With Jones at QB, improved D, Pats poised to be back in mix

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (7-9)

New faces: QB Mac Jones, TE Jonnu Smith, TE Hunter Henry, WR Nelson Agholor, WR Kendrick Bourne, DT Davon Godchaux, LB Matt Judon, DB Jalen Mills, DL Henry Anderson, LB Kyle Van Noy, DL Christian Barmore, DE Ronnie Perkins, special assistant Matt Patricia.

Key losses: QB Cam Newton (released), RB Sony Michel (trade,) WR Julian Edelman (retired), S Patrick Chung (retired), LG Joe Thuney, RT Marcus Cannon (trade), DL Adam Butler.

Strengths: The Patriots are vastly improved on the defensive line and at linebacker. The most impressive addition by far this preseason was Judon. Along with Godchaux, Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower it should help New England be a faster and more physical defense. The offensive line is equally stout. Tackle Isaiah Wynn and guard Mike Onwenu are imposing on the left side of the line. Trent Brown’s return has also brought some needed size to the right side alongside veteran guard Shaq Mason.

Weaknesses: CB Stephon Gilmore didn’t participate in any of the Patriots’ offseason program or training camp and will begin the season on the physically unable to perform list as he recovers from quadriceps surgery. There also isn’t any resolution on the additional compensation Gilmore wants on top of the $7 million base salary he’s slated to make this season. It leaves J.C. Jackson as the secondary’s top one-on-one defender at the position, with little depth behind him.

Camp Development: The offense’s depth at running back stood out. Damien Harris displayed his readiness to be the primary backfield option. J.J. Taylor and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson also showed off their explosiveness. And James White showed he is still a capable pass catcher on third down. It should help take pressure off Jones and the passing game for what could be a primarily run-oriented attack.

Fantasy Player To Watch: Harris led the team last season with 691 rushing yards but had just two rushing TDs. With both Newton (592 rushing yards, 12 TDs in 2020) and Michel (449 yards, 1 TD) gone, Harris’ workload will increase. He’ll also get the ball more in the goal-line situations in which Newton’s number was often called.

FanDuel Says: Win Super Bowl: 37-1. Over/under wins: 9 1/2.

Expectations: It’s a new world in New England, with Jones set to be the first Patriots rookie to start a season opener at quarterback since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. It comes with a lot of expectation. But he won’t have to carry the team alone. He’ll have a lot of support around him thanks to an improved roster that features several weapons on offense. The heart of the team should be a defense that will be much better against the run. That was a huge weakness last season. It adds up to a team expected to be right back in the mix in the AFC East.

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