2022 NFL Preview: Patriots had a good season with a rough end, then a weird offseason

·11-min read

We're about to find out how important an offensive coordinator was to the New England Patriots.

They had a really good 2021 season. It didn't end well, with four losses in five games including a wholly uncompetitive blowout against the Buffalo Bills in the playoffs. But the Patriots took a rookie quarterback, drafted fifth in his class, and were 9-4 going into their bye. They had a top-10 offense and defense. The Patriots have set their own bar so high that a 10-7 record with rookie QB Mac Jones didn't seem too impressive, but it was. Most people are tired of hearing Bill Belichick praise, but it was a fantastic job from the greatest coach in NFL history.

Then again, how much of the success had to do with Josh McDaniels? There should be questions about McDaniels' ability to be a good head coach as he heads to the Las Vegas Raiders, but he has been a great coordinator. In a post-Tom Brady world, he concocted a reasonable offense with a severely limited Cam Newton, then a very good offense with Mac Jones. The Patriots finished ninth in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA last season with Jones, the 15th pick of last year's draft who many dismissed as being too limited to be a top-end NFL quarterback. Jones was easily the best rookie quarterback last season. McDaniels deserves a lot of credit for that.

After McDaniels left, it got weird. Belichick's paranoia took hold and he has refused to say who will be the new offensive coordinator. Most of the speculation has been that it would be one of two failed head coaches: Joe Judge or Matt Patricia. Neither has been an offensive coordinator. Patricia hasn't even worked on the offensive side of the ball since 2005 when he was an assistant offensive line coach. There has been speculation that Belichick, known as a defensive guru, could call plays.

"He’s very hands on," Jones said about Belichick and the offense during offseason practices. "And last year, he was more with the defense and stuff. But now it’s like, ‘OK, let me show you this.’ And he’s kind of coaching us and coaching the running backs in that drill on the way that they need to get through the line of scrimmage. So he’s very hands on and I feel like we’ve made a lot of growth together as an offensive unit with him."

Had it been a normal transition from McDaniels to a predictable replacement, perhaps everyone would be higher on the Patriots. We'd see the most successful franchise in sports this past decade, with a second-year quarterback who was much better than expected last season, and imagine the growth. But we're bogged down with who will be calling offensive plays. Maybe that's a legitimate concern.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick snaps the ball for quarterback Mac Jones during an OTA practice. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick snaps the ball for quarterback Mac Jones during an OTA practice. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It seems lazy to compare last season with the early seasons of the Patriots dynasty, before Brady became a great quarterback. However, seeing New England led by a top defense, relying heavily on the running game and asking their young QB to not turn it over and make a few plays a game seemed very familiar. Jones is unlikely to go on and win seven Super Bowls, but the post-Brady reload didn't take long.

McDaniels is gone but Belichick remains, and that's enough to make the Patriots dangerous. Even their 7-9 finish in 2020 was far better than that roster should have done. Last season, New England probably won more games than it should have. And after that, there's plenty of skepticism about the Patriots heading into a new season. Never underestimate Belichick's value to the Patriots year after year.

This season will be another challenge. It's probably best to assume the Patriots will figure out their offense, regardless of who's calling it.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Patriots don't panic when it comes to losing good players. Most teams would have franchise tagged cornerback J.C. Jackson, who developed into a very good player after he was undrafted, but the Patriots didn't tag him and he left for the Los Angeles Chargers on a five-year, $82.5 million deal. The Patriots also lost center Ted Karras in free agency and surprisingly traded guard Shaq Mason to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a fifth-round pick. The Patriots see roster churn differently than any other team. They're willing to move on from good players the moment they believe their play is about to slip or their actual value doesn't align with the contract they have or want. More often than not, it works out. With any other team we'd look at the personnel losses, see no free-agent addition that cost more than $2 million per season (New England did trade with Miami for receiver DeVante Parker) and a draft class that was slammed by every analyst with a Twitter account (the shocking first-round pick of Tennessee-Chattanooga offensive lineman Cole Strange really is hard to understand), and figure they had a bad offseason. This is just the norm for New England, however.

GRADE: C

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)

Mac Jones is probably the best example of how important it is for a young quarterback to land in a great environment. A year after the draft, how many people would tab Jones as the most talented quarterback in the 2021 class? Not many, but yet, he was far ahead of any other rookie last season. Jones fit perfectly with the Patriots, who emphasize accuracy and processing speed from their quarterbacks. They put him positions to succeed. We don't know yet what Jones' ceiling is an an NFL quarterback, but he's a great fit for New England. That might be what matters most.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Patriots' win total is 8.5 at BetMGM, the same as teams like the Miami Dolphins and Washington Commanders. I'm happy to take the over. The Patriots didn't have the type of offseason that will get anyone excited, so they won't be a buzzy team before the season starts. But betting on the Bill Belichick Patriots has been a winning long-term proposition for years. Take the over on their season wins and for kicks, also take the Patriots +2.5 when they face the Miami Dolphins in Week 1.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Hunter Henry currently has a Yahoo ADP of 118, which is 28 slots higher than his NFFC ticket. In this instance, I think the NFFC crew has it right. Henry isn't exactly expensive in either platform, but I see a fantasy trap.

"Henry lived on touchdown deodorant last year, scoring nine times on just 50 catches. His previous nine NFL touchdowns came over 115 catches and 26 games; in short, he was fortunate last season. He also averaged a modest 35.5 yards per game in his New England debut, and somehow made it through a full schedule for the first time in six pro seasons.

"There isn't a high ceiling on anyone in this passing game; Mac Jones is a good, not great, quarterback, and the Patriots want to win through defense and a balanced offense. There's also a fair amount of width in the target tree, with several capable players competing for the ball. If you need to roster a Patriots pass-catcher for some reason, I'd focus on Jakobi Meyers or Kendrick Bourne. Henry is likely to be tripped up by touchdown and health regression."

[Set, hut, hike! Create or join a fantasy football league now!]

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The No. 2 running back in Pro Football Focus' grades last season, right behind Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts, was Damien Harris. Harris isn't much of a factor in the passing game but he's an excellent runner who has averaged 4.8 yards per carry over the past two seasons. He had 15 rushing touchdowns last season. Rhamondre Stevenson might be just as good as Harris, or better. He was impressive last preseason and rushed for 606 yards in a limited role as a rookie. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry and had some explosive traits. He had 20 10-yard runs on just 133 rushing attempts. He's also more adept in the passing game, which could lead to an expanded role. Both of the Patriots' top backs are very good at causing missed tackles and getting extra yards. New England also drafted Pierre Strong in the fourth round and could get pass-catching dynamo James White back, though he's 30 years old coming off a bad hip injury. The Patriots want to be effective on the ground, and they have the backs to do it.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Could the Patriots defense take a step back?

The last time we saw the Patriots, their defense got destroyed. The Bills became the first team in NFL history, regular season or playoffs, to not attempt a field goal, punt or commit a turnover in a game. Buffalo was also the first team in playoff history, over the Super Bowl era, to score a touchdown on each of its first seven drives. The Patriots defense didn't finish great, but it was very good for a majority of the season. New England was second in points allowed and fourth in yards allowed during the regular season. They were fourth in Football Outsiders' DVOA. They allowed a 73.3 passer rating, second-best in the NFL. The Patriots allowed fewer than 300 yards in seven of their nine regular-season games after October. The Patriots have always been better than the sum of their parts on defense (though linebacker Matt Judon was having an excellent season before fading a bit late), and New England should be good again despite not having a ton of stars. Cornerback is an issue after losing J.C. Jackson, but the foundation of the defense is pretty strong. Not many teams have the Bills' level of personnel that can expose the Patriots and their lack of elite speed on defense. Don't underestimate the Patriots due to the way last season ended.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Maybe Mac Jones is really good. He wouldn't be the first quarterback to completely outplay his perceived physical attributes. New England knows another guy like that. If Jones takes another step forward, the Patriots should be back in playoff contention. It would probably take some Buffalo Bills injuries for them to win the AFC East, but another wild-card berth isn't bad in a tough AFC. That might seem like a low bar for the Patriots to shoot for, but it's a new era for them. Making Super Bowls isn't as easy as New England made it look for two decades.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Maybe the negativity over the Patriots offseason is justified this time. J.C. Jackson is a top cornerback, and the Patriots are suddenly thin at an important position. The Patriots lost two key pieces from an offensive line that is critical to the style they want to play. The draft was odd. Josh McDaniels did have a huge role in New England's success. And the Patriots didn't add much, unless you buy into DeVante Parker finally finding consistency at age 29. Maybe the late-season swoon was a sign the defense was overrated and the league had figured out Mac Jones and the offense. The Patriots could fall behind the Dolphins in the AFC East pecking order after the Bills and miss the playoffs. That would be pretty disappointing after an encouraging first year with Jones at quarterback.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

I understand people focusing on the bad vibes with the Patriots. They finished last season poorly and didn't have a good offseason. Plenty of people still don't believe in Mac Jones either. It's still hard to look at a Patriots team that was very good for most of last season, remember Bill Belichick is on the sideline and project them to have a losing record. The defense should be good enough to keep the team in playoff contention, if the loss of J.C. Jackson isn't too big of a blow. The offense is deep and could be very good again, too. I'm fine betting on Belichick to lift this team further than it should go. That has worked out pretty well for a couple decades.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Cleveland Browns
14. Indianapolis Colts
13. Philadelphia Eagles
12. San Francisco 49ers
11. Denver Broncos
10. Cincinnati Bengals

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