What’s Best-, Worst-Case Scenario For Patriots In 2022 Season?

The range of plausible outcomes for the 2022 Patriots is wide


Sep 8, 2022

The 2022 New England Patriots could be better than they were in 2021. That’s a legitimate possibility, even after an offseason filled with questions and criticism. But they also could be much, much worse.

The Patriots’ range of plausible outcomes this season is wide — wider, perhaps, than it’s been in two decades. Last season, they won 10 games with a rookie quarterback and made the playoffs. Will they take another step forward in Mac Jones’ sophomore year? Or will the controversial offensive changes and turnover on defense be an anchor that drags them into mediocrity?

With the Patriots kicking off the regular season this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium, here’s our view of the realistic best- and worst-case scenarios for Belichick’s club in 2022:

The new-look offense, skewered all summer for its ineffectiveness, finally clicks. The outside-zone running game adds an explosive new element, and the bootleg/rollout offshoots create frequent big-play opportunities for Jones and his improved collection of pass-catchers.

These new additions, coupled with an increased emphasis on downfield passing, allow Jones to thrive in his second season, facilitating a Joe Burrow-esque leap into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. His yards-per-attempt average improves by a full yard, his touchdown total jumps from 22 to 35, and he makes the Pro Bowl again — this time as an actual honoree, not a down-the-line alternate.

Jakobi Meyers continues to be Jones’ most reliable target, but Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith both enjoy resurgent seasons after strong training camps, and newcomer DeVante Parker becomes the contested-catch/red-zone weapon that New England always hoped N’Keal Harry would be. Kendrick Bourne also brings the same explosive-play ability he did in 2021, erasing memories of his disappointingly unproductive summer, and Smith and Hunter Henry combine for 15 touchdowns as the fullback-less Patriots reintroduce a heavy dose of two-tight end sets. Rookie Tyquan Thornton’s broken collarbone doesn’t derail his promising camp, and he proves to be a valuable contributor in the back half of the season, even if his stats aren’t eye-popping.

In the backfield, Rhamondre Stevenson truly breaks out in Year 2, vaulting past Damien Harris in the early-down rotation while also assuming a large chunk of James White’s passing-game duties. With Ty Montgomery also contributing on passing downs and rookie Pierre Strong eventually working his way into the mix after a sluggish start, the Patriots feel confident enough in their depth to trade free agent-to-be Harris, recouping the third-round pick they used to draft him in return.

This group of ball-carriers is buoyed by an offensive line that, after a rough transition to the new scheme, quickly jells once the real games begin. Oft-injured tackles Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn miss just one game apiece, and first-round rookie Cole Strange looks like the second coming of Logan Mankins at left guard. Matt Patricia, with help from assistant Billy Yates and longtime center/co-captain David Andrews, manages to give this unit the coaching it needs while also running a successful play-calling operation, causing many around the NFL to rethink his less-than-stellar reputation.

Over on defense, Matthew Judon wreaks the same type of havoc he did for much of last season — but maintains it for a full 17 games, setting a new Belichick-era Patriots record with 15 sacks. Christian Barmore, like 2021 draft mate Jones, becomes a household name in his second season, ranking as one of Pro Football Focus’s top five interior defenders and earning a Pro Bowl nod. Looking like a slimmer Vince Wilfork, Barmore also becomes the rare Patriots D-tackle to play on all three downs.

Elsewhere, Josh Uche, Deatrich Wise, Anfernee Jennings and, eventually, rookies Sam Roberts and DaMarcus Mitchell provide the secondary pass-rush production New England lacked last season, and Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson bring the desired speed and playmaking ability at the linebacker level, playing alongside sturdy run defender Ja’Whaun Bentley.

On the back end, Jalen Mills doesn’t replicate J.C. Jackson’s penchant for interceptions but emerges as a reliable No. 1 cornerback, holding up well against the barrage of top-flight wideouts the Patriots face over the final two months of the season. Ball-hawking rookies Jack Jones (outside) and Marcus Jones (slot) both elevate to starting jobs by midseason, pushing Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant into complementary roles and giving New England far more quality depth at corner than it had last season. Marcus Jones also returns multiple punts for touchdowns, earning a couple of AFC Special Teams Player of the Week nods.

Speaking of depth, the Patriots use their five-deep safety group to confuse and smother opponents’ passing games, occasionaly deploying four of them on the field together. Kyle Dugger makes his first Pro Bowl, joining Mac Jones, Judon, Barmore, Stevenson and Matthew Slater.

Victories remain hard to come by in the much-improved AFC, but the Patriots soar past their Vegas over/under (8.5) and go 11-6, a one-game bump from last season. Though a seventh Lombardi Trophy proves elusive, they score their first playoff victory since Super Bowl LIII and make a surprise run to the AFC Championship Game, inspiring hope for an even better year in 2023.

The new offensive experiment, with a reworked scheme and the offensively inexperienced Patricia and Joe Judge in key leadership roles, flat-out fails. Outside-zone runs continue to be blown up behind the line, as they were throughout training camp and the preseason, rendering the Patriots’ talented backfield ineffective. Free pass rushers continue to take unchallenged runs at Mac Jones, and the uncharacteristic skittishness he showed late this summer becomes more and more prevalent.

Rather than Year 2 Burrow, Jones more closely resembles Year 2 Baker Mayfield, with a precipitous drop in completion percentage and a concerning uptick in interceptions. By late November, a small but growing subset of the fanbase is asking whether Belichick should give rookie Bailey Zappe a shot — an overreaction, but one that illustrates how off-kilter New England’s offense has become.

Up front, the injury issues that have plagued Brown and Wynn throughout their careers persist, and backups Justin Herron and Yodny Cajuste can’t pick up the slack in relief. Bruising right guard Mike Onwenu proves to be a poor fit for the new system, which typically favors more athletic linemen, and Strange looks out of his depth as he jumps straight from the FCS to an NFL starting job, reviving all of those draft-night critiques. The O-line as a whole struggles to make in-game adjustments with Patricia’s focus divided.

The injury bug also bites Parker, who’s played a full season just once in his seven-year career, and his separation issues prevent him from becoming a consistent weapon for the Patriots. By midseason, it becomes clear why the Dolphins had no issue trading him to a division rival. Agholor’s and Smith’s training camp improvements also prove to be mirages, and a disgruntled Bourne eventually is traded for a minimal return. Thornton hits a setback in his recovery and catches just a handful of passes in an essentially lost rookie season.

Belichick eventually demotes Patricia and takes on play-calling duties himself, but he waits too long to do so. By the time the offense finally shows signs of life, the Patriots are so far out of the playoff mix that it hardly matters.

Defensively, the Patriots are burned by their lack of top-end talent. Judon again fades late in the season, young standouts like Dugger and Barmore plateau, and McMillan and Wilson look more like depth pieces than saviors of New England’s linebacking corps. The Patriots get strong play out of their stocked safety room, but their starless cornerback group looks overmatched, especially during a season-ending gauntlet that includes games against Justin Jefferson/Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs/Gabriel Davis, DeAndre Hopkins, Devante Parker/Hunter Renfrow, Ja’Marr Chase/Tee Higgins, Tyreek Hill/Jaylen Waddle and Diggs/Davis again.

Oh, and Father Time finally catches up with 37-year-old kicker Nick Folk.

The Patriots come out of their difficult opening stretch (at Miami, at Pittsburgh, vs. Baltimore, at Green Bay) at 1-3. A home loss to Dan Campbell’s Detroit Lions makes it 1-4. They pick up a couple of easy wins against the Jacoby Brissett-led Cleveland Browns and the Chicago Bears (though Harry catches two touchdowns in the latter) but never make it back to .500. Final record: 6-11, New England’s worst since 2000. The streak of seasons without a playoff win — a streak team owner Robert Kraft said needs to end soon — extends to four, raising real questions about Belichick’s job security.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
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