Patriots

Breaking down the Patriots’ roster for the 2021 season

The Patriots' quarterback competition is over, but how strong is the position as a whole? Here's a breakdown of the strongest and weakest position groups on the team.

Patriots J.J. Taylor
Patriots running back J.J. Taylor. Barry Chin/Globe Staff
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The Patriots’ roster isn’t set in stone just yet, with more roster maneuvering likely to happen in the coming days and before the season starts September 12.

But the general outline of the team has largely taken shape following Tuesday’s cutdown deadline and the addition of practice squad players Wednesday. The first blush: this roster is certainly much improved over last year’s.

New England has its quarterback situation set with rookie Mac Jones helming the offense, while the trade of Sony Michel similarly crystalized a strong running back room. The tight ends, when healthy, should be a strength rather than a weakness.

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But the wide receiver position Bill Belichick spent big money to address this offseason might not be as ready for primetime as the Patriots hope. Plus, a questionable cornerback room will have to weather the storm for at least six weeks with Stephon Gilmore on the PUP list to start the season.

Also, how much leeway will Belichick and the coaching staff give rookie kicker Quinn Nordin, who surprised everyone by winning the kicker job (for now)?

Here’s a breakdown of each position group, including current practice squad players, graded on a scale of 1 to 5.

Quarterback: Mac Jones + TBD

Grade: 3.5/5

Hopefully we look back on this projection as far too conservative when it comes to Jones.

The rookie certainly has earned the trust of Bill Belichick and his team after an impressive training camp by rookie standards. Still, no one has any idea how he’ll look in an actual NFL game against a team that will try to confuse him and attack him at every turn. Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins can’t get here fast enough.

As for the bare-looking cupboard at this position, don’t fret. The Patriots have Brian Hoyer on the practice squad and can make him a game-day elevation for the first few weeks before eventually re-adding him to the active roster.

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Of course, the idea of being one big hit away from Hoyer leading the offense won’t thrill anyone.

That isn’t to say the Patriots made the wrong move by releasing Cam Newton and starting the rookie, though. Also, this formula has worked out fine for Belichick over the years, so perhaps it’s not that big a deal.

Besides, if Jones goes down…well, former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore had a saying about that.

Running backs: Damien Harris, James White, Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden

Grade: 5/5

There’s arguably only one position group on the roster as good as this one.

Harris has emerged as the unquestioned starter and could be in line for an even bigger year with Jones at the helm and a more traditional workload headed his way.

Stevenson’s preseason rampage probably caught even the Patriots by surprise, especially after he slogged through OTAs and minicamp. He became so good so quickly that he made Sony Michel expendable, and that’s not a small feat given how improved Michel looked this camp.

James White, J.J. Taylor and Branden Bolden should all get opportunities to catch the ball out of the backfield on occasion, though Bolden will primarily be a special teams player should he stay on the roster. If you ever want to hear running backs coach Ivan Fears get excited, just ask him about what the 5-foot-6 Taylor can do with the ball in his hands.

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The Patriots are going to lean on their running backs hard this season, and they have just the crew in place to make that work.

Wide Receiver: Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor, N’Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski

Grade: 2.5/5

One hopes that the insertion of Jones at quarterback will elevate the overall outlook for this group.

But so far, there hasn’t been a lot of consistently good play from anyone in this group not named Jakobi Meyers.

Kendrick Bourne has arguably looked better than Nelson Agholor during camp, and that’s not something you want to hear when you consider Agholor’s price tag and superior ability. Furthermore, Bourne has had his own quiet stretches in practice and in preseason games, so you hope he becomes more productive as he gets more comfortable in the offense.

You can live with Meyers being the best receiver on the team. His quickness, route-running savvy and ability to just catch the football have put him squarely in that spot so far, but it’s not just a matter of him being the best of a bad group. He’s actually good. Everyone else just needs to get nearer to his level.

The big question: how much will this team get from N’Keal Harry when he presumably returns to the lineup this season? Some honest-to-God flashes from the former first-round pick could be a wild card for the wide receiver room.

Tight ends: Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Devin Asiasi

Grade: 4/5

Durability is the key here.

When Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith have been on the field, you’ve seen more or less everything you want: the ability to stretch the field in the passing game, the route-running, the run blocking, all of it. The problem is that they’ve rarely been on the field together since they were signed this offseason.

With the holes at receiver, this offense needs its tight ends to be good. If they can stay available, there’s no reason to think they won’t be.

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Asiasi hasn’t shown enough to get excited about him just yet, but that last preseason game showcased his athleticism and ability to make plays down the field. Excelling in a backup role this season could go a long way for his future with the team.

If he’s pressed into service as a starter, though, it’s hard to definitively say he’d slot right in and give you what Henry or Smith could. That’s why Matt LaCosse’s presence on the practice squad becomes so important. Don’t be surprised if you see LaCosse brought permanently up to the active roster at some point.

Offensive line: David Andrews, Ted Karras, Yasir Durant, Shaq Mason, Michael Onwenu, Trent Brown, Yodny Cajuste, Justin Herron, Isaiah Wynn

Grade: 5/5

The Patriots already had one of the strongest offensive lines in the league last season despite a poor overall offensive output.

The addition of Brown at right tackle upgrades them yet again over the carousel they endured in 2020 with Marcus Cannon having opted out due to the pandemic.

Onwenu now slots in at left guard after bouncing around the line as a rookie, and the dividends have been obvious early on. He and Wynn have been doing work on the left side, opening up tremendous holes in training camp and notably in the third preseason game against the Giants.

The only possible concern here is health, as Wynn and Brown have racked up injuries in recent years and Andrews has missed time on a few occasions during training camp.

Fortunately, they have real depth at the position right now with Ted Karras able to play center or either guard, Herron and Cajuste capable of playing either tackle spot and the newly acquired Durant’s ability to play, well, anything.

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Jones will be in the best of hands as he starts his NFL career, and the running game should thrive once again behind this big, versatile group.

Defensive line: Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise, Henry Anderson, Carl Davis, Christian Barmore

Grade: 4/5

Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy have provided exactly the run-stopping prowess expected of them following last year’s brutal showing against the ground game.

Funny thing is, second-round rookie Christian Barmore might already be the most dangerous man on the unit, and that’s actually high praise.

Barmore has terrorized blockers in the passing game from the interior defensive line during his short time in a Patriots uniform and has held his own when teams run his way. He might even be the best rookie to play for the Patriots this year when it’s all said and done.

One guy you shouldn’t be forgetting about, though, is Wise, who has flashed repeatedly in the run game as well as being a disruptive force as a pass rusher. A few months after signing a new four-year deal with the team, he’s looking as good as he ever has.

Edge Defender: Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Josh Uche, Chase Winovich, Ronnie Perkins

Grade: 5/5

Without Stephon Gilmore on the field, Matthew Judson had been the best player on the defense — possibly even the entire team. He’s been borderline unblockable no matter what his assignment is on the play, and he’s even gotten his hands on a few passes in coverage.

Kyle Van Noy is as solid as they come, especially when it comes to getting after the passer or setting the edge.

Josh Uche’s explosiveness is starting to turn into consistent pressure on quarterbacks, which we saw firsthand against the Giants this preseason. He technically can play as either an edge defender or as an off-ball linebacker, but he’ll do most of his damage on the line of scrimmage this year.

We didn’t even know how much run last year’s sack leader Chase Winovich or rookie Ronnie Perkins are going to get in this rotation, and we already can say without reservation that this is one of the best position groups on the team.

Inside linebacker: Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Harvey Langi

Grade: 4/5

Dont’a Hightower has looked ready to go since he first returned to minicamp back in the spring, and he’s played savvy and strong as ever so far. He knows where plays are going before his teammates and even opposing offenses seemingly do, and he keeps showing up there with force and wrecking shop.

Ja’Whaun Bentley’s been around the ball a lot and has played solidly in coverage. The fourth-year linebacker looks ready to thrive behind a revamped defensive front and the return of his running mate Hightower.

The loss of Anfernee Jennings and Raekwon McMillan to season-ending injured reserve hurts depth, but Langi had a nice camp and preseason, grabbing a sack and interception in the game against the Eagles.

As mentioned before, Uche can also help fill in here if needed.

The depth is a bit thin at this spot, but the caliber of player they have at inside linebacker makes it a stronger group than you might think. Still, some backup help wouldn’t hurt, which is partly why the Patriots signed former Detroit Lion and Matt Patricia draft pick Jahlani Tavai to their practice squad.

Cornerback: J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Joejuan Williams, Shaun Wade

Grade: 2.5/5

No position group has more question marks surrounding it than this one thanks to Gilmore’s unavailability until at least Week 7.

J.C. Jackson had a great year last season and has looked good during training camp, but is he ready to be a true No. 1 corner?

How does Jalen Mills fare now that he’s been pressed back into service as an outside corner — a position that hasn’t always been kind to him?

Can Jonathan Jones stay healthy after struggling with injuries during training camp?

Last but not least: when will Gilmore return (if at all), and what will he still be able to play at an elite level when he does? The fate of this defense, and possibly the team, might hinge on this question more than any other.

The perilously thin depth at cornerback is exacerbated by Gilmore’s absence. Though Mills has shown he can step in at slot corner if Jones got hurt, one injury to any corner spot could have Joejuan Williams on the field. And though he had a solid camp, that’s hardly an ideal outcome. We’re also not likely to see much from the rookie Shaun Wade just yet: the Patriots still have to see what he can do.

The best-case scenario: Jackson plays as well during the season as he did in the preseason, Mills plays serviceably and Gilmore returns good as new in Week 7.

The worst-case: teams feast on Mills or whoever’s playing opposite Jackson, Jones starts to break down and the Patriots’ pass coverage becomes what its run defense was last season.

Safety: Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips

Grade: 4.5/5

Devin McCourty stays as reliable as he ever was on the backend and might be the world’s foremost expert on the Patriots defense outside of Bill Belichick at this point in his career.

Phillips meanwhile has shown up repeatedly with great players in coverage against tight ends and, of course, physical play in the run game. Playing safety as opposed to linebacker is doing wonders for him.

Kyle Dugger still boasts star potential, but he has to get more comfortable in coverage first. Right now, he’s still more of an athletic thumper than an all-around player at the position. But we saw what he can do in coverage when you allow him to break downhill on a ball when he busted up a 4th-down touchdown pass in the Eagles game.

Practice squad defensive backs D’Angelo Ross and Myles Bryant could also factor into this group (as well as the cornerback room) if needed.

Specialists: Quinn Nordin, Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, Brandon King, Cody Davis

Grade: 4.5/5

Nordin earned the starting job out of camp for the moment in arguably the most surprising move of training camp. But Folk is back on the practice squad and theoretically could return at any time, meaning this competition is far from being truly over

No one’s taking All-Pro punter Bailey’s spot, though. He might just be the best in the business at what he does.

Olszewski has All-Pro credentials of his own as a punt returner, but he has to keep proving it. J.J. Taylor has shown off his speed and shiftiness in the return game as well, and Belichick has never been shy about cycling players out in the return game.

As for kickoff returns, we saw a mishmash of candidates for that role, including Taylor and Rhamondre Stevenson. Taylor has the home run speed, and Stevenson can break tackles like a madman. Either one should work as long as they hold onto the ball and don’t get too ambitious bringing things out too deep in the end zone.

The team’s coverage specialists continue to be led by one of the best to do it in Slater. There’s no reason to think they’ll be anything less than solid.

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