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The New England Patriots had never gone consecutive seasons in two-plus decades without missing the NFL Playoffs, and 2022 was no exception after a rare miss the year before.

The Patriots were a team that kept getting better as the regular season went on and had a chance to clinch the AFC East in Week 16, but for one of the very few times in 2022, they let an opportunity slip away. It proved costly, as the Patriots were forced to play John Allen’s tough Buffalo Bills squad in freezing temperatures in the Super Wild Card round.

And it proved too much for a defense that had been sagging for weeks and finally collapsed Saturday night in a 47-17 loss, one of the worst postseason losses in franchise history.

Still, the Patriots got themselves pointed in the right direction again after a 2021 season of transition that never quite gelled. This group fought and overcame obstacles and had their fans once again believing their team could compete for a title in a talent-loaded AFC.

Now, another pivotal offseason begins, with potentially devastating free-agent defections and another opportunity to score big in the NFL Draft.

Here’s the plan of attack for the New England Patriots during the 2022 NFL offseason.

Biggest offseason questions

Bill Belichick and Mac Jones have the Patriots heading in the right direction
Bill Belichick and Mac Jones | Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Patriots took a big step forward after missing the playoffs in the first Tom Brady-less season of 2021. In the 2021 NFL Draft, they hit the jackpot with quarterback Mac Jones, defensive lineman Christian Barmore, and running back Rhamonde Stevenson.

Their free agent moves, of which there were many, helped bolster the defense and receiving corps. Damien Harris has developed into a solid lead running back. But the defense fell apart in the final weeks of the regular season and was thoroughly embarrassed by the Bills in the Wild Card round. Now, they are poised to lose a tremendous amount of talent in the secondary via free agency, and Jones appeared to hit the rookie wall hard at the end of the season.

Can the Patriots continue to hit on their 2022 NFL Draft choices, this time picking from the bottom of the order? Can Jones continue to develop and become more than a guy who manages a run-heavy attack? And how active can the Patriots be in free agency under the constraints of the salary cap?

Top free-agency decisions

Key free agents: Dont’a Hightower (LB), J.C. Jackson (CB), Trent Brown (OT), Devin McCourty (S)

The Patriots took care of a huge question mark among their potential 2022 free agents by signing safety Adrian Phillips to a three-year extension. Phillips has been a top man in the Patriots’ secondary the past two seasons, and with unrestricted free agent J.C. Jackson a candidate to go elsewhere this offseason, locking up Phillips addresses a key need already.

Last season, the Patriots were uncharacteristically one of the busiest teams in the offseason, making moves almost daily leading up to the draft. This offseason should be much quieter, as the team is expected to only have about $12 million in cap space, pending more cuts or trades. But whether in free agency or the draft, expect the secondary to be the prime area of spent capital.

Because Jackson is likely to be the top defensive back on the market and even more likely to command a deal out of the Patriots’ range, don’t be surprised if Jackson draws the franchise tag. Both McCourty and Hightower would have to take less money to stay.

2022 NFL Draft needs and potential targets

Draft needs: CB, WR, LB, S, DT

On both sides of the ball, the Patriots will be looking to upgrade at positions away from the line of scrimmage. Picking somewhere in the 20s this year, the Patriots will have their eyes on defensive backs and wide receivers first and foremost.

Considering the middling performances of free-agent signings Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne and the inability to N’Keal Harry to make an impact in a receiving corps that lacks an alpha, don’t be surprised if the Patriots lock in on one of the Ohio State standouts Garrett Wilson or Chris Olave. Arkansas receiver Traylon Burks is another name associated with the Patriots in mock drafts.

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On offense, Jones must continue to improve in Year 2, which is probably a safe bet given how well the rookie took to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ game-planning as the season wore on. Jones was quite poised for a rookie taking over a team still in flux since Brady’s departure, and though he struggled late in the regular season, the room for growth is there, and he has a chance to become an upper-tier quarterback in a conference loaded with stars.

This may come as a surprise, given the boost he gave the defense this season, but edge rusher Matt Judon is going to have to be more consistent and more timely if the defense is going to compete in a conference with Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and Justin Herbert, and, of course, Josh Allen in the division.

Judon had 12.5 sacks through Week 14 but didn’t record a single sack in the final four games as the Patriots lost to the Bills and Dolphins and lost control of the AFC East title, slipping down to No. 6 in the playoff bracket. Especially if the secondary takes a hit next year, the ability to pressure and sack the quarterback will be vital, and Judon is the man who will be asked to make it happen – every week.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference