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New England Patriots: Dynasty derailed or rapid rebuild in 2021?

Could Bill Belichick pull off a Matthew Stafford trade?
Nov 22, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the sideline during the second quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

For two decades, the New England Patriots have been as close to perfect as the NFL has seen. Six Super Bowl victories and nine appearances have secured the New England spot in the history books, and head coach Bill Belichick is being touted as one of the best to see the game, ever. Of course, so was long-time quarterback Tom Brady.

Naturally, when Tom Brady left New England and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, questions emerged: who made the team great? Would the Patriots dynasty live on with a quick rebuild, or would they let a new, younger team claim the top spot? Who’s going to be the quarterback next season? Will they make the playoffs next season? We check in on these questions and more below.

New England Patriots: Cam Newton’s disappointing season leaves questions at the quarterback position

When Brady left, the New England Patriots signed Cam Newton to a one-year, incentive heavy and budget-friendly deal. It accommodated their cap struggles, created as a result of having to pay both Antonio Brown and Tom Brady this season. This means, though, that they have the option to start a new quarterback next season should they choose to.

It seems that their biggest offseason acquisition will have to be a quarterback, as a disappointing season for Newton saw him benched in favor of Jarrett Stidham multiple times. Matt Ryan has been tossed around a lot in terms of a viable replacement, but the quarterback position isn’t the only one with question marks.

On the defensive side, there is no guarantee All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore returns. He was shopped around the league before the NFL trade deadline, but New England kept him around. Now, coming off an injury, the 30-year-old cornerback is an even stronger candidate for an offseason trade. Meanwhile, on offense, there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding Julian Edelman’s future.

A year after Brady, Stephen Gostkowski, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins departed, it could be another offseason with major changes for the New England Patriots.

New England Patriots coaches: Josh McDaniels will return, top executive heads to Texas

New England Patriots
Jan 4, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on the field before their playoff game against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

After not making the playoffs for the first time since 2008, New England fans questioned how much longer Bill Belichick would retain his role as head coach. One subpar season does not put one of the NFL’s all-time greatest coaches any closer to stepping away. There were questions, though, about the future of Josh McDaniels, New England’s offensive coordinator. Rumors flew that he would head down south and become the Houston Texans’ head coach. After all, he could be paired with his college teammate and former colleague.

New England’s top executive Nick Caserio, the team’s director of player personnel dating back to 2001, agreed to become Houston’s general manager. In his departure, Belichick loses a trusted ally in the building. Of course, it was an opportunity that Caserio couldn’t turn down. The deal reportedly averages $6 million per year, making him one of the highest-paid general managers in the league.

Caserio’s heir-apparent will likely be his ex-college teammate, Dave Ziegler. He currently serves as the assistant director of player personnel after being promoted from director of pro personnel last offseason.

With Caserio in Houston, many connected the dots to Josh McDaniels joining him as head coach. However, it sounds like the Texans aren’t considering the Patriots’ offensive coordinator. McDaniels should be back in New England, calling plays for the 2021 season.

New England Patriots cap space: Lots of space for growth

The Patriots enter the 2021 NFL offseason with the fourth-most cap space in the league. At a time when many clubs will be cutting key players just to get under the salary cap, with the NFL dealing with significant financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, New England will have an even greater advantage.

Related: Top players who could be cap casualties this offseason

As mentioned, New England no longer has to pay Tom Brady nor Antonio Brown next season. If Edelman and Gillmore do leave the team, they’ll have to make a statement in free agency to replace them. Regardless, they will need to acquire some more talent both offensively and defensively, but the Patriots particularly need to address their wide receiver situation. A projected $70.46 million in cap space gives them more than enough room to do that.

Their own lineup is filled with potential free agents that will take up some of that budget– namely, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Jason McCourty, David Andrews, Joe Thuney, James White and John Simon. But, they’re still in good shape to make some solid acquisitions.

Big offseason signings and key players returning to the lineup could catapult them to the top of the NFL once again. But, this many personnel questions–with the quarterback situation leaving the strongest doubt–could see them not making the playoffs for a few more years to come.

New England Patriots offseason: Potential free agency and trade targets

Of course, having that much cap room leaves a lot of room to sign. top free agents or to acquire a star via trade. New England has been a great team for two decades and they’ll need to address a lot of concerns to get rid of the question marks surrounding their team. Here are a few names we could see sign in New England when free agency begins:

Related: Top 25 NFL free agents in 2021

  • Matt Ryan, quarterback: It’s apparent that Ryan isn’t thrilled with his current situation, and New England needs a new option at quarterback. In the last few seasons of his career, Ryan certainly wants an opportunity to keep competing. If the Falcons’ new regime is open to a rebuild, the Patriots have the draft capital and money to acquire Ryan.
  • Allen Robinson II, wide receiver: Imagine what Robinson could do with a good quarterback. New England will need more than one option for a quarterback to go to, and the need for a wide receiver becomes even more pressing if Edelman leaves. Robinson II fits what they’re looking for in New England: he hasn’t had an overall PFF grade lower than 69.0 in his career, and it hasn’t been lower than 75.0 since his first season in Chicago in 2018. He’s consistent and young, and could see even more improvement in New England.
  • Juju Smith-Schuster, wide receiver: Again, New England needs help in this position. The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t, as they have an excess of riches in the young guns that are Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. Juju’s days in Pittsburgh are probably over, and he could be a great fit in New England, especially because he’s young. He’s a smart, knowledgeable player with tons of experience even though he’s only 24, and that sounds like a Bill Belichick dream.

New England Patriots 2021 mock draft:

NFL Draft rumors: Kyle Pitts to the Miami Dolphins?
Dec 19, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Florida Gators tight end Kyle Pitts (84) against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL Draft might be even more important for the New England Patriots than any moves made in free agency. Bill Belichick hasn’t exactly crushed it with his top draft selections in recent years, with 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry serving as the latest example.

Fortunately, picking in the first half of a deep NFL Draft class puts this team in a great position to address key needs with an influx of young talent.

Related: NFL mock draft 2023 – CJ Stroud, Bryce Young headline outstanding 2023 NFL Draft class

  • First round, 15th overall: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
  • Second round, 47th overall: Jay Tufele, iDL, USC
  • Third round, 96th overall: Sage Surratt, WR, Wake Forest
  • Fourth round, 116th overall: Spencer Brown, RT, Northern Iowa
  • Fourth round, 134th overall: Daelin Hayes, EDGE, Notre Dame
  • Fourth round, 140th overall: Dimitri Moore, ILB, Vanderbilt
  • Fifth round, 155th overall: Michael Penix Jr, QB, Indiana

It all starts with Kyle Pitts, the top tight end prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft and arguably the best to enter the NFL at his position in years. We’re talking about a special athlete, the kind of player with the ability to make an impact like Las Vegas Raiders star Darren Waller. Given how much McDaniels’ offense deploys tight ends and the emphasis this organization puts on the position, Pitts can be New England’s next star.

In the second round, taking the best player available also ties perfectly into need. The Patriots haven’t gotten enough consistent production and interior pressure from the defensive tackles, but Tufele would change that. The 6-foot-3, 315-pound interior defensive lineman can be a three-down player quickly for the Pats.

Of course, we can’t go without drafting a wide receiver. Some merited consideration in the first round, but the top names came off the board. So, New England exercised patience and it worked. Surratt brings good size, strong hands and is fairly clean on his routes. He’s also got a brilliant mind, which is something the Patriots will really appreciate and can help him be successful early in his NFL career.