The 2021 New England Patriots will look a lot different than the 2020 version that went 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
Bill Belichick isn’t done reshaping his roster, but former NFL All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant has already seen enough for him to believe this year’s Patriots “have a chance” to do something special. It all relates to the quarterback, Cam Newton, and the new weapons he’s been provided heading into the 2021 season.
Bryant tweeted the following post about the Patriots. He sees similarities in the 2021 Patriots and the 2015 Carolina Panthers that Newton led to the Super Bowl.
Newton also won MVP that season.
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Comparing the Offenses
The 2015 Panthers had the highest-scoring offense in the league, and their defense gave up the sixth-fewest points en route to a 15-1 regular season and a berth in Super Bowl 50.
That Panthers team was a dominant running squad that ranked first in the NFL in rushing attempts and second in yards. Newton was efficient and clutch in 2015. He threw for 3,837 yards, 35 TDs, and 10 INTs that year, engineering three fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives that season.
Jonathan Stewart was the team’s primary running back, but he fell just short of rushing for 1,000 yards. Stewart had six rushing TDs, but Newton led the team in that category with 10, much like he led the Patriots in 2020 with 12. In fact, his 2020 total marked the first time he’d reached double-digit TDs on the ground since the 2015 season.
The passing game was all about the tight end, Greg Olsen. He was Newton’s favorite target, and the then 30-year-old Olsen snagged a team-high 77 receptions for 1,104 yards and seven TDs. As wide receivers went, deep threat and speedster Ted Ginn Jr. led the team in TD receptions with 10 and 44 catches for 739 yards. In addition to Olsen, Carolina had another big target in Jerricho Cotchery and Devin Funchess. Both measured over 6’0″ and weighed more than 200 pounds. Funchess provided a huge catch radius at 6’4″ 225.
It appeared to be the perfect complement of weapons for Newton.
The 2015 Panthers had a stout offensive line paced by two Pro-Bowlers. All-Pro Ryan Kalil was at center with Pro-Bowler Trai Turner at right guard. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers were the starting tackles, with Andrew Norwell at left guard. That group more than got it done every week and was one of the most dominant regular-season teams in the past 10 years in the NFL.
Looking ahead to the 2021 Patriots, there’s obviously Newton, who may not have the same juice he did in 2015, but is more mature and a bit sharper as a professional than he was six years ago. The running game might be even better for this Patriots team.
Newton’s speed isn’t quite what it was then, but he’s still one of the most effective running quarterbacks in the league. If things pan out on the offensive line with David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Mike Onwenu, Trent Brown, and Isaiah Wynn, it’s not crazy to suggest the Patriots could have a better O-line than the one the Panthers rode to 15 wins.
The running backs, Sony Michel and Damien Harris, appear to be better than Stewart and FB/RB hybrid Mike Tolbert, which further supports the notion that New England could have an even stronger run game. Remember, this Patriots team had the fourth-best run game in 2020 despite an offensive line and backfield that was pretty decimated by injury.
Perhaps the most distinct comparison is at tight end. The combination of the recently acquired Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry has to have Newton reminiscing about the days of throwing to Olsen and Funchess. When you consider he’ll also have Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne and perhaps a revitalized Julian Edelman, the prospects of an effective passing game are more promising.
The offense is still missing a Ginn-like burner and a punt return presence who can threaten on special teams. Ginn played both roles for the Panthers in 2015. Having that option could be the final piece Newton needs to provide him the necessary resources for success on offense.
Comparing the Defenses
As good as Newton was in 2015, the Panthers’ defense was every bit as dominant, if not even more effective. The unit forced 38 turnovers that season (24 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries), and they were led by a balanced defensive front anchored by defensive tackle Kawann Short.
The then-26-year-old led the team with 11 sacks, but three other players had at least five on the season. The linebacker group consisted of Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, AJ Klein, and Shaq Thompson were stellar. The secondary featured All-Pro corner Josh Norman, safeties Kurt Coleman, Roman Harper, and veteran corner Charles Tillman.
It was a nice balance of youth and experience.
Again, there are some similarities to the 2021 Patriots. The D-line is the biggest question mark. The group up front for the Patriots will look a lot different than it did in 2020. Adam Butler is gone, and Lawrence Guy may be as well.
It looks as if the Patriots will roll with Harry Anderson, Davon Godchaux, and Deatrich Wise Jr. to start with Byron Cowart, Carl Davis, Montravius Adams, Akeem Spence, Nick Thurman, Bill Murray, and Michael Barnett there for depth.
This group isn’t as proven, and they will be looking for big years from Godchaux and Wise, especially.
The 2021 Patriots linebackers have a chance to be exceptional. A bulk of the pass rush will likely come from Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy, two of the Patriots’ biggest offseason additions. They also get Dont’a Hightower back after his COVID-19 opt-out. There’s also the continued improvement of guys like Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, and Anfernee Jennings. The secondary has some question marks.
What is New England going to do at cornerback? Stephon Gilmore made the Pro Bowl in 2020 but did appear to take a step back from his Defensive Player of the Year status in 2019. J.C. Jackson had gaudy interception numbers but seemed to struggle when matched with the top wide receivers in the league like the Buffalo Bills’ Stefon Diggs.
Devin McCourty is still solid at free safety. With the addition of Jalen Mills to a group that already had Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger, the strong safety and hybrid linebacker spot should be in good hands.
Perhaps the biggest factor will be the coaching. Belichick took some heat in 2020, but make no mistake about it; he’s still one of the best in the NFL. If Newton shows the expected improvement with more time in the system and new weapons, the Patriots will prove Bryant’s prediction correct.
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