New England Patriots

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 19: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots talks to Mac Jones #10 against the Philadelphia Eagles in the first half of the preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 19, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Patriots defeated the Eagles 35-0. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Now that we’ve gone through the denial and anger phases, New England can enter the “acceptance” portion of the grief process after the Bills’ complete destruction of the Patriots in the wild card round.

It’s during the acceptance phase that you can start to look at the positives. … Right? Is that OK? Are we allowed half-full glasses in this economy? Well, I’m going to do it and see how it goes. *Protestors gather outside my home*

Yes, it’s OK to take some positives away from the 2021 Patriots season. It’s not the right time and place to do that in the first hours and days after the Bills’ 47-17 beatdown of the Patriots in Orchard Park. You have to read the room a little bit. But now that we’ve all gotten the raw, unfiltered anger out of our systems, can we now acknowledge that, in Foxboro, 2021 was a step forward?

It doesn’t feel that way after the way they lost to the Bills, but it was an improvement over 2020 that they had a playoff game in the first place. Though ultimately it feels like only a marginal overall improvement to go from 7-9 to 10-8, going from below average to slightly above average is still progress.

Beyond the aggregate numbers, the 2021 Patriots also landed an impactful draft class, identified some younger long-term pieces to build around, and got strong production from key pieces of their free-agent haul. The season’s humiliating ending will have a way of masking the fact that the Patriots have something to build on heading into 2022.

Clearly, the Pats have problems to address in the offseason, and need to play and coach a lot better in order to be competitive on a playoff stage. But it’s not all bad in Foxboro. Here’s the good to take away.

  • They have a viable quarterback

    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)

    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)

    In the coming years, we’ll find out where Mac Jones lands between “legitimate starting quarterback” and “perennial franchise star.” But Jones showed enough in his rookie season that we can safely say he’ll work pretty well as Belichick’s starter.

    Jones posted the third-best passer rating of the Super Bowl era among rookie QBs who started every regular season game. Only Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson were better in their first seasons. Jones also became the first rookie QB since Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck in 2012 to start every game and make the playoffs.

    So, all things considered, Jones had one of the better rookie seasons ever. The question is what his ceiling is, and how close he is to it. He’ll need to take a significant step forward in year 2 in order to prove he can be an elite-level franchise QB who makes the Patriots a perennial contender by himself.

    But the book on Jones coming out of the draft was his high floor. The floor looks like a good, solid, sometimes excellent starter for the Patriots. Even if he’s not elite, he’s still way better than what many other teams have ended up with after drafting a quarterback in the first round.

  • Best draft class in years

    Dec 6, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Christian Barmore (90) reacts to a defensive play against the Buffalo Bills during the first half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 6, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Christian Barmore (90) reacts to a defensive play against the Buffalo Bills during the first half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    Jones is the real headline-maker among the Patriots’ 2021 draft picks, because of the position he plays. But one could argue that second-round pick Christian Barmore has a higher ceiling, relative to other defensive tackles. Barmore flashed All-Pro potential in 2021, and he did it as a rookie, which is especially rare under Belichick.

    Based on data from Pro Football Focus, Barmore recorded 11 more total pressures than any other rookie defensive tackle, and his 17.1 percent pass rush win rate was second among all rookies to the Cowboys’ Micah Parsons. His power and explosiveness jump off the screen, and it led to teams devoting extra attention to him in the latter half of the season.

    In Barmore, Belichick appears to have landed a talent that opponents will have to specifically prepare for more than others on the defense. He has room for improvement as a space-eater against the run, but he’s already an impactful pass rusher and he has the type of physical talent that you can’t coach.

    On top of Barmore, the Patriots also look to have landed a legitimate NFL running back in fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson, who made plays both on the ground and through the air as a rookie. The jury’s out on third-round outside linebacker Ronnie Perkins and fifth-round inside linebacker Cameron McGrone. But the latter, in particular, has a chance to be exactly the type of linebacker Belichick needs on his roster in today’s NFL.

    Based on how the healthy and active players turned out, you have to feel there’s promise with the others.

  • Building blocks on offense

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 24: Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots celebrates with Kendrick Bourne #84 after a touchdown during the first half in the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 24: Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots celebrates with Kendrick Bourne #84 after a touchdown during the first half in the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    Most of the Patriots’ major problems that need addressing are on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, there’s more to feel good about coming out of the loss and heading into the offseason.

    Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and tight end Hunter Henry proved to be worthy additions to the roster as free agents. When you spend as much as the Patriots did a year ago, the best you can hope for is to emerge with a few pieces that will stick long-term. It seems they have that with Bourne and Henry, who are both under contract for the next two sdasons.

    Bourne had a career year, posting new bests in catches (55) and receiving yards (800) and scoring five touchdowns. He also proved effective on end-arounds and jet sweeps, taking 12 handoffs for 125 yards (10.4 average). Bourne has the distinction of being one of the few Patriots to show up and compete in the playoffs against the Bills.

    Henry, meanwhile, set a new career-high with nine touchdowns as a reliable red zone target for Jones. He also played a full regular season for the first time in his career, with minimal injury scares. Even if you feel Henry may be overpaid at an AAV of $12.5 million, that’s just how it works at the top of the free agent market, and he certainly turned out far better than Jonnu Smith.

    The big question for the offense is whether they can find a true go-to No. 1 pass-catching option for Jones, on top of what they get out of Bourne, Henry, and Jakobi Meyers, for that matter. But the Patriots can at least feel like they’re building toward something good with the group.

  • Steps forward on defense

    Jan 2, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) runs with the ball after an interception during the second half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Jan 2, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) runs with the ball after an interception during the second half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    To be sure, the defense is in need of greater changes than the offense. But part of the issue on that side of the ball seems to be related to the coaching operation, which feels disjointed in the absence of a clear voice atop the unit. They may need a Josh McDaniels for the defense.

    Personnel-wise, the Patriots need to get younger and more athletic overall, but they at least identified a few players that can carry over to 2022 and beyond as real building blocks. Safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips (pictured above) both improved upon 2020 and look like worthy successors to the Devin McCourty era, which is certainly winding down, if not over.

    You can add Barmore to that list. It’s strange that linebacker Josh Uche, who looked like the fastest player on the field in training camp, didn’t play much in his sophomore season. But he should be back in 2022 and, if the Pats evolve on defense, he should factor into that.

  • Glimpses of the past

    Nov 14, 2021; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick prior to the start of a game against the Cleveland Browns at Gillette Stadium. Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 14, 2021; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick prior to the start of a game against the Cleveland Browns at Gillette Stadium. Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots enter the offseason with one of the greatest mysteries we’ve seen surrounding the team: what happened after the bye week? Because from Weeks 7-13, when the Patriots ripped off seven wins in a row, it looked like the vintage Pats were back.

    Belichick was outclassing less experienced head coaches. They were disciplined. They won the turnover battle. They played stifling defense. National media started losing their minds again.

    That’s perhaps the biggest silver lining of them all. That seven-game winning streak showed that Belichick is still capable of helming a football team with everyone pulling in the same direction and trampling the competition in the process.

    The team’s top offseason priority, big picture-wise, is to figure out what went wrong after they hit the bye week at 9-4 and first in the AFC, and what needs to happen in order to restore the football operation to the performance we saw during the win streak.

  • Patriots Podcast with Alex Barth

    Alex Barth and I went over the Pats’ loss to the Bills, and also went in depth on what they need to do in the offseason. There’s some healthy debate in here, too. Have a listen.