In basically every season in the 21st century, the New England Patriots have been defined by one thing: winning the Super Bowl. Last season, the Patriots had to take a bit of a step back and regroup after legendary quarterback Tom Brady took his talents to Tampa Bay. New England finished with an uncharacteristic 7-9 record and had to go back to the drawing board with regards to trying to win with scheme as opposed to talent.
Even though the Patriots missed the NFL playoffs last year for the first time in over a decade, the roster still has some blue chip talent that the team should hold on to. They’ll look to right the ship in 2021, and will rely on 5 key players that they cannot afford to trade.
5 players the Patriots should not trade
Heading into his third NFL season, Patriots running back Damien Harris has a chance to become one of the most impressive players on the team in 2021. He doesn’t have that much wear and tear on his body in the NFL, since he only carried the ball four times in his rookie season. Harris became a part of the New England backfield since last season, and he showed flashes of talent that cannot be ignored.
He had three games last season where he rushed for over 100 yards and did so against some impressive competition in the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens. Fellow running back Sony Michel had a poor season in 2020, so the opportunity will be there for Harris to seize the job in training camp and put his name on the map as a legitimate NFL running back.
While Matthew Slater is listed as a wide receiver for the Patriots, you’ll almost never see him running a passing pattern or streaking down the field for a long passing touchdown. Instead, he can be found streaking down the field on special teams, doing all the little things to help his team win. He’s spent his entire 13-year career with the Patriots blocking for punt and kickoff returners, and busting it down the field to make the tackle on opposing players.
Looking at Slater’s career statistics in a traditional manner will never do his time in the NFL justice, but he’s been a very important lynchpin for head coach Bill Belichick and the “Patriot Way”. With the departures of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and most recently Julian Edelman, New England are quickly losing their links to the glory days. Slater is still a very effective player, but his value goes well beyond traditional statistics on the field.
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The Patriots took an enormous step last month towards ensuring that they would have a serviceable offensive line for the 2021 season by re-signing center David Andrews. Andrews hit the open market last month and would’ve been a big loss for the team had he taken his talents to a different team. He’s spent his entire 5-year career with the Patriots, and is well familiar with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the offense he likes to run.
He’s been a mainstay of the Patriots offense, playing in at least 12 games since 2015. Andrews also played very clean football in 2020, recording only 1 penalty and only allowing 2 sacks. Since the Patriots figure to be a run-heavy team again next season, Andrews’ play and presence in the pivot will be critical to the team’s success.
At first glance, it would seem like Patriots linebacker Don’t’a Hightower might be a great candidate to move on from. He’s entering the final year of this contract, and is owed over $12 million next season. Bill Belichick’s philosophy on players has usually been to trade or release productive guys a year too early rather than a year too late. However, Hightower’s value to New England is too precious right now.
His presence was sorely missed last season, as he decided to opt out of the campaign due to COVID-19 related concerns. When healthy and playing, Hightower is the anchor of the Patriots' front seven. He has won 3 Super Bowls with the Patriots, and has made the Pro Bowl twice. His numbers don’t really jump off the page like some other elite linebackers’ statistics, but his impact cannot be overstated. In 2020, the Patriots allowed the 7th most rushing yards in the NFL. In 2019, they allowed the 6th fewest rushing yards, which can be attributed in large part to Hightower’s absence.
Perhaps no Patriots player stamped his importance on the team in a bigger way in 2020 than cornerback J.C. Jackson. The third-year player finished second in the entire league in interceptions last season, picking off opposing quarterbacks 9 times. He also set a career high in passes defended with 14, demonstrating a knack for making game-changing plays.
He’s been a revelation for New England, signing with the team as an undrafted free agent before the 2018 season. Jackson has improved every season with additional responsibility. Like Hightower, Jackson is on the final year of his contract, but he is only 25 years old. The Patriots typically have not been an organization that hands out lucrative long-term contracts, but they might have to make an exception for Jackson considering the uncertain fate of fellow cornerback Stephon Gilmore.