A Look Inside: 2021 New England Patriots

For the New England Patriots, 2020 was the first season since 2001 where Tom Brady didn’t lead the charge. Before the season started, Cam Newton signed a one-year contract, with only $550,000 guaranteed. Clearly, that dollar amount speaks volumes about the amount of confidence Bill Belichick had in him, but Darth Hoodie still put all his eggs in the Cam Newton basket.

While Newton had a completion percentage of 65.8%, the Patriots ranked 30th in passing yards. They ranked 26th in rushing yards, and the offense as a whole scored a paltry 326 points, earning them the 27th spot in the rankings. To put that in perspective, the last-place team — the Jets — scored 243 points. You know it’s bad when you only score 83 more points than the Jets. *facepalm* 

2020 was not a great year to be a Patriots fan. For the first time in 11 years, we experienced what fans of many teams around the league feel — a losing season. It was also the first year since Drew Bledsoe was injured that the Patriots had a NEGATIVE points differential (-27). However, that was last year. And as Coach Belichick likes to say: 

“We’re on to Cincinnati.” Except, in this case, we’re on to 2021.

Note: You can follow the entire Look Inside series with this link and you can watch the full No Punt Intended episode on Youtube below with special guest Marcas Grant from NFL Media!

Quarterbacks

In the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Patriots drafted Michael McCorkle “Mac” Jones, the 22-year old quarterback from Alabama. The 15th overall selection of Jones was the highest of any offensive player in Belichick’s tenure with New England. Despite this selection, Coach Belichick was quoted on draft night saying “Cam’s our quarterback. Whatever time Jarrett (Stidham) or Mac are ready to challenge and compete, we’ll see how that goes.”

Jones completed 413 passes with a completion percentage of 74.3% during his three years at Alabama. In his senior year, Jones found himself at the top of the NCAA leaderboard in multiple categories. This included passing yards (4,500), pass efficiency rating (203.1), and total yards (4,514). 

Despite these stats, Coach Belichick doesn’t think Jones is ready to take the helm, yet. On draft night, Belichick reinforced this notion — “Right now, for Mac, he’s just got a lot of learning in front of him. I know he’s very anxious to get going and get started on it.”

As much as it’s a scary prospect, it looks like Patriots fans will have to put their faith in Newton. At least until Jones is ready to go or Stidham throws the gauntlet and proves himself worthy. According to fantasydata.com, Newton was QB19 in fantasy points-per-game (FFPG) in 2020. If you take a look at our “Too Early 2021 Quarterback Rankings,” you’ll see that Ryan Weisse ranked Newton QB24, while Chris Molina ranked him a little higher at QB18 — an average rank of QB21.

In any case, I’m not sure I’m ready to put any of these quarterbacks on my fantasy bench.

Running Backs

Ok. This is where things get tough. The running back forecast in New England is bleak. I know it, you know it, and the entirety of the NFL knows it. Can I just say “don’t draft a Patriots RB unless you’re absolutely desperate”? No? Ugh, fine. 

Damien Harris was the RB1 for the Patriots in 2020. He did this despite missing the final four games of the season due to an ankle injury. He was the overall RB33 with 137 carries for 691 yards, an average of 5 ypc, and 2 TDs. That gave him an average of 9.1 FPPG.

Although Harris was RB1 for the team, James White ranked higher in fantasy scoring. He had 35 carries for 121 yards, and 3.5 ypc, and 2 TDs. If you add White’s receiving yards — 375 — he averaged 8.3 FPPG, for an RB42 rank. Both White and Harris return for the 2021 season. Rex Burkhead left for the Texans, leaving Sony Michel and newly drafted Rhamondre Stevenson to fill out the depth chart.

Michel only had six starts in nine games last season, due to injury. In those nine games, he tallied up 449 yds on 79 carries for 5.7 ypc, and 1 TD — an average of 8.4 FPPG. The Patriots declined to pick up Michel’s fifth-year contract option this offseason. That means this may be his last year in New England. He should be looking to prove himself this year — either to secure his place on the Patriots’ roster or to appeal to another team.

In his senior year at Oklahoma, Stevenson racked up 101 targets for 665 yds, 6.6 ypc, and 7 TDs. Given the New England backfield options, he should be a reliable target picked up in later rounds. 

In our “Too Early 2021 Running Back Rankings,” Ryan and Chris only have one RB ranked — Damien Harris. Ryan ranked him at 43, and Chris at 46, for an average consensus rank of 44.5. Harris or White would make for a good FLEX option, I just wouldn’t think about starting them in a designated spot. Stevenson should make for a reliable late-round target, in case anyone on your roster gets hurt.

Wide Receivers

Sweet wide receiver disappointment. New England had two wide receivers ranked in the Top 75 last season — Jakobi Meyers at WR53 and Damiere Byrd at WR67. N’Keal Harry was the next Patriot on the list, coming in at WR99. 

Though it was his third season with the Patriots, Meyers seemingly came out of nowhere. He had 81 targets and 59 receptions for 729 yards and 0 TDs, with an average of 10.2 FPPG. Byrd saw 77 targets and 47 receptions for 604 yds and 1 TD — an average of 7.2 FPPG.

Harry has not become the commanding force he was expected to be, even though the Patriots’ thin receiving corps has given him plenty of opportunities. With 57 targets and 33 receptions for 309 yds and 2 TDs, he averaged a disappointing 5.3 FPPG.

To say that the New England WR corps was disappointing in 2020 is an understatement. However, that’s not entirely their fault. The passing game struggled under Cam Newton last season. Although he had a 65.8 completion percentage, Newton only threw eight TDs. That does not do much for the fantasy value of WRs. 

On a lovely day in March of 2021, the Patriots inked a two-year contract with former Raider, Nelson Agholor. In 2020, he had 82 targets and 48 receptions, for 896 yds and eight TDs. Those numbers were enough to rank him 34th in FPPG. New England did draft Tre Nixon, WR from UCF, in the seventh round of the 2021 NFL Draft, though he is unlikely he sees much playing time this year. 

As of now, there are 10 WRs on New England’s roster. In our “Too Early 2021 Wide Receiver Rankings,” you will find exactly none of these players ranked in the Top 48. Unless one of them puts up miraculous numbers during the preseason, don’t expect this to change. In fact, since we don’t know who will get the starting QB gig, it may be best to stay away from the New England WR corps, unless absolutely necessary.

Tight Ends

When Gronk un-retired to join TB in TB, Ryan Izzo was knighted as the starting tight end for New England. His 13 catches for 199 yds and 0 TDs in 2020 was enough to earn him a fantasy ranking of TE62, according to fantasydata.com. Yes, he was ranked 62nd of 126. How perfectly average. However, on March 18th of this year, Izzo was traded to the Houston Texans. That left the Patriots without any clear leader to fill the starting role.

Cue the active market. A day later, on March 19th, the Patriots signed both Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to three and four-year contracts, respectively. Last season with the Titans, Smith was TE16 in fantasy, with 41 catches for 448 yds and 8 TDs. Henry was a fantasy TE12 with 60 catches for 613 yds and four TDs while with the Chargers. In fantasy points per game, Smith was TE15 (9.3 PPG), while Henry was slightly ahead at TE11 (10.4 PPG). (Stats from fantasydata.com.)

In our “Too Early 2021 Tight End Rankings,” there was some difference of opinion on where Smith would rank, but not Henry. Ryan has Smith ranked at 17th, whereas Chris has him ranked 25th. They both ranked Henry at a consensus 24th. 

If you have ever listened to our weekly podcast “No Punt Intended,” and heard host Joe Zollo talk about Jonnu Smith, you know he’s all aboard the Smith hype train. If you can’t land one of the “Big Three” (anyone else a “This Is Us” fan?), then either of these two guys would make for a solid late-round target.