By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — I understand there is reticence and hesitancy. Your most recent memory is not so good. That’s going to have an effect on anyone. It’s fine.
But please, everybody, let’s all take a deep inhale and say it together: The New England Patriots are going to be good again.
Really, it’s OK to say. It’s OK to believe. Resisting the acceptance of this reality is merely a defense mechanism. If you’re a Patriots fan, you don’t want to get hurt again. I get it. If you hate the Patriots with every fiber of your being, then you also just don’t want to get hurt again. This is not unique.
But come here. Come on over. Take a seat. Grab a donut. Join the club. And let it out.
The Patriots. Are going to be good again.
There you go. Welcome back. Feels good, right?
Obviously, “it’s still just March” and “they can’t win a Super Bowl with Cam Newton” and “the Bills are still top dogs in the East**” and yada yada yada. Sure, anything can be pooh-poohed if you try enough. But open your eyes, people!
(**Look in the mirror and say this one to yourself with a straight face. You can’t do it. The Bills were good last year, sure, but are you positive that a blowout loss in the conference title game doesn’t end up serving as the franchise’s high point for the next two decades? MAKES YOU THINK.)
Again, you look back at last year, and you see a 7-9 record. You remember a drab, dreary, nothing team taking the field every week, sometimes looking good (a shutout win in L.A. over the Chargers), other times looking unrecognizable (a blowout loss in L.A. to the Rams just four days later, for example) to the team that ran roughshod over the NFL for 20 years. Perhaps you can’t shake the feeling that such will be life without Tom Brady, no matter what. Perhaps you’re extremely doubtful of Newton, too. As such, maybe you’re looking at 8-8, or 9-7, or the equivalent level of success in the 17-game season that we’re all expecting.
But look up and down this roster that Belichick has completely reconstructed in a short period of time, and you’ll see a team that should be worlds apart from what we saw last year.
In no particular order, the Patriots’ top three linebackers in 2021 are Matt Judon, Dont’a Hightower, and Kyle Van Noy. All three of those men are highly skilled, specialized players. None of those three men played on the team last year. They have 93 career sacks among them.
The linebacking corps is roughly infinity percent better than it was a year ago. This is significant. Both in stopping the run and getting after the quarterback, the Patriots are much better suited to compete in 2021 with this infusion of talent.
Speaking of improving by infinity percent, look at these tight ends. To be polite to the folks who tried filling the shoes of Rob Gronkowski over the past two years, it’s been a nightmare. Plucking Ben Watson out of retirement showed the level of desperation the Patriots were at two years ago, and relying on a pair of rookies and Matt LaCosse in 2020 was no better.
Now they have two legitimate Pro Bowl-caliber players at the position in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. In Smith — who can line up all over the field — the Patriots have a unique weapon that is incomparable to anyone on last year’s team. Watch this.
Three plays that show what new Patriots' TE Jonnu Smith brings to the table:
1. Excellent red zone weapon
2. Versatility – including to play as a running back(!)
3. Making plays down the field
Elite after the catch. An awesome athlete. pic.twitter.com/oWSXUfhIRp
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 15, 2021
In Hunter Henry, they have a legitimate pass-catcher/run blocker who’s entering the prime of his career.
Now, instead of relying on Devin Asiasi and/or Dalton Keen to take MASSIVE strides in year two (after not showing much as rookies), any progress they make will just be a bonus. After mistreating the position for two years, Belichick has finally come back to the realization that loading up at tight end is a shortcut to offensive success.
And if you don’t think adding players like Henry and Smith to the end of the line is going to help Cam Newton tremendously, then you’re being obtuse.
Stop being so obtuse, would you?
The Patriots had a healthy, legitimate, starting-caliber NFL wide receiver for about two weeks. The passing offense worked effectively in those games.
But once Julian Edelman began to be severely hampered by his knee injury, the Patriots lost their No. 1. And once he was gone for the season, they had very, very little to work with.
Nelson Agholor — despite being the subject of one of the funnier viral memes of all time — provides something that the Patriots haven’t had in a few years. He’s fast, he can get open, and he can go deep. Once you finish watching the fire rescue clip, go and watch his highlights from last year. The guy is good.
Kendrick Bourne is the “typical Belichick” signing, where he’s an undrafted guy who was just coming into his own last year. He set career highs with 49 receptions and 667 yards last year, and as he approaches his 26th birthday this summer, he’s poised to take off.
If Edelman returns (it’s been quiet on that front, hasn’t it?), then he won’t be relied upon to be the entire passing offense, like he was in 2019. The Patriots won’t have to pretend like Jakobi Meyers — a good complementary player — is a No. 1.
The group isn’t infinity times better, no. But it’s improved. And with the offense looking like it’s being built from the inside out, it’ll likely be enough.
If we’re going to talk about building from the inside, start right dab in the middle. David Andrews is back, which is possibly the most important signing of this busy offseason. For one, he’s very good at his job, and replacing a center can disrupt an entire offense. Secondly, he signed for relative peanuts, which speaks to the notion that … despite having gone through last year’s debacle, Andrews still wants to punch the clock in Foxboro every day.
The loss of Joe Thuney — who’s now a Bezos-level billionaire — is offset by Mike Onwenu, who’s undoubtedly the second-best sixth-round draft steal out of Michigan in NFL history. And Shaq Mason — who was Joe Thuney before Joe Thuney was Joe Thuney — remains at right guard.
On the outside, enormous human being Trent Brown is back, and he’s both rejuvenated to be back in the only football home he’s ever loved and motivated to perform for another contract. The Patriots have reaped those benefits before, and they’re ready to do it again. Isaiah Wynn’s health is admittedly a question mark (he’s played in 18 of a possible 32 games in his young career), but Brown can play both spots, and Justin Herron looked capable in his time on the field as a rookie.
Add in Ted Karras as a backup for all three interior spots in case of injury, and the Patriots’ offensive line is a strength. Probably one of the best in the league. You could really dive down deep into the nitty-gritty to try to parse out the exact rankings, but that’s not the point. The point is that a team that has the potency to run the football has the five men in place to make it happen.
I mean, while we’re here. James White is back. Damien Harris could be great in year three. Sony Michel is way more productive (965 yards, 6 TDs per 16 games played) than talk radio or Twitter gives him credit for being. (On a lesser note, J.J. Taylor showed a little bit of promise in limited action last year.)
The only loss is Rex Burkhead. Granted, he led the team in touchdown receptions a year ago, but White (playing on a one-year deal) is in position to look much more like the best receiving back in the NFL than he did a year ago, when he dealt with an unspeakable personal tragedy early in the season.
It’s a good group. One more thing…
Did this guy really just drop a “fullback” into this story? Is he trying to destroy what little credibility he has left?
Yes and no, baby. I’m here to tell you not to sleep on Dan Vitale. He was brought in last year and was kind of thought of to be something of a Kyle Juszczyk Lite. Perhaps the emphasis there should be on “Lite.” Vitale has almost no production to speak of (148 yards from scrimmage, no touchdowns), while Juszcyk has more than 2,000 yards with 15 touchdowns. They’re not the same.
But — and this is just a hunch — it felt as though Josh McDaniels had some fun things in store for Vitale, things that Jakob Johnson just wasn’t built to do. But Vitale opted out due to COVID-19 concerns. Now, he’s actually going to be a part of the team, which could add a whole other layer to a running game and short passing game that is already imposing without him.
Oh, also, he’s super jacked. A mountain of a man. He’s never seen a weight he hasn’t lifted. He looks like he just got finished beating up Captain America.
A few months ago, he wrote this on Instagram: “IG goals in 2021. Road to the strongest I’ve ever been. #thicc”
That doesn’t always translate to the football field, but it rarely hurts. Vitale is officially somebody worth keeping an eye on.
They lost Adam Butler but gained Davon Godchaux and Montravius Adams. They kept Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise, and they added Henry Anderson.
Godchaux was perhaps unexpected as an early free-agent signing, after he missed most of last season due to injury. But he did have the best year of his young career in 2019, and Belichick has an extremely good track record of identifying other teams’ players in the middle of the defensive line. This one might be worth trusting him on.
–They haven’t improved at cornerback, and the Stephon Gilmore situation needs to be resolved. Now that they’re a good team again, maybe it’s not so crazy to think he sticks around on a reworked deal. They did hit J.C. Jackson with a second-round tender, and may even luck out if some team tries to sign him on a below-market contract, thus allowing New England to match it and keep Jackson for more than one year. For now, though, mark the corner spot down as TBD.
–They did add another versatile player to the secondary, though, in Jalen Mills. With Mills and the underrated Adrian Phillips, the Patriots have two guys who can play everywhere on the defense. With tight ends running like wide receivers these days, that’s invaluable. Devin McCourty will presumably decline at some point in his life, but he showed no signs of it last year. And Kyle Dugger was a bulldozer as a rookie. The safety spot looks strong.
–Am I missing any position? That’s all of them, right? Let’s see … yes … we got ’em all. Nailed it!
–Oh! QUARTERBACK! That old thing. Look, I get it, Cam’s stat lines last year made him the butt of many jokes. That touchdown-to-interception ratio is legitimately unfathomable in this era. It is more than fair to harbor some questions and doubts about his ability to throw for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.
But the man is being talked about in this city as if he’s incompetent. I mean, what is this?
Does Newton make this play now? https://t.co/kwlbL8XIb5
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 24, 2021
Come on, Anthony. You’re better than that. (I think.) Newton had his passing struggles last year, to say the least, but let’s tackle two issues really quick (I did this in much longer form here):
FIRST: Newton, the most prolific rushing quarterback in NFL history, had one of the best rushing seasons of his career in 2020, and he stayed healthy throughout. He rushed for 12 touchdowns, the second-highest total of his career. He ran for 592 yards, which is only his fifth-highest single-season mark. But it was impressive because on most plays, he and the running back behind him were the only viable threats lined up with Patriots helmets on. Newton doesn’t need to throw for 4,000 yards. If he can average 225 passing yards per game instead of the 177 he averaged last year, the whole operation is different.
AND: As stated earlier, he didn’t have a full NFL deck to work with. That’s said without disrespecting anyone involved, but it’s just a fact. When he did have a healthy Julian Edelman, he threw pretty well, and the dual-threat offense looked potent. As Edelman’s health dipped, the passing offense collapsed, because … nobody was getting open. Give this guy a quartet of new pass-catching options (who can actually get themselves open in man coverage), give him another go with James White, and there’s no way that the passing offense doesn’t markedly improve over last year’s mess.
Cam’s not going to be the MVP of the league. But don’t discount his ability to be a, say, top 15 quarterback in the NFL. With an imposing defense, a strong running game, and some potential YAC monsters, that should be more than enough to make the Patriots a fascinating, competitive football team in 2020.
–I forgot to mention the punter. Jake Bailey is an All-Pro. Don’t you dare forget it.
THERE IS ALSO AN NFL DRAFT
The fact that we’re talking about all of these new additions without mentioning any rookies is kind of crazy. Typically, that’s been a bad thing for teams that go on free-agent spending sprees, but those teams also aren’t run by Bill Belichick. He was in charge last year, which was bad, but he’s built up enough cachet over the years to believe he’ll fare better than the feckless coaches who oversaw the previous teams who spent so much on free agents.
And while the Patriots may not be relying on their draft class to contribute in 2021, they are picking higher than they have since 2008. That’s a long time without making a pick in the first half of the first round. Belchick’s recent draft history is spotty, to say the least, but the idea of him having the No. 15 overall pick and a motivation to package several other picks to move up … it’s a position in which the Patriots don’t often have the luxury of being.
ALL OF THIS IS TO SAY
If you curb all of these developments by saying “it’s only March” or “there’s no QB,” then you need to learn how to live.
You’re lame and you’re a coward.
The Patriots were great for a long time. They were merely good in 2019, and they were mediocre (or thereabouts) in 2020.
Now it’s 2021, and they are very good again. That doesn’t mean they’ll be booking their hotels for Super Bowl week in Los Angeles right now, no. The days of being essentially guaranteed a spot in the conference title game with a 50-50 shot of making the Super Bowl are over. Nobody lives like that.
But after the worst season in two decades, Belichick, Robert Kraft, and the whole Patriots organization opted to enter this offseason with guns blazing. You can have some question marks in certain areas, but you should have no doubt about this: The New England Patriots are once again a very good football team.