Each week of the NFL Season I’ll be posting a new edition of my Matchup Preview Series. That series is a comprehensive preview of how the Buffalo Bills matchup against their opponent that week. 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 section concludes with a my “patented” 👏 scale which ranges from 👏👏👏👏👏 (Best) to 👏 (Worst). The post culminates with a Floor, Ceiling, and Prediction of the team’s 2023 record.
Let’s get started with the New England Patriots.
Patriots Pass Offense
Despite their first open quarterback competition in about two decades, the Patriots seem set on who their QB1 will be in 2023. Mac Jones looks to be that guy due in large part to his substantially lower Turnover Frequency (2.29%) than his competitor Bailey Zappe (5.50%). With undoubtedly the worst quarterback situation in the AFC East, the Patriots seem destined to rely heavily on a ball-control-based offense and a defense that is competitive year after year. Couple that with the addition of a real offensive coordinator in Bill O’Brien, and the Patriots will bank on Jones’ abilities as a game manager to steer the ship this upcoming season.
Jones will need to occasionally step out of that game management box and when he does the weapons he will be throwing to seem subpar, at best. That begins with JuJu Smith-Schuster who has proven to be a much better WR2 than WR1. As a WR2 he has averaged 5.6 receptions and 78.1 yards per game, while as a WR1, just 4.7 receptions and 49.9 yards per game. With players like DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton, Kendrick Bourne, and Kayshon Boutte rounding out the WR room, JuJu will be forced into that WR1 role with a lot of skill-specific WRs surrounding him. Where the Patriots do gain some leverage though is at the tight end position. Hunter Henry will enter his third year with New England as a player that is quietly Top-10 at his position and this season is joined by a WR in TE clothing, Mike Gesicki. These two produce one of the best TE combos in the league which should result in heavy usage of 2+ TE sets, a strategy that was perfected by the Patriots.
There is another area of optimism for New England’s passing attack, and it just so happens to be in the trenches. The Patriots are set to return four of five starters to an offensive line that finished 2022 with the #15 ranked offensive line by Pass Block Win Rate (61%). That fifth spot was left open by the departure of Isaiah Wynn and looks to be upgraded by the arrival of Riley Reiff (RT). Reiff joins one of the best centers in the league in David Andrews, an above-average LT in Trent Brown, and two improving players at guard in Mike Onwenu and Cole Strange to produce what could be a Top-10 offensive line come season’s end. The Patriots’ pass offense is far from as bad as some people have implied, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not the worst in the AFC East.
Patriots Rush Offense
The Patriots’ pass offense won’t be their consistent catalyst to win games; that responsibility will fall on the run game. Competing in a division with the likes of Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, and Tua Tagovailoa makes controlling the clock paramount. The short passing game can assist with that but it’s the rushing attack that will assure the Patriots remain competitive. In years past this would mean a stable of backs in New England, but in 2023, it seems more than likely that the bell cow approach will be the strategy employed by Bill Belichick’s team.
Who is that bell cow? None other than third-year back Rhamondre Stevenson. The power runner has accounted for 42.14% of the Patriots carries during his time in New England with that number expected to increase drastically this season. Will he reach the heights that Josh Jacobs did for the Raiders in 2022 at 79.44%? Probably not. Will it be north of Nick Chubb’s 56.77% for the Browns last season? Probably. Stevenson will be the guy for the Patriots this season, but he will get some help via some change of pace players in the Patriots’ running back room. 30-year-old Ty Montgomery returns to New England as a receiving option out of the backfield while second-year player Pierre Strong brings elite speed and athleticism (9.34 RAS) as the Patriots’ homerun threat. This complimentary trio, led by Stevenson, will challenge teams to stop them from running the clock while they’re running the ball.
The Patriots also added a secret weapon this offseason in the run game to fill a void that existed in 2022. That void was generated by the departure of Fullback Jakob Johnson, who left the Patriots for the Raiders last season. New England would go on to see their Rush Offense DVOA drop from +4.9% in 2021 to -8.7% in 2022, and while the loss of Johnson wasn’t the only reason for that the lack of a consistent fullback was a contributing factor. Enter Anthony Firkser who comes to the Patriots by way of Atlanta. The Tight End/H-Back/Full Back hybrid gives the Patriots a legitimate option as a lead blocker out of the backfield. Generally viewed as a nothing signing, the reality is Firkser provides the Patriots with a versatile chess piece that should allow them to mix and match 2TE and 3TE sets to keep opposing offenses on their heels and keep the sticks moving down the field.
Patriots Pass Defense
Year after year Bill Belichick has proven capable of getting the best out of his secondary. This is despite fairly significant turnover that has even included All-Pros like J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore. Still, the Patriots have managed to finish Top-10 in Passer Rating against every season since 2018 as one of the more consistent coverage units in the NFL. There’s little reason to expect that to change for the worse this season, and more reason to expect them to be even better. With a slew of faces returning to New England as well as the addition of a high-potential rookie CB1, the Patriots’ pass defense is straddling a fine line between great and elite.
This secondary is versatile and, almost more importantly, deep, with four capable safeties and five talented corners. The star of those nine players is Kyle Dugger, a player who has the ability to be regarded in the same class as the Minkah Fitzpatricks and Kevin Byards of the world. He’s proven in coverage with seven interceptions and 13 passes defended over the past two seasons and is generally feared as a heavy hitter who can easily play in the box. He is spelled by the ever-versatile Jabrill Peppers and Adrian Phillips as well as the CB/SAF hybrid Jalen Mills in the safety room. In front of them, Jonathan Jones, Jack Jones, and Myles Bryant alone make up an acceptable corner room with two young players pushing it over the top. Selected 17th overall, Christian Gonzalez is one of those two and a player many project will quickly blossom into a star CB1. The second, Marcus Jones, is a player highly regarded for his special teams play but ignored on the defensive side of the ball despite an impressive rookie campaign. The Patriots are very good at defending the ball in the air but may be even better before the quarterback releases it.
If you ask someone to name the best pass rush duos in the NFL and they fail to mention the New England Patriots, something is wrong. Matt Judon and Josh Uche certainly fit that category and proved it last season accounting for a combined 27.0 Sacks. This also happened to be 50.0% of the Patriots’ sacks as Judon and Uche also produced 39.6% of their team’s pressures. Judon is the bigger name of the two and since joining New England in 2021 has been one of the best pass rushers in the league, accounting for 28.0 sacks which is less than only Myles Garrett (32.0) and Nick Bosa (34.0) over that span. Meanwhile, Uche, whose body type is between off-ball and on the line, took some time to develop but had a breakout season in 2021, hitting the coveted double-digit sack mark. These two work in parallel with the players behind them and produce a unit that wouldn’t be surprising to see finish top five in the NFL against the pass in 2023.
Patriots Rush Defense
The Patriots have a holistic approach to stopping the run that relies on contributors at all three levels. Up front, they look for their big-bodied interior defensive linemen to dominate in the trenches. At linebacker, they expect their players to move forward and make solo tackles close to the line of scrimmage. In the secondary, they expect their safeties to come downhill and their corners to make tackles in open space. This worked in 2022 with New England holding opponents to the fourth-best Y/A against (4.1) behind only Baltimore (3.9), San Francisco (3.4), and Tennessee (3.4). Expecting this to regress in 2023? Much like their pass defense, there is little merit toward that expectation.
Up front, the Patriots duo of Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy make it nearly impossible to execute interior runs. Godchaux at 6’3” 330lb and Guy at 6’4” 315lb result in a mass in the middle that slims down gaps, soak up blockers, and leave linebackers clean. Rotating them with a guy like Christian Barmore while Deatrich Wise does his thing off the edge is a formidable task for offensive coordinators to plan against. Behind them, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai, and Mack Wilson often go unblocked and are able to make plays all over the field. Bentley, in particular, is a player who gets very little national press but continues to be a playmaker for the Patriots. He began his career as a special teams player, but his continued evolution has resulted in him becoming one of the league’s premier run-stopping linebackers and has seen him account for 234 tackles over the past two seasons, amongst the tops in the league.
Behind them is where the Patriots’ unique personnel does its most damage. The dynamic nature of their safety room means that, outside of Bentley, no other linebacker sees over 60% of defensive snaps. Instead, New England mixes and matches personnel with Nickel and Dime looks that leverage their DB’s expertise. Need a nickel CB in the slot on obvious passing down? Queue Jalen Mills. Looking for a fast box safety to slow down scat backs? Here’s Jabrill Peppers. Want to go light but still stay strong against the run? How about Adrian Phillips as a Dime Backer? The Patriots’ ability to stay fast against the pass yet strong against the runs makes their defense overall one of the most complete in the NFL.
Patriots Special Teams
The Patriots have a unique issue on special teams, specifically at kicker. On the one hand, they have one of the most accomplished kickers in NFL history in Nick Folk. On the other hand, Folk will be 39 in November and has become such a liability on kickoffs that the Pats, at times last season, activated two kickers. This alone provides 2023 fourth-round pick, Chad Ryland, a path to the roster and introduces some major question marks in the kicking game. Punter is equally up in the air with both Bryce Baringer and Corliss Waitman vying for the job. Baringer was a sixth-round pick this year out of Michigan State while Waitman is coming off an impressive season with the Denver Broncos that saw him lead the league with 96 punts.
This flux from their kickers calls into question the quality of their special teams unit as a whole, a group that has an even more negative reputation due to their issues with kick coverage last season. At year-end the Patriots were ranked 28th in Y/KR against at 25.6 while being the only team in the NFL to give up more than one kick return TD, instead giving up three. In fact, if it wasn’t for a single special teams player on their roster there is an argument to be made that the Patriots have one of the worst special teams units in the league.
— NFL (@NFL) November 20, 2022
That player, Marcus Jones. Jones is one of the premier return men in the NFL and at the culmination of his rookie season even earned first-team All-Pro due to his production on punt return. He finished the season with the punt return triple crown leading, the league in Punt Return Yards (362), Punt Return Touchdowns (1), and Y/PR (12.5). Jones is such a dominant player in this role that the expectation come season’s end is that at least one, if not more, wins for the Patriots can be directly attributed to what he does in a given game.
FLOOR: 5-12, CEILING: 10-7, PREDICTION: 8-9
While the general population squabbles over who will win the AFC East, the New England Patriots have all but been forgotten. But why? This roster on paper is sneaky good and gives away exactly their plan for this upcoming season. New England is going to rely on their defense to keep them in games and their offense to take care of the football and score just enough points. And they will win games. Will they win enough to compete in the division or earn a playoff spot? The latter is possible, though I doubt it. But let’s make one thing clear, this team is too well built and too well coached, by the greatest coach of all time may I remind you, to finish last in the AFC East this season.