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State of the 2022 New England Patriots: Can Mac Jones, Bill Belichick get to playoffs again?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Patriots' organization, Patriots fans around the world and those who were like, How did we EVER survive a full season without making the playoffs?

I mean, this is getting a little ridiculous for New England. In 2020, the Patriots missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 -- and then they went back to the postseason with a rookie quarterback last year. Meanwhile, the Celtics made the NBA Finals. Boston's own Chris "C.T." Tamburello won Spies, Lies & Allies, his second consecutive MTV Challenge victory. He's gaining on Johnny Bananas in all-time wins.

I'm telling you, it's becoming a tad tiresome. But we're here to talk Patriots, so let's consider what's in store for this season.

2021 rewind

One high from last season: The Week 13 win over the Bills on Monday Night Football. I know the weather was frightful. But Bill Belichick led his team out there and won a game while his QB threw three passes. The Bills were heated afterward -- pun intended. I loved classic Belichick, doing what needed to be done to secure a victory, not caring about anything else.

One low from last season: Losing four of their last five games. Maybe it was the football gods smiting him for boldly winning in the face of those conditions in Buffalo, but the Patriots lost three out of four to end the regular season, then fell to the Bills in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. But they got there. And that's the most important thing.

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Bill Belichick. I know most people are comfortable calling Belichick, who's won six Super Bowls and 290 regular-season games (third-most all-time), the G.O.A.T. of NFL head coaches. But it's only human nature to kind of wonder how much of his success was owed to the presence of in-his-prime Tom Brady at quarterback for those six titles -- we've all had those moments of doubt, and it's nothing to be ashamed about.

New England missed the postseason in Belichick's first year without Brady, in 2020. But now, after watching Belichick push the Pats to a 10-7 record and playoff appearance last season with a rookie QB, that doubt has to be gone. He clearly did not go full George Seifert in Brady's absence. (If you're asking who George Seifert is, then you're proving my point.) The Patriots are good here. I don't need to devote much more to this blurb.

Still, though, how badly must Belichick want to win another Lombardi?

Quarterback: Mac Jones. I'm a Mac Jones guy -- when I thought he was going to land with my Chicago Bears last year, I was all for it, because the dude is a winner. He won a title at Alabama, and it's no surprise to me that the No. 15 overall pick led all rookie quarterbacks in victories (10), passing yards (3,801) and passing touchdowns (22) in 2021. He was eighth in the NFL -- among all players -- with a 67.6 completion percentage. He was the first rookie since Dak Prescott in 2016 to record 10-plus wins. And get this: He was just the third rookie quarterback since at least 1950 to win six road games. (The other two were Dak and Ben Roethlisberger.)

I know a lot of you are going to label Jones a game manager or something silly like that. And yeah, he was in the middle of the pack in passing attempts (521, 14th in the NFL). But he also had at least two touchdown passes and a 70 percent completion percentage in five games last year. That's the most ever by a rookie, more than guys like Justin Herbert, Dak, Roethlisberger and RGIII.

Look, I hope for the sanity of Jets fans that Zach Wilson, whom New York chose over Jones with the No. 2 overall pick last year, can start putting it together, because otherwise, Mac's ability to gather victories is going to hurt more with each passing season.

Also: Mac Jones is in the best shape of his life, so you're all goners.

Projected 2022 MVP: Jones. Defense has often served as the foundation of Belichick's New England teams. Last season, the defense ranked fourth overall and second in scoring, and it clearly played a big role in the Patriots' success. In games where the Pats allowed less than 15 points, they were 8-0; when they allowed 15-plus, they were 2-8, including the playoff loss.

But it's not going to kill critics to give Jones a little bit of credit -- after all, he won almost as many games by himself as the other six rookie QBs to start in 2021 combined (11). And the Pats scored at least 45 points in three games, the most in the NFL, with the QB registering a TD-to-INT ratio of 8:0 and a passer rating of 127.2 in those contests. They also had six games where they had 20 or fewer points, with Jones compiling a TD-to-INT ratio of 8:8 and a passer rating of 80.3. If Jones and the offense can complement the defense by being a more consistent threat, and without the help of ex-coordinator Josh McDaniels, who left to become head coach of the Raiders, that would really boost this team's ceiling.

New face to know: Malcolm Butler, cornerback. I'm excited for Patriots fans to get to know this guy! He's a former undrafted player from West Alabama, just waiting for an opportunity in the NFL ... Oh, I'm just pulling your leg. It's great to have Butler, who made that legendary goal-line pick of Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLIX, back in the fold in New England. The return of the 32-year-old veteran, who last played for the team in 2017, is part of a certain roster-construction trend we'll dig into more below.

2022 breakout star: Christian Barmore, defensive tackle. The 22-year-old mountain of a man (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) started getting more playing time as his rookie season wore on last year. Barmore is one of those players who had first-round talent but slipped to the second round in the draft. Those great Pats teams of the past all seemed to have a dominant presence on the D-line, and Barmore is looking like the next in line there. (It's kind of annoying, in a way.) He led all rookie interior defensive linemen with a 75.4 pass-rush grade, according to Pro Football Focus.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Miami Dolphins. The Patriots tended to struggle in Miami during the Tom Brady era, going 2-5 in his last seven starts there for the team, and that trend has continued, with New England going 0-2 in Miami since Brady left. The Dolphins, meanwhile, garnered a lot of offseason headlines, thanks to a flurry of moves. But would anybody be shocked if the Patriots came out and smoked them? 
  • Week 3 vs. Baltimore Ravens. Man, John Harbaugh vs. Bill Belichick was low-key one of my favorite rivalries of the 2010s. 
  • Week 13 vs. Buffalo Bills (Thursday night). This will be the first meeting between these two teams this season -- and they square off again to close the regular season in Week 18. I expect these games to be huge.

Will the Patriots be able to ...

... get the most out of their offensive line? The Patriots are no strangers to dealing with free-agency losses that cause outside observers to wring their hands. It happens seemingly every year. No player is irreplaceable -- except for Matthew Slater. I mean, even Tom Brady ended up leaving. So, there has been some turnover on the O-line, with Shaq Mason being traded to the Bucs before the draft and Ted Karras moving on to Cincinnati. (And if you thought I was going to resist making that reference, you certainly don't know me very well.) But the unit will totally be fine. Trent Brown re-signed. The Pats drafted Cole Strange in the first round. 2020 sixth-rounder Michael Onwenu, who started as a rookie, then garnered a strong PFF offensive grade (87.0) last season even while taking on more of a reserve role, is primed to be the next late-round gem who thrives in New England -- until he's traded to the Bears or something.

... get the most out of DeVante Parker? It's kind of telling that Miami was willing to trade Parker, a 2015 first-round pick, to a division rival, especially one that excels with reclamation projects. I hope, for their sake, the Dolphins know what they are doing, because the Patriots typically do. The 29-year-old Parker has averaged 14.3 yards per reception since 2019, ninth among receivers with at least 150 receptions over that time. He's had the most contested catches since that time, too, per PFF. Yes, Parker registered just two TD catches in 10 games with the Dolphins last season. But as part of a receiver corps that also includes Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers, Parker could be a huge threat for the Pats -- he could help open things up for Meyers, who had a career-high 83 receptions for 866 yards last year. The key will be getting Parker the ball deep. Jones had a 62.4 passer rating on deep balls last year, the fifth-lowest in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. However, Jones posted a completion percentage of 77.4 on quick passes, ranking in the top five. If Parker can help balance Jones' game out, that could be a problem for the rest of the AFC.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overlook: The running backs are still really good. Fantasy people get so mad at the Patriots for going through so many running backs, but it works on the field. Damien Harris had a career-high 15 touchdowns in 2021. The Patriots were 8-3 when he had at least one rushing touchdown. (Maybe he's going to be the MVP?) Rhamondre Stevenson ranked in the top five among rookies in rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns in 2021. And you're thinking, Cool, either of these two guys will do it for me in fantasy. But the Patriots also drafted Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris. Don't worry, I'll get you sorted on NFL Fantasy Live.

... people shouldn't overthink: Losing cornerback J.C. Jackson. Again, losing players is a Patriots tradition. Jackson is great. He's posted 25 interceptions since 2018, the most in the NFL in that span, and he's recorded a passer rating allowed of 46.3 since 2019, which is the lowest in the league, per PFF. It made sense for the Chargers to sign him to a huge deal. But the Patriots just reloaded. Yes, the defense stood out during Jackson's tenure. They've allowed 196.4 passing yards per game since 2019, the first season in which Jackson played more than 50 percent of the defensive snaps. But I've seen this defense thrive for too long to think it's all about one guy. New England has fielded a top-10 scoring defense in 18 of Belichick's 22 seasons. Remember when Butler left for Tennessee? This defense was dominant without him. In addition to bringing Butler back, New England drafted a pair of corners (Marcus Jones in the third and Jack Jones in the fourth) and signed corner Terrance Mitchell and safety Jabrill Peppers. The Pats will be fine.

For 2022 to be a success, the Patriots MUST:

  • Win the Super Bowl. Sorry, that was just a reflex from labeling the Pats a Super Bowl-or-bust team in this series for so long. They aren't there yet. Especially with an improved field in the AFC. To get back to the playoffs would be a huge step for this club.

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