Each week of the NFL Regular Season I’ll be posting a new edition of my 2022 Matchup Preview Series. Leading up to that, I’ll be using the same format to preview all four teams in the AFC East.
These previews will look at five components of each team; Pass Offense, Rush Offense, Pass Defense, Rush Defense, and Special Teams. Each component will be ranked using my patented 👏 scale which ranges from 👏👏👏👏👏 (Best) to 👏 (Worst). The post culminates with a Floor, Ceiling, and Prediction of the team’s record.
This week we will look at the New England Patriots.
Patriots Pass Offense
The Mac Jones era in New England began in an impressive fashion. Jones’ 45.62 QuBeR was the 20th-best by a rookie since 1994. He was an effective game-manager and made the occasional big-time throw en route to a Wildcard Playoff appearance. In Year Two, Patriots fans will look for Jones to weaponize his skill set. This means continued success in the short to intermediate range, sideline-to-sideline, where Jones ranked average to above average in 2021. This also means improving on his 18th ranked YAC/Cmp (5.0) which may be made possible by improvements to the Receiving corps and an adjusted offensive concept.
Jakobi Meyers (WR), Kendrick Bourne (WR), Nelson Agholor (WR), and Hunter Henry (TE) return as key cogs in the Patriots’ passing attack. While none are upper echelon players in their respective roles, the four together form a fairly deep group of pass catchers.
Jonnu Smith also returns as the TE/H-Back that the Patriots will look to get more involved this season. Improvements to this group were made via the additions of DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton. Parker (and a fifth-round pick) were acquired from the Dolphins in exchange for a third-round draft choice.
His athleticism, size, and skillset have all the makings of a No.1 wideout, something he will look to prove in New England. Thornton is the most intriguing of the additions on the offensive side of the ball though. A barn burner of a prospect (4.28s 40yd), Thornton has the ability to open up New England’s offense. The YAC improvements referenced earlier rest on the shoulders of Thornton and his ability to make plays in the open field.
Achieving the above will be dependent on providing Mac Jones time in the pocket. In 2021 Jones had the third-lowest Pressure Rate (18.4%) in the NFL and there is some concern that that rate may increase in 2022. Four experienced starters return for the Patriots this season in Isaiah Wynn (LT), David Andrews (C), Mike Onwenu (RG), and Trent Brown (RT) but it’s the fifth spot that’s of major concern. In a stunning offseason move the Patriots dealt seven-year starter, Shaq Mason, to the Buccaneers for a fifth-round draft pick. This left a hole in New England’s offensive line, resulting in a reach as the Patriots selected Chattanooga’s Cole Strange in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. There are concerns Strange may struggle in Pass Pro early in his career but his selection was made due to his perceived proficiencies in the Patriots’ planned updates to their rushing attack.
Patriots Rush Offense
With long-time OC Josh McDaniels headed to Vegas as the Raiders’ head coach, there are some changes being made to the Patriots’ offensive strategy. The most prominent change is the implementation of a zone blocking run scheme, similar to that of the Los Angeles Rams. Drafting Cole Strange was indicative of this as he excels in zone scheme and incidentally was being considered by the Rams in the 2022 NFL Draft. Still, reports out of camp are that this installation is not going smoothly. Strange a rookie, Onwenu new to the interior, and David Andrews need time to gel before this concept can be effective. What should cover up some of these deficiencies is the talent of the backs hitting these theoretical zones.
The Patriots have one of the better one-two punches on the ground in the NFL. Both Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson ranked Top-15 in Y/A at 4.6. Harris is the more well-rounded back of the two, leveraging the complete skillset expected of an NFL running back. Highly athletic, impressive vision and even better balance make Harris one of the more underappreciated backs in the NFL.
He’s spelled by Stevenson who is the true thumper that NFL teams covet. Yet Bill Belichick, who never seems content with their ball carriers seized an opportunity to expand it. They selected Pierre Strong with the 127th pick in this year’s draft, who has a chance to be the best No. 3 back in the NFL. Look for Strong to make an impact this season in a game or two as his vision alone will make him a dangerous RB in the NFL.
A quietly significant loss for the Patriots is FB Jakob Johnson going to the Raiders. Johnson played 28% of Offensive Snaps in 2021 and is regarded as one of the better run-blocking FBs in the NFL. Don’t be surprised if you see Jonnu Smith line up in the backfield more often this season as a pseudo Fullback. Effectively the Patriots will look to find new and diverse ways to move the ball on the ground. This could mean 2-Back Sets, Sweeps to players like Thornton, or even more scrambling from Mac Jones. The Patriots still have the players to succeed on the ground and as long as the combination of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge prove to be capable play callers this offense should find success.
Patriots Pass Defense
Each offseason we spend a significant amount of time covering which position groups improved the most. We spend significantly less time covering which position groups regressed the most. The Patriots’ secondary fits into the latter of this discussion. Yes, the only major loss is CB1 J.C. Jackson but the ripple effects of this loss will reverberate throughout the secondary. The loss results in Jalen Mills taking over the top cornerback role and Terrance Mitchell coming in opposite him. Respectively, these players posted a 111.4 and 98.4 Passer Rating-against in 2021 and should be a concern for New England’s defense, especially in a division chock-full of playmaking pass catchers.
This is a Bill Belichick defense though, so it’s one that should not be taken lightly. Devin McCourty returns for his 13th season with New England as the unquestioned leader of the secondary. While his athleticism may be dipping as he moves into his Mid-30s his expertise in the Belichick defense, as well as rapport with fellow secondary members, makes him dangerous. Joining McCourty in the back end is an incredibly deep set of safeties in Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Jabrill Peppers. This provides the ability to stay fresh and deep, as well as generate diverse packages of Big Nickel/Dime formations. In their regular Nickel, Jonathan Jones seems to be the front runner for Slot CB as a player who has been a part of New England’s system for six seasons.
Where the Patriots can make up for their deficiencies in the secondary is in their proficiencies up front. Matt Judon is a top-tier NFL pass rusher and finished last season with 12.5 sacks for the Patriots. He is one of those rare NFL talents that can be classified as a “Game Wrecker” when he is playing at his peak. The rest of the rotation up front is comprised of players like Deatrich Wise, Lawence Guy, and Christian Barmore, all of who have pass-rushing abilities in their own right. The Patriots won’t finish Top-10 in Sacks this season but they are fully expected to find ways to put opposing Quarterbacks into uncomfortable positions.
Christian Barmore ranked 5th among all DT’s in Pass Rush Win Rate in 2021, coming in at 17.2% as a rookie. He racked up 46 QB pressures last year & is primed for a monster sophomore season. He’s an emerging star & I can’t wait to watch his year 2 jump.
— Pre-Season Andrew (@Patriots_Andrew) July 18, 2022
Patriots Rush Defense
Arguably the strongest part of this Patriots team is their IDL. Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, and Christian Barmore are all 6’3″+ and 310lb+. Their ability to control the trenches all but removes opposing teams’ abilities to run between the tackles. In 2021 this resulted in the Patriots giving up just 9 Rush Touchdowns, a league-best, and finishing #10 in Rush Defense DVOA (-13.1%). These stats would have been significantly better last season if the Patriots were more athletic at LB, something they addressed during this offseason.
Mack Wilson was acquired by the Patriots when they sent Chase Winovich to the Browns. Wilson provides a much more athletic presence than Dont’a Hightower did for the Pats in 2021. Wilson played just 194 Defensive Snaps for the Browns in 2021 but will see that number skyrocket in 2022. He had a tackle on 21.7% of those snaps which, for context, was significantly higher than Shaquille Leonard (12.2%) and De’Vondre Campbell (14.8%) both of whom earned All-Pro nods in 2021. Joining him in the box is Ja’Whaun Bentley who enters his 3rd year starting for the Patriots. Bentley is a prime ILB who is more than capable of using his size and strength to take on blockers and make his way to the ball carrier.
One player that provides enhanced abilities to slow down the run is Kyle Dugger. Dugger is one of those premier elite athletes that can do special things on a football field. He posted a 9.56 RAS coming out of college as an incredibly explosive athlete. Dugger can thump with the best of them and has the skill set to be the Patriots version of Jordan Poyer. Add in rotational safeties Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers and based on competition the Patriots should be able to mix and match size and speed at the second level to help contest even the most top-tier of RBs, or in some cases, QBs. Bill Belichick has a knack for getting the most out of his defenders, and while the depth that the Patriots have on paper seems to be a weaker group, they still should finish among the top half of the league in statistical rankings.
Patriots Special Teams
The Patriots have one of the more consistent and complete Special Teams units in the NFL. It begins with Punter Jake Bailey who was a 1st Team All-Pro in 2020 but did see some regression in 2021. He lead the league in Punts Blocked with 3 but still posted a Net Punt Average of 42.0 while giving up just 138 Return Yards. The other leg on the team is Kicker Nick Folk. Folk is one of four NFL Kickers to have a +90.0% FG% in 2020 and 2021 (Younghoe Koo, Daniel Carlson, Chris Boswell). Folk has had some issues with XPs, missing 8 XPs the past 2 seasons, but has missed just 1 FG under 50 yards over that span.
Return specialist, Gunner Olszewski, left New England to go to the Steelers. This has resulted in open competition at both punt and kick return spots during the offseason. Marcus Jones is the most likely PR for the Patriots after being drafted in the 3rd Round as CB with Return abilities. In his final 2 seasons at Houston (College) he averaged 16.5 Y/PR with 2 Touchdowns and looks to be a weapon for the Patriots this season. As for KR, as of now, it looks like it is Ty Montgomery’s job to lose. Montgomery has 57 KRs for an average 22.4 Y/KR during his 7 year career. Known for his high speed, quick acceleration, and shiftiness his return stats may not reflect it but he is a dangerous return man nonetheless.
Last, it’s worth pointing out that Matthew Slater returns for his 15th season. The Special Teams ace is following in the footsteps of Steve Tasker as one of the All-Time Greats to carve out a role in the NFL as a Special Teams player.
FLOOR: 6-11, CEILING: 11-6, PREDICTION: 8-9
The Patriots are coming off of a surprising 10-7 playoff appearance in 2021 and will look to repeat in 2022. Mac Jones has an incredibly high floor but the question is whether or not his ceiling is high enough to consistently compete with the likes of Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Patrick Mahomes, and more. New England did little to realize that ceiling this offseason while the rest of the AFC revamped their rosters in what may be the most competitive conference in recent history. The Patriots will be competitive week-in and week-out but do they have that firepower to turn competitiveness into Wins? On paper, the answer is NO, and the coordinator situation reinforced that, but with a Bill Belichick-coached team, don’t ever count out their ability to surprise.