From 2001 through 2018, the New England Patriots won six Super Bowls; no franchise has won more, and none have won as many over such a short stretch. But recently results in New England haven’t lived up to those glory years. The Patriots finished below .500 in both 2020 and 2022. Owner Robert Kraft outlined expectations for the 2023 season:
“”We’re about winning and doing whatever we can to win. That’s what our focus is. It’s very important to me that we make the playoffs. That’s what I hope happens next year.””
– Robert Kraft
So far, at a dismal 2-7 record, New England hasn’t met those expectations. The braintrust that built the dynasty nears the end of line, with Kraft and head coach / de facto general manager Bill Belichick both old enough to collect Social Security, and quarterback Tom Brady long gone. The franchise nears a transition, and the disappointing start to 2023 means they might look to shake things up sooner rather than later.
Owner: Robert Kraft
General Manager: none (Bill Belichick de facto; Matt Groh director of player personnel)
Head Coach: Belichick
Not long ago, it would have been sacrilege to suggest Belichick might be on the hot seat. Widely regarded as the greatest coach ever, some bloom came off the rose last season with Belichick’s ill-advised decision to install longtime defensive coach Matt Patricia as his offensive play-caller. That move predictably backfired, as New England slipped from sixth in offensive points per drive to 25th. Patricia left in the offseason and the team tabbed Alabama’s Bill O’Brien to coordinate the offense.
So far, things are no better. The birds have come home to roost from several offseasons of poor moves on offense. The team let 2020-2022 leading receiver Jakobi Meyers depart in the offseason and replaced him with JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has been almost invisible. The offensive line has struggled just as much as the skill group, and quarterback Mac Jones looks closer to the broken passer from year two than the impressive rookie from 2021.
It’s not clear how much patience Kraft, at the age of 82, will have with the 71-year-old Belichick. Does he give him one more chance to right the ship? Or does he transition to new blood? The team made a big deal in the offseason about extending linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, a former star linebacker and up-and-coming coaching candidate. Will Kraft hand the keys to Mayo sooner rather than later? What would the personnel department look like with Mayo, a much less experienced coach? Or would the team elect to go outside the organization entirely for a fresh start?
This is a team at a crossroads. Maybe Kraft will give Belichick more time to turn things around. But for the first time, it’s reasonable to think that he might not.
The Patriots surprised many by going defense early in the 2023 draft, but that move paid off early, with first-round pick Christian Gonzalez winning AFC Defensive Rookie of the Month for September. Unfortunately, that’s where Gonzalez’ rookie campaign ended, as he suffered a torn labrum against the Dallas Cowboys. Star pass rusher Matthew Judon, a Pro Bowler his first two seasons in New England, went down the same week and also landed on injured reserve.
It’s not all bad news, as three-technique Christian Barmore has had his best campaign. He’s been a disruptive force on the inside after an injury-plagued sophomore year. Jabrill Peppers has broken out in the wake of safety Devin McCourty’s retirement. Keion White, the team’s second-round pick, has flashed rare power and athleticism for his size (6’5”, 285 pounds).
But some of the defensive building blocks approach free agency, particularly Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche, two second-round picks in 2020. Dugger has been one of the team’s best playmakers on the back end. Uche broke out in 2022 with 11.5 sacks. The team will need to pay them significant raises from their rookie contracts, or find some way to replace them.
Through nine weeks, the Patriots offense ranks 31st in points per game. Their needs are everywhere. Jones has been ineffective and turnover-prone. The offensive line has struggled to protect him or get push in the run game. The pass-catchers struggled even before leading receiver Kendrick Bourne suffered a torn ACL.
Worse, many of the team’s few offensive bright spots are also free agents. The contracts of Bourne, left tackle Trent Brown, guard / tackle Michael Onwenu, and tight end Hunter Henry are all scheduled to expire in the offseason. The team will have to invest major resources just to replace those players, much less fill the team’s considerable holes.
The contract situation for quarterback Jones looms over these supporting cast issues. The team must decide this offseason whether to pick up Jones’ fifth-year option, which Over the Cap currently projects at $23.25 million. That’s a modest price for a quarterback by 2023 standards, but Jones arguably has not even been worth that kind of investment. If New England elects to decline the option, they must decide whether to play Jones as a lame duck in 2024 or acquire real competition at quarterback.
While the Patriots have a lot to address this offseason, they also have more resources to work with than they typically do. Over the Cap projects New England at $92 million under the 2024 cap—that’s the second-most space in the NFL—and they can clear more than $14 million by cutting cornerback J.C. Jackson. That should give them plenty of money to bring back some of their key offensive and defensive pieces, plus add in free agency or the trade market.
The disappointing 2023 season figures to net the Patriots a better draft pick than they typically get. Amid two-plus decades of success, New England hasn’t drafted in the top 10 since 2008 (when they selected Mayo). They may be in that range come the 2024 draft, providing a rare opportunity to add a key offensive piece, select a quarterback of the future, or trade back and secure additional draft capital.
Kraft must first decide to what extent Belichick’s unparalleled history of success has earned him a longer opportunity to fix the team’s issues. Belichick, too, must decide whether he wants to give things another go at the age of 72, or ride into the sunset. If Belichick goes, the team’s whole organizational structure goes with him. There has never been any question about who runs the football operation in New England. Not every team benefits from such clarity, and the Patriots might not in a post-Belichick world. Even Kraft himself may decide to cede more ownership responsibilities to son Jonathan, the team’s president since 2005.
Belichick, or whoever calls the shots this offseason, will have a boatload of cap space to work with and plenty of draft capital. He will also face a number of difficult decisions with pending free agents on both sides of the ball. Does he spend to keep the defense intact and draft offensive help? Try to balance both sides of the ball? Go whole hog on offense?
Clearly the offense needs a considerable amount of work, starting with whether to retain Mac Jones, bring in competition for him, or trade him away. There’s plenty of blame to go around on offense, and whoever lines up under center for New England, the team must build a better supporting cast than Jones has had the last two seasons. The team must invest heavily at positions like receiver and tackle that they’ve largely ignored of late, or the dynastic success will continue to recede further and further in the rearview mirror.