2021 NFL season preview: Bold predictions for new-look Patriots

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Phil Perry's BOLD Patriots predictions for 2021 season originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It's that time of year. You've been counting the days to this moment, I know. That's right. It's time to define the word "bold."

It might as well be an annual tradition. "Bold predictions" fly left and right across the internet in early September as folks ready themselves for the NFL season. But then oftentimes "bold" equates to "meh." 

Not here. We're not in the "meh" business. It's why if you go back and look at our bold predictions from 2020, your reactions might range from, "Hm!" to, "Ha! Idiot!" 

Cam Newton did, in fact, have a better completion percentage than Tom Brady. Damien Harris did, in fact, take Sony Michel's job. On the other hand, Devin Asiasi, as it turned out, didn't sniff Rob Gronkowski's rookie receiving numbers. And the Patriots defense did not fall out of the top 10 (points allowed) for the first time in a long time. 

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That's just the nature of this exercise. You're going to have misses. There will be more of those than hits, in all likelihood. But talking about the upper (or lower) limits for the Patriots in a given season, exploring the wide-ranging possible outcomes for this particular group, can be instructive. 

That's why we do it. And so here they are, once again, your Bold Predictions for the Patriots in 2021.

Patriots will lead the NFL in sacks

This has never been done under Bill Belichick in New England. For a defensive-minded coach, who has led some next-level defenses over the course of his tenure, predicting his group this year will do something it has never done would certainly qualify as "bold," I think. "Asinine" probably, too. But here we are. You're the one who clicked.

My reasoning? Though the Patriots aren't thought to be a team that racks up sacks because of the disciplined style Belichick prefers, they've ranked highly in this category before. In 2015, 2013, 2007 and 2004 they were in the top-five in sacks. They might not be as sack-averse as we think.

Then there's the personnel. This looks like it has the potential to be one of the most talented front-seven units Belichick has had in the last decade. 

Matt Judon looks, at least at this point, like he'll play up to every last cent of his lucrative new contract. Josh Uche spent the summer making the types of plays evaluators thought he was capable of when he left Michigan as one of the best height-weight-speed athletes in the 2020 draft. Dont'a Hightower is back. Ditto for Kyle Van Noy. Even second-round pick Christian Barmore looks like he could be an immediate contributor in passing situations. This group features individual talents that, if given one-on-one matchups, should win more than their fair share. And with Stephon Gilmore starting the season on the physically unable to perform list, Belichick might be willing to turn this group loose in order to better protect his secondary.

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Lastly, look at the schedule. They're slated to play five of the top 10 most sacked quarterbacks from last year (Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, Matt Ryan, Sam Darnold and Justin Herbert). They also have a number of very young passers on their schedule, including Tua Tagovailoa and Zack Wilson twice as well as Trevor Lawrence. And the types of quarterbacks who generally elicit conservative "mush rush" attacks defensively -- the athletes who can scramble and create explosive plays if pass-rushers get too antsy -- are few and far between. Outside of Josh Allen and Dak Prescott, the others are closer to the pocket-passer end of the spectrum (Ryan Tannehill, Baker Mayfield, Jameis Winston, Tom Brady), which could mean it's pin-your-ears-back season in Foxboro.

Jones will win Offensive ROY

He was the No. 15 overall pick. He was the fifth quarterback taken in his own class. Predicting that he'll be named the league's best offensive rookie in 2021 is bold. But certainly not out of the realm of possibility. 

Based on the position he plays and the opportunity he'll have, Jones has a shot. Three of the last five offensive rookies of the year have been quarterbacks. Six of the last 11 have been passers. Running backs are the other most likely position to come away with the award, but there was only one taken in the first round this year (Pittsburgh's Najee Harris) so at the moment it doesn't look like there will be a long line of ball-carriers Jones will have to contend with for this honor. 

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You also have to consider the situation Jones will be in, specifically in relation to the other first-round quarterbacks from his class. No other first-round passer has the combination of the following elements that would rise to the level of what Jones has in New England: head coach, offensive coordinator, offensive line, defense.

Jones should win a lot of games. He should be at the center of what looks like a balanced offense, meaning he'll be asked to throw, but he likely won't be asked to carry his team's production from week to week. He should be in contention for Offensive Rookie of the Year, and it wouldn't surprise me if he won it. 

Mills will set target record with Gilmore out

Call it The Stephon Gilmore Effect. Or The Stephon Gilmore Absence Effect. With Jalen Mills expected to be New England's No. 2 corner behind JC Jackson while Gilmore is on PUP, he'll be a busy man. Teams will test the former Eagles defensive back on the outside. Again. And again. 

Record-setting busy.

Why is 60 a noteworthy number? Over the course of the last five years, per Pro Football Focus, no corner has seen that many targets in the first six weeks of the season. No corner has seen that many targets in any six-week stretch of the regular season in the last five years.

Only two have really gotten close: Falcons corner AJ Terrell, last year, from Week 12-17 (57 targets)... and Jalen Mills in 2017, from Week 1-6.

Pats will be second-best rushing team in the NFL

This may only qualify as bold in that it is oddly specific. Specificity can equal boldness, right? Let's go with that. 

The reasoning here that the Patriots will be second -- not first, not third -- is fairly straightforward: The Ravens will be the rushing champs of the NFL until Lamar Jackson moves on or their offensive line experiences a significant decline. They have blown away the field both in terms of yards per attempt and total rushing yards each of the last two years with Jackson as their full-time starter. 

The Patriots won't catch Baltimore. But they can catch Tennessee. They can out-pace the Browns. Just because Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels don't have a running back with Derrick Henry's combination of size and speed, or Cleveland's big-name two-headed monster doesn't mean they can't be extremely efficient. 

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The offensive line in New England should be one of the better run-blocking units in football, and the Patriots stable of backs is deep enough that they were comfortable parting with Super Bowl LIII hero Sony Michel in a trade with the Rams late last month. Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and JJ Taylor are all threats to get not only what is blocked, but all three can create yards on their own by making would-be tacklers miss with their diverse individual skills. 

And now that the Patriots can get back to having a quick-hitting passing game with rookie Mac Jones behind center, they should be balanced enough to force defenses into difficult situations more frequently. No longer can opponents add extra defenders into the box to stop a run game that was the be-all-end-all for last year's offense. The play-calling can be more unpredictable, and even if it's not quite so run-reliant, that could end up being a good thing for this group's per-carry averages.

That matters.

Oftentimes when pundits rank rushing attacks at season's end, they look at rushing totals. Not ideal. A much better indicator of an offense's rushing success is its yards gained per attempt. Or if you want to get deeper into the statistical weeds, rush EPA and rush success rate are better markers of whether or not a team is truly effective when running the football. It is in those categories -- not the year-end totals -- that the Patriots will be among the best of the best in the NFL. 

Belichick's club may actually drop in terms of their total rushing yardage ranking; they were fourth in 2020. But the prediction here is that they'll place second in the NFL in yards per attempt by season's end (they were eighth last year). They were third in rush EPA and first in rush success rate in 2020 so let's go ahead and predict that they'll finish in the top-five in both of those categories as well this coming season.

Turns out this was a three-for-one prediction. Lucky you!

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