The New England Patriots capped off the 2021 regular season on Sunday with a 33-24 loss to the Miami Dolphins. The loss pushed the Patriots to 10-7 on the year.
New England limped to the finish line, losing three of their last four games, but in the end, still managed to earn themselves a six seed in the AFC playoffs. The Patriots will take on the Buffalo Bills Saturday night in Orchard Park in the Wild Card round.
When looking at the Patriots’ 2021 regular season as a whole it’s hard to argue it was anything but a success. Yes, New England left a couple of games on the table and has recently played sloppy football, but going to the playoffs with a rookie quarterback is something to be celebrated. Before the playoffs kickoff, I thought it would be a good time to look back on the 2021 regular season and break down my biggest takeaways.
5 Biggest Takeaways from the Patriots 2021 Regular Season
The Patriots nailed the selection of Mac Jones
Mac Jones seemed to hit a bit of a rookie wall towards the end of the season, but overall his rookie season was impressive. Jones ended the season with 3,801 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. Those were easily the best rookie quarterback numbers in the NFL. It’s fair to point out that Jones landed in the best spot of all the rookie quarterbacks, and that likely led to part of his early career success, but it would be foolish to write off all his success as a result of the situation he was in.
Beyond the stats, Jones showed good accuracy, nice touch on his ball, high football IQ, and noticeable bounce-back ability. His poise after a mistake never wavers. We saw it time and time again throughout the season.
Going into last offseason, the Patriots were under massive amounts of pressure to get the quarterback postion right and it seems they have. Jones was an above-average starting quarterback as a rookie. It will be fascinating to see how he continues to develop moving forward.
J.C. Jackson earned himself a massive payday
There’s no better time to play the best football of your career than in a contract year and that’s exactly what J.C. Jackson did. Jackson is set to be an unrestricted free agent in the 2022 offseason and he’s about to get PAID.
The former undrafted rookie ended the 2021 regular season with 8 interceptions, and 23 passes defended, which led the league. When targeted, Jackson held quarterbacks to a lowly 43 passer rating. It doesn’t get much better for a corner than the season Jackson had in 2021.
The free agency market for Jackson this offseason will be robust. Jackson is a lockdown playmaking man-to-man corner and those are always in high demand. Keeping Jackson feels like it would be a priority for New England, as Stephon Gilmore is no longer a Patriot. The Patriots’ cornerback room would suffer greatly if they lose Jackson too. Maybe a franchise tag could be in play? We’ll see.
Special teams struggles and self-inflicted mistakes were more prevalent than usual
The Patriots have been known as an organization that consistently plays top-notch special teams and fundamentally sound football, but that was not the case this season. New England ranks 18th in special teams DVOA and the only thing holding them up that high in the rankings is the leg of Nick Folk.
The punt team has been horrendous this season. New England has had a league-high three punts blocked. That’s unacceptable for a team that prides itself on special teams. Additionally, Jake Bailey hasn’t performed as his normal All-Pro self. As for punt returns, the Patriots haven’t broken any of those for long gains, which is something they did a couple of times in the 2020 season.
Penalties on special teams have also been a problem. Multiple times this season we’ve seen a penalty extend a drive for the opposing team. Self-inflicted mistakes, such as penalties, turnovers, and just overall lethargic starts to games, have been a common theme in every single Patriots loss this season. This is something that will need to be cleaned up in the playoffs if the Patriots hope to extend their season.
The Patriots still need to add a true #1 wideout to take the offense to the next level
I want to be clear: The Patriots have valuable pass-catching weapons currently on the roster. Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry, and Nelson Agholor (to a lesser degree than the other three) have all played good football this season. That said, to take the passing game to a whole nother level the Patriots need to find a true #1 wide receiver.
The Patriots have needed a high-level wideout for a while now and until they get one it will always feels as if the potential of their offense has a cap on it. For example, throughout the 2021 season, it became obvious that New England struggled to play from behind. A reason for that is the inability to score quickly, a #1 guy helps that.
I should also add that acquiring a true #1 wideout is always a good thing for an offense, but especially when that offense is led by a young quarterback. Just look at what the addition of Ja’Marr Chase has done for Joe Burrows’ development. Either through the draft, free agency, or trade New England should keep their eyes open for a big-time receiver.
The 2021 free-agent class had its ups and downs
New England went on a massive spending spree during the 2021 free agency period and the results of that spending spree were more good than bad. New England added multiple key contributors and made the playoffs, in part because of those new additions. That said, not every deal was a success.
Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy, and Ted Karras have all worked out well. Bourne and Karras, specifically, have been excellent value deals. I’d like to see Josh McDaniels get Henry even more involved in the offense, but he’s been an excellent red-zone threat. As for Judon, he started the year extremely hot but has since cooled down.
Meanwhile, they’ve had decent results on Nelson Agholor, Davon Godchaux, and Jalen Mills. Agholor helps the offense in ways the stat sheet doesn’t show (stressing an offense over the top) but he’s due for a large chunk of change in 2022 that he likely can’t live up to. Godchaux has had some dominant games but he’s also had some stinkers. Mills has been much better than I originally thought he’d be, but I’m still not full sold on him as a #2 corner against elite passing teams.
The only extremely disappointing free agency addition was the Jonnu Smith signing. Smith was brought in to make the offense dynamic and he and McDaniels haven’t yet figured out how to do that. Smith finished the regular season with only 28 catches and 294 yards.
If that’s the kind of production the Patriots continue to get from Smith then that contract they signed him to will look foolish. Here’s to hoping they can figure out a way to get him the ball in space and use his athleticism.
Quick Hitter Takeaways
New England needs to add some talented youth to the linebacker position this offseason
Linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Ja’Whaun Bentley, and Harvey Langi are all free agents this offseason. The linebacker group could look a lot different next season and that won’t necessarily be a bad thing. The Patriots could use some youth and explosion injected into the linebacker position. Devin Lloyd, a linebacker out of Utah, would be a tremendous fit if he’s still available when the Patriots pick in the first round.
Christian Barmore was a steal of a draft pick
Christian Barmore was second on the Patriots in total pressures, only behind Matt Judon. His upside is evident every time he takes the field. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Barmore was a top pass-rushing interior lineman in a few years.
Trent Brown and Ted Karras were vital to the Patriots offensive line
The Patriots’ offensive line, when fully healthy, was a very good group in 2021. I don’t think it was a top-five offensive line, but it was certainly in the top ten. A big reason for that was Trent Brown and surprisingly Ted Karras. Brown brought massive value as the team’s right tackle and Karras played most of the season at left guard over Michael Onwenu. Both Brown and Karras are free agents in 2022.
I would imagine the Patriots would entertain bringing both players back, especially Brown, but it’s possible Brown prices himself out of New England (again), and the same could happen with Karras too. That said, both clearly enjoy being in New England and that could be a big help come free agency time.
Damien Harris is a high-end lead back
Damien Harris finished the 2021 regular season with 15 rushing touchdowns and 929 rushing yards (4.6 yards per carry). Pro Football Focus graded Harris as the top running back in the NFL.
It was a career season for the third-year back out of Alabama. Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson will be a top-notch 1-2 punch for the foreseeable future.
N’Keal Harry is running out of chances
Through three NFL seasons, N’Keal Harry has just 57 catches and 598 yards. Harry isn’t trending in the right direction either, as his numbers this year were well below what he produced in the 2020 season. This season Harry had only 12 catches for 184 yards. Will Harry be back next year? It’s hard to say. His percentage of offensive snaps played, 43%, was the lowest of his young career, and the potential addition of another wideout this offseason could push him off the roster.
Bill Belichick reminded everyone he’s an elite head coach
I may have some grips with Bill Belichick’s conservative nature on fourth down, but overall there’s still no other coach I’d take over him. Making the playoffs with a rookie quarterback after going 7-9 the year before is nothing to scoff at.
Nick Folk is a weapon
Nick Folk followed up a strong 2020 season with a remarkable 2021 season. Folk went 36/39 on field goals. He’s one of the most consistent kickers in the entire NFL. New England may have had a poor year on special teams, but it certainly wasn’t due to Folk’s kicking.
Jakobi Meyers played well enough to get a bit of a payday this offseason
Unlike Harry, Jakobi Meyers had a career year in his third NFL season. Meyers had 83 catches, 866 yards, and 2 touchdowns. Those are all career highs. Meyers isn’t a #1 wideout, but he can play the role of a mid-level #2 or a high-end #3. Being a restricted free agent, Meyers should be back in New England next season, but it will be interesting to see if another team throws him a decent-sized contract. He certainly earned it with his play this season.