The 2021 NFL Draft starts on Thursday, April 29. As a lead-up to the draft, we’ll be giving a team-by-team breakdown for positional needs. For each team, we’ll give an overview of the current depth chart and how big of a need each position in the upcoming draft. You can find the rest of the team needs (as they’re updated) and the rest of our draft content in the 2021 NFL Draft hub.
New England Patriots 2021 Draft Picks
Round 1 (15)
Round 2 (46)
Round 3 (96)
Round 4 (120)
Round 4 (122)
Round 4 (139)
Round 5 (177)
Round 6 (188)
Round 6 (197)
Round 7 (242)
New England Patriots Offense
By Rich Hribar
The Patriots had just 12 passing touchdowns a year ago, which was tied for the fewest in the league. They also averaged 6.6 yards per pass attempt, which ranked 26th.
Despite the lackluster results through the air, New England brought back Cam Newton on a one-year, $5M base contract with the potential for an added $9M through incentives. While the contract is incentive-laden and short-term, the Patriots have made a ton of moves this offseason that signal that they are swerving into a heavy-personnel offense, which would be Newton’s wheelhouse.
There is a chicken or the egg element to Newton’s 2020 season given the weaponry New England had at their disposal in the passing game. Newton’s top-four targets a year ago were Jakobi Meyers (75), Damiere Byrd (64), James White (50), and N’Keal Harry (48). Newton is coming off a season in which he threw just eight touchdown passes and did not throw more than one touchdown in a game until Week 17, but the team was 7-8 in his starts last year while he added 592 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing.
Behind Newton, Jarrett Stidham struggled was believed to be in contention to start for the team at this point a year ago. In his short sample in relief in 2020, Stidham struggled, but the 2019 fourth-round pick is still under contract for two more seasons.
Everyone is expecting the Patriots to add a quarterback in the draft, the question is just when will they be able to? Sitting at pick 15 in the first round, they are going to need one of the top-five prospects to slide below currently anticipated draft capital or move up. If not, then New England is looking at the subsequent tier passers that likely will not be Week 1 2020 starters.
The Patriots running game was strong in totality last season, rushing for 2,346 yards (fourth in the league) and 20 touchdowns (sixth), but Cam Newton was the crux of the output, tying for the team lead in carries (137) and accounting for 12 of the scores. The backfield was more of a mixed bag.
2019 third-rounder Damien Harris flashed in his second season. After just four touches as a rookie, Harris matched Newton’s 137 carries while averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Playing the “Sony Michel” role, 71.8% of Harris’s touches came on first down, the highest rate in the league. Harris had just five receptions among those touches and did not even have a single touch on third down all season.
Michel enters the final season of his rookie contract in 2021. The Patriots do have until May 3rd to pick up Michel’s fifth-year option, but I would believe it is safe to say that will be a pass for the club. The 2018 first-rounder managed just 86 touches over nine games in 2020. Michel did average 6.5 yards per touch when on the field.
The team also brought back 29-year-old James White on a one-year contract this offseason for only $2.4M guaranteed. White is coming off a season with just 84 touches for 496 yards and three touchdowns, his lowest totals for usage in a season since 2015.
New England may already have their White replacement on the roster in J.J. Taylor, but with both Michel and White on expiring deals, New England could look to add depth to this group in the mid-to-late rounds.
Not many teams got less out of their wide receiving unit in 2020 than the Patriots. New England wideouts combined for just four touchdown receptions (the fewest in the league) and averaged just 128.9 receiving yards per game (31st). From a per-play basis, the Patriots were a touch better, ranking 21st in success rate per target to their wideouts (52%) and 20th in yards per target (7.8 yards) to the position.
That said, when your top two targets in a season are Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd, you need to go out and add to the position. New England did that, immediately pursuing and adding both Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne on the first day of free agency. We are not here to argue if the Patriots overestimated the wide receiver market with either signing, as both Agholor and Bourne will be thrust into large roles in the offense.
With a career-high 15.7-yard average depth of target, Agholor’s 18.7 yards per catch were a career-high while he produced the fourth-most points in the league on throws over 15 yards downfield (108.3). New England had just 66 completions on throws over 15 yards downfield, which was tied for the fewest in the league, but despite their team struggles altogether, Cam Newton was actually solid pushing the ball downfield when they did throw deep. Newton completed 52.7% (29-of-55) of his passes on throws over 15 yards downfield, which was fifth among all quarterbacks with 50 or more such attempts on the season, but just two of those passes went for touchdowns.
The additions of both Agholor and Bourne all but put N’Keal Harry breaking out next to zero while with New England. It also opens the door that the Patriots could be moving on from Julian Edelman at some point this offseason, who will be turning 35-years-old this May and can save the team $3.4M still if released. Edelman appeared in just six games in 2020. After 13 catches for 236 yards in the opening two games of 2020, Edelman then totaled eight catches for 79 yards over his final four games played.
Agholor, Bourne, and Harry are the only wideouts from this entire group under contract with the team beyond the 2021 season. Both Meyers and Olszewski will be restricted free agents next offseason. Despite the recent struggles of finding and developing wide receiver talent, the position is still a point of need and the Patriots should be expected to go back to the well on the position come April.
In 2020, Patriots tight ends received just 33 total targets, catching just 18 passes for 254 yards and a single touchdown. No team ran 12 personnel less last season than the Patriots at 2% of their plays. That is absolutely going to change in 2021 after the Patriots went out and added both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry in free agency.
Those two top-of-the-market signings come after selecting both Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the third round a year ago with picks 91 and 101. Given the resources poured into the position the past two offseasons, this is one spot the Patriots do not need to pursue in the draft.
LT: Isaiah Wynn/Yodny Cajuste
LG: Michael Onwenu/Justin Herron
C: David Andrews/Ted Karras*
RG: Shaq Mason/Ross Reynolds
RT: Trent Brown*/Korey Cunningham
The Patriots had the fourth-most adjusted games lost on their offensive line in 2020 (39.5) per Football Outsiders, but despite that, still ranked 13th (59%) and 10th (72%) in ESPN’s Pass Block and Run Block Win Rate metrics. The only starting linemen to play in all 16 games last year were Joe Thuney (who just left via free agency) and sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu.
Onwenu was a big hit at his draft cost. As a rookie, not only did he start in every game, but he also logged snaps at three different positions, playing 616 snaps at right tackle, 185 at right guard, and 112 at left guard. At the end of the season, Pro Football Focus graded Onwenu as the eighth-highest tackle in 2020. With the team bringing back Trent Brown via trade, Onwenu is expected to move into the vacated spot by Thuney, but his year one versatility gives the Patriots options down the line.
Brown only has one year remaining on his current deal and the team will have to decide whether or not to pick up the fifth-year option on 2019 first-round draft pick Isaiah Wynn. Wynn has appeared in just 18 games over his first three seasons in the league and has played 44% and 63% of the team snaps the past two seasons after missing his entire rookie season. When on the field in 2020, Wynn was graded as the 10th highest tackle per Pro Football Focus, so getting Wynn on the field for a full season will be a huge plus.
The Patriots also retained center David Andrews and signed Ted Karras as interior depth this offseason. Karras was with New England over the 2016-2019 seasons and started for Andrews when he missed the 2019 season before joining Miami a year ago and starting all 16 games at center.
The Patriots have all of Onwenu, Shaq Mason, and Andrews under contract through the 2023 season. With both current tackles Wynn and Brown on potentially expiring deals after 2021, the Patriots could look down the line at depth at those positions while having Onwenu’s versatility to also play right tackle again after this season could have them pursue another guard to inevitably start next season. New England is in a great spot with their current starting roster and future flexibility to let the offensive line board to come to them.
New England Patriots Defense
by Dan Pizzuta
Interior Defensive Line
The Patriots had the league’s worst run defense by DVOA in 2020. In response, they spent part of their free agent spree on interior defenders. Davon Godchaux only played five games last season due to a biceps injury, but he is a massive nose tackle who had four tackles for loss and seven quarterback hits with the Dolphins in 2019. Henry Anderson ranked third among interior defenders in ESPN’s Run Block Win Rate last season with the Jets. Those additions should allow players such as Lawrence Guy, Byron Cowart, and Deatrich Wise to me more rotational pieces on the inside.
Kyle Van Noy*
Few teams, if any, have a thinner line between their dedicated pass rushers and off-ball linebackers. Chase Winovich rushed on 89% of his pass snaps in 2020 (and finished first in the league among pass rushers in pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions) but he was really New England’s only full-time pass rusher.
That’s part of the reason Matt Judon should fit so well in this defense. Judon rushed the passer on 72% of his pass snaps in Baltimore last season (and was fifth in pressure rate when he did). That meshes with players like the recently returned Kyle Van Noy, who rushed on 43% of his pass snaps with the Patriots in 2018 then 78.4% in 2019 but then back to 43.9% with the Miami Dolphins last year. Even Dona’a Hightower, who will be a big return from a 2020 opt-out, rushed the passer on 59% of his pass snaps in 2019 as the team’s middle linebacker.
Even the rotational players are splitting time between pass rushing and coverage. Josh Uche was considered more of an edge and rushed the passer 66% of the time last season. Anfernee Jennings was more of an off-ball linebacker but still rushed on 31.4% of his pass snaps. Both players have dual roles in college. Should the Patriots go linebacker in the draft, and some depth might be needed as the loss of Hightower exposed the rest of the linebacker group last season, it’s likely to be for players who have shown the ability to handle both responsibilities.
With J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots have one of the best outside corner duos in the league. Jackson is the type of player who has routinely been able to turn his ball skills into interceptions and now has 16 over the past two seasons. Jonathan Jones was about average in the slot, by adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap, and Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant flashed in multiples areas.
No team in the NFL used defensive backs more than the Patriots last season. They used dime on 47% of their defensive snaps per SIS, but 54% of the entire league’s defensive snaps with seven defensive backs on the field came from the Patriots.
There is only one year remaining on Gilmore’s contract — and there were rumors earlier of trade interest — so pairing that with the Patriots’ heavy use of defensive backs, it wouldn’t be surprising to see New England hit the position early in the draft.
Everything said about the Patriots’ cornerbacks applies to safeties. Devin McCourty continues to hold down the back end and played 94.5% of the team’s defensive snaps last season, but he’ll be 34 years old in August. Adrian Phillips played 73% of the snaps alongside him and Kyle Duggar got on the field for about half of the team’s defensive snaps in the linebacker-safety hybrid role. Jalen Mills was better as a safety in his transition from cornerback last season with the Eagles and could slot in multiple roles in the secondary.
Like corner, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots continue to add bodies to the back end of the defense.