New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Oct 31, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; The New England Patriots offense huddles during the first half against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 Patriots were a team of runs. A 2-4 start was followed by a seven-game winning streak, with a 1-4 finish to the season including the wild card loss to the Bills. In some ways, this pattern mirrored many of their games with a slow start, strong push towards the middle, but just not enough late.

Still, it was a massive improvement after a sub-.500 finish in 2020. Whereas at this time last year the Patriots were facing a near-total overhaul, they head into this offseason looking to make strategic additions, and round out the edges of the core they’ve already built.

Based on the 2021 season, which positions performed the best and which need more attention? Here’s a look at our position-by-position grades, starting with the offense (you can find the defense and special teams grades here).

A few things to note before we get started. First, the grades are as much based on preseason expectations as they are overall performance. Second, the grades are weighted with a recency bias. Football is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ game, and these grades reflect that. Strong showings early in the season factor in, but teams tend to base their end of year evaluations on what players looked like more towards the end of the season, so we’ll do the same.

  • Quarterbacks: B

    MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – JANUARY 09: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots drops back to pass over the defense of the Miami Dolphins in the second half of the game at Hard Rock Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

    One of the biggest boxes that needed to be checked this season was confirming what the Patriots believed in April, that Mac Jones is a starting-caliber NFL quarterback. Jones seemingly did that, throwing for 3,801 yards with 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his rookie year, completing 67.6 percent of his passes.

    Jones checked that box, which is a major accomplishment. However, he wasn’t immune to the team’s overall dip after the bye. His passer rating dropped from 97 over the first 13 games to 78.9 in December and January including the playoff game.

    There’s certainly plenty of promise for Jones as he moves beyond his rookie year. With that though comes plenty of room for growth. His natural development will be one of the main storylines of 2022. The biggest takeaway though should be that the Patriots have seemingly put their starting quarterback questions to bed for the time being.

    Midseason grade: B

  • Running backs: A

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 28: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots celebrates with Rhamondre Stevenson #38 after scoring a rushing touchdown against the Tennessee Titans in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    The Patriots’ running backs were the strength of the offense this year, especially in the second half of the season. New England finished the regular season ranked 8th in the NFL in rushing, and lack of production on the ground during the late season slide was often due to the Patriots trailing and having to throw to chase points, not a lack of ability from the backs.

    Damien Harris followed up a promising 2020 campaign with a strong 2021 season. He ran for 929 yards and was the focal point of New England’s red zone offense with 15 rushing touchdowns. PFF graded him as the third-best running back in the NFL on the season. Perhaps more notably, Harris was able to play in 15 games after dealing with injuries throughout 2020.

    Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson turned around what was a rough start to finish the year as one of the Patriots’ most encouraging young players. An intermittent healthy scratch early on, Stevenson became a mainstay in the lineup starting in Week 8. Over the final nine games of the season, he ran for 4.8 yards per carry at a nearly 1,000-yard full-season pace. He also showed flashes as a pass catcher, a role the Patriots could need filled with James White a pending free agent and coming off a serious hip injury.

    Taking over the main receiving back duties following White’s injury was Brandon Bolden, who was fourth overall on the team with 41 catches. He also played his best football later in the year, which saved the Patriots from serious running back problems.

    As mentioned above, White is a pending free agent this offseason. So is Bolden, who turns 32 later this month. So while there were positives from the running back position this year, it’s still a position that will need some attention this offseason – particularly when it comes to pass catching backs.

    Midseason grade: B-

  • Wide receivers: C

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – JANUARY 02: Jakobi Meyers #16 of the New England Patriots celebrates after scoring a touchdown with teammate Kendrick Bourne #84 at Gillette Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    The Patriots’ wide receivers were certainly better than they were in 2020, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. Starting with good news, it appears they found at least one explosive playmaker, the kind of player they’ve lacked in recent seasons.

    Kendrick Bourne snuck under the radar as one of the best free agency signings of the offseason. Bourne was second on the team in catches (55) and yards (800) with five touchdowns. He led in yards per reception (14.5) and averaged seven yards after the catch per grab. On the ground, he added 12 carries for 125 yards.

    Bourne showed potential game-breaking ability, and his chemistry with Jones was undeniable. While other players at the receiver position may see their roles and workload change next year, Bourne should still be a significant part of the offense.

    Jakobi Meyers turned in another solid season with 83 catches for 866 yards. He finally found the end zone, catching two touchdowns in the second half of the season. He’ll be a restricted free agent this spring, but don’t be surprised if he remains a part of the team’s plans moving forward.

    Coming up short of expectations was Nelson Agholor. When Agholor was signed in March, he was viewed as a significant upgrade at the ‘X’ position over Damiere Byrd. However, Agholor caught 10 fewer passes for 131 fewer yards than Byrd did last season, despite a cap hit four times the size of Byrd’s.

    It was also another unproductive year for N’Keal Harry, who caught 12 passes on 22 targets. Entering the final concrete year of his contract with his fifth-year rookie option looming, his place on the roster will be in the spotlight this offseason.

    All-in-all, the Patriots have found themselves some legitimate complementary weapons in the passing game. The next step is to add a true focal point kind of receiver, in whatever capacity that player can be acquired.

    Midseason grade: C-

  • Tight ends: C

    Oct 10, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85) makes a catch during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    This is pretty much the same assessment from midseason. It’s a split grade, with Hunter Henry putting together a productive season while Jonnu Smith didn’t do much to make his presence felt.

    The good news is the Patriots seem to have a legitimate starting tight end in Henry. When the offense was clicking on all cylinders he was a matchup problem for defenses, and added a red zone target the team had been lacking. His nine receiving touchdowns led the team.

    As for Smith, he caught 28 passes for 294 yards and a touchdown. Those are monster numbers compared to what Patriots tight ends put up in 2019 and 2020, but fall well short of the expectations that come with Smith’s $50 million contract.

    It’s too early to write him off completely – players have turned into legitimate contributors despite rocky first seasons in New England. But he’s undoubtedly off to a rough start.

    Midseason grade: C

  • Offensive line: B+

    Aug 19, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown (77) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 19, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown (77) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    The offensive line had a much better second half of the season. Getting Trent Brown back from an early season calf injury stabilized the group, and when healthy the unit played up to expectations.

    Mac Jones was sacked 11 times over the final eight weeks, as opposed to 17 times over the first nine. On the ground, the teams improved from 3.91 yards per carry to 4.9 between the first and second half of the season.

    Early on it was a tough season for this group, with a number of moving pieces, but at the end of the day they got the job done. There are some more long-term questions about what the starting five will look like in the future, but with four starting-caliber players set to return they should be in decent shape heading into 2022.

    Midseason grade: C

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