By Jamie Garwood

As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.

In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the New England Patriots:

2020 Recap

New England Patriots
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The perennial playoff contenders from Boston were dealt a huge spanner in the works when Tom Brady departed New England for the pastures of free agency and balmy Tampa Bay. We know how that ended, with ‘The GOAT’ winning his 7th Super Bowl title (his first without Bill Belichick), and cementing his position as the greatest player in NFL history.

New England, meanwhile, struggled to match expectations without their lead quarterback. Cam Newton was brought in on a one-year deal. A combination of injury, covid scares and lack of form led to New England finishing 7-9 and out of the playoffs for the first time since 2008, when Brady suffered a knee injury and missed the majority of the season.

All in all, the offense struggle to click. Cam threw for only 2,657 yards (rushing for 592) and while he was the TD leader with 12 rushing TD’s he only threw for 8. Lead receiver was Jakobi Meyers (729 yards) while N’Keal Harry in his sophomore year again failed to set the world alight. The absence of Julian Edelman (six games, 315 yards) meant the offense had no focal point and the rushing game did not meet expectations.

The defence, though, despite nine opt-outs (most in the league) – including standouts Don’t’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung – was competitive. It kept New England in tight games, coming out with a great win at home to the Baltimore Ravens and shutting out rookie of the year Justin Herbert 45-0 on the road. Yet the Patriots lost four one-score games (Seattle, Buffalo, Denver, Houston), and if two had gone their way things might have been different.

Staff Changes

New England Patriots
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The Patriots roll into 2021 with no big changes on the day to day coaching staff, yet Nick Caserio finally had his head turned by The Texans, leaving the front office to head over to Houston as GM after a two year courtship. Back to the coaching team; the Patriots managed to keep hold of Josh McDaniels, whose playcalling and inability to harness Cam correctly did not attract him to the seven head coaching roles available. Belichick remains the defensive play-caller.

A returning Matt Patricia, following his resignation as Lions coach after three years (13-29-1), comes back to Foxboro in a capacity to work on a ‘variety of roles’.

State Of The Roster

This is a roster in a state of flux following years of stability; the window is closing on the durability of household names and many productive assets such as Julian Edelman are edging closer to retirement.

However, there is hope in the play of young upstarts Meyers, Damien Harris and Chase Winovich, who all sined throughout the season. And Gunner Olszewski they have an absolute stud on special teams – whose adaptability is a classic Patriots trope.

There are needs required on the offensive side, yet the running game has a plethora of options – Harris, James White, Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel and opt-out returnee Brandon Bolden. With uncertainty at quarterback this gives the Patriots some hope of a solid ground attack at the very least.

Salary Cap & Cut Candidates

New England Patriots
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New England are in an enviable position. They currently sits at $60 million under the cap, in contrast to the upheaval of last year which did not allow much wiggle room.

Cut candidates include Joe Thuney the offensive lineman, who was a bright spot playing 96.8% of snaps and would be coveted on the open market. His reliability would be hard to replace, but after being franchise tagged last offseason Belichick might baulk at the going rate.

Cam Newton was paid $3.7m for the season, and while the production wasn’t fully there, Newton himself would wish to stay and a full camp may see an uptick in numbers. Whispers that New England are set to move on from the 2015 MVP could be true, but just as likely to be a smokescreen knowing this organisation.

The best trade candidate is Stephon Gilmore, who was put on injured reserve at tail end of the season but still has good years ahead of him.

Free Agents

New England Patriots
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The defensive trio of Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise are set to hit the free agency market. Guy missed the first games of his career last year, and that may be a sign of things to come for a 31-year old body that has seen some action in the trenches. Belichick is the master of moving on from guys before their production tails off or injury takes its toll.

Butler at 27 may be the most enticing keep; his disruption at the line led to four sacks in the season’s final six games. And Wise set a career high in tackles and had his first touchdown versus the Raiders back in week 3. The improvement in play coupled with the returning opt-out players makes him a must keep in many people’s minds.

Jason McCourty offers defensive versatility and may be needed if unrestricted free agent J.C. Jackson – coming off a career year of nine interceptions and only two holding penalties – does make waves in the free agent waters.

Team Needs

New England Patriots
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While Newton may have that charismatic presence, there is the requirement for a reaction by Belichick to Brady winning in Tampa and respond in force by making the playoffs again at minimum; you have to expect an upgrade at the quarterback position. This starts by getting a big fish – those still available are DeShaun Watson (probably not a Belichick move) and maybe a return for Jimmy Garoppolo (if the price is right, i.e. dirt cheap).

Draft wise, the Patriots sit at 15th and that is a good position to target some offensive needs, be it a sprightly wide receiver such as Jaylen Waddle or tight end – with Mel Kiper Jr predicting Kyle Pitts (Tight Florida) landing in Boston in the middle of the draft.

Free Agency may also offer an opportunity to upgrade the tight end position with either Hunter Henry (Chargers) or Jonnu Smith (Titans); other free agent wide receivers of note are Allen Robinson (Bears), Chris Godwin (Bucs) and Kenny Golladay (Lions). The Patriots have never been afraid to go after a big fish once in a while, and this offseason the need to do so has been greater than it has in the last two decades.