5 big questions still facing the Patriots as Week 1 approaches


The biggest question surrounding the 2021 Patriots was answered earlier this week when Bill Belichick picked rookie first-round pick Mac Jones to be New England’s starting quarterback and released veteran Cam Newton.

It put an end to a spring and summer competition that was not only the story of Patriot Nation, but one of the bigger storylines in the NFL this offseason.

With Brian Hoyer as the likely top backup, it very much appears that Jones is going to not only open the season as New England’s starter but likely will be given every opportunity to keep the job all season long. There isn’t much of a safety net. For better or worse it’s his job and the Patriots will go only as far as the former Alabama star can lead them.

It should be fun to watch.

But while the QB competition was the biggest question the Patriots faced heading into the new year, it’s not the only one. With little more than a week to go before Belichick’s rebuilt, retooled team takes on the Dolphins on opening day at Gillette Stadium, a new-look New England squad hopeful of a bounce back season still has a number of other key questions left to answer.

Let the games – and the answers -- begin!

Is the new group of $100 million pass catchers ready to carry the aerial load?

Belichick made a major splash in spring free agency, including an aggressive pursuit of new weapons in the passing game. Jonnu Smith ($50 million), Hunter Henry ($37.4 million) and Nelson Agholor ($24 million) all got top-of-market deals based on average annual value. They will very much expected to earn those contracts by being more productive than they’ve ever been before in their NFL careers. This summer, all three have been underwhelming for various reasons. After missing most of the spring to a hamstring injury, Smith has been dinged at times in camp and caught just one preseason pass for 16 yards. His upside is obvious, but there is still some see-it-to-believe-it feeling to his expected key role as the centerpiece of the passing game. Henry, who has an injury history, didn’t play in the preseason thanks to a shoulder issue. Agholor also missed time this August to injury and hasn’t exactly lit it up on the practice field while catching one ball for 4 yards in preseason action. New England’s rebuilt roster of pass catchers needs to stay healthy and prove the collective players can live up to their collective big-money contracts if Jones is going to have a chance to reach his own rookie passing potential.

What, exactly, is Matt Patricia’s role?

With so many different topics to focus on during the summer, this is a question that didn’t get much attention. Patricia was at the center of almost every Patriots practice in camp, essentially running most segments on the field, especially controlling situational and down-and-distance reps. He was telling both sides of the ball what to do and when to do it. He was attached at Belichick’s hip. It was a notable, vocal role for the former Lions boss, Patriots defensive coordinator and current New England senior football advisor. It may be tough to judge moving forward now that practices are essentially closed to the media, but it will be interesting to try to flesh out exactly how big a role Patricia will have in helping Belichick mold and guide the 2021 Patriots.

Who is going to step up at cornerback?

The biggest non-QB story of the week in New England was No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore going on PUP to open the regular season. That means the former Defensive Player of the Year is sidelined for at least the first six weeks of the year. Whether that’s truly due to the quad injury that ended his 2020 season or more related to his contract situation doesn’t really matter right now, either way it leaves a huge hole in the back end of the defense.
Gilmore’s absence creates a massive domino effect that could be the fatal flaw in a rebooted defense that had/has high aspirations. J.C. Jackson is in a contract year and would love to play like a true No. 1, which could earn him tens of millions of dollars next spring. Whether he is up to that task is debatable. The bigger question, though, is who is going to step up in the No. 2 cornerback role? Jack-of-all-trades free agent DB addition Jalen Mills struggled in the role in practice and preseason action. Former second-round pick Joejuan Williams still has much to prove. Late trade addition Shaun Wade’s scouting report is that he’s more suited for a slot role and either way he has some catching up to do. If the Patriots can’t solidify the No. 2 cornerback role it could be a critical flaw that opponents target early and often through at least the first six weeks of the season.

Will an unproven rushing attack live up to extremely high expectations?

No part of the Patriots roster may have higher expectations than the Patriots running game. Some have already floated the idea that New England could lead the NFL in rushing this season. That’s a pretty big ask for a unit whose lead back – Damien Harris -- has a career-high of 641 yards rushing and played in just 12 games over his first two NFL seasons. His top backups are a fourth-round rookie in Rhamondre Stevenson and veteran Brandon Bolden, with James White the foundation of the third down role and J.J. Taylor an intriguing undersized, unproven playmaker. Harris has had a very good offseason and summer. He appears physically and mentally ready to be the workhorse. But it’s still just a projection at this point. Certainly the team was confident enough in Harris and the group to trade away Sony Michel. But the backfield’s high expectations are built more on upside potential than any proven history. It’s also worth noting that while New England has a very impressive offensive line, the unit is bookended by a pair of tackles in Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown who’ve struggled to stay on the field over the course of the last couple seasons. Could the rushing game be elite? Sure. Will it be? Time will tell, as there is reason for both significant hope and doubt.

Is there chemistry?

Belichick often talks about the idea that every team comes together in its own unique way every season. It’s process that is really beyond a coach’s control. The Patriots have a ton of new faces, returning veterans and developing players who’ll all be counted on to fill huge roles for the team.
Then energy for New England has been notable and a positive factor this summer. Matt Judon brings something unique and very much positive in that area. So does the rookie QB Jones. From 1-53, every team has a chemistry that plays a role in on-field success, in the difference between winning and losing close games. Even with Belichick’s elite coaching and a high-level of leadership from veterans like Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, David Andrews, Lawrence Guy and others, New England has to prove it has the right mix to be a winning team in 2021. That will be a process, one that begins against Miami. Teams that overhaul their roster the way the Patriots did this spring and spend so much money in free agency don't always see the return on investment that they hoped for.

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