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In Bill Belichickian parlance, the New England Patriots are “on to 2022.”
Naturally, that won’t come without a lot of stewing over what went wrong at the end of the 2021-22 season, including that wild-card whacking at the hands of the rival Buffalo Bills. Fans will also no doubt be wondering what Belichick and his crew will do between now and the beginning of spring minicamp to improve as a football team, whether it’s adding pieces in free agency or the NFL Draft.
But before looking at which players the team can add in the offseason, let’s take a look at some key current Patriots who will need to step up in 2022 to make the team more competitive.
Everyone knows how much Mac Jones matters. How he builds on his strong rookie season will be one of the Patriots’ top storylines of next season. If he’s good, he can perhaps make up for some roster holes. If he doesn’t meaningfully improve over his rookie season, well, his future prospects in New England could get interesting.
All that is to say, why not talk about some other Patriots that deserve attention as well?
The Patriots have $16.5 million in guaranteed money tied up in Smith over the next two seasons, so they badly need to figure out how to get him going. Their failure to do so seemed to handicap the offense late in the season when teams keyed on Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry in the passing game.
New England seemed to abandon the two-tight end offense many expected them to run with Henry and Smith, using “12” personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends) on just 18.6 percent of offensive snaps. When Smith was on the field on passing downs, the Patriots simply weren’t using him as a receiver. He ran just 158 routes this past season, which was the lowest number of any qualified tight end in football via Pro Football Focus (minimum of 30 targets).
Using him overwhelmingly as a blocker and a gadget player that gets the occasional carry or screen pass isn’t enough. Smith showed during his time in Tennessee that he is a yards-after-catch machine and a major red-zone threat, and he wasn’t deployed enough in either of those capacities in his first season with the Patriots. That can’t happen in Year 2.
One suggestion: send Smith on more of the crossing routes often seen with Henry and Meyers to get him downfield targets on the move and with a chance to create more big plays. Then, trust him to box out defenders or go up over them on the goal line. Jones developed good rapport with Henry and Kendrick Bourne on those kinds of throws. There’s no reason he can’t do the same with Smith.
If the tight end doesn’t work out in 2022, the Patriots could cut ties with him the following season. And what a waste that would be.
No matter what ends open happening with Devin McCourty in the offseason, Dugger is going to see the field a lot. He played the second-most snaps among the Patriots’ safeties anyway, so sliding into a full-time starting role wouldn’t change much for him.
The leap he made in coverage and as an overall playmaker in 2021 was undeniable.
Dugger of course played a big role near the line of scrimmage, with most of his snaps coming as a box safety for the second year in a row. But he also notched four interceptions and defended five passes in total this season after putting up zeroes in both those categories as a rookie and allowed a passer rating of just 59.1, which is good for the 12th-best mark in the NFL among qualified safeties. (Adrian Phillips is one spot ahead of him after allowing just a 56.6 rating.)
His ability to cover slot receivers and tight ends man-to-man on the inside clearly developed as the season went on, which is huge for a team that loves to play man coverage as much as New England usually does.
The soon-to-be-third-year safety has the athleticism, physicality and versatility to be a rare chess piece for Belichick’s defense. If he keeps progressing as a cover man, the Patriots might have a top-10 safety on their hands.
This is a big one.
The Patriots almost certainly drafted McGrone with an eye toward the end of Dont’a Hightower’s career in New England, which might be upon them now. They also did so knowing McGrone almost certainly wouldn’t play in 2021 after tearing his ACL during his final college season. The team did activate the young linebacker from the non-football injury list late this past season, but he was never promoted to the active roster and went to season-ending injured reserve as expected.
Assuming McGrone returns to anything like himself after a full year off, he could be just the kind of off-ball linebacker the Patriots don’t currently have. Unlike the big thumpers Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley, McGrone looks more like a modern linebacker, checking in in the 230-pound range and displaying more quickness and downhill speed than his counterparts. He also had his moments of displaying good play recognition and pursued plays with a high motor in college.
It might be unwise to expect too much of McGrone as he likely sees his first real NFL practice action this coming spring. But the Patriots’ vulnerability at the position might not present many clear barriers to him seeing the field.
Jamie Collins probably won’t be back after his production faded late last season. Anfernee Jennings hasn’t done much since New England drafted him in 2020. Raekwon McMillan is coming off of an ACL injury of his own and has to prove himself again in training camp. Harvey Langi, Jahlani Tavai and Terez Hall are depth pieces/camp bodies.
McGrone will have to earn his way onto the field over a veteran, of course. But assuming he is who the Patriots hoped he’d be, he could work his way into starter snaps at some point next season and change the team’s profile at linebacker.
Injuries and a heavy reliance on Kyle Van Noy’s veteran savvy halted the breakout season many projected for Uche. He did have more sacks and overall pressures than he did in his 2020 rookie season, but he also played three more games in 2021 despite landing on injured reserve for a spell.
The most obvious hurdle Uche has to clear before seeing more playing time: he’s got to defend the run better. He owned the second-worst run defense grade of any edge defender who played a minimum of 200 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
No matter how much the NFL has become a passing league, you can’t play consistently in a Bill Belichick defense if you don’t stop the run. That might partly explain why Uche couldn’t get much burn after coming off of injured reserve as the defense sputtered down the stretch; perhaps Belichick didn’t trust him to not make matters worse.
That’s a shame because the Patriots absolutely could’ve used his explosiveness off the edge.
With Van Noy about to be a free agent, Chase Winovich a roster-bubble candidate entering the last year of his deal, and Ronnie Perkins coming off a redshirt season, this is Uche’s chance to seize a substantial role opposite Matthew Judon.
If he doesn’t stake his claim next year, it’s fair to wonder if it might be his last with the Patriots.
The Patriots don’t have an easy answer to dramatically improve their receiver room, having dedicated a bunch of cap space to Agholor, Smith and their free-agent signings last season. (They can still make another signing, but it might not be as good a free-agent crop as many expected due to injuries.)
Even if they draft a receiver in the first couple rounds of the draft (say, Ohio State’s Chris Olave if he slips to No. 21), the best thing for New England’s receiver room would be for Agholor to achieve the upside this team envisioned for him.
It would be somewhat unfair to say Agholor was totally ineffective. His speed did seem to open up opportunities underneath deep coverage for players like Meyers and Bourne to take advantage of. He also clearly got open on several occasions, even if he didn’t end up getting the football (e.g., that deep Mac Jones interception in the wild-card game).
Still, he’s not a No. 1 receiver, and his speed didn’t make enough of a difference individually in 2021 to satisfy anyone.
Agholor certainly needs to work at aspects of his game, such as tracking the ball more efficiently and catching it cleanly on deep balls. But as with Smith, the Patriots also must do more than use screen passes or gadget plays to get him the football in space. Some more deep crosses and corner routes running away from safety help would be welcome.
He can still be the most dangerous receiver on the roster if the Patriots commit to using him that way.
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