The Patriots were in a rather unfamiliar spot last season. In 2020, they finished below .500 (first time since 2000) and were on the outside looking in on the playoffs (first time since 2008). With the sting of the first season post-Tom Brady still lingering, New England will look to change the tide and return to contention in 2021, albeit with almost an entirely different cast of characters.
This offseason, the Patriots spent big in free agency, adding the likes of Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Matt Judon, and others to the roster. Meanwhile, they also invested a first-round pick on a quarterback for the first time in Bill Belichick's tenure in New England. After a summer battle rookie Mac Jones was able to beat out 2020 starting quarterback Cam Newton for QB1 honors to begin 2021.
With all that change, there is plenty of optimism in Foxborough, but how much longer will it take for the team to get back into the Super Bowl conversation? Currently, the Patriots are still a long shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy this coming February with Caesars Sportsbook listing them at +3000 to win it all in 2021. If they were to climb the mountaintop immediately, however, these are three things that would need to happen.
1. Mac Jones succeeds out of the gate
It has to start with the quarterback, right? Jones will need to have a Justin Herbert-like season for the Patriots to seriously sniff championship contention during his rookie season. While it's a tall task, he is in a good position to succeed almost immediately. The Patriots have a stable of running backs -- headlined by Damien Harris and James White -- that should be able to take some of the pressure off of Jones on offense. When he does need to drop back to pass, he'll have arguably one of the better offensive lines in football protecting him and some intriguing weapons in the passing game. The cast of receivers -- Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne -- are a bit suspect, but who do rookie quarterbacks love throwing to? That's right -- tight ends. At that spot, Jones will be able to find Smith and Henry with the Patriots base offense likely being in 12-personnel.
Not only does Jones have a solid core around him on offense, but the preseason also showed that he is already pretty well-versed in Josh McDaniels' complex scheme, which should set him up for even more success.
2. New England boasts top five defense
This is where the Patriots can look to mimic what they did in the early stages of their dynasty with Brady. As Brady got his feet wet in the league, New England was winning Super Bowls in large part due to a dominant defense headlined by the likes of Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, and others. As they turn the keys over to a young quarterback yet again, the defense will be called upon to carry some significant weight. Luckily for the Patriots, they have a talented depth chart on that side of the ball that could arguably be among the league's best when the 2021 season is in the books.
One of the bigger issues that Patriots have dealt with on the defensive side of the ball in recent years is stopping the run. That seemed to be a point of emphasis for the team this offseason as they beefed up the interior of their defensive line by signing Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson while trading up in the second round to select Christian Barmore. On top of those moves, the linebacker unit is much improved from what it looked like in Week 17 of 2020. Now, Dont'a Hightower is back after opting out due to COVID-19, Kyle Van Noy was re-signed after spending a year in Miami, and the team spent big in free agency to land Judon. Those three should make this unit pretty formidable, but the emergence of second-year pass-rusher Josh Uche could take it over the top.
In the secondary, the loss of Stephon Gilmore (PUP) for the start of the year is a big blow, but if he is able to return to his elite form during the middle of the year, the Patriots have a chance to be a top five unit that should be able to slow any offense in the league down.
3. Bill Belichick
The good news for New England in its hopes of jumping right back into the Super Bowl conversation is that the Patriots have the greatest mind that the NFL has ever seen in Belichick. I know we all think that Belichick is a robot, but the head coach is human and is likely champing at the bit to begin the regular season so he can try to match Brady's Super Bowl he won with the Buccaneers in 2020. For that to happen, Belichick -- along with McDaniels and the rest of the Patriots coaching staff -- will need to be on the top of their game and remain one step ahead of their opponents on a weekly basis. My guess is that this Patriots team -- just like any other year -- will receive the best coaching that the league has to offer, which is an advantage that can't be overlooked.
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The Mac Jones era in New England has begun after the shocking release of veteran Cam Newton. How will the rookie fare in 2021? Download the CBS Sports app and get the latest news, insights, and surprising predictions from our team of experts. If you already have the app, make sure to favorite the Patriots to get the latest news quickly.