FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Coach Bill Belichick went to work this offseason, and the result is a New England Patriots roster that has a significant increase in talent and competition.
The player-acquisition scorecard for the new-look Patriots looks like this:
Trade acquisitions: 1
Draft picks: 8
Opt-outs return: 5
Coming off a 7-9 season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Patriots needed an upgrade. Their financial flexibility (and aggressiveness) helped them do it. One team official opined that the result should allow the franchise to get back to a foundational principle of competition at all spots, which wasn't the case last season.
Here is a position-by-position snapshot of the roster:
Belichick made it clear, before he was even asked, that Newton is the starting quarterback. That doesn't mean Jones, the 15th overall pick, can't make a legitimate run for the job. It just seemed to be Belichick's way of taking some pressure off him. It shouldn't take long in training camp -- from the standpoint of the football coming out on time and in rhythm -- to see if Jones has a realistic chance to be a Day 1 starter.
Stevenson, the fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, could threaten Michel for a spot on the game-day roster (and possibly the 53-man roster) because he's more likely to be a factor on special teams. This appears to be a spot with quality depth, which the Patriots have needed in recent seasons because of injuries.
Johnson grew into the role as a full-time starter for the first time in 2020, and now he faces competition from Vitale, who returns after opting out and offers a potentially different skill set as more of a pass-catching threat.
The possibilities with two- and three-tight end packages must have offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels salivating, considering how handcuffed he was in 2020 when the Patriots ran 3% of their offensive snaps with two or more tight ends on the field. Keene, a 2020 third-round pick, might have his best chance to stick by factoring more into the fullback mix.
The Patriots could have benefited from adding another layer of speed on the outside, and it could still be coming should they entertain someone who fits that profile. The likelihood is that multiple tight end sets will become a dominant part of the attack, which might lessen the importance of any addition being an inside-type target.
OFFENSIVE LINE (12): Isaiah Wynn (LT), Trent Brown (OT), Mike Onwenu (OT/G), Shaq Mason (G), David Andrews (C), Ted Karras (C/G), Justin Herron (OT/G), Korey Cunningham (OT), Yodny Cajuste (OT), William Sherman (OT/G/C), Marcus Martin (C/G), Najee Toran (C/G)
By picking up Wynn's fifth-year option for 2022, which guaranteed him $10.4 million, the Patriots seemed to confirm they view him as a left tackle and not a guard. So a Wynn-Onwenu-Andrews-Mason-Brown starting line is the projection, and if everyone is healthy and playing to their capabilities, it could be the team's strength.
What a difference a year makes, as the Patriots seemed to get away from a big part of their identity in 2020 by lacking across-the-board size and physical presence at the heart of the line of scrimmage. When Godchaux gets his hands into the chest plate of offensive linemen and extends his arms, it often looks like a throwback Nose Tackle 101 course in Patriots football.
Just as the Patriots struggled against the run at the line of scrimmage in 2020, they also had issues setting the edge in the running game, and the additions of Judon and Van Noy give them a solid chance to avoid that happening again. They should be deeper and tougher, although there's also some caution in overestimating Judon's transition to a new scheme.
The return of Hightower after opting out immediately provides an upgrade, assuming he can pick up where he left off, which is no guarantee. This might be Uche's best fit on early downs, but the Patriots will surely want to tap his explosive rush skills on the line of scrimmage in obvious passing situations. Belichick said McGrone, the fifth-round pick from Michigan, might be more of a consideration for 2022 as he recovers from a torn ACL.
Gilmore and Jackson enter the final year of their contracts. Gilmore is scheduled to earn a base salary of $7 million as a result of the team advancing him $5 million last season, and that seems like a situation for the sides to revisit before the season -- possibly in the form of an extension. Mills, a big-money free-agent signing, could factor into the safety mix as well.
Similar to the cornerback spot, starters McCourty and Phillips enter the final year of their contracts, and 2020 top pick Dugger (51.7% playing time) is being groomed as a possible successor in Phillips' role. The likely best approach for Bledsoe, the 2021 sixth-round pick from Missouri, will be to initially emerge on special teams.
This is a reflection of how Belichick values special teams as Slater, Bethel and Davis are essentially locks to make the team and don't factor much into a specific position.
Bailey was a Pro Bowler in his second season, and Folk helped solidify the kicking game last season, so the hope is that continuity leads to even greater success.