The New England Patriots saw 2020 begin badly and get worse. They lost the wild-card round of the playoffs to the Tennessee Titans, watched Tom Brady walk away after 20 seasons, led the NFL in pandemic opt-outs, and stumbled to a 7-9 record under Bill Belichick.
They failed to win their division for the first time since 2008 and posted their first losing record since 2000. That leaves substantial room for improvement in 2021, and Belichick has already taken steps in that direction.
If they make the right moves, the 2021 NFL draft might just put the Patriots over the top to challenge the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins in the AFC East.
The New England Patriots have 10 picks in the 2021 NFL draft
The Patriots will be working with a full complement of selections in the draft – and then some – beginning Thursday night in Cleveland. Barring any last-minute moves, New England’s picks are:
- Round 1: No. 15
- Round 2: No. 46
- Round 3: No. 96
- Round 4: Nos. 120, 122, and 139
- Round 5: No. 177
- Round 6: Nos. 188 and 197
- Round 7: No. 242
The selections at Nos. 96, 139, and 177 are compensatory picks awarded by the NFL in the aftermath of New England losing Brady and four other veteran players during the 2020 free agency period.
The NFL stripped the Patriots of their regular third-round pick last summer as punishment for the episode in which a member of the organization’s video production crew shot footage of the Cincinnati Bengals’ sideline during a game against the Cleveland Browns. The league also fined the Patriots $1.1 million.
Belichick has already addressed some needs
Belichick was unexpectedly aggressive at the start of the NFL free agency period this spring, beginning with big commitments to tight ends Hunter Henry (Los Angeles Chargers) and Jonnu Smith (Tennessee Titans), a substantial upgrade from Ryan Izzo.
Belichick pounced on the opportunity to bring back linebacker Kyle Van Noy after the Miami Dolphins cut the seven-year veteran. Coupled with the return of Dont’a Hightower, the run defense is in better shape. Throw in defensive ends Henry Anderson (New York Jets), and Matthew Judon (Baltimore Ravens) and opposing quarterbacks will feel more heat.
Aside from the tight ends, the other major acquisition on offense has been Las Vegas Raiders receiver Nelson Agholor, though it’s a position that could use some added help in the draft.
All of the moves add up to almost $160 million in guaranteed money – and a reason for optimism in 2021.
What are the Patriots’ NFL draft priorities?
The football world believes that Belichick will upgrade at quarterback. Cam Newton’s second year may be better than his first, but is that saying much? Drafting 15th likely won’t land the Patriots one of the four QBs who’ll go once Jacksonville opens by selecting Trevor Lawrence. Do they move up? Do they reach for Kellen Mond at No. 46? And does anyone seriously believe that Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t in play despite the 49ers’ denials?
The Patriots will have to do something to bolster the most important position on the field, whether it’s for this season or next.
Beyond that, adding Agholor and Kendrick Bourne doesn’t put New England over the top at wide receiver, especially with Julian Edelman apparently gone for good. As MassLive.com notes, all those quarterbacks going in the top dozen or so picks will squeeze receivers down the draft board. Alabama’s DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle might constitute a luxury for the Patriots at No. 15, so Belichick might be able to trade down eight or 10 spots – assuming he doesn’t make a bold move for a quarterback – and still land a difference-making wideout.
Also, Belichick must think long-term about his cornerbacks. Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson could both be gone after this season, so lining up at least one potential replacement now would be prudent.