The dust has settled on Tuesday’s roster cut down day and the New England Patriots’ initial 53-man roster is set.
New England will surely make a few more minor tweaks to the roster in the following days, but for the most part, this is the roster the team will go into the season with. With that in mind, there’s no better time than now to evaluate the Patriots’ roster. Here are my positional grades for the 2021 Patriots.
Grades for each New England Patriots position group
PUP: Jarrett Stidham
Practice squad: Brian Hoyer, Garrett Gilbert
Bill Belichick made the right decision when he named Mac Jones the Patriots starting quarterback. Jones had a standout training camp and preseason and it was clear he was ready to play now.
Additionally, the decision to cut Cam Newton was one that had to be done. Sure, it would have been nice to have Newton as a backup. Newton would provide valuable depth at the quarterback position. That said, it’s a disservice to the rookie Jones to have the distraction of a high-profile veteran backup. Jones would then have to look over his shoulder after every mistake, which is a quick way to kill a young player’s confidence.
While New England made the right moves, there is a potential downside. If Jones were to get injured, New England would then have to rely on Brian Hoyer to fill in. As seen last year, starting Hoyer isn’t an ideal situation.
Ultimately, the lack of quality depth and the expected ups and downs that come with having a rookie quarterback push the overall grade down to a B.
Even so, it’s very encouraging Jones was able to win the starting job so early. Jones’ future is very bright and assuming he continues to develop the Patriots should be set at the position for years to come.
Running Back (Including Fullback) (6)
Damien Harris, James White, Rhamondre Stevenson, Brandon Bolden, J.J. Taylor, Jakob Johnson
Practice squad: Ben Mason (fullback)
The Patriots’ running back room is one of the best in the NFL. Damien Harris will be the lead back after a breakout 2020 season. James White will remain in his third-down role. After that, New England has preseason standouts, J.J. Taylor and Rhamondre Stevenson, who can both play in the running and passing game. Don’t forget about Brandon Bolden either. He’s most known as a special teams player, but he can provide good depth at the position.
It’s hard to find anything to complain about when looking at the Patriots’ running backs. The versatility and depth of the group are their defining characteristics. Yes, other NFL teams may have a superstar running back, but very few teams can go five deep with quality backs. With a rookie quarterback, having this much talent in the running game will be of great help.
At fullback, the Patriots look to have created some competition for Jakob Johnson. Ben Mason is an intriguing young player and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get regular-season snaps at some point this season.
Wide Receiver (5)
Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Gunner Olszewski, Malcolm Perry (WR/RB)
Short term IR: N’Keal Harry
Practice squad: Tre Nixon, Kristian Wilkerson
Is the 2021 wide receiver group better than what the Patriots had in 2020? Yes. However, it still looks to be the weakest position group on the offense. Nelson Agholor had a quiet training camp and preseason and Gunner Olszewski struggled to progress as a wide receiver. Agholor can still make a major impact simply due to the speed he brings on offense, but it’s notable that he didn’t have the best offseason.
On a positive note, Jakobi Meyers continues to look tremendous on the field, and Kendrick Bourne looks like a perfect fit in New England. Both should have good seasons. Meanwhile, Malcolm Perry was acquired off waivers. It will take Perry a while to learn the playbook, but he should be a nice versatile depth piece.
Overall, the wild card here is Agholor. If he can step up and play at the level he did in 2020, the Patriots wide receiver room should be above average. If he struggles though, the struggles at wide receiver will continue.
Tight End (3)
Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Devin Asiasi
IR: Dalton Keene, Troy Fumagalli
Practice squad: Matt LaCosse
On paper, this is a fantastic group of tight ends. Jonnu Smith has unlimited potential, Hunter Henry is a proven high-end player, and Devin Asiasi had an encouraging preseason. Plus, getting Matt LaCosse on the practice squad is a smart move.
Having legitimate receiving threats at the tight end position will undoubtedly help open up the field for the wide receivers. A good set of receiving tight ends is also a big plus for a rookie quarterback. It should be noted that Smith and Henry are also good run blockers.
The only thing keeping the tight ends from earning an A grade is potential injury risk. Both Smith and Henry have already spent time this preseason injured and Henry has a risky injury past. With question marks at the wide receiver position, the Patriots need both of their starting tight ends to stay healthy.
Interior Offensive Line (5)
David Andrews, Ted Karras, Shaq Mason, Michael Onwenu, Yasir Durant (G/T)
IR: Marcus Martin
Practice squad: Alex Redmond, James Ferentz, Will Sherman
The interior starting trio of David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Michael Onwenu is one of the best in football. Andrews is the leader of the offensive line, Mason has been a high-level guard for years, and Onwenu is a rising star. All three are excellent run blockers. That’s not to say they can’t pass block, because the trio excels in that area of the game too.
The depth along the interior is also a strength. Ted Karras can back up all three spots along the interior at a starting-caliber level, and Yasir Durant is a solid developmental piece. Plus, James Ferentz has tremendous value on the practice squad.
From top to bottom this is an excellent collection of players.
Offensive Tackles (4)
Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, Yodny Cajuste, Justin Herron
The offensive tackle position group is very similar to the tight ends. On paper, the talent at tackle is top-notch. Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn have both shown flashes of excellence. The issue is both have fairly extensive injury histories.
If healthy, the duo of Brown and Wynn is a huge strength of the offense. That said, if they’re forced to start Yodny Cajuste or Justin Herron it won’t turn out quite as well. Cajuste improved greatly this offseason and Herron had promising moments last season, but neither is at the level of Brown or Wynn just yet.
Realistically, the Patriots would more likely than not rather move Onwenu to tackle and start Karras at guard than start Cajuste or Herron in the event Brown or Wynn gets injured.
Interior Defensive Line (6)
Lawrence Guy, Christian Barmore, Henry Anderson, Carl Davis, Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise
PUP: Byron Cowart
Practice squad: Bill Murray
New England may not have a top ten interior defensive linemen, but they have six very solid players. I expect the Patriots to rotate heavily at the position, as each player has starting capability.
The X-factor at the position is Christian Barmore. Barmore is going to have some inconsistencies as a rookie, but his potential is higher than every other player at the position. Will he reach that full potential? Who knows. If he does though, the Patriots will be getting a very disruptive interior force. His pass-rushing potential, in particular, is very intriguing.
Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Chase Winovich, Ronnie Perkins, Josh Uche
Practice squad: Tashawn Bower
A year ago, the Patriots’ edge position was a major problem. Not so much anymore though. New England has a good mix of proven veterans and promising young players.
Matthew Judon barely played in the preseason, but when he did he was dominant. Kyle Van Noy knows Belichick’s defensive system and has excelled in it before. Next, you have the trio of young guys: Chase Winovich, Ronnie Perkins, and Josh Uche. Josh Uche looks like a breakout candidate. He was an absolute force in preseason action. Winovich remains a pass-rushing guru. Meanwhile, Perkins will likely play the least of all the edge players, as he’s only a rookie and will need time to grow into the system.
Bottom line: The edge group has formidable starters and strong depth, which earns them an A grade.
Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Harvey Langi
PUP: Terez Hall
NFI: Cameron McGrone
IR: Raekwon McMillan, Anfernee Jennings
Practice squad: Jahlani Tavai
At first glance, the off-ball linebacker group seems a bit light, but it’s important to remember Kyle Van Noy, Josh Uche, Adrian Phillips, and Kyle Dugger can all play off-ball linebacker roles. With that added depth, it pushes the linebacker grade to a B.
Getting Dont’a Hightower back in the fold is huge for the Patriots’ defense. Hightower is a team leader and he’s still got a lot of talent. Ja’Whaun Bentley is a solid player, but he has always been a bit limited in coverage. Harvey Langi is more than likely going to be more of a special teams ace than an off-ball linebacker, but he gives New England some depth at the position.
Again, when talking about the off-ball linebackers you have to keep in mind they have guys at other positions that can step into that role. Simply put, the linebackers aren’t the best group on defense, but they also aren’t the worst.
J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Shaun Wade, Joejuan Williams
PUP: Stephon Gilmore
Practice squad: D’Angelo Ross
There is no position group more worrying than the Patriots’ current corner group. Yes, J.C. Jackson is more than capable of being a number one corner, and Jonathan Jones is one of the better slot corners in the NFL. However, there are a bunch of question marks after those two players.
Stephon Gilmore is out at least the first six games of 2021, which means that barring a trade, Jalen Mills, Shaun Wade, or Joejuan Williams will start at boundary corner opposite Jackson. That’s just not a good situation for the Patriots to be in.
Mills has struggled majorly throughout his career when being asked to play outside corner. Williams had his fair share of struggles at the position this preseason. Newly acquired Wade had a good preseason, but he’s only a rookie and he hasn’t had enough time to learn the Patriots’ system.
Until Gilmore gets back, it’s fair to expect opposing offenses to pick on whoever the Patriots start with Jackson on the outside. Maybe secondary mastermind, Belichick can work his magic and make this a productive group, but as of now, this looks like the weakest spot on the defense.
Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips
NFI: Joshuah Bledsoe
Practice squad: Myles Bryant (S/CB)
The Patriots’ have themselves three very good safeties. Devin McCourty is a team leader and he plays at a Pro-Bowl caliber level. Kyle Dugger is an up-and-coming star. Adrian Phillips is the underappreciated do-it-all veteran.
As previously mentioned, the trio is also very versatile. Dugger and Phillips can both play in the box if needed. If Dugger takes a second-year jump, as most expect him to, this group is going to be among one of the best safety trios in the AFC.
Additionally, bringing Myles Bryant back via the practice squad was a smart move. Bryant can play deep safety and slot corner. Being able to provide depth at two positions is extremely valuable.
Special Teams (7)
Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona, Quinn Nordin, Cody Davis, Justin Bethel, Brandon King, Matthew Slater
Practice squad: Nick Folk
Keeping Quinn Nordin over Nick Folk was a big surprise. Folk was the more reliable kicker, but Nordin has a big leg and a lot more potential.
Nordin could wind up a disaster, but he could also wind up as a special team’s weapon. His inconsistencies in the preseason are the only thing keeping the special team’s grade from an A. Luckily, the Patriots already have a backup plan if Nordin doesn’t work out, as Nick Folk is on the practice squad.
We know Belichick values special teams and the 2021 roster is an indictment of that. Cody Davis, Justin Bethel, Brandon King, and Matthew Slater all made the 53-man roster as core special teams players. All four will help form good punt and kick coverage.
Lastly, Jake Bailey is an All-Pro punter and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him earn that honor again in 2021.