NFL writer Bill Barnwell predicted two areas the Patriots will address in the offseason
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In the parlance of Bill Belichickian, the New England Patriots are “on their way to 2022”.
Naturally, that won’t come without plenty of stew over what went wrong at the end of the 2021-22 season, including that wild card blow at the hands of rival Buffalo Bills. Fans will also no doubt be wondering what Belichick and his team will be doing between now and the start of spring minicamp to improve as a football team, whether that means adding pieces in free agency or in the NFL Draft.
But before we look at which players the team can add in the offseason, let’s take a look at some key current Patriots who will need to step up in 2022 to make the team more competitive.
Everyone knows how important Mac Jones is. How he builds on his strong rookie season will be one of the main storylines for the Patriots next season. If he’s good, maybe he can make up for a few holes in the lineup. If he doesn’t improve significantly in his rookie season, well, his future prospects in New England could get interesting.
All that to say, why not talk about other Patriots who also deserve attention?
The Patriots have $16.5 million in guaranteed money tied up in Smith over the next two seasons, so they absolutely need to figure out how to move him forward. Their inability to do so appeared to handicap the offense late in the season when the teams played on Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry in the passing game.
New England appeared to give up the attack at two tight ends, many expected them to run with Henry and Smith, using personal “12” (1 running back, 2 tight ends) on only 18.6% of offensive shots. When Smith was on the field passing, the Patriots simply didn’t use him as a receiver. He ran just 158 routes last season, which was the lowest number of any qualified tight ends in football through Pro Football Focus (minimum 30 targets).
Using him heavily as a blocker and gimmick player who occasionally gets a carry or screen pass isn’t enough. Smith has shown during his time at Tennessee that he is a yards-after-catch machine and a major threat in the red zone, and he hasn’t been deployed enough in either capacity during his career. first season with the Patriots. It can’t happen in 2nd grade.
One suggestion: Send Smith on several of the often-seen crossover routes with Henry and Meyers to have him move targets downfield and with a chance to create more big plays. Then, trust him to eliminate defenders or overtake them on the goal line. Jones has developed a good rapport with Henry and Kendrick Bourne on those kinds of shots. There’s no reason he can’t do the same with Smith.
If the tight end doesn’t work in 2022, the Patriots could sever ties with him the following season. And what a waste that would be.
No matter what happens with Devin McCourty this offseason, Dugger is going to see the field a lot. Either way, he’s played the second most snaps among Patriots safeties, so slipping into a full-time starting role wouldn’t change much for him.
The leap he made in coverage and as an overall playmaker in 2021 was undeniable.
Dugger has of course played a big role near the line of scrimmage, with most of his snaps coming as a safe for the second year in a row. But he’s also had four interceptions and defended five passes in total this season after scoring zeros in both those categories as a rookie and allowing a passer rating of just 59.1, good for the 12th-highest rating in the NFL among qualified safeties. (Adrian Phillips is one spot ahead of him after giving just a 56.6 rating.)
His ability to cover slot receivers and inside man-to-man tight ends has clearly grown over the season, which is huge for a team that likes to play men’s coverage as much as the New England usually does.
The soon-to-be third-year safety has the athleticism, physique and versatility to be a rare chess piece for Belichick’s defense. If he continues to progress as a cover man, the Patriots could have a top-10 safety on their hands.
It’s a big.
The Patriots almost certainly drafted McGrone with an eye on Dont’a Hightower’s career ending in New England, which could be upon them now. They also did so knowing that McGrone would almost certainly not play in 2021 after tearing his ACL in his final college season. The team activated the young linebacker from the non-football injured roster late last season, but he was never promoted to the active roster and went to season-ending injured reserve as foreseen.
Assuming McGrone returns to something like him after a full year off, he could to be just the kind of off-ball linebacker the Patriots currently don’t have. Unlike big thumpers Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley, McGrone looks more like a modern linebacker, registering in the 230-pound range and displaying more quickness and downhill speed than his counterparts. He also had his moments of displaying good game recognition and pursued high motor games in college.
It might be unwise to expect too much from McGrone, as he will likely see his first real NFL practice action next spring. But the Patriots’ vulnerability in that position might not present him with many clear obstacles to seeing the field.
Jamie Collins likely won’t be back after his production disappeared at the end of last season. Anfernee Jennings hasn’t done much since New England drafted him in 2020. Raekwon McMillan has just recovered from an ACL injury and has yet to prove himself in training camp. Harvey Langi, Jahlani Tavai and Terez Hall are camp depth/body pieces.
McGrone will of course have to work his way up the field rather than a veteran. But assuming he’s who the Patriots were hoping for, he could work his way into the starting snaps at some point next season and change the team’s profile at linebacker.
Injuries and a heavy reliance on veteran craftsman Kyle Van Noy cut short the breakout season many predicted for Uche. He had more sacks and overall pressure than in his 2020 rookie season, but he also played three more games in 2021 despite landing on injured reserve during a spell.
The most obvious hurdle Uche needs to clear before he sees more playing time: he needs to defend the run better. He had the second-worst level of run defense of any point defender who played at least 200 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
No matter how much of a pass league the NFL has become, you can’t play consistently in a Bill Belichick defense if you don’t stop the run. This could partly explain why Uche couldn’t get burned after leaving injured reserve as the defense spat on the stretch; Maybe Belichick didn’t trust her not to make matters worse.
It’s a shame because the Patriots could have used his explosiveness off the edge.
With Van Noy set to be a free agent, Chase Winovich a bubble contender entering the final year of his contract and Ronnie Perkins coming off a redshirt season, this is an opportunity for Uche to seize an important role against Matthew Judon.
If he doesn’t claim his position next year, it’s fair to wonder if it will be his last with the Patriots.
The Patriots don’t have an easy answer to significantly improve their reception hall, having dedicated a bunch of cap space to Agholor, Smith and their free agent rookies last season. (They can still make another signing, but it might not be as good a crop of free agents as many hoped due to injuries.)
Even if they draft a receiver in the first two rounds of the draft (e.g. Ohio State’s Chris Olave if he slips to No. 21), the best thing for New England’s receiver room would be that ‘Agholor realizes the advantage this team envisioned for him.
It would be somewhat unfair to say that Agholor was totally ineffective. His speed seemed to open up opportunities under deep cover for the likes of Meyers and Bourne to take advantage of. He also clearly opened up on a number of occasions, even though he didn’t end up getting the ball (eg that deep interception from Mac Jones in the joker game).
Still, he’s not a No. 1 receiver, and his speed hasn’t made enough of a difference individually in 2021 to satisfy anyone.
Agholor definitely needs to work on aspects of his game, like tracking the ball more effectively and catching it cleanly on deep balls. But as with Smith, the Patriots also need to do more than use screen passes or gimmicky plays to get him to play the football in space. Deeper crossings and turns running away from safety aids would be welcome.
He can still be the most dangerous receiver on the roster if the Patriots commit to using him that way.
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