Ranking the Patriots’ offseason needs, starting with the most pressing

Quarterback is No. 1, but it doesn't stop there.

Cam Newton calls a play against the Miami Dolphins.
Cam Newton calls a play against the Miami Dolphins. –Joel Auerbach/AP Photo

COMMENTARY

With the NFL postseason kicking off Saturday, and the Patriots’ season over, the extra time off for New England gives the team a chance to step back and spend more time self-evaluating its own season, identifying its strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement.

As the team assesses its needs heading into the offseason, a top priority will be bringing in more talent this offseason, via the draft and free agency. To do that, the team will first need to identify what positions on its roster need to be prioritized this offseason.

To start, here are the Patriots players that are free agents this offseason: Cam Newton, James White, Lawrence Guy, Joe Thuney, Jason McCourty, Adam Butler, David Andrews, Shilique Calhoun, Rex Burkhead, Deatrich Wise, Jakob Johnson (ERFA), J.C. Jackson (RFA), Jermaine Eluemunor, John Simon, Terrence Brooks, Damiere Byrd, Cody Davis, Donte Moncrief, Nick Folk, Marcus Martin, James Ferentz, Justin Bethel, Brian Hoyer, Carl Davis, Brandon Copeland, Devin Smith, Dee Virgin (RFA), Rashod Berry (ERFA), Michael Jackson Sr. (ERFA), Cassh Maluia (ERFA), Quincy Adeboyejo (ERFA).

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With that in mind, to get a better sense of where New England should be focusing its efforts when it comes to the draft and free agency, here are the Patriots’ biggest roster needs this offseason.

1. Quarterback

This is far and away the top priority for the Patriots until they find their next franchise quarterback. Cam Newton, who is now a free agent, did not do much to show he is the team’s long-term answer at quarterback, and while the door is not totally shut on him returning in 2021, it may be best for both parties to go their separate ways this offseason.

Jarrett Stidham will be back in 2021, but the team does not appear to have any confidence in his potential as a starting quarterback, judging by its refusal to give him a start at quarterback at the end of the season. It would be surprising then if Stidham factored into the team’s starting quarterback plans for 2021 and beyond, and his presence on the roster should do nothing to deter the team from exploring other options this offseason.

2. Linebacker

Dont’a Hightower’s decision to opt out of the 2020 season exposed the lack of depth at the linebacker position for New England. That was never more apparent than in Week 17, when the Patriots could only field Ja’Whaun Bentley and safety Adrian Phillips at the off-ball linebacker positions, with rookie undrafted linebacker Cassh Maluia relegated to special teams duty.

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Hightower, who will be 31 years old at the start of training camp this summer, is not long for the gridiron and is a free agent in 2022. Whether he resumes his career in 2021 or not, the team must address his position and improve the depth and talent at the position.

Rookie linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings were drafted to help address the position for the long term, with mixed results.

Of the two, Uche showed the most promise, collecting a sack, seven QB hits, and nine pressures in just nine games. His season started and ended with a trip to the injured reserve list, however, so he will need to prove he can stay on the field more in Year 2.

Jennings had a rougher go of it in his rookie year. While he impressed in training camp, the physical linebacker seemed to lack an understanding of the scheme this year, and saw his snaps reduced towards the end of the season. Hopefully a full offseason will help him get caught up to speed in his second season.

3. Tight End

New England rookie tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene failed to make any discernible impact in meaningful games 2020, as Ryan Izzo wound up being the only tight end who had any production from a pass-catching standpoint, catching 13 balls for 199 yards.

The team has a difficult decision to make this offseason. It could decide to bring back the same group of tight ends, as well as Matt LaCosse, who was expected to play a major role at the position before he opted out of the season. The expectation then would be that with a full offseason, Keene and Asiasi would be able to step up in their second year, and combine with LaCosse to help the team more in 2021.

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However, the Patriots could decide that the lack of success from its rookie tight end duo goes beyond just a lack of an offseason to get ready. The team could decide to draft another tight end in the early portions of the draft.

Florida tight end Kyle Pitts is regarded as the top tight end in the draft, but is expected to be off the board by the time New England is on the clock at pick No. 15.

4. Wide Receiver

With the season over, it’s safe to say now that the decision to pass on selecting a wide receiver in last year’s NFL Draft – a year in which the position was overflowing with talent – was an abject failure by the Patriots front office, and one that could hinder the team’s offense for the next couple of years.

Wide receiver N’Keal Harry, in his second season, struggled to show that the team can count on him to be anything more than a fringe player moving forward. While Harry clearly has potential as a red-zone weapon, the Arizona State product struggles to create separation regularly, and he dealt with some nagging injuries this season, including another concussion.

If Julian Edelman isn’t on the roster next year, the Patriots will have a lot of work to do to improve on this year’s putrid performance from the wide receiver position.

5. Defensive Edge

The Patriots defense took a major step back in 2020. According to Mike Sando of The Athletic, the Patriots’ defense was the NFL unit whose production changed the most from 2019 to now, with an expected points added (EPA) decline of -293.6. The next closest unit was the Minnesota Vikings defense, which had an EPA decline of -166.5.

A significant factor for the defensive regression was the team’s toothless pass rush. Chase Winovich took a step forward in his second season with the team, as his 56.5 disruptions (5.5 sacks, 18 QB hits, 33 pressures) were the second-most by a Patriot in the last six seasons. But while his pass-rushing ability is obvious, Winovich still struggles on the edge against the run, and that inability to stop the run could limit his ceiling to that of a situational pass rusher.

The other three primary edge defenders for New England – John Simon, Deatrich Wise, and Shilique Calhoun – are all unrestricted free agents this offseason. Because it’s unlikely that all three will return, New England will certainly need to invest in the position in some form this offseason, and in an ideal world, upgrade the talent on the edge.

6. Defensive Line

Just like on the edge, the interior of the New England defensive line also has a high number of free agents, including the team’s starting defensive tackles, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler.

Guy has been a consummate professional in his four seasons with the Patriots, and has been consistently excellent from start to finish. At 30 years old, Guy likely has one chance left to really cash in in his career, and it’s possible another team may decide to pay Guy more than the Patriots are willing to. But with Guy’s position of leadership on the team, and New England having cap space this offseason, a deal could still be reached to bring Guy back into the fold.

Butler, could be in line for an even bigger pay raise, after having the best season of his career. The 26-year-old finished with four sacks, seven QB hits, and 16 pressures this season, and with his young age and impressive season, could be out of the Patriots’ price range this offseason.

It’s highly unlikely the team will be able to bring back both Guy and Butler, so either way, New England is sure to have a couple of new faces at the position in 2021.

7. Safety

While the team has a nice stable of box/hybrid safeties for next season in Patrick Chung, Kyle Dugger, and Adrian Phillips, aside from 33-year-old Devin McCourty, New England is shallow in terms of its coverage safety depth, and that is something that could be worth addressing in the mid- to late-portion of the draft this spring.

McCourty has said he plans on returning next season, in what will be the last season on his current deal. He was solid once again this year, leading the defense in passer rating allowed (48.0) and allowing nine catches on 22 targets for 104 yards and two touchdowns, along with grabbing two interceptions.

Drafting a young safety in this year’s draft to learn under McCourty for a season before taking over in 2022 if McCourty retires would be helpful for ensuring production at the safety position doesn’t fall off a cliff once McCourty’s career is over.

8. Kicker

The Patriots were very lucky to not have this position completely blow up their season after fifth-round draft pick Justin Rohrwasser was a bust in training camp, making just 11/20 field goal attempts.

Thirty-six-year-old Nick Folk came back after Rohrwasser struggled and saved the Patriots from disaster at the position, hitting a career-high 92.9 percent of his field goals, including two game-winning kicks against the Jets and Cardinals.

While 36 isn’t that old for a kicker, it’s hard to tell if Folk is a long-term answer at the kicker position. As an unrestricted free agent, Folk may decide to move back closer to his family in Texas, and he should have several teams interested after his solid 2020 season.

New England kept Rohrwasser on its practice squad for the entire season and also signed Roberto Aguayo, a 2016 second-round pick by the Buccaneers, to the practice squad on Dec. 26, with an eye toward including him in what should be another kicking competition this summer.

Whether the team feels comfortable with its kicking options if Folk doesn’t return is unclear. Rohrwasser and Aguayo both were talented kickers at the college level, but are two of the more notable busts at the position in recent draft history, considering how high they were selected. Trusting either one to be the team’s kicker in 2021 is risky, but, as last year showed the team, drafting a new kicker is no sure thing either.

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