Ryan L. Fox
With summer upon us, NFL OTAs and training camps are in full bloom as teams everywhere try to get ready for the upcoming 2021 NFL season. Up in Foxborough, the New England Patriots are still trying to adjust to their post-Brady life. After a disappointing 2020 season, the team is ready to rebound for a stronger 2021.
With new faces in camp mixed in with some old faces on Patriots roster, you can be certain that some players with garner more attention to others whether it be a newcomer trying to fit in or a Patriots player from last year trying to keep their roster spot. Out of all the 90 players on the roster, here are the ones you should keep an eye on both in training camp and this preseason.
Honorable Mentions: T/G Isiah Wynn
Wynn’s NFL career has been a little tumultuous to say the least. Injuries have caused him to miss significant playing time during his first 3 years, including missing the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL. When healthy, Wynn has shown that he can be a capable blocker both in the running and passing game. But with the Patriots reuniting with LT Trent Brown via trade, there could be a possibility that Wynn might get kicked inside to the guard spot. That is if he can stay healthy.
WR Nelson Agohlor
Well it's very easy to say that out of all the WR corps in the NFL in 2020, the Patriots had arguably the worst of the bunch (168 catches for 2,063 yards and 4 TDs between 6 different listed WR on the roster). In comparison, Agohlor had 48 catches for 896 yards and 8 TDs with the Las Vegas Raiders that same year. So when the Patriots signed Agohlor to a 2 year, $22 million contract (including a $10 million signing bonus & $16 million guaranteed) in the offseason, it significantly boosted their WR corp. Now as the No. 1 wideout by default, Agohlor will be looked upon as the speedy, deep ball threat that the Patriots have been lacking for the past few seasons.
5. LB Chase Winovich
In 2020, Winovich saw a significant boost in playing time on the defensive side of the ball (9 starts, 594 total snaps played). He had 48 tackles to go along with a forced fumble, 2 passes deflected, and a team high 5.5 sacks. But during the season, Winovich had a habit of disappearing on the field as well as somehow end up in Belichick’s doghouse. Now in going into 2021, Chase returns to a very crowded DE/LB group after the moves the Patriots made in the offseason (i.e. signing free agent DE Matt Judon, bringing back LB Kyle Van Noy, LB Dont’a Hightower returning from his 2020 COVID opt out). Plus with emergence of fellow teammate and former Michigan Wolverine LB Josh Uche, Winovich’s roster spot for 2021 could be in jeopardy given that the latter is seen more of a pass rushing specialist instead of a balanced, versatile player like former.
4. S Kyle Dugger
Dugger was the team’s first pick in the 2020 NFL draft (37th overall). After spending most of the first half of the 2020 season primarily on special teams, Dugger’s role on the defensive side of the ball grew more and more in the second half of the season. He was slotted into the starting role in 7 of the team’s final 8 games, recording a total of 64 tackles (43 solo, 23 assists) with 1 tackle going for a loss.
Going into 2021, the Patriots safeties group will look a little different. Patrick Chung is gone from the team due to retirement (back on March 18) and current FS Devin McCourty will be going into the 2021 regular season at age 34 and in the final year of a 5-year contract extension (and has visible showing he’s lost a step or two). The more likely scenario is that Dugger will split time with Mills in 2021 in the strong safety slot (aka, the ‘box safety’). But with Dugger’s length and athleticism, he could be the primary strong safety while Mills could be alternating between strong and free safety depending on McCourty’s health and play.
3. TE Hunter Henry
This past offseason, the Patriots made NFL headlines when they threw tons of money at high-priced free agents during the first couple of days of free agency, including the former San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers TE. The Patriots signed Henry to a 3-year, $37.5 million deal with a signing bonus of $15 million plus $25 million guaranteed at signing but honestly, this perhaps the riskiest free agent signing done by Belichick during his tenure as de facto GM of the Patriots.
Throughout his entire career, Henry has been dealing with various injuries including missing the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL. Also, Henry has never had a season where he broke at least 700 receiving yards (closest was 652 in 2019) and has had 60 catches or more only once (last year) in his NFL career. The most touchdowns he had in a season was 8 during his rookie year and hasn’t replicated that since.
Although he and fellow newcomer TE Jonnu Smith are an upgrade over what the Patriots had last year in the position, there is a lot of risk with going with Henry that’ll make some Patriots fans a little leery.
2. CB J.C. Jackson
To say that 2021 is the make or break year for Jackson would be the best description for the undrafted corner out of (insert university). In 2020, Jackson posted up some of his best numbers in his career. He had career highs in tackles (40), defended (14), interceptions (9), fumble recovering (3), total turnover recovers (12). He did that during a season where the player he normally played across from in All-Pro CB Stephon Gilmore missed time due to injury and COVID (ironically enough, Gilmore got the nod over Jackson in both Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection in 2020).
But during that stretch when Gilmore was out, Jackson got exposed by opposing receivers. Not to mention that his ball-hawking style of play ended up backfiring a couple of times, resulting in large gains plus a few scores (including getting torched by Buffalo Bills WR Stephon Diggs for 2 TDs in Week 16 at home). Still, Jackson was considered one of the team’s top defenders in 2020 and would have been a highly sought out free agent had the team not place a restricted free agent 2nd round tender on him.
Fast forward to training camp in 2021.
Already there are reports that Gilmore is unhappy with his current contract situation with the team and is threatening to hold out. By default, that would thrust Jackson into the role (and ultimately the spotlight) as the team’s No. 1 defensive back. He’s already playing on essentially a one-year ‘prove it’ deal himself (1-year, $3.384 million RFA tender) so there is also the possibility Jackson walks at the end of the season if he prices himself out of the Patriots’ desired value.
Should Gilmore’s contract situation result in him getting traded, it will be interesting to see if Jackson can prove that he is a capable stand-alone corner instead of the product of playing with an All-Pro (and possible future Hall-of-Famer) corner.
1. QB Mac Jones
Wow, here we are talking about the Patriots’ quarterback position for the second year in a row. Well that’s because is still more uncertainty with the position given how the Patriots have approached it this offseason (i.e. bringing back 2020 QB starter Cam Newton and backup QB Brian Hoyer and sticking with QB Jarett Stidham). But the team did make a big splash in this year’s NFL draft when they stood pat (shocker) and took QB Mac Jones out of University of Alabama with the 15th pick overall. This was the first time since 1993 when the Patriots drafted QB Drew Bledsoe out of Washington State with the No. 1 overall pick in that year’s draft.
Before Jones could put on a Patriots uniform, people were already critiquing him, saying that he only was able to have a successful collegiate career at Alabama due to having tremendous WR talent in Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith (both taken in the top 10 in the 2021 NFL draft). Not to mention that Jones’ arm strength and athleticism were called into question as well as his style of play (more of a traditional pocket passer compared to a mobile/athletic QB).
But in the same breath, there were other people who were making comparisons to a certain former Patriots QB. Yup, people were already making comparisons of Mac Jones to Tom Brady. But it was more of a physical and football IQ comparison rather than accolades and championships since both QBs were not known for their arm strength and athleticism throughout their playing careers and both were more of the traditional pocket passer.
Now coming into 2021, Jones has had the benefit of attending OTAs (voluntary and mandatory) and training camp in person rather than rely on Zoom meetings. Already reports are coming out of Patriots training camp that coaches (uh…ones not named Bill Belichick) are impressed by Jones’ throwing ability as well as his leadership and accuracy. But arguably the most important thing that Jones is succeeding in is comprehension and learning ability of the Patriots’ playbook and offense terminology.
Pair this up with reports of Newton dealing with a thumb injury he suffered back in early June and well…you have the makings of a QB competition. But what Jones doesn’t have that Newton has is pretty much the ‘Bill Seal of Approval’. Meaning that Bill will always defer the starting QB role to Newton. Not to mention that there is a possibility that Jones would be the 3rd-string QB going into the 2021 regular season behind Newton and Stidham pending how the preseason games go.
But honestly, it’ll only be a matter of time before Jones gets the nod as the team’s starter. Newton was plagued with accuracy issues last year and inability to throw deep balls while Stidham did not impress or standout when he was called in to do clean-up (getting passed over for Brian Hoyer in Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs is not a good look). Should the Patriots find themselves with a sub .500 record within the first half dozen games and Newton (and Stidham) playing uninspiring football, don't be surprised to see Jones under center for the Patriots in 2021.
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