Five things to really like about '21 Pats

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Jan. 21—It's not really kosher right now to say nice things about the New England Patriots. Not with Tom Brady still playing football and Patriots players hitting the links after losing four of their last five games.

But I'm going to do it, anyway.

There was a lot to like about the New England Patriots, beyond the fact they improved a lot over the year before with a rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, under center.

They started the season slow and ran off seven straight wins. While that doesn't earn anybody a trophy that's an accomplishment in this league.

Here are five aspects of the 2021 Patriots that I believe were worth mentioning now and going forward:

Running back room

We knew going into the season with the emergence of Rhamondre Stevenson, that the Patriots should be very good at running back. That he and Damien Harris, the RB1, would be a threat. When healthy, they were a strength of the team and a threat.

What we didn't know was James White would be lost for the year and Brandon Bolden would basically fill his role more than admirably.

As the Patriots attempt to become a tough, running team, which is Bill Belichick's ideal offensive belief, they don't have to waste third- or fourth-round picks on a running back in the 2022 draft. That's a big deal, allowing for the "sleeper" offensive lineman or defensive back.

Getting production from this "room" in 2022 will be expected.

Togetherness

The defense as a whole and Mac Jones several times deserved a public spanking for their mental errors.

But there was none of that. Remember Damien Harris' fumble in the opener. The next game Bill Belichick called out Harris in front of the team for the biggest run of the game.

While it is expected on a Belichick team, with players saying very little, struggling teams have a history of frustration and publicly talking about it.

When the Patriots were 2-4 it was striking how confident the team was, looking more like a 7-10 team, before going on a 7-game win streak.

One of the highlights of the season was after Jakobi Meyers scored his first career touchdown against the Browns. This after going the first 37 games of his career without one. The entire team left the sidelines to celebrate with him.

I believe that bodes well when this team matures. The good guys will overrule the few bad ones, in the end, which is usually what winning teams do.

Bourne and Henry

Free agents are like opening day in baseball — hope springs eternal. Then, half of them, peter out and add little to no value. There were a few of those players.

Two dudes who came through were wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and tight end Hunter Henry.

While Bourne technically had the best season of his career in terms of production, with 60 receptions, 800 yards and five TDs, the bigger factor was the big receptions he had.

He is noted more as a possession receiver, a hybrid between slot and wideout, but he comes to play with energy and a smile every day.

Henry, too, had a good year production-wise, with 50 receptions, 603 yards and nine TDs, a career-high 12.1 yards per catch.

He was Mac Jones' guy near the end zone, sort of like Tom Brady's end zone binky, Rob Gronkowski.

Mind you, these weren't all-star seasons, but they were nice starts on a new team with a rookie quarterback.

Basically, you can count on this duo next year, probably 1,000 yards and 8 TDs for Bourne and 70 receptions and 12 TDs for Henry.

These are good, team guys who performed.

O-Line finished strong

Another positive coming into the season was the offensive line, but due to injuries and COVID-19, it took a few months to get their act together.

When they did, this relatively inexpensive group, became a strength be it opening holes for the running game (126.5 yards per game) or protecting Mac Jones (only 31 sacks). Those were both among the top 10 in the league.

It starts with center David Andrews, the mainstay, with tackles Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn, guards Shaq Mason and Ted Karras.

When Brown joined the team in mid-November, the line became very good to elite over the next month.

But then the Patriots fell into a rut in terms of falling behind and leaving its run-first game plan.

This is a very good sign going forward. This is a good group. It could use more depth and maybe one very good addition to become elite.

Mac lived and learned

Not to beat a dead horse, but Mac Jones, while not great as a rookie, always seemed to have a second wind in those games in which he struggled early.

He appeared to have that "Comeback" gene, yet we were never able to see it because of circumstances, usually related to the porous defense.

Mac does not have elite receivers. He's got a few pretty good ones. But he could use one more very good to great player, that could change this young man's future for the better.

Again, this was not a Hall-of-Fame season by any stretch. and it's too early to deem him a future, franchise quarterback. But there are tools there, and apparently a passion to improve that this game and this position demand.

Was Mac tired mentally, by the end? Maybe a little.

But Mac survived a full season, not missing a snap due to injury, and he got to see a playoff game against an "elite" quarterback. I'm guessing there were a lot of mental notes taken that chilly night in Buffalo.

Did you notice Mac going up and down the sidelines during the last two minutes, basically having his 15 seconds with key players?

That's what leaders do, at least part of it. The other part is performing in the clutch.

Mac lived and learned. It's time to get better, maybe even a lot better.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.

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