The Professor’s 2021 NFL Preview: AFC East – New England Patriots

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New England Patriots

Team Projection

TeamPoints ForPoints AgainstGames FavoredPythagorean Expected Wins

New England still had many more picks to make, but it felt as if they’d tied the bow on their wild offseason when quarterback Mac Jones dropped into their lap at the 15th overall pick.

Before draft night, the Patriots had emphatically addressed nearly every roster need with players who signed big contracts in free agency. The biggest question that remained was whether they would add a legitimate second option to compete with Cam Newton, who is coming off mixed results in 2020. While Newton’s ability as a runner allowed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to scheme up an extremely creative run game behind one of the league’s better offensive lines, Newton was exceptionally streaky as a passer, even by his standards. While his history suggests that this could improve in 2021, as it has done just that at other stages of his career, there were games in 2020 where he was putting multiple balls in the dirt, and the Patriots won’t be able to maximize the return on the rest of their investments at the skill positions if that continues.

An interesting challenge is created by the contrast in Newton and Jones’s abilities, but this staff is skilled in adapting offenses to a quarterback’s strength on the fly, as they demonstrated in the Tom Brady suspension season that saw them win games with both Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett before Brady’s return. In either case, the attack is certain to feature a heavy dose of 12 personnel after the signings of tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. The pair’s respective skill sets fit together perfectly, with Smith better served in a “move” tight end role that maximizes his explosive traits, and Henry best deployed as an inline tight end with the versatility to split out.

Questions will remain about the wide receiver room until the regular season begins, given that Nelson Agholor’s breakout season in Las Vegas still featured the drop issues that plagued him during four seasons with the Eagles. Jakobi Meyers demonstrated the ability to be productive in his opportunities last season, but profiles more as a second or third receiver, while Kendrick Bourne was only a highlighted part of San Francisco’s passing attack when injuries thinned out their depth.

All that said, an offensive line that added the biggest surprise from the 2020 NFL Draft (sixth-round pick Michael Onwenu, who played at a standout level and showed the versatility to play guard and tackle on either side) also brought back one of the league’s biggest men in tackle Trent Brown, who had been in Las Vegas for two seasons after an excellent year with the Patriots. The loss of Joe Thuney, an elite player who was arguably the league’s single most consistent player (in terms of availability and play) over his time in New England, hurts, but if left tackle Isaiah Wynn is able to stay healthy, and center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason maintain their standard, this unit will still be one of the league’s best.

The Patriots need to rebound in a big way on defense, but there’s a lot in place to make that happen, assuming corner Stephon Gilmore can be at least an above-average player in his return from the torn quad that ended his season last year. They lost Adam Butler at defensive tackle, who signed with Miami in free agency, but the Patriots signed Davon Godchaux from Miami, which essentially canceled out Butler’s departure. New England then added to this group by drafting Christian Barmore with the 8th pick of the 2nd round, and still have Lawrence Guy, one of the league’s best run defenders, in the fold.

At linebacker, New England got Kyle Van Noy back after he was released by Miami. Van Noy will be rejoined by Dont’a Hightower, who was a 2020 COVID opt-out, and Ja’Whaun Bentley remains in place after posting solid results as a starter last season. On top of that, the Pats added a two-way presence on the edge in former Raven Matt Judon, who should be the best player they’ve had at that position in several years.

It all lines up to give New England the potential to get right back into the playoff mix, but whether that happens, and if they’re a championship contender if they get there, depends on either Newton or Jones notably raising the passing performance standard from a year ago.

QB Passing Projections

Cam Newton309194.6288.80.677.692222.
Mac Jones338175.5259.10.687.581964.710.45.417.94

QB Rushing Projections

Cam Newton30966.34.52300.04.726.444.720.25
Mac Jones33833.35.57185.42.615.030.317.94

Skill Projections, Rushing

Damien HarrisRB5417215.44.831040.76.145.532.110.61
Jonnu SmithTE111179.57.0066.
James WhiteRB1211792.73.83354.63.519.618.67.12
Rhamondre StevensonRB2101756.04.31241.61.811.89.33.26

Skill Projections, Receiving

Damien HarrisRB541782.125.410.66270.
Nelson AgholorWR1041761.652.114.01730.45.015.421.67.58
Jonnu SmithTE1111770.057.511.05635.
Hunter HenryTE1141769.757.511.56665.24.715.120.37.26
James WhiteRB1211773.734.28.17280.03.28.513.97.12
Jakobi MeyersWR1361772.855.813.11731.80.914.04.06.27
Kendrick BourneWR1611763.938.512.01462.42.711.011.64.80
Rhamondre StevensonRB2101765.015.77.07110.
N’Keal HarryWR2721751.717.78.10143.
Gunner OlszewskiWR2941760.015.410.10156.
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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.