What’s next for the New England Patriots

Patriots%27s+record+for+the+season+so+far.

Graphic courtesy of Stephen Li ('21).

Patriots’s record for the season so far.

Foxboro, Massachusetts, known as one of the coldest places in the United States, is about to get a lot chillier this year as their hometown team the New England Patriots will not be playing in the NFL playoffs for the first time in eleven years after their “divorce” with Tom Brady after 19 sweet seasons.  

The departure 

Widely regarded as the greatest to ever do it, and one of the few locked Hall of Famers, Tom Brady parted ways with the organization prior to the 2020 season for Tampa Bay, leaving six National championships for the Patriots and a long-lasting legacy that will be very difficult to surpass.  

His departure gave coach Bellichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels no other option but to look for their next franchise quarterback and announce the beginning of the Patriots’ post-Brady rebuild. Not only did Tom Brady’s departure leave coach Bellichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels little time to develop Tom’s successor, but also posed a challenge for both coaches, as they haven’t had to worry about this position for almost 20 years. To give you more perspective of how long 20 years is, when Tom Brady was drafted by coach Billicheck with the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft, average gas price was $1.47/gallon, Google was only two years old, and the first camera phone was just invented. Is that the iPhone? No, the iPhone was seven years away. 

Epic failure 

Signing former league MVP Cam Newton, neither provided a solution, nor proved to be a sign of a successful rebuild, as the Patriots suffered their first losing season in, as unbelievable as this may sound, 21 years.  

Through 14 games with the Patriots as a starter, Cam Newton only threw ten touchdowns, but recorded 10 interceptions and received a concerning 45.1 quarterback rating including week 12 against the Los Angeles Rams, when Cam Newton completed just 9 passes and received a 2.7 quarterback rating.  

Before we jump onto the blame-it-all-on-Cam wagon, it is necessary to recognize that the unfortunate situation in New England is not just because of the quarterback position. Due to Covid-19 concerns, Patriots had eight players that opted out of the 2020 season during the summer, most in the league. 7 out of 8 players that opted out were starters that could have made an instant impact on both ends of the game, such as Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower and starting safety Patrick Chung.  

Moreover, after several months of quarterback hunting, the Patriots decided to sign a one-year deal with Cam Newton on June 28th. Normally, this would leave the quarterback and the team a tight window as teams often require players to report to training camps near the end of July. However, due to Covid-19 concerns again, the league decided to cancel the early optional training camps as well as most of the off-season practices.  

Even though it’s still fair that the Patriots isn’t the only team that did not get most of their normal practices in, the Patriots were indeed the last team to decide their starting quarterback, and is notorious for having an insanely complicated offensive scheme for the quarterback to adapt to.  

In addition to all this madness, Cam Newton tested positive for Covid-19 prior to week 4 before the Patriots played the defending Super Bowl champions Kansas City Chiefs, and that’s also when Cam’s performance started going the countered direction from what Bellichick imagined. 

Nightmares after nightmares 

After going 2-1 in the first three games, including a close shoot-out loss to the Seattle Seahawks where Cam Newton threw for 397 yards, Patriots fans were fired up about the future of this team. However, the Patriots lost 8 out of their next 12 games. Almost every single statistic for the Patriots were way below the league average, except for sacks and lost yards.  

After losing to the Miami Dolphins on December 20th, the door for playoffs officially shut on the Patriots. Just when the Patriots and their fans started to look for some silver lining and potentially winning the last two games for dignity, Patriots was absolutely dominated by their AFC East rival, the Buffalo Bills on December 28th, making another humiliating record as they were swept by the Bills (lost both conference games) for the first time ever. After week 17, the struggle with the passing game of the Patriots was further emphasized as they ranked 28th in points/game and 30th in passing yards out of 32 teams. 

Can’t wait no more 

Before the Patriots dive into potential solutions via drafting or signing during the offseason, it is necessary to understand what exactly is the most needed upgrade for now. One needs to understand the problem first so you can solve it better, right?  

It’s almost a crime not to start the rebuild with the quarterback position, so let’s do that. The million-dollar question lies here: will Cam Newton be their quarterback moving forward? 

It’s too soon to be answered because of Patriots’ lackluster receiving core and lack of preparation before the season. The Patriots are notorious for their poor effort in drafting and trading for receivers and tight ends.  

Previously with one of the greatest quarterbacks in the backfield, it was almost a miracle that Tom Brady can make anyone seem like a productive player. However, with a new quarterback in the backfield who is unfamiliar with the offense, the Patriots’ receiving core now looks like random high school kids playing backyard football.  

However, if there has to be an answer right now regarding Cam Newton’s future in New England, the answer would be, No.  

Tom Brady, the most typical pocket passer, who is so slow outside the pocket that makes fans think their grandmothers can beat him in a race, has forced the Patriots to be one of the most dominant passing offenses in the league simply because their quarterback can’t run.  

However, Cam Newton came out of Auburn known as a dualthreat quarterback and received honors while playing for the Panthers because of his ability to run. Therefore, the change is simply too dramatic here. Sure, the scheme of an offense can change, but with two months of preparation, no major personnel addition but losing major players to cap space and Covid-19? I don’t see it happening.  

Up next, the invisible tight ends. If it’s your first day watching football, you would learn nothing about this position from watching the Patriots.  

Ever since Rob Gronkowski retired (later signed with the Buccaneers with Tom Brady), Patriots have not made any effort to fill in the huge gap Gronkowski left behind. From Gronkowski, the most dominant blocker and pass catcher in the NFL to the 250th pick (256 picks in total) of the 2018 draft, the tight end position for the Patriots has become the weakest link of the entire football team.  

If you thought the 2019 Patriots were struggling at the position, then the 2020 season is simply pathetic. Patriots used their third-round pick on Devin Asiasi, tight end out of UCLA, which was relatively a higher pick. What did they get in return after 16 weeks? 8 passes thrown his way, 0 catches, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns. Luckily, he wrapped up the season with two catches and a touchdown against the New York Jets, but his productivity was too little to be measured.  

The receivers are no better compared to the tight ends. As convincing as it may sound for a potential hall of famer veteran to lead a group of young stars, the veteran ended up on the injury reserve list back in October and young receivers provided minimum outcomes for this offense.  

The only receiver Bill Billichick has ever drafted in the first round, N’Keal Harry from Arizona State, is far away from living up to the number one receiver spot. Recording just 300 yards and 2 touchdowns in 16 games could not convince anyone that he carries the future of this offense.  

Undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers and veteran Damiere Byrd did shine for a bit here and there during the season, yet whenever Cam Newton looks down the field from the pocket, there is nobody out there to allow him to close his eyes and toss the ball up for grabs.  

Potential Hall of Famer, Tom Brady’s most trusted target during the past decade, Julian Edelman, landed on the injury/COVID reserve list after week 7. The future for the 34-year-old veteran who has one year left under the contract is still hazy. 

The revenge — Free agency & draft 

Even though the Patriots still have one game left for the season, and have months until the 2021 NFL draft,  it is definitely not too early to start planning for the future. The Patriots have been quiet on the free agent market for the past years primarily due to cap space limits. However, entering the 2021 season, the Patriots will hold more than 70 million dollars in cap space, which is more than enough for the Patriots to acquire game-changers off free agency.  

A must-sign has to be Allen Robinson from the Chicago Bears. I personally cannot imagine the Patriots not aggressively pursuing Allen Robinson this off-season after witnessing the incompetent receiving core in New England. Even though Allen Robinson is not yet a dominant superstar in the league, he is definitely not far from that discussion. For the past season, Allen Robinson did not drop one single ball and recorded 1,213 yards and 6 touchdowns while playing with kindergarten-level quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Believe it or not, Allen Robinson has almost as many receiving yards as the top two Patriots receivers combined. 

Yannick Ngakoue, one of the most underrated pass rushers in the NFL, who just recorded at least 8 sacks for the fifth year straight, has to be in a Patriots uniform next season. Even though the overall defense stayed promising after losing key players, yet the pass rush up front cannot put any pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. The current sack leader for the Patriots is Chase Winowich, second year defensive end from Michigan, with just 3.5 sacks for the year. Adding Yannick Ngakoue to the roster can provide instant pressure up front, which can help the secondaries as the opposing quarterbacks now don’t have as much time sitting in the pocket chewing Patriots’ defense one piece at a time. 

I doubt the Patriots can find their ultimate solution to the quarterback position in free agency, so trading for a legit quarterback seems like a reasonable option for the coming months.  

Marcus Mariota, former second overall pick out of Oregon, lost his starting job against Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, but doesn’t mean that he is incapable of running an offense by himself. With better coaching and a more established system in New England, he might be one of the options. Since he is not a free agent yet, New England has to sacrifice something for him, a few draft picks would do the trick.  

Another legit option has to be Matthew Stafford. Having another disappointing season with the Lions, trade rumors started to buzz in Detroit. A trade for Matthew Stafford makes perfect sense considering his experience and similarities with Tom Brady.  

This year’s draft is loaded with talented quarterbacks such as Trevor Lawrence from Clemson, Justin Fields from Ohio State, Mac Jones from Alabama as well as Kyle Trask from Florida. Therefore, this may help with the quarterback situation as well.  

Holding the 14th pick of the 2021 NFL draft, the Patriots may find themselves in no man’s land for the draft– franchise players will be long gone before the 14th pick. As Trevor Lawrence is locked in for Jacksonville where the Jaguars lost 14 straight after week one and is in desperate need of a quarterback, there aren’t too many teams looking for a quarterback besides them other than the Jets who may move on from Sam Darnold and spend their 2nd overall pick on Justin Fields.  

Since the Lions hold the 7th overall pick, it might offer the Patriots multiple solutions. If they draft a young quarterback to replace Matthew Stafford, then it gives the Patriots a chance to go all in to get Stafford. Vis-a-vis, if the Lions stick to Stafford, then the Patriots may get a shot at a legit franchise quarterback. A desperate solution for the Patriots is to trade up and try to get Justin Fields once the Jets pass on him, the 14th overall pick and all-pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore may be able to get the 4th overall pick from the Atlanta Falcons, but that requires a lot of courage from both ends.  

The most realistic solution may be Mac Jones, the highest graded quarterback in college football from Alabama. He has all the skills in his toolbox and is accurate enough for the next level. There are concerns on if the crazy-talented receiving core at Alabama carried Mac Jones and hid some of his flaws, coach Billichick can still make an accurate call considering his close relationship with Nick Saban. 

Characteristics Win 

Losing the biggest name of their franchise, having the first losing season in more than a decade, almost every single position needs an update, unpredictable future with the pandemic, legendary coach being questioned… If there’s only one group of football fans that might lose sleep tonight, I bet they live in the great state of Massachusetts and wear white and blue to the Gillette stadium on Sundays.  

Do I personally think the Patriots will finish their rebuild this off-season and come back as a Superbowl contender? Negative. 

Are the Patriots going to keep on as a great organization? Affirmative. 

Why? Characteristics win. 

Since Bill Billichick has taken over the front office and the head coach job for the New England Patriots, this organization has been known as the most cruel but well-organized team possibly in the history of the NFL. When Jamie Collins asked for a massive deal back in 2016 as arguably the best defensive player on the team, the Patriots traded him to the Browns for a third-round pick without any hesitation.  

When Chris Long, former defensive end for the Patriots, said there’s no fun to play for the organization, the Patriots answered Long with the most Patriots way possible. “Do you want to have fun, or win championships?”  

When the Patriots are rolling, very rarely do you see players go onto social media and brag about their accomplishments; when the team is facing heat from the media, Billichick, along with many others in this organization, stay calm and collected and kill rumors with actions; even during games, you would never see the coach trying to trip another player, players swinging a helmet at someone’s head, or dancing on other teams’ logo after scoring. 

Even though Cam Newton had one of the worst seasons in his career with the Patriots, he was reportedly wellrespected because of his work ethic and was even voted team-captain prior to the start of the season.  

It’s simply hard to doubt this team when so many hardworking faces and sweat-soaked jerseys are spotted week in and week out, all fighting for the one and only championship ring. It’s uncertain if the Patriots will rebuild the team back to its former glory this off-season, it is unknown if Cam Newton’s journey continues with the Patriots, it is even unpredictable where this team is headed going into the free agency market. However, it is absolutely certain that this team, this organization, will indeed carry on their legacy and stay at the highest level. The reason is as simple as this: Characteristics matter, characteristics win.