BOSTON -- The 2021 New England Patriots were ... all right. They were good enough to make the playoffs, though they weren't nearly good enough to actually compete in those playoffs.
In the months that have passed since that grisly beatdown in Buffalo, the question is quite simple: Have the Patriots gotten better?
The more complex version of that question involves how much better the Patriots have gotten in relation to the rest of the teams in their division and the conference. That question's difficult if not impossible to answer at this point in time. Yet with Von Miller going to the Bills, Tyreek Hill going to the Dolphins, Khalil Mack going to the Chargers, Matt Ryan going to the Colts, Davante Adams going to the Raiders, Deshaun Watson going to the Browns (and maybe being able to play), and Russell Wilson going to the Broncos, it's quite obvious that AFC teams have bulked up quite a bit.
The Patriots haven't made splashy signings, instead opting to re-sign a number of veterans while making some more low-key additions like Ty Montgomery, DeVante Parker, Jabrill Peppers and Malcolm Butler. (The player is at least low-key with Butler; the story, obviously, is not.) They drafted an interior lineman who projects to be a Day 1 starter, and they drafted some players with intriguing talents, like speedster wideout Tyquan Thornton, versatile running back Pierre Strong, and slippery punt returner/cornerback Marcus Jones.
We should get a fairly good idea of where the Patriots stand in the conference early in the season, as they'll start the year with road trips to Miami and Pittsburgh before hosting the Ravens in Week 3. They'll complete that challenging first month of the year with a trip to Lambeau.
That, though, is the future. And the future cannot be predicted. For now, with training camp still several weeks away, it's a good time to take stock of the Patriots' roster by ranking each positional group from strongest to weakest. For now, we'll exclude special teams, which remain in the safe hands of Nick Folk, Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona and Matthew Slater, with the potential of getting some solid return work from rookie Marcus Jones.
There's just no spot on the depth chart where the top four spots are as solid as they are at safety. With Devin McCourty roaming deep, the likes of Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers will be able to play in the box as a way to supplement the lacking linebacking corps.
Granted, the responsibilities of the safety group are sure to change a bit, as the loss of J.C. Jackson will force the defense to utilize its defensive backs in different ways. Still, the back end of the Patriots' defense is about as solid as it gets.
2. Running Back
With Damien Harris in a contract year and Rhamondre Stevenson entering year two, the Patriots have a sneaky fearsome duo in their offensive backfield.
Harris rushed for 929 yards and 15 touchdowns in 15 games played last year, while Stevenson ran for 606 yards and five scores, proving that his blend of elusiveness and power could work at the NFL level.
Behind that duo, there's a major question mark in the mobility and health of veteran James White. But there's also some real upside potential in Pierre Strong Jr., who ran for 1,686 yards and 18 touchdowns last year at South Dakota State. Power runner Kevin Harris, a sixth-round pick, also adds some intrigue, but perhaps might be in line for a famous Foxboro redshirt year.
3. Offensive Line
Based on the minicamp look, with Trent Brown at left tackle, the Patriots' offensive line might have actually gotten a wee bit better this offseason, despite losing Shaq Mason and Ted Karras.
That move shifts Isaiah Wynn over to the right side, with an interior of Cole Strange, David Andrews, and Mike Onwenu. Of course, a rookie's play can never be taken for granted, but the early word on Strange is that he's up to the task of playing right away.
Injuries -- especially with Brown -- will obviously be a concern, as the depth pieces (Justin Herron, Yasir Durant, James Ferentz, Yodny Cajuste, etc.) leave a little something to be desired. Perhaps draftees Chasen Hines and/or Andrew Steuber can help in that regard.
Yet as a five-man starting unit goes, the Patriots' O-line has to be considered a strength heading into the season.
4. Tight End
To be frank, there's a notable drop from No. 3 to No. 4 in the rankings, and really, the spots between four and seven feel almost interchangeable. So it should be noted that quibbling is hereby allowed and encouraged.
The tight end group grabs this spot because Hunter Henry came exactly as advertised, and because Jonnu Smith should be able to play at the level that we all expected from him last year. For whatever reason, Josh McDaniels' offense didn't really use the YAC ability of Smith to its advantage, but with a tweaked system, Smith can resemble the player he was in his last two seasons in Tennessee.
Depth is an issue, with only Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, and Matt Sokol behind the two top tight ends.
5. Interior D-Line
The strength of this unit lies in the two best players in the group: Lawrence Guy and Christian Barmore. The former has been a mainstay in the middle of the Patriots' defense for five years, while the latter showed that he's got NFL strength and then some during his rookie season.
The rest of the group -- which includes Davon Godchaux, Carl Davis, Byron Cowart, and occasionally Henry Anderson -- is good enough, but it's Guy and Barmore that has this position ranked in this spot.
Last year, we all compared Mac Jones to other rookie QBs. In that comparison, he was the best, and it wasn't particularly close.
This year, though, we'll be looking at Mac compared to the entirety of the NFL's quarterbacking crop. Ranking in the top 10 there will prove to be a mighty challenge.
Of course, there's evidence that Jones should be better in year two. After a full season as an NFL player, he's in the midst of his first real NFL offseason. He appears to have been spending his time wisely, building a stronger, healthier body while improving some physical parts of his game.
At the same time, the loss of McDaniels and the likelihood of being coached by someone who's never before run an offense could prove to be a rather significant hurdle in his growth and development.
Behind Jones is veteran Brian Hoyer and rookie Bailey Zappe. While expectations are rightfully low on Zappe, one can't help but notice how absurd his college stats at Western Kentucky were. Zappe threw for 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns last year, both NCAA single-season records.
7. Wide Receiver
The Patriots still lack a true No. 1 receiver, but the addition of DeVante Parker allows them to slot their receivers in slightly more appropriate roles than last year. The team's top two receivers last year -- Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne -- should be freed up a bit more thanks to Parker's presence, at the very least. It's less clear how Parker's presence will affect Nelson Agholor.
Lower on the depth chart, the prospect of rookie Tyquan Thornton's speed is an enticing one, and Tre Nixon turned a fair number of heads at minicamp. (Don't sleep on the potential of Marcus Jones, either, as he may find a role as a pass catcher.)
8. EDGE/Outside Linebacker
Matthew Judon very famously had an insane start to the 2021 season, with 12.5 sacks in 13 games, and a very quiet finish to the 2021 season. He didn't record any sacks over the final four games of the regular season, nor did he get to Josh Allen in the playoff loss.
A part of that had to do with opposing coaches figuring out ways to counteract Judon's tendencies, sure. But ... it also had to do with the lack of pass rushers that opposing offenses had to worry about.
Behind Judon, Kyle Van Noy ranked second on the team with five sacks. He's now gone. After Van Noy, it was Deatrich Wise and Josh Uche, tied for third on the team with just three sacks apiece.
Unless you count the possibility that Ronnie Perkins actually plays and produces in year two as an upgrade at the position, the Patriots have actually gotten worse overall on the edge heading into 2022. (This is where a Trey Flowers reunion could make a big difference in the Patriots' defense.)
As far as departures go, the cornerback group had the biggest loss of all, with J.C. Jackson cashing in via free agency, as expected. That loss is huge, but nobody anticipated that the Patriots would even try to compete with the big money being thrown at the 26-year-old in free agency.
The reunion with Malcolm Butler could help offset that loss, though nothing about Butler's play should be assumed after the 32-year-old took a one-year sabbatical from football last year. However, he was good in 2020 for the Titans, so perhaps he's still got something left in the tank.
The team is actually fine in terms of slot corners, with Johnathan Jones returning from injury and with some potential contributions from rookie Jack Jones. Outside, though, with Jalen Mills and Terrance Mitchell, the Patriots will be vulnerable to some of the more potent passing attacks in the NFL. That was true even when Jackson was playing at an All-Pro level while ranking second on the team in defensive snaps. It hasn't gotten any prettier for the unit now that he's gone.
10. Inside Linebacker
Everyone was impressed with Ja'Whaun Bentley last season, and rightfully so. He set career highs in tackles (109), forced fumbles (three), tackles for a loss (5), and QB hits (5) while playing and starting in 16 games. The question now becomes whether he can continue to improve even without Dont'a Hightower by his side.
While it remains possible that the longtime defensive captain decides to return to the Patriots at some point this summer, for now it looks as though Hightower is out of the picture. That leaves a massive hole in the middle of the defense, one that can't be easily filled. (Hightower may have been a step slower here or there, but the loss of a two-time Pro Bowler, three-time Super Bowl champion, and four-time team captain should not be overlooked in the least.)
Mack Wilson will certainly get the opportunity for playing time, and there's been a lot of hype surrounding Cameron McGrone and Raekwon McMillan as under-the-radar contributors. But the overall picture at middle linebacker is not particularly rosy after losing such an important player.
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