NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots

No matter who you ask in the New England area, they'll all tell you that the Patriots' 2020 campaign wasn't up to snuff. In the aftermath of Tom Brady departing for Tampa Bay, the club struggled and limped to a 7-9 record while missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2008. This offseason, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft made a tremendous effort to avoid that fate going forward by spending big in free agency and investing a first-round pick on a quarterback, bringing Alabama's Mac Jones in the fold as the future face under center. 

Will all of that money and draft capital spent turn things around in New England? That ultimately remains to be seen. That said, as the Patriots prepare for the 2021 season as they roll through training camp and are on the brink of the preseason, now seems like as good of a time as ever to throw out some bold predictions for how this season is going to go down in Foxborough. 

Patriots boast a top-five defense

I'm honestly not so sure how bold of a prediction this is because it seems quite likely the Patriots will once again have a top-tier defense. That said, it would be a significant jump from 2020, when they ranked 26th in the league in DVOA. While the offense captured most of the offseason headlines, the Patriots did address a number of key issues on defense as well. New England's linebacker unit didn't feature much high-level talent a season ago, but will now see Matt Judon (free agent signing), Kyle Van Noy (free agent signing) and Dont'a Hightower (returning from opt-out) be injected into the front seven. Those three are projected to start out of the gate, which will allow some of the Patriots' younger players (Josh Uche, Anfernee Jenning and Chase Winovich) to develop and serve as complementary pieces rather than be asked to do more than they are capable of currently. 

Another area that needed improvement was the defensive line, which struggled against the run last season. New England not only re-signed Lawrence Guy, but added Davon Godchaux (free agency), Henry Anderson (free agency) and Christian Barmore (NFL Draft) to beef up the interior as well. 

Of course, the calling card for this Patriots defense is the secondary. So long as the contract situation with Stephon Gilmore is resolved, this unit once again will be tough to beat through the air. Not only will Gilmore and J.C. Jackson continue to man the starting corner spots, but the team also added Jalen Mills in free agency. In the absence of Patrick Chung, who retired earlier this offseason, Kyle Dugger is looked at as a breakout candidate in this secondary, too. 

All in all, there doesn't seem to be a glaring weakness on this defense, which should put them near the very top of the league when the regular season is said and done. 

Damien Harris has over 1,200 scrimmage yards 

When Bill Belichick of all people is talking you up. it's safe to say there should be some optimism. Earlier in camp, the head coach commended running back Damien Harris' work ethic over the course of the offseason and even previewed an expanded role heading into 2021. 

"I think Damien's a player that improved a lot from year one to year two," Belichick told reporters back in late July. "This year, he's in a little different role. Now he has an opportunity to compete for a lead spot and so he has embraced that. He's worked hard. He's been here since the day after the season was over. He has worked as hard as anyone has in the offseason. I'm sure that'll help his preparation. Heading into this camp, we'll see how he does. He's worked extremely hard. He's a very dedicated player. I've been impressed by the commitment he has shown."

For a coach who routinely doesn't like to single out any given players, Belichick talking about Harris taking on the "lead role" certainly raises some eyebrows for what could be a promising third season in the league. We've already seen that Harris is capable of putting up numbers. In his 10 games played (all starts) in 2020, he averaged 5 yards per carry and totaled 743 yards from scrimmage. 

If he does take on the starting job and leads the backfield in touches, Harris should have no problem getting over a thousand yards rushing, especially with what may be an elite offensive line in front of him. 

Mac Jones starts a playoff game

The torch will eventually be passed to Mac Jones. While I do believe Cam Newton will be an improved signal-caller from what we saw a year ago, whenever the kid is ready, it's in the best interest of the franchise to get him in there to begin this new era. With that in mind, a midseason change should be expected at some point, especially if the offense's ceiling continues to be capped with Newton under center. There will certainly be some bumps along the way with Jones, but New England's offensive line, defense and coaching should be enough to squeak them into the postseason as a wild card contender, meaning that Jones will get a taste of playoff football very early in his development. As for when the change could happen, here are three spots in the Patriots schedule where it may make sense.