Mac Jones and Bill Belichick should give the Patriots optimism, but the 2022 offseason will be tricky

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Bill Belichick did a nice job keeping the New England Patriots afloat after losing the greatest quarterback of all time. The Patriots went 7-9 in 2020 and, now, they’ve finished 10-7 in 2021.

They have a promising, young quarterback, Mac Jones, and a core of up-and-coming players that should help New England build upon their playoff appearance (and blowout loss) from this season. New England is likely to have just over $20 million in salary-cap space, per OverTheCap. The team will have the 21st overall pick in the 2022 draft. Belichick will have the means to keep this team moving on an upward trajectory.

New England’s young standouts — all still on rookie deals — include Jones, safety Kyle Dugger, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, linebacker Josh Uche, running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson and offensive lineman Michael Onwenu. Veterans Matt Judon, Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry, Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Shaq Mason, Isaiah Wynn and others aren’t likely going anywhere. Reciever Jakobi Meyers is a restricted free agent and is likely to stick around another year,

The problem is that the Patriots didn’t get eliminated from the playoffs by a small margin. They lost to the Buffalo Bills, 57-17. New England might just keep losing to Buffalo at a similar clip, if it can’t figure out a way to restock talent on defense — particularly with speed — and help Jones take another step. When the score is that lopsided, every phase of the Patriots’ team needs to be better. But New England should start by working to slow down quarterback Josh Allen — and then help put Jones in a position where he can keep pace with that hypothetically slowed version of Allen.

And frankly, the Patriots can take a page right out of the Bills’ team-building book. Buffalo traded major assets to land Stefon Diggs, who showed up and immediately helped Allen, whose rookie struggles far surpassed those of Jones, develop into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

New England has rarely pursued top-end receivers — and when they have, those transactions have come with mixed success. Of course, Belichick paired Randy Moss with Tom Brady in 2007. It was sensational. Belichick also added Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown in the latter stages of Brady’s Patriots career — both those transactions ended messily. Even this year, the Patriots outwardly appeared interested in Odell Beckham Jr and were reportedly in the mix to sign him after the Browns cut him. So perhaps Belichick recognizes the Patriots’ need at receiver.

Of course, a wideout won’t stop the Bills from putting up 57 points. The defense needs to get better. And to make things more problematic, the Patriots’ pending free agent list includes cornerback J.C. Jackson, safety Devin McCourty and linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins. Patriots fans may feel prepared to say good riddance to that group of linebackers — with Hightower and Bentley looking slow in 2022 — but then there’s the matter of completely rebuilding a linebacker group around Van Noy, the only remaining veteran.

And what happens to the leadership void that opens if both Hightower and McCourty leave?

If New England can’t get hometown discounts with their outgoing group of free agents, which includes starting linemen Trent Brown and Ted Karras, they cannot afford a top-end receiver. They’ll have to spend their money trying to rebuild the defense. While they have a few promising youngsters, the group isn’t as substantial as it needs to be, with Chase Winovich, Anfernee Jennings, Joejuan Williams and Duke Dawson and other high defensive picks so far failing to pan out. (That’s not even addressing the high offensive picks that seem to have busted: N’Keal Harry, Yodny Cajuste and Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene.)

Belichick is the master of making a small free-agent budget into a high-impact free-agent class. He will have to do just that this offseason, with special focus on speeding up his defense. If he can do that — and Jones can continue his steady upward trajectory — then the Patriots can continue their rebuild toward a Super Bowl in the post-Brady era.

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Winners and losers from Patriots' blowout loss to Bills in playoffs