Seven Big Questions Facing Patriots After First-Round Playoff Exit

Priority No. 1: Fix the defense

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Saturday night’s 47-17 throttling at the hands of the Buffalo Bills officially ended the New England Patriots’ 2021 season.

By most measures, it was a successful campaign for the Patriots, who won 10 games with a rookie quarterback and returned to the postseason after a one-year absence. But New England also nosedived in December and January, dropping four of its final five games in similarly frustrating fashion.

Now, the focus shifts to 2022 — a point head coach Bill Belichick drove home by referring to Saturday’s wild-card playoff loss as “last year” in his morning-after video conference.

Here are seven big questions facing the Patriots as they head into the offseason:

1. How can they fix the defense?
That’s the most pressing question after Josh Allen shredded the Patriots on Saturday night. New England’s defense, considered one of the NFL’s best for much of the season, looked old, slow and overmatched over the final five weeks. Their pass rush disappeared. They couldn’t stop the run. They stopped forcing turnovers. They couldn’t get off the field on third down. They struggled early in games and folded late.

In two late-season victories over New England, Buffalo did not punt once. Not once.

There’s no straightforward, easily identifiable fix here, but getting younger and faster, especially at linebacker, would be a good place to start. Repairing this defense needs to be the Patriots’ top priority this offseason.

2. What happens with J.C. Jackson?
The Patriots face a conundrum with their highest-profile impending free agent. If Jackson hits the market, he’ll be easily the best cornerback available and likely will command more money than New England would be willing or able to pay. If they let him walk, they’d be left with a serious dearth of talent at corner. That’s why the franchise tag still seems like the most likely approach here, even after Jackson struggled against Buffalo. The tag carries a hefty one-year price tag, though, projected at north of $17 million next season. The Patriots currently have roughly $25.1 million in projected salary cap space for 2022.

Regardless of whether Jackson stays or goes, the Patriots must prioritize improving their cornerback depth, which was exposed Saturday night with Jalen Mills (COVID list) and Jonathan Jones (season-ending shoulder injury) unavailable. Corner will be high on their list of draft needs.

3. How about the other free agents?
Jackson is just one of several big-name Patriots who are set to hit unrestricted free agency in March. That list includes a handful of longtime locker room leaders. The Patriots have decisions to make on Safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who both showed signs of decline and likely would need to accept much cheaper contracts to re-sign. They were the only two Patriots players with cap hits above $10 million this season. It’s unclear whether either is considering retirement. Special teams captain Matthew Slater also wouldn’t reveal his offseason intentions, though he acknowledged he’s “closer to the end.”

Other notable Patriots UFAs include offensive linemen Trent Brown and Ted Karras, linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins, kicker Nick Folk, running backs James White and Brandon Bolden, and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, wideout/returner Gunner Olszewski and fullback Jakob Johnson will be restricted free agents.

4. Any one-and-dones?
Currently, the Patriots’ four highest 2022 cap hits and five of their top six belong to veterans signed during the team’s 2021 spending binge. Matthew Judon is at $16.5 million. Hunter Henry is $15 million. Nelson Agholor, $14.9 million. Jonnu Smith, $13.7 million. Davon Godchaux is in that neighborhood, too, at $10.25 million.

Will all of those players return next season? That’s likely, if only because it would cost the Patriots a sizable fee to part ways with most of them. Smith underperformed during the regular season (28 catches, 294 yards, one touchdown) and was not targeted in the playoffs, but cutting him would leave behind $26.5 million in dead money and create no cap savings. Trading Smith would leave $11.2 million in dead money and save just $2.4 million against the cap. He’ll be back in 2022.

Releasing Agholor, who couldn’t replicate his strong 2020 season, would cost the Patriots $10 million in dead money while creating $4.9 million in cap space. If they can find a trade partner, they’d save $9.9 million against the cap with $5 million in dead money.

Judon lived up to his lucrative contract for much of the season before cratering down the stretch. The Patriots badly need the Pro Bowler to rediscover his game in Year 2.

5. How can they set Mac Jones up for success?
Though he faded late in the season along with the rest of his team, Jones’ performance this year was a clear bright spot for New England. For the first time in three years, they can enter an offseason with no concerns about the quarterback position.

Jones remains an unfinished product, though, and the Patriots should place an emphasis on improving the infrastructure around him this offseason. There are questions to be answered on the offensive line — especially at tackle with Brown headed for free agency — but the Patriots also should focus on finding their developing QB a legitimate No. 1 receiver. That’s something New England’s offense lacked this season as Meyers, Henry and Kendrick Bourne spearheaded its passing attack.

Will the Patriots explore a trade for someone like Calvin Ridley? Use an early draft pick on a wideout? Take another swing in this year’s top-heavy free agent class? Adding a top-tier receiver is easier said than done, but having one has done wonders for young passers like Allen (Stefon Diggs), Joe Burrow (Ja’Marr Chase) and Justin Herbert (Keenan Allen).

6. Recent draft picks on the chopping block?
The Patriots have found a number of promising building blocks in their last two draft classes (Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, Rhamondre Stevenson, Kyle Dugger, Mike Onwenu). But this could be the end of the road for four of their top five picks from the 2019 draft. It’s clear N’Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams and Yodny Cajuste will never become consistent contributors in New England, and Chase Winovich was a healthy scratch for Saturday’s loss and a defensive non-factor all season.

2020 draftees like Anferenee Jennings, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene also will be on the roster bubble, and Josh Uche did not make the second-year jump many were predicting.

7. Any coaching staff changes?
Belichick confirmed he is returning next season, but the Patriots could lose one or more of his assistants. Inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo is a hot head-coaching candidate who already has one interview request, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels reportedly has garnered “significant” head-coaching interest, as well.

New England could experience some changes unrelated to outside hirings, too. The Patriots’ struggles on defense and special teams reflected poorly on Steve Belichick and Cam Achord, respectively. Would Bill Belichick make adjustments at either of those spots? And could see Brian Flores or Joe Judge return after both were fired from their head-coaching jobs? (The latter seems more likely than the former.)

Belichick said Sunday that he plans to wait several days before making any decisions about his roster and coaching staff for 2022.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick with quarterback Mac Jones (10)
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