards since Week 1 of the 2020 season.

Offensive Player of the Year
RB Damien Harris

The Patriots’ offense flowed through its bruising ground game this season, and Harris was the centerpiece of that effort. Despite missing two games with injuries, he rushed for a career-high 929 yards and scored 15 rushing touchdowns — a mark only LeGarrette Blount (18 in 2016) has surpassed in Patriots history. Only unanimous first-team All-Pro Jonathan Taylor (18) had more this season. Harris’ final PFF grade was third-best among running backs, trailing only Taylor and Green Bay’s A.J. Dillon. If both stay healthy, he and rising NFL sophomore Rhamondre Stevenson should form one of the league’s top backfield tandems in 2022.

Honorable mentions here include quarterback Mac Jones, wide receivers Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne, tight end Hunter Henry, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason.

Defensive Player of the Year
OLB Matthew Judon

It didn’t end well, but Judon’s production over the first 13 weeks still deserves recognition. He finished the season tied for seventh in the NFL in sacks, tied for 10th in tackles for loss, 11th in QB hits and tied for 13th in total pressures despite hardly adding to any of those totals over the final month. The Patriots need him to recapture that disruptive capability when he returns to the field in September.

Another strong candidate here is safety Adrian Phillips, who might have been the Patriots’ most consistently effective player from the start of training camp through the end of the season. Phillips finished with 92 tackles, four interceptions, nine passes defended and one defensive touchdown while rotating between safety, linebacker, slot and edge alignments. PFF graded him as the NFL’s eighth-best safety. The Patriots rewarded the versatile veteran with a three-year contract extension, making him the first of their 2022 free agents to re-sign.

Rookie of the Year
QB Mac Jones

Like many Patriots players, Jones was not at his best during the team’s late-season swoon, but his overall body of work was thoroughly impressive for a first-year pro. His 67.56% completion rate was a hair behind Dak Prescott’s 67.76% for the best ever by a rookie QB. He showed poise, command of Josh McDaniels’ offense, leadership and more mobility than his pre-draft scoring reports suggested. He also was one of the few Patriots who came to play in Saturday night’s wild-card round loss to the Bills.

The first-round draft pick will need to be more careful with the ball moving forward (three lost fumbles and 13 interceptions, including three pick-sixes), but for the first time in three years, the New England does not need to worry about the quarterback position this offseason.

Defensive tackle Christian Barmore (second round) and Stevenson (fourth round) also were major contributors, headlining what looks like the Patriots’ best draft class in close to a decade.

Most Improved Player
RB Brandon Bolden

Belichick has said he and the Patriots weren’t surprised by anything Bolden did this season, but the veteran running back took on a far more expansive role than he had at any point in his NFL career. Typically a core special teamer with minimal offensive responsibilities, Bolden stepped in for an injured James White in Week 3 and spent the rest of the season as New England’s No. 1 pass-catching back. He didn’t match peak White production, but he finished with more receptions (41) and receiving yards (405) than he had in his previous six seasons combined, preventing White’s early-season injury from derailing the Patriots’ offense.

Biggest Surprise
WR Kendrick Bourne

Bourne was a nice player during his four seasons with San Francisco. Few expected him to become the Patriots’ most explosive playmaker. In his first season in New England, the energetic 26-year-old set career highs in catches (55) and receiving yards (800) and tied his personal best in touchdown catches (five). He was one of the NFL’s most reliable and efficient pass-catchers — ranking near the top of the league in catch rate and yard per targets — and contributed as both a rusher (12 carries, 125 yards) and a passer (one touchdown pass) for the first time in pro career. And, like Jones, he showed up Saturday in Buffalo, finishing that 47-17 loss with 91 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Bourne was far from the flashiest wide receiver signing last spring, but he proved to be the smartest.

Biggest Disappointment
TE Jonnu Smith

One of the headliners of New England’s star-studded free-agent class, Smith never emerged as a reliable offensive weapon. He caught just 28 passes in 16 games, with nine of those coming in Weeks 1 and 2. Jones targeted him just once over the final four weeks, including a goose egg in the playoffs. Multiple advanced metrics ranked Smith as one of the NFL’s worst tight ends this season — not what you want from a player on a four-year, $50 million contract. The terms of that deal make Smith almost impossible to cut or trade this offseason, so the Patriots will need to hope the 26-year-old can improve in Year 2.

New England Patriots running back Damien Harris
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