At first glance, discussing the New England Patriots and their offseason plans aren’t relevant at this point. The Bengals and Chiefs will face off this Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. Before that, the Chiefs and Bills treated us to an all-time shoot out in the divisional round. All three teams feature prolific young passers and a group of stud pass catchers. Only the Bills featured a defense ranked in the top 5 by Pro Football Reference. The days of defenses winning championships may well be over.
So where do the Patriots fit into this future of the conference?
They too feature a young passer, albeit not in the same echelon of Burrow, Mahomes, Herbert, and Allen. Lamar Jackson had a down year but still would be a tier above Mac in a quarterback rankings.
The Patriots got solid quarterback play from their rookie but Mac faded down the stretch, stringing together subpar performances as the Patriots championship aspiration dwindled.
Watching the Chiefs and Bills go back and forth Sunday Night it was obvious that the AFC has transformed into an arms race, where the most potent offenses will succeed.
Belichick has only a few times loaded up on the offensive side of the ball during his tenure in New England. And even in those years he coupled splashy offseason moves on the offensive side with an already stout, veteran-laden defense.
2021 Patriots were good, just not good enough
The 2021 Patriots featured the splashy offseason additions on the offensive side of the ball and a veteran-laden defense, albeit with a couple newcomers on that side too. Despite the poor taste left from the dismantling at the hands of the Bills, the Patriots defense was one of the best in the league in 2021. But therein lies the problem. What does the second ranked defense get the team if it can’t stop a runny nose when it plays the Buffalo Bills?
Belichick has specific physical profiles for every position in defense, whether it be from physical measurables or agility drill times; his defensive players fit a mold.
The linebackers are big bodied thumpers. The defensive line is often stout forward players who are difficult to push backwards. The defensive backs often have top three cone drill times while his boundary guys are preferred to big taller press corners. Only at the safety position has Belichick led the transition to the hybrid types.
Patrick Chung was the first linebacker-safety hybrid but even he failed spectacularly in his first stint with the Patriots.
Against the Bills, the defense looked slow. Forget old. Even the young guys couldn’t keep up with the Allen led attack. The Pats were gashed routinely by the speed and short area quickness of the Bills skill guys.
That doesn’t include the absolute clinic put on by Josh Allen. Allen looked like the older brother who finally relented and let the younger brother and his friends play. Then the older brother showed no mercy for a physically inferior opponent.
Allen was on a different physical level and against the Patriots defense, having been unstoppable for nine straight quarters. While the Patriots may have the future figured out on offense, they aren’t going anywhere until they figure out the Josh Allen problem.
That problem will be addressed this offseason. With their current salary cap situation, they will have to choose between adding further to the offense or completely retooling the defense.
The Chiefs just beat the Bills by outscoring them. There was no stopping either offense. The only hope was to have more points than the opposition at the final whistle. That is not typically how the Patriots build their teams. They want an edge in all three phases.
The Pats could add a Davante Adams. A Chris Godwin. They could trade for Calvin Ridley. See if Michael Thomas can be had for relatively cheap. They can add to the offense, one that already features an impressive running game, and try to outscore the upper tier of AFC teams next year.
Or they can retool the defense. Focusing on smaller, faster athletic types to keep pace with the “small ball” trend in the NFL.
The Dont’a Hightower’s of the NFL world may be a dying breed. A dinosaur in a modern game. Sideline to sideline backers is the future of the game. The Deion Jones’. The Darius Leonard’s. Problem is these types of guys don’t grow on trees. The only slightly comparable veteran available in free agency may be Leighton Vander Esch. He of the full-length novel injury history. Nakobe Dean is an uber talented speedster coming out of Georgia, but any draft pick comes as a gamble in and of itself.
What does the crystal ball say?
It is increasingly unlikely the Pats pursue the number one receiver route. They are married to their free agent crop from a year ago. Agholor has a $15 million cap hit in 2022. Bourne still has two years left on his deal and is extremely affordable ($5 million per year).
The Patriots also spent at tight end. Hunter Henry has a cap hit of $6.88 million in 2022. Jonnu Smith has a $13.75 million cap hit in 2022. Smith is signed for three more years, Henry for two. The Pats aren’t moving on from either.
Smith had a disappointing year in his first in New England. Going forward, I’d expect the Patriots to try to incorporate Smith into their attack much more heavily next year before adding more to this offensive cast. They gave him all that money for a reason and hopefully that reason becomes apparent next season.
That leads to the Patriots upgrading the defense. The crop of free agent defenders features many aging veteran pass rushers and a handful of quality safeties. The Pats don’t NEED a safety as Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips are under team control for the foreseeable future. If McCourty hangs it up, the team could kick some tires but it won’t be a splash move.
Upgrading the front seven will be the priority. Matt Judon started on a tear but completely fell off after the bye week. Barmore appears to be the future in the interior of the defensive line. The Pats are in a mess of their own creation. Promising young players such as Josh Uche, Joejuan Williams, and Chase Winovich both hardly saw the field this season. Third round rookie Ronnie Perkins was never active on game day. Maybe they all blossom into full time impact players going forward, but there’s probably a reason they haven’t seen the field much.
The Pats are in a hole of their own creation by missing on a number of their early draft picks in recent years. Now they are faced with a near impossible task of upgrading several positions with limited cap space. Teams have been able to take advantage of rookie QB’s contract situations. The Patriots will need to get creative to do so.
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