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If there’s one thing in the NFL that you can count on year after year, it’s that the New England Patriots will be playing football past Week 17 of the regular season.
Since 2000, there’s only been two seasons (2002 & 2008) that New England was on the outside the playoffs looking in – until the 2020 campaign.
Things changed drastically in Foxboro in 2020, as the Pats had a totally different look. No more Superman #12 Tom Brady under center.
“Terrific” Tom decided he had had enough and wanted to try his hand at something new. So he led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their second Lombardi trophy and won yet another Super Bowl MVP.
All this was happening in South Florida while up in New England, Bill Belichick and the Pats were struggling along, trying to do whatever they could to stay competitive with the rest of the league.
In the end, the Pats were a 7-9 team that had a number of issues all over the roster, starting with quarterback. The team went with Superman former Panthers QB Cam Newton for 15 starts, while youngster Jarrett Stidham and vet Brian Hoyer also got playing time.
When the Pats inked Newton, some felt it would be another savvy move, that Belichick had done it again, bringing in a quarterback who was ready for redemption.
Instead, Newton threw for 2657 yards with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The 31-year-old did have moments where he looked like an MVP again, but for the most part, he looked like a quarterback hanging on, trying to show he could play at a high level one more time.
Now after a 7-9 season and no postseason in 2020, the Pats have plenty of work to do, starting with their 25 free agents, most of whom will move on in 2021.
One thing that many have forgotten about the Pats is the fact they had eight opt-outs due to the COVID-19 pandemic before the 2020 season even started.
Those players — linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, tackle Marcus Cannon, wide receiver Marqise Lee, fullback Danny Vitale, running back Brandon Bolden, tight end Matt LaCosse and offensive lineman Najee Toran — are still up in the air, but early returns indicate that they will be back and ready to contribute.
The Patriots also need to decide what they are going to do with the quarterback spot. It’s not likely that the team is going to give Newton another season under center after his struggles in 2020.
However, unless the team gets involved in a bidding war for the likes of Deshaun Watson or moves up high enough in the draft to grab one of the top quarterbacks, who the Pats start at quarterback on opening day will remain a mystery for a while.
For now, let’s start with the 25 Patriots free agents:
C David Andrews, 29
RB Rex Burkhead, 31
WR Damiere Byrd, 28
G Jermaine Eluemunor, 27
C James Ferentz, 32
QB Brian Hoyer, 36
FB Jakob Johnson, 27
G Marcus Martin, 28
QB Cam Newton, 32
WR Devin Smith, 29
G Joe Thuney, 29
RB James White, 29
CB Justin Bethel, 31
FS Terrence Brooks, 29
DT Adam Butler, 27
LB Shilique Calhoun, 29
LB Brandon Copeland, 30
DT Carl Davis, 29
S Cody Davis, 32
K Nick Folk, 37
DT Lawrence Guy, 31
CB J.C. Jackson, 26
CB Jason McCourty, 34
DE John Simon, 31
CB Dee Virgin, 28
DE Deatrich Wise, 27
Offseason Outlook: For the Pats, getting the QB spot settled has to be priority number one.
With an estimated $57.3 million in cap space, the fourth-highest total in the NFL, New England does have plenty of flexibility and money to afford a QB who can impact the roster.
In 2020, the Pats’ offense was downright bad. The team was 27th of 32 overall in points per game, averaging just 20.4 points per game.
Their offense was paced by a really weak wide out corps that just could not stretch the field for Newton or whoever was under center that week.
Julian Edelman missed several games and is not getting any younger, while N’Keal Harry had 33 catches for 309 yards and four scores.
The Pats’ best wide out in 2020 was Jakobi Meyers, who was an undrafted free agent from NC State. Meyers had 59 catches for 729 yards, but didn’t break the end zone once during the entire season. Damien Harris led the team in rushing, putting up 691 yards on 137 carries with two scores.
Newton was second with 592 yards, but week in and week out, the offense was not dynamic in anyway. This club needs playmakers.
Look for playmaker Damiere Byrd, who had a career-high 47 catches for 604 yards and a touchdown, to bail in free agency.
Byrd could get an offer from the Pats, but the thinking is he’ll wind up pulling in passes from another QB in 2021 and beyond elsewhere.
Running backs James White and Rex Burkhead will be free agents in 2021, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both of them move on to other franchises next season.
On the O-line, guard Joe Thuney will be a free agent, and with the number of teams that need guard help, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him get a solid offer from another club.
He’s just 28 years old, and he’s played in 90 career regular season and playoff games, more than any other player in NFL history through five seasons. He has also never missed a start.
Look for New England to prioritize their upcoming offseason like this:
2. Wide Receiver
3. Running Back
When it comes to pass catchers, expect the Pats to be in the mix for at least one of these guys this offseason: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin and Corey Davis.
Times are changing for New England and the AFC East, and this is easily the most critical offseason for Belichick and company in the last two decades.