Hackett: Breaking down this Patriots team's strengths, weaknesses

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of the Patriots these days, particularly regarding how to go about the roster build next year. To do so, identifying positions of both strength and weakness is critical to assess which position groups you can build around versus those that need immediate attention.

I’m a positive thinker, so let’s start with the units of strength.

The Offensive Line: 

If you have listened to me yap on the WEEI Fantasy Football Hour over the years or as recently as this past Thanksgiving morning with my cohost Pete Davidson, then you’ve heard me say this before… “If you don’t have an offensive line you can do nothing, but if you have an offensive line at least you can do something” (See the 2020 Patriots.)

I look at these 2020 Patriots very similarly to Belichick’s first team in New England, the 2000 Patriots. That team had an unbalanced roster construction and limited flexibility due to suffocating cap restrictions. There is one significant difference however and that is with the offensive line. That 2000 team, despite having the highest paid quarterback at the time, Drew Bledsoe, talented wide receivers like Terry Glenn and Troy Brown along with Kevin Faulk catching passes out of the backfield, could literally do nothing offensively.

Their offensive line was in shambles with key injuries, massive holes and guys literally off the street like Sale Isaia whom if I remember correctly, was pulled in out of retirement in-season to help on the interior. Bledsoe got crushed and that team could do nothing. No line, no offense. One year later, free agent Mike Compton was added, Matt Light was drafted and Joe Andruzzi took a major leap forward. In one year, 60 percent of the line saw wild improvement and the result ended in the franchise’s first Super Bowl Championship. The stability of the offensive line was a major factor in that success. A largely unheralded contribution deserving of more recognition than it gets.

As for 2020, the Patriots have a strong starting unit and have depth with versatility to boot. Their core of lineman is also pretty young. This is a unit the Patriots can build around and it’s also a position group helping them win some games now. An offensive line is often the difference between the need for a total rebuild and a retooling of sorts.

Defensive Backs:

Another important positional group, particularly in the modern NFL right now is pretty well fortified on this team, the DB’s. This unit features the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore whom has two more years left on his contract. Is he playing at the same level he did last season? No, but if he stays he’s a lock down corner. If he leaves, his departure opens up some much needed cap room, so anyway you look at it, having Gilmore on the roster helps. There is a lot of young talent here to continue to groom as well and having a skilled talent like Gilmore around is a positive.

Now to that young talent; JC Jackson is a keeper, Jonathan Jones has flashed enough times at different positions within the secondary to make me a believer. Kyle Dugger is getting me excited. He looks like he could potentially be the next hard hitting safety on the Patriots. Lawyer Milloy, Rodney Harrison, Patrick Chung and now Dugger on the horizon. I like what I see here.

Something to remember when evaluating defensive backs; they ALL get burned. They ALL get beat and look bad from time to time. The way you evaluate defensive backs is by the positive plays you see them make, not the ones they miss. Also remember, the Patriots ask a lot of their defensive backs, so the young guys are literally learning on the fly. That said, I wouldn’t give up on 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams either. At a minimum, he fits the suit at least physically.

Running Backs:

This unit got a little weaker two weeks back with the loss of Rex Burkhead who had defined everything I admire and love about the Patriots. Tough, versatile, knows his role and can execute whenever called upon. It’s a big loss. However, the unit as a whole is still well stacked. Damien Harris looks like a true lead ball carrier. James White is a Jedi master as a pass catching back and can provide a solid change of pace. Sony Michel (if healthy) can provide strong depth and is a back with some pedigree. Even the young and undersized JJ Taylor looks like he could add a level of suddenness, burst and energy when called upon. This unit and the offensive line gives their offense a chance most weeks.

As for the rest of the offense, it’s time to get into the weaknesses ...

Quarterback:

This is the rare unit where all current players within it require a succession plan. The starter, Cam Newton is an easy guy to root for and I’m rooting for him on Sunday’s, but he’s not the answer beyond bridging the gap to the next guy. Jarret Stidham? I think if the belief was truly there then Newton wouldn’t have been signed in the first place. Brian Hoyer? No thanks. Even as a third-stringer. In that role you need the veteran mind and field intelligence over anything else and Hoyer proved in Kansas City after all this time in the league, that he just doesn’t have it.

Tight End:

This is the most head-scratching position of all on the roster. As I said on the Thanksgiving Show last week, I was worried about Rob Gronkowski’s health the first day I saw him on the field in 2010. Every tackle was at the knees, I’m amazed we got 10 years out of him. So for Belichick to let the last several years pass with literally no focus on a succession plan is simply negligent, bordering on crazy. Maybe Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene can help but we truly have no idea as barely an eyeball has been put on either of them. This position should have been addressed with urgency sometime between 2016-19 conservatively. I’m vexed by the lack of attention given to this historically critical area of the Patriots offense. Makes little sense to me. For those who say Gronkowski left them at the alter in 2019, I don’t disagree, but my instincts were to address the succession plan years before that ever happened.

Wide Receiver:

It’s a dumpster fire. Julian Edelman is Mr. Patriot, but he’s on IR and likely at the end of the road. Beyond him the only one I trust is an undrafted free agent, Jakobi Meyers. Help wanted.

Defensive End:

Belichick is crafty at drumming up quarterback pressure from game to game, game-plan to game-plan, but it’s easier with pass rushing talent. The Patriots defense was always at its best when guys like Willie McGinest, Chandler Jones or Trey Flowers (a huge loss) were making it happen upfront. Addressing this need on the edge will only make an already strong secondary even stronger. It’s a draw with quarterback to me in terms of the team’s greatest need.

Defensive Tackle:

I have zero concerns that the Patriots can address this need in free agency or even in the middle rounds of next year’s draft. It’s even improving right now with Lawrence Guy back, but stopping the run will always be critical to success and the Pats could use another beefy run stopper to shore things up. No doubt they can and will.

Linebacker:

In terms of depth and experience it’s a weak unit so far, however there is some promising young talent here. Bentley, Winovich, Uche, Jennings et al. Add one veteran here, like Belichick did in 2001 by bringing in Bryan Cox and everything could fall into place. Maybe Donta Hightower comes back too and now this position quickly becomes an area of strength. Not far off.

Strength Honorable Mentions:

Special Teams are all fine. No worries here on any level. A punt returner and kick returner of merit would be nice, but the other needs on offense and defense are far more glaring.