Through two games in the 2021 NFL season, the new-look New England Patriots sit at 1-1.
While it’s still early in the season, the Patriots’ first two contests have revealed numerous key insights about the state of this year’s team. With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to do a deep dive evaluation of the Patriots through the first two weeks of the season. Without further ado, here are the biggest positives, concerns, and questions for the Patriots as it stands right now.
New England Patriots Evaluation
Last year White’s production dropped for a number of reasons, both on and off the field. This year though, he’s back to being one of the most productive pass-catching running backs in the NFL. After Week 2, White has the second-most receptions for a running back (12) and the fourth most receiving yards for a running back (94).
White is one of the best weapons a rookie quarterback could ask for. He’s always there for a quick dump off, he can pick up a blitz in pass protection, and he’s a heck of a leader. If White stays healthy, he has a good shot to get himself around 80 or 90 catches this season.
Sure, Jones isn’t lighting up the stat sheet just yet, but, for the most part, he’s playing clean football and not getting his team beat. As far as rookie quarterbacks go, Jones has looked the best thus far and it’s not particularly close.
After two games, Jones has thrown for 467 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions. As far advanced statistics, Jones ranks 16th out of 33 quarterbacks in EPA+CPOE composite score. EPA stands for Expected Points Added, while CPOE stands for Completion Percentage Over Expectation. For reference, in that same stat category, Zach Wilson ranks 32nd and Trevor Lawrence ranks 33rd.
Some will point to Jones’ 5.7 average depth of target as a major concern, but between bad pass protection, limited playcalling, lack of downfield threats, and Jones simply sometimes not pulling the trigger, I think it’s less of a concern and more something that will come in time.
Bottom line, Jones’ performance through two games has been very encouraging. Yes, he needs to clean up some things, but again, remember he’s a rookie with only two games under his belt. It’s easy to see he has a bright future and that’s a huge positive for the Patriots.
There’s no greater feeling for an NFL team than having a reliable kicker. Since joining the team, Folk has been everything the Patriots ever could have asked for.
Folk is a perfect 7/7 on field goals this season. He did miss an extra point Sunday against the Jets, but I’ll let that slide considering his otherwise perfect performance this seaosn.
Phillips may not be the first guy you think of when discussing the Patriots defense, but he should be right up there. The guy simply does his job each and every week. Phillips is a versatile chess piece for Bill Belichick. In two games, he’s played snaps at free safety, strong safety, linebacker, slot corner, and edge. Plus, he plays on special teams too.
Not only does Phillips play multiple positions, but he also makes a significant impact. He has one interception, one pass deflection, six combined tackles, and two tackles for loss. If you’re looking for one of the most underrated players on the Patriots, it’s Phillips.
Without Stephon Gilmore playing, you can make a case Judon is the most talented player on the New England defense. Judon only has one sack so far this season, but digging deeper you’ll find he has 10 total pressures (according to Pro Football Focus) in only two games. Judon is about as disruptive as it gets.
It’s been a while since the Patriots had a high-level pass rusher, but Judon has filled that void perfectly. It’s only a matter of time before those pressures start turning into sacks.
Bonus: Ja’Whaun Bentley, J.C. Jackson, Devin McCourty
I thought all three of these players deserved a mention for their play on the field thus far. Bentley, in particular, has been a pleasant surprise. It’s only been two games, but he looks to be playing the best football of his entire career. Meanwhile, Jackson and McCourty remain playing at a high level.
The Patriots desperately need Trent Brown healthy. It’s that simple. Yasir Durant and Justin Herron aren’t cutting it at right tackle. Both pass protection and run blocking regress a ton when Brown is out. The problem is, Brown has been injury-plagued for most of his career.
Up until this point, New England has refused to kick Michael Onwenu out to right tackle and insert Ted Karras to guard, but if Brown misses significant time this season they may be forced too. Continuing to start Durant or Herron at right tackle is a major liability. Maybe one develops throughout the year, but it’s a huge risk.
It’s expected that Herron and Durant would struggle, as they’re young and backups, but Wynn struggling isn’t ideal. When healthy in 2019 and 2020, Wynn was a very good left tackle. But, so far this season that hasn’t been the case. Wynn has given up seven pressures in only two games. His run blocking hasn’t been up to par either.
As much as getting Brown back healthy would help the offensive line, the Patriots also need Wynn to get back to playing like the promising young tackle he’s previously shown to be. If he can’t, it will create major issues upfront.
Red Zone offense
At some point this season, the Patriots are going to need to start capitalizing in the red zone. New England has scored red zone touchdowns at one of the lowest rates in the NFL through the first two weeks of the season.
With Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, I believe the Patriots have the weapons to be better in the red zone, but they just haven’t been utilized yet. In that sense, New England certainly should improve, but it’s still a major concern. Against better teams, consistently kicking field goals in the red zone won’t get the job done.
To some extent, the Jets running all over the Patriots was a result of New England’s game plan to focus more on stopping the pass. Still though, the run defense, which was expected to be much improved, hasn’t looked all that great.
The interior defensive line is having some trouble getting off blocks in the run game. The pass rush is going to be solid, but I think the run defense is something that will be worth monitoring all year long. That’s a bit disappointing considering the resources put into improving the run defense this offseason.
Will the passing game become more explosive?
I touched on the lack of downfield shots earlier in the piece, but it’s worth mentioning here as well. The Patriots’ offense is going to need to get more vertical to become more dynamic.
As mentioned earlier, the circumstances just haven’t allowed for it. The offensive line isn’t holding up in pass protection, McDaniels is likely being a little more conservative with the rookie, the Patriots don’t have a ton of downfield passing weapons, and Jones has missed some guys too. All those things combined have led to a more short passing game approach.
At the end of the day, I’m not all that concerned about it just yet. If the offense still lacks explosiveness further along in the season it will be time to ring the alarm bells, but through two weeks it’s not a huge deal, especially when you consider the circumstances. Despite not panicking, I do think if the Patriots’ offensive approach continues the way it is now, they’ll struggle to keep pace against the better teams in the NFL.
How long can the secondary hold up without Stephon Gilmore?
The New England secondary hasn’t faced a major test yet, but they look solid so far. J.C. Jackson is still a top corner, Jonathan Jones is an underrated slot corner, and the safety group is immensely talented. Jalen Mills and Joejuan Williams have been solid enough, but again, they haven’t yet been truly tested.
I think what the first two weeks of the season have proved is that a New England secondary without Gilmore can hold up against average or below average passing offenses. What happens when the group faces better passing teams? That remains to be seen, but it will be very interesting to find out.
What should help the secondary, and specifically the corner group, is the Patriots pass rush. The quicker they can get to the quarterback the easier it is on the secondary.
Tight ends more involved?
Hunter Henry, five catches through two games, and Jonnu Smith, nine catches through two games, have both flashed strong potential, but they haven’t yet been the dominating force most thought they would be.
I would imagine some of that has to do with both players missing a lot of preseason action due to injury and not yet being fully integrated into the offense. Some of it also has to do with McDaniels. McDaniels needs to find a way to get his two best passing weapons more involved in the offense, especially when in the red zone. There’s no better red zone threat than a great tight end.
More running backs involved?
One of the biggest surprises through the first two weeks of the NFL season is how sparingly the Patriots are using their backup running backs. For a team that typically likes to utilize multiple backs, New England has so far stuck with Damien Harris and James White.
Harris and White are undoubtedly the Patriots’ top backs, but throwing J.J. Taylor or Rhamondre Stevenson out there to give Harris a rest was something I thought we’d see more of. I’m sure more snaps for Taylor or Stevenson are coming, but it’s interesting that hasn’t yet happened.