As the Patriots prepare for the official start of the offseason next week, they'll be tasked with a key period of team building, starting with free agency in mid-March and following into the draft in late-April. With a pile of free agents, cap space and draft picks, there will be plenty of decisions to make on how the 2021 team will be composed.
Using Football Outsiders' innovative statistics, along with a touch of Sharp Football Analysis, a deep dive into the Patriots 2020 season reveal some interesting characteristics. The 7-9 season was a disappointment, but putting some of the finer details under the microscope should help inform how the team should attack this offseason, breaking down the strengths and weaknesses with numbers.
Most fascinating was how the team was a reflection of itself on either side of the ball. On one hand, you had the best short-yardage rushing offense and worst third-down passing offense, on the other, the worst short-yardage rushing defense and best third-down passing defense.
Let's dive in and see what stood out from the 2020 Pats and how those things might impact this offseason.
Three Key Stats:
- Top-10 in critical short-yardage situations
- Top-10 on second down
- Bottom of NFL in third-down passing and red-zone passing
When things were on schedule, the Patriots offense had periods of solid productivity in 2020, but they were unable to find consistency in their execution and could never fully elevate their passing attack to the next level. The strength of the 2020 Patriots was the ground attack, especially in short-yardage situations, where they were top-10 according to advanced analytics. They finished fourth in rushing yards and sixth in rushing touchdowns.
When they could run the ball, that led to being pretty good on second down, when short-yardage and play-action most come into play. However, outside of that structure, the Patriots' offense struggled to overcome when the game didn't unfold in their favor.
They were by far the worst third-down passing team in the league, a problem that increased with the distance they had to go, and it was equally bad in the red zone, where the passing offense ranked 31st. Overall, the passing offense ranked 31st in both yards and touchdowns, and the disparity from the passing production to the rushing production was glaring and the defining feature of 2020's squad.
The 2021 Offensive Plan: Coming off a season where the rushing attack was a clear strength, there are big questions as to how much continuity the team will have there in 2021. Rex Burkhead was a big part of why the offense had success on second downs, and his absence was glaring after his injury. His future as a free agent is in question, as is that of James White, whose departure would present a number of other problems.
Fellow free agents Joe Thuney and David Andrews were also big parts of the ground success and their potential departures would be hard to replace immediately. But Damien Harris and Sony Michel are two good pieces to start with, as are known commodities upfront like Shaq Mason, Mike Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn. The Patriots still have the pieces to have a good rushing attack, but it might look a little different.
Obviously, an effective rushing attack can aid a quarterback transition but, as evidenced by 2020, it can only go so far. The team will feature a number of second- and third-year players at wide receiver and tight end and there is some intrigue there, but adding speed and weaponry should still be a priority.
That's why improving the passing game is a much bigger and more important task than simply maintaining the run game's spotty success in 2020. That starts at the quarterback position, where Patriots fans are already getting a taste of how crazy the offseason carousel at the position will be. It's the hardest position in sports to fill and the Patriots offensive trajectory depends heavily on the direction they take, with all kinds of options on the table.
Will it be a veteran free agent? A veteran via trade? A return of Cam Newton? A Jarrett Stidham ascension? Or even a rookie? Everything seems on the table at this early point.
Finding a quarterback is priority one but the addition of one or two "weapons" could also help dig the passing offense out of the NFL's basement. There are pieces in place, but until the quarterback is, it will be hard to get a bead on where they're headed.
Three Key Stats
- Best third-down pass defense in the NFL
- Bottom of the NFL in short-yardage situations against the run
- Bottom of the NFL in forced fumbles
The Patriots had by far the best 3rd down pass defense in the league, but it was really the only thing that really stood out as far as a strength, and that ranking came even as they were one of the worst third-down run defenses in the NFL. Those two factors balanced out, making what was an average third-down defense and, overall, a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in most categories, though they were still seventh in points allowed, always a key stat that cannot be ignored.
The third-down passing success was surprising considering they registered just 24 sacks this season, easily a season-low under Bill Belichick. The previous low was 31, in both 2008 and 2009. There's more to pass rush pressure than sack stats, but this would still point toward the secondary as being a significant part of why offenses ran into a third-down wall against the Patriots defense. The lack of sacks is a concern but Pro Football Focus' ratings, which had the 2020 Pats ranked 23rd in pass rush ranking, did see one reason for optimism.
Short yardage was their biggest weakness, as they were one of the worst defenses in the league with just a few yards to go. They ranked 32nd in stuffed runs, where the opposing running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage, while a closer look at the directional stats indicates the edges of the Patriots defense were hit the hardest, while the middle faired only slightly better.
Their red zone defense fell to 27th in the league from eighth in 2020, their second-worst finish since 2003.
The Patriots also forced a league-low four fumbles in 2020. They had 27 in the last three seasons combined. This was a departure from the kind of ball-hawking defense fans are used to seeing in Foxborough, as J.C. Jackson's nine interceptions helped prevent a catastrophic drop in takeaways, no other player had more than two interceptions.
The 2021 Defensive Plan: It's hard to get past the run defense that ranked 26th in yards allowed and dead last in Football Outsiders' DVOA. They allowed over 150 rushing yards in a game five times, and those were five of their defining games of the season. It was big plays allowed too, as they were 11th in Explosive Run Rate.
There were enough positives from the pass defense to believe that a more effective run defense could make a huge difference for the defense overall. But simply put, the 2020 Patriots defense did not consistently win the battle upfront.
Any offseason plan for the defense must start with a focus on early downs but the Patriots really don't even know their starting point to build from yet. Will Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung return after opting out of 2020? Can the team retain Lawrence Guy, easily their best run-stopping defensive player up front? Retaining Guy and getting those two veterans back would immediately provide a big boost.
However, all are battle-tested veterans and the need for an infusion of youth is still critical. Ja'Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall both got valuable experience this season, as did rookie Anfernee Jennings. All are the kind of tough run-stoppers that will need to continue their growth into 2021. But along the defensive line, Byron Cowart remains the only player under contract who can do the dirty work in the trenches, while 2020 free agent Beau Allen remains a question mark.
Getting bigger and younger along the defensive line, while reinforcing their second-level with added athleticism should help the Patriots make significant strides on defense. They have reasons for optimism why the pass rush could make some strides, with Josh Uche and Chase Winovich figuring heavily into those plans. But the team certainly can't ignore a dynamic three-down edge player, especially if they have the chance at one high in the draft.
The interior beef is easier to acquire and if Guy returns he could pair with Cowart and Allen to give the team a good baseline starting point. There are quite a few Day Two draft targets that could fit the bill as well when it comes to big meanies who can win in the trenches. But an off-the-ball linebacker with sideline-to-sideline range and an edge-setting/pass-rushing force on the outside would be the quickest way to take the defense to another level.