The New England Patriots stumbled through their worst season in two decades last season. Then they overhauled their roster.
They handed out more than $170 million to free agents. They got back multiple players who opted out of last season, including a key defensive leader. They found a new quarterback — one they hope will lead them for the next decade-plus.
Ahead of Sunday’s season opener against the Miami Dolphins, here are 13 players who will determine New England’s success or failure this season:
QB Mac Jones
Jones will be the first Patriots rookie to start a season opener since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. The first-round draft pick was thoroughly impressive this summer and has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from his teammates, but as head coach Bill Belichick noted this week, he’s about to face much tougher competition than he did in the preseason, when he mostly played with and against backups. His first challenge: the aggressive Cover Zero blitz packages favored by Dolphins head coach Brian Flores.
LT Isaiah Wynn
Keeping Jones upright and protected should be priority No. 1 for the Patriots’ offense. New England’s starting O-line is one of the NFL’s best on paper, but it needs a healthy Wynn to operate at full strength. The 2018 first-round draft pick has missed at least six games due to injury in each of his first three seasons. The Patriots do not want the risk of having a backup protecting their rookie QB’s blind side.
LB Dont’a Hightower
The Patriots sorely missed Hightower during his COVID-19 opt-out. Now, he’s back in his usual spot as the leader of New England’s front seven. Will his body be able to withstand a season’s worth of hits after his year away? The Patriots have more depth on the edge than at inside linebacker, so another Hightower absence could prove problematic.
OLB Matt Judon
After paying the former Baltimore Ravens star a boatload of money this offseason, the Patriots will expect him to produce. He’s come as advertised thus far, dominating in all three of his preseason performances and quickly establishing himself as a locker room leader who, in the words of Dont’a Hightower, “sets the mood” for the entire defense.
WR Nelson Agholor
The Patriots’ most controversial free agent signing, Agholor should add a much-needed vertical element to New England’s passing game. He was one of the NFL’s premier deep threats last season and boasts a skill set no other Pats pass-catcher can replicate. But he’s already dealt with multiple injuries — he’s questionable for Sunday with an ankle — and was downright bad in 2019 before breaking out in his lone season with the Las Vegas Raiders. The Patriots need his field-stretching ability to threaten defenses vertically and create space for the rest of their offensive weapons.
CB J.C. Jackson
Jackson believes he can be a true No. 1 cornerback. Now’s his time to prove it. With no Stephon Gilmore for at least the first six games, Jackson will see a parade of top-flight wide receivers — players he typically was shielded from when playing opposite Gilmore. Will the interception artist rise to the occasion? Or will we see a repeat of his matchups with Stefon Diggs from last season? With major questions about Gilmore’s replacement(s), the Patriots need lockdown coverage from Jackson.
S Devin McCourty
Gilmore’s prolonged absence will put additional pressure on McCourty, the longtime quarterback of New England’s secondary. He’ll need to maintain his high level of play while also ensuring the team’s back-end communication remains fluid. One of the NFL’s most underrated players, the 34-year-old hasn’t missed a game in six years and has played at least 94 percent of defensive snaps in each of the last five.
TEs Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith
We’re bunching both big-money tight ends together here, because losing either would radically alter the Patriots’ expected offensive game plan. New England is expected to lean heavily on 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) after all but ignoring that grouping last season (lowest usage in the NFL). For that to happen, Henry and Smith both need to be healthy and active. That wasn’t the case this summer, as Henry missed all three preseason games with a shoulder injury and Smith missed one with a tweaked ankle. The two have yet to play a single snap together in a game setting.
DT Davon Godchaux
The Patriots played the entire 2020 season without a true nose tackle and were awful against the run. Enter Godchaux, a free agent pickup who believes he’s “one of the best nose tackles in the game” when healthy. The stats bore that out in 2019, when Godchaux led all interior defenders in run stuffs before missing most of last season with a torn biceps. The Patriots will need that kind of stoutness up front this season.
RB Damien Harris
Expectations are high for Harris, who broke out with 691 rushing yards in 10 games last year. He enters his third pro season as the Patriots’ clear No. 1 back and has a strong chance to become New England’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2016 (LeGarrette Blount) if he can stay healthy. Durability is a concern for Harris, however, after he began and ended last season on injured reserve.
K Quinn Nordin and Nick Folk
Nothing derails an otherwise competitive team more than poor kicking. The Patriots had a godsend in Folk last season (92.9 percent on field goals, two 50-plus game-winners), but he turns 37 in November, missed most of camp with an injury and currently isn’t even on the 53-man roster. New England needs either Folk to maintain his 2020 form or Nordin, the big-legged undrafted rookie whose promise pushed Folk to the practice squad, to remedy the accuracy issues we saw from him this preseason.
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