How Bill Belichick rebuilt the Patriots: Mac Jones, Matt Judon, Hunter Henry complete rapid roster overhaul

When the Patriots last took the field against the Bills in Week 16 of the 2020 NFL season, they marched Cam Newton onto the field as their starting quarterback. Sony Michel served as his top running back while Damiere Byrd and Devin Asiasi were starters at receiver and tight end respectively.

Safe to say that a lot has changed since then.

In fact, when looking at the starting roster that the Patriots fielded against the Bills last season, it is almost completely different. Only six of the 22 combined starters on offense and defense are projected to start for the Patriots in Week 13 against the Bills.

Granted, some of those changes are due to injury. That said, it still speaks to the fact that Bill Belichick and the Patriots took their rebuild to heart during the 2021 offseason.

The Patriots expended more resources than any other team in 2021 in an effort to improve their team. They spent $163 million in guaranteed money last offseason, breaking the all-time NFL record that had previously been held by the Dolphins, who spent $147.2 million a year earlier.

After that, the Patriots spent a first-round pick on a quarterback and landed several other strong prospects to give them current starters, depth and future upside.

The end result? The Patriots have a new-look team and appear ready to be a playoff contender soon. How did they do it? Here’s a look at how the Patriots sparked such a quick turnaround after Tom Brady’s departure.

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Patriots free agent signings: The weapons

  • WR Nelson Agholor
  • WR Kendrick Bourne
  • TE Hunter Henry
  • TE Jonnu Smith

The Patriots spent most of their money on upgrading their receiving corps which was, frankly, awful during the 2020 NFL season. Jakobi Meyers proved to be a solid target, but the rest of the team’s pass-catchers were lackluster at best.

As such, Belichick made sure that they went after talent at receiver and tight end early and often. He put a particular emphasis on tight end after the team’s tight ends caught just 18 total passes in 2020. The Patriots signed both Henry and Smith, who were arguably the two best tight ends in the free-agent class. They are each making $12.5 million annually which makes ties them as the fifth-highest-paid tight end in the league.

The additions of Henry and Smith replenished the Patriots’ depth at the position and moved Devin Asiasi from the top of the depth chart to the much more comfortable No. 3 spot. The presence of both Henry and Smith has allowed the Patriots to run more two tight end sets, out of which Josh McDaniels has historically been good calling plays. That’s something that they couldn’t do last year because of their dearth of talent at the position.

To address the receiver problems, the Patriots added some speed in Agholor and a solid, all-around receiver in Bourne. They have emerged as starters for the Patriots and while the team doesn’t have a true No. 1 receiver, they make the committee approach work.

Agholor and Bourne have helped to open up more opportunities for Meyers and have pushed N’Keal Harry into a backup job. That works well for the former first-round pick, as he hasn’t proven he can separate at the next level. Both Agholor and Bourne have proven that they can.

These four signings added depth and have given the Patriots a wide variety of weapons to target. As a result, their offense has operated far more efficiently than it did last season.

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Patriots free agent signings: The defense

  • EDGE Matthew Judon
  • DT Davon Godchaux
  • DB Jalen Mills

The Patriots were able to pick up a few defensive players in free agency that have emerged as key starters for the club. None has made a bigger impact than Matthew Judon.

Judon has been one of the most impactful players in the NFL this season. He logged 11.5 sacks in his first 12 games with the Patriots and was tied for second in the NFL with 38 total pressures entering Week 13. He has transformed the Patriots’ pass rush, which had lacked a high-end pass rusher since the team traded Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in 2016.

Judon’s presence has taken pressure off the team’s secondary. Opposing quarterbacks have had less time to throw the ball while offensive lines have had to focus on accounting for Judon. He has also been a key leader for the Patriots, so he has been well worth the four-year, $54.5 million contract he signed during the offseason.

The impacts of Godchaux and Mills are a bit more subtle, but they have been important. Godchaux has served as the Patriots’ top nose tackle this season. Their run defense has improved from 26th-ranked in 2020 to 20th-ranked in 2021, and Godchaux has helped the team to improve in that area.

Meanwhile, Mills has played the sixth-most defensive snaps by any Patriot this year. He has used his versatility as a weapon, as he has logged snaps on the outside, in the slot, in the box and on the defensive line this year. That said, his presence as an outside corner has been particularly important, as he made the departure of 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore easier to stomach.

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Patriots offseason moves: The returns

  • LB Kyle Van Noy
  • OT Trent Brown
  • C Ted Karras
  • QB Brian Hoyer

The Patriots are, perhaps, better than any NFL team at bringing players back into the fold after time away and making them quality contributors again. The 2021 season has been no exception.

New England’s biggest reacquisition was Kyle Van Noy. After three and a half years with the Patriots, Van Noy signed a four-year contract with the Dolphins in 2020 only to be released a year into the pact. The Patriots struggled to replace Van Noy’s production at linebacker during the season and since his return, their position group has fared much better.

So far, Van Noy has recorded 41 tackles, four sacks and an interception as a do-it-all playmaker for the Patriots. New England’s linebackers had major issues in coverage last season, so Van Noy’s return was welcomed. He has graded out as one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL, per PFF, and has allowed a passer rating of just 68.8 this season. 

Bringing back Brown and Karras has proven important as well. Karras emerged as a key starter at left guard when Brown missed time early in the season. That allowed Michael Onwenu to play tackle and kept the Patriots’ strong offensive line intact.

Meanwhile, Brown has played very well when healthy. He has had some trouble with a balky calf, but when on the field, the Patriots — and particularly, Mac Jones — have performed well.

Mac Jones Completion % Passing yards TDs INTs
With Trent Brown 82.3 249 1.8 0.3
Without Trent Brown 67.1 231.8 1.1 0.9

Bringing back those four players was, clearly, the right move for the Patriots. Even re-signing veteran Brian Hoyer for his fourth stint with the team proved smart, as he became the team’s top backup once Cam Newton was released.

Also, it’s worth noting that the Patriots got Dont’a Hightower back after he opted out of the 2020 NFL season due to COVID concerns. Pairing him with Van Noy and midseason acquisition Jamie Collins has completely reinvigorated the Patriots’ linebacker room after a down year in 2020.

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Patriots 2021 NFL Draft picks: Three impact players

  • QB Mac Jones
  • DT Christian Barmore
  • RB Rhamondre Stevenson

The Patriots spent a lot of money in free agency to help their team, but you could argue that the 2021 NFL Draft proved even more important for New England. Why? Because they may have landed a franchise quarterback in Mac Jones. 

Jones has been the best of the NFL’s rookie quarterbacks so far in 2021. He beat Newton to win the starting job and led the Patriots to an 8-4 record in the first three quarters of the 2021 season.

So far, Jones has posted good numbers, including a 70.3 percent completion rate that ranks third-best in the NFL. He could still stand to take some more shots downfield — he averages a slightly below-average 7.5 air yards per attempt — but he has kept the Patriots on schedule and has demonstrated great decision-making skills. Basically, he is doing what Tom Brady was asked to do in his first season as a starter.

Jones wasn’t the only quality draft pick that the Patriots landed. Second-round pick Christian Barmore has emerged as a quality defensive tackle. PFF has him graded as the 35th-best interior pass rusher in the league among 124 qualified players. He also has two pass defenses while playing in a rotational role.

Fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson is the other rookie that has carved out a notable role with the Patriots. He was a star in the preseason but began the season on the inactives list, a practice that Belichick often takes with rookie running backs.

However, after James White’s suffered a season-ending injury, Stevenson emerged as a quality backup to Damien Harris and has performed well. He has averaged 4.6 yards per carry and has handled 88 touches through 12 weeks of action. He’s on pace for 100-plus touches this season. Only one Patriots rookie running back has eclipsed that mark in the last decade. That was Sony Michel in 2018 (216 touches).

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