PLENTY OF PATS HAVE A LOT TO PROVE THIS YEAR
Eight who are under the most pressure to perform in 2021
The Patriots have been fortified with a fresh influx of talent thanks to Bill Belichick’s unprecedented offseason spending spree. Much of that talent has been on display during the past few weeks of OTA practices.
And, with the team’s mandatory minicamp set to kick off Monday, we’ll get an even better look at the assembly before the Pats eventually hit training camp the last week of July.
Expectations have certainly grown for the 2021 Patriots. And with those expectations, several players — and a few coaches as well — will be under even more pressure to produce.
Who has the most to prove?
Here’s eight Patriots who have a lot on the line.
Belichick’s defense operates best with a shutdown corner locking down one side of the field, and with it, the opponent’s top receiver. No one in the league did it better than Gilmore in 2019, as he earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. He didn’t quite reach the same pinnacle in 2020, although he was still very good before an injury ended his year. So he heads into the 2021 season coming off what was reported as a partially torn quad injury that required surgery.
That being said, Gilmore, who did not attend any of the voluntary workouts, needs to come back strong for plenty of reasons. First, with one year left on his existing deal, the 30-year-old is playing for his next contract. If he’s looking for another significant pay day, obviously, it behooves him to play well.
That will also be the case if the Patriots re-up and extend his existing deal. If he simply gets a bump up from the $7 million he’s due to earn this year, which is what they did last year, he’s still in a contract year, and will need to perform.
If he’s extended beyond this season, the Patriots will count on him to live up to the deal.
For the Patriots to be bona fide contenders, they need Gilmore at his best. So they must address the contract in some fashion, and Gilmore is going to have to show he’s the same corner he was prior to the injury.
Linebackers coach Jerod Mayo recently pondered whether the Patriots would be getting the same Hightower from 2019, or a player who lost something after opting out last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hightower, of course, is going to want to prove that he’s every bit as good as he was before he left. And that would serve the Patriots well. As Mayo also pointed out, Hightower’s absence proved to be “huge” in terms of how the unit fared last season.
Without their front-seven leader, the Patriots defense was among the worst in the NFL at stopping the run, and getting to the quarterback.
Hightower brings both of those elements to the table, playing as an off-the-ball linebacker, as well as on the edge. He’s also a coach on the field, getting guys in place, and making calls at the line. It just remains to be seen how quickly he can return to form.
In 2019, he certainly looked like he had plenty left in the tank. But as Mayo implied, it’s hard to know at this stage how much the year off will impact Hightower, if at all.
He turned 31 in March. He also recently got married and has a newborn at home. The linebacker was noticeable at Thursday’s OTA session, his first with the media in attendance, looking lean and ready to go.
If he plays like the Hightower of old, he’ll serve as one of the most significant additions to the defense.
Belichick named him the starter. And he’ll stay in that role unless or until someone
beats him out.
But looking at the finer print, Newton’s career is essentially on the line. That might have been the case last year, too, but unforeseen factors and circumstances contributed to a lot of Newton’s woes last year. At least, Belichick believes they did, between signing late in June, learning virtually given the pandemic, not having a preseason, then ultimately getting COVID-19 prior to Week 4.
After being re-signed to a modest one-year deal, Newton needs and wants to show last year was an aberration. That having more time to learn the playbook, work with the receivers in the offense, not to mention having better weapons, will change his fate, and set the course for his future.
He worked hard in the offseason
to try and correct some of the mechanical and footwork issues he displayed in 2020. But the proof will come on the field.
After signing a two-year deal worth up to $24 million, there are plenty of people who thought the Patriots overpaid for a receiver who has yet to record a 1,000yard season. He’s had a few decent years, including last season with the Raiders (48 catches, 896 yards, 8 TDs), but he needs to up his game in New England.
The Patriots handed over the money because they’re banking on Agholor improving the offense, particularly the deep passing game. He will likely be used as an outside threat who will keep defenses honest with his
speed. But he also has some experience as a slot receiver, which would help fill that void.
Unlike some newcomers, Agholor has been a presence at most of the voluntary workouts. He seems keen on showing he was worth the money the Patriots invested.
“I definitely want to take another leap this year,” he told reporters last week on a Zoom call, “so you kind of have to be here, you have to learn, you have to be coached up about how you do things, learn schemes, work on fundamentals, and just grow as a player. “
The proverbial writing appears to be on the wall. The Patriots didn’t pick up the fifth-year option from his rookie deal. So the injury-riddled
Michel is pretty much playing for his future — most likely with another team in 2022.
When Michel was healthy last year, he formed a formidable one-two punch in the backfield with Damien Harris, who took over as the starter and led the team in rushing last year.
With the Patriots adding rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, who looks like he has a future in the backfield, and J.J. Taylor likely seeing more snaps in Year 2, Michel will be fighting for playing time.
In 2020, injuries limited Michel to only nine games and 79 carries. But he averaged 5.7 yards per attempt, which is very good.
He was also a key performer during the Patriots’ 2018 championship. During that postseason run, the former first-round pick had 397
rushing yards and six touchdowns in four playoff games.
He’s 26, and needs to stay healthy and have a good showing in order to cash in next year. He wasn’t at the voluntary workouts attended by the media, which isn’t the best sign.
No explanation is really needed. The 2019 first-round pick has been a huge disappointment thus far. If he was on the hot seat last year — which he was — that seat has gotten even warmer this year.
Harry is running out of time to prove he belongs in New England, and establish himself as the impact receiver the Patriots had hoped they were getting.
In Year 3, he’s under a ton of pressure to perform and be that kind of player.
As it is, his name was involved in trade rumors during the offseason. With the Patriots bringing in Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, to go along with Jakobi Meyers, Harry will be fighting just to be in the mix as the fourth receiver.
While injuries limited him in both 2019 and 2020, it behooves him to build on the positives that have only come in flashes over the past
So it’s crunch time for Harry. Either he makes the leap, or finds himself out of a job, or well down the depth chart.
The prodigal son of the offensive line has returned after running to the Raiders to take the money in free agency (a four-year deal, worth $66 million) two years ago. The massive tackle discovered money didn’t buy him happiness, and was traded back to the Patriots halfway through the deal.
To pave the way for his return, he restructured his deal, with the new contract being a one-year pact worth up to $11 million.
So he sets himself up for free agency once again after a year to restate his case.
In 2018, his lone season with the Patriots, he played every game at left tackle and was a standout. While Brown earned his first Pro Bowl nod in his first season with the Raiders, last season didn’t go as well. He played in only five games, was placed on the reserve/ COVID-19 list in October, then was hospitalized in November after an IV mishap caused air to enter his bloodstream.
So he returns, whether it’s at left tackle or right, to get his mojo back and try and land another big contract.
Last year’s 7-9 record didn’t sit well with Belichick for many reasons. The elephant in the room, of course, was Tom Brady’s departure, and subsequent championship season in Tampa Bay.
Beyond that, Belichick, as the team’s chief decisionmaker, was ultimately responsible for the deficiencies of the team thanks in part to poor drafting.
Not having Brady, not having a viable replacement, and having a roster full of holes left the Patriots out of the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They also lost their death grip on the AFC East.
Belichick had a ton of cap space available, and certainly used it to try and resurrect his team. While re-signing Newton, he also drafted a quarterback in the first round. How quickly
Belichick goes to Mac Jones is already a hot-button topic, and one that will keep the Hoodie under the microscope.
ESPN’s Louis Riddick, speaking with the Herald last month, describes Belichick’s feeling about the 2020 season in vivid terms.
“Having talked to him numerous times for Monday Night Football on his production calls, I have never … I’ve heard him pretty miserable. I’ve heard him pretty miserable in Cleveland speaking to us in team meetings after we got our asses kicked,” said Riddick, “but I never heard him sound like he did a couple months ago when he was helpless. He knew he didn’t have what it took to win the way he wanted to win.
“He let it all out in a couple of those meetings, and I was like, ‘Wow,’ ’’ Riddick went on. “So I’d say he’s motivated (this year).”
Looks like the Hoodie, who has won six championships, is gearing up for the next.