The 2021 offseason may be even tougher than 2020 for the New England Patriots and their fans. It was one thing to lose Tom Brady. But it’s another for New England to realize Bill Belichick doesn’t actually have all the answers. His team will finish below-.500 and out of the playoffs.
They don’t have an obvious successor to Brady. And quarterback is hardly the only hole on the roster. It may not even be the biggest, with the tight end spot — and others — looking entirely depleted. Belichick has enormous decisions to make this offseason, which can put the Patriots’ dynasty back on track — or end it, once and for all.
What's next for the Patriots at quarterback?
At this exact moment, the Patriots have Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer on their 53-man roster. Only Stidham has a contract past this season. While there are some arguments to be made that Stidham could turn a corner in his development, those arguments are based only on speculation. There is no tangible evidence that he's going to be ready to start next season. He's a former fourth-round pick, who has yet to start an NFL game despite being in a quarterback group with the starter throwing five touchdowns to 10 interceptions in 13 starts. So the Patriots need a plan. It's likely we'll see Stidham competing with one and, more likely, two quarterbacks of starting caliber. It's possible the Patriot retain Newton. Considering how committed Belichick has been to the veteran, it feels almost likely that Newton is back. But then the Patriots clearly need more. New England will have a draft pick in the middle of the first round. That's where they might have the opportunity to pick Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance and Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. And then the Patriots could pursue trades for the Falcons' Matt Ryan or the 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo. Ryan seems to have re-established himself in Atlanta, but the regime is changing. Perhaps the next coach and general manager will be ready to move one. Garoppolo, meanwhile, seems to have lost his footing in San Francisco. New England could also see if Sam Darnold, Daniel Jones, Gardner Minshew and Dwayne Haskins are available. Finally, free agency could feature Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mitchell Trubisky, Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett and, perhaps, Dak Prescott. There could be no shortage of options. But will any of them be good ones?
Will the Patriots trade Stephon Gilmore? Or give him another raise?
The Patriots considered trading Gilmore last offseason when he asked for a raise. New England ultimately paid him more money and proceeded to keep him around for at least one more year. His contract runs through 2021, but he's likely to come back to the Patriots to ask for a raise – again. What then? The Patriots could use their cap space to compensate Gilmore and keep him one more year. That seems like a smart decision if they plan to be in contention in 2021. But if they want to continue to stock up on future assets, Gilmore would be an easy player to trade for draft picks.
How can the Patriots upgrade their receiver group?
This group was a disappointment on so many levels in 2020. The only player that wasn't a disappointment? Jakobi Meyers. He was buried on New England's depth chart to start the season, but when giving playing time -- largely because of injuries to Julian Edelman and N'Keal Harry -- Meyers was excellent. He's the clear heir-apparent to Edelman in the slot. https://twitter.com/MarkDanielsPJ/status/1341101328513249286 But Edelman's health is a serious question for New England next season. Harry's development isn't where it needs to be -- and there's reason to wonder whether he'll emerge as a No. 2 receiver, let alone a top option. Damiere Byrd will be a free agent, and while they cold re-sign him, they can't give him WR1 snaps, like they have in 2020. The Patriots could use a big-bodied receiver that can do what Harry was supposed to be able to do. That might mean signing Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins in free agency. That might mean drafting Terrace Marshall Jr. in the first round. And then the Patriots could also use a burner to upgrade Byrd. That might mean signing Will Fuller or T.Y. Hilton in free agency. That might mean drafting Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith or even Rondale Moore in the first round.
How can the Patriots find or develop a serviceable tight end?
It's important to remember that the Patriots spent two third-round picks (Dalton Keene, Devin Asiasi) on the tight end position in 2020. You can imagine they expect at least one of those players to contribute in 2021. This year, however, they have combined for two receptions, both from Keene. And it's not like the rest of the position group is carrying the load -- the tight ends have 15 receptions in total. So how can they improve? The draft boasts an absolutely stellar prospect: Florida's Kyle Pitts. He will probably be off the board by the time the Patriots pick. That might mean looking at Miami's Brevin Jordan and Penn State's Pat Friermuth. As for free agency, Hunter Henry and Jared Cook are slated to be available. Cook considered joining the Patriots in 2019, but picked the Saints because he didn't know Rob Gronkowski would retire. Now that Cook has a clear path to TE1, he might join the Patriots. Henry, meanwhile, is likely to get a massive deal, whether from the Chargers or another team. It would be interesting to see if Belichick would make a splash in free agency at that scale. We've seen it before -- like we saw with Stephon Gilmore -- but sparingly.
How do the Patriots strengthen their run defense?
The Miami Dolphins blew up the Patriots' biggest weakness. New England had a shot at beating Brian Flores, if its defense had held the running game in check. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa looked stumped. But the Dolphins managed 42 carries for 250 yards and three touchdowns. I'd like to say the Patriots need help at just one spot: the edge or the interior. But they have issues at both places. They're simply not tackling well, not getting off blockers and not holding at the point of attack.
Does Steve Belichick finally get the title of defensive coordinator?
Bill confirmed Steve is the defensive play-caller. Will he move into a bigger role in 2021? Or could someone else jump into the spot?
Just how much is Belichick willing to spend in free agency?
If the NFL's salary caps lands at $175 million, then the Patriots will have $65.2 million in cap space. (And if it lands at $190 million, then the Patriots will have $101.2 million. The NFL hasn't decided what the cap will be, with the league's finances greatly impacted by the pandemic.) There are 11 teams who are projected to be over a cap of $175 million. And there will be 18 teams with less than $20 million in cap space. The free agency market might end up flooded with cap casualties, along with the pending free agents. New England is in a power position. But free agency spending doesn't always accelerate a rebuild. Will Belichick spend big? Or will he do what no one will see coming: stay conservative without acquiring big talents?
Would Belichick be willing to move up the draft board?
We mentioned Belichick's options in the middle of the first round, whether it's a quarterback, receiver or tight end. But would he move up to target one of the top players at those skill positions? Quarterbacks Justin Fields and/or Zach Wilson could slip out of the top five picks. Would Belichick jump for one or both of them? It might require investing multiple first-round picks.
How will the opt-outs look after a year away?
The Patriots will see Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung return, two players who are likely to improve the rushing defense. And then the offense will see tackle Marcus Cannon back on the line.
How long is Belichick going to keep doing this?
He's 68 years old and has made enough money to hide away at his house on Nantucket -- and wherever else he wants to enjoy life. So when will he begin to do that? He's probably going to coach the Patriots for a few more years ... right? But how soon will he step away?