Patriots

Why rebuilding the Patriots will take longer than you think

Three to four years? That's how long it may take for Bill Belichick to make the Patriots relevant.

Belichick coaching with sons
Stephen and Bill Belichick during the Patriots-Texans game in 2020. Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe staff

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It’s been a while since Patriots fans experienced a January without postseason football. This is relatively uncharted territory, and with the shape the Patriots’ roster is in right now, fans better get comfortable with missing out on the postseason for the next couple of years, at least.

The roster rebuild that is about to get underway in New England will not be a quick one. The sooner Patriots fans come to terms with that, the easier these next three to four years will be.

People make a big deal of the oodles of cap space that New England has this offseason, thinking that Bill Belichick will be able to go out and sign two top-flight pass-catchers on the open market — say Allen Robinson and Hunter Henry — maybe also sign a defender such as Lavonte David, and patch up the issues on the rest of the roster in one fell swoop.

But it’s not going to be that easy; it’s going to be a much more incremental process than many seem to think.

Signing the team’s own free agents will be a challenge.

Yes, New England has a lot of cap space, but have you seen how many free agents they have this offseason? Players such as David Andrews, Joe Thuney, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise, and other core members of this roster are set to test the free agent waters, and New England won’t be able to keep all of them, even with all of its cap space. And even worse, the team does not have many obvious answers to step in for any of the above names if they leave.

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And next year involves other big names that are set to be free agents, players such as Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Isaiah Wynn, and Sony Michel. That is a lot of production that this team could be set to lose in the next year or two.

Not only does New England’s roster have a talent deficit, it lacks depth as well. Having over $60 million in cap space isn’t going to be nearly enough to solve both those issues.

An aging roster presents depth issues.

Those that are still under contract with the team aren’t all that young. New England’s shortcomings in the draft in the last few years have led to them relying heavily on veteran players to help cover up for failed draft picks.

Coming into the 2020 season, New England was 27th in the league in terms of average age on the roster, at 26.4 years old. The year before that, they were dead last in the NFL in average age, at 27.0 years old.

Having a team that is filled with veteran players can be an advantage when you are looking to make a postseason push. But veteran players usually make more money, which leads to teams spending more money at the front-end of their roster, and having less money to address the back-end of their roster to build up better depth, something that Belichick has been so good at for so many years.

Belichick made reference to this trade-off in an interview with WEEI in November.

“Look, we paid Cam Newton $1 million. I mean it’s obvious we didn’t have any money. It’s nobody’s fault,” he said, via WEEI.com. “That’s what we did the last five years. We sold out and won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth and played in a AFC Championship Game. This year we had less to work with. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact.”

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Belichick and the team have had to rely on veterans because the roster lacks a foundational base of young talent to help bring them into the next era of Patriots football, which is another reason why this rebuild is going to be of a longer variety.

There are major holes on offense.

On offense, New England is desperately in need of a young star (or three) to emerge. N’Keal Harry did not impress in his second season, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene both underwhelmed as rookies, and while Isaiah Wynn and Damien Harris both appear to have star potential, they need to prove that they can stay healthy first before this team can fully commit to them as part of their long-term plans.

Harris has now had three stints on injured reserve in his first two seasons, and Wynn has missed 33 of 52 total games in his career, which is a major red flag.

The defense is better, but still has problems.

Defensively, the team has some talent, with players such as J.C. Jackson and Kyle Dugger showing promise in the secondary, but the real issues are in the front-seven.

Chase Winovich has shown real promise as a pass rusher, two years in, but has yet to become a full-time player for this defense because of his continued struggles with defending against the run.

Ja’Whaun Bentley is only 24 years old, and was second on the team in tackles this year despite missing three games, but lacks the versatility and mobility to be a true, three-down linebacker in the NFL.

In other words, it won’t be a quick fix.

This lack of building blocks on both offense and defense is what is at the heart of the roster issues for New England, and finding young talent to replenish the roster is not something that can be accomplished in one season.

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Realistically speaking, rebuilding teams are never fully out of a rebuild until they find a franchise quarterback, and until New England can find a long-term answer at the position, it won’t matter how much young talent is in place at other positions.

There are going to be a lot of different balls that need to be juggled at the same time in Foxborough this offseason. The Patriots will be active in free agency and the draft, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive Belichick is after the tough year his team just went through. But it’s important to set expectations, and the state of New England’s roster suggests that Patriots fans better strap in and prepare for a few bumpy years ahead as this roster undergoes a full reset.

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