The Patriots fortunes this season hinge on several factors where only time will tell if they move in a positive direction.
The mantra around 1 Patriots Place over the last week or so is that preseason football isn't an accurate indicator of the team's potential. Due to the addition of game-planning and in-game adjustments, head coach Bill Belichick referred to exhibition games and regular-season planning as "two different worlds."
Beyond the week-long game-planning process, arguably the biggest turning point for the Patriots is the additional tools that quarterback Mac Jones will have at the line of scrimmage.
The second-year quarterback spoke about his enjoyment of the "X's and O's part of it" last week, adding, "it's all about your tools and problem-solving. That's the fun part of the game."
With the understanding that every play and situation is different, New England often gives its quarterbacks leeway at the line to read defenses pre-snap and make adjustments. Sometimes, those are protection-based if they sniff out a blitz. Other times, it might be a single-high or two-high read of the defense's coverage shell before the snap.
There isn't always the time or the complete freedom to overhaul each play, but Jones's strong football mind can help the Patriots even in subtle ways to execute plays effectively.
The slightest change to the MIKE point here, or a quick route adjustment based on film study there, and a play could run much smoother, which is the hope entering the regular season.
Although that's one potential success-altering change after weeks of running base plays in training camp, other factors could significantly alter the team's fortunes.
With that in mind, here are five other X Factors that will decide the Patriots success this season:
1. Patriots Revamped Safety and Linebacker Groups Improve Team Speed on Defense
When the Patriots season ended at the hands of the Buffalo Bills last January, losing to their division rivals in back-to-back matchups against Buffalo was a wake-up call. The Pats were now chasing the Bills in the AFC East, and it was also a message that their defense needed to get faster and more explosive to keep up with the league's top offenses.
In the offseason, the Patriots attacked that problem in a few different ways. First, by trading for former Browns linebacker Mack Wilson and then by opening a role for veteran Raekwon McMillan. The duo's play speed and ability to cover ground in the passing game flashed throughout the summer.
New England also added safety Jabrill Peppers to an already versatile and deep group of safeties, giving the coaching staff the option to play three or even four-safety packages. Whether it's safeties or smaller linebackers, the Pats will be lighter in the back seven this season than in years past. Hopefully, lighter also means faster, so the defense flies to the ball more regularly than down the stretch in 2021.
2. New England Unlocks 12-Personnel Package With TEs Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith
There are several reasons why the Patriots must find success with their two tight-end packages beyond the obvious that they need a better return on the Jonnu Smith investment.
New England is not rostering a traditional fullback this season, a noticeable change from the Josh McDaniels era. Despite their free-agent investment at tight end heading into the 2021 season, the Pats only ran 14 percent of their total plays out of 12 personnel (two WRs, two TEs, one RB), which ranked 27th in the NFL. Instead, their heavy grouping of choice was 21 personnel, using it more than any other team besides the San Francisco 49ers at 23 percent (21 - two WRs, one TE, one FB, one RB).
The Patriots averaged 8.5 yards per pass play and 4.9 yards per rush out of 12 personnel in 2021, so it's the right idea to use it more this season.
But the bigger question is how will the running game look with an increase in 12-personnel? The Patriots offense ran outside zone (17 attempts, second-most) more frequently in the preseason than in recent memory and only managed 2.6 yards per rush on those carries. On their gap or power runs, the Pats averaged over five yards per carry with four explosive runs.
Suppose the Patriots eventually decide to pull back on the outside zone experiment. In that case, it'll be interesting to see how they scheme up their lead plays where a traditional fullback typically comes in handy. Could they use the tight ends more on those actions? Line Jonnu Smith up as a fullback? The answers to those questions will materialize as the season progresses.
3. Keeping Starting OTs Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn Healthy
Although health is paramount for every player on every team, the reality is that the Patriots have two starting offensive tackles with notable injury histories, and Isaiah Wynn has already missed practice time recently. Wynn, who was missing from practice last week for undisclosed reasons, has only appeared in all 16 games once in his four-year career. As for Trent Brown, the big left tackle hasn't played a full season since winning the Super Bowl with the Patriots in 2018.
On top of the Pats starting tackles switching sides this season, keeping them healthy for most of the year is massive. The options behind them include 2019 third-rounder Yodny Cajuste, who had a strong summer, moving right guard Mike Onwenu back outside to tackle, or elevating backup Justin Herron to a starting role. The Patriots might be able to get by for a few games with their backup tackles, and maybe one of the three players mentioned takes Wynn's place down the road. But, for now, Brown and Wynn are the team's best options.
4. Third-year Edge Rushers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings Emerge as Contributors
Another byproduct of the Patriots moving on from veterans Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins at linebacker is the void it left on the edge of the defense. Last season, the trio combined to play 744 snaps on the line of scrimmage opposite Pro Bowler Matthew Judon.
As we've discussed all summer, that playing time will likely go to third-year edge rushers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.
Uche's pass-rushing talent has never been in doubt, but it remains to be seen if he can develop into more than just a situational pass-rusher, and he also needs to prove that he can stay healthy and effective for an entire season.
Jennings has played his best football as a pro in this training camp, finally becoming a reliable contributor at outside linebacker. Along with injuries impacting his availability, Jennings's first attempt at carving out a role saw him transition to off-ball linebacker, which didn't go as planned. Now back where he played in college, Jennings is emerging as a rotational player.
The best-case scenario for the Patriots is that the 2020 day-two duo combine to fill the roles left behind by the veterans together, with Jennings projected as the early-down option and Uche adding his explosive first step to New England's pass-rush in passing situations.
New England is banking on getting reliable contributions from the Jennings-Uche tandem this season.
5. Pats Younger Cornerbacks Make a Big Impact This Season
Lastly, the projection for the Patriots secondary is that the incumbents will start the season at cornerback with Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, and Myles Bryant dominating first-team reps towards the end of camp. But if one of their first or second-year corners can bring some juice to that group, it would give the Pats far more upside at cornerback. For example, third-round pick Marcus Jones has similar physical tools as Bryant, but the hope is that he'll bring more high-end speed to the slot. As for fellow rookie Jack Jones, the fourth-rounder made a statement in the preseason finale against the Raiders by playing with excellent fire and closing speed. Jack Jones has a ball-hawkers mentality and the athletic ability to match the intensity. If he can bring a turnover-producing presence to a defensive secondary that lost interception machine J.C. Jackson, that would go a long way towards replacing those forced turnovers.