Could the Patriots actually be less talented in 2021?

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To quote the noted optimist Annie, the sun will come out tomorrow. And not just in Tom Brady’s Sunshine State.

After watching the 7-9 Patriots miss the postseason for the first time since 2008 while Brady took his talents to Tampa Bay to lead the Bucs to the Super Bowl win, the NFL offseason is officially here and Patriot Nation has brighter days ahead in 2021 to very much look forward to.

Don’t they?

With a projected $60 million in cap space to work with (fourth-most in an NFL where many teams are cap-strapped these days in the COVID-controlled world) and the No. 15 pick in the draft, GOAT coach Bill Belichick should be able to rebound from a relative down year to rebuild the Patriots on the fly with an eye on competing once again for the playoffs, the AFC East title and, if all goes absolutely perfectly, maybe even a Super Bowl.

Right?

As ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend!”

Wet blanket time.

The road to Belichickian redemption – in case you have noticed, it’s currently open cheap shot season on the future Hall of Fame coach and his lack of success without Brady as his quarterback – may not be quite as a direct a route as many presume.

And it’s not solely about the much-talked-about pursuits at the quarterback position. Certainly the quickest way to getting back to winning would be through the acquisition of a franchise-caliber QB. Conversely, the biggest drag on a rebuild could be difficulty finding a quality if not high-end passer.

But the potentially bumpy road ahead is far more pothole filled than that.

Obviously there is reason to believe that Belichick can use his draft and asset resources to bring talent to the wide receiver and tight end depth charts that were so barren a year ago. The spots will be more representative of what NFL talent should look like, that’s a virtual guarantee because it quite frankly can’t get much worse.

The quarterback position, one that saw Cam Newton struggle to throw the ball with any consistency or accuracy also has to be considered an area for an almost automatic if only incremental upgrade regardless of who steps under center come September. Going from not being able to throw – eight touchdown passes, including three in the meaningless season finale, would be almost laughable in the modern NFL if it weren’t so sad – to at least having a threat of completing passes on even a semi-regular basis could be a boon for Josh McDaniels’ game plans.

Linebacker is a third area that could and should be dramatically more stable a position in 2021. Devin McCourty notes that all his teammates that opted out due to COVID in 2020 are expected back. That means defensive captain and versatile centerpiece Dont’a Hightower should be in the mix. Even a year older and after a year away from the game, that should bring leadership, stability and versatility to a spot that was basically overmatched.

But let’s not forget that the potential returning talents and offseason additions could be balanced out and even negated by personnel departures.

It’s certainly possible that Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore will continue to look for a new contract, a tactic that could very well lead to his trade out of Foxborough. That would be a huge blow to the back end that was supposed to be the strength of the defense.

It’s equally as possible that key free agents like franchise guard Joe Thuney, team captain center David Andrews, key pass catching running back James White, defensive line mainstay Lawrence Guy, versatile front seven defenders Adam Butler and John Simon and rotational corner Jason McCourty could all move on in free agency. Some or all of those would create new holes in an already Swiss Cheese roster.

Conversely, as excited as many In Bill We Trust types are to see how Belichick might use his cap space in a free agent shopping spree – Hunter Henry! Chris Godwin! – some or much of that cap space could also potentially be eaten up by simply re-signing his own players.

Want Andrews? There goes $10 million a year.

Thuney? Another $15 million up in smoke.

Give Gilmore his extension? Cha ching.

White? Few more million gone.

In retaining his own veteran talent, individually guys who would certainly be appreciated upon return, Belichick would chip away big chunks of the budget to actually improve the team. Those are all trusted contributors, but none was enough to keep New England from being a subpar team in 2020. Why would that change in 2021?

The bottom line is that the list of possible upgrades for the Patriots this offseason is indeed a legitimately long one. Through his draft picks, salary cap space and potential pennies-on-the-dollar trades with teams needing to unload expensive talent to create cap space, Belichick has plenty of options to retool his talent pool. It’s not hard to envision things being better at tight end, receiver, quarterback and linebacker.

But there is also very much a chance for regression or aging decline in other areas such as the defensive line, secondary and offensive line.

If those come to fruition then the net change this offseason, one of the most important offseasons in New England history, may not be quite as dramatically positive as many hope and even expect. It could be a wash. Might even be a net loss.

The harsh reality is that the Patriots are without a franchise quarterback with a roster littered with holes and need for upgrade.
New England could be very much in the midst of a multi-year rebuild process in a competitive division within challenging conference.

The sun may come out tomorrow and more importantly in the days and months ahead when Belichick attacks free agency and the draft. And maybe he’ll have the kind of successful offseason he did back in 2001 and 2007, when he dramatically upgraded his roster to build Super Bowl contenders.

Maybe.

But don’t be surprised if Belichick’s offseason personnel pursuits don’t create quite the warm and fuzzy rebuilding feelings in New England that many are expecting.

It just isn’t that easy.

Sorry Annie, the clouds may continue hang over Gillette Stadium for a while.