Ryan L. Fox
The most wonderful time of the year is almost upon us. No, it’s still too early for Thanksgiving but I like where you head is at though. I’m talking about football baby. With the start of the NFL season just around the corner, many fans in New England are hopefully that their Patriots will be able to rebound after a season of mediocrity and disappointment.
Now as the preseason winds down, there’s going to be a few players that Patriots fans definitely should keep an eye on during the regular season. Players that could make or break this team and could be the difference between 12-5 and 6-11.
Honorable Mention: RB Damien Harris
With the recent trade of RB Sony Michel to the Los Angeles Rams, the Patriots will be looking to the 3rd-year running back out of Alabama to carry a majority of the workload. Last year while splitting time with Michel, Harris was able to lead the team in rushing yards (691) and tied with QB Cam Newton in team lead in carries (137). Though the Patriots rely heavily on the ‘running back my committee’ mentality, JJ Taylor is still unproven and James White is more of a situational running back. Expect Harris’ numbers to improve dramatically in 2021.
5. WR Jakobi Meyers
We can all safely say that the Patriots’ wide receiver group was arguably the worse in the NFL. They were ranked in the bottoms for catches, yards, and touchdowns in the entire league. One of the bright spots in such an abysmal group was Jakobi Meyers. He led the team in targets (81), catches (59), and yards (729) and was 3rd on the team in catch percentage with 30 or more targets (72.8%). Going into 2021, Meyers could face a dip in production due to the recent additions on offense (i.e. WRs Nelson Agholor & Kendrick Bourne, TEs Jonnu Smith & Hunter Henry) and if Cam Newton is the QB. But at the same breath, with the knowledge of the Patriots playbook, his ability to stretch the field, and if Mac Jones is at QB, Meyers could become the Patriots’ top receiver in 2021 and maybe even get a handful of touchdowns.
4. TE Jonnu Smith
If there was a group of players that has more pressure to succeed, it was the tight ends. Last year, the group recorded just 18 catches for 254 yards and 1 TD. So this past offseason, they Patriots went out and brought in TEs Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith via free agency. With Hunter Henry going to miss some time due to injury, Jonnu will be looked upon as the ‘main guy’ with the tight ends. At 6-3 and 248lbs, Jonnu can be a threat in both the passing game as well as the running game with his blocking. The question for him is that can he produce after receiving his big payday (4 years, $50 million). He has never broken 500 yards receiving or 50 catches in a single season during his 4 years with the Tennessee Titans so it’ll be interesting to see if he can perform like a top 10 tight end after being paid like one.
3. DE/OLB Matt Judon
As much as everybody wants to tout about how good the Patriots defense is, it’s clear that anybody who actually watched the defense would realize that they sorely needed a playmaker of some sort on that side of the ball. It’s really telling that a situational pass rusher who spent half the season in the coach Bill Belichick’s doghouse (for whatever made-up reason the hoodie-in-charge came up with) lead the team in sacks and QB hits or that a strong safety (not a linebacker or defensive end) lead the team in tackles for losses.
Enter newcomer 2x-Pro Bowler DE Matt Judon, who was signed to a lucrative 4-year, $54.5 million contract in the offseason with the hopes of improving the Patriots’ front seven.
Judon is coming off a 2020 season where his numbers dipped from 2019 (6.0 sacks in 2020 compared to 9.5 sacks in 2019, 9 tackles for losses in 2020 compared to 14 tackles for losses in 2019, 21 QB hits in 2020 compared to 33 QB hits in 2019). Still even with the dip in stats, Judon would’ve lead the Patriots in those respective categories (which says a lot of the state of the team’s defense last year). He brings a high motor as well as a voice on the side of the defensive (which everybody from fans to players and media to coaches) as well as a spark that this team sorely needed last year.
2. CB J.C. Jackson
Earlier in a previous piece, I had J.C. Jackson listed as a Patriot player you should pay attention to going into training camp and preseason and rightfully so.
The 4-year veteran is coming off a Pro-Bowl caliber-like season in 2021 (he should have been selected to instead of teammate Stephon Gilmore) where he posted career highs in games started, interceptions, passes defended, fumble recoveries, tackles, and was the go-to corner for the Patriots in the secondary. Not to mention that he’s on a ‘one-year prove-it’ deal with the Patriots so expect some of those numbers to drastically increase.
But in the same breath, the expectation for him to play at a high level is going to be there.
Jackson is no longer the veil of being an ‘unknown player’ especially since he was recently ranked as the 49th best NFL player of 2021. There’s more video out there for opposing teams to examine and breakdown on Jackson.
More importantly, there’s still the Stephon Gilmore situation.
For those who haven’t been following, Gilmore has been not participating in training camp or practice throughout the preseason because he is ‘holding out’ while trying to get a more lucrative contract extension (even though the Patriots compensated him last year by arranging money around so he’d get a bigger payday in 2020). Without Gilmore as a safety blanket (there’s a 50-50 chance he could be traded before the season begins or after the start), the role of being the number one defensive back on the team would fall onto Jackson. It will be interesting to see if he would be able to take over that role or show that he’s better as a No. 2 to another team’s No. 1.
1. QB Mac Jones
Going into Patriots training camp, all eyes were glued in to what would be (even though head coach Bill Belichick tried to brush it under the rug or stonewall anybody inquiring) a quarterback battle between the incumbent Cam Newton and the rookie taken 15th overall out of Alabama. The reports seemed to vary day-to-day with Cam taking a majority of the first-team snaps and looking sharp one day and then it was Mac taking some first-team snaps and looking sharp the next day. But it seemed like Mac was at a disadvantaged because A. Cam was Bill’s guy and B. Mac is a rookie and Belichick.
In previous preseason action, Mac Jones’ play has been what the Patriots hoped for when they drafted him a few months earlier. In the Patriots' 3 preseason games, Mac has a pass completion percentage of 69.2% (36-for-52) for 389 yards, 1 touchdown, and 0 interception for a QB rating of 97.4.
But in practice though, a lot of Patriots beat writers are saying almost the same thing. When Mac is under center and throwing, the ball is coming out crisper as well as on-point with his receivers. The receivers don’t have to contort themselves, leap for a ball thrown too high, or dive for a ball that was thrown too short. Not to mention that while at the line, Mac has shown the ability to diagnosis a defense and check into another play pre-snap (a big plus in the book of Belichick).
However, the likely scenario for the Patriots’ quarterback situation in 2021 is that Cam is going to be the starting QB. Even with clear signs that he doesn’t have the accuracy as well as his ongoing issues with COVID (Cam’s still not vaccinated even after contracting COVID last year and also had a ‘misunderstanding’ about NFL COVID protocols), Bill refuses to bench Cam in favor of Mac.
That being said, after looking at the first four games on the schedule (hosting Dolphins, @Jets, hosting Saints, hosting Buccaneers), there’s a high possibility that the Patriots could go 1-3 in the first quarter of the season and would need some sort of change under center. It worked in 2001 when a lanky kid out of Michigan took over when the incumbent starter was knocked out due to injury and led them to a Super Bowl victory so why think lightning can’t strike twice.
So keep your eyes peeled for #10 this year. There is a definite chance he will be under center at some point this year. He won't be like Tom Brady but he can at least put the Patriots in a better chance of winning a championship than the alternatives.
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