The time for the offseason, training camp and preseason process is over in New England. Final preparations for the 2022 season are just about upon us.
In less than a week the defending-champion Rams and Bills will kick off the NFL season in Los Angeles.
By that time, Bill Belichick’s Patriots will already have their sweaty boots on the ground in Miami, trying to acclimate to the heat in advance of next Sunday’s regular season opener against Tyreek Hill and the new-look, upstart Dolphins.
It’s September. It’s football season. Ready or not, results now matter.
But as we all settle in for a fall that may be as unpredictable as it will be entertaining, a 17-game slate on the horizon to figure out how good (or bad?) New England’s latest roster really is, it’s always fun to try to project how things may play out.
So here’s one man’s early-September swing at predicting the fall future for Belichick, Mac Jones and the rest with plenty to prove and yet plenty of time to prove it in the coming weeks and months.
Crystal ball activated! Are you ready for some football????????
Predicted record: 9-8
The money-making men and machines of the gambling world have set the Patriots’ win total over/under at 8.5. It’s a very good line for a team that made the playoffs a year ago with 10 wins, but on paper has lost some talent both on the field and in the coaching department. It may sound crazy, but the first two weeks of games at Miami and at Pittsburgh could be the biggest factor in the Patriots record and success level this season. They are winnable games against competition that should be on a similar playing field this fall. Go 0-2 over the first two weeks coming off a suspect summer and it could be a long season. The reality is that New England looks to have a middling roster of talent in a loaded AFC, a tough schedule that’s somewhat back loaded and plenty of questions to answer in regards to coaching. A winning record, even if it’s not enough to make the playoffs would probably have to be considered a relatively successful year.
Upside record: 11-6
Putting on our Patriots’ colored sunglasses and footie pajamas, it’s still hard to see the team winning more than 11 games. To get to 11 they’d absolutely have to handle their business against the likes of the Jets (twice), Lions, Browns, Bears, Steelers, Dolphins (at least once) and Colts, and then steal a couple against teams like the Vikings or Cardinals. It won’t be easy by any means, but getting to 11 wins and a playoff bid isn’t a total pipedream.
Downside record: 5-12
Before all the In Bill We Trust super fans jump ugly, this isn’t necessarily a prediction as much as it is an open-minded possibility. As hard as it may be to envision the Patriots winning 11 games, it’s even harder to envision a Belichick-coached New England team winning just 5. But given the tough schedule and a dubious roster of talent, the possibly can’t simply be ruled out. Let’s say New England isn’t ready to go this month – the extension of the preseason that’s suddenly acceptable? – and loses on the road in Miami and Pittsburgh. That could easily turn into an 0-4 start to a bad season in which post-Thanksgiving isn’t a fight for a playoff spot but rather a snowballing season of misery. It’s not the most likely scenario, but it’s not cuckoo crazy, either.
MVP: Mac Jones
Has to be, right? Even with all the talk of possible Year 2 regression and coaching concerns, New England’s second-year Pro Bowl quarterback has to be the team MVP. If he’s not, there’s probably a problem. Jones has certainly taken his leadership to the next level this offseason. If he fails, it may not be his fault or problem. MVP is almost always a QB award in football, so we’ll go with Jones here even with all the uncertainty around him on offense.
Offensive Player of the Year: Rhamondre Stevenson
Stevenson had a solid rookie season in which he showed the ability to make plays both as a runner and a receiver. After James White’s retirement, Stevenson appears ready for more of a three-down role. He has a unique combination of size, quickness and playmaking ability not seen in the New England backfield. There isn’t a ton of depth in the running back room and if Stevenson can stay healthy he has the potential to put up impressive numbers on the ground and through the air.
Defensive Player of the Year: Christian Barmore
The other second-year player out of Alabama appears even more prepared for a Year 2 jump. Barmore was unblockable at times this summer on the practice and preseason field. He seems to have the fire and desire to be great. He has the versatility and tools to dominate against the run and the pass. With apologies to Matthew Judon, Barmore looks like he could be the foundational force of the defensive front. And that would be a very good thing for both the present and the future.
Rookie of the Year: Marcus Jones
Prior to the injury he suffered against the Panthers, the choice here would have been wide receiver Tyquan Thornton. Top pick and starting left guard Cole Strange is an obvious option, but his lackluster summer on a line that’s not been great is notable if not concerning. So we’ll go with Jones, who looks like he’ll be given a shot to contribute not only as a returner but as a slot cornerback. Jones is a versatile athletic competitor and it feels like he’ll find a way to impact the team on either special teams or defense as a rookie.
Comeback Player of the Year: Jake Bailey
The former All-Pro was not very good last fall. He dealt with a knee injury that may have affected his performance more than anyone acknowledged at the time. This spring and summer Bailey has been back crushing the football and got a new lucrative contract extension. Given the questions on offense, Bailey will probably get plenty of chances to show off his big leg. He appears poised for a big bounce back season after many what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? fans wanted to run him and his big salary out of town. Jonathan Jones is another option, though he faces a new challenge of moving from slot cornerback to the outside.
Breakout Player of the Year: Jonnu Smith?
Notice the question mark? In this spot a year ago we predicted Smith to catch 80 balls for 1,000 yards with the potential for double-digit touchdowns. We couldn’t have been more WRONG! Smith’s first season in Foxborough was a debacle. The breakout game he and his teammates talked up never came. The athletic tight end has looked good this summer – as he did last summer when Josh McDaniels clearly wanted him to be a key part of the offense – and could be in line for a far more productive fall. He’ll probably never reach production worthy of his huge contract, but he could be a fun, versatile, contributing part of the offense. Right? Maybe? Fingers crossed?
Player with the most to prove: Jalen Mills
Teammates believe the veteran defensive back Mills looks like a guy ready to slide into the No. 1 cornerback role vacated by J.C. Jackson’s departure. The No. 1 role is one that’s been key to New England’s defensive success over the years with a long list of productive Pro Bowl stars. If Mills can take his game to the next level after a solid summer, it will take pressure off the rest of a very much unproven cornerback depth chart. If he isn’t up to the task it will only magnify questions at the position against a tough slate of opposing offenses, pass-happy QBs and playmaking wide receivers.
Coach with the most to prove: Bill Belichick
It would be easy to slot Matt Patricia and Joe Judge in here given the new roles they’ve taken over on offense and the impact they may have in Jones’ development or regression. But as Belichick says, as the head coach everything that goes on is ultimately his responsibility. He was the one who decided to put a former defensive coordinator and a former special teams coach at the center of his offensive coaching staff after watching one of the best coordinators in the game, McDaniels, move on to the Raiders. Belichick needs to prove this season that his curious, unprecedented decisions weren’t disastrous. Belichick needs to prove he can pull it all together at the age of 70 with owner Robert Kraft noting this offseason that his team hasn’t won a playoff game in the last three seasons.
3 Biggest Questions
Will the changes to the coaching staff and offensive scheme be a fatal flaw on that side of the ball?
Is the cornerback position stocked with enough talent to get the critical job done in the back end against a tough slate of competition?
Can the offensive line pull itself together and stay healthy enough to be the strength and foundation of whatever the Jones-led unit ends up looking like?
3 Reasons for Optimism
The offense could be built around a deep, versatile crop of skill position playmakers with Jones as the perfect guy to cull it all together on every snap.
The defensive front led by Barmore and Judon has the depth, talent and potential to be a dominant, game-altering unit.
The kicking units appear poised to bounce back from an abysmal 2021 season, ready to win a game or two in the third phase for a team that will need every win it can get.