With offseason programs in the books, NFL teams will next month turn their attention to training camp as preparations for the 2021 season ramp up.

Every coaching staff in the league knows that having a reliable offensive line will be crucial to their hopes of success in the coming campaign.

Too many holes in the trenches can doom a team's chances in a hurry regardless of the talent at quarterback and the offensive skill positions.

Reflecting the importance of strong play up front, five offensive linemen were taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

And, using combined run block and pass protection data over the past three seasons, Stats Perform has produced projected offensive line rankings to see how each team stacks up in the trenches.

Here we look at which teams are in the best shape, which O-Lines could cause problems for their quarterback and which appear to ready to make the leap to the league's best in 2021.


THE ELITE

1. Dallas Cowboys

LT – Tyron Smith, LG – Connor Williams, C – Tyler Biadasz, RG – Zack Martin, RT – La'el Collins

Injuries decimated the Dallas O-Line in 2020 but, when healthy, it is tough to see another unit in the league that can match this group for overall talent.

That may be a substantial caveat but, should the Cowboys keep their starters in the line-up in 2021, Dak Prescott will have the benefit of excellent protection from several spots up front.

Tyron Smith missed all but two games last season but remains the top pass protecting left tackle in our projected ranks. Zack Martin is second in pass protection among right guards and, if he can return to his best after missing six games in 2020 and right tackle La'el Collins can stay on the field and play at a high level, a stacked Cowboys offense will be in an excellent spot to produce at an historic pace as they did last year before Prescott went down.

2. New England Patriots

LT – Isaiah Wynn, LG – Mike Onwenu, C – David Andrews, RG – Shaq Mason, RT – Trent Brown

The Patriots lost Joe Thuney in free agency but, despite the departure of one of the most dependable guards in football, New England heads into 2021 with an elite group hoping to help the offense bounce back from a dismal 2020.

Trent Brown's return should fortify the right side of the line while left tackle Isaiah Wynn shouldn't have to worry much about his inside shoulder with Mike Onwenu ranking as the second-best pass protecting left guard in the NFL after an excellent rookie season.

David Andrews grades out as the top run-blocking center in football -- he allowed a run disruption on only 5.3 per cent of his snaps in 2020, with Corey Linsley well adrift in second on 6.2 per cent -- while Shaq Mason is in the top three in that area at right guard.

Regardless of whether it's Cam Newton or Mac Jones under center in 2021, the O-Line is constructed in a way where the quarterback and a replenished set of skill-position players should have every chance to succeed.

3. Baltimore Ravens

LT – Ronnie Stanley, LG – Bradley Bozeman, C – Patrick Mekari, RG – Kevin Zeitler, RT – Alejandro Villanueva

Baltimore's presence in the top three may raise a few eyebrows given they traded right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs.

However, their lofty position is largely a testament to the play of Ronnie Stanley, the left tackle who will be looking to bounce back after seeing his 2020 season ended by an ankle injury.

Stanley ranks tied-fourth among left tackles and was stellar in pass protection prior to getting hurt, with his pressure rate allowed of 4.4 per cent bettered only by David Bakhtiari and Andrew Whitworth at his position.

Having given up a pressure rate of 11.9 per cent at left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, Alejandro Villanueva will have a challenge replacing Brown, who allowed pressures on just 5.8 per cent of his right tackle snaps in 2020.

But the interior was the main issue for the Ravens last season and, with fourth-ranked right guard Kevin Zeitler arriving from the New York Giants, Baltimore should be confident of a noticeable improvement in the middle of their line.

THE STRUGGLERS

30. Chicago Bears

LT – Teven Jenkins, LG – Cody Whitehair, C – Sam Mustipher, RG – Germain Ifedi, RT – Elijah Wilkinson

After surprisingly allowing Charles Leno to leave, the Bears are banking on Teven Jenkins successfully making the switch from college right tackle to NFL left tackle as a rookie. That he will do so successfully is a dubious presumption to make and there is little to rely on at any spot on the trenches for Chicago.

Cody Whitehair at least provided a solid presence at left guard but the interior protection for Andy Dalton, or rookie first-round pick Justin Fields, will be suspect if Sam Mustipher cannot make strides at center.

Tied as the third-worst center in the NFL in the projected rankings, only Hroniss Grasu (2.8%) fared worse than Mustipher (2.3%) in terms of adjusted sack rate allowed in 2020.

31. Carolina Panthers

LT – Greg Little, LG – Dennis Daley, C – Matt Paradis, RG – John Miller, RT – Taylor Moton

Carolina looks set at right tackle, with Taylor Moton ranking as the fifth-best player at the position, but they have little in the way of solutions elsewhere up front.

The left side looms as a massive issue for the Panthers. Greg Little grades out as the worst left tackle in football and Dennis Daley is 30th among left guards in the projected rankings.

It is far from an ideal scenario for Sam Darnold to step into as quarterback, and he will hope center Matt Paradis can do a significantly better job snapping the football. Paradis' bad snap percentage of 3.49 was fourth-worst in the NFL in 2020.

32. Minnesota Vikings

LT – Christian Darrisaw, LG – Dru Samia, C – Garrett Bradbury, RG – Ezra Cleveland, RT – Brian O'Neill

Offensive line issues have long since plagued the Vikings, who invested a premium pick in a new left tackle by using their first-round selection on Christian Darrisaw of Virginia Tech.

Darrisaw named Trent Williams and Laremy Tunsil as his favourite linemen to watch prior to the draft. If he replicates their impact, he will be a success, but there are substantial problems on the interior.

Dru Samia is the worst left guard in the NFL in the projected rankings, and center Garrett Bradbury allowed pressure on 8.1 per cent of his pass protection snaps. Only two players to take snaps center had worse pressure rates in 2020.

READY TO MAKE THE LEAP

Kansas City Chiefs

LT – Orlando Brown Jr, LG – Joe Thuney, C – Austin Blythe, RG – Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, RT – Mike Remmers

The Chiefs completely remodelled their offensive line in the wake of giving up 33 pressures in the Super Bowl LV, and there is little doubt they head into 2021 with a much-improved group as they attempt to win back the Lombardi Trophy.

Kansas City will need an improvement from Brown following his trade from Baltimore. In his 221 pass protection snaps at left tackle after Stanley's injury, Brown gave up a pressure rate of 10.9 per cent. Having campaigned to play on the left side, Brown's performance figures to come under significant scrutiny.

He will be helped by the presence of Thuney, second among all left guards in the projected rankings after allowing pressure on just 4.3 per cent of his snaps in his final season in New England.

With Laurent Duvernay-Tardif returning to man the right guard spot, the Chiefs' line has an air of solidity about it. Eleventh in the projected ranks, the Chiefs could jump into the top 10 if not the top five should their additions perform to their potential.

Los Angeles Chargers

LT – Rashawn Slater, LG – Matt Feiler, C – Corey Linsley, RG – Oday Aboushi, RT – Bryan Bulaga

Staying in the AFC West with a Chargers team many will be backing to surge towards postseason contention after an Offensive Rookie of the Year season from Justin Herbert, for Los Angeles much hinges on the performance of rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater in his first season in the league.

That is a lot of expectation to place on a player who did not feature in the 2020 college season, but the optimism should come from Slater's 2019 performance for Northwestern, which saw him give up just six pressures on 220 pass protection snaps.

Yet the most important addition for Herbert may be that of center Corey Linsley, who arrived from the Green Bay Packers. Just three centers graded above Linsley in the projected ranks and his ability to quickly develop a rapport with Herbert will be pivotal to the Chargers realising their potential. History suggests the 2020 first-team All-Pro should succeed in doing so.

Arizona Cardinals

LT – D.J. Humphries, LG – Justin Pugh, C – Rodney Hudson, RG – Brian Winters, RT – Kelvin Beachum

The Cardinals must be strong up front if Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury are to have a chance of inspiring Arizona to a successful season in an NFC West loaded with pass-rushing talent, and they made an astute addition on the interior this offseason in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders that saw them acquire three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson.

Tied for fourth with Linsley among centers in the projected rankings, Hudson's experience will be a valuable asset to Murray as he looks to take a step forward in year three, the former Kansas City Chief recording a pressure rate allowed of 1.7 per cent that was the second-best in the league at his position.

Kelvin Beachum is a substantial asset to the ground game. His run disruption percentage of 5.9 per cent was third among right tackles in 2020 and, with D.J. Humphries allowing only 28 pressures on 450 pass protection snaps last season, Murray will have three dependable players at the most important positions on the line in a year where another underwhelming campaign will not be acceptable.

Adam Vinatieri is to retire from the NFL after 24 seasons.

The former New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts kicker is the league's all-time leading points scorer.

Vinatieri, 48, amassed 2,673 points across his career, which saw him three Super Bowl titles with the Patriots and one win with the Colts.

He kicked the game-winning field goals for the Patriots in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII and made 29 decisive three-pointers in his career.

Announcing his decision on 'The Pat McAfee Show' on Wednesday, Vinatieri said: "By Friday, if paperwork goes in, you heard it here first."

Vinatieri holds the records for most career field goals made (599) and most consecutive field goals converted (44).

He will have a strong case to become the third outright kicker in the Hall of Fame, with Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen already enshrined in Canton.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will kick off the new NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys on September 9, while Sam Darnold is to be quickly reunited with the New York Jets.

Ahead of the full schedule release later on Wednesday, the Week 1 slate was confirmed with Tom Brady's Bucs the highlight.

After winning the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs last season, seven-time champion Brady is in the Thursday night game against the Cowboys in Tampa.

The Bucs have brought back the entirety of their title-winning team and face a Dallas outfit aiming to improve on an awful 2020 after signing Dak Prescott to a long-term contract.

Elsewhere, quarterback Darnold will make his Carolina Panthers debut against the Jets team he left this offseason.

In three miserable years in New York, Darnold threw for 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions across 38 games with a 59.8 completion percentage – the third-worst rate in the league over this period.

The former third overall pick was traded to the Panthers last month for a sixth-round pick this year and a second and fourth-rounders in 2022, with the Jets then using the second selection in 2021 to take Zach Wilson.

Among Wilson's fellow first-round QBs, Mac Jones could potentially make his bow against the man he succeeded at Alabama.

Jones, who is competing for the starting spot on the New England Patriots with Cam Newton, will hope to face Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins in a big AFC East matchup.

Trevor Lawrence is likely to go straight into the Jacksonville Jaguars team against the Houston Texans, while Trey Lance will hope to get his chance under center for the San Francisco 49ers at the Detroit Lions and Justin Fields for the Chicago Bears at the Los Angeles Rams in the late Sunday game.

The NFL also confirmed Wilson and Lawrence would be in line for appearances in the London games in October, with the Jets facing the Atlanta Falcons and the Jaguars taking on the Dolphins on consecutive weekends.

Another of the more intriguing Week 1 games sees the Green Bay Packers travel to the New Orleans Saints.

As the Saints begin the post-Drew Brees era, the Packers will hope wantaway MVP Aaron Rodgers is still on the team and able to improve his 3-2 career record as a starter against New Orleans.

The Seattle Seahawks, who have kept hold of Russell Wilson, face the Indianapolis Colts, and Patrick Mahomes' latest title tilt sees the Kansas City Chiefs host the Cleveland Browns.

Mahomes went down with a toe injury and then a concussion in an epic Chiefs win over the Browns in the 2020 postseason, with 35-year-old backup Chad Henne making his playoff debut and having a pick and a sack but completing six of eight passes to complete the job.

In the first Monday Night Football of the season, Lamar Jackson's Baltimore Ravens will go to the Las Vegas Raiders.


Week 1 schedule in full:

Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Sep 9, 8:20pm ET
Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
New York Jets at Carolina Panthers – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Los Angeles Chargers at Washington Football Team – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Denver Broncos at New York Giants – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams – Sep 12, 8:20pm ET
Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders – Sep 13, 8:15pm ET

Mac Jones vowed to do things his way rather than by the Tom Brady playbook as he teamed up with Bill Belichick at the New England Patriots.

The 22-year-old Jones led Alabama to a national championship in the 2020 season and joins the Patriots after being taken with the 15th pick in the NFL Draft.

As a quarterback linking up with Belichick, who had Brady as his favoured signal caller for 19 years, Jones has a lot to live up to.

First, he has to dislodge Cam Newton though, so Jones is determined to play according to his own design and his personal strengths rather than look to copy anyone else.

Asked about Brady, Jones said: "I just love watching him, how he manoeuvres through the pocket and stuff. But for me it's just being myself and being my own player and obviously he did great things for New England and I'm just looking forward to going in there and working.

"I've watched all the Super Bowls, regardless of the team, so it was awesome. Obviously, Tom and the New England Patriots were in a lot of them growing up, so I got a chance to watch them and I just like good football in general."

Jones said he had watched previous Patriots games during the draft process, to get a firm grip of what makes the team tick.

Newton replaced Brady as Belichick's starting quarterback last season and has signed on for this year too, but his position looks set to come under threat in 2021 from Jones and Jarrett Stidham. The Patriots finished with a 7-9 record in 2020, while Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Super Bowl glory.

Veteran coach Belichick, who described Jones as "a smart kid", said the process of getting the new recruit ready for the rigours of the NFL would "take a lot of time".

"Cam's our quarterback," Belichick said. "Whatever position, whatever time Jarrett or Mac are ready to challenge and compete, then we'll see how that goes. But right now, Mac, he's just got a lot of learning in front of him."

Jones would not disagree with that perspective, wary of pushing himself to the front of the queue before time.

"Cam's awesome," Jones said, "and I've only heard great things when talking to people that I know from the Patriots about how great of a guy he is and how much everyone loves him.

"He just has fun with it, and I do too, so hopefully we can kind of have fun together and I'll help him out. It's his show and I'm just there to support him and then kind of just help out the team in whatever way I can."

Jones excelled in his only year as a starter at Alabama, completing 77.4 per cent of his passes for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns and only four interceptions.  He was one of three finalists for the 2020 Heisman Trophy, which went to his teammate DeVonta Smith.

Jones had been tipped in some quarters to join the San Francisco 49ers, but they plumped for Trey Lance instead with the third overall pick.

"I feel like, secretly, I really wanted to go to the Patriots all along, so I'm actually really happy that it happened," Jones said. "But it doesn't really matter.

"You get picked. You've got to take the opportunity and take advantage of it and learn the new system, learn the new coaches, learn the new culture, and coach Belichick's done a great job establishing that throughout his time in New England and I've just got to learn how to be a great teammate and do my job and stick to what they're telling me to do."

Highly touted quarterbacks? Check. Oversized stage? Check. Raucous Fans? Check.

A year after holding a virtual NFL Draft in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement due to concerns over the coronavirus, the 2021 draft descended on Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday, with Goodell once again sharing bro-hugs with the prospects on stage in front of thousands of vaccinated and mask-wearing fans.

Although the easy chair from Goodell’s basement did make the trip to the stage, this year’s edition of the draft felt much more normal than a year ago – and it began exactly as nearly everyone expected.

The Jacksonville Jaguars chose Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall and the New York Jets went with BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at number two.

Considered to be the most polished QB prospect in years, Lawrence threw for 10,098 yards in his collegiate career, while going 34-2 as a starter with the Tigers and winning the 2018 National Championship.

Wilson had been linked to the Jets for months after throwing for 3,692 yards with 33 touchdown passes to only three interceptions last season, and New York hopes he can be the franchise’s answer at QB and lead the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 after the recently traded and 2018 No. 3 pick Sam Darnold never lived up to expectations.

A quarterback had also been projected to go third overall ever since the San Francisco 49ers traded up to that position weeks ago, the only question was who – Trey Lance out of FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Justin Fields from Ohio State or Alabama national champion Mac Jones.

The tight-lipped 49ers ended weeks of suspense by drafting Lance, who has only played in one game since the 2019 season but led the Bison to the FCS title that year while accounting for 42 total touchdowns without an interception.

With the surprising Lance going to San Francisco, this became just the third time in the common draft era that started in 1967 – and first time since 1999 – quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in the NFL draft.

The consensus top five QBs - Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields and Jones – had been slated to all get drafted in the top 10, but Fields and Jones were still on the board after 10 picks.

The Chicago Bears decided not to sit on their hands, trading up nine spots with the New York Giants to grab Fields, a dual-threat QB who finished his collegiate career with 5,701 passing yards and 67 TDs through the air.

The Patriots were more patient, selecting Jones with the 15th pick – a spot few believed he would still be available. Jones threw for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns to just four picks in leading Alabama last season, and became the first quarterback selected in the first round during Bill Belichick’s 21-year tenure in New England.

Jones also became the final QB selected in the first round, making this only the fourth time at least five QBs were drafted in round number one, along with 2018, 1999 and the famous 1983 draft, when six were selected.

Not only were QBs a hot commodity, so were their targets.

The Atlanta Falcons made Florida’s Kyle Pitts the highest drafted tight end in history when they picked him fourth overall after he had 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 TDs in 2020.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins drafted who they hope will be their franchise quarterbacks in the 2020 first round, and this year they each focused on providing them with a playmaker they were familiar with.

Cincinnati selected LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick, teaming him 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, the quarterback who led the Tigers to the 2019 FBS title. In 26 games played together in 2018 and 2019, Burrow targeted Chase 162 times, resulting in 107 receptions for 2,093 yards and 23 touchdowns.

One pick later, the Dolphins chose Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, reuniting him with college quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, last year’s fifth pick. Waddle only appeared in six games last season because of a broken left ankle, but he left Alabama with 106 receptions for 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns over three years.

The reunions continued with the 10th pick, when the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to select 2020 Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith to get him back with former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, the 53rd overall pick a year ago. Smith, who put up eye-popping numbers in 2020 with 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns, was a teammate of Hurts in 2017 and 2018.

While the Bengals, Dolphins and Eagles reunited former teammates, the Jaguars decided to go ahead and just bring aboard one of Lawrence’s teammates from this past season, selecting Clemson running back Travis Etienne with the 25th pick, making this the first time in the common draft era a quarterback and running back from the same school were drafted by the same team in the first round.

Etienne was a workhorse for the past four years with the Tigers, racking up 4,952 rushing yards and 70 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 7.2 yards per carry.

Etienne became the second running back selected in the first round after the Pittsburgh Steelers took Alabama’s Najee Harris one pick earlier.

With the Denver Broncos nabbing Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II ninth overall and the Las Vegas Raiders drafting Crimson Tide offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood at No. 17, Harris became the sixth player from Alabama drafted in the first round, matching the University of Miami from 2004 for the most players selected from one school in the first round.

While the draft started with offensive players being selected with the first seven picks for the first time ever, the final five picks of the opening round were all defensive players, concluding with the defending Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selecting linebacker Joe Tryon out of Washington with the 32nd pick.

Bill Belichick has his next quarterback, as the New England Patriots selected Mac Jones with the 15th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

The QB will seem like a natural fit for Belichick's system in New England after leading Alabama to a national championship in 2020. 

That should temper any disappointment Jones might feel in dropping to the 15th pick after some had speculated he might go as high as third overall. 

Jones excelled in his only year as a starter at Alabama, completing 77.4 per cent of his passes for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns and only four interceptions. 

He was one of three finalists for the 2020 Heisman Trophy, which ended up going to his teammate DeVonta Smith. 

Now the question is how quickly he will take over the starting job in New England, who went 7-9 last season with Cam Newton at the position after Tom Brady left to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Newton re-signed with the Patriots for 2021, but Jones will be seen as the heir to Brady, who teamed with Belichick to win six Super Bowl titles in 20 seasons together. 

The selection would seem to eliminate the possibility of Jimmy Garoppolo returning to New England, which had been a popular subject of speculation in recent months. 

 

New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman has announced his retirement from the NFL after 12 seasons.

Edelman, a seventh-round pick in 2009, played a crucial role in the second half of the Patriots' dynasty, winning three Super Bowl titles with New England.

He was named Super Bowl LIII MVP for his performance in the most recent of the Patriots' championship triumphs, which saw him make 10 catches for 141 yards.

Consistently reliable in the biggest moments, Edelman ranks second in postseason receiving yards (1,442) and receptions (118).

But a knee injury suffered last season has put an end to his storied career, with his retirement announced shortly after the Patriots released him with a failed physical designation.

In a video announcement on Twitter, Edelman said: "I've always said, I'll go until the wheels come off, and they've finally fallen off.

"Due to an injury last year, I'll be making my official announcement of my retirement from football.

"It's a hard decision but the right decision for me and my family. I'm honoured and so proud to be retiring a Patriot."

Head coach Bill Belichick said in a statement: "By any measure of what constitutes an elite NFL career – wins, championships, production – Julian has it all.

"Few players can match Julian's achievements, period, but considering his professional trajectory and longevity, the group is even more select. It is historic.

"This is a tribute to his legendary competitiveness, mental and physical toughness and will to excel. Day in and day out, Julian was always the same: all out.

"Then, in the biggest games and moments, with championships at stake, he reached even greater heights and delivered some of his best, most thrilling performances.

"For all Julian did for our team, what I may appreciate the most is he was the quintessential throwback player.

"He could, and did, do everything – catch, run, throw, block, return, cover and tackle – all with an edge and attitude that would not allow him to fail under any circumstance. Julian Edelman is the ultimate competitor and it was a privilege to coach him."

Edelman finishes his career second in Patriots history with 620 receptions, fourth with 6,822 receiving yards and ninth with 36 receiving touchdowns.

He racked up 58 rushing attempts for 413 yards, the most rushing attempts and rushing yards by a receiver in franchise history. Edelman's total of 9,869 all-purpose yards is fourth in team history.

The 2020 season is not one fans of the New England Patriots will remember fondly.

Not only did they lose Tom Brady after 20 years, but the star quarterback went on to win a famous seventh Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Pats, meanwhile, suffered with the tight salary cap left behind after years of pushing for postseason glory with Brady.

They went 7-9, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, a season that saw Brady suffer a serious knee injury in Week 1.

While their record was by no means the league's worst, it was their first losing season since 2000.

Head coach Bill Belichick is not used to that and, with their cap situation looking much better, he has been aggressive in attempting to put things right with a free agency spending spree.

Here, we have used Stats Perform data to look at their disappointing 2020 season and some of the moves they have made to turn their fortunes around.

Offense

Cam Newton was a late addition ahead of the season on a bargain contract, but he was unable to recapture his Carolina Panthers peak as he returned from injury with a new offense.

His 82.9 passer rating was 28th out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks and he had just eight touchdown passes through the air, with 10 interceptions.

Still, Brady had not impressed in his last season either, with New England having one of the weakest supporting casts in the NFL.

Jakobi Meyers, who was undrafted in 2019, had a good year at wide receiver (59 catches for 729 yards), though no other player topped 400 yards receiving.

Julian Edelman was only healthy for six games, while the top tight end Ryan Izzo had just 199 receiving yards.

The Pats were 30th in the NFL with just 181 passing yards per game, 49 YPG below the league average.

New England had 38 passing plays of 20+ yards – only the New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals faring worse in that category.

Newton attempted 22 passes of 21+ air yards – 30 NFL QBs threw more – highlighting the limitations of the offense.

He did, however, add 592 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, offering a new dimension the Pats' offense.

That at least helped the Pats, with a strong offensive line, to a fourth-ranked rushing attack (147 YPG), though only two of their 20 rushing TDs were runs of 10+ yards

Newton went a solid but unspectacular 7-8, missing one game due to coronavirus, which he said had a lingering effect on his performance even after he had returned. 

On the whole, it was an offense that was tough to watch and while Newton may have underwhelmed, it was a very difficult situation in which to succeed.

Defense

The Patriots' defense was hit hard by COVID-19 opt outs, but the talent that remained combined with Belichick's coaching meant it was still a top-10 unit that was usually tough to move the ball against.

New England were seventh in points allowed (22.1) and while they were 15th in yardage (354 YPG), that ranking improved to eighth against the pass (222 YPG).

Stephon Gilmore was a Pro Bowl selection at cornerback for a unit that allowed seven TDs of 20+ yards, a figure bettered by just six teams.

The run defense struggled (26th in NFL at 131 YPG), forcing only 26 rushing plays to go for negative yardage – with only the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs faring worse.

New England had 22 takeaways, close to the league average (21), though 24 sacks was way below the par score recorded by the rest of the NFL (35).

Chase Winovich led the team in sacks (5.5) as well as in combined QB knockdowns and hurries (44), but the Patriots did not have anyone in the top 40 in either category, making pass rush an area of need.

Offseason

Armed with a strong cap situation and a point to prove, Belichick embarked on a spending spree that went against the team's usual philosophy.

Whereas previously the second wave of free agency would have been targeted along with bargain veterans desperate to secure a ring, New England were aggressive in chasing some of the top names on the market.

Their tight end situation has been among the league's worst since the departure of Rob Gronkowski, but they doubled down at the position to land Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.

Henry ranks sixth among tight ends with 1,265 yards since the start of the 2019 season, while only four TEs have more than the 11 TDs grabbed by the athletic Smith over that period.

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor arrived after a career year (896 yards) for the Las Vegas Raiders as the pass-catching options were significantly boosted, albeit amid some concerns over the size of the contracts handed out.

It is hoped Matt Judon (four years, $56m) can help bolster the pass rush. He is 25th in the NFL with 30.5 sacks since 2017 for the Baltimore Ravens, while linebacker Kyle Van Noy returned from the Miami Dolphins.

The biggest loss was guard and two-time Super Bowl winner Joe Thuney, who signed a huge five-year, $80m deal with the Chiefs after playing last season on the franchise tag, though a former Patriot offensive lineman - Trent Brown - was brought back in a trade with the Raiders.

Newton, meanwhile, returned on another team-friendly deal worth an initial $5m with incentives that could reach $13m, though that contract will not preclude the Patriots from making other moves at QB.

The talent on the roster has undoubtedly improved, giving the Pats some flexibility when they pick at number 15 in the draft.

A move to further strengthen at wide receiver would make sense, as would a cornerback to add to a group including Gilmore and J.C. Jackson, with the latter set to hit free agency in 2022.

But Belichick may have one more move up his sleeve at QB. With the top five options all in the mix to go in the top 10, he may have to move up the board, or perhaps a trade to bring Jimmy Garoppolo back appeals after the San Francisco 49ers jumped up the draft order themselves.

Life after Brady continues to be fascinating for the Pats.

While many NFL fans relished their 2020 downfall, followers of New England will settle for a solitary 7-9 season if that proves to be the worst of their struggles and a turnaround begins in 2021. 

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said he would have "loved" for superstar Tom Brady to retire with the NFL franchise.

Brady left the Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 after a trophy-laden two-decade spell in New England, where he won six Super Bowl titles.

The 43-year-old quarterback enjoyed immediate success with the Buccaneers, guiding Tampa Bay to victory in Super Bowl LV.

"Well look, I would've loved for him to have retired as a Patriot," Kraft said on Wednesday. "Everybody knew that. But in life, things just happen in a way that you have to balance a lot of things.

"After 20 years, I thought he was entitled to make a decision that was what he thought was best for him, and where he was at. And we gave him the ability to do that."

Brady signed a contract extension with the Bucs through 2022 after helping take down the Kansas City Chiefs.

He threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, his passer rating of 102.2 his highest since his MVP season of 2017 (102.8) in his first season with the Bucs.

Only Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes had more completions of 20 yards or more than Brady's 63 as he experienced a revival as a downfield passer in Tampa.

It came as the Patriots struggled to fill Brady's void – Bill Belichick's team missing the postseason for the first time since 2008 with Cam Newton under center.

Kraft said: "Well, after 20 years … with any player, I'll make this commitment to any player in the future: Anyone who spends 20 years with us and helps us win six Super Bowls, we're not gonna keep — look, we could've, contract-wise, kept him in our camp. But it's just not the right thing.

"Naturally, we want to win. But who knows what would've happened if he stayed here? Look what happened at the end of his last season here."

"It's like marriages sometimes," Kraft added. "No one knows on the outside everything going on, and you try to balance a lot. You know …  It is what it is."

The Patriots have splashed the cash this offseason in an attempt to bounce back after a disappointing 2020 campaign.

Matthew Judon, Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor and Jalen Mills are among the free-agent signings, but Kraft insisted New England's activity has nothing to do with Brady's success in Tampa.

"I mean, look, I love Tom Brady, and he's great. But he's moved on. What happened here last year was not something to our liking. And we had to make the corrections," Kraft said after the Patriots finished with a 7-9 record.

The Kansas City Chiefs are signing Joe Thuney on a five-year, $80million deal, giving Patrick Mahomes some help on the offensive line.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported on Monday, the first day of negotiating with free agents, the Chiefs were signing the sixth-year guard.

Thuney spent his first five seasons in the NFL with the New England Patriots, winning two Super Bowls.

The 28-year-old played all 90 regular season and playoff games during his time in New England and became the first player to start three Super Bowls in his first three years in the league.

Thuney has allowed just 1.5 sacks over the past three campaigns, continuing to protect Cam Newton - Tom Brady's replacement - last year when playing on the franchise tag.

That protection will be welcomed in Kansas City, where the Chiefs are attempting to build another challenge after seeing their title defence ended by Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the big game.

Mahomes has established himself as the NFL's best quarterback but was exposed by the Bucs.

The Kansas City superstar was sacked three times and failed to throw a touchdown as he went 26-for-49 for two interceptions and a 52.3 passer rating.

Shaq Barrett, another of Monday's big free agent signings, returning to Tampa, had 13 pressures against Mahomes.

The New England Patriots have continued their free agency spending spree with the signing of edge rusher Matthew Judon.

According to multiple reports, the Patriots and Judon have agreed to terms on a four-year, $56million deal including $32m in guarantees.

Judon played last season with the Baltimore Ravens on the franchise tag after a 9.5-sack season in 2019.

He played two fewer games in 2020 and his sack tally decreased to six, though he was tied 11th in the NFL with 20 quarterback knockdowns.

New England will look for him to boost a pass rush that ranked tied for 26th in the league with 24 sacks in 2020.

The Patriots also agreed a deal for safety Jalen Mills, who comes across from the Philadelphia Eagles on a four-year $24m deal.

Those signings follow the arrivals of tight end Jonnu Smith and nose tackle Davon Godchaux as the Patriots attempt to significantly improve a roster that went 7-9 following quarterback Tom Brady's departure last offseason.

 

The New England Patriots have made an early move to improve their offense, signing tight end Jonnu Smith to a four-year deal.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Smith reached agreement with the Patriots on a $50million deal that includes $31.25m in guarantees.

Smith joins the Patriots after helping the Titans to three playoff berths in four years. Tennessee reached the AFC Championship game in the 2019 season, their run that year including a road win in New England.

He caught a touchdown in the Titans' shock Divisional Round win over the Baltimore Ravens during that postseason campaign, but his numbers have generally not matched up to his athletic gifts.

In four seasons with Tennessee, Smith caught 114 passes for 1,302 yards and 16 touchdowns. His 448 receiving yards in 2020 marked a career high.

However, he still represents a significant upgrade for a Patriots team for whom Ryan Izzo was the leading tight end last season with 199 yards receiving.

The Patriots have also used the first day where teams can negotiate with free agency to bolster the defense.

New England came to terms with former Miami Dolphins nose tackle Davon Godchaux on a two-year deal worth $16m, including $9m in guarantees.

A mainstay on the Miami defensive line in 2018 and 2019, Godchaux played only five games last year because of a biceps injury.

Cam Newton is returning to the New England Patriots on a one-year contract.

The former NFL MVP spent the 2020 season with New England, who went 7-9 in a disappointing first year after the departure of Tom Brady.

Quarterback Newton often struggled in a new offense with a poor supporting cast that had also hindered Brady in his last season with the Pats.

However, he will get the chance to improve in 2021 after agreeing a new deal with the team ahead of free agency, according to reports from NFL Network and ESPN.

Newton's deal is reportedly to be worth up to $14million, having surprisingly agreed to a $1m contract last year.

At that price he still represents a more affordable option after a flurry of QB moves earlier in the offseason saw Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz find new teams.

The renewal of Newton ends speculation he will link up with the Washington Football Team, who are led by his former coach at the Carolina Panthers, Ron Rivera.

With the Buffalo Bills reaching the AFC Championship Game and the Miami Dolphins rebuilding quickly with extensive draft capital, New England are suddenly under pressure in the AFC East.

And the scrutiny on their performances in 2021 will intensify after Brady won the Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This move sees the Pats secure a starting QB ahead of free agency but will not preclude them from exploring other options at the position, according to reports.

Newton, 31, played 15 games (7-8) for New England – missing just one due to coronavirus - after injuries restricted him to playing only twice in his last of nine seasons with Carolina.

He threw for eight touchdowns to 10 interceptions with 2,657 yards through the air, though he did add 592 yards and 12 scores on the ground.

Newton also caught a TD pass from his leading receiver Jakobi Meyers in a win over the New York Jets.

After a painful year, the Patriots go into the offseason with Newton signed, one of the best salary cap situations in the league and the number 15 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

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