My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).
Patriots 2020 Recap
Before the 2020 season kicked off, the Patriots had already lost LB Dont’a Hightower, S Patrick Chung, RT Marcus Cannon, and five others to COVID-19 opt outs. Coach Bill Belichick also watched a plethora of talent, including Tom Brady, leave via free agency, leaving the Patriots with their worst on-paper roster in about two decades. The result was the No. 27 scoring offense and a defense that was 21st in passing EPA and 29th in rushing EPA. Cam Newton allowed the offense to experiment with a dual-threat quarterback, but he had nobody to throw to. That problem hasn’t been solved yet. The good news is that Belichick has $62 million in cap space to work with and all of his draft picks. It’s possible that the Patriots are back in the playoff mix as soon as next season.
Patriots 2021 Offseason
Patriots Cap Space
$62.8 million (4th)
Patriots Draft Picks
1.15, 2.46, 3.77, 4th, 5th, 6th, 6th, 7th, plus compensatory picks
Patriots Cut Candidates
RT Marcus Cannon ($7.1M cap savings), DT Beau Allen ($2.9M)
Patriots Depth Chart
% of Passes
RB (Early Down)
RB (Third Down)
Offensive Coordinator: Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick will craft the offense to their personnel, but with quarterback, receiver, tight end, and offensive line openings, there’s no way to write anything of worth here.
Passing Offense: Cam Newton’s injuries and lack of receiving talent in 2020 led to the No. 30 passing EPA offense. The good news is the Patriots have $62.8 million in cap space (fourth) to upgrade the receiving depth chart. 35-year-old slot man Julian Edelman is in the last year of his contract and is as likely to miss 2021 games as any receiver in the league. His long-term replacement, 2019 undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers, is arguably the best receiving threat on the roster. He can play on the perimeter if necessary but is a natural slot. 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry has 414 yards in two seasons and was the WR101 out of 105 qualifiers in PPR points over expected per game (-2.4) -- one of my favorite efficiency stats. The Patriots should be in the receiver free agency market. Tight end also is a problem despite drafting third-rounders Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene last year. Many have speculated that Hunter Henry is on Belichick’s radar.
Rushing Offense: I’m unsure where everyone will start after a wild 2020 season, but the Patriots have some studs across the offensive line. LT Isaiah Wynn is a stud when healthy (2020 knee sprain), as is RT Marcus Cannon if he comes back after opting out of 2020. They also landed a high-end player in 2020 sixth-rounder Michael Onwenu, who played right tackle last season but could slide to guard if Cannon returns. Throw in RG Shaq Mason, and the Patriots’ run game should be cooking. Expect Damien Harris to operate as the early-down back ahead of Sony Michel. He could even break into a bellcow role with James White headed for free agency. New England was third in rushing EPA last season, although a lot of that can be credited to Cam Newton.
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% of Plays
Defensive Coordinator: When he has the personnel at corner, Bill Belichick wants to play Cover 1 man defense. With SS Patrick Chung opted out and with Stephon Gilmore banged up (11 games), the Patriots went away from their press coverage in 2020. Not having the veteran presence at linebacker with Dont’a Hightower out also proved to be a big deal. It’s unclear if Chung, Hightower, or Gilmore ($7.3M cap savings if traded) will be on the roster in 2021, making this an impossible paragraph to write this early.
Passing Defense: Up front, the Patriots potentially have two quality edge rushers on rookie contracts. 2019 third-rounder Chase Winovich has 5.5 sacks in two-straight seasons and could be more of a full-time defensive end (58% snaps) if he can add weight (6’3/256). 2020 second-rounder Josh Uche is the lightning to Winovich’s thunder as a 238-pound speed rusher. Uche was a part-time player in college and as a rookie. It’s possible that he’s only used on obvious passing downs long-term. There are a lot of decisions to be made in the secondary, starting with 2020 opt-out SS Patrick Chung and 2021 trade candidate CB Stephon Gilmore. Both are in their 30s and New England has found potential replacements in recent drafts with second-rounders SS Kyle Dugger and CB Joejuan Williams. The Patriots also could re-sign 25-year-old CB J.C. Jackson or 35-year-old veteran Jason McCourty.
Rushing Defense: Losing Dont’a Hightower, an eight-year Patriots vet, to a COVID-19 opt out really set the run defense back. New England relied on young linebackers in 2020, including second-round versatile SS Kyle Dugger who played in the box on 57% of his defensive snaps. If Hightower returns, the Patriots are a lock to improve upon last year’s No. 29 rushing EPA defense. Things got so bad against the run without him that opposing offenses had the third-lowest neutral pass rate against New England (meaning offenses were choosing to run instead of pass when the game was close). On the defensive interior, the Patriots have a lot of work to do. DTs Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy, and Adam Butler are all free agents, pushing 2019 fifth-rounder Byron Cowart into the current starting lineup. New England is a lock to upgrade their defensive tackles.
Patriots Team Needs
1. Quarterback - Cam Newton had almost no shot at revitalizing his career coming off injury with the weapons he had in New England, and Jarrett Stidham’s year-long benching certainly is confirmation that he’s not a starting option. With a ton of cap space available, Bill Belichick could be aggressive in free agency and in trade talks. If a Jimmy Garoppolo-type isn’t available, the Patriots are trade-up candidates at No. 15 overall.
2. Defensive Tackle(s) - The Patriots were 29th in rushing EPA defense largely because of their defensive line, and three starters are headed for free agency in DT Deatrich Wise, DT Lawrence Guy, and NT Adam Butler. 2019 fifth-round NT Byron Cowart is the only player that was in the normal rotation from last season, and that’s where he maxes out at. It’s essentially a full rebuild that will require two to four new bodies on the interior.
3. Wide Receiver(s) - 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry is pacing to be a bust and vertical threat Damiere Byrd is hitting free agency. Jakobi Meyers is best suited for the slot, so the Patriots are due for at least one more heavy investment at outside receiver. They have the cap space to be players in the free agency market.
4. Interior Offensive Line - LG Joe Thuney and C David Andrews are free agents. The rest of the offensive line has pieces, but it’s unknown where they will land with RT Marcus Cannon returning from his opt out season and 2020 rookie breakout Michael Onwenu capable at guard or tackle. Either way, the line is one interior piece away from having a studly unit. Hopefully one of the two impending free agents are re-signed.
5. Edge Rusher - The Patriots toyed with how to maximize 2019 second-rounder Chase Winovich (5.5 sacks) and 2020 second-rounder Josh Uche (1.0 in nine games) last season, but they were both rotational specialists, not three-down players. Winovich may put on weight to be a full-time defensive end, while Uche flies off the edge with speed and bend. It’s an encouraging duo long-term, but the Patriots were 26th in adjusted sack rate. Unless these two take big leaps next year, New England needs to find another edge rusher.
2021 Fantasy Football Rankings
Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.
Damien Harris (RB3) - Perhaps James White’s departure leads to more passing downs, but Harris was essentially a two-down player in 2020 which severely capped his ceiling. He was the RB40 per game (9.1 PPR points) on RB41 fantasy usage while only catching five passes in 10 games in the most run-heavy offense. What happens with White, Sony Michel, and at quarterback will determine Harris’ ranking. For now, he’s a low-ceiling starter.
Jakobi Meyers (WR5) - A 2019 undrafted free agent, Meyers looked like a potential long-term starter with slot and outside versatility. If Edelman returns and quarterback remains a question mark, Meyers will be a low-ceiling play but he’s the most talented pass-catcher on the roster currently. The Patriots, of course, are heavily in the mix for major receiver upgrades given their $62.8 million cap space. Meyers was the WR62 per game last year.
FA James White (RB5) - The 29-year-old is headed to free agency coming off a season where his receiving workload was cut in half because of scheme. It’s unclear if he’ll re-sign (that likely hinges on what type of quarterback the Patriots role with in 2021) or if he’ll play outside of New England for the first time in his eight-year career. Cap space won’t be an issue if Belichick wants him back, but would White rather play in Tampa if Tom Brady picks up the phone? He’d be a perfect fit next to Ronald Jones.
Sony Michel (RB5) - In the three games with Damien Harris active following his foot injury, Michel had expected PPR point totals of 0.0, 9.0, and 6.0. He lost the 1A role to Harris, who was drafted in the third round the year after Michel’s injuries became big stories. The only two positives to cling to are James White and Rex Burkhead’s potential departures, and Michel’s RB14 finish in PPR points over expected per game. He was an efficient runner (career-high 5.7 YPC) on his 79 carries.
FA Cam Newton (QB3/4) - Already having to answer questions about his healthy, Newton will now have to overcome a 2020 season that landed him 24th in passing EPA per dropback and 25th in completion percentage over expected (-1.0) among 29 qualifying quarterbacks. Newton managed to finish as the QB17 per game in fantasy despite the passing struggles because of his elite goal-line presence. Newton likely has to settle for a gig where he competes for a job on a bad team, but there is an easier path to QB1/2 upside with him than others being drafted around him.
Julian Edelman (WR7) - Among 105 receiver qualifiers, Edelman was the WR102 in PPR points over expected per game (-2.5) -- an efficiency stat. Injuries, age (35), and the quarterback situation are all working against the veteran slot man. Edelman is under contract for one more season.