Ranking the Patriots' projected 2022 position groups from best to worst

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As per usual, the answer to the question of whether the Patriots will be horrible in 2022 because they didn't spend enough money/draft the "right" players this past April or will go 12-5 and shock the league will probably lie somewhere in the middle.

Will this team be great? Not likely. There are too many other excellent squads in its conference (and at least one in their division already).

But will the Patriots be bad enough to lose more than 10 games? No. The coaching is too good, and the roster is plenty solid even if it lacks a bevy of stars.

(Think about it: if the 2020 Patriots managed to grind out a 7-9 record, this team should at least be able to squeeze eight wins out of this schedule.)

New England is fortunate enough to have a generally solid offense and at least one very good position group defensively. But do they have enough talent at their best positions to make up for their weaknesses?

Assuming no major changes to the roster, here's a ranking of the Patriots' position groups going into the season.

Safeties

No position group on the roster is steadier or will have more asked of it than safety.

Devin McCourty still looks like he can play at a high level. Adrian Phillips has played his way into a contract extension with the Patriots, proving his versatility and playmaking skill over his two seasons in Foxborough. Kyle Dugger might just end up becoming the best player on the entire team this year.

Throw Jabrill Peppers, another hybrid defensive back-linebacker into the mix, and you have four safeties who can play basically any defensive back position you want plus drop into the box and cover for a suspect linebacking corps.

Specialists

Nick Folk has simply been outstanding in his last two seasons with the Patriots, in particular, hitting more than 90% of his field goal attempts.

Meanwhile, Jake Bailey appears to have gotten over whatever ailed him in 2021 and is back to hitting ionosphere-scrapping punts that dot the sideline chalk inside the opposing red zone to perfection.

Matthew Slater is as good as it gets as a cover man and will mentor the next generation of Patriots special-teamers as he approaches the 18th hole of his singular career.

Quarterbacks

This is obviously all about Mac Jones. If he gets hurt, the Patriots wouldn't do anything meaningful with either Brian Hoyer or Bailey Zappe.

But Jones has so far built on his solid rookie season and should serve as a pillar of the team going forward. The offense ran smoothly with him under center during spring practice despite trepidation about how the offensive coaching oddities might affect him, and he both excelled at his typical bread-and-butter game in short and intermediate areas and brought an explosive new downfield element to his game as well.

Of course, it's still fair to question whether or not Jones can improve enough to truly carry the Patriots past the superior Bills and upstart Dolphins in the AFC East, whether due to his lack of elite physical upside or what's going on around him.

With that in mind, let's see if the offense stays functional when the "live bullets" start flying in game situations.

For now, though, the second-year Jones is already just the steady hand the Patriots need at quarterback for an uncertain season like this.

Running Backs

If he can stay healthy, Damien Harris could finally top the 1,000-yard mark in 2022 after just missing out last year. (He still had a monster 15 rushing touchdowns, though.)

The former Alabama product is as hard-nosed as they come, and he continues to show he has more juice to break big plays than people give him credit for.

Rhamondre Stevenson blew through the old rookie redshirt season typical for Patriots running backs and notched a cool 729 yards from scrimmage (606 yards rushing, 123 receiving). His physicality came as advertised, but his vision and exceptional footwork in the open field might be his most impressive traits. Get ready for even more Stevenson in 2022, both on the ground and through the air.

Then, things get interesting.

If James White hits the PUP list to start the year, might we see Ty Montgomery step in as a third-down back? Or could one of the rookies -- Pierre Strong or Kevin Harris -- steal snaps? Strong's speed is unlike anything the Patriots have had at running back in a long time, and Harris got some burn offensively in OTAs and minicamp.

Offensive Line

The Patriots certainly didn't upgrade at offensive line after trading away one starting guard, Shaq Mason, and losing the other, Ted Karras, to free agency.

There's also some question about whether tackles Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn will swap sides and what that will mean for the offense, though Brown looked plenty comfortable on the left side in spring.

But Michael Onwenu, who graded ever so slightly better than Mason in 2021, might fill in better at right guard than people expect. Also, trading in Karras' experience and strength for Strange's athleticism and tenacity might even out by the end of the season, even if there are some growing pains at first.

The bottom line: the starting offensive line can still be a strength for this team without Mason and Karras.

Health will be a huge factor as neither Brown nor Wynn can seemingly stay on the field for a full season (except for Brown playing all of 2018 for New England). Though the team has playable depth in Justin Herron as a swing tackle and James Ferentz as a veteran backup on the interior, injuries could hurt more now with Onwenu no longer available to fill in anywhere he's needed.

Wide Receivers

Having a team full of No. 2 receivers doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, especially when you have to watch Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, and Jaylen Waddle play in your division.

But it's also far from the worst thing you can send out at receiver. If deployed correctly, that model could produce good results for New England.

Specifically, this operation hinges largely on DeVante Parker and Nelson Agholor. If Parker can stay on the field, his mere presence allows the Patriots to use Agholor the way they couldn't/didn't last year: move him everywhere, and create space for him to work.

Agholor had a number of catches in spring camp that demonstrated the amount of YAC he can generate when he can work inside as opposed to being stuck outside the numbers 90% of the time. Of course, he also had a big downfield play that was missing for much of his first year in Foxborough as well.

If Agholor is producing, that will create more opportunities for Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, and the tight ends to keep feasting in the middle of the field and in intermediate areas.

And if they're all playing well and staying on the field, the Patriots can bring Tyquan Thornton along slowly and selectively wield the threat of his cartoonish speed.

In other words, the receiver position is perfectly emblematic of complementary football. This group might not be great on its face, especially for all the money being spent on it, but the whole might end up better than the sum of its parts.

Tight Ends

On paper, this group should have been one of the best on the roster in 2021. But that didn't pan out, with only Hunter Henry truly finding his groove with Mac Jones. Henry's nine touchdown catches last season marked a career-high.

Jonnu Smith, on the other hand, struggled to develop any chemistry with Jones and was more or less phased out of the offense for large portions of the season.

That can't be the case if the offense plans to reach its full potential in 2022.

A game plan that both gives Henry his short opportunities while allowing Smith to extend the field and catch the ball with room to run could truly change the outlook of this Patriots team. Bank on the Patriots trying harder to make that happen this season, and expect better numbers from Smith in the process.

Defensive Line

If nothing else, you know New England absolutely hit on 2021 second-round pick Christian Barmore, who very obviously became the best interior defender on the team by the time last season ended. Though he's got work to do as a run defender, he is already a demonic pass-rusher for a young defensive tackle, ranking ninth in the league among interior linemen with 51 pressures.

Aside from him, the position might actually have been better than it got credit for last year.

Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux didn't offer much from a pass-rush perspective, but Guy tied for 16th among interior defenders with 33 stops while Godchaux had 26 stops himself (good for 32nd). That's solid work all told, though there are also stretches during the season when they weren't visible enough.

Deatrich Wise Jr. also played well inside, though he might find himself potentially floating between interior and edge spots more in 2021 with the lack of certainty outside. Carl Davis and Byron Cowart could provide depth as well either on the 53-man roster or as practice squad additions.

Aside from Barmore, there isn't a whole lot of dominance in this group. But they can generally be counted on to do their jobs even when it's not spectacular.

Edge Defenders

As of now, Judon is probably still the best player on the entire roster and should have another strong season. But things are less certain at the other outside linebacker spot after the Patriots released Kyle Van Noy, who's currently with the Los Angeles Chargers.

We're still waiting for the breakout from 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche. He likely will get every chance to contribute as an edge rusher and occasionally as an off-ball linebacker this year. If the defense is going to hold its own, he has to step up.

Then, there's Ronnie Perkins, who was taken in the third round of last year's draft but never played a snap in 2022. He had a flash or two in preseason as a rookie. Those moments have to come more frequently now if he wants to prove himself as a rotational edge defender or even earn starter snaps.

Anfernee Jennings, who weighs in at nearly 260 pounds, will probably also fit in here. He worked with Judon and Perkins at the edge spot in minicamp.

So basically, it's Judon and a bunch of "what ifs?" on the outside. At least there could still be room for upside with Uche and Perkins, though.

Linebackers (Off-ball)

Nothing against Ja’Whaun Bentley, but having him as the best player in one of your position groups isn’t a good thing.

He had his best year yet as a pro in 2021 and earned himself an extension with his stout run defense and underrated capability as a blitzer (11 pressures). But he’s still one of those bulky linebackers that got exposed when the Patriots ran into more explosive offenses at the end of last year.

Mack Wilson fits the Patriots’ off-season mandate to get faster and more athletic on defense and should provide more value in coverage. But he’s struggled to stay on the field consistently and hasn’t yet recaptured his form from his pleasantly surprising rookie campaign.

Raekwon McMillan and Cameron McGrone, meanwhile, didn’t play at all in 2021. When McGrone takes the field in preseason, it will be his first live NFL action.

It's easier to see how the Patriots could opt to keep their linebackers off the field in favor of their versatile safety group than it is to see their linebackers being a significant strength for this team.

Cornerbacks

Just about everything here is wide open now that both J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore are gone.

Malcolm Butler and Jalen Mills are front-runners to start on the outside, but Jack Jones is already pushing them after a strong spring performance. The rookie fourth-round pick might be the best athlete of the bunch right now, even if he has to put on some weight first.

Assuming Marcus Jones' shoulders allow him to play, he could perhaps spell Jonathan Jones in the slot from time to time while getting chances to return punts and otherwise contribute on special teams.

The fact remains, though, that none of these players are dynamic enough as cover men to single-handedly shut down the lines of Diggs, Hill, or Waddle. Playing man coverage too much with this unit could be asking for trouble.

As such, perhaps the Patriots will go back to the zone schemes that got them rolling in the middle of last season and protect their corners as much as they can. They'll probably need it.