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Why the New England Patriots are early losers of a wild NFL offseason

Matt Johnson
New England Patriots
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots entered the NFL offseason with an opportunity to make up ground on the best teams in the AFC. At a time when Bill Belichick could have surrounded quarterback Mac Jones with stronger weapons and strengthened his defense, the Patriots were essentially passed by the competition.

Those defending the Patriots’ lack of activity in the free-agent market will point towards Belichick going against the grain. He spent when others didn’t in 2020, loading up with Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor.

Thus far, Belichick has stood pat and watched the Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns dramatically improve this offseason. By the Pro Football Focus Improvement Index, New England has experienced the fourth-worst negative change this spring and five of the six most-improved teams are AFC contenders.

While there is still some time in the offseason for the New England Patriots to turn things around, they are shaping up to be one of the biggest losers this offseason for a number of reasons.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Patriots, check out #GoPats rumors, rankings, and news here.

New England Patriots coaching staff takes a hit

NFL: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Belichick likely knew it was only a matter of time until Josh McDaniels left to become a head coach elsewhere. He also would have been aware that when the day arrived, McDaniels would take plenty of key members of the Patriots’ coaching staff with him. Months later, there is still uncertainty surrounding who fills those voids.

Bill O’Brien seemed like the primary target to take over as offensive coordinator and play-caller, but it seems like he is sticking with the Alabama Crimson Tide. Instead, the Patriots seemingly plan to divide up the duties for offensive coordinator with Belichick and Matt Patricia taking on expanded roles.

It’s not the only vacancy on the coaching staff created by McDaniels’ departure. Offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo, receivers coach Mick Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree all moved to Las Vegas.

Losing that continuity is a blow, even with Joe Judge returning after his exit from the New York Giants. More importantly, though, New England is losing one of the best play-callers and brightest offensive minds in the NFL.

That’s going to have an impact on the entire offense in 2022. While it could be counteracted by strengthening the on-field talent, that isn’t happening.

Related: See who New England Patriots land in latest NFL mock draft

Impact of 2021 free-agent signings on 2022 free agency

NFL: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

When the New England Patriots made Henry (three years, $37.5 million) and Jonnu Smith (four years, $50 million) two of the highest paid tight ends in the NFL, many assumed we’d see more 2TE sets in 2021. Fans visualized a lesser version of the Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez duo, a dynamic pairing of tight ends who would make plays while both on the field.

According to PFF’s Doug Kyed, New England only used two tight ends on 18.6% of its snaps during the 2021 season. As Pats Pulpit further noted, that number could be dropped down even further when considering the Patriots used 12-personnel on nearly half of their snaps in Week 1 with Smith.

Related: NFL QB Rankings – Check our top-20 quarterbacks, including Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson, and Jimmy Garoppolo

It makes Belichick’s financial commitment to Smith and Henry even more baffling. Equally puzzling a year later, was the two-year, $26 million contract Nelson Agholor received. In 15 games, Agholor posted just 355 receiving yards and he finished with just 1.1 deep targets per game (Player Profiler).

Fast forward to the offseason. It became apparent to even the casual observer that New England needed to add a No. 1 and No. 2 receiver to the offense to support Jones. In a crop of free agents that included Allen Robinson ($15.5 million AAV), DJ Chark ($10 million), JuJu Smith-Schuster ($3.25 million) and Cedrick Wilson ($7.35 million), the Patriots are currently empty-handed. Meanwhile, Marquez Valdes-Scantling is expected to sign for less than Agholor received a year ago.

There is also reason to wonder about the Patriots’ offensive line taking a step back in 2022. Belichick traded Shaq Mason, PFF’s third-best guard in 2021, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a fifth-round pick. It created a hole on the offensive line that didn’t need to be there, raising more doubts about this offense in 2022.

  • Mac Jones stats (Week 13-17)L 60% completion rate, 6-5 TD-INT, 79.8 QB rating, 6.04 ay/a

Combine the loss of McDaniels along with a below-average receiving corps and the second-half dip we saw from Jones as a rookie, it generates real concerns heading into next season.

New England Patriots defense a cause for concern

NFL: AFC Wild Card Playoffs-New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Statistically, the New England Patriots defense finished as one of the best in the NFL last season. It played dominant football at times, shutting down opponents with a strong pass rush and quality play in the secondary. Unfortunately, there were signs of trouble late in the year.

Examine what happened towards the end of the Patriots schedule. New England held Josh Allen to 10 points on Dec. 6, but it needed absurd weather conditions to accomplish that. A week later, the Carson Wentz-led Indianapolis Colts score d27 points at Gillette Stadium behind 226 rushing yards.

The Patriots benefitted from facing quarterback Trevor Lawrence in Week 17 and a Belichick-coached team did its thing against a rookie. However, New England allowed 195 rushing yards to a bad Miami Dolphins offense in a Week 18 loss.

As for New England’s final two meetings against Allen and the Bills, it went poorly. Buffalo combined for 80 total points, led by Allen posting an 8-0 TD-INT ratio with 622 passing yards.

The slate of opponents won’t be easy in 2022. New England faces Allen twice, Joe Burrow, Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, Kyler Murray, Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson, potentially Deshaun Watson and a significantly-improved Dolphins’ offense.

Meanwhile, the Patriots will be taking the field with massive concerns at cornerback. Jalen Mills allowed a 114.6 passer rating on 60 targets, Terrance Mitchell didn’t hold up well (104.7 QB rating allowed on 70 targets) and no one can bet on 32-year-old Malcolm Butler playing well after a year off.

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Realistically, the defense is going to take a step backward in 2022. It’s a bad combination for a team with real concerns on the offensive side. Put that together, the New England Patriots lost ground in the AFC this offseason.