Changes are coming in Foxborough.
And while it remains to be seen if Robert Kraft and the Patriots will opt to make a change at the top with Bill Belichick this offseason, it’s all but a given that New England’s 2024 roster will look drastically different from the group that has labored throughout this fall.
Not only could New England have a new QB at the helm (be it through the draft or free agency), but the team also has plenty of money to spend — with OverTheCap.com tabbing the Patriots with the second-most cap space in the league this offseason at $90,043,700.
And with over 20 expiring contracts on their 2023 roster, Belichick (or whoever is running the show this spring) has some work to do in the months ahead.
But even with New England currently mired at the bottom of the AFC with a 3-10 record, there have been several standout players on this roster that should be viewed as key pieces in 2024 as the Patriots look to crawl out of the NFL cellar.
CB Christian Gonzalez
New England’s defense has remained an effective unit in 2023, relinquishing 11.0 points per game over their last four meetings (and unfortunately only boasting a 1-3 record over that stretch).
But imagine how much stronger this unit would be had their blue-chip rookie in Gonzalez not gone down with a season-ending shoulder injury in early October.
The 17th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, Gonzalez looked like a No. 1 corner right out of the gate this season — tasked with slowing down A.J. Brown, Tyreek Hill, and Garrett Wilson in his first three games.
He earned the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month honor for September and drew plenty of praise from Hill for his play in their first head-to-head meeting.
Most of the concerns surrounding New England’s long-term outlook revolve around their stagnant offense. But so long as Gonzalez is healthy in 2024, an already sturdy defense should gain another key playmaker.
OT Mike Onwenu
It’s been an up-and-down season for Onwenu, who started off slow due to the lingering effects from off-season ankle surgery. But after laboring at times during his regular reps at right guard, Onwenu has turned into a revelation at right tackle.
Despite a rough game against Khalil Mack and the Chargers in Week 13, Onwenu has helped solidify New England’s porous offensive line — especially following the struggles of both Calvin Anderson and Vederian Lowe at RT. Onwenu played a key role in keeping T.J. Watt contained in New England’s win over the Steelers on Thursday night.
Onwenu, who is in the final year of his rookie deal, needs to be retained — given both his versatility and the lack of established talent on New England’s O-line.
DL Christian Barmore
After showcasing flashes of his impressive potential over his first two seasons, Barmore has seemingly put it all together in 2023. Already a potent pass rusher along the defensive line, Barmore’s run defense has taken a major leap this season, allowing him to develop into an every-down stalwart up front.
Over 13 games this season, Barmore has recorded 4.5 sacks, 34 combined tackles, seven tackles for loss, nine QB hits, and batted down six passes.
The 24-year-old defensive tackle has been a one-man wrecking crew over the second half of the season and should be viewed as another potential cornerstone for New England’s defense in the coming years.
LB Matt Judon
It’s a testament to Judon’s importance on New England’s defense that the veteran is still second on the team in sacks (4.0), despite having last played on Oct. 1.
Judon’s absence has been felt all season long, with the linebacker’s knack for delivering momentum-shifting plays routinely bailing out New England during his first two seasons in 2021 and 2022.
He’ll be 32 by the time the 2024 season commences, but Judon has been as steady as they come since joining the Patriots — recording 32.0 sacks in 38 games with New England.
So long as he’s healthy, Judon remains one of the most dynamic pass-rushers in the NFL.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson
It remains to be seen if Stevenson will get back on the field in 2023 after reportedly suffering a high ankle sprain against the Chargers last Sunday.
But even with a slow start to the 2023 season, Stevenson still figures to be one of the few proven playmakers on offense next season.
Be it nagging injuries or some poor run-blocking in front of him, Stevenson’s numbers have dipped a bit this season — with the 25-year-old back totaling 619 rushing yards over 12 games.
But even amid New England’s offensive struggles in 2022, Stevenson gained 1,040 yards on the ground while also reeling in 69 catches for 421 yards. If New England’s offense rebounds in 2024 under a new QB, Stevenson will likely play a key role in such efforts.
It remains to be seen if he fits into their long-term plans, New England should make a concerted effort at retaining Ezekiel Elliott as a 1-2 punch next to Stevenson in the trenches.
WR Demario Douglas
Another of the few bright spots on New England’s woeful offense in 2023, Douglas sure looks like a steal as a sixth-round selection in the 2023 NFL Draft.
There will be questions regarding his stature (5-foot-8) and some of his route-running will need to be fine-tuned in the years ahead. But the shifty receiver has the separation ability and hands to be an effective weapon out of the slot in 2024.
In 10 games this season, Douglas has reeled in 36 catches for a team-high 410 yards — good for 11.4 yards per catch.
S Jabrill Peppers
Bill Belichick had some high expectations for Jabrill Peppers and the strides he was expected to take in his second year with the team in 2023.
“Oh my god, yeah. He’s a much different player now than he was last year at this time or even in training camp,” Belichick said of Peppers in June. “A full year after the injury, a lot of confidence in the communication, the system, his assignments. He’s playing fast, aggressive, helping out his teammates.”
And even amid several injuries on New England’s defense, Peppers has continued to deliver as a playmaker in New England’s secondary. The 28-year-old safety has doled out 69 combined tackles over 13 games this season and recorded two interceptions.
His knack for delivering huge hits also led to a fumble from Eagles QB Jalen Hurts in Week 1, along with a pick in Week 6 after knocking the ball loose from Raiders star WR Davante Adams.
A thumper with a knack for delivering on big plays, Peppers should be another regular in New England’s secondary in 2024.
P Bryce Baringer
New England’s special-teams unit has largely been a disaster in 2023 — with costly penalties and unsteady play from rookie kicker Chad Ryland marring an area of the game that the Patriots built a reputation for dominating in.
But Baringer — taken in the sixth round of the 2023 NFL Draft — offers up hope that New England has at least one key cog in place at a critical (but largely overlooked) area of the game.
Even with a few bumps in the road during his rookie year, it’s tough to ignore Baringer’s ability to absolutely boot the ball. His 79-yard punt in Germany against the Colts stands as the longest recorded by a punter so far this season in the NFL, and he also leads the league in punts downed within the 20-yard line with 31.
WR Kendrick Bourne
On a strong offensive unit, Bourne is likely more of a No. 2 receiver, if not a No. 3.
But the 28-year-old wideout still has plenty of value when healthy thanks to his versatility on an offensive unit. After landing in Matt Patircia’s doghouse in 2022, Bourne was in the midst of a bounce-back season this fall — posting 406 receiving yards and four touchdowns in eight games before tearing his ACL against the Dolphins on Oct. 29.
Bourne is headed for free agency this offseason, but his familiarity in New England and his injury concerns could prompt him to return on an affordable deal. That’d be good news for Bailey Zappe, Mac Jones, or whoever else is running the offense in 2024.
LB Jahlani Tavai
New England’s linebacker group has been led by regulars like Ja’Whaun Bentley over the last few seasons. But the most impactful player out of that personnel unit this season has been Tavai, who has elevated his game in 2023 and turned into a high-usage player for New England.
After logging just seven percent of New England’s defensive snaps during his first season in 2021, the 27-year-old linebacker has been on the field for 72 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps so far this season — and is now just two more defensive snaps away from tying his career-high (624), which was set in 2020 with the Lions.
C David Andrews
He’s tacked on plenty of mileage over his NFL career, but Andrews is still as steady as they come at the center position. One of the few constants on an O-line unit that has taken on water countless times in 2023, Andrews still plays at a high level — and is respected as a veteran leader who preaches accountability and high standards on a rebuilding roster.
He’s just the type of veteran holdover from the franchise’s glory days that needs to help guide this reworked roster along.
TE Hunter Henry
It hasn’t necessarily been the strongest season on paper for Henry, who has recorded just 353 receiving yards and five touchdowns over 13 games. It’s a pretty stark drop from his impressive 2021 campaign with New England, when he reeled in nine touchdown catches from Mac Jones.
Of course, some of that dip can be attributed to the struggles around him on the offensive side of the ball. And with New England having few other options at the tight-end position in 2024, a pending free agent like Henry should be a player they target for a return given his pass-catching potential (if the offense stabilizes), blocking ability, and his leadership as a team captain.
Re-upping Pharaoh Brown as a backup tight end may not be a bad play either.
S Kyle Dugger
It will be fascinating to see how New England approaches this offseason with players like Dugger and Josh Uche — with both 2020 draft picks due for some significant pay raises in free agency.
Even though New England has some DB playmakers in place next season in Gonzalez, Peppers, etc., Dugger has been a constant in New England’s secondary — playing a whopping 97 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2023.
New England ideally brings Dugger back on a long-term deal this offseason, but it might depend on what the market dictates. Even though the Patriots have money to burn this offseason, they also have plenty of holes to shore up.
CB Marcus Jones
It remains to be seen if Jones has the means of being a regular contributor at cornerback, with his size (5-foot-8) making him better suited as more of a slot corner than a defensive back stationed on the outside.
But even with those questions regarding his primary duties in the backfield, Jones is a difference-maker on special teams thanks to his explosive speed. A First Team All-Pro selection as a punt returner during his rookie season in 2022, Jones has been sorely missed on a special-teams grouping lacking in big-play capabilities.
CB Jonathan Jones
The elder statesmen on New England’s secondary, Jones has fought through several injuries that have hampered him in 2023. But the 30-year-old corner should still be a valuable asset next season, especially when given the necessary time to get healthy.
An effective slot corner for most of his tenure in New England, Jones more than held his own when serving as more of an outside corner in 2022 — recording four interceptions over 16 games. Jones could be an effective No. 2 corner next to Gonzalez in 2024.
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